George Patton: The Final Days of One of America's Greatest Generals
The commander of the U.S. Third Army, General George S. Patton, Jr., took no great pleasure in the end of the war in Europe; he already knew that despite his lobbying of many influential figures in Washington, D.C., he had no hope of being reassigned to the Pacific Theater to command combat troops there. As he put it to his III Corps commander, Maj. Gen. James Van Fleet, “There is already a star [MacArthur] in that theater and you can only have one star in a show.”
Patton was also depressed because he knew there would be a rapid reduction in the strength of the U.S. Army in Europe, and he believed this was inviting disaster. On May 7, 1945, he had pleaded with visiting Undersecretary of War Robert Patterson: “Let’s keep our boots polished, bayonets sharpened and present a picture of force and strength to these people [the Russians]. This is the only language they understand and respect. If you fail to do this, then I would like to say to you that we have had a victory over the Germans and have disarmed them, but have lost the war.”
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When Patterson told him that he did not understand the “big picture,” but asked Patton what he would do about the Russians, he allegedly replied that he would keep the U.S. Army in Europe intact, delineate the border with the Soviets, and if they did not withdraw behind it, “push them back across it.” He went on: “We did not come over here to acquire jurisdiction over either the people or their countries. We came to give them back the right to govern themselves. We must either finish the job now—while we are here and ready—or later in less favorable circumstances.” Needless to say, such ideas were totally unacceptable to the politicians in Washington—and indeed to most of the American soldiers in Europe; all they wanted to do was to go home.
Stories of Patton’s encounters with the Russians are legendary, and some may well be apocryphal. On May 13, 1945, he reportedly entertained and decorated the commander of the Soviet Fourth Guards Army at a luncheon in Linz, Austria. Patton noted in his diary that after a bout of heavy whiskey drinking during and after the meal, the Russian “went out cold,” while he himself “walked out under my own steam…. They are a scurvy race and simply savages. We could beat hell out of them.”
The following day he in turn was entertained by Marshal F.I. Tolbukhin, a Soviet Army Group commander, who tried to get him drunk and whom he described as “a very inferior man who sweated profusely.” He did admit that the Russian soldiers “put on a tremendous show … [they] passed in review with a very good imitation of the goose step…. The officers with few exceptions gave the appearance of recently civilized Mongolian bandits.”
The most notorious incident allegedly happened toward the end of May when an English-speaking Russian brigadier general arrived at Patton’s headquarters to demand that some river boats on the Danube that had contained Germans who had surrendered to the Third Army be returned to the Russians. Patton opened a drawer, pulled out a pistol, slammed it down on his desk, and raged, “Goddamnit! Get this son-of-a-bitch out of here! Who in hell let him in? Don’t let any more Russian bastards into this headquarters.”
After the shaken Russian was escorted out, Patton is said to have exclaimed, “Sometimes you have to put on an act … That’s the last we’ll hear from those bastards.” And apparently it was.
Three days after VE-Day, Supreme Allied Commander General Dwight D. Eisenhower called a conference of all his U.S. Army commanders and told them that they were not to criticize publicly any of the campaigns that had won the war and of the need for solidarity in the event that any of them were called before any congressional committees. Patton’s version of what Ike said at this conference can be read in his diary. He recorded that the supreme commander “made a speech which had to me the symptoms of political aspirations, on cooperation with the British, Russians and the Chinese, but particularly with the British. It is my opinion that this talking cooperation is for the purpose of covering up probable criticism of strategic blunders which he unquestionably committed during the campaign. Whether or not these were his own or due to too much cooperation with the British I don’t know. I am inclined to think he over-cooperated.”