The leading generals of World War Two carried a huge weight on their shoulders. Their decisions could mean the difference between life and death for thousands of men; their actions helped to shape the fate of nations. History has judged some of them as fools, others as butchers, and a handful as military geniuses.
Few, at least on the Allied side, have generated as much controversy in life and death in as George S Patton. The flamboyant American commander never lost a major battle, but his explosive temper almost cost him his career. He survived two World Wars, often placing himself in considerable danger, only to die in unlikely circumstances within months of Germany’s defeat.
The unconventional general was a devout Christian, yet he believed he was just the latest incarnation of a warrior spirit who’d once fought alongside the likes of Julius Caesar and Napoleon Bonaparte. He was the epitome of the rough, tough warrior who reveled in his macho image and seemingly lived only for war. But he could be a surprisingly sensitive individual who cried at funerals and penned poetry1 throughout much of his life.
George S Patton was in born in California on November 11, 1885. Twenty years earlier the Patton family had lost much of their wealth when they found themselves on the losing side of America’s civil war. However, by the time of George’s birth the Patton’s were prosperous and influential once again.
The young George knew from an early age that he wanted to be a soldier. His main obstacles were his weaknesses in math and English. This was not a result of any lack of natural ability, but rather because his father’s mistrust of formal education meant that George hadn’t attended school until he reached twelve years of age. He caught up quickly but only narrowly passed the entrance exam for West Point, America’s most prestigious military academy.
While Patton would regularly clash with his superiors during World War Two, his conduct at West Point was exemplary. He was particularly successful at sports such as polo and football, playing with such relentless aggression that he broke several bones. He would later bring this aggression to his method of waging war.
Patton’s considerable sporting ability did not go unnoticed, and he was selected to represent 2 the United States of America in the Modern Pentathlon at the 1912 Stockholm Olympic Games in 1912. He would compete at riding, shooting, fencing, running and swimming, all skills that Patton excelled at.
In the event it was Patton’s shooting that may have let him down. He fired twenty bullets, but the judges ruled that three of them had missed the target. Patton remained adamant that his aim had actually been too good and his shots had passed through the hole he had already made in the bullseye. It’s possible he was correct, but the judges ruled against him.
At the end of the first day Patton was placed in a slightly disappointing 21st from 41 competitors. Strong performances in each of the remaining events saw him climb all the way to fifth place. It was the first and last time he competed in the Olympic Games, but he didn’t have to wait long to test the accuracy of his shooting in a combat situation.
By 1916 most of the world’s great powers were locked together in seemingly interminable combat. Only the United States had thus far succeeded in avoiding being drawn into the slaughter. However, America did suffer a surprise attack from the direction of Mexico.
On 9 March 1916 four-hundred heavily-armed bandits led by the notorious Francisco “Pancho” Villa stormed across the border. For two hours they ransacked and looted the border town of Columbus, before finally being chased away by the cavalry.
If Villa believed he could hide out safely back in Mexico, he was sorely mistaken. President Woodrow Wilson ordered the US Army to cross the border and put an end to the threat posed by Villa and his bandits. John Pershing 3 was given command of the expeditionary force, and he chose Patton to serve as his aide.
Patton would go on to become famous for his skill at commanding fast-moving motorized forces, so it’s perhaps fitting that while in Mexico he took part in the first motorized action in the history of warfare 4. Travelling in three Dodge Touring cars, Patton and his men launched a raid on Villa’s henchmen.
When the smoke cleared at the end of a brief firefight, three of Villa’s bodyguards lay dead. Patton ordered their bodies to be strapped to the cars for the drive back to headquarters. Pershing was apparently impressed.
“This Patton boy, he’s a real fighter!”
World War One
On 6 April 1917 the United States of America declared war on Germany and entered World War One. Pershing was given command of the American Expeditionary Force, and once again he took George Patton at his side.
Not content to serve as an aide for long, Patton pushed to be given a command of his own. Pershing offered him an infantry battalion but by that time Patton had become fascinated by tanks, powerful yet unreliable weapons still in their infancy since being unleashed by the British at the Somme in September of 1916.
Patton became the first officer assigned to the American Expeditionary Force Tank Corps, was one of the first Americans to learn how to operate a tank, and personally taught the first crews to be assigned to the Tank Corps.
The American Expeditionary Force Tank Corps finally went into action in September 1918, with Patton riding into battle clinging onto the outside of one of the machines. Later that same month he would be badly injured in an act of near-suicidal bravery.
