The wars of George S. Patton

The service of America’s most colorful general

General George S. Patton in Germany (Photo: National Archives and Records Administration)

General George S. Patton in Germany
(Photo: National Archives and Records Administration)

There can be no doubt that George S. Patton, also known as “Old Blood and Guts,” is one of the three most recognized American generals of World War II, alongside Dwight Eisenhower and Douglas McArthur, even today, eight decades after the war. He was an aggressive and spirited commander, loved by his men for his colorful language and recognized by his superiors as a necessary, if sometimes troublesome, asset. An imperfect, captivating human being, Patton is fondly remembered as a representative of the wild martial spirit of military heroes. Today’s article pays homage to the man by presenting an overview of his military career.
 
George Smith Patton Jr. was born in 1885 into a Californian family with a proud martial tradition, whose ancestors have fought both in the War of Independence and for the Confederacy during the Civil War. Additionally, Patton also frequently met former Confederate soldier John Singleton Mosby, the famous “Gray Ghost” who led a Southern ranger unit during the war
(Read our earlier article – Birth of the Army Rangers), as the man was a friend of the family.  As a child, Patton had difficulties reading and spelling (possibly due to undiagnosed dyslexia), but still came to love history, especially military history. He attended first the Virginia Military Institute, then, thanks to the help of a Californian senator, West Point.

Patton at the Virginia Military Institute
(Photo: Virginia Military Institute)

He initially struggled academically and had to repeat his first year after failing at mathematics, but was also noted to excel at military drills. He also pursues sports despite several accidents – in fact, it’s been speculated that his temper and foul language later in life might have been caused by a skull injury suffered at West Point. 

Patton was an excellent fencer and represented the United States in the first-ever Olympic modern pentathlon event at the 1912 Stockholm Olympics. Like its ancient Greek ancestor, the modern pentathlon was developed to showcase martial skills: fencing, pistol shooting, riding, swimming and running. Patton came 5th out of 43 competitors, and was the highest-ranked non-Swedish pentathlete. He would have finished even better, as a medalist, had it not been for the shooting event. While most athletes used .22 caliber pistols, he insisted on a .38 caliber in keeping with the martial origins of the sport. After his attempt, the judges ruled that one of his shots missed the target altogether. Patton insisted that the .38’s larger hole through the target obscured the fact that one of his bullets went precisely through a hole left by an earlier shot. Whatever the case was, the judges’ ruling was upheld. 

Patton (right) fencing against French pentathlete Jean de Mas Latrie at the 1912 Olympics (Photo: Swedish press)
Patton (right) fencing against French pentathlete Jean de Mas Latrie at the 1912 Olympics (Photo: Swedish press)

Patton stayed in France for a while after the Olympics, studying fencing from a master of arms at the French cavalry school. Once he returned to the States, he developed a new sword fighting doctrine for the U.S. cavalry based on his studies, emphasizing thrusts over the cuts of traditional American cavalry sabers. He also designed a new sword, the Model 1913 Cavalry Saber, which became the last sword type to be issued in the U.S. Army.

U.S. cavalrymen practicing with the Model 1913 saber designed by Patton (Photo: usmilitaryknives.com)
U.S. cavalrymen practicing with the Model 1913 saber designed by Patton
(Photo: usmilitaryknives.com)

2nd Lieutenant Patton joined the Pancho Villa Expedition as General Pershing’s aide in 1916, participating in the punitive expedition against the Mexican revolutionary general after his forces raided a town on the American side of the border.  On May 14, he was looking to buy some corn from local Mexicans, when he accidentally found the ranch of Julio Cárdenas, Pancho Villa’s second-in-command. He quickly got 15 of his men in three Dodge touring cars and launched a raid on the ranch, killing Cárdenas and two of his men. This action not only earned Patton his first taste of press celebrity status, but was also the first-ever motorized attack in U.S. military history.

Patton in Mexico during the Pancho Villa Expedition (Photo: Unknown photographer)
Patton in Mexico during the Pancho Villa Expedition
(Photo: Unknown photographer)

Supposedly, it was also during the expedition that Patton took to carrying ivory-handled revolvers. He had his .45 Colt stuck into his belt, rather in a holster, on one occasion and the gun went off by accident. The injury he almost inflicted on himself prompted him to favor the revolvers that would become his distinguishing mark. It should be added, though, that Patton actually carried a rather wide variety of pistols with him through his career. Another feature of Patton’s attention-grabbing appearance, which he adopted later, was his distinctively shining helmet. When not on front lines, Patton took to removing the actual steel part of his M1 “steel pot” helmet (Read our earlier article - The "steel pot") and only wore its lighter lining, which he had lacquered and polished. (See the photo at the top of the article.)
 
