George Patton led the way in introducing armored warfare into the U.S. Army and later proved to be one of the most outstanding frontline commanders of World War II. The controversial, eccentric, arrogant, and vain Patton never suffered a major defeat in World War II, gaining respect from his soldiers and great popularity with civilians back home.
Patton came from a wealthy Virginia family with a long history of military service. After his birth on November 11, 1885, at San Gabriel, California, Patton attended the best of preparatory schools before his acceptance at West Point. Because of a learning disability, likely dyslexia, Patton did not excel in the classroom and required an extra year to graduate with the class of 1909, when he received a commission in the cavalry. What Patton may have lacked in scholarship, he more than make up for with his enormous energy.
A superb horseman, Patton represented the army and the United States at the 1912 Stockholm Olympics in the first modern pentathlon competition, consisting of swimming, running, riding, shooting, and fencing. A year later, he attended the French Cavalry School and, after his return to the United States, wrote the official army manual on the saber. In 1916, Patton joined an expedition led by Gen. John Joseph Pershing into Mexico in pursuit of Pancho Villa. During the operation, Patton had his initial experience with motorized vehicles and gained some notoriety when he confronted a group of horse-mounted Villistas from his motorcar and killed several with his revolver.
Patton remained with Pershing as his aide-de-camp when the AEF deployed to France in 1917. Once Pershing recognized the need for armored vehicles to break the trench-warfare stalemate, he placed Patton in command of the first official American armor unit and a school to train crew members at Langres in November 1917. The First U.S. Tank Brigade saw its initial action at Saint-Mihiel in September 1918. During the subsequent Tank Brigade’s support of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, Patton received a slight wound and earned the Distinguished Service Cross for his bravery.
Following World War I, Patton returned to the United States still in command of the fledgling American armor force, now re-designated the 314th Tank Brigade. For the next twenty years he remained a leading advocate of armored warfare as he served in a series of cavalry and school assignments. Peacetime funding limitations, compounded by the Great Depression, however, hampered tank research and production.
It was not until the inception of World War II in Europe and the successes of the German tank blitzkrieg that the United States began to build up its armored forces. In July 1940, Patton assumed command of the First Armored Brigade, which expanded to the First Armored Division the following April. From March to July 1942, Patton, as a major general, commanded the Desert Training Center along the California-Arizona border, where he established American armored doctrine and trained armored units.
Patton assisted in planning the American landings in North Africa and commanded the Western Task Force during the actual operation. In March 1943, following the disastrous defeat of the Americans at Kasserine Pass, Patton assumed command of the U.S. II Corps. He quickly turned the demoralized, poorly motivated unit into an efficient combat force by replacing subordinate leaders and demanding discipline so that he could regain the offensive and assist in defeating the Axis forces in North Africa.
In July, Patton, now a lieutenant general, commanded the U.S. Seventh Army in the invasion of Sicily. In an unofficial race to Messina, the bold Patton beat the cautious British under Bernard Law Montgomery, gaining fame at home and animosity from his Allies. After securing Sicily, Patton visited hospital treating his wounded soldiers. In a much-publicized incident, Patton slapped two physically unwounded enlisted men suffering “Battle fatigue,” calling them cowards for seeking medical treatment. As a consequence, Patton had only a minor role in the occupation duty of Sicily and no part in the subsequent invasion of the Italian mainland.
In January 1944, Patton transferred to England to assist in planning the Normandy invasion. Still being punished for the slapping incident, he commanded only a “paper” unit that was formed to make the Germans think the main offensive would occur at Pas de Calais instead of Normandy. Not until a month after the successful Normandy landing did Patton regain a field command as the leader of the Third Army.
With the Third Army, Patton extended his reputation as one of the war’s most effective field commanders. On August 1 he led the breakout from the beachhead at Avranches and within two weeks surrounded more than one hundred thousand German soldiers in the Falaise-Argentan Gap. He then continued eastward, reaching the Saar River by the end of the month.
Patton’s tactics focused on the mobility and shock action of his armor. His tanks pushed the attack as rapidly as possible to prevent the Germans from forming new defensive lines, often advancing faster than supply lines could accommodate. When he though necessary, he requested or out-and-out stole supplies and ammunition from other units. At times, Patton ignored orders from superiors, pressing the attack without benefit of a large reserve force and committing all his assets to the fight.
By December, Patton had the Third Army moving toward Metz. When the Germans made their surprise attack in the Ardennes, initiating the Battle of the Bulge, and threatening Allied rear areas, Patton brilliantly swung his command ninety degrees and pushed east to relieve Bastogne and stop the German advance. From the Ardennes, Patton then turned toward Germany and crossed the Rhine River at Oppenheim on March 22, 1945. The Third Army ruthlessly destroyed towns and fortifications that refused to surrender as the advance rapidly continued. Patton encircled and defeated another major German force in the Ruhr Pocket, swept through Bavaria, and penetrated into Czechoslovakia and Austria as the war ended.
Never one not to speak his mind, Patton expressed his concerns about the Soviets after the armistice in 1945, stating that he United States should fight the Communists now rather than be forced to do so later. This attitude, combined with his lenient treated of former Nazis, whom he believed would be needed to rebuild Germany, against cost him his command. His hast duty was in the relatively unimportant role as governor of Bavaria. On December 9, 1945, Patton, sixty, was injured in an automobile accident near Mannheim. He died of complications in Heidelberg on December 21, 1945, and was buried in the American cemetery in Luxembourg alongside those troops who had fallen during their drive across Europe.
Frequently appearing in full dress uniform adorned with medals and ribbons and wearing his .45-caliber, ivory-handled pistols on his belt, Patton was a showman who inspired his men to fight harder and his public to adore him more. Called “Old Blood and Guts,” Patton was a better combat commander than a great thinker or an intellectual in the art of war.
Although not in the class with John Frederick Charles Full or Heinz Guderian in devising a philosophy of armored warfare, Patton won every campaign in which he participated. He was, in fact, more popular than 9influential in that his unchecked temper and his commentary about political issues outside his parameter of responsibility kept him in the headlines. Many misguided American commanders have since attempted to emulate the temperamental Patton, believing that swashbuckling behavior would compensate for incompetence. Other than making their subordinates miserable and ineffective, these imitators have failed to duplicate Patton’s record, for he possessed the ability to lead men in combat and motivate them to succeed against great odds.