When the German army crashed through American lines in the Ardennes, General George S. Patton saw only opportunity.
AS A YOUNG MAN, GEORGE S. PATTON, Jr., BELIEVED HE WAS DESTINED TO LEAD A GREAT ARMY in a desperate battle.
In December 1944 it looked as though that belief would come true. By the end of the year Lieutenant General Patton had become one of the best known Allied generals of World War II, not only for his colorful personality and battlefield prowess, but also for his indiscretions. The exploits of his Third Army during the great breakout from Normandy that summer had furthered his image as a general whom the Germans feared more than any other commander. But the image soon dissolved.
The euphoria that existed after Normandy was quickly dissipated by a grim reality: The war was far from over. Once beyond the Seine, logistics, not tactics, dominated the situation. This was particularly true after the Allies captured the vital port of Antwerp in early September but failed to secure its approaches. Only a fraction of the fuel and ammunition required to sustain the Allied advance into Germany could now be supplied.
Unable to support fully a thrust along a broad front, Supreme Allied Commander General Dwight D. Eisenhower was obliged to allocate what precious fuel supplies were available. After much wrangling, priority went to British Field Marshal Sir Bernard L. Montgomery’s Twenty-first Army Group. Although this decision allowed Montgomery to launch his daring airborne thrust into Holland, Operation Market-Garden, it also crippled Patton’s once-promising offensive in Lorraine. Without fuel for its tanks, the Third Army had ground to a virtual standstill. Patton and his men in Lorraine and the Saar were not alone in their problems. The failure of Market-Garden to seize a bridgehead across the Rhine River at Arnhem in mid-September led to a general stalemate during the autumn and early winter of 1944. Although three Allied army groups had advanced to the borders of the Third Reich itself, a hasty defense by German units, plus bad weather, left the Allies virtually immobilized in the harsh terrain of the outer Ruhr, the Ardennes, Lorraine, the Saar, and the Vosges. A series of bloody battles of attrition gained little. Both sides suffered greatly from combat losses, and it was now clear the war would not end in 1944.
With no solution to the logistical problems in sight and with a sea of mud hampering mobility, Patton was reduced to limited, costly infantry offensives in Lorraine. Instead of a hoped-for triumphant thrust into the heartland of the Reich, Lorraine became Patton’s bloodiest and least successful campaign. He chafed to retake the offensive by breaching the fabled Westwall and driving the Third Army to the Rhine. Even as he planned a powerful attack in the Saar to commence on December 19, Patton was obliged to pay close attention to an ominous German buildup to his north, in the Ardennes.
Since mid-November, Third Army intelligence officer Colonel Oscar Koch had not only been keeping a close eye on German dispositions, but had also been reporting a buildup of panzer and infantry divisions, ammunition, and gasoline dumps west of the Rhine in the Saar and from Aachen to the southern extremity of the Ardennes Forest , the area occupied by Lieutenant General Courtney Hodges’ First U.S. Army. German rail movements of increasing frequency and size both east and west of the Rhine were noted. As the buildup continued, the possible ramifications became a matter of grave concern to Patton. On December 9, he was informed that the Germans now had a two-to-one manpower advantage in the Ardennes. This sector was thinly guarded by Major General Troy Middleton’s Eighth Corps, First Army, then in defensive positions, resting and re-equipping after two of its divisions had been bloodied in the Hurtgen Forest. As a precaution, Patton directed that planning begin at once to counter any potential threat in the Ardennes. “We’ll be in a position to meet whatever happens,” he told his staff. Patton’s foresight proved instrumental in the outcome of the deadliest, most desperate battle of the war in the West.
In the early morning hours of December 16, 1944, the Germans launched their only major counteroffensive of the war in northwest Europe. The invaders quickly overwhelmed American troops occupying the weakest link in the Allied front, the lightly defended Eighth Corps sector in the eastern Ardennes.
Adolf Hitler was gambling that he could yet take control of Germ any’s destiny by means of a surprise lightning thrust through the Ardennes. Against the advice of his generals, Hitler believed that his armies could drive to Antwerp and compel the Allies to sue for peace.
