Profile: General George S. Patton Jr. (1885 –1945)
Considered perhaps one of the most controversial figures in U.S. Military history, and regarded as one of the most successful field commanders of any war, General George Smith Patton, Jr. was born on November 11, 1885 in San Gabriel, California.
Even as a child Patton had visions of grandeur, and believed that his goal in life was to become a warrior hero. To those who knew the Patton family, this was no surprise. The Pattons served in every major U.S. conflict dating back to the Revolutionary War. After spending a year at the Virginia Military Institute he matriculated to the United States Military Academy at West Point and earned a commission as a Second Lieutenant in the 15th Cavalry Regiment following his graduation in June of 1909. During his time at West Point, Patton dated Beatrice Ayer, whom he married in May of 1910.
As a result of both his upbringing and military training, Patton developed a high standard of excellence, which he demanded from his troops, and would accept nothing less.
Patton was also a natural-born athlete. At the age of 26, he represented the United States in the first Modern Pentathlon at the 1912 Stockholm Olympics. At the time, only military officers could compete in the event, largely because it was considered a rigorous test of skills that only soldiers were expected to possess. These skills included sword fencing, a 300 meter freestyle swim, an 800 meter race on horse back, a four kilometer cross country race, and shooting a pistol from 25 meters. He placed 5th overall in the Pentathlon, but to give you an idea of how Patton always thought “big,” during the shooting competition, he chose a .38 revolver over the more commonly used .22. His reasoning was that a .38 was more appropriate for someone serving in the military. Unfortunately, this decision backfired on him when the judges ruled that he had missed the target. In his defense, Patton claimed that the missing bullet passed through an opening created by the previous .38 rounds, which made significantly larger holes.
As gifted as he was with a gun, Patton was also a master swordsman. After the Olympics, he perfected his fencing skills at the French Cavalry School, and in 1913 was ordered to report to the commandant of the Mounted Service School in Fort Riley, Kansas. Patton became the school’s first “Master of the Sword,” and shortly thereafter, began teaching a course in swordsmanship.
In 1915, Patton got his first taste of battle serving as a member of General John J. Pershing’s staff at Fort Bliss where he led cavalry patrols along the Mexican border. A year later, he accompanied Pershing into Mexico to fight against Pancho Villa. His attacks on Villa’s compadres earned Patton laudatory ink in the newspapers. Shortly after the Mexican conflict, Pershing promoted Patton to Captain.
Tanks A Lot
Across the Atlantic, the First World War was well underway and in 1917 the U.S. Army unveiled the United States Tank Corps with Patton as its first member and commander. That same year, Patton’s squad, assisted by British tanks, won the world’s first major tank campaign with a victory at Cambria, France.
In Bourg, Patton took command of the American tank training school, and in September of 1918 he rolled into the Meuse-Argonne Operation with a battalion of 345 tanks. During the battle, Patton, who had no fear of enemy gunfire, positioned himself on the front lines and communicated with his rear command via carrier pigeons and runners. The campaign’s success also earned Patton the Distinguished Service Cross for Heroism.
Patton saw tanks as the future of military combat, and was so committed to improving them, he experimented with radio modifications so tank operators could communicate with each other during battle. He also played a big part in the design of the co-axial tank mount for cannons and machine guns.
After the war, Patton was assigned to a number of staff jobs, which afforded him the time to graduate from the Command and General Staff School in 1924, and complete his military education by graduating from the Army War College in 1932.
When WWII began in Europe the German Blitzkrieg had taken a huge toll on the allies. After years of arguing with Congress to strengthen its armored division, in 1940 Patton finally convinced them to form the Armored Force. Patton was sent to Fort Benning, Georgia to command the Second Armored Division, and the following year he was named Commanding General.
Known for his imperious “Blood and Guts” speeches, it was also during this period in his career that Patton had an amphitheater built large enough to accommodate the entire division.
Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 the United States is now officially in the war. In November of 1942, Patton is commanding the Seventh Army, a.k.a. the Western Task Force, an all-American battalion that helps win the Allied invasion of North Africa under the name of “Operation Torch.”
In July of 1943, Patton leads the Seventh Army during “Operation Husky”, the invasion of Sicily. Armored landings consisting of three U.S. infantry divisions, the 3rd, 1st, and 45th at Licata, Scoglitti, and Gela, in support of Gen. Bernard Montgomery’s British Eighth Army succeeded in freeing Sicily from German occupation. At Gela, Patton personally led his troops against German reinforcements sent by Hermann Göring’s troops.
Following his success in Sicily, Patton was granted permission to take Palermo after Montgomery’s forces became bogged down on the road to Messina. An order from British Commander General, Sir Harold Alexander on July 19th stating that the attack was to be limited was not “found” until after Messina had fallen. Patton’s chief of staff, Brigadier General Hobart R. Gay, told Gen. Alexander the message was (allegedly) “lost in transmission.”
In 1944 Patton left the Seventh Army to take command of the Third Army in France. Following the battle of Normandy, Patton snuffed-out the German forces during a campaign that stretched 600 miles from France to Czechoslovakia. During this drive they liberated the Buchenwald concentration camp. Disgusted by what he saw, Patton insisted that German civilians tour the camps.
