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Patton in North Africa

The following is an excerpt from Chapter Eight, “Tunisia: The Verdun of the Mediterranean”, from the book “The Path to Victory: The Mediterranean Theater in World War II” by Douglas Porch (FSG, May 2004)

Although the French eventually contributed nearly ten divisions to the Allied effort, in the process taking 23,500 dead and 95,000 wounded between the Tunisian campaign of 1943 and the surrender of Germany in May 1945, they languished in a chasm of Allied contempt for the remainder of the war. Insults among Allies, real and imagined, too numerous to chronicle, were to characterize the remainder of the campaign and pursue the three Western allies into Italy. Eisenhower’s way of dealing with incidents of inter-Allied friction was to force miscreants to apologize, while allowing Alexander to relegate U.S. forces to demeaning auxiliary tasks. This so incensed Marshall that he intervened to force Eisenhower to allocate Second Corps a greater role in the final conquest of Tunisia.

The problem could only be solved once Eisenhower convinced the Americans in his command that “this is not a child’s game.” Alexander’s well-meaning but patronizing attempts to establish “battle schools” where British officers trained U.S. units, to assign British liaison officers to American command posts, and to send detailed instructions to U.S. units about how to conduct operations were deeply resented by the Americans. Clearly, the United States Army would have to get its act together on its own. General Leonard Gerow, training infantry replacements in Scotland, was told by his longtime friend Eisenhower to “ruthlessly weed out” inadequate officers. Eisenhower’s most dramatic gesture was temporarily to transfer General George Patton from organizing the Seventh Army in Morocco “long enough to kick II Corps in the butt and lead it into its initial battles as a corps.”

“Kicking butt” was the activity of choice for the autocratic, flamboyant, frequently coarse, pistol-packing Patton. Son of a California lawyer, Patton was a paradoxical mélange of humility and megalomania, geniality and rage, heroics and lunacy. From the moment he matriculated at West Point in 1904, Patton had distinguished himself as an ambitious martinet who excelled on the drill field, not in the classroom-indeed, the joke at West Point is that Patton’s statue faces away from the library. Upon graduation, he selected a wife who could assist an ambition considered gargantuan even in Washington, where Second Lieutenant Patton cultivated important generals and politicians such as John J. Pershing, Army chief Leonard Wood, and Secretary of War Stimson. A severe wound acquired while fighting in the Saint-Mihiel salient in 1918, followed by the award of a Distinguished Service Cross, failed to atone for Patton’s outspoken political views, hard drinking, and reckless polo playing in the interwar army. Under the influence of his wife’s family of wealthy Massachusetts industrialists, Patton jettisoned his father’s Wilsonian principles, as well as the senior Patton’s advice that the “club wit” who strives to dominate conversations was seldom a social success. Prejudice defined Patton’s outlook and his conduct. In 1932 he enthusiastically joined then-chief of staff Douglas MacArthur to flush “Communist” Bonus Army marchers from the capital, in the process unceremoniously ejecting from the marchers’ encampment the ex-sergeant who had saved his life in France. As chief of army intelligence on Hawaii in 1936, he drew up lists of prominent Japanese-Americans to be seized as “hostages” on the outbreak of war. His anti-Semitism exceeded by a considerable margin the polite golf club standards of America between the wars. General Joseph Stilwell called Patton a “braggart,” while George Marshall’s wife publicly admonished Patton that his profanity and “outrageous” statements little became a man who aspired to general rank.

