General Alexander Patch (1889-1945) was one of the few US commanders to fight in both the Pacific and European theatres, commanding on Guadalcanal and during Operation Dragoon.
Patch was born into an army family at Fort Huachuca, Arizona in 1889, the son of a cavalry captain. He graduated from West Point in 1913 (75th in a class of 93) and entered the 13th Infantry Regiment, based in Texas. He served in the Mexican border in 1916, then commanded a machine gun battalion on the Western Front. During his time in France he took part in all of the main American battles, and rose in rank from captain to lieutenant colonel.
During the inter-war years he taught military science and graduated from the Command and General Staff College (1925) and the Army War College. He spent twelve years between 1921 and 1936 serving as the Professor of Military Science & Tactics at the Staunton Military Academy in Virginia. He was then appointed to the Infantry Board at Fort Benning, Georgia. This was followed by a spell at the Alabama National Guard HQ in Montgomery, the recruit camp at Fort Bragg and the Infantry Replacement Training Camp at Camp Croft, South Carolina. During this period he was promoted to Colonel.
He was promoted to brigadier-general in August 1941.
Early in 1942 Patch was sent to North Caledonia in the South Pacific, to help secure the links of communication between the US and Australia. He was promoted to Major General on 10 March 1942, and given the task of raising the Americal Division, the only US division of the Second World War to be raised outside the United States. The name was a combination of America and Caledonia, to reflect where it had been formed.
The new division’s 164th Regiment moved to Guadalcanal on 13 October 1942 to reinforce the Marines under General Vandegrift, who had been fighting off a series of major Japanese attacks since August. The rest of the division soon followed, and in December Patch took over on Guadalcanal. On 2 January 1942 Patch was promoted to command the newly formed 14th Corps, while General Edmund Sebree took ver the Americal Division. Patch was in charge during the later offensive stage of the battle, which eventually saw the Japanese make the very unusual decision to evacuate their remaining troops. The battle ended on 9 February 1943.
Ill health then forced Patch back to the United States, but he was still fit enough to take command of the 4th Corps at Fort Lewis, Washington, in March 1943. From November 1943 to January 1944 he also ran the Desert Training Centre.
Patch was then moved to the European Theatre, where he took command of the staff planning for Operation Dragoon, the invasion of the South of France. His staff was split between Algiers and Palermo, and came from the HQ of the 7th Army, which had been commanded by Patton, but was temporarily under the command of Mark Clark at the start of 1944. On 2 March 1944 Patch officially took command of the 7th Army, and on 4 July 1944 he moved his base to Naples. Patch found himself in the middle of a bitter political dispute. The British were fervently opposed to the invasion of the South of France, believing that it would have little impact on the battle in the north, and would throw away the potential benefits of the summer campaign in Italy. They would also have preferred to use any spare troops to invade the Balkans, partly because it would threaten the Germans from a new angle and partly because it would stop the Soviets occupying the area. The Americans were determined not to get involved in the Balkans, and wanted to secure Marseilles and the southern French ports. As a result Patch wasn’t even sure what troops he would have until after the fall of Rome on 4 June and D-Day on 6 June. Patch was promoted to lieutenant general on 7 August 1944.
Patch’s new command was a Franco-American Force, made up of the US 6th Corps (General Truscott) and the French 2nd Corps. During the initial invasion Patch also had operational control over General Delattre de Tassigny’s French Army B, which committed the French 1st Corps to the invasion. Once a big enough bridgehead had been created General Devers 6th Army Group would become operational, and Delattre’s force would become part of that army group as the 1st French Army.
Operation Dragoon began on 15 August 1944. The German forces in the south of France weren’t strong enough to put up much of a fight, and were soon given permission to retreat. The original plan had been for Operation Dragoon to take place at about the same time as Overlord, so that the Germans would be unable to move troops north to Normandy, but by the time the landings actually took place the Allies had already broken out from the Normandy bridgehead, and had begun the attempt to trap the retreating Germans in the Falaise Pocket. As a result even Hitler had to acknowledge that any attempt to hold on to the south of France was futile.
Devers’s Army Group became operational on 15 September at Lyons, leaving Patch in command of his own 7th Army.
After landing on 15 August 1944, Patch’s men advanced up the Rhone Valley, helping to liberate all of southern France as they went. They soon joined up with the troops advancing east from Normandy, going into the Allied line to the right of Patton’s 3rd Army. The boundary between the armies thus also formed the boundary between Devers’s army group in the south and Bradley’s 12th Army Group in the north. Patch and Patton coordinated their attacks to advance through the Vosges. During the battle of the Bulge Patch’s men took over much of the area that had been held by Patton’s troops, to allow them to turn north to attack into the southern flank of the German army.
Early in 1945 Patch’s army helped repel Operation Nordwind, the last major German offensive of the war in the west. He then helped clear up the Colmar Pocket, a German foothold west of the Rhine. In March 1945 Patch’s 7th Army and the French on his right launched Operation Undertone, breaking through the German defences on the old border between Germany and Alsace-Lorraine. Patch then advanced into southern Germany, taking part in the move south-east towards the possible National Redoubt, a largely fictional area in which the Germans claimed they would make a last stand. On 5 May 1944 General Foertsch surrendered on behalf of Army Group G, ending the fighting on the southern part of the western front.
After the end of the war in Europe, Patch was moved back to the US, where he was given command of the 4th Army, which was based at Fort Sam Houston in Texas. However soon after taking up the post he was taken ill with lung problems, and he died on 21 November 1945, aged only 55. In 1954 he received a posthumous promotion to full General.
Patch was a highly regarded commander, and one of the few senior officers to hold high rank in both the Pacific and European theatres. In February 1945 Eisenhower ranked him as one of his most effective army commanders, putting him ahead of Hodges and Simpson.