Twenty-eight days after D-Day, Patton arrived on the shores of France. The Allies were stalled at Caen, just 11 miles south of the easternmost landing beach, but the battle was siphoning Germany’s strength. Lieutenant General Omar Bradley, commander of the U.S. First Army, was about to launch a breakout—Operation Cobra—that would punch through the weakened western half of the German line. Patton and Third Army would be ready to storm through the gap at Avranches and help take the entire Brittany Peninsula, firmly establishing the Allied armies on the Continent.
Allied documents captured by the Germans on July 21 appeared to confirm for them the presence of Third Army in Normandy. The first specific report of Patton’s arrival reached them on July 22, when the 17th SS Panzergrenadier Division reported a rumor from Allied prisoners that Patton and Third Army were in the area; the prisoners described Patton as “the great tank commander,” who had met with success in Africa. The Germans handled the matter routinely. The words “Third Army” and “Patton”—followed by a question mark—first appeared on an Army Group B situation map on July 30. There is no evidence that the information went farther up the chain of command at that time.
The main attack of the Allied breakout began on July 25, immediately west of St. Lô. Patton, who was appointed Bradley’s deputy and was responsible for the right wing of the operation, assumed oversight of VIII Corps operations on July 27. The VII Corps had already torn a hole 10 miles wide and 10 miles deep in the German Seventh Army’s front. By his fourth day of combat in Western Europe, Patton had an open door to the interior of France. On August 1, Patton and Third Army were officially placed into active duty and began swiftly streaming through the gap into Brittany.
On August 3, Bradley ordered Patton to leave the minimum necessary force in Brittany and to throw the weight of Third Army east toward Le Mans, behind the German Seventh Army. Conditions were perfect: Seventh Army had prepared no security measures in its rear areas, which were covered by under-strength guard troops. The 9th Panzer and 708th Infantry Divisions were supposed to cover Seventh Army’s southern wing, but were still en route.
The Germans received only scattered reports of Third Army’s activities until August 10, when they first realized that a powerful enemy force was turning north from behind Seventh Army. General Montgomery’s troops were simultaneously smashing through the German front to link up with Patton. That morning, Patton, confident Third Army could close the gap and encircle Seventh Army near the town of Falaise, stood on the brink of one of the greatest victories of the war.
Then, at 11:30, Patton had one of the worst breaks of his life. To avoid friendly fire, Bradley ordered the Americans to halt while the British closed the gap. The Germans were able to extract thousands more troops—including a large portion of their staff officers, who were then able to reconstitute the German defensive lines with surprising speed.
Nevertheless, Third Army’s breakout and sweep around the German flank established Patton among enemy commanders as a Panzer General, a master of mobile armored warfare in their own style. Whenever tanks were heard in the streets outside the headquarters of Germany’s Army Command in the West, Field Marshal Gerd von Runstedt would joke, “Can this be Patton?” Seventh Army’s chief of staff, Rudolf Freiherr von Gersdorff, later observed, “The American breakthrough at St. Lô-Avranches, led by General Patton, was carried out with operational genius and unprecedented dash.” The earliest recorded enemy conversation in which Patton is clearly identified also occurred during this time. On August 21, the commanding general of the 21st Panzer Division, Edgar Feuchtinger, reported: “The situation is completely out of hand. From Chartres, Patton has turned north with part of his army and is advancing on the Rouen area. No one seems able to stop him.”