UNLIKE many war heroes who had no intention of ever becoming famous, George Patton decided during childhood that his goal in life was to be a hero. This noble aim was first inspired by listening to his father read aloud for hours about the exploits of the heroes of ancient Greece. Homer's Iliad and Odyssey were particular favourites of young Georgie, who could recite lines from both texts long before he could even lift a sword. These classic images were filled out by recent war stories of living soldiers, particularly those of John Singleton ''Ranger'' Mosby. John often visited the Patton house and would entertain Georgie for hours with tales of his Civil War adventures. With this steady diet of combat regalia, Georgie was convinced that the profession of arms was his calling.
Young George didn't want to be just any soldier; he had his sights fixed on becoming a combat general. He had one major obstacle to overcome, however. Though he was obviously intelligent (his knowledge of classical literature was encyclopaedic and he had learned to read military topographic maps by the age of 7), George didn't learn to read until he was 12 years old. It was only at age 12 when George was sent off to Stephen Cutter Clark's Classical School that he began to catch up on his academic skills; he managed to find plenty of time for athletics as well. While at school, the path toward his goal became focused he planned on attending West Point as the next major step in the pursuit of his general's stars.
When he graduated from high school, however, there were no appointments open to West Point in his home state of California, so he enrolled at his father's alma mater, Virginia Military Institute. As a first year "rat" at VMI, young Patton did quite well despite his late start at formal learning. However, spelling and punctuation were to give him problems throughout his life. An appointment to West Point opened the next year and George was awarded it. He reported to ''Beast Barracks'' in 1904. During his career at the Point, George developed into an expert fencer. His football career suffered due to his aggressiveness he suffered three broken noses and two broken arms playing end. Due to deficiencies in mathematics, he had to spend an extra year at West Point, but this deficiency was no detriment to his superb military skills which gained him the cadet adjutancy his final year. When he graduated in the class of 1909 he ranked 46th out of a class of 103. As would befit one with a love of heroics, Lieutenant Patton chose the cavalry as his special branch, no doubt picturing himself leading hell-for-leather charges against the enemy. He also married Bee Ayer, whom he met while at the Point, in 1910. The next two years saw the dashing young cavalry of officer become one of the Army's best polo players.
Patton also represented the United States in the 1912 Olympics at Stockholm in the Modern Pentathlon. This event, which includes five traditional military skills shooting, fencing, swimming, riding, and running was considered a rigorous test of those skills most necessary for an officer. Patton did quite well, but lost points on perhaps his best event shooting. The competitors were allowed to choose whatever pistol they wished, and most used .22 revolvers. Patton, however, felt that he should use a true military weapon, which at that time was a .38 revolver. Consequently, Patton's handgun punched larger holes in the target, which probably cost him points in the shooting finals since he supposedly missed with one round; in actuality the "missing" round had passed through a cluster of holes he had already put in the target. Still, Patton finished fifth overall, an excellent finish in an event traditionally dominated by European marksmen.
After the Olympics, Patton kept busy by visiting the French cavalry school as an observer and studying French sword drill. The latter studies helped him become the U.S. Army's Master of the Sword when he was assigned to teach the use of the blade to fellow officers. Patton, also designed a new U. S cavalry saber the M1913 and authored a training manual for its use, the Army's Saber Regulations 1914. Patton's future fame as a general was based on his emphasis on aggressive attack. True to that form, the Patton saber was designed to serve better on the offensive. He also eliminated the parry manoeuvre from his manual since he thought it made the user too vulnerable to attack.
These activities kept Patton busy, but he wanted to go to war, so when World War I started in 1914, Patton asked permission to serve with the French cavalry, but the War Department turned him down. In 1915 Lt. Patton was sent to Fort Bliss along the Mexican border where he led routine cavalry patrols until 1916 when he accompanied General Pershing as an aide on his punitive expedition against Pancho Villa into Mexico. While on a foraging mission for the expeditionary force, Patton killed General Cardenas, the head of Villa's bodyguard, and another Villista using the single-action Colt he had purchased in March, 1915. This revolver would become a Patton trademark during World War II. As a result of this action, Patton was promoted to first lieutenant. He also added two notches to his revolver, notches which he would later show to the King and Queen of Great Britain during World War II while recounting to them his adventures as a young officer.