Patton’s superior, Lieutenant General Omar Bradley, the Twelfth Army Group commander, unknowingly played into German plans by taking what he later termed “a calculated risk” of lightly defending the eastern Ardennes with two newly arrived inexperienced infantry divisions and two battered veteran divisions then absorbing replacements.
Three powerful armies attacked: General Hasso von Manteuffel’s Fifth Panzer Army, SS General Sepp Dietrich’s Sixth Panzer Army, General Erich Brandenberger’s (largely infantry) Seventh Army, whose primary mission was to protect the southern flank of the advancing panzers from a counterattack by Patton’s Third Army in Lorraine.
Everywhere American units were caught flat-footed and became embroiled in desperate battles. The inexperienced 106th Division was quickly surrounded and nearly annihilated. Even in defeat, however, it bought time for others to organize hasty defenses against the German onslaught. Time was of the essence if the Germans were to secure crossings over the Meuse River before the Allies could react. To reach the Meuse, Manteuffel’s Fifth Panzer Army first had to seize the key towns of Saint Vith and Bastogne where the main east-west roads converged.
The suddenness of the German break through left senior Allied commanders scrambling to assess whether this was merely a spoiling attack or something more serious. Indeed, the German attack in the Ardennes revealed serious lapses in Allied intelligence. Simply put, senior intelligence officers failed to draw the right conclusions despite ample evidence of an impending attack.
On the evening of December 16, Bradley telephoned Patton’s headquarters and revealed that all hell had broken loose in the Ardennes and that the Third Army was to immediately dispatch the Tenth Armored Division north to reinforce the Eighth Corps. After disappointment and failure in Lorraine, what would soon be christened the Battle of the Bulge was destined to become Patton’s and the Third Army’s crowning achievement.
Bradley misread the extent of the German counteroffensive, initially dismissing it as merely spoiling attacks to hamper the Third Army offensive into the Saar. Eisenhower disagreed, declaring, “That’s no spoiling attack.” The only intelligence staff that correctly assessed German intentions in the Ardennes was the Third Army’s. Where other intelligence officers were lulling their commanders with false optimism and predicting that nothing serious was imminent, the Third Army had made plans to deal with the German offensive.
As early as November 25, Patton had stated his belief that “First Army is making a terrible mistake in leaving the Eighth Corps static, it is highly probable that the Germans are building up east of them.” Koch’s gravest concern was the threat to the Third Army’s northern flank if the Germans attacked through the Ardennes, and at his instigation Patton obtained authorization to employ reconnaissance aircraft deep into the Eifel. By December 9, Koch briefed Patton that the Germans were now fully capable of mounting “a large spoiling offensive” in the Ardennes, and during the next week continued to report the German buildup. Patton relied heavily on daily intelligence reports and lost no opportunity to question anyone who might be able to provide information on the enemy. Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Forces’ (SHAEF) intelligence officer Major General Kenneth Strong recalled that Patton demonstrated “an extraordinary desire for information of all kinds. He invariably came to see me when he was at Supreme Headquarters and would quiz me on details about the enemy, usually to satisfy himself that the risks he intended to undertake were justified.” Koch had not only closely followed the German buildup, but questioned its implications long before others jumped on the bandwagon. The intelligence produced by Koch was enhanced by information gathered by the Third Cavalry Group. Patton attached elements of the Third Cavalry to each committed division and corps. Being close to the action, these units were able to augment and embellish the information from regular intelligence sources upon which Patton made crucial decisions. Information tended to move through command channels at a snail’s pace; Patton’s alter native source enabled information to be quickly sent directly to Third Army headquarters. Although unorthodox, the results made Patton the best informed of the senior Allied commanders.
Not surprisingly, only Patton and Koch believed that the Germans could secretly mount a winter counteroffensive in the rugged Ardennes in such vile weather. As yet unaware of the events unfolding in the north, the Third Army’s intelligence officer issued a final prophetic warning at the morning briefing on December 16. Koch reported that the enemy was in a state of radio silence that, he told Patton, strongly suggested “the Germans are going to launch an at tack, probably at Luxembourg.”
