The Man

George S. Patton Jr. was born into a well-to-do family with strong military traditions on November 11, 1885. From an early age, Patton decided to become a soldier like his grandfather, a Civil War veteran killed at the Battle of Cedar Creek in 1864, and 7 uncles who served in the Confederate Army. After spending 6 years in military colleges, one at the Virginia Military Institute and five at West Point, Patton was commissioned a 2nd Lieutenant in the 15th Cavalry and began to climb up the military and social ladder with the help of his personal wealth and charms and fortune of his young wife, Beatrice.[1] In the years leading up to World War I, Patton saw combat fighting with Pancho Villa’s raiders in northern Mexico, and gained distinction as an expert shot and proficient swordsman; it was during this time that he became close friends with General John J. Pershing, later to be commander of the American Expeditionary Force in Europe.

When America entered World War I, Patton went to France as part of Pershing’s staff, but quickly found that desk duty did not suit him. He applied for, and received, a transfer to a fighting unit. He was given the choice of commanding an infantry battalion or joining the newly-formed Tank Corps; ever the daredevil cavalryman, he chose the Tank Corps and was assigned to train and command the first two battalions.[2] Patton was present at the Battle of Cambrai on November 20, 1917, and witnessed the devastating effectiveness with which the new machines rolled over barbed wire, uneven terrain, and anybody who stood in their way, gaining 7.5 miles of ground in four hours, during a war in which yards were gained over the course of weeks. He came away convinced that tanks were the future of warfare and pushed for their adoption during the interwar years.

His constant pressure for a tank division paid dividends in July 1940, when he was awarded command of the 2nd Armored Brigade just two days after the Armored Force was created.[3] Patton took to his new command with the aggressive style that would define the rest of his career; he drove his men as hard as possible, demanding discipline, respect, cleanliness, and perfection at all times. He cursed and screamed down any man who did not meet his standards, but surprisingly his men not only tolerated it, but considered it a badge of honor to be damned by Patton himself. By the time they sailed for Morocco in October 1942, the 2nd Armored Brigade was one of the best prepared tank units in the Allied force.

On November 8, 1942, Patton’s troops rolled ashore in Morocco and captured Casablanca in two days, receiving the Order of Ouissam Alaouite from the Sultan for his success. After the II Corps faltered at the Battle of Kessarine Pass, Patton was made the Corps’ commander and was able to force the German Army out of North Africa by mid-1943 by working in tandem with British General Sir Bernard Montgomery. Patton was placed in command of the 7th Army to invade Sicily, and captured Palermo before moving to liberate the port of Messina, where the Allied invasion of Italy would start[4].

For the Normandy Campaign, Patton was once again transferred, this time to command 3rd Army, which would break out of hedgerow country on the Allies’ western flank, before moving south and east. The 3rd Army proceeded as far as Metz, a French town near the borders of Luxembourg and Germany, where Patton’s tanks ran out of gas. The army settled into a siege of the fortified town which lasted until late November.[5] After Metz fell, Patton remained in Alsace-Lorraine until news came in mid-December that the Germans had surrounded a small pocket of Americans near Bastogne, Belgium, during the infamous Battle of  the Bulge. Patton diverted the 3rd Army to relieve the trapped men, and in less than a week had moved six divisions more than 100 miles.

By V-E Day, 3rd Army had pushed through to the outskirts of Prague, leaving them responsible for the Bavarian government after the Third Reich fell. Patton, though a brilliant general, was a tactless politician and was transferred to desk duty in September 1945.[6] On December 9, while riding to the country for a pheasant shoot, an army truck clipped his car and Patton was thrown into a seat, breaking his neck. 12 days later, George S. Patton Jr. died; he remains buried with the men he led in Hamm American Cemetery in Luxembourg.

[1] H. Essame, Patton: A Study in Command (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1974), 2-5.

[2] Ibid., 9.

[3] Ibid., 31.

[4] Harry H. Semmes, Portrait of Patton (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, Inc., 1955), 152.

[5]  Essame, 213-214.

[6] Ibid., 261.