After the United States declared war on Germany, Gen. Pershing, who had been impressed with Patton in Mexico, promoted him to captain and asked him to command his headquarters troop. When Pershing and his staff arrived in England, Patton and his cavalrymen became the first foreign troops to ever be quartered in the Tower of London. Soon, however, Pershing and Patton were in France, where George requested transfer to a combat command. His request was granted and Patton became the first American assigned to the new U. S Tank Corps. With his usual impetuousness, Patton treaded to victory with the British tankers at Cambrai, the world's first major tank battle. A short time later he went through the French tank course. Using his newly acquired knowledge of tanks, Patton organized the American tank school at Langres, France, and trained the first 500 American tankers. During the next few months, Patton received two promotions to lieutenant colonel. Prior to the battle of St.Mihiel, his tankers carried out reconnaissance missions. During the battle itself, Lt. Col. Patton foreshadowed his later armoured thrusts as he pushed deep into enemy territory ahead of the American infantry with his primitive Renault tanks, receiving a Silver Star for his efforts.
During the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, Patton led his tankers into battle once again but was wounded by machine gun fire while looking for help to rescue some tanks which were mired in the mud. For the Meuse-Argonne operations, Patton received a Purple Heart, a Distinguished Service Cross and a promotion to colonel. While Col. Patton was recuperating, However, the war ended. He resumed to the U.S. a few months later to command the U.S. Tank Corps.
Although Patton was an outspoken advocate of the tank as a modern combat weapon, he found that Congress was not willing to appropriate funds to build a large armoured force. Still, he carried out experiments to improve radio communications between tanks and helped invent the co-axial tank mount for cannon and machine gun. Despite all of his efforts, however, Patton reverted to his regular rank of captain in 1920. The Tank Corps was dissolved as a separate entity at the same time, with the tanks being assigned to the infantry. Patton was almost immediately promoted to the permanent rank of major and returned to the cavalry and polo.
Finding himself with time on his hands in the early 1920s, Patton decided to acquire another useful military skill he learned to fly. He also displayed his valour off the battlefield in several episodes during these years. Typical of such actions was when he saw three men abducting a woman. Though on his way to a formal dinner and wearing a tuxedo, he leaped out of the car and drew his pistol to rescue her. He carried out another rescue of three boys from a capsized boat in Salem Harbor, which won him the Congressional Life Saving Medal, Second Class.
By 1925, Patton was serving in Hawaii. After Hawaii he finished out the 1920s in Washington, where he pressed for getting increased armour assigned along with horse cavalry the two would complement each other depending on the mission and the terrain. At the time, his arguments made very good sense. He kept fighting for more and better armoured vehicles, too. By 1935 Patton had risen to the permanent rank of lieutenant colonel and had returned to Hawaii, this time sailing all the way there on his own boat. While in Hawaii, Patton warned of possible problems from spies among the civilian Japanese population.
Posted to Fort Clark in Texas, Patton, who believed that the U.S. would be involved in a war before long, rigorously trained the men under his command. As the 1930s drew to a close, Patton took command of Fort Myer. When the German Blitzkrieg was unleashed on Europe, he finally convinced Congress that the U.S. needed a more powerful armoured striking force and Patton finally got his star. He was promoted to brigadier general and put in command of the new armoured brigade, which he had to create by training the men in obsolete tanks.
As Patton's force expanded, it became the 2nd Armoured Division and Patton earned the rank of major general. Patton's famous "blood and guts" speeches of World War II began at this time in an amphitheater he had built to accommodate the entire division. His ability to turn up unexpectedly anywhere in the divisional training area became legendary at this time, too, as it would later in the 3rd Army. Using his Stimson Voyager he often commanded on manoeuvre while flying overhead where he could observe the entire area. Much of the credit for light observation planes coming into use in the Army can be attributed to this training technique of Patton's. He soon turned the 2nd Armoured Division into a formidable fighting implement, at one point keeping them in the field almost constantly for 17 weeks.
They also carried the stamp of high morale and drive for which Patton's units were to become famous. Even Patton's wife Bee got in on the act by writing The March Song of the Armoured Force for the unit.
