Patton: The Warrior, The Myth and the Legacy

Posted on December 21, 2011

By Alan Axelrod

On September 28, 1945, Eisenhower summoned Patton to his headquarters in the IG Farben Building in Frankfurt. After a heated exchange among Patton, Eisenhower, and Bedell Smith, Eisenhower quietly, even gently, made what he carefully termed a suggestion. The so-called Fifteenth Army—really nothing more than a small headquarters and staff—had been formed to compile the history of the war in Europe. It was an important job, Eisenhower insisted, and the Fifteenth required a good commanding general. He asked Patton to take charge. Patton’s first impulse was to resign his commission on the spot, but he held his tongue. Perhaps it was his love of history and the opportunity to exercise come control over how the history of the war would be written—whatever his reasons, he decided to relinquish the storied Third Army and accept command of this new “paper army.”

George S. Patton, Jr., General, U.S.A., May 1945. (Patton Museum of Cavalry and Armor, Fort Knox, Kentucky)

Lucian Truscott, old comrade and trusted subordinate, who had performed for Patton at first reluctantly but then brilliantly in the capture of Messina, Sicily, relieved him of Third Army command on October 7 at the army’s headquarters in Bad Tölz. During the somber change-of-command ceremony, Patton spoke to his officers: “All good things must come to an end,” he said. “The best thing that has ever happened to me thus far is the honor and privilege of having commanded the Third Army.”

Assuming his new command, Patton wasted no time in putting the personnel of Fifteenth Army, housed in a hotel at Bad Nauheim, to work on gathering the documents necessary for writing the war’s history. But he quickly lost interest in his assignment. As his staff started their research, Patton left, traveling to Paris, Rennes, Chartres, Brussels, Metz, Reims, Luxembourg, and Verdun. Everywhere he was welcomed as a hero and given civic certificates and military decorations. He even traveled to Stockholm, scene of his Olympic glory in 1912, where he met with the surviving members of the Swedish Olympic team of that now-distant year.

Patton decided to go home for Christmas 1946 and to never return to Europe or the Fifteenth Army. Perhaps he would remain in the military, in some stateside post, perhaps he would retire. It was something he needed to discuss with Beatrice. He was scheduled to fly aboard Ike’s plane to Southampton, England, and to sail from there to New York on December 10. On the eighth, Hap Gay, looking to lift Patton’s spirits, suggested the two of them drive out to an area west of Speyer for some pheasant hunting. Patton was pleased, and, early on Sunday morning, December 9, Private First Class Horace L. Woodring prepared the general’s 1938 Model 75 Cadillac staff car. They left Bad Nauheim at nine. Just before quarter to noon, Woodring stopped at a railroad crossing outside of Mannheim to let a train pass. He then crossed the tracks. From the opposite direction, a two-and-a-half-ton truck driven by Technical Sergeant Robert L. Thompson suddenly turned left to enter a quartermaster depot. At precisely 11:45, Patton remarked on the numbers of derelict vehicles that littered the road. “How awful war is,” he said. “Think of the waste.” Apparently attending to the general’s words, Woodring glanced away from the road, then looked up to see Thompson’s turning vehicle looming in front of him. He slammed on the brakes and turned the steering wheel, hard, to the left. Gay, who saw what was coming, said, “Sit tight.” He braced for the collision. Patton, contemplating the waste of war, was oblivious to what was happening.

Under the circumstances, Woodring had reacted well, so that the collision, though it had not been avoided, was minor. Neither driver was hurt and Gay suffered only slight bruises. Patton, however, was bleeding profusely from a bad gash to the head. He had hit the glass partition separating the backseat passengers from the driver, and he probably also hit a diamond-shaped interior light on the car’s head liner.

Patton’s first question was if Gay and Woodring were hurt. After they both replied no, he calmly said, “I believe I am paralyzed. I am having trouble breathing. Work my fingers for me. Take and rub my arms and shoulders and rub them hard.” Patton could feel nothing. “Damn it, rub them.” Gay, recognizing that Patton was badly injured, told him not to move while they called for help.