World War One tanks were underpowered, unreliable, and vulnerable without infantry support. So when his tanks became isolated during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive 5, Patton called for volunteers to help him storm the German lines. Only five men stepped forward. They were quickly cut down by a hail of German bullets. Patton himself was badly injured by a piece of shrapnel which hit him in the thigh. He continued to direct the battle from a shell hole, later refusing medical treatment until he had completed and submitted his report.
Patton’s injuries weren’t life threatening, but they were serious. By the time he had recovered sufficiently to return to combat the armistice had been signed and the guns fallen silent.
While Patton’s time at the frontlines had been brief, he had done more than enough to demonstrate that he possessed the kind of raw courage he expected and demanded of those who served under him.
Between the Wars
With the Great War at an end Patton returned to the United States of America where he found a good deal to keep him busy. He learned to fly, drove the latest automobiles, sailed his yacht, mixed with high society, kept a stable of horses, and won hundreds of trophies and ribbons in numerous sporting events.
Such an extravagant lifestyle would ordinarily be well out of reach on a major’s salary. However, in 1910 Patton had married Beatrice Ayer, the extremely wealthy heiress of a Boston industrialist.
The Pattons had more than enough money to do almost anything they wanted, but George had never wavered from his belief that he was destined to be a great soldier. He maintained a special interest in armored warfare, and some visionaries were proclaiming that tanks would become the decisive weapon in any future conflict.
Heinz Guderian in Germany and Charles de Gaulle in France argued that tanks would return mobility to the battlefield, punching through enemy positions to create havoc in the rear. Patton was thinking along similar lines, and he got the chance to test out some of his ideas in 1941 when the US Army held vast wargames 6 across the states of Louisiana and Carolina.
More than 400,000 soldiers and 1,000 aircraft took part in mock battles held over 30,000 square miles. With Germany once again at war with Britain and Russia, and no guarantees that America would be able to remain neutral, it was a much needed opportunity to test out tactics and equipment. It also served as a test of the men who would lead America’s armies into battle.
The battles weren’t real, but they were a close enough approximation for sixty-one men to lose their lives. However, the US Army gained valuable experience, and Patton staked his claim to be arguably the US Army’s finest exponent of armored warfare.
On 7 December 1941 Japan attacked the United States of America at the naval base of Pearl Harbor. Four days later Germany declared war on America. World War Two had become a truly global war.
With plans for a 1942 Allied invasion of Western Europe having been shelved, the Allied High Command instead chose to strike at Hitler’s Vichy French allies in North Africa. Three separate task forces were launched, with General George Patton taking command of the 35,000 men of the Western Task Force, sailing for Casablanca from Virginia. If Patton had any fears or doubts, then he certainly wasn’t showing them, and he wrote in his diary: “When I realize what I am, I am amazed, but on reflection, who is as good as I am? I know of no one 7.”
“When I realize what I am, I am amazed, but on reflection, who is as good as I am? I know of no one 7.”
The amphibious landings of 8 November were largely unopposed, and despite some fierce resistance as Patton’s men pushed inland the Vichy French signed an armistice later that day.
Far more formidable than the French, however, was Germany’s Erwin Rommel and his Afrika Korps. On 14 February 1943 they attacked in force, striking at US forces in Tunisia’s Atlas Mountains. By 20 February the immediate crisis was over, but the Americans had been pushed back 50 miles, huge amounts of equipment had been abandoned, and 4,000 Americans, including Patton’s own son-in-law, had been captured by the Germans.
With morale on the floor, Eisenhower sacked the commander he held responsible and placed all American troops in Tunisia under Patton’s command. Patton immediately subjected his men to an intensive drill routine and a strict disciplinary code. His methods were far from universally popular, but they got results and within a month Patton was on the offensive defeating the formidable German 10th Panzer Division at the Battle of El Guettar 8.
Patton rapidly built a reputation for himself in North Africa, but it was here that he began his rivalry with Bernard Montgomery, the commander of the British Eighth Army. While Patton was bold, aggressive, and often acted on gut instinct, Montgomery was by nature a far more cautious man who put great store in meticulous planning. Patton believed Eisenhower deferred to Montgomery far too often, a feeling that was only strengthened when the British commander was given the go-ahead to plan the invasion of Sicily.
Sicily and Scandal
The invasion of Sicily was to be a joint operation conducted by the British Eighth Army led by Montgomery and the Seventh US Army commanded by George Patton. Much to Patton’s disgust, Montgomery’s plan placed the main emphasis on the British contingent and cast the Americans in the supporting role.
