Allies and Rivals: Why General Patton Clashed With Montgomery During World War II

Allies and Rivals: Why General Patton Clashed With Montgomery During World War II

The rivalry between Bernard Montgomery and George S. Patton became heated during Operation Husky, the campaign to liberate Sicily.

Key Point: Patton and 'Monty' had never acted as equals.

Operation Husky, the invasion of Sicily, was the only operation in World War II in which generals Bernard Montgomery and George S. Patton, Jr., participated as equals. Monty was commanding the British Eighth Army and Patton the American Seventh. It is also noteworthy that the initial assault force, more than eight divisions, was in fact larger than that used in the invasion of Normandy, making Husky numerically, in terms of men landed on the beaches and frontage, the largest amphibious operation of World War II.

The basic plan included Monty’s Eastern Task Force of some 115,000 men with four infantry divisions, including one Canadian division; an independent infantry brigade; and a Canadian armored brigade. The main effort landed on a 40-mile front in southeast Sicily from the Pachino Peninsula to Syracuse. Patton’s Western Task Force of some 66,000 men with one armored and three infantry divisions was to land in the Gulf of Gela between Licata and Scoglitti and then move rapidly inland to seize the airfields just north of Gela.

Monty and Patton had never met to discuss the overall plan, but they were both clear that the Seventh Army’s mission was to protect the Eighth Army’s left flank as it made the main thrust toward Messina. The opposition facing the Allies totaled 10 Italian infantry divisions, of which six were immobile coastal formations, the Hermann Göering Panzer Division, and two similarly reformed panzergrenadier divisions. Plentiful reinforcements were available from mainland Italy. It is also important to understand the topography of the island. “Sicily is very mountainous and [vehicle] movement off the roads and tracks is seldom possible,” described Montgomery. “In the beach areas there was a narrow coastal plain, but behind this the mountains rose steeply … It was apparent that the campaign in Sicily was going to depend largely on the domination of main road and track centres.”

To fully understand the difficulties facing the British, American, and Canadian troops, one has to go to Sicily and see the ground. Only then can one fully understand the extent to which Mount Etna dominates the northeast third of the island; and even then one has to remember that none of today’s highways with their wide surfaces, tunnels, and super viaducts existed in 1944. Of the four narrow roads that led north from the landing beaches, only two went all the way to Messina—one running along the eastern coast from Catania and the other turning east after reaching the northern coast. Monty planned from the outset to make his main thrust up the east coast, and it did not take long for Patton to realize that if he was to reach Messina before Monty he had no choice other than to strike north and then east along the northern coast road, Highway 113.

The 2,760 ships and landing craft carrying the two task forces came from as far afield as Scotland, the United States, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, and Lebanon. They rendezvoused off Malta, where General Dwight D. Eisenhower, commander of Allied forces in North Africa, Monty, and the commander of Allied Naval Forces in the Mediterranean, British Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham, had located themselves. With the help of bad weather, which led the defenders to believe no landings were possible, the American and British troops stormed ashore against virtually no opposition some two hours before dawn on July 10, 1943.

Inevitably, many things failed to go exactly according to plan, particularly the airborne operations that had preceded the landings. The U.S. 82nd and British 1st Airborne divisions suffered very heavy losses due to badly trained pilots, high winds, and heavy antiaircraft fire, both enemy and friendly. Nearly 400 aircraft and 137 gliders were involved. Thirty-six of the gliders landed in the sea, drowning 252 men of the British 1st Air Landing Brigade, and only 12 gliders reached their objectives. Some 3,400 U.S. paratroopers, who should have been dropped northeast of Gela, landed over a 1,000-square mile area of southeastern Sicily. Their commander, Brigadier General Jim Gavin, came down over 25 miles from his intended landing site. Nevertheless, Monty’s insistence on an overwhelming concentration of ground forces ensured overall success.

