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Book Review: Patton at Bay (by John N. Rickard) : WW2

Originally published on Published Online: August 12, 2001 
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Patton at Bay, by John N. Rickard, Praeger Publishers, Westport, Conn., 1999, $45.

This book purports to be a close examination of General George Patton's operations in Lorraine from September to December 1944, between Normandy and the Battle of the Bulge. John Nelson Rickard, who regards this as the toughest test of command Patton ever faced, tries to demonstrate that although Patton was master of mobile warfare, he was unable to adapt to static warfare, which is what he faced in Lorraine. It is Rickard's contention that, up until that time, Patton had never actually been engaged in a really tough set-piece battle.

Although by 1939 most service schools agreed that "ultimately the fighting is frontal," Patton's opinion was that frontal assault was never justified unless there was no other means of destroying the enemy. Nevertheless, Patton did engage in set-piece battles. At Maknassy Pass in Tunisia, for example, Patton was forced to deal with a prepared position that could not be flanked. The general is said to have ordered an attack even if losses of 25 percent were sustained, noting that "wars can only be won by killing." Rickard also describes the fighting at Troina, which resulted in six days of savage combat and defending against 24 counterattacks against 1st Division units. Although Rickard submits that these aforementioned battles do not constitute enough experience in static warfare, Patton devotees will surely ask, "How much experience exactly did he need?" Yet Rickard argues that Patton failed to profit from some of his own experiences.

As for having staff officers who could improvise under pressure, Patton was both blessed and cursed at Lorraine. When Maj. Gen. Gilbert R. Cook, commander of the XII Corps, fell ill, Maj. Gen. John S. "Tiger Jack" Wood was in charge until Maj. Gen. Manton S. Eddy arrived to take over. Patton placed Wood in command of the 4th Armored Division. Eddy, who had trained in the infantry, apparently never really adjusted to Patton's mode of operation. Wood, on the other hand, was a man after the general's own heart, and he was constantly appalled at some of Eddy's decisions.

Rickard claims that historians have failed to delve deeply enough into Patton's decisions in the Lorraine campaign. He maintains that excuses have been made because of the inclement weather, flooding conditions, mud, inexperienced infantry, fatigue and logistical problems–particularly the shortage of gasoline. He says the time has come to stop making excuses and start making pronouncements. One of his judgments is that Patton abandoned some of his own principles when he should not have and injected some of his philosophy when anything except speed, mobility and opportunism were required.

Rickard, for example, blames Patton for some of Eddy's slowness, posing the question: "Where was the master motivator and prodigious ass kicker then?" He also accuses Patton of attacking on too broad a front, underestimating the enemy and failing to coordinate the operations of the XII and XX Corps. Given those criticisms, it may be helpful to remember that Patton once said that coordination is a fine old military word, best used to describe the operations of Napoleon or Alexander, and he compared coordinating armored forces to throwing hand grenades, in that "you can only give them initial impetus and direction. You cannot control [coordinate] these missiles during flight."

Rickard claims that it was Patton's poor planning, not Lorraine's mud or flooding, that causing the delay in the November operations. But it must be admitted that this was Lorraine's worst flood in 80 years. Another consideration is that General Dwight D. Eisenhower never considered Patton's operations as anything more than a secondary thrust, a diversion. Field Marshal Bernard L. Montgomery was getting all the supplies, while Patton was yelling, "For God's sake, give us gas!" Another thing to be remembered is that Lt. Gen. Omar N. Bradley interrupted the Third Army's plan in the midst of battle in November, removing the 83rd Infantry Division, which Patton had planned to use in the northeast after the Moselle crossing.

Rickard's book is well written, well researched, meticulously annotated and supplemented by sections on orders of battle, casualties and replacements, and Third Army operational directives. The bibliography is impressive, and numerous maps and photographs are included. Rickard's iconoclastic approach may leave some readers wondering how anyone could muster the audacity to say that one of history's greatest fighting generals simply did not know how to fight.

Many readers will be sorely tempted to take potshots at Rickard's theories. If ammunition is needed, the author unwittingly supplies more than enough.

Martha Goodman

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