Killing Patton: The Strange Death of World War II’s Most Audacious General
By Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard. 352 pp. Henry Holt, 2014. $30.
Where to start? If you can imagine a book that rekindles every rumor, reports every piece of second- and third-hand gossip as truth, and regurgitates every discredited cliché about World War II, then you may be game for the latest in the Bill O’Reilly Killing series—first Kennedy, then Lincoln and Jesus, and now General George S. Patton Jr.
O’Reilly claims that Patton’s famous car crash was much more than that. By his and co-author Martin Dugard’s lights, nefarious actors in the OSS and CIA, perhaps paid and directed by William J. “Wild Bill” Donovan himself, actually did the deed. They first tried to lay Patton low by running into his car with a truck, and then by shooting the general in the neck with a “projectile” as he lay suffering. Finally, when the tough old man refused to die, Soviet agents loyal to Stalin broke into Patton’s hospital room and finished the job using poison. Or something.
The authors at one point feel compelled to state that they “are not conspiracy theorists,” but that is exactly what they are. Like all conspiracy theories, this one presents no real evidence and, true to type, the scheme runs deep and the sources have vanished “without a trace.”
The evidence the authors do bring forth is obscure. You don’t believe that Patton was murdered in an OSS/ Soviet plot? Well, meet U.S. counterintelligence officer Stephen Skubik, who claims that Ukrainian nationalist leader Stepan Bandera told him that Stalin wanted Patton dead. If you’re following along, we are now in the realm of third-degree hearsay.
Still unconvinced? Then ponder former Jedburgh soldier Douglas Bazata, who claims that Donovan himself—the master spy, someone presumably well versed in the art of plausible deniability—gave him a positive order to kill Patton. “Shall I kill him, sir?” Bazata asks. “Yes, Douglas.” Wild Bill answers. “You do exactly what you must.” No evidence backs up Bazata’s claim. Perhaps it vanished without a trace.
Even without the conspiracy silliness, Killing Patton should trouble anyone who has even a passing familiarity with World War II. The authors make bloated claims for Patton, a fine army commander, but one at his best in an open pursuit (the Normandy breakout, for example), and at his worst in a gritty, set-piece battle (like Lorraine). In other words, Patton was a man, perhaps a great man, but one with strengths and weaknesses. O’Reilly’s Patton, however, is a military superman who could have won the war singled-handedly if only Eisenhower had reined in his other generals and armies and allowed Patton to drive on Berlin all by himself.
That claim, too, is absurd, along with so much of this book.
—Robert M. Citino is a visiting professor at the U.S. Army War College and a frequent contributor to World War II.
Originally published in the February 2015 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.