“This is a helluva way to die,” Patton said.

The general was transported to a hospital in Heidelberg. He never lost consciousness, and to the physicians and orderlies who buzzed about him, he joked, “Relax, gentlemen, I’m in no condition to be a terror now.”

The diagnosis was a fracture and dislocation of the third and fourth cervical vertebrae: a broken neck with spinal cord damage. Patton was placed in traction, in the hope that the injury would heal or at least that some movement and sensation would return as inflammation subsided. An eminent neurosurgeon was flown in from Oxford University, and Eisenhower placed an airplane at the disposal of Beatrice Patton. With Dr. R. Glen Spurling, a noted American neurosurgeon, himself recently discharged from the army with the rank of colonel, she flew to Patton’s bedside.

To Beatrice, Patton presented a cheerful front. However, when he was alone with Dr. Spurling, he asked for the unvarnished truth.

“Now, Colonel, we’ve known each other during the fighting and I want you to talk to me as man to man. What chance have I to recover?”

Spurling answered that his prognosis depended on what happened during the next several days.

“What chance have I to ride a horse again?”


“In other words, the best I could hope for would be semi-invalidism.”


“Thank you, Colonel, for being honest.”

For the following 13 days Patton lived, totally paralyzed, as a model patient, who never complained, never expressed anger, never said a rude word to anyone. On the afternoon of December 21, his wife read to him until about four, when he drifted into sleep. His breathing became irregular, and she summoned Dr. Spurling. By quarter past five, his breathing had improved, and he now seemed peacefully asleep. Beatrice and Dr. Spurling went to dinner. At six, Dr. William Duane Jr. appeared in the hospital mess and summoned them both to Patton’s room. The walk took no more than a few minutes, but by the time they reached his bedside, General George Smith Patton Jr., United States Army, was dead. On the day the war had ended in Europe, Patton had remarked to an aide: “The best end for an old campaigner is a bullet at the last minute of the last battle.” Injured in a fender bender dreary months after that last battle, Patton succumbed to pulmonary edema and congestive heart failure. He was 60 years old.

* * *

The Patton Problem and Legacy

During the Sicily Campaign, Patton confided to his diary that he had a “feeling of being a chip in a river of destiny.” It was a feeling and a metaphor he would often use, with variations (sometimes he was a leaf blown by the winds of destiny), throughout the war. Patton’s sense of personal destiny was a constant throughout his life. A chip, a leaf, floating, blowing—this is not the vocabulary of a leader known for an aggressive, hands-on style of command, a hunger for glory, and an absolute determination to win. It is the language of passive surrender.

Perhaps the paradox of this metaphor provides a clue to his genius as a warrior. “Old Blood and Guts” was outwardly a fierce athlete and a profane killer, but inwardly a religious mystic who saw fate as a stream flowing through time and who conceived of himself as having lived, fought, and died in the past even as he fought now in the present and doubtless would fight again in the future. At times, this vision of himself was conventionally religious; he saw himself as an instrument of God’s will. Often, however, the vision was more idiosyncratically mystical.

His role was not providential, but rather driven by a more impersonal destiny in which God seemed to play no part. In either case, whether he was an instrument of God or a chip in the river of destiny, there was nothing passive about the fulfillment of providence or of destiny. It required his utmost exertion, courage, boldness, and exercise of personal will.

The coexistence of passivity and aggressive activity, of surrender and victory, of mystical spirituality and bloodthirsty profanity in a military commander was difficult for Patton’s contemporaries to accept and, for the leaders of an army serving a rational democracy, nearly impossible to tolerate.

Although American history is in very large part a saga of war and warlike violence, Americans have never been entirely comfortable with their warriors, and their historical reluctance to maintain large standing armies reflects a national revulsion against fostering anything resembling a warrior class, the very class to which Patton believed he belonged.