As the armoured forces expanded, so did Patton's responsibilities as he was given command of the Ist U. S. Armoured Corps. While plans for Operation Torch (the Allied invasion of North Africa) progressed early in 1942, Patton was sent to the American southwest to train his tankers for desert warfare. Patton drove the tankers hard, sometimes expecting them to go without sleep for 36 hours at a stretch, but they learned their craft his tankers would be used to deliver the first American jolt to the Germans.
In November 1942, Patton and his men participated in the invasion of North Africa. Before an all-out assault by Patton's tanks proved necessary, however, the French surrendered. As much as Patton loved battle, he was happy not to have to fight his old friends the French. Both the French and the Sultan of Morocco were impressed by Patton's style, which helped gain their cooperation after the American forces had occupied Morocco.
After the disastrous American defeat at the Kasserine Pass, Gen. Eisenhower knew that a hard driver was needed to recoup American morale and to force back the Germans. He immediately promoted Patton to lieutenant general and put him in charge of the 2nd Corps, which had suffered the defeat. Patton's first job was to restore the morale and discipline of the dispirited troops of his new command. He set about this mission with a vengeance. He began at the bottom by mandating strict enforcement of military rules governing hygiene and attire. Also, officers in the 2nd Corps were now ordered to set an example for their troops and lead them from the front, rather than safely from the rear.
According to Patton, "A man of diffident manner will never inspire confidence."' Patton's hard-nosed discipline and flamboyance succeeded in "waking up'' his men and won him their respect. He always wore his ivory-handled revolvers and medals, partly because he was a great showman, but primarily because having his men see all the trappings of rank let them know they were commanded by a fighting general. Patton also knew that loyalty to a leader would inspire men to take on objectives against all odds; his troops proved this theory correct again and again. Within a few months of taking over the 2nd Corps, Patton had galvanized them and by March 1943 their counteroffensive had pushed the Germans back, while Patton's British arch-rival Montgomery hit the Germans from the East.
In recognition of his accomplishments, Patton was given command of the new U.S. 7th Army in April 1943. He immediately threw himself into training his new command for the amphibious invasion of Sicily. When the invasion was launched, Patton's 7th Army was given the job of liberating the western half of the island, while Montgomery's 8th British Army took the eastern half. When a German counterattack delayed the advance, Patton put his command principles into practice by going ashore and personally taking command on the beach. Moving as far forward as possible, he joined a group of Rangers and helped engage the advancing Germans. With Patton driving them, the 7th broke out of the beachhead and advanced ahead of schedule, capturing Palermo and then driving on to Messina ahead of Montgomery.
Despite this victory, Patton found himself in trouble with military leaders after he slapped a soldier whom he considered a coward and a malingerer. There was pressure from some superiors in Washington and an ignorant public to have Patton relieved of duty. No one bothered to ask the men of the 7th Army what they thought. To a man, they considered the criticisms unjustified. Despite Patton's aggressiveness, they trusted him in combat. And trust in a commander wins more battles than all the world's hearts and minds put together. Fortunately, Eisenhower and Chief of Staff Marshall recognised Patton's virtues as a fighting general, too, and refused to dismiss him. In the end, Patton made a courageous public apology for the incident.
While most of the 7th Army's divisions were transferred to the 5th Army for the fighting in Italy, Patton was in Palermo awaiting a new assignment. He still proved useful, though, since the Germans feared him above all other Allied generals. They expected him to lead a major invasion. When he was sent to Corsica, the Germans were convinced he would lead an invasion of southern France. When he was sent to Cairo, they feared for an invasion through the Balkans. These diversions caused the Germans to tie down a great many troops to counter the Patton bogeyman.
In January 1944, Patton was finally ordered to England to form his new 3rd Army which he would lead to glory during the campaign to liberate Europe. Now an old hand at getting his troops in fighting trim, he began to mould the fledgling 3rd Army into one of the greatest fighting forces in American history. The 3rd Army was not used during Operation Overlord (the invasion of France) but still served a useful purpose, since Hitler and many members of the Abwehr (German military intelligence) believed that Normandy could not be the primary invasion site if Patton was not committed to the battle. The German command, therefore, held back critical Panzer divisions which could have opposed the landings. Eisenhower, knowing Patton's value at exploiting an enemy's weakness and driving through it, was holding Patton in reserve to breakout from the beachhead.
