“Patton” vs. Patton

General George Patton was one of the most famous, colorful, and talked about US generals in World War II. He is also among the most misunderstood military men in history. Famously played by George C. Scott in the 1970 movie, “Patton” (co-written by Francis Ford Coppola, by the way), Patton’s image is one of the most enduring in 20th century American history. He is frequently referred to as one of America’s great generals, and just as frequently referred to as one of the most arrogant, out-of-control, and over-rated.

His speech to his troops before the D-Day landings in 1944 is perhaps the best known military speech in US history, apart from George Washington’s farewell speech to his officers in 1783. Patton’s most famous quote was, “No bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. You won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country.” Among other things, the film turned him into a folk hero.

Patton was born into a military family, attended the Virginia Military Institute and West Point, competed in the 1912 Olympics (Modern Pentathlon), fought against Pancho Villa in 1916, fought and was wounded in World War I, became an evangelist for armored warfare (and the development of the tank), and was an important Allied general in the African and European theaters. He is famous for victories in North Africa, Sicily, the Battle of the Bulge, and the liberation of France. He died from injuries sustained in a car accident in December 1945.

So what was he? Military genius? Self-serving, dangerous demagogue? Inspirational leader? Profane bombast? Well, mix all these things together, without any one ingredient being dominant, and you’ve got George Patton.

It’s not surprising that Patton has such an outsized reputation. He purposely courted a distinctive, highly-individualized image because he thought that it would inspire his troops. He carried flashy side-arms (ivory-handled pistols, etc.), wore a polished helmet that glinted in the sun, wore cavalry riding pants and boots as part of his tank uniform. Patton courted glory, or at least the symbol of glory. He claimed to be a fatalist and to believe in reincarnation, at different times saying he had been an officer in Napoleon’s army and a Roman legionary.

He was extremely critical of subordinates, even to a nit-picking degree, but he also greatly praised their military victories, giving dramatic speeches, especially to regular troops. And it’s impossible to know how much of this was purely for his subordinate’s morale and how much was self-aggrandizement. He visited field hospitals regularly and praised wounded soldiers. While in Sicily in August 1943, he slapped two patients who were in a military hospital suffering from what was then called “battle fatigue.” He called them cowards, and against doctors’ orders, sent the soldiers back to the front. He was reprimanded by Eisenhower, lost his command for almost a year, and eventually he was heavily criticized in the media back in the US.

Patton’s Reputation with the Enemy

The biggest myth or misconception about Patton is probably that the enemy viewed him as some kind of military superman, especially a tank commander superman. The movie “Patton” and various biographies have given the impression that the officers of the German high command were obsessed with Patton and scared the death of him. The idea that he had this reputation was greatly enhanced by the story that the only reason Patton’s tank advance into Germany in August 1944 was because he ran out of fuel, not because of German resistance. The myth is that when German tank generals heard that Patton was on the way, they fled.

This was almost certainly army gossip, and maybe Patton’s aggrandizement of it. More recent and scholarly research by Harry Yeide has shown conclusively that the Germans had never heard of Patton when he was given his tank command in Tunisia in early 1943. Surviving German records only mention him as “energetic.” But Yeide has been able to prove that the Germans were actually unimpressed by the fact that Patton surged through Sicily (faster than the other Allied commanders had expected) because the Germans had abandoned those Sicilian positions long before Patton’s race to Palermo. It seems pretty clear that they thought he was fighting against open countryside.

In fact, Allied records show that one of their own key strategies was to confuse and deceive the Germans by sending commands out to fictitious Allied divisions, by using other feints, and by occasionally using Patton’s highly visible trips to Corsica, Malta, and Cairo as indications that he was “everywhere.” Using double agents and other resources, Allied intelligence sent enough false information to the enemy before D-Day that they were eventually convinced that Patton was leading the entirely fictional First US Army Group and would land at Calais.

The standard story is that the Patton/First US Army Group/Calais deception fooled the Germans and retained enough divisions there that the beaches of Normandy were weakly defended. Yet the Germans had decided that Calais was going to be the invasion point before the Patton deception was sent out. Most military historians now think that the counter-intelligence about Patton was only incidental to the German high command’s decisions about where to have the strongest Atlantic defenses.

Sources and Further Reading:

Patton: The German View
(W)Archives: The Myth of Germany’s Obsession with Patton
Patton: The Warrior, the Myth and the Legacy