“This is what you get,” fumed Patton, “when your commander-in-chief (Eisenhower) ceases to be an American and becomes an ally.”
The invasion force landed on the beaches of Sicily on 10 July 1943. By nightfall the Allies had put 80,000 men and 300 tanks ashore. The next day Patton himself came to inspect the beachhead, wading in through the surf even as artillery shells exploded around the beach.
While it soon became clear that the Germans would not be able to hold Sicily, they fought a fierce rear-guard action as they began to evacuate their army to the Italian mainland. As Montgomery’s army became bogged down, Patton decided to take a loose interpretation of his orders. He was expected to support the British, but surely the best way to do so would be to hit the Germans hard. Patton drove the Seventh Army on, his goal now was to beat Montgomery to the city of Messina in the north of the island. He was driven not just by personal ambition, but by a desire to prove the American soldier was the best in the world.
The Sicily campaign 9 was fought at a blistering pace in blazing heat; casualties were inevitable. On 3 August 1943 Patton visited the wounded at a field hospital. When he discovered that one of the patients was physically unhurt but suffering from shellshock, he exploded with rage. Patton slapped the unfortunate man, dragged him from the tent, kicked him in the backside, and threatened to shoot him for cowardice. Unfortunately for Patton, this extraordinary display had been conducted under the noses of a number of journalists.
Patton didn’t seem to realize he’d done anything wrong, but striking a subordinate was a court marital offence. Eisenhower ordered Patton to apologise, begged the witnesses not to report on the incident, and hoped that would be enough to protect his most dangerous weapon in the war against the Nazis.
While Patton won his race to Messina and threw the Nazis out of Sicily, his vicious temper came back to bite him as word of his assault leaked out in the press. There was little more that Eisenhower could do. Patton was removed from his command; it seemed as though his career might be finished.
The invasion of Italy followed on almost as a natural consequence of the conquest of Sicily. Patton, who was temperamentally ill-suited to inactivity, could only watch on in frustration.
“Better to fight for something than live for nothing.”
Of even greater importance than the campaign in Italy was the long-awaited invasion of Western Europe, which would take place in June of 1944. This was one of the most difficult operations of the war, but Patton would have no direct role to play in the invasion. He was instead used as a decoy, given command of an entirely fictitious army 10 intended to fool the Germans into believing that a second invasion force was preparing to strike. The ruse worked. The Germans never imagined that the Allies would leave their best offensive general back in Britain while such a vital offensive was being fought in France.
Patton’s greatest fear was that the war would be over before he could get back into it. He needn’t have worried. While the success of the initial Allied invasion exceeded expectations, the British and Americans made slow progress as they attempted to push inland. It wasn’t until the end of July that the Americans finally punched a small hole through German lines.
Omar Bradley, commander of the US ground forces, knew that this was the moment to recall Patton to the fray. Bradley regarded Patton as difficult to control, unpredictable, and vulgar, but he recognized his talents. Patton was given command of the newly formed Third Army, a highly mobile force equipped with plenty of armor, and ordered to exploit the breakthrough.
Patton quickly got to work, squeezed his armored divisions through the narrowest of gaps in the German lines, reformed them on the other side, and within a matter of days his Third Army was tearing through open country into Brittany.
“It is foolish and wrong to mourn the men who died. Rather we should thank God that such men lived.”
The speed of Patton’s advances often worried his superiors, since he was a risk taker who rarely worried about the danger of an attack to his flanks. Hitler himself thought he had sniffed out an opportunity to exploit the Allied breakout, launch a counterattack, and cut off Patton’s armored spearheads. The idea had its merits in theory, but the German Army lacked the strength to execute the operation in practice. It was instead the Germans who found themselves in danger of being completely encircled at Falaise 11. Patton believed he was in position to slam the jaws of the trap shut. Bradley, a far more cautious commander than Patton, ordered the Third Army to halt at Argentan. Patton was furious but complied with the order, even though he suspected Bradley had been influenced by Montgomery.
Race to the Rhine and the Battle of the Bulge
Hitler’s failed counterattack led to the near collapse of the German Army in France. Patton was free to launch his blitzkrieg assault. His philosophy was of relentless attack, unrelenting pressure that kept the enemy constantly off balance and minimized the Third Army’s casualties.
