By Tom Morrow
For those of you who are not students of World War II history, the name “Patton” might be one you’ve only heard, but don’t know that much about his accomplishments.
Lt. Gen. George Smith Patton Jr., was one of the brilliant leaders of the U.S. Army who commanded the U.S. 7th Army in the Mediterranean and European theaters of WWII, but is best known for his leadership of the U.S. 3rd Army in France and Germany following the Allied (D-Day) invasion of Normandy in June 1944 and the infamous “Battle of the Bulge” in December 1944.
Born in 1885 to a family with an extensive military background (with members having served in the United States Army and Confederate States Army), Patton attended the Virginia Military Institute and the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. He studied fencing and designed the M-1913 Cavalry Saber, more commonly known as the “Patton Sword.”
Patton first saw combat during the “Pancho Villa Expedition” in 1916, taking part in America’s first military action using motor vehicles. He later joined the newly-formed U.S. Tank Corps of the American Expeditionary Forces and saw action in World War I, commanding the U.S. tank school in France before being wounded while leading tanks into combat near the end of the war.
In the inter-war period, Patton remained a central figure in the development of armored warfare doctrine in the U.S. Army, serving in numerous staff positions throughout the country. Rising through the ranks, he commanded the 2nd Armored Division at the time of the American entry into World War II in 1941.
Patton led U.S. troops into the Mediterranean theater with a North Africa invasion of Casablanca during “Operation Torch” in 1942. This was where he later established himself as an effective commander through his rapid rehabilitation of the demoralized U.S. II Corps. He commanded the U.S. 7th Army during the Allied invasion of Sicily, where he was the first Allied commander to reach Messina. There he was embroiled in controversy after he slapped two shell-shocked soldiers under his command, and was temporarily removed from battlefield command for other duties such as participating in “Operation Fortitude’s” disinformation campaign for Operation Overlord.
Patton returned to command the U.S. 3rd Army following the invasion of Normandy in June 1944. He led a highly-successful rapid armored drive across France. He led the relief of beleaguered American troops at Bastogne during the “Battle of the Bulge,” and advanced his 3rd Army into Nazi Germany by the end of the war.
After the war, Patton became the military governor of Bavaria (state in Germany), but he was relieved of this post because of his statements trivializing de-nazification. He commanded the U.S 15th Army for slightly more than two months. Patton died in Germany on December 21, 1945, as a result of injuries from an automobile accident 12 days earlier.
Patton’s colorful image, hard-driving personality and success as a commander were at times overshadowed by his controversial public statements. His philosophy of leading from the front and his ability to inspire troops with vulgarity-ridden speeches, such as a famous address to the 3rd Army, attracted favorable attention. His strong emphasis on rapid and aggressive offensive action proved effective. While Allied leaders held sharply differing opinions on Patton, he was regarded highly by his opponents in the German High Command. A popular, award-winning biographical film, starring George C. Scott, released in 1970, helped transform Patton into an American hero.
Today, Patton’s name has been linked to the newly-nominated for Secretary of Defense retired Marine Gen. James “Mad Dog” Mattis, a veteran of both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Both men were/are noted for their directness in military planning and blunt colorful talk. The comparisons of these two men are startling – from their love of classical literature to their brilliance on the battlefield, not to mention their striking similarity in physical appearance.
More on General Mattis as history unfolds.
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