At the morning briefing on December 17, Patton stated he believed that “the thing in the north is the real McCoy.” His operations officer, Colonel Halley Maddox, predicted that the Germans would have to commit their entire reserves in the Ardennes and called it a perfect setup for the Third Army. “If they will roll with the punch up north, we can pinwheel the enemy before he gets very far. In a week we could expose the whole German rear and trap their main forces west of the Rhine.” Patton thought Maddox was right, but merely observed, “My guess is that our offensive [in Lorraine] will be called off and we will have to go up there and save their hides.”
Bradley summoned Patton to Luxembourg and explained that the German penetration was far deeper and more serious than even Patton had previously thought. What could the Third Army do, Bradley asked? Patton replied that he would have two divisions on the move the next day and, if necessary, a third in 24 hours. With that, the proposed Saar offensive was cancelled. Patton shrugged off his disappointment at the necessity of abandoning the operation with the observation, ”What the hell, we’ll still be killing Krauts” and grinned when Bradley assured him they would “hit this bastard hard.” Later that evening Patton was ordered to report to Verdun the following morning to meet with Eisenhower and the other Allied commanders to work out a plan of action.
DECEMBER 19, 1944 WAS A HISTORIC DAY FOR THE THIRD ARMY that began at 7 A.M. when Patton briefed his key staff officers and two of his corps commanders. An hour later he convened the full staff to explain his belief that the Third Army would be called upon to come to the relief of the First Army. How and where would be decided at Verdun. The only certainty, recalled Patton, was that “while we were all accustomed to rapid movement, we would now have to prove that we could operate even faster. We then made a rough plan of operation.” The plan assumed the Third Army would move from the Saar via one or more of three possible routes. When Patton learned his mission, he would merely telephone and announce the pre-established code word for whichever axis the army was to employ.
Eisenhower arrived at Verdun, according to one observer, “looking grave, almost ashen.” The meeting took place in a dismal room of a French barracks in which very little warmth emanated from a pot-bellied stove. The atmosphere was equally grim despite Eisenhower ‘s fragile attempt at levity when he opened by saying: “The present situation is to be regarded as one of opportunity for us and not of disaster. There will be only cheerful faces at this conference table.” The smiles seemed forced. Patton immediately chimed in: “Hell, let’s have the guts to let the sons of bitches go all the way to Paris. Then we’ll really cut ’em up and chew ’em up.”
In addition to Eisenhower and Patton, the attendees included the supreme Allied commander’s deputy, Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Tedder; the SHAEF chief of staff, Lieutenant General Walter Bedell Smith; Bradley; the commander of the Sixth Army Group, Lieutenant General Jacob L. Devers; a handful of staff officers; and Montgomery’s able chief of staff, Major General Francis de Guingand. It was quickly agreed to stop offensive action in all other Allied sectors and concentrate on blunting the German drive. Eisenhower drew a stop-line at the Meuse beyond which there would be no further retreat. Once the German attacks were contained, the Allies would counterattack. Eisenhower said: “George, I want you to command this move…[and make] a strong counterattack with at least six divisions. When can you start?” Patton replied, “As soon as you’re through with me,” explaining how he had left three sets of instructions with his staff and by telephoning could put any plan in motion at once. “When can you attack?” Eisenhower asked. “The morning of December 21, with three divisions,” Patton replied instantly.
Forty-eight hours! Eisenhower was not amused, wrongly assuming that Patton had picked a very inopportune moment to boast. “Don’t be fatuous, George,” he retorted, in obvious disbelief. “If you try to go that early, you won’t have all three divisions ready and you’ll go piecemeal. You will start on the twenty-second and I want your initial blow to be a strong one! I’d even settle for the twenty-third if it takes that long to get three full divisions.”