Patton argued that if he was properly backed he could be across the River Rhine in a matter of weeks. But he once again found himself in competition with Montgomery as each man attempted to secure enough supplies to keep their army moving. As Patton complained, “My men can eat their belts, but my tanks have gotta have gas.”
“My men can eat their belts, but my tanks have gotta have gas.”
Although there were still disagreements amongst the leading Allied generals, they were united in the belief that Hitler’s armies were all but beaten. Germany’s Fuhrer, however, had one last surprise in store. On 16 December 1944 the Germans launched a vast counterattack aimed at a thinly held section of the American lines at the Ardennes. This was the beginning of the battle that would become famous as the Battle of the Bulge. The sudden, furious assault badly rattled most Allied commanders, but Patton recognized at once that Hitler had made a serious strategic error. “Let the sons of bitches go all the way to Paris if they like,” he joked, “then we can really cut them off and chew them up.”
Eisenhower summoned his senior commanders to an emergency conference, where he asked how long it would take Patton to divert his Third Army to the Ardennes. Patton told him he could have three divisions there within 48 hours. This seemingly fantastical claim was met with a mixture of laughter and disbelieving stares, but Patton was entirely serious. He’d anticipated Eisenhower’s request and his staff were already making preparations to disengage the part of the Third Army, wheel it around, and race to the rescue 12 along narrow icy roads.
The Battle of the Bulge gave the Allied High Command a shock, but as Patton had predicted it accomplished nothing and cost Hitler his last reserves. Now the River Rhine was the last significant obstacle the Western Allies had to tackle. The main crossing was to be launched by Montgomery, and he spent two months planning every last detail of the operation, which called for an airborne assault, a huge artillery bombardment, and even the assistance of specialized US Navy vessels.
Montgomery’s crossing was launched on 23rd March, by which time Patton had already stolen his thunder by quietly sneaking a division across under cover of darkness and establishing a bridgehead on the other side. He phoned Bradley to let him know what he’d done: “But don’t tell anyone because the krauts haven’t realized yet.”
Controversial in Life and Death
With the defeat of Germany Patton tried and failed to secure a posting to the Far East to play a part in the war against Japan. Instead he was appointed as Governor of Bavaria, a political post to which he was not well suited.
He fell out with the Russians, refused to remove Nazi personnel from key administrative positions on the basis that there was nobody else qualified to do the job, and got tricked by a reporter into agreeing Nazis joined their party in more-or-less the same way as Americans became Democrats or Republicans.
Patton’s military abilities were not matched by his political instincts, and he had once again succeeded in outraging the press. His subsequent apology was deemed insufficient and he was removed from his post for the second time. Although he didn’t know it, he only had a few months left to live.
George Patton Video Biography
“A pint of sweat, saves a gallon of blood.”
On 9 December 1945 Patton was being driven towards a hunting expedition when the vehicle he was travelling in was struck by a truck travelling in the opposite direction. Nobody else was hurt, but Patton was paralyzed from the neck down.
The injured general was rushed to hospital where he died eleven days later. He was buried in Europe alongside the fallen soldiers of his beloved Third Army.
Patton had always wanted to die in battle, instead he’d lost his life as a result of a low speed collision in peacetime. Not everybody accepts the official version of Patton’s demise. It has been suggested that Patton may have been assassinated 13 by the Russians, possibly even in collusion with the US Government, as a result of his outspoken opposition to the Soviet Union.
1 – http://foreignpolicy.com/2016/04/12/what-pattons-poems-tell-us-about-today/
2 – https://www.wired.com/2012/08/george-s-patton-pentathlete/
4 – http://www.uaw-chrysler.com/images/news/villa.htm
5 – http://www.americaslibrary.gov/aa/patton/aa_patton_tanks_3.html
6 – http://www.sfasu.edu/heritagecenter/4916.asp
7 – Page 313 “The Storm of War” Andrew Roberts
8 – http://www.defensemedianetwork.com/stories/turning-things-around-patton-takes-over-ii-corps/
9 – http://warfarehistorynetwork.com/daily/wwii/george-patton-bernard-montgomery-operation-huskey/
10 – http://mentalfloss.com/article/30447/fusag-ghost-army-world-war-ii
11 – http://www.historynet.com/world-war-ii-closing-the-falaise-pocket.htm
12 – https://www.forbes.com/2010/07/14/patton-bastogne-bulge-leadership-managing-lessons.html
13 – http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/northamerica/usa/3869117/General-George-S.-Patton-was-assassinated-to-silence-his-criticism-of-allied-war-leaders-claims-new-book.html