General Mark Clark

The controversial conqueror of Rome

General Mark W. Clark (Photo: National Archives Catalog)

General Mark W. Clark
(Photo: National Archives Catalog)

Mark Wayne Clark (1896-1984) was an American military commander who served in World War I, World War II, and the Korean War. He is best known for his role in the Italian Campaign of World War II between July 1943 and May 1945, and for becoming the youngest four-star general in the history of the U.S. Army at the age of 48. Clark's leadership and strategic decisions played a significant role in the Allies' victory in Europe, although his decisions during the Italian Campaign attracted questions and controversies. This article will provide an overview of General Clark's achievements and questionable decisions, with special focus on his role in the Italian Campaign and the operations leading up to it.
 
Mark Wayne Clark was born on May 1, 1896, in Madison Barracks, New York. His father was a career army officer, and Clark spent much of his childhood on military bases around the United States. He attended the United States Military Academy at West Point, where he graduated in 1917. He was commissioned as a second lieutenant at the age of 22 and served in France during World War I, where he was seriously wounded by shrapnel. Clark's company from the 11th Infantry Regiment was stationed in the Vosges Mountains, where they engaged in trench warfare against German forces. During this time, Major R.E. Kingman, commander of the 3rd Battalion, fell ill, and Clark was appointed to replace him. Just two days after taking over, Clark was hit by shrapnel during an artillery attack. After recovering in an Army hospital, Clark was deemed unfit for further combat duty and reassigned to the Supply Section of the First Army. He held this position until the Armistice of November 11, 1918.

Clark (left) together with Eisenhower and senior officers during the Louisiana maneuvers (Photo: Eisenhower Presidential Library)
Clark (left) together with Eisenhower and senior officers during the Louisiana maneuvers
(Photo: Eisenhower Presidential Library)

After the war, General George Marshall, the future U.S. Army Chief of Staff, noticed his abilities and Clark went on to serve in a variety of assignments around the world. He was appointed as an aide in the Office of Assistant Secretary of War and was later assigned as deputy commander of the Civilian Conversation Corps in Nebraska. After performing well in these positions, he was chosen by Marshall to teach at the U.S. Army War College. Clark reached the rank of major general and given command of the newly formed United States Fifth Army in 1942.

Clark as commanding General of the U.S. Fifth Army (Photo: National Archives and Records Administration)
Clark as commanding General of the U.S. Fifth Army
(Photo: National Archives and Records Administration)

In the summer of 1942, Allied forces were at their lowest point. The French had surrendered to Hitler two years earlier; the British had to evacuate their expeditionary force from France at Dunkirk (Read our earlier article - The “Miracle of Dunkirk”) and suffered defeats in North Africa from Erwin Rommel (Read our earlier article – The accomplishments and legacy of the Desert Fox); and in the Soviet Union, the German Army was preparing to make their final push toward Stalingrad. Meanwhile, America was still mobilizing and gearing up to halt initial Japanese expansion in the Pacific.
 
At the Second Washington Conference of June 1942
(Read our earlier article – Planning World War II – Part 1), Churchill proposed to Roosevelt that U.S. troops should first see combat in the Old World in North Africa. This would not only relieve pressure on British troops fighting there but would also force the Axis powers to devote more troops to the African theater, leaving them weaker in the Soviet Union. There were insufficient U.S. forces in Europe at this time to attempt an Allied landing in Europe, but North Africa was a reasonable location for America’s first direct ground involvement in the war against Nazi Germany and would give American troops some much-needed experience before attempting to liberate France. The planning of Operation Torch, the landings in Africa, fell onto Dwight D. Eisenhower’s deputy, Mark Clark.

General Eisenhower with General Mark Clark (Photo: Eisenhower National Historic Site)
General Eisenhower with General Mark Clark
(Photo: Eisenhower National Historic Site)
Clark was chosen to start secret negotiations with important military officers of the puppet state of Vichy France in North Africa who could rally the French military into cooperating with the Allies. It was a risky mission, but Eisenhower believed he was the perfect man for this job.  He was both the highest-ranking officer whose absence would not interfere with the operation, and the most knowledgeable about Operation Torch. Robert Murphy, the American consul to Vichy, once described Clark as ”one of those romantic generals destined to move always in an atmosphere of high drama.”
 