Steeped as we are in a culture strongly influenced by romantic notions of inspiration, most of us readily accept the idea that a great composer, artist, scientist, or inventor—Beethoven, say, or Michelangelo, or Edison—may be inspired by sources and forces beyond the rational, everyday self.

Many of us have difficulty accepting that a warrior might be similarly inspired. Yet that was precisely the case with Patton, and that, for his contemporaries, was the Patton problem. Had Patton consistently identified the source of his inspiration as God, this might have been less of a problem—although even Chaplain O’Neill was uncomfortable when Patton ordered him to write a weather prayer, enlisting God’s aid in killing Germans. In today’s army, the more conventional aspects of Patton’s spirituality would likely find ready acceptance. Many soldiers find strength in the belief that they are fighting on the side of God, and, in recent years, as the conservative politicians who shape American foreign policy, including America’s wars, claim to be guided by their faith, the role of religion in the military is more visible than ever before.

But Patton was no simple soldier of God. He was more akin to the disturbingly complex military characters of Shakespeare, to such figures as the Bard’s Julius Caesar, Othello, and Titus Andronicus—inspired captains all—on whom civilization itself depends in time of war but whom civilization cannot abide in time of peace. As it was with Shakespeare’s captains, so it was with Patton. Civilization at peace could not tolerate him, and he could not live at peace in a peaceful civilization. Soldiers such as Eisenhower and Bradley endured no such conflict. They claimed no inspiration, divine or driven by destiny, but rather aspired to be neither more nor less than professional men-at-arms in service to their country. For Patton, these men frequently represented a frustrating intrusion of the values of peaceful civilization into his sphere—all-out war. Patton’s all-or-nothing boldness in battle was often countermanded by Bradley or Eisenhower.

It is no accident that Bradley and, even more, Eisenhower enjoyed exceptional success in the postwar world. Whereas Patton died before he could write his memoirs (his War As I Knew It consists of notes edited and shaped by other hands), Eisenhower and Bradley lived to write widely read memoirs conveying their own versions and visions of the war. During the war they also skillfully managed the popular press to their advantage: Bradley was consistently portrayed as the earthy “G.I. general,” Eisenhower as the smiling executive manager of Allied strategy. Patton, for whom image was central (he had been practicing his “war face” since his cadet days), was rarely able to maintain control of his image, at least not once the press got hold of it. Incapable of suppressing his impulsive nature even in the presence of reporters, he was time and again at the mercy of newspapers, lifted by them to the heights on one day, only to be cast into the depths on the next. Patton would have appreciated the modern army’s struggle with the media over control of its image. Problems of direction and command as well as stories of atrocities were frequently in the news during the Vietnam War and contributed to the collective American revulsion against that war, and Operation Iraqi Freedom, which began in 2003, has likewise been plagued by worldwide news stories of prisoner abuse, torture, and even homicide.

Yet Patton might have observed that even though the news media of World War II was far more tightly controlled than it is today, the papers always managed to publish something damaging about George S. Patton while other potentially embarrassing stories were effectively censored.

All of this suddenly changed on the day Patton died. The controversy was swept aside, if not forgotten, in a rush to depict Patton as a very great general, perhaps the greatest of World War II. The American people, by and large, sincerely mourned him, even those who had called for his resignation after the slapping incidents, the Knutsford speech, and the de-Nazification comments. During the bewildering and anxious aftermath of World War II, when (as Patton, Churchill, and others had warned) the erstwhile Soviet ally loomed as a new and terrible threat, the popular image of Patton as a heroically simple and direct man of action became most seductively appealing.

