Patton, George S.

views updated May 14 2018

George S. Patton

Born November 11, 1885
Pasadena, California
Died December 21, 1945

Heidelberg, Germany
American general

Recognized as one of the greatest wartime generals of all time, George S. Patton was a colorful figure remembered as much for his vulgar language and ivory-handled pistol as for his battlefield brilliance. Those who knew Patton well understood that he hid the softer, refined side of his nature under the bluster and swagger he felt were necessary to a soldier's image. Patton's aggressive style of fighting and his ability to inspire soldiers to perform beyond expectations contributed greatly to the Allied victory over Germany. In fact, he was the Allied general most admired and feared by the Germans.

A privileged childhood

Born into a wealthy family in California, Patton was descended from a long line of soldiers and achievers, and he always felt that their spirits were watching and judging what he did. One of his ancestors had fought for the rebel hero, Bonnie Prince Charlie, who led a revolt in Scotland in 1746, and others had served with the Confederate Army in the Civil War (1861-1865). Patton's grandfather, Benjamin Davis Wilson, had been mayor of Los Angeles and later established the successful Lake Vineyard. Patton's father gave up his job as district attorney of Los Angeles to run the family winery.

Although he learned to talk at an early age and had a vivid imagination, Patton suffered from a learning disability that made reading and writing extremely difficult for him. His family wanted to shelter him from ridicule, so he was educated at home by his doting Aunt Nannie. She read to him constantly, choosing myths and folk tales as well as passages from the Bible and even military history. The young Patton loved to act out the great battles of history, and his claims of having been present at these conflicts were so convincing that his family thought he had some kind of supernatural gift.

Patton started attending school when he was twelve. His classmates made fun of him because he still couldn't read or write. Nonetheless he managed to progress through a combination of strong determination and a good memory. It was at this time that Patton began to hide his insecurities beneath a tough, swaggering image. He was an adventurous boy who enjoyed riding, shooting, fishing, and hunting; in fact, he was so adventurous that he took a lot of risks and had many accidents.

Success at West Point

When he was only seventeen years old, Patton met Beatrice Ayer. Like Patton, she liked sports and was from a wealthy family. The couple married eight years later, even though Beatrice's father didn't want his daughter to marry a military man. Patton told him, "It is as natural for me to be a soldier as it is to breathe."

It's not too surprising, then, that Patton called the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, "that holy place." He wanted desperately to attend West Point but feared he would fail the admission test. Then he discovered that if he went to the Virginia Military Institute (VMI) in Virginia for a year, he could get into West Point without taking the test.

Patton entered VMI in 1903 and transferred to West Point the next year. His father was so worried that Patton would flunk out of the academy that he made sure someone from the family lived close to West Point throughout the six years Patton attended. The first year, he failed math and had to repeat a whole year of classes. He was shocked and ashamed, but was determined to succeed.

At West Point, Patton was known as a strong leader and a good athlete who believed that a soldier should strictly follow behavior and dress codes—a belief he would continue to hold throughout his life. He looked forward to some day taking part in a war, for, he wrote, "it is in war alone that I am fitted to do anything of importance."

His early career

Patton graduated from West Point in 1909 and was assigned to serve at Fort Sheridan, Illinois, and later at Fort Myer, Virginia. Meanwhile he was enjoying such sophisticated hobbies as playing polo, fencing, buying thoroughbred horses, and ballroom dancing. He competed in the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm, Sweden, placing fifth in the military pentathlon (pistol shooting, fencing, swimming, steeplechase riding, and a 500-meter run).

Patton was an excellent swordsman, and when he went to Fort Riley, Kansas, in 1912 to study at the army's Mounted Service School he also got a job as a fencing instructor. He held the title of Master of the Sword and was the army's top fencing expert. This pursuit helped him to project a swashbuckling persona that belied the sensitive side of his personality.

In 1916, Patton joined a Texas cavalry regiment under the command of General John J. Pershing for an expedition into Mexico. The purpose of the expedition was to punish the rebel leader Pancho Villa, who had recently raided an American town. Patton took part in a Wild West-type gun battle and thoroughly enjoyed this adventure.