Monty was so elated with the success of the landings that at 1030 hours on the 10th he went in person to see Admiral Cunningham to express his “great appreciation of the work of the Navy,” and he followed this up with a letter to British Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Tedder, commander of the Allied Air Forces in the Mediterranean, congratulating him on the fact that “the Allied Air Forces had definitely won the air battle.” These were generous gestures since both men detested Monty and had vigorously opposed his plan for the invasion, Tedder on the grounds that air cover could not be guaranteed before the capture of the Gela and Comiso airfields, and Cunningham saying that he would not commit the navy without guaranteed air cover. Both had finally given way.

Monty’s enthusiasm was translated into firm directives that evening when he signaled both his corps commanders, General Oliver Leese of XXX Corps and General Miles Dempsey of XIII Corps, to “operate with great energy” toward Noto and Avola in the first case and Syracuse in the second. He then embarked in the destroyer HMS Antwerp and landed on the Pachino Peninsula at 0700 hours the following day. His morale received another boost when he learned that the whole peninsula was secure and that the port of Syracuse had been captured intact.

With an arrogance that would have caused problems with anyone other than British General Sir Harold Alexander, his boss and the commander of the 18th Allied Army Group, Montgomery signaled, “Everything going well here … No need for you to come here unless you wish. Am very busy myself and am developing operations intensively … Have no, repeat no, news of American progress … if they can … hold firm against enemy action from the west I could then swing hard with my right with an easier mind. If they draw enemy attacks on them my swing north will cut off enemy completely.”

Patton Gets into the Mix

It was clear that Monty was telling his commander how subsequent operations should be developed, and this did not bode well for future relations between himself and George Patton.

Patton had embarked in the American naval task force commander’s flagship Monrovia four days before the landings. He wrote in his diary on July 9: “I have the usual shortness of breath I always have before a polo game. I would not change places with anyone I know right now.”

Following the successful American landings, Gela was captured by midday. Patton remained aboard the Monrovia throughout July 10, but when the enemy launched a major counterattack in the Gela sector on the morning of the 11th he could restrain himself no longer and at 0930 hours he disembarked, wading ashore as one eyewitness recalled “resplendent in an immaculate uniform complete with necktie neatly tucked into his pressed gabardine shirt, knee-length polished black leather boots and his ever-present ivory-handled pistols strapped to his waist.”

Patton arrived at the Ranger headquarters in Gela just in time to witness a second enemy counterattack being beaten off. He then went on to see the commander of the 1st Infantry Division, Maj. Gen. Terry Allen. Needless to say he could not resist interfering and issued orders that the Division was to push inland, ignoring a strong German pocket of resistance to its rear. This was in direct contradiction of the corps commander’s orders. The latter, Maj. Gen. Omar Bradley, wrote later, “He countermanded my Corps order to the Div without consulting me in any way. When I spoke to him about it George apologized and said he should not have done that. But George didn’t like it.”

Thanks to a British newspaper correspondent who never even went ashore in the first two days of the invasion, the New York Herald Tribune Los Angeles Evening Herald-Express carried wildly exaggerated reports of Patton’s first actions in Sicily. “Patton leaped ashore to head troops at Gela,” trumpeted the former, while the latter ran the headline: “Patton led Yanks against Nazi tanks in Sicily.” Its subsequent story read that Patton had “leaped into the surf from a landing boat and personally taking command, turned the tide in the fiercest fighting of the invasion of Gela.” Nothing could have been further from the truth. The Rangers, the men of the 1st Infantry Division, and the tanks of the 2nd Armored Division beat off the counterattacks without any help from Patton. At 1900 hours he was back on the Monrovia. That evening he noted in his diary: “This is the first day in this campaign that I think I earned my pay.”

Monty Bypasses the Chain of Command

Patton was not alone in bypassing the normal chain of command and giving orders directly to divisional commanders. Monty went even further. The commander of the 50th Infantry Division recalled that on July 12, he “… got a message, return at once to your Headquarters, Army commander wants to see you … Monty explained to me that he was going to drop parachutists … and that I’d got to get forward as fast as possible to relieve them … Monty gave these instructions to me, not Dempsey [his corps commander] … ” Usually in an army, the army commander would give orders to the corps commander who would summon the divisional commander. Monty was determined to impress his personality on the chap who was doing the job.