George Patton, 1885-1945

General George Patton (1885-1945) was one of the most controversial, and most able, American generals of the Second World War, and played a major role in the breakout from Normandy and the defeat of the German Ardennes offensive, despite the occasion outburst that on occasion almost cost him his career.

Patton was born into a military family that included seven Confederate generals. He attended the Virginia Military Institute for one year and West Point, graduating in 1909 (although not without some drama – he had to retake his first year, so entered West Point twice – the first time in June 1904, the second time in September 1905. He graduated in 1909, coming forty-sixth in his class. After leaving the academy he was commissioned in the US Cavalry. In 1910 he married Beatrice Ayer, who came from a similar background to Patton. Patton took part in the Modern Pentathlon at the 1912 Stockholm Olympics, where he came fifth. He became the Master of the Sword at the Mounted Service School at Fort Riley (not the same post as the more famous Master of the Sword at West Point). In that role he helped design the Model 13 Cavalry Sabre, the last sword issued to the US Cavalry.

He took part in the ‘Punitive Expedition’ into Mexico in 1916, an attempt to capture Pancho Villa after his raid into New Mexico. During the expedition he served as an unofficial ADC to General Pershing and fought at the front, killing two of Villa’s men in what he claimed was the first motorized attack in history (rather ignoring the early stages of the fighting in 1914 where armoured cars were used).

Patton went to France in 1917, where Pershing assigned him to organise the new Tank Corps. Patton led his new unit in combat where he was wounded, and won the DSC.  He led the 304th Tank Brigade in the US Army’s tank brigade, and was wounded during the Meuse-Argonne campaign.

Alexander and Patton, Sicily 1943
Alexander and Patton, Sicily 1943

During the inter-war years Patton served in a mix of command and staff posts. He served at the tank centre at Camp Meade, where he became a close friend of Eisenhower. In 1932 he was on MacArthur’s staff during the ‘Bonus Army crisis’, when the army was ordered to clear out veterans who were demanding the early payment of a bonus they had been granted for service in the war, but that wasn’t due to be paid until 1945. Patton personally commanded some of the troops involved in the controversial move.

In July 1940 Marshall gave him command of a brigade in the new 2nd Armoured Division. He was soon promoted to major-general (1 October 1940) and given command of the division (January 1941), which became known as the ‘Hell on Wheel’s’ division. He was promoted to two-star rank on 4 April 1941. His new command performed well in the 1941 manoeuvres, although did trigger some controversy after carrying out a 400 mile night dash over country roads.

In January 1942, after the US entry into the Second World War, Patton was given command of the 1st Armoured Corps. This then became the basis for the Desert Training Centre at Indio, California.

Patton was then appointed to the planning staff for Operation Torch, because he had previous knowledge of amphibious warfare. He commanded the Western Task Force during Operation Torch, landing in Morocco on 8 November 1942.

Once the brief period of fighting in Morocco was over, Patton was left without an active command, until Fredendall’s II Corps suffered an embarrassing defeat at Rommel’s hands at the battle of Kasserine Pass in February 1943. On 6 March 1943 Patton was given command of the corps, with orders to improve its performance. Under his firm guidance the corps soon became an excellent unit, and took part in the advance into Tunisia.

On 15 April 1943 Patton was replaced as corps commander by Bradley, so that he could return to planning the American element of the invasion of Sicily. He was able to convince Eisenhower to expand the American role in the battle, where he commanded the US 7th Army (officially activated on 10 July 1943 while at sea on the way to Sicily). This was Patton’s first army level command, and the only occasion where he fought alongside Montgomery as an equal (when Patton entered the fighting in Normandy Montgomery was briefly two steps above him, as commander of Allied ground forces, then one step above as an army group commander while Patton commanded an army).

Patton’s performance on Sicily was both impressive and controversial. The original plan had been for Montgomery to make the main thrust up the east coast, in an attempt to reach Messina and trap the defenders on the island. The Germans put up a vigorous defence, and Montgomery’s progress was slow. Patton got permission to dash north-west to Palermo, a highly successful advance in its own right, but one that didn’t help with the overall plan. He then turned east, and advanced along the north coast towards Messina. Patton’s troops reached the city first, but only after most of the German and Italian defenders of the island had escaped to the mainland.

Patton’s career suffered a blow when he abused two battle fatigued soldiers in hospitals, the first time on 3 August, and the second on 10 August. At first the news of this was suppressed, although Patton was privately reprimanded, and ordered to apologise to both soldiers, the doctors and medical staff who had witnessed the outburst and eventually to most of his troops.  The news finally got out in a radio broadcast in November 1943, causing a massive scandal in the States.

By this point Eisenhower had already decided to appoint Bradley as commander of the First United States Army, which would take part in the D-Day landings. Although Eisenhower respected Patton’s attacking abilities, he felt that Bradley was less likely to make key mistakes. 

Patton’s skills were too important for him to be left out for too long, and in January 1944 he was recalled to command the US 3rd Army in Northwest Europe, which would be fed into the battle in France once there was enough space. However his outburst had cost him much seniority, and he now found himself serving under his former subordinate Bradley.

