Hitler's Nightmare: Why George S. Patton Was Such a Great American General

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Hitler's Nightmare: Why George S. Patton Was Such a Great American General


Key point: The General is still revered today as a great strategist and a ruthless leader. His exploits helped crush the Axis and win the war.

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.”

On his return to Bavaria, Patton, as military governor as well as Third Army commander, moved into his new headquarters, a former Waffen SS officers’ training school at Bad Tölz, 30 miles south of Munich. Patton renamed the barracks Flint Kaserne, after Colonel Paddy Flint, an old friend and one of his regimental commanders who had been killed in Sicily. Patton’s personal residence was a palatial house on nearby Lake Tegernsee. It had a swimming pool, bowling alley, and two boats, and had once been owned by Max Amann, the publisher of Hitler’s Mein Kampf. It is also of interest that Gestapo chief Heinrich Himmler’s wife had lived in another house on the lake, as had the wife of the infamous Waffen SS Kampfgruppe commander Jochen Peiper.

At the beginning of June came the news that Patton had been dreading. He was to return to the States for a 30-day bond sales tour. His plane, escorted by a formation of fighters and Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress bombers, touched down at an airfield near Boston on June 7, where an honor guard, a 17-gun salute, and the governor of Massachusetts greeted him. The American press had guaranteed him a hero’s welcome. Rather surprisingly, Patton chose to return the governor’s hat-doffing salute by removing his own helmet, complete with its four stars and the emblems of the Third and Seventh Armies and I Armored Corps. Then, with the formalities over, he was finally able to embrace his wife Beatrice—it was their first hug in nearly three years. They were then driven through the suburbs of Boston to a ticker tape reception in the city itself.

The crowd along the 25-mile route was estimated at a million; people wept and girls threw flowers. Then, before a crowd of up to 50,000, he made a speech in which he said, “My name is merely a hook to hang the honors on. This great ovation by Boston is not for Patton the general, but Patton as a symbol of the Third Army.” The following day, the Daily Record headlines announced: “FRENZIED HUB HAILS PATTON” and “GEN PATTON IN TEARS AT HUB TRIBUTE.” This latter headline referred to Patton breaking down in tears during a speech at a state dinner held in his honor that night; he was completely overcome by the glowing tributes.

Beatrice is said to have declared, “I can hardly speak, I’m so overcome. This has been a proud and wonderful day.” But, in fact, Patton had put his foot in it again. During his first speech that morning he had told his audience that the fact that a soldier was killed in action often made him a fool rather than a hero. What exactly he meant is unclear, but needless to say this remark enraged those who had lost relatives in the war and telegrams and letters soon began to flood into the War Department demanding an apology. They did not get it.

The day after his return Patton and his wife flew to Denver and then on to Los Angeles and Pasadena. He made emotional speeches in all three places, with 100,000 people, including many Hollywood stars, turning out to hear him in the Los Angeles Coliseum. And so it went on throughout his leave—adulation from family, friends, and the vast majority of the public. To his superiors, though, George Patton remained, as in the past, a potential embarrassment—a missile that might go off track at any moment —a missile that needed to be kept under tight control. No doubt with this in mind Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson did just that at a press conference in Washington on June 14; Patton was left merely to add a few comments about the Germans and the Third Army.

Fortunately, the official aim of Patton’s month-long leave was achieved—his enthusiastic oratory helped to sell millions of war bonds and he received a letter of thanks from Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau. His personal ambitions, however, had not been achieved. His attempts to get an appointment in the Pacific had again failed. His name had been included in a list of six generals submitted by the War Department for consideration by MacArthur, but the Supreme Commander had rejected him out of hand.