Eisenhower was dead wrong; it was not Patton the boastful, but Patton the prepared. Where others came to Verdun with only vague ideas and without specific plans, Patton had devised three plans, each tailored to meet any contingency that his superiors might direct. “This was the sublime moment of his career,” wrote historian Martin Blumenson. After more than thirty-four years in the army, it was as if destiny had groomed him for this single, defining instant in which the fate of the war rested upon the right decisions being made and carried out by the men in that dingy room.
WHILE NEAR PANIC EXISTED ELSEWHERE, IN THE THIRD ARMY THERE WAS A BELIEF THAT A MAGNIFICENT OPPORTUNITY existed to strike a killing blow. While others debated or waffled, Patton had understood the problem facing the Allies and had created a plan to counterattack.
Opinions vary, but certainly the reaction of some present that day was skepticism of yet another smug prediction by Patton that was quite out of place in this somber setting. Notes from the meeting record that “There was some laughter, especially from British officers, when Patton answered ‘Forty-eight hours.’ ” Patton’s senior aide, Lieutenant Colonel Charles Codman, witnessed “a stir, a shuffling of feet, as those present straightened up in their chairs. In some faces skepticism. But through the room the current of excitement leaped like a flame.” According to author John Eisenhower, “Witnesses to the occasion testify to the electric effect of this exchange.” The prospect of relieving three divisions from the line, turning them north, and traveling along icy roads to Arion to prepare for a major counterattack in less than 72 hours was astonishing, even to a group accustomed to flexibility in their military operations.
Only a commander with exceptional confidence in his subordinate commanders and in the professional skill of his fighting divisions could dare risk such a venture. Patton not only never hesitated but embraced the opportunity to turn a potential military debacle into a triumph. Cigar in hand, Patton illustrated his intentions on the map, by pointing to the obvious bulge in the Saint Vith-Bastogne sector, and, speaking directly to Bradley, said, “Brad, the Kraut’s stuck his head in a meat grinder.” Turning his fist in a grinding motion, he continued, “And this time I’ve got hold of the handle.” He then replied to the inevitable questions with specific, well-rehearsed answers. Codman recorded that “Within an hour everything had been thrashed out-the divisions to be employed, objectives, new Army boundaries, the amount of our own front to be taken over by [Devers’] Sixth Army Group, and other matters and virtually all of them settled on General Patton’s terms.” Simply put, it was perhaps the most remarkable hour of Patton’s military career. Bradley later acknowledged that this was a “greatly matured Patton” and that the Third Army staff had pulled off “a brilliant effort.”
With considerable understatement Patton wrote of this exceptionally important day, “When it is considered that [Third Army Deputy Chief of Staff Paul] Harkins, Codman, and I left for Verdun at 0915 and that between 0800 and that hour we [held] a staff meeting, planned three possible lines of attack, and made a simple code in which I could telephone General [“Hap”] Gay…it is evident that war is not so difficult as people think. ”
As they parted, Eisenhower, recently promoted to the five-star rank of general of the army, remarked, “Funny thing, George, every time I get a new star I get attacked.” Patton shot back affably, “And every time you get attacked, Ike, I pull you out.” Many years earlier Patton had said, “Ike, you will be the Lee of the next war, and I will be your Jackson.” Whether or not Eisenhower qualified as Robert E. Lee, Patton was about to assert a definite resemblance to Stonewall Jackson. The Third Army was poised to pull off one of the most remarkable feats of any army in history.
After the meeting Patton began snapping out orders: “Telephone Gay. Give him the code number, tell him to get started….You know what to do.” Patton’s destination was Luxembourg City, where he intended to relocate Lucky Forward, the Third Army command post. But during the next three days Patton and his driver, Master Sgt. John L. Mims, constituted Lucky Forward. With one pistol strapped to the outside of his parka, another tucked into his waist band, Patton sped from one division or corps to another. On December 20, “I visited seven divisions and regrouped an army alone,” in a day spent conferring, issuing orders, wisecracking with GIs, changing and fine-tuning dispositions. Like a cattle drover, he pushed, pulled, and exhorted everyone to keep moving and to “drive like hell” toward Bastogne. At the end of perhaps the most dynamic day of his life, Mims remarked: “General, the government is wasting a lot of money hiring a whole General Staff. You and me has run the Third Army all day and done a better job than they do.” Patton was pleased that he had earned his pay: “It was quite a day….Destiny sent for me in a hurry when things got tight. Perhaps God saved me for this effort.”