After the U.S. entered World War I in 1917, Patton – now a captain – was sent to Europe with the American Expeditionary Force (AEF). There he became interested in a new invention called the “tank,” and he was assigned to establish the AEF Light Tank School. He visited the French Army’s tank school, the Renault tank factory, and studied the Battle of Cambrai, a major British offensive that utilized 476 tanks. Promoted to major and returning to his own school, Patton soon received his first ten tanks, small but agile French Renault FTs which are sometimes called the world’s first modern tank. Since he was the only American who’s driven a tank before, he had to personally drive the first seven of the ten tanks off the train.

Patton with a Renault FT tank in France in 1918 (Photo: U.S. Army Signal Corps)
Patton with a Renault FT tank in France in 1918
(Photo: U.S. Army Signal Corps)

In August 1918, as lieutenant colonel, Patton was given charge of the U.S. 1st Provisional Tank Brigade. His order to his men was that no tank should be surrendered – a decision in keeping with his aggressive spirit, but also a dangerous decision, since World War I tanks had a tendency to get overrun by the enemy if they got stuck in heavy terrain or disabled.
 
True to his energetic self, Patton made sure to be always visible in battle, riding on top, or even walking in front of his tanks. On September 12, 1918, the first day of the Battle of St. Mihiel, an extraordinary meeting occurred between him and another U.S. officer who became legendary in WWII, then-Brigadier General Douglas MacArthur. Standing on a small, exposed hill, the two were exchanging some words when a German artillery attack opened up and starting marching towards them, with each barrage landing closer to the hill than the one before. Both officers were reluctant to show fear in the other’s presence, so they stayed upright and continued talking nonchalantly. They got lucky: one barrage landed short of them and the next one on the far side of the hill, leaving both daredevils unscathed. Patton later recalled the event with the words “I was the only man on the front-line except for General MacArthur who never ducked a shell.”

A Renault FT-17 tank advancing toward the German lines during the Battle of St. Mihiel (Photo: Library of Congress)
A Renault FT-17 tank advancing toward the German lines during the Battle of St. Mihiel (Photo: Library of Congress)

Two weeks later, Patton was leading six of his men and a tank in an attack on a German machinegun nest 5 miles (8 km) into the enemy lines, when he was shot in the thigh. Saved by his orderly, he lay in a nearby shell crater giving orders for another hour before he could be evacuated – then he stopped at a command post to submit his report before heading to the hospital. He was promoted to colonel, awarded the Distinguished Service Medal for his leadership of the brigade and the tank school, and was later awarded the Purple Cross for his wound.
 
Patton spent the interwar period reaching the rank of colonel, promoting the development of mechanized warfare, and becoming good friends with Eisenhower, whom he helped graduate from General Staff College by sending him notes. In 1941, with war already raging in Europe, he participated in two major army exercises held to evaluate the military’s war readiness. His leadership abilities were highly lauded on both occasions.

Recreation of a uniform Patton designed for tank crew, but which was rejected by the Army. The uniform came with a gold-colored football helmet (Photo: archive.org)
Recreation of a uniform Patton designed for tank crew, but which was rejected by the Army. The uniform came with a gold-colored football helmet
(Photo: archive.org)

Here, as in World War I, Patton always wanted to be seen on the battlefield, and he took to observing his troops from atop a tank painted white, red and blue. Later still, in World War II, he would place oversized rank placard and a klaxon horn on his jeep to make sure everybody would recognize him. In 1942, with America already in the war and expecting to fight in North Africa, Patton was sent to California to establish the Desert Training Center to help soldiers prepare for combat against Rommel’s Afrika Korps. (Read our earlier article - The accomplishments and legacy of the Desert Fox) Here, as in World War I, Patton always wanted to be seen on the battlefield, and he took to observing his troops from atop a tank painted white, red and blue. Later still, in World War II, he would place oversized rank placards and a klaxon horn on his jeep to make sure everybody would recognize him.

Patton on training maneuvers in California (Photo: U.S. Army)
Patton on training maneuvers in California
(Photo: U.S. Army)

He served as a staff officer in Hawaii for a while in 1935, and wrote a report simply titled “Surprise.” In this document, he predicted that Japan might launch a surprise attack against Pearl Harbor. (Read our earlier article – Predicting Pearl Harbor)
 
In February 1943, green and poorly led American forces were soundly beaten by Rommel’s forces at Kasserine Pass in Tunisia, and Patton was brought in to reorganize the demoralized army. He did this by introducing rigorous discipline, demanding clean and regular appearance and strict adherence to military protocol. His methods bore fruit, and less than a month later, the same troops defeated the German and Italian forces at El Guettar. Relinquishing his command to Omar Bradley, he moved to Casablanca to help plan Operation Husky, the invasion of Sicily – the stepping stone to the Italian mainland.

