At the onset of World War II, before the United States became involved, George S. Patton - who would become one of the greatest Generals of WWII - was continuing to make his mark in the US Army. He spent the early years of the war building up the power of the United States’ armed forces and led several maneuvers for which his leadership was lauded. By the summer of 1942, Patton assisted in designing the plan for invading French North Africa. This invasion was known as ‘Operation Torch’.
North African Campaign
His command consisted of 24,000 men of the Western Task Force and 100 ships with landings in the Casablanca, Morocco area. The landings took place on November 8, 1942. Despite the opposition of the Vichy French forces, Patton’s men were able to gain the beachhead and push through the intense resistance. Within three days, Casablanca had fallen and Patton had an armistice negotiated with French General Nogues. Patton’s actions were noted by the Sultan of Morocco who then presented him with the ‘Order of Ouissam Alaouite’. Included was the following citation: The lions in their dens tremble at his approach.) Patton remained in Casablanca overseeing its conversion to a military port. In January of 1943, he hosted the Casablanca Conference.
On March 6, 1943, after German Afrika Korps defeated the US II Corps at the Battle of the Kasserine Pass, Patton was promoted to lieutenant general and given command of the II Corps, replacing Major General Lloyd Fredendall. Not long after, Patton had Omar Bradley reassigned to the II Corps as deputy commander.
The II Corps themselves were both battered and demoralized after the battle, yet Patton was ordered to take them into action in just ten days. He began implementing some stringent changes and ordered the soldiers to wear the complete uniform, which was to be cleaned and pressed. Patton also established rigorous schedules for the group along with a strict adherence to military protocol. In an effort to prepare them for the tasks that lie ahead, Patton pushed his men hard, but he also rewarded them well.
On March 17, Patton’s 1st Infantry won the Battle of El Guettar when they successfully took Gafsa and twice managed to push both the German and Italian forces back. Over the next few months, a number of circumstances, including the relief of the commander of the 1st Armored Division and controversy between Patton and Air Vice Marshall A.
Coningham regarding the lack of close air support for ground troops. Patton eventually turned over command of the II Corps to Bradley and returned to Casablanca where he assisted the I Armored Corps in planning Operation Husky (the invasion of Sicily).
During Operation Husky, Patton’s conduct came under scrutiny over a number of incidences. Though many were questionable two incidents which involved Patton slapping subordinates became high-profile and created national controversy. Each was reported to have been suffering from battle fatigue. Patton slapped the two young soldiers and ordered them back to the front lines. Orders were then issued by Patton to his commanders instructing them to discipline any soldier who complained of battle fatigue.
Word of Patton’s actions reached Eisenhower and upon his insistence, Patton apologized to the men individually. He also apologized to the doctors at the hospitals who witnessed the incidents and eventually to all the soldiers who were under his command. Eisenhower managed to initially keep the incidents from the media, but within a few months, Drew Pearson, a journalist, exposed it via his radio show. Former generals, including Pershing, and some members of Congress were critical of Patton. Though public opinion remained mixed, Patton’s command was deemed necessary due to his aggressive approach and winning leadership when dealing with bitter battles.
It was 11 months, however, before Patton would head up any forces in combat. Eisenhower felt Patton’s actions reflected his inability to properly exercise both discipline and self-control. It was therefore decided to place Bradley, who was of lower rank and had less experience than Patton, in charge of commanding the 1st US Army, which was forming in England in preparation for Operation Overlord. Despite Eisenhower and Marshall’s feelings that Patton had invaluable skills as a combat commander, they saw Bradley as less impulsive making him less likely to make mistakes. In January of 1944, Patton was assigned as commander of the 3rd US Army in England, an inexperienced combat unit who would greatly benefit from Patton’s command.
In the Eyes of the Germans
Patton was the most respected Allied commander by the German High Command. They felt he would be at the center of any European invasion from the UK. As a result, Patton became the main focus in the deception operation – Fortitude. This operation began in early 1944 and involved the Allies consistently feeding the German spies false intelligence. They were advising the spies that Patton was the put in command of the 1st US Army Group – FUSAG - and had plans to invade Pas de Calais. This unit was in fact a ‘phantom’ army which was intricately constructed of props and decoys and fake signals based around Dover in an effort to deceive the German aircraft and convince the leaders of the Axis that a large mass was being deployed to that area.
The operation assisted in masking the actual location for the attack – Normandy. Patton maintained a low profile to further convince the Germans he was in Dover, when in reality, he was involved in training the Third Army. Operation Fortitude was successful in keeping the German 15th Army at Pas de Calais in preparation for what they believed would be an attack by Patton. They maintained their position even after the invasion of Normandy.
The Third Army became operational in August of 1944 under Bradley’s 12th US Army Group. They assisted in trapping hundreds of thousand German Soldiers and often used forward scout units to assist in determining the enemy’s strengths and position. Patton used a strategy of speed and assertive offensive action with his men, but they did not see as much opposition those first few weeks of advancement as the other three field armies of the Allies.
Airborne recon was provided by lighter aircraft. Once spotted, the infantries moved in for the attack and used tanks as support. Additional armored units broke through the enemy lines and exploited any subsequent breaches which pressured the German forces and prevented them from reorganizing a unified defense. The speed with which Patton’s units advanced, forced them to rely mainly on air recon as well as tactical air support. His Third Army had more military intelligence officers than any other army. These G-2 officers were designated specifically to coordinate air strikes.