After the Verdun conference, Eisenhower was strongly advised by his staff to split the Ardennes front in two until the situation could be brought under control, with Montgomery to be given temporary operational command of all Allied forces (principally the U.S. First and Ninth Armies) in the northern half of the Bulge, and Bradley to command only the southern flank (Third Army). Bradley’s contact with Hodges was tenuous and he was in no position to control the northern flank from his headquarters in Luxembourg City. Eisenhower agreed and telephoned Bradley of his decision, thus effectively reducing his role to that of an observer; the battle was really Patton’s to mastermind and control. His first order to his troops was typically Pattonesque: “Everyone in this army must understand that we are not fighting this battle in any half-cocked manner. It’s either root hog-or die! Shoot the works. If those Hun bastards want war in the raw then that’s the way we’ll give it to them!” When he met with the staffs of three of his four corps in Luxembourg the night before the attack began, Patton noted their mood was one of doubt: “I always seem to be the ray of sunshine, and, by God, I always am. We can and will win, God helping….I wish it were this time tomorrow night. When one attacks it is the enemy who has to worry. Give us the Victory, Lord.”
Until the Third Army could attack from the south, the original strategy had been to hold ground for as long as possible, retreat, blow up bridges, and delay again. Middleton’s battered Eighth Corps was the last Allied force between Manteuffel’s Fifth Panzer Army and the Meuse. Although it was against his principles to give up anything, Patton saw an opportunity in letting the Germans become overextended before he struck their vulnerable left flank.
As late as December 20, Patton contemplated ceding Bastogne to the Fifth Panzer Army, but admitted in his diary it was a bad idea. That afternoon he conferred with Middleton, greeting him with the admonition, “Troy, of all the goddam crazy things I ever heard of, leaving the 101st Airborne to be surrounded in Bastogne is the worst!” A friend of long standing, Middleton rejoined: “George, just look at that map with all the [six] roads converging on Bastogne. Bastogne is the hub of the wheel. If we let the Boche take it, they will be in the Meuse in a day.” Patton understood the obvious need to hold Bastogne, and the two friends worked out an agreed axis of advance for the launching of an attack to reinforce the beleaguered crossroads town.
As promised, across a 20-mile front on the morning of December 22, some 66 hours after the Verdun meeting, three divisions launched the first Allied counterstroke of the Ardennes campaign. The Third Army struggled against the weather and the Germans to reach Bastogne, where the 101st Airborne Division and elements of Patton’s own Ninth and Tenth Armored Divisions were now surrounded. December 23 was the only day of fair weather. The Allied air forces took advantage, attacking the Germans and making more than two hundred supply drops into Bastogne, whose defenders repulsed a strong German attack. The Fourth Armored Division spearheaded the drive toward Bastogne but ran into increasing difficulty. “It is always hard to get an attack rolling,” Patton observed, pleased that “the men are in good spirits and full of confidence.”
“In this bad weather,” he noted in his diary on Christmas Eve, “it is very difficult for armored outfits to operate at night.” Once again he was impressed by “how long it takes to really learn how to fight a war.”
Bastogne remained surrounded, and when the Germans demanded its surrender, the acting commander of the 101st Airborne, Brigadier General Anthony C. McAuliffe, replied, “Nuts!” Upon hearing the now-famous response Patton said: “Any man who is that eloquent deserves to be relieved. We shall go right away.”
On Christmas Eve Patton judged that “the German General Staff is running this attack and has staked all on this offensive to regain the initiative. They are far behind schedule and, I believe beaten. If this is true, the whole army may surrender.”
