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Patton: The German View

By Harry Yeide
1/30/2012 • World War II

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.

18 Responses to Patton: The German View

  1. Luke says:

    One point is that the german opinion of patton may of been he was a hesitant commander but the truth is he was commanded by Bradley and Ike who where the ones perhaps causing the slowness in some of pattons assaults. I may be wroung about this but i was under the impression pattons comments about the distance and casualties inflicted by third army where a comment on the entire compaing and not one action.

  2. James says:

    The article left out the slapping incident. This put Patton at the back of line as far as Eisenhower was concerned. So, it wasn’t hard for German strategist to take him out of the equation. A friendly fire/bombing incident also made Patton seem a little loose. It wasn’t just that the Germans ignored him because of past defeats/missteps. The US high command had put him on the back burner until the Bulge, really.

  3. […] I didn't read thru all of the posts but I'm sure someone has said Patton. Patton was sold the the American public as a hero when in actuality, he was a baffoon at best. He used up and destroyed more equipment and had more casualties than any other Allied General. I have a friend that I 4 wheel with and he was with Patton on the run to Bastogne. The men were totally exhausted by the time they got there. They expected a hot meal in the winter cold only to be told there were no supplies. Most all of the armor was either not running or about to run out of fuel because Patton had out run his supplies…..again. My friend was in charge of a mechanized automatic weapons group- half tracks with quad 50's. He said when he went to resupply his group that they handled him his ammo in a paper bag and told him to use it sparingly. He said that had the German mounted any kind of offense, they would have been over run as there was little to no ammo left. The Germans apparently thought Patton would have been smart enough to bring enough supplies with him and it would have energized the US troops, they were wrong. Here's an article written about how the Germans didn't even think about Patton until the very end of the war. He's not even on their radar screen until March 1945. Patton: The German View […]

  4. Patrick Miano says:

    I’m certain many of Patton’s opponents missed opportunities as well. In war the victor is often not the general with the most brilliant strategy, but the one who makes the fewest mistakes.

  5. David says:

    Interesting and informative article. I agree that Patton’s myth in some aspects goes beyond the actual facts. I highly doubt that German commanders held Patton is such awe that the fact alone he opposed them on the battle field caused them to greatly doubt in their chance for success. I also find it quite reasonable to conclude that “The Germans did not track Patton’s movements as the KEY [emphasis added] to Allied intentions” – though that doesn’t necessarily mean that the Germans didn’t view Patton’s command of a particular operation as entirely meaningless either.

    Still, I find it difficult to understand how the author can state “the Germans offered Patton faint praise during and immediately after the war” in light of Jodl’s and Guidarian’s (who I consider one of the, if not the, best armor field commanders and strategist of WWII) comments during US interrogation. Their comments do not strike me as “faint praise”, and I would think that such interrogations would occur at the latest “immediately after the war.” Even if the Germans “just’ considered him a great Panzer General, that’s certainly goes beyond “faint praise” in my opinion.

    The author concludes that “The Germans considered Patton a hesitant commanding general in the scrum of position warfare.” Clearly some did – understandably so during the North African campaign and even later on specific occasion. However, for every Lieutenant General Hermann Balck, there’s a Hans-Gustav Felber or Rudolf Freiherr von Gersdorff. Patton is widely considered to have been the most aggressive Allied field commander in the ETO. So aggressive that on more than one occasion, he was restrained by Eisenhower and Bradley. Of course, the German’s didn’t know that at the time (as Mr. Yeide notes). Still, I find it difficult to believe that the bulk of German High Command & field commanders considered Patton a “hesitant” commanding general by the end of the war after viewing his command in the aggregate.

    While I think the Mr. Yeide has some valid points and find the article worthwhile reading, I find his conclusions overreaching. Rather than a “hesitant commanding general”, a commanding general “who on occasion was needlessly [uncharacteristically?] hesitant” would be more accurate in my opinion. After all, how can a “Great Panzer” general be hesitant?

