Following this fine performance, German commanders again found Patton’s generalship to be hesitant during the Lorraine Campaign, just as their counterparts had in Tunisia and Sicily. These men included some of Germany’s top armored commanders, Eastern Front veterans who had led troops during such fierce battles as Kharkov and Kursk. As the German armies withdrew east from the invading Allies, these commanders patched together a semblance of the flexible defense they had used against the Soviets, using mobile reserves and trading space for time and survival.
Patton, for his part, fully intended to make an unrelenting push to the Rhine after Normandy. He succeeded for a short time, brazenly gambling that the speed of his advance and Allied air superiority would keep the Germans too off balance to attack his unprotected flank. But Third Army’s advance was soon slowed by gasoline and ammunition shortages as Third Army reached the bank of the Moselle River, giving the Germans time to organize their defenses. Patton finally began receiving adequate supplies on September 4, after a week’s excruciating pause, and Third Army established a bridgehead across the Moselle on September 29—before halting again to wait for supplies. The fortress city of Metz did not fall until December 13, holding up Third Army long enough for the Germans to make an organized withdrawal behind the Saar River, setting the stage for the Battle of the Bulge.
The Germans, unaware of the Allies’ supply issues, credited their counterattacks throughout the withdrawal for Third Army’s seemingly hesitant advance. Lieutenant General Hermann Balck, who took command of Army Group G in September, thus did not think highly of Patton—or any other opposing commanders—during this time. Balck wrote to his commander, Runstedt, on October 10, “I have never been in command of such irregularly assembled and ill-equipped troops. The fact that we have been able to straighten out the situation again…can only be attributed to the bad and hesitating command of the Americans and the French, [and that our] troops…have fought beyond praise.” Looking back on his battles against Patton throughout the autumn, in 1979 Balck recalled, “Within my zone, the Americans never once exploited a success. Often [General Friedrich Wilhelm von] Mellenthin, my chief of staff, and I would stand in front of the map and say, ‘Patton is helping us; he failed to exploit another success.’”
On December 16, 1944, Germany launched one of its last massive attempts to reclaim the destiny of the Third Reich. In the same blitzkrieg style that had served so well in France in 1940, the Germans pushed into the heavily forested and mountainous Ardennes region of Belgium, creating the bulge in the front for which the resulting battle would be named. Within days, the Germans realized there was no hope of reaching their objective, Antwerp, back across the Meuse. Additional troops were unable to reach the central thrust and began piling up in the southern flank at the crossroads town of Bastogne, surrounding its American defenders—most famously the 101st Airborne Division.
Patton, in the meantime, had anticipated a German offensive and was prepared to wield his armored forces with the speed and relentlessness he longed for. In just four days, three of his Third Army divisions turned their advance 90 degrees and trekked over 100 miles through ice, snow, and fog—an extraordinary feat for heavy vehicles and exhausted men. Patton’s spearheads arrived at Bastogne on December 26, driving into the flank of the German offensive and reaching the city’s beleaguered defenders. But a lack of cold weather gear and one of the region’s harshest winters hampered subsequent Allied efforts. The German hold on Bastogne finally broke on January 9, 1945; even then, the Germans were not pushed back to their former line until January 30.
Patton’s finest moment was thus lost on the Germans, as the long struggle to reclaim Bastogne overshadowed his lightning-quick arrival. The commander of the Fifth Panzer Army, Hasso von Manteuffel, aimed a dismissive, indirect critique at Patton’s efforts at Bastogne, writing in his memoirs that the Americans did not “strike with full élan.” The commanders who fought against Patton in his last two mobile campaigns in the Saar-Palatinate and east of the Rhine already knew they could not win; their losses from this point forward were inevitable, regardless of the commanding Allied opponent. Still, Patton’s opponents noticed his aggressiveness and speed: Hans-Gustav Felber, the Seventh Army commander during this time, wrote after the war, “The enemy was now willing to take greater chances than up to the present…. The German leadership had encountered a particularly determined and daring opponent in the person of the commander of Third U.S. Army, General Patton.” Once Patton’s spearheads got moving across the open country beyond the Ardennes, Gersdorff recalled, “there was nothing left but to let the armored columns roll and try to cut their lines of communication behind them.”