Patton was only partly right. Surrender was not an option for the Germans either. At that moment , both combatants were at serious risk. Remembering history, Patton observed: “On the other hand, in 1940 they attacked as at present….They may repeat-but with what?”
International News Service correspondent Larry Newman, who covered the Third Army, wrote:
Patton was never dis heartened. In the midst of the battle–perhaps the most desperate a U.S . Army has ever had to fight–Patton called a conference of all correspondents. As we filed into the room, the tenseness was depressing. But when Patton strode into the room, smiling, confident, the atmosphere changed within seconds. He asked “What the hell is all the mourning about? This is the end of the beginning. We’ve been battling our brains out trying to get the Hun out in the open. Now he is out. And with the help of God we’ll finish him off this time-and for good.”
More than ever, Patton made it a point to be seen during the battle, always riding in an open jeep. The cold was so intense soldiers dressed in as many layers of clothing as they could manage, but Patton’s only concession to the glacial temperatures was a heavy winter parka or an overcoat. He spent little time in his headquarters and most of each day on the road, to see and be seen by his troops and to endure the same wretched conditions. Daily, he prowled the roads of the Ardennes, sitting ramrod straight, often with his arms folded , his face unsmiling. More than once his face froze. Word of his presence managed to filter through the amazing GI grapevine with astonishing rapidity, as did his words of praise for his troops, which were invariably reported down through the chain of command: “The Old Man says…” or “Georgie says….”
During his brilliantly orchestrated week-long defense of Saint Vith, Brigadier General Bruce C. Clarke informed a sergeant manning a forward infantry out post that he had heard Patton’s Third Army was attacking from the south. “The sergeant thought for a minute and said, ‘That’s good news. If Georgie’s coming we have got it made.’ I know of no other senior commander in Europe,” said Clarke years afterward, “who could have brought forth such a response.”
One cold, dark, miserable afternoon Patton encountered a column of the Fourth Armored moving toward Bastogne. Tanks and vehicles were sliding off the road in the thick ice. Someone recognized him and let out a shout that began to roll down the column as soldiers in trucks and tanks began cheering. After the war, a GI told Beatrice Patton, the general’s wife: “Oh, yes, I knew him, though I only saw him once. We was stuck in the snow and he come by in a jeep. His face was awful red and he must have been about froze riding in that open jeep. He yelled to us to get out and push, and first I knew, there was General Patton pushing right alongside of me. Sure, I knew him; he never asked a man to do what he wouldn’t do himself.”
THE SOLDIERS WHO HAD TO FIGHT IN THE TERRIBLE WINTER WEATHER did so with woefully inadequate uniforms and equipment. Shoepacks, parkas, and white camouflage uniforms were nonexistent, as was white paint for the Sherman tanks.
When the army could not fill his needs, Patton took matters into his own hands and commissioned a French factory to manufacture 10,000 white capes per week for the Third Army.
Patton was quick to give credit to his troops. When asked about the remarkable swing of the Third Army to the north, Patton grinned and replied:
Yes, we broke all records moving up here. It was all done by the three of us…me, my chauffeur, and my chief of staff. All I did was to tell my division commanders where they’d got to be tomorrow. Then I let the others do it….To tell you the truth, I didn’t have anything much to do with it. All you need is confidence and good soldiers…if there is confidence at the top the soldiers all feel it. I know a lot of soft-headed armchair generals accuse me of killing off my men. They don’t know their fat behinds from a tommy gun. I don’t waste men. I believe in saving my men’s lives. And, by God! I’ve done it…again and again. More often than not the best way to save men’s lives is to risk them…to take chances, and make your men fight better.
Passionately, Patton continued:
Maybe the G.I. hates discipline, but only until he learns that that’s what makes a winning soldier. I’ll put our goddam, bitching, belching, bellyaching G.I.s up against any troops in the world. The Americans are sons of bitches of soldiers–thanks to their grandmothers! All you’ve got to do is to show them the value of discipline…give them the habit of obeying in a tight place. Yes. The American is a hell of a fine soldier.