World War I and beyond

After World War I (1914-1918; a war that started as a conflict between Austria-Hungary and Serbia and escalated into a global war involving thirty-two countries) began Patton again joined up with General Pershing's forces, this time in France. But he was far from the fighting, so he quit Pershing's staff and joined the U.S. Tank Corps. In 1918, Patton was promoted to lieutenant colonel and put in charge of the Tank Corps, taking part in the St. Mihiel and Meuse-Argonne battles before being wounded. Although he was disappointed to be out of the fighting for the rest of the war, Patton received the Distinguished Service Medal and the Distinguished Service Cross for his courageous performance.

In the years between the two world wars, Patton held a variety of staff positions and received additional training. He graduated from the Command and General Staff School in 1924 and from the Army War College in 1932. He continued his study of military history and of tank warfare (one of his favorite subjects), wrote articles, pursued his favorite hobbies, and kept physically fit. But he was bored.

"Old Blood and Guts"

The Germans relieved Patton's boredom in 1939 by invading Poland and triggering the start of World War II. France and Britain declared war on Germany. Eventually, many other countries would become involved in the conflict, including the United States. In 1940 Patton was madea general and given command of a tank division; he wrote to a friend: "All that is now needed is a nice juicy war." Speaking to a group of officers at Fort Benning, Georgia, Patton reinforced his tough image by remarking that "war will be won by blood and guts alone." Over the next several years, the men who served under Patton would often refer to him as "Old Blood and Guts."

In February 1942—two months after the United States entered World War II—Patton was given command of the 1st Armored Corps. This group participated in the successful invasion of North Africa (called Operation Torch)that took place in November. Fresh from that success, Patton took over as commander of the 2nd Corps in Tunisia, which had just suffered a discouraging defeat and was not performing well. He is credited with reviving the sagging spirits of the men and helping them improve their fighting ability.

Patton believed in aggressive warfare, which is characterized by rapid movement and the element of surprise. His approach to the conduct of his soldiers was equally aggressive. An example is this segment of a speech he gave his junior officers at the start of Operation Torch: "Now if you have any doubts as to what you're to do, I can put it very simply. The idea is to move ahead. You usually will know where the front is by the sound of gunfire, and that'sthe direction you should proceed. Now suppose you lose a hand or an ear is shot off, or perhaps a piece of your nose, and you think you should walk back to get first aid. If I see you, it will be the last goddamned walk you'll ever take."

Patton also enforced a strict dress code, insisting that his men appear polished and buttoned at all times, that they shave daily despite water rationing, and that they wear their neckties into battle.

Success and controversy in Sicily

Promoted to lieutenant general and given command of the U.S. 7th Army, Patton went to Sicily in July 1943 to lead the Allied invasion of the German-occupied island off the coast of Italy. With help from the British 8th Army, Patton's forces cleared Sicily of Axis (Italian and German) forces in only thirty-eight days. Patton's daring and effective maneuvers made headlines, and he became a popular hero—at least until what may have been the most controversial episode in his career.

Patton was visiting wounded men at a military hospital when several soldiers told him that they suffered not from injuries but from combat fatigue; "It's my nerves, sir!" one said. "I just can't stand the shelling anymore!" Enraged that anyone would spend time in a hospital for such a complaint, Patton called the soldier a "yellow bastard" and slapped him with his hand or glove, adding that there was no such thing as battle fatigue, only "goddamned cowards."

This incident generated much negative publicity, even though Patton later claimed that he was just trying to shock the men into recovery. Patton's superior officer, General Dwight D. Eisenhower (1890-1969; see entry), seriously considered relieving him of his command, but knew he was too valuable a general to lose. So Eisenhower ordered Patton to apologize to the men involved as well as to everyone who had been present, which Patton willingly did. For the next few months, he was on his best behavior.

The Normandy invasion

The Allies were busy planning their invasion of France, which would begin with a landing of more than 150,000 troops on the beaches of Normandy in northern France. Aware of the Germans' great regard for Patton's skills, the Allied leadership played a trick on the Germans. They decided to use Patton as a decoy, calling him to London to "command" the First U.S. Army Group (FUSAG), which did not actually exist. The army placed equipment that was not being used on the British shores across the English Channel from Pas de Calais in France, to make the Germans think the Allies were planning to attack from there. In reality the invasion came from further west.

The Allied invasion began on June 6, 1944, and six days later, Patton's command of the 3rd Army—a force that was very real indeed—was sent into action. In August Patton's men began their massive sweep across France, which took them from Normandy through Brittany and northern France to the town of Bastogne, which they liberated in December.

