Here is Max Hastings' judgment of the Second World War's commanders from his book Inferno:
The Germans and Russians proved more successful than the Western Allies in fulfilling the requirement identified by Howard: to empower commanders who fought rather than managed. For American, British, Canadian, Polish and French troops at the sharp end, the 1944–45 northwest Europe campaign seldom seemed less than horrific. But the casualty figures, on both sides a fraction of those in the east, emphasise its relative moderation once the fighting in Normandy was over. With the exception of a few such enthusiasts as Patton, Allied commanders understood that they were mandated to win the war at the lowest possible human cost, and thus that caution was a virtue, even in victory. By pursuing such a policy, they fulfilled the will both of their societies and their citizen soldiers.
The rival claims to greatness of individual commanders are impervious to objective ranking. Circumstances decisively influenced outcomes: no general could perform better than the institutional strength or weakness of his forces allowed. Thus, it is possible that Patton – for instance – might have shown himself a great general, had he led forces with the Wehrmacht’s skills or the Red Army’s tolerance of casualties. As it was, especially in pursuit he displayed an inspiration and energy rare among Allied generals; but in hard fighting, his army fared no better than those of his peers. Eisenhower will never be celebrated as a strategist or tactician, but achieved greatness by his diplomatic management of the Anglo-American alliance in the field. Lucien Truscott, who finished the war commanding the US Fifth Army in Italy, was arguably the ablest American officer of his rank, though much less celebrated than some of his peers. MacArthur was distinguished by the splendour of his self-image as a warlord, which it suited his nation to indulge, rather than by gifts as a battlefield commander. While he directed the 1944 phase of the New Guinea campaign with some flair, he floundered in the Philippines; superior resources, especially air support, were the deciding factors in his victories. MacArthur was a narrowly affordable luxury rather than an asset to his country’s strategic purposes. The outstanding personality of the Japanese war was Nimitz, who directed the US Navy’s Pacific campaign with cool confidence and judgement, often displaying brilliance, especially in the exploitation of intelligence. Spruance showed himself the ablest fleet commander at sea.
On the British side Cunningham, Somerville and Horton were outstanding naval officers, Sir Arthur Tedder the best of the airmen. Slim, who led Fourteenth Army in Burma, was probably the most gifted British general of the war, and certainly the most attractive command personality; his 1945 crossing of the Irrawaddy and outflanking of the Japanese at Meiktila were notable achievements. But Slim would have struggled to extract any better results from Britain’s desert army in 1941–42 than did Wavell or Auchinleck, because of its collective shortcomings. Montgomery was a highly competent professional; it is unlikely that any other Allied commander could have surpassed his direction of the 1944 Normandy campaign, where attrition was inescapable, but he diminished his reputation by epic boorishness in conducting the vital relationship with the Americans. ‘Monty’ deserves a significant part of the credit for the success of the invasion of France, but never achieved a masterstroke which would place him among history’s great captains.
The Soviet Union’s best generals displayed a confidence in handling large forces unmatched elsewhere on the Allied side. In the first half of the war, they suffered interference by Stalin almost as damaging to Russia’s prospects of survival as was that of Hitler to Germany’s cause. But from late 1942 onwards, Stalin became much more receptive to his marshals’ judgements, and the Soviet war effort correspondingly more successful. Chuikov deserves full credit for the defence of Stalingrad; Zhukov, Konev, Vasilevsky and Rokossovsky were commanders of the highest gifts, though their achievements would have been impossible without their nation’s tolerance of sacrifice. Soviet victories were purchased at a human cost no democracy would have accepted, no Western general allowed to indulge. The raw aggression of Soviet commanders in 1943–45 contrasts with the caution of most American and British leaders, a reflection of their respective societies. The Red Army never showed itself superior man for man to its German opponents: until the end, the Wehrmacht inflicted disproportionate losses. Russian commanders produced their finest performances in the summer 1944 Operation Bagration, when 166 divisions attacked on a front of 620 miles. The storm of Berlin, by contrast, was conducted with a brutish clumsiness which diminished the reputation of Zhukov.
Among the Germans, von Rundstedt displayed the highest professionalism from 1939 to the end. In the desert, Rommel displayed similar gifts to those of Patton, but like the American paid insufficient attention to the critical influence of logistics. The Allies esteemed Rommel more highly than did many German officers, partly because British and American self-respect was massaged by attributing their setbacks to his supposed genius. Manstein, a superb professional, was the architect of great victories in Russia in 1941–42, and probably Germany’s best general of the war, but failure at Kursk emphasised his limitations: hubristically, he accepted responsibility for launching a vast offensive which could not hope to succeed against superior Russian strength, dispositions – and generalship. Kesselring’s 1943–45 defence of Italy places him in the front rank of commanders. Guderian was the personification of the Wehrmacht’s skill in exploiting armour. Several of Germany’s generals, Model among them, merit more admiration for the manner in which they sustained defensive campaigns in the years of retreat, with inferior forces and negligible air support, than for victories in the period when the Wehrmacht was stronger than its foes. Hitler’s strategic interventions prevented any German commander from claiming absolute credit for victories, or accepting absolute responsibility for defeats. The institutional achievement of the German army and its staff seems greater than that of any individual general. The overriding historical reality is that they lost the war.
Yamashita, who directed the 1942 seizure of Malaya and the 1944–45 defence of the Philippines, was Japan’s ablest ground-force commander. Otherwise, the energy and courage of Japanese soldiers and junior officers were more impressive than the strategic grasp of their leaders. These were hamstrung throughout by huge failures of intelligence, which transcended mere technical inadequacy, reflecting a deeper cultural incapacity to consider what might be happening on the other side of the hill. The defence of successive Pacific islands reflected professional competence among some garrison commanders who lacked scope and resources to exploit any higher gifts. Afloat, though luck played an important part in the Battle of the Coral Sea and at Midway, Japan’s admirals displayed astonishing timidity, and were repeatedly outguessed and outfought by their American opponents. Yamamoto merits some respect for his direction of Japan’s initial 1941–42 offensives, but must bear a heavy responsibility for much that went wrong afterwards. Only his death in April 1943 spared him from presiding over the national march to oblivion he had always recognised as inevitable.