For army officials, the death of Patton presented most immediately a problem of protocol. During the war, no American officer or enlisted man had been sent home for burial. How would the public react, especially all those Gold Star mothers and fathers, if an exception were made in the case of Patton? When the issue was raised with Beatrice Patton, she responded instantly: “Of course he must be buried here! Why didn’t I think of it? Furthermore, I know George would want to lie beside the men of his army who have fallen.” Beatrice chose the U.S. military cemetery at Hamm, Luxembourg, not far from Bastogne, site of the desperate battle of which her husband was proudest. Thus Patton was not only removed from life and all the controversies life engenders, even his mortal remains, the last vestige of his physical presence, were buried in a place remote from the people of his country. Dead heroes make the best heroes, because, for them, time has stopped, and there is no more of the messy business of life to interfere with the collective cultural projection that is myth.

Upon his death, Patton was enshrined in the American mythic imagination. Discussions of Patton still elicit controversy. Yet the name of Patton has never lost its magic. It would not be difficult to argue that Eisenhower, Bradley, and MacArthur were more central to the Allied victory than Patton, but it could not be argued that they were superior warriors, and none of them has entered the realm of mythic imagination.

And that is another aspect of the Patton problem. Figures of myth largely represent the meaning we endow them with. To the extent that he has entered into American mythology, this is true of Patton, and the mythic Patton all too readily overshadows the historical Patton, a soldier and a leader of soldiers, obscuring the important question that needs to be asked: What is Patton’s legacy to the army of today?

Command Presence

With many of history’s most important commanders, answering this question is a matter of ticking off strategic, tactical, and doctrinal contributions.

In the case of Patton, however, his most important contribution was less quantifiable but even more important than any he made in these traditional areas. Patton bequeathed to the army the ideal of the warrior leader. He wanted a modern army, equipped with the best and latest weapons, served by the most modern logistics, aided by the most advanced technology of reconnaissance and communication, but he also sought to inspire his army with his own ancient and even atavistic soul. The modern military calls this command presence. It is the ability of a commander to create a cohesive and highly motivated force in large part through the power of his or her personality.

An effective army identifies with its leader, and it is the responsibility of the leader to project a presence most likely to create a victorious force.

Today’s military planners call any element that dramatically increases the effectiveness of a military organization a force multiplier. Patton demonstrated that the persona of the commander could be among the greatest force multipliers of all. This does not mean that today’s commanders simply imitate Patton.

It does mean that each leader must find his own warrior soul and project that onto the force he or she commands. This is a lesson not readily learned at the War College, but it is a lesson embodied in the example of Patton.


If all great generals project an effective command presence, most are also significant strategists. This was not the case with George S. Patton, a fact his seniors recognized. They gave him a subordinate role in planning Operation Torch, the Allied invasion of North Africa, and Operation Husky, the invasion of Sicily, and they gave him no part in planning Operation Overlord, the invasion of Normandy. This did not greatly displease Patton, who was usually content to execute the strategy set by others, provided that he was given a free hand in the execution. He believed that brilliant strategy could never compensate for inadequate tactics. A plan was only as good as its execution. Conversely, he sincerely believed that good tactics, skillfully and violently executed, could even compensate for poor strategy.

Under the best of circumstances, when he was able to choose the time and place of an attack, Patton was a peerless tactician. In the case of his breakout and advance during Operation Cobra, which expanded Bradley’s rather modest strategy into a juggernaut of unprecedented speed and extent, Patton’s tactics became strategy, transforming a vast portion of the European theater by suddenly reclaiming all of France north of the Loire.

Beginning with the Louisiana and Texas maneuvers on the eve of America’s entry into World War II and culminating in Operation Cobra, Patton provided the model for mobile warfare on the grandest of scales and at speeds that made an ally rather than an adversary of time. The ambitious scope and drive of Patton’s Cobra breakout were reprised by a later generation of commanders in the first Gulf War, which was characterized by the rapid movement of massive ground forces spearheaded by tanks.

Patton’s tactics were always distinguished by boldness and daring. He planned carefully. He gathered intelligence meticulously and believed that the fresher the intelligence, the better. But he never adhered slavishly to any plan; once an attack was launched, he kept himself open to opportunity and was always prepared to improvise, if doing so would enlarge the victory.