On August 31, 1944, Patton’s offensive came to a grinding halt when the Third Army ran out of fuel. They were just outside of Metz close to the river Moselle. Patton anticipated fuel and supplies would be maintained by the theater commanders to support the successful advances. However, when dealing with ground-war efforts, Eisenhower preferred to use a ‘broad front’ approach. He felt a single force could quickly lose its effect. Despite the constraints, Eisenhower saw the Twenty First Army Group (in Operation Market Garden) as a higher priority for supplies. Other demands also put a strain on the limited resources and added to the exhausted fuel supplies of the Third Army. Though close, Patton was unable to move into Germany and by late September, a large German Panzer counterattack was sent out to halt any further advancement of Patton and his Third Army. They were defeated however by the US 4th Armored Division. Even though the German Panzer unit was defeated, Patton and the Third Army were ordered by Eisenhower to remain in place. The German’s, however, thought they remained due to a successful counterattack.
The halt of the Third Army in September allowed the Germans enough time to strengthen their fortress at Metz, which stalled Patton and his group and led to a near stalemate in the months to follow. During this battle (the Battle of Metz), both sides suffered heavy casualties but by the middle of November, Metz fell into the hands of the Americans. Many criticized Patton’s decision on taking the city. In fact, after the war was over, German commanders noted that Patton could have avoided the city by moving north to Luxembourg. Here, he could have cut off Germany’s Seventh Army. Others faulted Patton for not being more decisive and aggressive in deploying his troops, making this his least successful encounter.
Battle of the Bulge
In December of 1944, the German Army launched an offensive under the command of Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt. They made a last-ditch effort as they marched across Belgium, Luxembourg and the northeast of France. The Battle of the Bulge took place during one of the worse winters Europe had seen in many years. On December 16, 1944, a total of 29 divisions of 250,000 men attacked a weak point of the Allied lines, which allowed them to make substantial progress. This journey to the Meuse River would take place during one of the harshest winters Europe had experienced. On December 19th, Eisenhower held a meeting with the senior Allied commanders to plan a strategy in response to the German assault.
During this time, Patton and his Third Army were involved in heavy fighting Saarbrucken. Based on what Patton thought was the intent of the Allied command meeting, he ordered his staff to make changes and organize three individual operational contingencies which would include offensive operations in the bulge area occupied by German forces. Though Patton’s plan was questioned by Eisenhower and others, in the end, his plan allowed an opening which could provide relief and much needed supplies to the forces in Bastogne. He himself felt this was one of the most impressive operations to date.
Patton and the Third Army Advance into Germany
Patton began pushing his units into the Saarland in February of 1945 and by March, he and his Third Army had taken a number of towns and either killed, wounded or captured more than 200,000 German soldiers. Later in March, he sent 314 men along with 16 tanks and a number of other vehicles in an effort to free a POW camp located 50 miles behind enemy line. The camp was near Hammelburg and Patton’s son-in-law – Lt. Colonel Waters - was a prisoner. The raid, however, was unsuccessful and suffered devastating loss. Only 35 men returned and all the vehicles were lost. Arrangements were made to work towards a truce. Waters was asked to assist with mediation and volunteered to leave the camp along with several other men, which included a German officer. Before fellow German’s could be informed of the intent of this group, Water’s was shot in the buttocks and returned to the camp for treatment. When Eisenhower received word of this secret mission, he became enraged. Patton felt this was his only mistake throughout the war. He later declared he should have sent in a Combat Command – a force which would have been close to three times larger.
Patton and the Third Army continued to press on. By April, the group was encountering less resistance, so their main focus turned to managing the estimated 400,000 German POWs. On April 14, 1945, Patton was made a general in the US Army.
Next the Third Army was given orders to head towards Bavaria and Czechoslovakia where it was anticipated the Nazi German forces would attempt one last stand. Their continued advancement from the Rhine to the Elbe resulted in the capturing of close to 33,000 square miles of German territory. Though more than 11,000 men were killed, wounded or captured, the Germans had far greater loss – more than 68,000 killed or wounded and more than 653,000 captured. From their engagement on August 1, 1944 in Normandy to the end of conflicts on May 9, 1945, the Third Army had accrued 281 days of continuous combat – crossing 24 rivers and capturing just over 81,000 square miles of territory. In all, some records estimate the Third Army managed to kill, wound or capture more and 1.8 million German soldiers.
Post World War II
When Patton learned of the Japanese surrender, he wrote the end of the war also signified an end to his usefulness to the world. He became unhappy and depressed at the thought of not fighting another war. His continued erratic behavior eventually led to his being relieved as the commander of the Third Army. He was given command of a small staff at the Fifteenth US Army Base in Bad Nauheim. He accepted the post based on his love of history. However, the position did not hold Patton’s interest. After extensive travel throughout Europe, Patton had decided to leave his post. He had planned to discuss this decision with his wife, at which time he would decide if he would request a stateside post or simply retire.
However, on December 9, 1945, Patton was on his way to a pheasant hunting trip with Major General H. Gay when the car he was riding in was involved in an accident. Others in the car only received minor injuries, but Patton, unable to brace himself in time, hit his head and began bleeding. He began complaining that he was paralyzed and experiencing difficulty in breathing. It was confirmed he had broken neck and spinal cord injury and was – in fact – paralyzed from the neck down. For the next 12 days, Patton was in traction in an attempt to relieve the spinal pressure. The only non-medical visitors allowed were his wife. When given the news he would never again be able to ride a horse or even lead a normal life, he is reported as saying, “This is a hell of a way to die”.
On December 21, just 12 days after the accident, General George S. Patton – one of World War IIs greatest Generals - died in his sleep as a result of complications.