The Germans made a desperate last stand later in December at the Battle of the Bulge, which took place in the Ardennes region of Belgium. Attempting to gain some ground, the Germans had managed to split the Allied forces in two, creating a "bulge" in the front line. In response, Patton performed what General Omar Bradley (1893-1981) called "one of the most astonishing feats of generalship of our campaign in the west." Patton shifted his army with incredible speed and complex movements into position to defeat the Germans.

The 3rd Army then headed toward the Rhine River, crossing one day ahead of British general Bernard Montgomery(1887-1976; see entry), who had long been Patton's chief rival. They crossed southern Germany but, much to Patton's chagrin, had to stop at the border of Czechoslovakia, which the Russians had been slated to invade. The Germans were finally defeated, and the war soon ended.

Not suited for governing

Immediately following the end of the war, Patton was assigned to serve as the military governor of the German province of Bavaria, a job that did not suit his interests and abilities. A witness at the time wrote: "Instead of killing Germans, what he knows best, Patton is asked to govern them, what he knows least. It won't work." Patton was soon criticized for being too soft on former Nazis, allowing them to retain their government jobs. He made a number of anti-Semitic (anti-Jewish) or otherwise embarrassing statements, such as one in which he compared Germans joining the Nazi Party to Americans deciding whether to become Democrats or Republicans.

The result of the controversy was Patton's transfer on October 7, 1945, from the 3rd Army to the smaller, less significant 15th Army Group. Patton was depressed, convinced that—just as he had said as a young man—he was only useful in war. On December 9, while on his way to hunt pheasant near Mannheim, Germany, Patton was seriously injured in a car accident. On the way to the military hospital in Heidelberg, he remarked, "This is a helluva way to die." He died twelve days later.

Patton was buried alongside other fallen soldiers of his beloved 3rd Army, in a military cemetery in Luxembourg, Belgium.

Where to Learn More


Ambrose, Stephen E. Citizen Soldiers: The U.S. Army from the Normandy Beaches to the Bulge to the Surrender of Germany. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1997.

Blumenson, Martin. Patton: The Man Behind the Legend. New York: William Morrow, 1985.

D'Este, Carlo. Patton: A Genius for War. New York: Harper Collins, 1995.

Devaney, John. "Blood and Guts": The True Story of General George S. Patton, USA. New York: J. Messner, 1982.

Patton, George S. War as I Knew It. Boston: Houghton, 1947.

Peifer, Charles. Soldier of Destiny: A Biography of George Patton. Minneapolis, MN: Dillon Press, 1989

Web sites

Pogue, Forrest C. "George S. Patton, Jr." [Online] Available (December 3, 1998).

An inspiring and controversial American general, George S. Patton led Allied troops in several victorious campaigns, especially the invasion of France that followed the D-Day landings.

"The Soldier's General": Omar Bradley

Although he was General George Patton's fellow commander and one of his closest colleagues, General Omar Bradley couldn't have been more different in personality and approach to his troops. Patton swaggered and swore and slapped soldiers who complained of suffering from "battle fatigue." Bradley was a calm, quiet man and a cautious commander whose consideration for individual lives earned him the respect and gratitude of those who served under him.

Bradley had a deep understanding of the average G.I's. viewpoint, who, he said, "trudges into battle knowing that statistics are stacked against his survival. He fights without promise of either reward or relief. Behind every river, there's another hill—and behind that hill, another river… Sooner or later, unless victory comes, the chase must end on the litter [used to transport the wounded] or in the grave."

Born into a poor family in Clark, Missouri, on February 12, 1893, Bradley graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, in 1915. He became the first member of his West Point class to earn a general's star. Bradley served an assignment in the United States during World War I. In 1920, he became a math instructor at West Point, after which he served a tour of duty in Hawaii, and then taught tactics for four years at the army's Infantry School at Fort Benning, Georgia. The Infantry School's director at the time was then-Lieutenant Colonel George Marshall (1880-1959; see entry), who would later serve as army chief of staff during World War II and who entered Bradley into his "black book" full of names of promising young officers.

Bradley graduated from the Army War College in 1934 and taught again at West Point in 1937. In 1938, Bradley was transferred to Washington, D.C., to serve on the Army General Staff under Marshall. He became its assistant secretary in July 1939, but in 1941 he moved to the Infantry School to serve as commandant. There Bradley was promoted to the rank of brigadier general. He earned another star (making him a major general) soon afterthe U.S. entered World War II, and was put in command of the army's 82nd and 28th Divisions. In 1943 Bradley was sent to North Africa in 1943 to serve as "eyes and ears" for General Dwight D. Eisenhower (1890-1969; see entry), who wanted his old West Point classmate to recommend ways to improve training.