Patton joyfully declared he did not give a damn what others thought of him: “You know what they can do. I’ve studied military history all my life. Georgie Patton knows more about military history than any person in the United States Army today. With due conceit–and I’ve got no end of that–I can say that’s true.”
The dreadful weather notwithstanding, Patton ordered that every soldier in the Third Army have a hot turkey dinner on Christmas Day. To ensure his orders were carried out, he and Mims spent the holiday driving from one unit to another. Mims recalled, “He’d stop and talk to the troops; ask them did they get turkey, how was it, and all that.” Patton was pleased his men received a hot meal, for he had little faith in his mess sergeants, who, he complained: “couldn’t qualify as goddam manure mixers. They take the best food Uncle Sam can buy and bugger it all up.” He also constantly checked for trench foot, and his troops inevitably heard the refrain, “Men we can get all kinds of equipment except we can’t get more soldiers.”
Patton also escaped death on Christmas Day. As he neared the headquarters of the Fourth Armored Division his jeep was strafed by an American plane and he was forced to seek protection in a ditch. By December 26 Patton was convinced that “the German has shot his wad,” a judgment based on his observation of prisoners who had not been fed in three to five days. “We should attack,” he complained. “Why in hell the SHAEF thinkers…[were holding three reserve divisions] at Reims is beyond me. They should be attacking.” He felt that Eisenhower ought to be acting far more aggressively. When SHAEF sent him a message that Eisenhower “is very anxious that I put every effort on securing Bastogne,” Patton wrote in his diary, “What the hell does he think I’ve been doing for the last week?” The Fourth Armored finally broke through to bolster the “Battered Bastards of Bastogne” on the afternoon of December 26. Bastogne remained surrounded on three sides and would come under its most critical threat in the days ahead.
Patton elatedly proclaimed in a letter to his wife: “The relief of Bastogne is the most brilliant operation we have thus far performed and is in my opinion the out standing achievement of this war. Now the enemy must dance to our tune, not we to his…this is my biggest battle.” In his diary, Patton also wrote, “I hope the troops get the credit for their great work.” Later, he told an assemblage of correspondents: “It’s a helluva lot easier to sit on your rear end and wait than it is to fight into a place like this. Try to remember that when you write your books about this campaign. Remember the men who drove up that bowling alley out there from Arion.”
On January 8, 1945, Patton was on the road in an open jeep marked with only his three stars; his only concession to the cold was a lap robe and plastic sheeting along the passenger’s and driver’s sides to deflect the wind. As usual, the roads were clogged with columns of vehicles stretching for miles. It was six degrees below zero. This particular column was filled with trucks carrying infantry of the Ninetieth Division forward to battle; on the other side of the narrow highway were ambulances bringing the wounded to the rear. According to historian John Toland: “When the men recognized Patton, they leaned out of the trucks, cheering wildly. The general’s face broke into a smile. He waved. But he could hardly hold back the tears. Tomorrow many of those now cheering would be dead because of his orders.” It was an incredible scene, wonderfully spontaneous and for Patton “the most moving experience of my life, “he wrote, “and the knowledge of what the ambulances contained made it still more poignant.”
THE RELIEF OF BASTOGNE NOTWITHSTANDING, the Battle of the Bulge was far from over and the bloodiest battles of the winter war in the Ardennes were yet to come. The Germans resisted furiously and in the foul weather Allied attacks moved with all the sluggishness of a bulldozer. Although it was clear by the end of December that Hitler’s strategic aim of splitting the Allied front was doomed to failure, German morale remained high despite the freezing conditions and a desperate shortage of food, ammunition, and supplies. As the fighting continued to rage around Bastogne, Patton observed in his diary on January 4: “We can still lose this war. The Germans are colder and hungrier than we are.”