After working out the details of this secret mission, named Operation Flagpole, Clark and a few other officers boarded the HMS Seraph submarine in Gibraltar and headed for Algeria to talk to Major General Charles Mast, chief of staff of the French Nineteenth Corps, and the leader of a pro-Allies Vichy France group, about a possible cooperation between the two nations.
Mark Clark’s party boarding the British submarine HMS Seraph at Gibraltar (Photo: U.S. Naval Institute)
Mark Clark’s party boarding the British submarine HMS Seraph at Gibraltar
(Photo: U.S. Naval Institute)

While ducking the low overheads of the sub and waiting for the right time to approach the Algerian coast, Clark’s party expressed their ideas about landing in civilian clothes. Clark replied; “Hell no! We’ll go ashore as American officers and nothing else! It will help the people we are dealing with to remember who we are and whom we represent. We mustn’t allow them to forget for a moment that we are American and that there are millions more Americans behind us.”

 General Clark and Navy Captain Jerauld Wright leaving HMS Seraph in a boat (Drawing: Algerian artist, H. Kleiss for Captain Wright, 1943)
 General Clark and Navy Captain Jerauld Wright leaving HMS Seraph in a boat
(Drawing: Algerian artist, H. Kleiss for Captain Wright, 1943)

During the meeting, Mast asked Clark for details of the landings he was not ready to share. He bluffed and claimed that the landing force would consist of half a million troops, more than four times the real number. This convinced the French general to agree to cooperate and help secure key areas. Mast also agreed to prevent the French Navy from firing on the landing force in exchange for an official assurance that France would be restored to prewar boundaries and viewed as an equal ally. Clark received the Distinguished Service Medal for the successful operation, and although no exact agreements were reached, the meeting helped pave the way for an Allied victory in North Africa by starting discussions with the French to end Vichy resistance.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt awarding the Distinguished Service Cross to Clark (Photo: U.S. Library of Congress)
President Franklin D. Roosevelt awarding the Distinguished Service Cross to Clark
(Photo: U.S. Library of Congress)
Clark’s next assignment was as deputy commander in the Mediterranean Theater of Operations he was made responsible for preparing II Corps for North African deployment. His exceptional performance in this role left a lasting impression and Eisenhower promoted him to lieutenant general just three days before the Operation Torch landings.
 
In July 1943, over half a year after the landings in North Africa, the Allies launched Operation Husky, the invasion of Sicily. Once the island was secured, the Italian mainland was ready for the taking, and Lieutenant General Clark’s Fifth Army was to lead the charge.
George Patton, "Hap" Arnold and Mark Clark in Sicily, 1943 (Photo: National Archives and Records Administration)
George Patton, "Hap" Arnold and Mark Clark in Sicily, 1943
(Photo: National Archives and Records Administration)

The campaign was a challenging one, as the rugged mountainous terrain in Italy made the offensive difficult, and the Germans had prepared extensively for the invasion. Clark's leadership during the Italian Campaign was characterized by his boldness, aggressive tactics and willingness to take risks and commit his forces to battle. He was also famous for his ability to inspire his troops and to maintain their morale, even in difficult situations – as his Distinguished Service Cross cited, he "spread an infectious spirit of determination and courage."
 
One of Clark's most noted achievements during the Italian Campaign, albeit a controversial one, was the capture of Rome. The Germans have declared Rome an “open city,” meaning that they would not defend it. Clark was determined to capture the city and ordered his troops to move quickly to take advantage of the situation. On June 4, 1944, Clark's troops entered Rome, marking the first time that an Axis capital had been captured during the war. This was a highly controversial decision, which earned Clark much criticism we will describe further below. His army also liberated Naples and Monte Cassino
(Read our earlier article – Razing Monte Cassino) and it was him who received the German surrender in Italy in 1945 as well.