Bradley took over for Patton as commander of the 2nd Corps in Tunisia when Patton left to prepare for the invasion of Sicily. Bradley led the 2nd Corps to Sicily in the summer of 1943, after which he went to England to help plan Operation Overlord, the Allied invasion of France. Appointed commander in chief of the American ground forces for the invasion, he led the First Army when they landed on the beaches of Normandy in northern France in June 1944.

Two months later Bradley took over command of the Allied 12th Army Group, which played a major role in the push across western Europe and eventual defeat of Germany. After the war, Bradley stayed for a while with the occupation army in Germany before returning to the United States and becoming, in June 1945, the head of the Veterans Administration. In this position his job was to help soldiers make the transition into civilian life and get the medical, educational, and housing benefits they were owed. In 1948 Bradley succeeded Eisenhower as chief of staff of the army (the army's highest position), earning two more general's stars over the next two years.

Bradley became the first chairman of the newly created Joint Chiefs of Staff (a group made up of the heads of each of the branches of the armed forces) in August 1949 and was reappointed in August 1951. He retired from the army in 1953 after forty-two years of service. Bradley then entered the business world as chairman of the board of the Bulova Watch Company, published his memoirs (A Soldier's Story, 1951), and headed a presidential committee on veterans' benefits. He died in New York City on April 8, 1981.

Patton, George S.

views updated May 11 2018

Patton, George S. (1885–1945), U.S. Army general.A charismatic and flamboyant aristocrat, Patton excelled in training and leading soldiers into battle, obtaining the utmost from them, and employing them with audacity and speed against the enemy.

Descended from an old Virginia family and a pioneer Californian, Patton was born in San Gabriel, California. Afflicted with dyslexia as a child, he struggled to read and write and overcome his own feelings of worthlessness. After a year at the Virginia Military Academy, he graduated from West Point as a cavalry lieutenant in 1909. In 1910, he married Beatrice Ayer, daughter of a wealthy Boston family.

Patton was highly athletic as well as an outstanding fencer and horseman. In the Mexican Punitive Expedition in 1916, Patton served as an aide to John J. Pershing, upon whom he modeled himself. In 1917, when the United States entered World War I, Patton accompanied Pershing to France, took command of the U.S. Army's light tank brigade, and led it at St. Mihiel and the Meuse‐Argonne offensive, where he was wounded.

During World War II, Patton headed the I Armored Corps in the successful invasion of North Africa in November 1942. After the American defeat at Kasserine Pass, Patton was given command of the II Corps in Tunisia in March 1943. He quickly restored morale and won the Battle of E1 Guettar.

Patton's Seventh U.S. Army and Sir Bernard Law Montgomery's Eighth British Army undertook the invasion of Sicily in July 1943. Despite a subsidiary mission, Patton dashed to Palermo, then seized Messina ahead of Montgomery. Competition between the two generals then and later was largely inspired by the media, which contrasted Montgomery's caution with Patton's aggressiveness, backed by his ivory‐handled pistols and scowling face.

In Sicily, Patton physically abused two sick soldiers he mistakenly believed were malingering. For his loss of personal control, he was reprimanded by Dwight D. Eisenhower, who subsequently elevated Omar N. Bradley, Patton's immediate subordinate, to be Patton's immediate superior in command of the 12th U.S. Army Group for the invasion of Normandy.

Patton was used in England to deceive Adolf Hitler about the place of the cross‐Channel invasion. After the American breakthrough at St. Lô, Patton's Third U.S. Army became operational on the Continent on 1 August 1944, and drove rapidly eastward and then north seeking to encircle most of the German troops in Normandy. Stopped from closing the Falaise pocket, Patton's forces swept across the Seine River and northeastern France.

Reacting to the German counterattack at the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944, Patton pivoted the Third Army 90 degrees to the north, an extraordinary maneuver, and relieved the surrounded American forces at Bastogne. In March 1945, Patton crossed the Rhine and headed across southern Germany. When the war ended, his advance units were in Pilsen, Czechoslovakia, and he was a full, four‐star general.

