George Smith Patton Jr. was born in 1885 on Rancho Lake Vineyard, near San Gabriel, California. His family had a long and rich military history, and his ancestors fought in both the Revolutionary War and the American Civil War (on the Confederate side). Anybody who had a chance to ask him the question “who do you want to be when you grow up?” would have got the same reply: “A war hero and a general.”
This dream wasn’t just a kid’s whim either; he was determinedly working towards his goal, step by step. Among his idols were the world’s famous leaders – Roman generals and their enemies, medieval knights, Napoleon Bonaparte, and one very alive John S. Mosby, nicknamed the “Gray Ghost.” He was a family friend who often visited young George. Mosby had been a Confederate cavalry commander, and Patton’s love of horses was ingrained early on.
Patton started his military career at the Virginia Military Institute but soon transferred to West Point, graduating 46th out of 103 cadets in 1909. His academic performance was so low he had to repeat the first year. Apart from the military, his other passions were horsemanship, fencing, and shooting. He showed great ability in various sports and competitions, and also participated in the 1912 Summer Olympic Games in Stockholm. While a student and instructor at the Mounted Service School in Kansas, Patton earned the title of “Master of the Sword.”
First combat experience
Upon graduation from West Point, Patton was given the rank of Second Lieutenant. Patton’s combat experience began in 1916 during the Punitive Expedition commonly known as the Pancho Villa Expedition. His eagerness was appreciated by General John Pershing who made him his aide-de-camp. Among his most notable achievements was killing the commander of Pancho’s personal guard, Julio Cardenas. Mexico was also a place where his famous ivory-handled Colt M1873 “Peacemaker” began to accompany his side.
The close relationship with Pershing helped his career to blossom once again in 1917. Pershing became the commander of the American Expeditionary Force on the Western Front in Europe and gladly welcomed Patton among his 180-man staff. The Great War was a new kind of warfare and Patton was presented with weapons never seen before. Tanks were quick to get his attention.
Because of his talent and organizational skills, Patton became the first officer assigned to the U.S. Tank Corps and gained tank driving experience. He was the first American soldier to do so. Moreover, before the first fight, he was promoted to the temporary rank of Lieutenant Colonel.
Soon afterward, he was severely wounded during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive while commanding his tank unit from the front against German machine guns. However, he was still able to control the fight from a shell-hole for the next 60 minutes before he was rescued. He saw no more fighting before the Armistice and the end of the war.
For his service during the World War I, Patton was awarded the Purple Heart for his wounds, the Distinguished Service Medal for his leadership, and the Distinguished Service Cross for his actions while attacking German machine gun nests.
Back in the United States, Patton met D. Eisenhower, who would prove highly important for Patton’s future. Considering his rather blunt personality, his acquaintance with people at the top was going to be a great asset to his career.
A year after the Great War ended, “Bandito”- one of his nicknames – was promoted to the rank of Major. Patton’s foresight often caused him troubles. While seeing how the modern battlefield had changed and in what direction it was going, Major Patton tried to develop an armored arsenal back in the United States.
However, the military doctrine of the US Army was in direct contrast to what Patton believed, as at the time no one wanted to admit the growing role of tanks at the expense of infantry. Additionally, the technological problems with constructing the first American tank weren’t a motivation either. However, he was determined to create theories combining infantry with armored warfare. Unfortunately, the US Congress left the armored branch without funding, and the development of an armored force was postponed.
Nevertheless, his career was still progressing. After being promoted to Lieutenant Colonel in 1934 in Hawaii, he foresaw the possibility of a Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor with a quite remarkable degree of foresight and sent a note about it four years before the actual event occurred.
Again, no one was listening to his predictions. His personal life and career rolled along but the father of three found peacetime frustrating and not always easy to deal with. In 1939, that changed.
The dawn of the war
Germany invaded Poland in 1939 and proved the efficiency of newly developed armored tactics. The soldiers of the Polish Army had a reputation for being valiant men, yet fell in three weeks, attacked from every side in a striking offensive by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. The might of the Blitzkrieg could no longer be ignored nor denied by the US Congress.
In 1940, during maneuvers at Fort Benning, Georgia, Patton met Adna R. Chaffee Jr., “the Father of the US Armored Force.” Coincidentally, it occurred at the time of the fall of France in June. The importance of tanks was discussed and confirmed that the American doctrine on mechanized warfare had to be adapted.
From that point onwards, Patton’s path started to glow. Over the next few years, Patton conducted several big-scale exercises, consequently developing the new armored branch of the army. In December 1941, his forecast about the surprise attack of Imperial Japan on Pearl Harbor came true. A few days later, Hitler declared war on the United States and World War II for him had started for real.
The war in Europe desperately needed a second front. There was no possibility to launch landing operations on the European continent at the time. North Africa was more vulnerable to such an idea and was an excellent place to start expanding the fight against the Nazis and the Axis powers.
In November 1942, the Allied invasion of French North Africa began, resulting in the launch of massive landings in Morocco and Algeria under the control of the French collaborationist Vichy government. Patton was in charge of the Western Task Force and had under his command over 33,000 soldiers. The Vichy French forces in Patton’s way were quickly crushed in such a way that even the Sultan of Morocco was reportedly impressed.
The offensive moved east towards the more challenging enemy: the German Afrikakorps lead by Generalfeldmarschall Erwin Rommel. After the defeat of the inexperienced U.S. II Corps at the Battle of Kasserine Pass, Eisenhower replaced Lloyd Fredendall with George Patton. It wasn’t long before he had transformed the demoralized and battered troops into a disciplined, clean and effective army.
He was a tough commander, yet his hard attitude towards his men resulted from a sense of responsibility for their lives, which was later appreciated. His nemesis, Erwin Rommel, professed a similar philosophy – “sweat saves blood.”