Mark Clark in Rome on St. Peter's Square (Photo: U.S. Army)
Mark Clark in Rome on St. Peter's Square
(Photo: U.S. Army)

The Italian Campaign continued after the capture of Rome, with the Allies pushing north toward Germany. The campaign was marked by heavy fighting on difficult terrain and the Allies were eventually stopped by the tenacious German defense, only breaking through once the German military effort completely fell apart in the final stage of the war. Still, Clark's leadership and strategic decisions were instrumental in the campaign.
 
After the end of the Italian Campaign, General Clark served as the commander of the United States Occupation Zone in Austria, and later as the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe. In 1953, he was given command of all United Nations troops during the Korean War where he encountered numerous challenges, such as fighting limited to trench warfare, working with an uncooperative Korean president, and handling a takeover of a prisoner of war camp by the North Korean and Chinese prisoners, which were all new experiences for him. Despite his frustration, he persevered until the end of the war and was present to sign the armistice between the warring parties. However, he openly expressed his disappointment at being the first American commander to agree to a truce without achieving victory, saying "I cannot find it in me to exalt at this hour."

General Clark signing the Korean Armistice Agreement (Photo: U.S. Navy)
General Clark signing the Korean Armistice Agreement
(Photo: U.S. Navy)

After the Korean armistice, Clark retired and was asked to lead the so-called Clark Task Force, which was established by the Hoover Commission, an advisory body established by President Harry S. Truman to propose administrative reforms. His job was to study and provide recommendations on all intelligence activities of the Federal Government. The task force held its inaugural meeting in early November 1954, and submitted a top secret report to the president and an unclassified version to the Hoover Commission and Congress ten and a half years later. The task force coined the term “the Intelligence Community” to refer to the collective of U.S. government intelligence agencies, also described by the task force as “the machinery for accomplishing our intelligence objectives.” Clark also served as the president of The Citadel, the military college of South Carolina, and wrote two books; Calculated Risk (1950) about his experiences in World War II, and From the Danube to the Yalu (1954), about his perspective on the Korean War.

General Mark Clark-signed first edition of Calculated Risk (Photo: Nate D. Sanders Auctions)
General Mark Clark-signed first edition of Calculated Risk
(Photo: Nate D. Sanders Auctions)

Despite his achievements during the Italian Campaign and later in his career, General Clark was not without critics, who usually start their indictments against him by scrutinizing his character. Clark was overly ambitious and self-promoting and was criticized for being more concerned with managing his public image and projecting himself as a heroic figure than with winning battles. He was said to be escorted by a group of photographers and an entourage of admirers anywhere he went, and he only allowed them to capture his "good side" (his left). If the photos taken of him weren’t for his liking, they had to be re-shot. He displayed a cocky and arrogant attitude that earned him the nickname Marcus Aurelius Clarkus among some of his skeptical subordinates as a reference to the Roman emperors of old.
 
Additionally, he harbored a strong dislike for the British despite them being his allies in a campaign that necessitated cooperation; he also resented any other commander that took credit away from him. Even his superior in Italy, British General Sir Harold Alexander, mentioned that he was a difficult subordinate who constantly questioned his orders in an arrogant and egoistic manner. Clark was obsessed with being number one and was suspicious of everybody who might have been able to take glory away from him (especially if it had anything to do with getting to Rome first). According to one British war correspondent, Clark’s vainglory “lengthened the war by many months and earned [him] the contempt of American and British generals.”
 
Clark was warned and reprimanded by Eisenhower over his attitude on several occasions, but it did not seem to diminish their friendship and appreciation for each other. You can find proof of this by reading the letter below, which Eisenhower wrote to Clark on February 18, 1943. He reassures him of his friendship and refers to a „frank talk” they once had about „getting on a wrong track.”

