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A Sidelined Patton Shares His Philosophy on Leadership

By Andrew Carroll 
Originally published on HistoryNet.com. Published Online: May 22, 2009 
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Lt. Gen. George S. Patton Jr. briefs a group of soldiers in England in 1944. Note that the unit patches in the photograph have been removed by the censor. (National Archives)
Lt. Gen. George S. Patton Jr. briefs a group of soldiers in England in 1944. Note that the unit patches in the photograph have been removed by the censor. (National Archives)
After slapping a hospitalized American soldier in Sicily in August 1943 and then making controversial remarks at the opening of a serviceman's club in Knutsford, England, in April 1944, Lt. Gen. George S. Patton Jr. came within inches of being relieved of his command. Instead, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower imposed a punishment almost as devastating: Patton would be relegated to an essentially minor role during the historic Normandy landings. "It is Hell to be on the side lines and see all the glory eluding me," Patton wrote to his wife Beatrice on D-Day.

As much as he hated it, Patton was integral to a brilliant deception plan that convinced Hitler the June 6, 1944, attack was a feint. German reconnaissance had detected an enormous army mobilizing near Dover, England, under the command of Patton, the Allied general most feared by the Nazis. In fact, the "army" was little more than fake airfields, oil storage depots, troop cantonments, ammunition dumps, boats, and vehicles, including full-size, inflatable rubber tanks. By the time Hitler recognized his folly, the Allies were firmly established in France.

Crushed that he was missing "the opening kick off," a restless Patton whittled away the hours writing in his diary and sending off letters, including the following to his son, a cadet at West Point. The letter's original spelling has been preserved.

Dear George:
At 0700 this morning the BBC announced that the German Radio had just come out with an announcement of the landing of Allied Paratroops and of large numbers of assault craft near shore. So that is it.
This group of unconquerable heroes whom I command are not in yet but we will be soon—I wish I was there now as it is a lovely sunny day for a battle and I am fed up with just sitting.

I have no immediate idea of being killed but one can never tell and none of us can live for ever so if I should go dont worry but set your self to do better than I have.
All men are timid on entering any fight whether it is the first fight or the last fight all of us are timid. Cowards are those who let their timidity get the better of their manhood. You will never do that because of your blood lines on both sides. I think I have told you the story of Marshall Touraine who fought under Louis XIV. On the morning of one of his last battles—he had been fighting for forty years—he was mounting his horse when a young ADC [aide-de-camp] who had just come from the court and had never missed a meal or heard a hostile shot said: "M. de Touraine it amazes me that a man of your supposed courage should permit his knees to tremble as he walks out to mount." Touraine replied "My lord duke I admit that my knees do tremble but should they know where I shall this day take them they would shake even more." That is it. Your knees may shake but they will always take you towards the enemy. Well so much for that.

There are apparently two types of successful soldiers. Those who get on by being unobtrusive and those who get on by being obtrusive. I am of the latter type and seem to be rare and unpopular: but it is my method. One has to choose a system and stick to it people who are not themselves are nobody.

To be a successful soldier you must know history. Read it objectively–dates and even the minute details of tactics are useless. What you must know is how man reacts. Weapons change but man who uses them changes not at all. To win battles you do not beat weapons you beat the soul of man of the enemy man. To do that you have to destroy his weapons but that is only incidental. You must read biography and especially autobiography. If you will do it you will find that war is simple. Decide what will hurt the enemy most within the limits of your capabilities to harm him and then do it. Take calculated risks. That is quite different from being rash. My personal belief is that if you have a 50% chance take it because the superior fighting qualities of American soldiers lead by me will surely give you the extra 1% necessary.

In Sicily I decided as a result of my information, observations and a sixth sense that I have that the enemy did not have another large scale attack in his system. I bet my shirt on that and I was right. You cannot make war safely but no dead general has ever been criticised so you have that way out always.

I am sure that if every leader who goes into battle will promise him self that he will come out either a conquerer or a corpse he is sure to win. There is no doubt of that. Defeat is not due to losses but to the destruction of the soul of the leaders. The "Live to fight another day" doctrine.

The most vital quality a soldier can possess is self confidence utter complete and bumptious. You can have doubts about your good looks, about your intelligence, about your self control but to win in war you must have no doubts about your ability as a soldier.

What success I have had results from the fact that I have always been certain that my military reactions were correct. Many people do not agree with me; they are wrong. The unerring jury of history written long after both of us are dead will prove me correct.

Note that I speak of "Military reactions" no one is borne with them any more than any one is borne with muscles. You can be borne with the soul capable of correct military reactions or the body capable of having big muscles but both qualities must be developed by hard work.

The intensity of your desire to acquire any special ability depends on character, on ambition. I think that your decision to study this summer instead of enjoying your self shows that you have character and ambition—they are wonderful possessions.

Soldiers, all men in fact, are natural hero worshipers. Officers with a flare for command realise this and emphasize in their conduct, dress and deportment the qualities they seek to produce in their men. When I was a second lieutenant I had a captain who was very sloppy and usually late yet he got after the men for just those faults; he was a failure.

The troops I have commanded have always been well dressed, been smart saluters, been prompt and bold in action because I have personally set the example in these qualities. The influence one man can have on thousands is a neverending source of wonder to me. You are always on parade. Officers who through lazyness or a foolish desire to be popular fail to inforce discipline and the proper wearing of uniforms and equipment not in the presence of the enemy will also fail in battle and if they fail in battle they are potential murderers. There is no such thing as: "A good field soldier" you are either a good soldier or a bad soldier.

Well this has been quite a sermon but dont get the idea that it is my swan song because it is not I have not finished my job yet.

Your affectionate father

Eight weeks later, on August 1, Patton's Third Army was back in action. "The waiting was pretty bad and lasted well after Bastille day, but now we are in the biggest battle I have ever fought and it is going fine except at one town [St. Malo], we have failed to take," Patton wrote to Beatrice days after resuming command. "I am going there in a minute to kick some ones ass." The 58-year-old general was, at long last, right where he wanted to be.

To read more War Letters, click here.


2 Responses to “A Sidelined Patton Shares His Philosophy on Leadership”


  1. 1
    Tamilyn says:

    I have a copy of this letter it originally belonged to my Father in law who was very much the military man. He retired at the level of Command Sargent Major and continued to collect and charish all things military. I am amazed by the history in all I am discovering in him and his life.

  2. 2

    [...] You can read it and get some background here.  In the interest of brevity, I'll just mention what ideas I took away from it. [...]



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