Unfortunately, not all of his challenges came from the Axis side. Some US generals were incompetent and air-support was an apple of discord between Patton and his British allies. On one occasion, British officers came to his headquarters explaining that they were providing sufficient air support.
Ironically, a German air attack took place during the meeting, resulting in the collapse of the ceiling above their heads. Against the odds, Patton and his army continued to march east toward Tunisia until the “Desert Fox” and his Panzers were ejected from Africa.
Patton was made the commander of the Seventh US Army during the Invasion of Sicily in 1943. By gaining a foothold on European soil, another front with Nazi Germany was opened. The plans he had developed in Casablanca were declined due to political reasons and replaced by Britain’s General Montgomery’s vision. Despite that, all of his divisions secured their respective beaches, and the landings ended with a huge success. At Gela, he personally charged against a German counter-attack.
Still, the initial objectives of the invasion forces remained unfulfilled. Although his achievements during Operation Husky are unquestionable, some of his actions have left a stain on his reputation; the Biscari massacre, during which 73 unarmed Italian and Germans PoWs were killed, or the time he slapped an injured soldier who Patton accused of cowardice when in reality he was suffering from PTSD.
Under these circumstances, Patton’s role as a commander was sidelined for a year, and it was only because of Eisenhower’s support that he wasn’t removed completely from the stage for the rest of the war.
Patton’s fame reached all of his enemies and he was widely respected as a foe. The Allies took advantage of his infamy during Operation Quicksilver by creating a fictional First United States Army Group (FUSAG). They assigned it to General Patton to gain some credibility and the attention of the Germans. In 1944, the Germans were in no position to ignore his whereabouts.
The deception surpassed the Allies wildest expectations, as the Germans, for almost two months after D-Day, were still waiting for his arrival in the Pas-de-Calais region. However, the main striking force had landed on the Normandy beaches and was already heading towards Germany’s borders. Patton arrived in Normandy in late June 1944 and was back in the game.
After the Italian Front, the Allies were able to open the second major front in France, slowly pushing the Germans back to the east. Patton’s Third Army, under the command of Omar Bradley’s Twelfth United States Army Group, marched toward Britanny, then liberating the Seine on the east and catching the Germans in a trap commonly referred to as the Falaise Pocket. The maneuver resulted in capturing several hundred thousand Wehrmacht soldiers.
The Third Army favored speed, mobility, and aggressive strikes wherever they could to hit the enemy. With air superiority and proper intelligence, and sometimes using reconnaissance by fire tactics too, Patton achieved his objectives fast and smoothly. His modified version of Blitzkrieg tactics allowed his army to cross over 650 miles in two weeks.
The Third Army liberated most of Northern France and was then stopped by Eisenhower before entering Paris. For obvious reasons, that privilege was given to the French. The rapid movement of Patton’s army was halted near Metz in early September 1944. The was necessary because the speed of Patton’s advance was too fast for Allied logistics to keep up. The next few months saw Patton’s forces bogged down in the Battle of Metz, with both sides taking heavy casualties.
Battle of Bulge
Hitler was growing increasingly frustrated and in December 1944 ordered the launch of a massive, last-ditch counter-offensive against the Western Allies, widely known as the Ardennes Offensive. Over 400,000 infantry, 400 tanks, 600 tank destroyers were set in motion in the last major battle in the Western European theater.
Patton’s foresight was invaluable again, as he was the only officer to predict the German counter-offensive. History showed him that the Germans had launched similar attacks in the same region twice before, once during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 and again in World War I.
Therefore, he was prepared for what was coming. Allied Supreme Commander D. Eisenhower asked Patton how long it would take him to relieve the trapped forces. “As soon as you’re through with me,” replied Patton.
Eisenhower couldn’t believe that Patton already had contingency plans to relieve the 101st Airborne Division trapped at Bastogne. Nevertheless, he ordered Patton to get to it as soon as possible. In less than two days, on 21 December 1944, Patton and his Third Army hit the left wing of the German army and reached the surrounded 101st Airborne Division.
The Final Offensive
The German Army went on the defensive in late February 1945. Patton soon broke the Siegfried Line and entered the Saar area. With tremendous speed, he captured southern Germany and liberated a part of Czechoslovakia. However, his chase of the Germans was stopped several miles from Prague on the direct orders of Eisenhower, and Patton was forced to withdraw back to Pilsen.
Between the Rhine and Elbe rivers, General Patton’s army captured over 650,000 Germans, killing 20,000 and wounding 50,000. The Third Army’s losses were 2,000 killed, 8,000 wounded and 1,500 missing. From the start of their campaign in Normandy to VE day, the Third Army was operational for 281 days, inflicting 1,800,000 casualties (captured, killed, wounded) on the enemy.
End of the War
The war in Europe ended on 9 May 1945. However, the United States was still fighting against the Japanese in the far east. Now that Europe had been liberated, Patton was eager to transfer to the Pacific Theater. Unfortunately, no front could use him and his armored force.
Patton was then appointed the governor of Bavaria. His task was to rebuild the area and conduct the process of “denazification” of the region’s population. Patton was none too happy with this, as the war against Japan ended without his part.
His behavior changed, suggesting that he was still hungry for war, a dangerous feature in a world that had just reclaimed peace after the world’s worst conflict in history. His last words with his wife imply that he was torn between retiring or continuing his career in silence in some side post.
As it was, the glorious life of “Old Blood and Guts” ended in sleep on December 21, 1945, due to injuries from a serious car crash a few weeks earlier.
Patton’s Speech in Los Angeles, 1945, narrated by R. Reagan.
More photos from his life