Reviewed by Robert Citino
By John Nelson Rickard
Brassey’s, Washington, D.C., 2004
Think of General George S. Patton, and images of aggression and bold maneuver come to mind. He was the author of the high-speed drive on Messina during the Sicily campaign, the exhilarating end-run of Operation Cobra in July 1944 and the relentless pursuit of the defeated Germans across northern France. And yet, hidden in his successful résumé lies the great anomaly: the Lorraine campaign. It was a hard slog in rough terrain and rotten weather against a tough German foe fighting from prepared positions. In the end, it took Patton three full months to reduce resistance in the area between the Moselle and Saar rivers, an advance of only 46 miles. It was a campaign filled with personal and professional frustration for the general, and even the fall of Metz in early December, with its paltry haul of just 6,000 prisoners, did nothing to lighten the mood. In other words, Lorraine found Patton completely out of his element. If flexibility is an attribute of all great generals, then Metz was an interesting test case for Patton. How does a general built for speed, a “master-motivator and prodigious ass-kicker,” behave when things slow down?
The answer, according to John Nelson Rickard’s Patton at Bay: not very well. Getting stuck in front of the Moselle River was not Patton’s fault. He ran out of gas, a result of General Dwight D. Eisenhower’s decision in the tricky area of fuel allocation. What happened after that, however, was a different story. Despite reams of intelligence information from Ultra on down that the Germans had managed to re-form a defensive position in Lorraine, Patton persisted in his belief that the Wehrmacht was finished and would come apart at the first tap. The result was an ill-advised attempt in early September to “bull-rush” the Moselle, a series of improvised river crossings that misfired completely. German counterattacks at Pont-à-Mousson actually wiped out the tiny American bridgehead of the 317th Infantry Regiment, and the 318th barely held its own on the western (American) side of the river.
Rickard is suitably critical of this attempt to get over a major river obstacle on the fly, and indeed there is very little positive to say. Neither U.S. tanks nor armored doctrine were designed to punch through a well-defended line: They aimed at rapid exploitation of an infantry breach. The Third Army was down to half the strength it had possessed at the outset of Cobra and had to begin the Lorraine offensive without a reserve. Intelligence was inadequate, and Patton and his corps commanders seemed to have done most of their planning from Michelin highway maps. As a result, says the author, they “possessed only the vaguest idea of the extent of the Metz defensive system.” Above all, Patton continued to ignore intelligence about the German recovery, even when his staff officers were bringing it to him by the bushel. He continued to look to faraway objectives — Mainz, the West Wall, the Rhine — with unconquered Metz staring him in the face.
Certainly, there were moments of opportunity, and Rickard targets each of them vigorously. After the encirclement and fall of Nancy, the 4th Armored Division and its feisty commander, Maj. Gen. John S. Wood, had a clear path into the German rear. The overly cautious Maj. Gen. Manton S. Eddy was Wood’s corps commander, however. He soon slapped the cuffs on the 4th Armored, dispatching it hither and yon to shore up bridgeheads and to support neighboring infantry, and the moment passed.
Things now went from bad to worse. While Rickard makes a good case for bypassing and masking the fortress of Metz, since its immobile garrison would have been little threat to Patton’s communications, the general became increasingly fixated on taking the place. All through October, he ordered Maj. Gen. Walton H. Walker’s XX Corps to “correct the army’s line” in a series of attacks with limited objectives. Since these objectives were, by and large, Metz’s outlying works and forts, the fighting was hard, slow and costly. It culminated in the badly planned and horribly executed strike against Fort Driant. The final offensive against the city, in November, was a double envelopment that looked pretty on the map but proved a lot harder to execute in fact. Rickard is especially harsh on Patton’s operational plan. A broad front advance with divisions ranged abreast and without much in the way of reserves, it failed to generate the combat power needed to slice rapidly through the German defensive line, and it left U.S. forces badly situated to follow up the encirclement of Metz with a coordinated drive to the German border.
Patton at Bay is as fine an operational history as you are likely to read, and it is good to see Brassey’s put it back into print (it originally appeared with Praeger in 1999). Rickard has mastered the sources and knows the intricacies of operational-level warfare. Most important, he writes very smoothly. Buffs and specialists alike are going to love it.
One can still argue with the approach and the conclusions, however. Rickard is sharply critical of virtually all the generals involved, and is not shy about condemning this or that decision. Patton appears as a commander strangely out of touch, perhaps in a bit of a funk, visiting subordinate HQs only seldom and rarely intervening in events. Eddy is an infantryman (apparently a pejorative) out of his league in conducting mechanized operations. Only the “brilliant” General Wood escapes the lash. All these judgments are the prerogatives of a military historian, of course, and none of them seem particularly unfair.
Where a problem comes in is that Rickard couples this “personalist” approach with a very solid discussion of more systemic issues of the Lorraine fighting: U.S. divisions plagued by a shortage of riflemen; an American armored doctrine that shied away from using tanks in the assault; difficult terrain; bad weather (which often canceled one of the American trump cards: air power); and the American preference — not just Patton’s — for the broad front advance rather than concentration of force. Above all there was the problem of supply. Rickard, in fact, spends the better part of a chapter discussing the serious logistical constraints under which U.S. forces had to operate. All these issues might lead one to conclude that the problems in Lorraine went far beyond individual commanders. Is it likely that Courtney Hodges, or any other U.S. general, would have done much better in Lorraine?