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.
After gaining a foothold in Italy, Allied commanders needed to keep the Germans guessing about their plans in the Mediterranean. General George C. Marshall wrote to Eisenhower on October 21, 1943: “It seems evident to us that Patton’s movements are of great importance to German reactions and therefore should be carefully considered. I had thought and spoke to [Eisenhower’s chief of staff, Walter Bedell] Smith about Patton being given a trip to Cairo and Cyprus but the Corsican visit appeals to me as carrying much more of a threat [to northern Italy].” Eisenhower replied, “As it is I am quite sure that we must do everything possible to keep [the Germans] confused and the point you have suggested concerning Patton’s movements appeals to me as having a great deal of merit. This possibility had not previously occurred to me.” For all Marshall’s apparent certainty, however, he was making an assumption, albeit a logical one: besides Patton, the United States had no other seasoned and widely known general other than Eisenhower. But it was an assumption nonetheless, made without any evidence of German opinion.
As a result, Patton made a series of highly visible appearances, beginning with Corsica on October 28 and followed by Malta and Cairo. There is no evidence in German intelligence records that the enemy paid any attention to Patton’s movements. Instead they were focused on Allied shipping and ground force capabilities. In February 1944, as planning for D-Day was in full swing, the Allies began an elaborate deception operation, codenamed Fortitude. To give the Normandy landings the best possible chance at success, the Allies wanted the Germans to believe that the main invasion in France would take place at Pas de Calais in July, and that Normandy was a feint to draw German forces south. The fictitious First U.S. Army Group (FUSAG) would conduct the equally fictitious landings; Eisenhower appointed Patton, who had arrived in London on January 26, as the faux commander.
Thanks to false information fed through double agents, by March 23 the Germans began associating Patton with FUSAG. But they had not yet conclusively identified him—or anyone else—as the commanding general. On April 1, Germany’s Foreign Armies West noted, “It seems possible that [Patton] has taken command of the First or Ninth Army in England.”
Despite the Allies’ best efforts, the Germans did not decide until mid-May—months after they concluded that the Allied invasion would land at Pas de Calais or in Belgium—that Patton had indeed taken command of FUSAG. However, his leadership of the supposed landings at Pas de Calais appears to have been incidental to the strategic conclusions the Germans reached regarding the Allied invasion. None of the surviving pre-invasion records from the command of Army Group B, responsible for defending northwestern France, mention Patton outside the FUSAG order of battle. In contrast, the Germans methodically recorded the statements and meetings of Montgomery and Eisenhower, and bombarded their agents with questions about Montgomery’s movements.
This attention was not misplaced: Montgomery led the Allied ground forces in the invasion, while Patton was relegated to the sidelines until he was placed in command of Third Army nearly a month after D-Day. Montgomery would show himself to be methodical and cautious in his advance, which the Germans had observed of him in North Africa. But in the weeks to come, Patton’s agility and boldness would finally demand attention from some of Germany’s finest commanders.
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.”
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.”
In each of Patton’s operations, the Germans held a high bar for judging success. His 300-mile maneuver from the breakout at Avranches to Verdun in August 1944, was not—as he boasted—the farthest and fastest of any army in history; German panzer groups covered as much as 500 miles in the same amount of time during their invasion of the Soviet Union, without the benefit of passable roads. And his drive to the Moselle with a long, open flank may have been his most daring operation of the war, but such a drive was old hat to the Germans. Panzer Group Kleist and Guderian’s XIX Panzer Corps had done the same along the Somme to the Atlantic in May 1940.
In that context, it’s evident why the Germans offered Patton faint praise during and immediately after the war. But opinions improved over time. Perhaps veteran German commanders, looking back on events with distance and perspective, developed an appreciation for Patton. Hermann Balck, who had expressed thanks for Patton’s mistakes in France, said years later, “Patton was the outstanding tactical genius of World War II. I still consider it a privilege and unforgettable experience to have had the honor of opposing him.” Another likely factor in the reassessment was the growing camaraderie between the United States and Western Germany during the Cold War. Whatever Patton’s enemies thought of him and his battles, in the end he and the other Allied chieftains won and their enemies lost. Field commanders were only one factor in determining that outcome, but they were an important one.
Patton deserves his status as a legendary leader—but posterity deserves fact and not myth. The Germans did not track Patton’s movements as the key to Allied intentions. Hitler does not appear to have thought often of Patton, if at all. The Germans considered Patton a hesitant commanding general in the scrum of position warfare. They never raised his name in the context of worthy strategists. But they respected him in their own demanding terms as a great Panzer General.
It is enough.
Harry Yeide has worked as a foreign affairs analyst with the federal government for nearly 30 years, covering a wide range of issues across the globe. Military history has fascinated him since childhood, an interest he pursues in his writing. His eighth book is the recent Fighting Patton (Zenith Press, 2011). His website is yeide.net.