An outspoken critic of the Soviets and of postwar U.S. policies toward Germany, Patton failed as head of the occupation of Bavaria and was reassigned to command the Fifteenth U.S. Army. On 9 December 1945, near Mannheim, he was fatally injured in an automobile accident. He was the most aggressive senior American military commander in World War II and respected by the Germans as the best.
[See also France, Liberation of; Germany, Battle for; World War I: Military and Diplomatic Course; World War II: Military and Diplomatic Course.]


Martin Blumenson , The Patton Papers, 2 vols., 1972, 1974.
Martin Blumenson , Patton: The Man Behind the Legend, 1985.
Carlo D'Este , Patton: A Genius for War, 1995.

Martin Blumenson

George Smith Patton Jr

views updated May 17 2018

George Smith Patton Jr.

The American Army officer George Smith Patton, Ir. (1885-1945), was one of the outstanding tactical commanders of World War II. His campaigns in Sicily, France, and Germany were distinguished by boldness and an imaginative use of armor.

George Patton was born on Nov. 11, 1885, in San Gabriel, Calif. His family was one of the wealthiest in the state. After attending private schools, he went to the U.S. Military Academy, graduating in 1909 and joining the cavalry. He loved horses and was one of the Army's best polo players. He was an eccentric, both at the academy and later in the Army, noted for speaking his mind and for his steady stream of curse words.

Despite his mannerisms—which most of his contemporaries found offensive—Patton was hardworking, intelligent, and courageous. He moved ahead rapidly in the Army. He was the first officer detailed to the Tank Corps in World War I, and he led tanks in action. In 1921 Patton returned to the cavalry. He went back to the armored branch in 1940 and quickly rose to division command.

During World War II, in November 1942, Patton led the American forces landing at Casablanca, Morocco. His first real opportunity to shine came in July 1943, when he led the U.S. 7th Army in the invasion of Sicily. He soon became famous for his daring assaults, rapid marches, and use of armor. He also, however, slapped a hospitalized enlisted man suffering from shell shock (Patton accused him of cowardice). His immediate superior, Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, refused to bow to popular pressure and dismiss Patton but did order him to stay quietly in his headquarters in occupied Sicily.

In spring 1944 Eisenhower brought Patton to England and gave him command of the U.S. 3d Army, which had the task of driving the Germans out of north-central France after the Allies broke out of the Normandy beachhead. Patton activitated the 3d Army early in August 1944 and started it across France, pausing only when his tanks ran out of fuel. By then (late September) he had cleared most of France of the enemy.

Patton's flamboyant character, his caustic remarks to his troops, the pearl-handled pistols he wore on his hips, and most of all his performance combined to make him a national hero. He enjoyed this role, which made it difficult for him to accept Eisenhower's decision to give priority in scarce supplies to the forces of British general Bernard Montgomery. In March 1945 Patton regained the headlines, as he drove the 3rd Army over the Rhine River before Montgomery could get his troops across. Patton then drove through Germany and by the end of the war had his troops in Austria.

Placed in charge of the occupation forces in Bavaria, Patton was soon in trouble. His use of former Nazi officials to help administer the area ran counter to official American policy and made him a target for liberal criticism. He made matters worse when he argued the point to the press. Eisenhower removed him from command. Patton died on Dec. 21, 1945, as a result of an automobile accident in Germany.

Further Reading

Patton's family gathered his diary and other notes and published them as War as I Knew It (1947). Probably the most objective biography of the controversial Patton is the study by Ladislas Farago, Patton: Ordeal and Triumph (1963), which makes judicious use of the Army's official histories of World War II. Robert S. Allen, Lucky Forward: The History of Patton's Third U.S. Army (1947), is a highly laudatory account. Patton's nephew, Fred Ayer, Jr., wrote Before the Colors Fade: Portrait of a Soldier, George S. Patton, Jr. (1964), a sympathetic view by one closely associated with Patton. See also Harry Hodges Semmes, Portrait of Patton (1955), and Charles R. Codman, Drive (1957). □

Patton, George Smith, Jr.

views updated May 21 2018

Patton, George Smith, Jr. (1885–1945) US general. In World War I, he served with the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) in France. During World War II, Patton commanded a tank corps in North Africa, and the 7th Army in Sicily. After the D-Day invasion in 1944, he commanded the 3rd Army in its dash across France and into Germany. As military governor of Bavaria after the war, he was criticized for leniency to Nazis and was removed to command the US 15th Army.

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George Smith Patton Jr