Have Cigars, Will Battle
One might think that a tenacious commander like Patton, who was always on the march, wouldn’t have time to relax with a cigar. Quite the contrary; the General had a passion for Cubans. During each campaign he always traveled into battle with his own personal humidor filled with Havana’s finest.
The Ultimate Conflict
Of all the battles for which Patton is best known was The Battle of the Bulge. The campaign took place from December 16, 1944 to January 25th, 1945. This massive German offensive was a surprise attack on the Allied forces. It was designed to split the British and American allied line in half, capture Antwerp, then surround and take out four Allied armies. Hitler believed that if the plan was successful, he could force the Western Allies to negotiate a peace treaty (in favor of Germany) and move on to victory in the Eastern theatre.
The Battle of The Bulge was the biggest and bloodiest battle of the war. The Americans, comprised of 610,000 men, took a record number of casualties – 89,000 including19,000 killed. Fortunately, the Allies eventually succeeded, severely depleting the Germans of men, equipment, and ultimately exhausting Germany’s war resources.By the end of the war the Third Army had liberated 81,522 square miles of territory.
Slappin’ ‘em around
Anyone who knew or served with General Patton was well aware of his temper and unrelenting insistence on loyalty and duty. These qualities earned him such nicknames as “Bandito,” “Old Blood and Guts,” and “The Old Man.” Yet, no study of Patton’s career would be complete without mentioning two famous and similar incidents that took place during the Sicily campaign.
The first incident happened on August 3, 1943. Pvt. Charles Kuhl, a patient at an evac hospital in Nicosia had been diagnosed with battle fatigue. During a visit to the hospital General Patton stopped at Kuhl’s bed. When the Private complained about not wanting to return to the front, Patton summarily slapped him in the face. A week later, Patton slapped another soldier, Pvt. Paul Bennett for similar reasons. At the time, this was unheard of behavior for a superior officer, especially one of Patton’s stature. Regardless, Patton had no patience for what he considered to be cowardice, and ordered both men back to the front lines.
When General Eisenhower discovered what happened, he rebuked Patton privately and ordered him to apologize. Like a good soldier, Patton apologized to both men, including the doctors who were there at the time of the incidents, and to all of the soldiers under his command.
Although Eisenhower did his best to keep the affair out of the press, one journalist, Drew Pearson, got wind of the story and broadcast it on his radio show. To several members of Congress, even former generals like Patton’s old boss, General Pershing, Patton was now an anathema. As for the American public, opinion was mixed, and Patton retained his commander status only because Secretary of War, Henry L. Stimson, felt that Patton’s “aggressive, winning leadership” was vital to winning the War. However, it would be 11 months before Patton would command a force in combat again.
Although it happened before the slapping story made headlines, to Patton’s chagrin, in September of ’43 General Omar Bradley was assigned to command the First United States Army in Great Britain and prepare it for “Operation Overlord.” Nevertheless, Patton blamed the high command for denying him the gig.
By October of 1945, during the American occupation of Germany, Patton took command of the Fifteenth Army. Two months later, on December 9, an automobile accident left him critically injured. Ironically, 12 days later, General Patton died, not by a bullet or a sword, but from his injuries, and was buried in Hamm, Luxembourg with the men who died serving under him during the Battle of the Bulge.
“Willie” The Conqueror
While most people may see General George S. Patton as a tough guy, which he was, the General had a particular soft spot for his canine companion, a Bull Terrier named “Willie,” named for William The Conqueror.
Patton got his first Bull Terrier shortly after WWI as a family pet. Other Bull Terriers followed, but Willie was the last of the line. Ironically, Willie was gun-shy, but he stood loyally by his master as the General’s tanks swept across Europe in 1944 beating Hitler’s army into submission. Willie even had G.I. dog tags!
One of the most famous anecdotes about Willie and the General is when the Allied Forces were just outside of Berlin. “When we get to Berlin, I am personally going to shoot that paper-hanging son-of-a-bitch Hitler,” said Patton, “and Willie hopes the little [bastard] comes back as a fire hydrant!”
That’s what HE said. (Quotes attributed to General Patton)
- “It’s the unconquerable soul of man, not the nature of the weapon he uses, that insures victory.”
- “Lead me, follow me, or get out of my way.”
- “May God have mercy upon my enemies, because I won’t.”
- “A good plan, violently executed now, is better than a perfect plan next week.”
- “In case of doubt, attack.”
- “Never let the enemy pick the battle site.”
- “Wars may be fought with weapons, but they are won by men.”
- “An Army is a team; lives, sleeps, eats, fights as a team. This individual heroic stuff is a lot of crap.”
- “Untutored courage is useless in the face of educated bullets.”
- “You shouldn’t underestimate an enemy, but it is just as fatal to overestimate him.”
- “As I walk through the valley of death I fear no one, for I am the meanest mother fucker in the valley!”
- “The object of war is not to die for your country but to make the other bastard die for his.”