While the 3rd Army trained in Britain, Patton studied the terrain of Normandy first hand. Actually, Patton had already mapped much of the area on jaunts when he was in France previously, so he was already familiar with the battlefield which would make the 3rd Army famous. Finally, on 28 July, Eisenhower turned Patton loose and the 3rd Army came sweeping across Northern France spearheaded by the 4th Armoured Division. Patton and his 3rd Army were turning the German's famed Blitzkrieg tactics against them, covering 600 miles in two weeks. During the first four weeks of the breakout, Patton was all over the front as his 3rd Army advanced so fast that entire German divisions were often bypassed to be mopped up by following elements.
One example of Patton's personal heroism occurred when a tanker was knocked off his vehicle by a shell fragment. Patton applied pressure to an artery on the man's arm until a corpsman arrived, probably saving the tanker's life. Another time he personally saved two Frenchmen from a collapsed building. Finally, as the 3rd Army approached the fortified city of Metz, their fuel and ammunition began to run out and the advance ground to a halt. Eventually, however' Metz fell to the 3rd Army-the first time in modern history the fortress had fallen. After the fall of Metz, the 3rd Army pushed on into the Saar Basin. When the German Ardennes offensive hit to the north and threatened to slice through the U.S. lines and drive to the sea, it was Patton who, at the gloomy meeting called by Eisenhower to evaluate the situation, saw that the German attack could be turned into an American victory if the Germans could be hit from the rear.
Calling upon the iron will and discipline he had instilled in his troops, Patton disengaged elements of the 3rd Army and hurled them northward into the worst winter to descend upon Europe in years. He did this in an attempt to hit the Germans in the flank and relieve Bastogne. Everyone outside the 3rd Army had felt this feat was impossible, but this was where the willingness of the 3rd Army to perform the impossible for their leader paid off. By 5 February 1945, the 3rd Army was back on the offensive all along the Saar front as Patton drove into Germany. Patton's oft-quoted dictum, "Grab 'em by the nose and kick 'em in the ass" was in full play. His tactic was to hit the Germans in the front lines and then drive into their flanks and rear with his armoured units. In so doing, his troops succeeded in cutting off entire German divisions during this advance. Hundreds of thousands of German troops were taken prisoner.
When the 3rd Army liberated Buchenwald concentration camp, though, Patton slowed his pace. He instituted the policy, later adopted by other commanders, of forcing local German civilians to tour the camps. By the time the armistice finally came, the 3rd Army, now consisting of more than a half-million men, had liberated or conquered 81,522 square miles of territory and inflicted 1,443,888 casualties on the enemy.
Patton, however, was not ready to rest on his laurels. He requested a transfer to the Pacific theatre so he could fight the Japanese. The request was, of course, denied, respectfully. The mind boggles at the thought of Patton serving under Macarthur! One congressman even proposed that Patton be made Secretary of War, but Patton's lack of diplomacy guaranteed the suggestion was never taken seriously. Back in Germany, while on occupation duty after a visit to the States during which he was welcomed with parades as a conquering hero, Patton's outspokenness got him into trouble yet again when he tried justifying the use of ex-Nazis in important administrative positions during the occupation of Bavaria. Patton had also been willing to make known his view that the United States and Britain should re-arm the Germans and fight the Russians.
As a result of his ''unofficial'' remarks, he was relieved of the command of his beloved 3rd Army.Though he had been showered with honours when he had returned to the United States, there was obviously a great deal of discussion in Washington about what to do with Patton now that the war was over. Invaluable in war, Patton's temperament was somewhat of a liability in peacetime. In many ways, it would have been fitting for Patton the warrior to have died on the battlefield, but that was not to be. Despite the fact that throughout his military career he had constantly exposed himself to danger, it was a traffic accident, not a bullet, which took Patton's life. In December 1945, his car was hit by a truck and he was severely injured. On 21 December he died from these injures and was buried in Luxembourg a country which still considers George S. Patton its liberator.
Since his death, Patton's reputation has continued to grow until he is now considered by many the greatest military commander in U. S history. The praise levered on him by the men of 3rd Army has nearly drowned out any lingering criticisms about his brashness. Even today, 3rd Army veterans are proud to make it known that they served under Patton. George Patton's ambition as a boy was to be a general, a hero and a warrior. History has proven that he succeeded magnificently at all three.
© Copyright Michael KAY 1997.
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