The pincers of the First Army and Third Army at last closed the famous Bulge on January 16, 1945, dooming some 15,000 of Hitler’s best troops to capture. The battles that had raged for six weeks in the frozen hell of the Ardennes were among the bitterest and bloodiest of any fought in Western Europe or Italy. Casualties on both sides were not only staggering, but “the Ardennes offensive was a rude awakening. The surprise lay not so much in the resurgence of German power as in the revelation of Allied weakness,” wrote one historian. German losses in the Bulge were enormous and irreplaceable, thus setting the stage for the climactic battles of the war when the Allies invaded the heartland of Germany in early 1945.
On December 30, the Washington Post, which had gleefully savaged Patton earlier in 1944, ran an editorial titled “Patton of Course,” remarking that “It has become a sort of unwritten rule in this war that when there is a fire to be put out, it is Patton who jumps into his boots, slides down the pole, and starts rolling.” Although pleased that he was no longer the target of media criticism, Patton wrote to a friend, “Fortunately for my sanity, and possibly for my self-esteem, I do not see all the bullshit which is written in the home town papers about me.”
To the contrary, Patton gave the credit to the soldiers who fought the battle. He rated them magnificent; they both moved and astonished him. On January 29, 1945, he told the press: “We hit the sons of bitches on the flank and stopped them cold. Now that may sound like George Patton is a great genius. Actually he had damned little to do with it. All he did was to give orders.”
Patton’s reputation soared as a result of a battle that gripped the minds of the public as had no other since the Normandy landings and the great Allied breakout in early August. To have fought in the horrific winter conditions that existed in the Ardennes in December 1944 was a feat beyond measure.
After being stymied and frustrated in Lorraine and the Saar, in the Ardennes Patton was presented with an opportunity to not only display his genius for war, but to turn a precarious situation to his advantage. Patton’s maneuvering of the Third Army to relieve Bastogne did not win the Battle of the Bulge. Indeed, as historians have pointed out, the relief of Bastogne was made in a sector occupied by inferior German formations, and the heaviest German attacks against Bastogne did not commence until December 26. They also note that credit must be given to the men of the First Army who stubbornly held the northern shoulder against such overwhelming odds.
If the entire Ardennes campaign resembled Wagnerian melodrama in the best German tradition, it was for Patton a Western film-like the cavalry of yore riding to the rescue in a dramatic cliffhanger, culminating with the Third Army in the role of the cavalry and Patton at its head, rallying his troops. No battle could have been more tailor–made for Patton’s talents–or for his theatrics. What the Battle of the Bulge demonstrated is that, while possessed of tremendous vision–the ability to anticipate and react with impeccable foresight to an enemy move or countermove–Patton’s greatest strength was not so much as a battlefield tactician but as an organizer, mover, and shaker. Historian Gerald Astor accurately observed that Patton’s “true genius lay in his ability to put the show on the road, to move men and machines.” Patton understood that despite the dreadful conditions under which his troops fought, it was equally difficult for the enemy, and that to attack, and keep attacking, was what would win the battle. Instead of the uncertainty of fighting a grinding winter campaign in the mud of the Saar, Patton was permitted to indulge in what he did best: fight on his own terms.
Bradley later offered the highest praise of Patton he would ever accord: “His generalship during this difficult maneuver was magnificent. One of the most brilliant performances by any commander on either side in World War II. It was absolutely his cup of tea–rapid, open warfare combined with noble purpose and difficult goals. He relished every minute of it.”
If George S. Patton had never before or would never again do anything of significance, he had earned a place in history by his extraordinary generalship in the Ardennes. It was a short, brutish campaign that not only solidified his reputation for generalship on the battlefield, but left no doubt of the quality of the army upon which he had put his imprint. It is the nature of war that perfection is never attainable, but this was Patton’s and the Third Army’s finest hour. No one but Patton could have pulled off such a feat.
Carlo D’Este is the author of Patton: A Genius For War (1996), Decision in Normandy (1991), World War II in the Mediterranean, 1942-1945, Vol. II (1990) and several other books about World War II. He is currently completing a biography of Dwight D. Eisenhower.
This article originally appeared in the Spring 2001 issue (Vol. 13, No. 3) of MHQ—The Quarterly Journal of Military History with the headline: Patton’s Finest Hour
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