Patton in North Africa (Photo: U.S. Army)
Patton in North Africa
(Photo: U.S. Army)

The original plan for the invasion called for General Montgomery’s British forces to move up north along the eastern coast of the island and capture Messina, the port city which the defenders had to use to ferry troops and supplies. Meanwhile Patton was tasked with guarding the British forces’ left flank. When Montgomery got bogged down, however, Patton was given permission to swing west and capture the Sicilian capital of Palermo near the far end of the island. He did so, then turned back east. Pushing his troops hard and launching several amphibious landings behind enemy lines, he beat Montgomery to Messina, which the defenders have evacuated by then. When ordered to limit his attack on the city, Patton’s chief of staff claimed that the message was „lost in transmission” and only received after the city was liberated.

General Montgomery visiting Patton near Palermo after the latter liberated the city (Photo: U.S. Army Signal Corps)
General Montgomery visiting Patton near Palermo after the latter liberated the city (Photo: U.S. Army Signal Corps)

It should be noted that while popular imagination makes much of Patton’s and Montgomery’s “race to Messina,” such a race or rivalry only really existed in Patton’s mind. In fact, Montgomery was one of the few British officers who admired Patton’s skills as a battlefield commander, while most of his peers were critical of the brash American.
 
While capturing Messina was a success for Patton, his time in Sicily was also overcast by controversy. On two separate occasions, he slapped two privates suffering from “battle fatigue”, which was the contemporary name for what is known as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) today. The press learned about the incidents. Eisenhower tried to cover for Patton by delaying the publication of any articles on what happened, but the news eventually got out and Patton’s name was quickly tarnished in the public eye. As a result, he was removed from his position for a while, but still used in a subterfuge operation.

Later photo of Charles H. Kuhl, one of the two PTSD victims struck by Patton (Photo: hallofmilitaryhonor.com)
Later photo of Charles H. Kuhl, one of the two PTSD victims struck by Patton
(Photo: hallofmilitaryhonor.com)

Patton was transferred to England, where he pretended to be in command of the fictitious First U.S. Army Group (Read our earlier article – Operation Bodyguard), a fake unit comprised of dummy vehicles and false radio messages invented to mislead the Germans about the intended direction of the planned Allied invasion. German High Command had a very high opinion of Patton – arguably more so than many Allied commanders -, and bought into the ruse, believing that the invasion will occur at Calais, rather than in Normandy.

Patton inspecting troops in England (unit insignias were redacted for security) (Photo: U.S. Army)
Patton inspecting troops in England (unit insignias were redacted for security)
(Photo: U.S. Army)

Once the actual invasion was underway, Patton joined the effort at the head of the Third Army, and played an important role in breaking out from Normandy. This is immortalized by a square named after him in the town of Avranches. A monument was also erected in the town in Patton’s honor in 1954; its construction used 50 bags of earth from the 50 states of the United States.
 
Patton found himself constantly hampered by a lack of supplies and fuel. For a long time, the Allies lacked a functioning deep-water port, and whatever supplies could be put on shore in Normandy had to be divided among several commands, Patton often getting less than what he wanted or needed.

Patton photographer in an undignified moment in Europe (Photo: U.S. Army)
Patton photographer in an undignified moment in Europe
(Photo: U.S. Army)

Germany launched its last counterattack on the Western Front against British and American forces in the Ardennes in December 1944, which became known as the Battle of the Bulge. The attack caught the Allies by surprise – except for Patton, who was prepared thanks to the sagacity of his intelligence officer, Colonel Oscar Koch. Even though the Third Army was engaged in heavy fighting 70 miles (110 km) from Bastogne, he arrived at the Allied command meeting with ready plans to pull his forces off the frontline, reposition them and relieve the isolated troops. (Read our earlier article - To the German Commander: N U T S !) Eisenhower doubted his ability to get to Bastogne in time, but Patton was still the best hope for the town’s encircled defenders. All Patton had to do after the conference was phone his command and say a prearranged code phrase: “Play ball.” With the operational orders already in place, his forces were ready to move to break the encirclement. In 2010, a memorial has been erected in his honor on the square named after him in Bastogne.

Generals Bradley, Eisenhower and Patton in Bastogne after the battle (Photo: National Archives and Records Administration)
Generals Bradley, Eisenhower and Patton in Bastogne after the battle
(Photo: National Archives and Records Administration)

As his advance depended heavily on good weather, Patton ordered his army chaplain to compose a special prayer for clear skies. Whether through divine intervention or not, the weather soon cleared up, and Patton awarded the chaplain the Bronze Star.
 
During the final push into Germany, Patton faced supply shortages again. In order to obtain gasoline, ordnance units from his Third Army often pretended to be from Bradley’s First Army to acquire supplies intended for the latter. As a typical example of the speed of his advance, he was ordered to bypass the city of Trier, since it would have needed four divisions to capture. The message arrived late, and his radio reply was: "Have taken Trier with two divisions. Do you want me to give it back?"
 