Eisenhower’s letter to Mark, 1943 (Photo: Nate D. Sanders Auctions)
Eisenhower’s letter to Mark, 1943
(Photo: Nate D. Sanders Auctions)

The most significant controversies surrounding Clark's leadership, however, are about his competence. He was strongly disliked by the American public, the Free French soldiers and some Allied officers for entering into negotiations with a notorious Nazi collaborator, Admiral Jean Francis Xavier Darlan, a high-ranking official in the Vichy government, in hopes of a ceasefire along the North African shores. He was also questioned for not ordering any preparatory bombardment at Salerno, before one of the most dangerous landings during World War II. His inability to listen to his peers and consider natural conditions led him to needlessly sacrifice thousands of soldiers of the U.S. 36th Infantry Division during the crossing of the Rapido River in an operation later described as ‘’one of the most colossal and murderous blunders of the Second World War.” He carried out the attack with clear disregard for human life and military intelligence information. The survivors of the battle were felt they had been let down by their commander. After returning to the United States, they began expressing their grievances to one another, state officials, and eventually to Congress. Despite a Congressional inquiry into their concerns, Clark was not held accountable for his actions during that bloody battle, even though the 36th Infantry Division, also known as the "Texas Infantry," suffered almost complete annihilation.

A mortar crew in action near the Rapido River, 1944 (Photo: Signal Corps Archive)
A mortar crew in action near the Rapido River, 1944
(Photo: Signal Corps Archive)

The most serious criticism he received was for disobeying General Alexander's orders to intercept the retreating German 10th Army during the battle for Rome. Instead of moving to cut off German troops, he directed the bulk of his forces through the Alban Hills in an attempt to reach Rome as quickly as possible. It has been suggested that this decision was primarily driven by his own vanity and unchecked arrogance, which had corrupted his military judgement.
 
The date of the D-Day landings in Normandy were already fixed by the time of the Italian Campaign and it was up to Sir Harold Alexander, commander of the Allied Armies in Italy, to draw German forces away from France with a new, major offensive. The push up the Italian peninsula was just such an effort, and one particular operation that started out as an attempt to dislodge German forces along the defensive Gustav Line
(Read our earlier article – Anzio: “a vain-glorious blunder”) ended up as a chance to encircle the entire German 10th Army. Clark’s job at this point in the operation was to move inland from the Anzio beachhead and cut off an important highway as part of the encirclement.  In the critical moment, however, he decided to disobey Alexander’s orders and turn northwest to get to Rome first. He marched into the undefended city, portraying himself as the liberator of Rome – something he has been waiting for nine months –, and stood under the ROMA road sign, taking in his moment. But his fame did not last long; just two days later, the D-Day landings began, and Clark was robbed of his triumph in the media. He even stated; "They didn't even let me enjoy this for two days."

Newspaper celebrating Clark and his liberation of Rome (Photo: Timothy Hughes Rare & Early Newspapers)
Newspaper celebrating Clark and his liberation of Rome
(Photo: Timothy Hughes Rare & Early Newspapers)

Save up to 15% by paying in full until March 21

Rosie the Riveter National Day promotion

Beaches of Normandy Tours
The famous “We Can Do It!” poster of J. Howard Miller
(Photo: NARA)

On the occasion of the upcoming Rosie the Riveter National Day on March 21 and to acknowledge the vital role played by women during the World War II and in today’s world, we are offering all our tours (excluding our four 80th anniversary D-Day tours in 2024) with a 15% discount if you book a tour with a woman in your group or if you book as a female individual and pay in full until March 21, 2023. Note that this offer applies only in case of new bookings, and it cannot be combined with other special promotions. If you have any questions related to this promotion or our tours, feel free to contact our travel consultants.

Book now
Facebook Facebook
Instagram Instagram
Website Website
YouTube YouTube
Copyright © *|CURRENT_YEAR|* *|LIST:COMPANY|*, All rights reserved.
*|IFNOT:ARCHIVE_PAGE|* *|LIST:DESCRIPTION|*

Our mailing address is:
*|HTML:LIST_ADDRESS_HTML|* *|END:IF|*

Want to change how you receive these emails?
You can update your preferences or unsubscribe from this list.

*|IF:REWARDS|* *|HTML:REWARDS|* *|END:IF|*
Save
up to30%
Beaches of Normandy Tours review
"It was truly amazing, I would definitely recommend BoN"D-Day Anniversary Tour, 2023
Beaches of Normandy Tours review
"It was everything I could have hoped for and more"Band of Brothers Tour, 2023
Beaches of Normandy Tours review
"I would recommend it to anyone who has an interest in history that changed the world"D-Day Anniversary Tour, 2023
Total:
4.9 - 235 reviews