Patton’s first role in Overlord was to command the 1st US Army Group (FUSAG), an entirely fictitious army group that was meant to be based in the south-east of England, ready for an attack on the Pas-de-Calais. At first the FUSAG contained a number of real units but as they moved west to prepare for Overlord their place was taken by radio units that broadcast the same signals as a genuine army group, and by dummy equipment. Patton’s role was to be very visible, and to use his reputation as one of the Ally’s best commanders to make the threat look more credible. However this also gave him the chance to make more public mis-steps, and at the end of April Eisenhower almost sent him home before changing his mind. 

Once there were enough US troops in Normandy, Patton’s 3rd Army was activated (1 August 1944). He commanded it during the breakout from Normandy, and the battle of the Falaise Gap. The initial plan had been for Patton’s entire army to be used to clear Brittany, capturing a series of ports that the Allies wanted to use as major supply bases. However after Operation Cobra it was clear that the Germans were in full retreat, and there was a chance to win a much bigger victory. Most of Patton’s army was allocated to the dash east, and only General Middleton’s 8th Corps was sent into Brittany. At the start this campaign was affected by disagreements between Patton and Bradley on how it was to be conducted, with Patton wanting a dash straight west to the main port at Brest, while Bradley preferred a more methodical method, capturing the key ports on the north and south coasts before reaching Brest. In the end Patton mostly got his own way, with one armoured division dashing almost straight to Brest, although the Americans also carried out a costly siege of St. Malo. Most of Brittany was captured impressively quickly, but the ports that were captured were badly damaged, and by the time Brest fell it wasn’t needed.

The rest of Patton’s army took part in the impressive dash east across France, the ‘great swan’. His troops were advancing into almost undefended territory, to the south of the German defensive positions in Normandy, and quickly liberated Mayenne and Le Mans. Bradley then suggested the ‘short envelopment’, an attempt to trap the retreating Germans around Falaise. Patton turned north and quickly advanced towards Argentan. Unfortunately Patton was then ordered to pause just south of the town, to prevent a clash with the Canadians attacking from the north. Instead he was ordered to send some of his troops east to the Seine, leaving a blocking force at Argentan. By the time the attack north resumed, the Germans had reinforced Argentan, which thus took longer to capture than expected. Even so, the Falaise Gap was closed on 19 August, and a large part of the German army in Normandy was destroyed or captured, along with almost all of its tanks, artillery and other vehicles.

Patton then turned east, heading towards the German frontier. He broke out of the bridgeheads across the Seine on 26 August 1944, and soon liberated the familiar battlefields of the Western Front. By 14 September his troops had reached Metz, Nancy and Epinal. He only slowed down when the general shortage of supplies forced Eisenhower to ration fuel (the first sign of this had come on 30 August when Patton was forced to halt for four days to wait for more fuel to arrive). Patton’s army then became drawn into a long hard fight on the German frontier over the winter of 1944-45. Metz was besieged from 18 November-13 December 1944.

The push east was interrupted by the battle of the Bulge, where he proved his flexibility by rapidly abandoning his own planned offensive to turn north and help stem the German attack. Patton’s attack began on 22 December, and on 26 December the first troops reached Bastogne. However the speed of Patton’s attack came at the cost of strength and the arrival of his first troops at Bastogne didn’t actually raise the siege. However his forces soon arrived in more strength, and his actions helped disrupt the German plan.

In 1945 he commanded the fastest of the Allied drives into Germany, starting with a carefully timed crossing of the Rhine at Oppenheim on 22 March 1945, which took place just before Montgomery’s massive assault crossing of the river further north (however Patton’s crossing was in a much more lightly defended area of limited strategic value, which Montgomery’s attack was part of two pronged assault on the German industrial heartland of the Ruhr). Patton’s troops ended the war in Czechoslovakia. Unsurprisingly he was reluctant to withdraw from the country, but had to give way.

After the war Patton was appointed as military governor of Bavaria. In order to keep the area running, he ignored orders not to employ former Nazis, but his downfall came about after he compared the Nazis to a Democratic-Republican election fight on 22 September 1945. As a result he was removed from office, and instead given command of the 15th Army HQ. On 9 December 1945, the day before he was due to fly home, he was badly injured in a car accident, and he died on 21 December 1945.

Patton was a dashing figure and a flamboyant extrovert, and earned the nickname ‘Old Blood and Guts’. However one key to his success was hard work by his staff, who had to plan some way ahead, often producing several alternatives, allowing for a rapid response to changing circumstances. The most famous example of this came just before the German attack the Ardennes – Patton had noticed a build-up of German forces to his north, and his staff were already working on plans to swing north and hit any such attack from the south a few days before the attack itself. Patton was thus able to promise a very rapid response when the attack came. Most of these outline plans were never needed, but they gave Patton the ability to respond quickly to any opportunities that came up, denying the Germans facing him the time to create new defensive positions.

Monty and Patton: Two Paths to Victory, Michael Reynolds. Twin biographies of two of the best known Allied generals of the Second World War, looking at how their early careers moulded their later commands, the difficult relationship between the two men and their individual styles of command.  [read full review]
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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (26 October 2020), George Patton, 1885-1945 , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/people_patton.html

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