Plans enabled him; he never let them limit him.

Another hallmark of Patton’s tactics was speed and coordination of forces. His objective was to create the greatest effect in the least time, so that his forces were exposed to enemy fire as briefly as possible. He understood that advances in mobile warfare—modern tanks and other vehicles—and in air support as well as rapid communications enabled speed of execution. Since Patton’s time, much of the technology of warfare has been devoted to increasing the tempo of operations. This means that Patton’s attitude toward time in combat has become more important than ever. Whereas the first Gulf War was a dramatic example of the application of speed and coordination of forces, the second war in the Gulf, Operation Iraqi Freedom, demonstrated the limitation of this tactical principle. Employing a Pattonesque ground advance, the invasion of Iraq was accomplished in a remarkably brief period during 2003. . . . followed by an insurgency to which no one, as of 2005, [could] see a definitive end. Patton’s tactics were developed on and for vast battlefield spaces occupied by large conventional armies. They are not effective in asymmetrical warfare scenarios, in which time, which a determined insurgency can draw out almost infinitely, becomes for the much larger invading force an enemy rather than an ally.

Redefinition of Military Professionalism

Patton also bequeathed to the American military tradition a new definition of professionalism. Although he, more than most of his contemporaries, believed that the profession of arms partook of ancient and honorable traditions, he also insisted that the modern military commander place himself squarely in the real world by becoming thoroughly familiar with all the weapons systems at his disposal, including the newest and still-emerging ones. Patton was not only a master of tank doctrine and tactics, he thoroughly understood the mechanics of his tanks, their armor plating, endurance, fuel demands, speed, and capabilities over various terrain. The nuts and bolts of war were not to be left to noncommissioned technicians.

Patton insisted that these details also be made the province of each and every commander.

Attaining the level of Patton’s technical proficiency has become increasingly difficult as the technology of warfare has become more complex. The consequences of failure to understand the capabilities and limitations of battlefield equipment was made embarrassingly evident during the invasion of Grenada in 1983. Commanders failed to adequately understand the communications infrastructure of the forces they led. The result was that much of the mission’s radio equipment was incompatible across services: The army’s radios could not talk with those of the marines, and the air force could not communicate adequately with the forces on the ground. At one point, officers in the field were compelled to communicate with higher headquarters via private or even pay telephones.

In the first Gulf War, an inadequate understanding of weapons capability marred operations, when commanders relied on the Patriot missile system to defend against Iraqi Scud missile attacks. The Patriot had not been designed as an antimissile weapon and proved woefully inadequate in this role, a fact that was not understood until after the war had ended.

Updating the Cavalry Idea

In pioneering advanced war-fighting doctrine for modern armor, Patton never forgot the traditional lessons he had learned as a cavalryman. He transferred time-honored cavalry ideals of speed, highly flexible mobility, a hardhitting raider’s mentality, and a keen sense of the “ground” (the topography) of the battlefield to armor tactics and doctrine. In this sense, he brought cavalry into the twentieth century. As Patton redefined the tactics and doctrine of horse soldiery in terms of the light and medium tank, the mobile weapons par excellence of World War II, so Vietnam-era army tacticians redefined cavalry yet again in terms of the mobile weapon most closely identified with the Vietnam War, the helicopter. The “air cavalry” was developed as an assault force that functioned much like the traditional cavalry, penetrating enemy territory to conduct hit-and-run raids and reconnaissance in force. Patton loved horses and loved the idea of fighting from the saddle, but, in World War I, he immediately recognized the superiority of the light tank over the horse. Instead of clinging nostalgically to an outmoded weapons system, he salvaged what was best from that system and applied it to a new modality.

Through Patton, the idea of the cavalry survived and was available to a later generation of warriors in Vietnam, who were fighting a very different kind of war with yet another means of armed mobility.

Combined Arms Approach

Although he loved the cavalry and was a passionate advocate of armor, Patton never limited himself to a single arm. He was an early advocate and practitioner of what is today called the “combined arms” approach to warfare.