Patton’s unstoppable advance through Europe and into Germany is highlighted by the numbers: the Third Army killed, wounded or captured between 1.4 and 1.8 million German soldiers, five to six times the number of their own personnel. On March 22, 1945, Patton reached the Rhine and crossed it on a pontoon bridge, heading into the heart of Germany. For him, this was settling an old debt: he didn’t get to cross the river during World War I; now, he finally did what he waited over two decades for. To celebrate the occasion, he stopped on the bridge and urinated in the river to prove that he’s finally beaten the Germans for good; according to contemporary testimonies, he wanted all of his staff to take pictures of the event.

Patton preparing to urinate in the Rhine from a pontoon bridge (Photo: U.S. Army)
Patton preparing to urinate in the Rhine from a pontoon bridge
(Photo: U.S. Army)

Once hostilities ended in Europe in May, he begged for a command in the Pacific so he could continue fighting, but his request was rejected as the Allies didn’t have a major port to receive his forces. Instead, he was appointed military governor of Bavaria and charged with overseeing the process of denazification – the removing of former Nazi party members from public offices and from cultural and economic life. Patton hated this task, as he felt that too many experienced officials were being removed and replaced by unsuitable people. In defense of those he felt were removed unfairly, he offered this commentary: "It is no more possible for a man to be a civil servant in Germany and not have paid lip service to nazism than it is for a man to be a postmaster in America and not have paid lip service to the Democratic Party or Republican Party when it is in power." Once more, his outspokenness earned him the wrath of his superiors, and he was removed from governorship soon after.

Eisenhower and Patton touring a displaced persons camp in Feldafing, Bavaria
(Photo: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum)

While he thrived in war, Patton grew increasingly dissatisfied in peace. He believed in reincarnation and was convinced that he used to be an officer in Napoleon’s army and a Roman legionary in previous lives. He became despondent after Japan’s surrender due to the idea that he’ll never get to fight again. Upon being relieved of his command, his farewell words were "All good things must come to an end. The best thing that has ever happened to me thus far is the honor and privilege of having commanded the Third Army."
 
His last post was command of the Fifteenth Army, a small organization tasked with writing a history of the war in Europe. A lover of history, he seemed to take to his new task with enthusiasm at first, but quickly became disillusioned. Taking a break, he went on a tour of Europe, and reunited with several of his fellow athletes from the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm.
 
On December 8, 1945, back on his post, he was going pheasant hunting with his Chief of Staff Major General Hobart Gay when their car was hit by a slow-moving American truck on the way. Other passengers were only lightly injured, but Patton smashed his head against a glass pane and broke his neck. Paralyzed, he spent the last 12 days of his life in hospital, with his wife the only non-medical visitor allowed. After being informed that he’ll never ride a horse or live a normal life again, he commented "This is a hell of a way to die." He passed away in his sleep on December 21.

Patton’s car after the accident (Photo: unknown photographer)
Patton’s car after the accident
(Photo: unknown photographer)

Honoring his request to be buried with his men, he was laid to rest in the Luxembourg American Cemetery on December 24, 1945. No eulogies were said, but the representatives of several religions prayed at his grave, including several recently liberated rabbis who still wearing their concentration camp uniforms.

Rabbis in concentration camp uniforms offering prayers at General Patton’s grave (Photo: U.S. Army Signal Corps)
Rabbis in concentration camp uniforms offering prayers at General Patton’s grave (Photo: U.S. Army Signal Corps)

Following the principles of the American Battle Monuments Commission (which was led by his former mentor, General Pershing), his grave was at first located amidst all the others, one among many. Later, however, the constant stream of visitors to his cross trampled the path leading to his grave so badly that his grave was moved to a special place of honor, apart from and facing the others.

Patton first (left) and present (right) grave in the Luxembourg American Cemetery (Photo: Unknown photographer, author’s own)
Patton's first (left) and present (right) grave in the Luxembourg American Cemetery (Photos: Unknown photographer, author’s own)

George S. Patton’s personality and accomplishments have captured the public imagination, and the fascination persists to this day. The 1970 film Patton, with George C. Scott playing the titular role, won seven Academy Awards and helped fan interest in the general’s life. Interestingly, Patton makes a symbolic appearance in the movie. Like many other war films of that time period, Patton used anachronistically modern tanks to stand in for World War II vehicles which were not available for filming. Many of these tanks were actually Chrysler M47s and M48s, which were also called “Pattons.”

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Soldiers of the 463rd Combat Engineers near the German border observe Christmas in 1944; note K-ration cans as ornaments  (Photo: U.S. Army Signal Corps)

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