    The article raises some interesting questions. If the German viewed Patton as a “hesitant commander”, one can only imagine what they thought of Montgomery (Hemingway’s 15:1 ratio “Monty” martini joke springs to mind). Bradley and Eisenhower were also more cautious or “hesitant” than Patton – though not to the same degree as Monty IMO.

    Perhaps beyond the scope of the article, but I would have found it helpful to have additional information on the German viewpoint of other Allied commanders. If not Patton, then which Allied commander did the German’s respect (or even “fear”) the most? Is it the case that the German’s simply didn’t have much regard for their opponent’s skills (i.e. the Allies won on a material basis rather than superior strategy/tactics), or that the simply saw other as more competent than Patton?

  6. Brian says:

    Nope. You need to read more detailed, collegiate-level history books. Eisenhower wrote to Marshall after the slapping incident on why they needed to keep it quiet, because Patton was absolutely essential to American operational plans for victory. Eisenhower privately reprimanded him, but never, ever had any thoughts whatsoever of removing him. Patton was chosen to lead 3rd Army’s part in COBRA – that was long before the \Bulge.\ There’s been alot of hokum published about Patton, some coming from the historically totally inaccurate but much-watched movie with Mr. Scott.

  7. able34bravo says:

    So I’m confused. In one paragraph this article says that Patton was aggressive and swift, then in the very next paragraph it says that he was sluggish and slow.

    Which is it?

  8. […] The unstoppable quality of Patton and his Third Army as they careened across France in August of 1944 was summed up at the time by one of the German generals opposing him:   On August 21, the commanding general of the 21st Panzer Division, General Edgar Feuchtinger, repo… […]

  9. […] The unstoppable quality of Patton and his Third Army as they careened across France in August of 1944 was summed up at the time by one of the German generals opposing him:   On August 21, the commanding general of the 21st Panzer Division, General Edgar Feuchtinger, repo… […]

  10. ASG says:

    If Patton had deeper fuel and other material reserves, he might not have been regarded as hesitant.

  11. Patrick Miano says:

    That was the fault of the over-cautious Bradley and the demanding Eisenhower (who had never been in battle) who insisted Patton do the near-impossible with what they claimed was all they could give him despite his pleas for more ammunition, shells, and fuel. He had to literally steal what he needed from Allied truck convoys. That said, he did what he needed to do. His futile attempt top rescue his son-in-law from German captivity and slapping a sick man he wrongly thought to be a coward were inexcusable, but neither Bradley nor Eisenhower were without their own mistakes and sins. No one is perfect in his or her private or public life.

    • Michael Wong says:

      Patrick Miano is right. Although Patton was slow sometimes or didn’t take advantage of opportunities it was very often not his fault. In Patton’s autobiography he often mentions how Bradley would force him to stop doing things that resulted in slowing the advance or even letting the enemy escape.

      Also, Patton was the only general who knew and spoke about the need to deal with the Soviet threat before it became big. If the others took him seriously, there might not have been a decades-long cold war and tens of millions of casualties due to faux communism.

      • HenryCT says:

        After the German surrender US troops in Europe were reluctant to attack their Soviet allies and wanted to go home. Given the fact that the Soviets faced and beat 200 German divisions and the British and US no more than 10 divisions at any time, speculation that Patton would have easily moved east seems pretty silly.

  12. Jim Graham says:

    I agree with Patrick and Michael. General Patton was very rough around the edges, but without his command, the West of Europe would of been speaking Russian. If he and his soldiers were allowed to tackle the Germans and cut them off, the Battle of the Bulge would of not happened.
    He died under questionable certcomstances.
    II believe he is the last General to do what they do best… and America has not won a war since.

  13. […] Originally Posted by Drummerboy Minor league? Junior? Patton was a 3-star general. Can you please provide some reasons for your opinion? And what do you think of the fact the Germans said they feared Patton most? Actually, during the war they didn't even notice he existed, pretty much: Patton: The German View […]

  14. Jason Claus says:

    Sounds like YOUR view of Patton

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