General George S. Patton Jr. died on December 21, 1945, as a legend, praised even by his defeated opponents. German general Günther Blumentritt, a key planner of the invasions of France and Poland, wrote in a study for the U.S. Army after the war, “We regarded General Patton extremely highly as the most aggressive Panzer General of the Allies, a man of incredible initiative and lightning-like action…. His operations impressed us enormously, probably because he came closest to our own concept of the classical military commander.” Alfred Jodl, who served as Hitler’s chief of operations from 1940 until the end of the war, told American interrogators, “He was the American Guderian. He was very bold and preferred large movements. He took big risks and won big successes.” General Heinz Guderian himself, after Germany’s surrender, told his Allied captors, “From the standpoint of a tank specialist, I must congratulate him for his victory since he acted as I should have done had I been in his place.”
Patton commands attention as a near-mythic figure: He created for himself a larger-than-life persona, earned the admiration of the GIs who served under him, and died relatively young after winning one of the greatest victories of the war. Patton was, deservingly, lauded in the postwar years by his fellow victors; former adversaries contributed their reflections on the man who seemed to have their number during the final months of the war. All this has made Patton one of the most enduringly recognizable American figures of World War II.
One piece of the Patton story, however, is pure myth: that Patton was the subject of close scrutiny by the Germans, who anticipated his attacks in fearful admiration. General Patton was not, as his biographer Martin Blumenson wrote in The Patton Papers: 1885–1940, a “hero even to professional German officers who respected him as the adversary they most feared in battle.” Nor was he, as Ladislas Farago claimed in his book Patton, regarded by the Germans “as their most dangerous adversary in the field…. For a while the Germans watched the comings and goings of Patton like rubbernecked spectators following a tennis ball at Wimbleton.” In fact, for most of the war the Germans barely took notice.
During the Second World War, the Germans first encountered Patton in Tunisia, where he took charge of II Corps on March 6, 1943. The Afrika Korps and the Fifth Panzer Army had given the green Americans a drubbing at the Battle of Kasserine Pass, and Lieutenant General Dwight D. Eisenhower, commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force, ordered Patton to whip the corps back into fighting shape. Patton’s discipline quickly paid off: after seizing an advantageous position from the Italians, II Corps halted the advancing 10th Panzer Division on March 23 at the Battle of El Guettar—the first American victory against the experienced Germans. Patton’s momentum, however, was short-lived: Axis troops held him to virtually no gain until April 7, when they withdrew under threat from British Lieutenant General Bernard Montgomery’s Eighth Army.
There is no indication in the surviving German military records—which include intelligence reports at the theater, army, and division levels—that Patton’s enemies had any idea who he was at the time. Likewise, the immediate postwar accounts of the German commanders in Tunisia, written for the U.S. Army’s History Division, ignore Patton. Those reports show that ground commanders considered II Corps’s attacks under Patton to have been hesitant, and to have missed great opportunities. For example, in March they failed to seize weakly defended high ground in Southern Tunisia’s mountains, near Maknassy, which would have allowed Patton to threaten the Axis troops fighting Montgomery along the coast.
The first mention of Patton in German documents appears in a mid-May 1943 report by the Detachment Foreign Armies West, which simply noted that Patton had taken command of II Corps. By then, Patton had already left the corps to prepare for the invasion of Sicily. In mid-June, another detachment report described Patton as “an energetic and responsibility-loving command personality”—a passing comment on one of the numerous Allied commanders. Patton simply had not yet done anything particularly noteworthy in their eyes.
Much to Patton’s frustration, his role in the invasion of Sicily on July 10, 1943, was to command Seventh Army in support of Montgomery’s left flank as his Eighth Army thrust up the east coast to Messina to cut off Axis forces attempting to retreat to the Italian mainland. The position would turn to Patton’s advantage—and skyrocket him to fame back in the United States—on July 20, when he launched an unauthorized end run up Sicily’s west coast and captured Palermo. Patton next drove eastward toward Messina and, with Montgomery’s troops bogged down on the east coast by strong opposition, his thrust became the main Allied effort to capture Messina. Nevertheless, the Germans waged a skillful step-by-step defense and, untroubled by any energetic pursuit on the part of the Allies, withdrew to the Italian mainland in good order and with all of their heavy equipment by August 17.
The Axis powers had known before the landings on Sicily that Patton was in command of American ground forces in the western Mediterranean, and knew he led Seventh Army on Sicily. But his race to Palermo through country they had already abandoned left the commanders unimpressed. Major General Eberhard Rodt, who led the 15th Panzergrenadier Division against Patton’s troops during the Allied push toward Messina, thought the American Seventh Army fought hesitantly and predictably. He wrote in an immediate postwar report on Sicily, “The enemy very often conducted his movements systematically, and only attacked after a heavy artillery preparation when he believed he had broken our resistance. This kept him regularly from exploiting the weakness of our situation and gave me the opportunity to consolidate dangerous situations.” Once again, Patton finished a campaign without impressing his opponents.