Despite his World War II reputation as the U.S. Army’s primary practitioner of armored warfare à la Rommel, Patton was in fact an eleventh-hour convert to tanks, preaching right up to the 1939 fall of Poland the virtues of the horse and the benefits of arming cavalrymen with a straight saber of his own design. He owed his promotion to his cultivation of influential generals like Pershing and cavalry chief General John Herr, and politicians, especially Secretary of War Henry Stimson, who personally intervened to place Patton on the major general list in the spring of 1941. Marshall also dropped his reservations about Patton’s suitability for command after his vigorous performance at the head of a mechanized corps in the 1941 South Carolina maneuvers.  Omar Bradley, who both served under and commanded Patton, described him as “the most fiercely ambitious man and the strangest duck I have ever known.” He alternated social grace and personal warmth with a degree of vulgarity and a predisposition to demean and humiliate his subordinates that even GIs found disturbing. His celebrated and controversial speeches to the troops, delivered in a high-pitched, squeaky voice, were practically “comical . . . altogether lacking in command authority,” Bradley remembered.  But even his detractors had to admit that the tall, slightly balding Patton, with a solid chin, thin lips, and penetrating eyes that stared from beneath white eyebrows, had charisma. He also had an inimitable style. Patton’s wardrobe of eccentric uniforms of his own design earned him GI nick-names that included “Flash Gordon,” the “Green Hornet.”

While Patton counted his fierce devotees, many believed him more respected than loved by the GIs. His tendency to humiliate subordinates and thunder when encountering even minor setbacks caused some to conclude that he was highly neurotic, if not downright insane. The British, to whom Patton became a source of unrelieved amusement as well as frustration, invented unimaginative nicknames for him that included “Chewing Gum” and “Cowboy.” “I had heard of him, but I must confess that his swash-buckling personality exceeded my expectation,” Alan Brooke noted in January 1943. “I did not form any high opinion of him, nor had I any reason to alter this view at any later date. A dashing, courageous, wild and unbalanced leader, good for operations requiring thrust and push but at a loss in any operation requiring skill and judgment.”  Patton retained a mystical belief that he was repeatedly reincarnated as a valorous soldier who died a horrible death in combat. According to one of his biographers, this faith in reincarnation became a mechanism to control his fear of death. It also sent him into an uncontrollable rage in the presence of soldiers who, in his view, had shirked their duty, because he felt that they failed to realize that death in combat was their destiny.

Ike’s instructions to Patton were to “be perfectly cold-blooded” about firing anyone not up to the task.  This was not an easy task, as Patton’s problems were similar to those faced by Montgomery when he took over the Eighth Army in August 1942. Three of the four divisions in Second Corps had “an inferiority complex and the other but the valor of ignorance.”  His division commanders lacked ruthlessness and were, in Patton’s view, oversensitive about casualties. He had more or less to make do with Fredendall’s staff, in whom he had no confidence, and he lacked the time properly to retrain the 90,000-strong Second Corps before it again went into battle.  Therefore, he relied on the performing arts and the imposition of vexatious disciplinary rules to alleviate the inferiority complex under which GIs labored in the shadow of British General Montgomery’s celebrated Eighth Army, not to mention Rommel’s Panzerarmee Afrika. Patton arrived at Second Corps headquarters at Djebel Kouif standing erect “like a charioteer” in the lead car of a siren-blaring cavalcade of armored vehicles bristling with machine guns. Although the American press quickly latched on to Patton as the U.S. Army’s answer to “the Champ,” as Time magazine called Rommel, theatrics substituted poorly for more solidly grounded military virtues. Patton quickly identified a lack of discipline as one of his command’s major problems. He therefore enforced a strict regime of military courtesies and uniform regulations, including the requirement to wear ties, leggings, and helmets on duty-Patton’s “beanie campaign”-to remind his troops “that the pre-Kasserine days had ended, and that a tough new era had begun.” “If men do not obey orders in small things, they are incapable of being led in battle,” Patton recorded in his diary. “I will have discipline-to do otherwise is to commit murder.” So began the “$25 Derby,” named for the fines liberally imposed by “Gorgeous Georgie” on those who were found without helmets, including nurses in hospital wards and men in latrines. Despite some local success, Patton’s impact was limited. American troops stood by while Montgomery smashed his way into Tunisia. A humiliated Patton lamented at the end of March that “Our people, especially the 1st Armored Division, don’t want to fight. It’s disgusting.”

Copyright © 2004 Douglas Porch. All rights reserved. Converted for the Web with the permission of the publisher.

“The Path to Victory: The Mediterranean Theater in World War II” is available from Amazon.