He integrated armor, infantry, artillery, and air in each of his major World War II operations. All played a role, and none was subordinated to any other. Thanks to commanders like Patton in Europe and MacArthur in the Pacific, World War II became a vast laboratory in which combined arms doctrine was developed. The doctrine emerged as so central to modern warfare that, in 1947, the War Department was replaced by the Department of Defense, a cabinet-level office charged with coordinating combined arms on the largest scale, bringing together the army, air force, navy, and marines.

Within each of these services, combined arms has also steadily become more important, and all major military operations since World War II have been conceived and executed in terms of combined arms.

Patton used the combined arms approach to carry out his favorite tactic, which he frequently described as holding the enemy by the nose while kicking him in the pants. This involved locating and exploiting enemy weakness, attacking that weakness with great speed and maximum violence, pursuing the enemy to his destruction, then continuing the advance, also with great speed. Typically, Patton used infantry to hold the enemy by the nose, while the tanks swung round, usually covering great distances, to deliver the kick in the pants. This use of masses of tanks to make long, sweeping end runs around the enemy to hit his flank was spectacularly effective in World War II.

Patton’s tactic was employed by H. Norman Schwarzkopf in the so-called Hail Mary end run into the vulnerable flank of the main Iraqi ground force, thereby bringing the Gulf War of 1991 to a speedy and devastating conclusion. In that brief conflict, it was marines who held the enemy’s nose with an amphibious assault while the main coalition army force, spearheaded by tanks, delivered the kick in the pants.

The Principle of Speed

Patton brought to a high state of perfection an exceptionally limber version of the blitzkrieg tactics the German army had used so devastatingly against Poland, France, and the Soviets. His ideal was to create warfare that combined speed and destructiveness so that a battle could be won with a minimum loss to one’s own personnel and equipment. Conservative war fighting, Patton preached, gave the illusion of safety but ultimately cost more lives. The only way to achieve victory and at the same time minimize casualties was to defeat the enemy as quickly as possible, exposing one’s forces to fire as briefly as possible.

The first Gulf War applied the Patton principle impressively. A large coalition force was built up over time, then used in a swift, relentless, and highly coordinated manner to minimize duration under fire. The result was massive destruction of the Iraqi army with very minimal coalition casualties.

The use of a strong, coordinated force in a bold and violent offensive is most effective against a conventional enemy, as in the first Gulf War.

Reduction of Collateral Damage

Limiting the duration of time under fire not only saves the lives of the attacker’s troops, it has the added benefit of limiting what is today called collateral damage, the destruction visited on civilian populations, the innocent bystanders in all wars. “Old Blood and Guts” was deeply disturbed by the sight of wounded soldiers and also by the magnitude of civilian devastation he witnessed. His detractors might be loath to recognize it, but Patton brought a significant measure of humanity to warfare.

The modern trend toward the deployment of “smart weapons” has not only made war more destructive against enemy military forces, but has enabled war fighters to minimize collateral damage. This was demonstrated in the air assault against Baghdad during the initial phase of Operation Iraqi Freedom. However, faulty intelligence can easily lead to the misapplication of “smart” technology, as when U.S. forces, relying on outdated intelligence, mistakenly directed a smart bomb attack against the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999. During the first hours and days of Operation Iraqi Freedom, smart weapons were employed against sites mistakenly believed to harbor Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. Intelligence, not the weapons, was at fault when these attacks resulted in high collateral damage and the loss of innocent lives. Patton abhorred the waste of war and, in principle, would have approved of smart weapons technology as a tool capable of reducing that waste; however, he would have condemned the kind of political and military thinking that relies exclusively on air strikes employing such high-tech weaponry. There is no substitute, he would doubtless point out, for the eyes, ears, brains, and valor of troops on the ground.


Given Patton’s glorious and controversial record in combat, it is all too easy to forget that, at the outbreak of war, General Marshall and other members of high command saw Patton’s greatest value as a trainer of soldiers rather than as a combat leader. In creating and commanding the Desert Training Center at Indio, California, Patton trained America’s first generation of desert fighters. The tactical triumph of the first Gulf War and of the initial desert combat phase of Operation Iraqi Freedom were built on foundations Patton laid at Indio training an army to defeat Rommel in the desert of North Africa.

Beyond training troops for a particular environment, Patton elevated training in general to a new status, putting it at the heart of the army. Patton far preferred serving in the heat and danger of combat than he did training troops, but perhaps no commander in the American service since Friedrich von Steuben in the American Revolution accorded training as central a role as Patton did. Today the American military accepts as a given that high-quality training is the most valuable commodity the force possesses.

Beyond the basic training every soldier receives, the modern United States Army maintains, through its Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC), 33 major schools and centers at 16 army installations. As of 2005, the schools were staffed by 9,141 instructors and offered 1,753 courses, enrolling more than 300,000 soldiers. Patton’s central contributions to training the first generation of tank soldiers and commanders and the first generation of desert warriors are pioneering examples of the kind of special-applications training that has become commonplace in today’s American military.


Patton stands high among all other commanders as an example of leadership.

He was a master of motivation, and he could motivate the men he commanded to perform beyond what they themselves conceived as their utmost. He had the ability to create the image of victory as well as the capacity to impart to his men the will, the emotions, and the mind-set to realize that image. Military leaders as well as leaders in business and civil government study Patton’s speeches and other pronouncements on leadership to learn something of his motivational technique. To the extent that Patton put his technique into words, it can be studied. But, absent Patton himself, his style of leadership is at best semi-tangible, just as the work of a great actor, without that actor’s physical presence, can be only partially appreciated.

Call it charisma or call it what Patton himself called it—“it”—this is the intangible part of leadership, which can be admired, marveled at, and even, to an extent, conveyed, but it cannot be taught.

Key to Patton’s effectiveness as a leader was his uncanny ability to “think like an army,” to use historian Eric Larrabee’s phrase. He instinctively knew what an army could achieve in a given situation and, just as important, what it could not achieve. As John Ingles, a Third Army lieutenant, put it, Patton had an unequaled “sense of what was possible on the battlefield.” Ingles said that “we knew what General Patton expected us to do, and we believed that if we did it we would win.” If Patton could not understand why other superb soldiers, such as Eisenhower or Bradley, did not always allow him to do with the Third Army everything he knew it could do, it was because he could not conceive what it was like to lack the intuition that was part of his very being.

* * *

Professional historians, soldiers, and military buffs have long speculated on what would have happened had Patton been given a freer hand. What would have resulted had Patton been allowed to make a deeper penetration beyond the Falaise-Argentan pocket during the culminating phase of Operation Cobra? It is likely that far more of the German army would have been killed or captured much earlier in the European campaign. And what of the Ardennes counteroffensive? What if Patton had been permitted to direct more of his attack against the base of the German salient, the “bulge”?

To have done so would surely have risked the fall of Bastogne and, ultimately, even Antwerp, but, had such an attack succeeded, the Battle of the Bulge would have been far less costly and even more effective than it was.

For that matter, we can only imagine what was lost to the Allied war effort by keeping Patton inactive for some 11 months after the slapping incidents.

Over the years since the end of World War II, many experts, amateurs, generals, and armchair generals have suggested that the war in Europe would have ended in 1944 if Patton had been given more of the authority—and the gasoline—he asked for.

As it was, Patton accomplished enough to make himself instrumental in winning the war in Europe. Had Eisenhower and Bradley really been the mediocre commanders Patton at times privately thought they were, he would not have been given any of the opportunities he invariably converted into victories. As Eisenhower observed, “He was one of those men born to be a soldier.”

 Patton by Alan AxelrodExcerpted from Patton by Alan Axelrod.

Copyright © 2006 by the author and reprinted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Ltd.