GEORGE Patton’s involvement with North Africa began in the aftermath of the fall of Tobruk, when Marshall recommended sending a fully equipped armored division to Egypt. Patton, the obvious choice for its command, was ordered to Washington in June 1942 to plan the deployment. When he proposed that two divisions be sent, Marshall had him put on a plane back to California. When a chastened Patton informed the deputy chief of staff that indeed he could manage with one division, Marshall smiled and said “That’s the way to handle Patton.” The next month Marshall appointed him, with his I Armored Corps headquarters, commander of the Western Task Force of Operation Torch, the Anglo-American invasion of North Africa.
Brian Holden-Reid appropriately likens the Anglo-American relationship in World War II to a long-term marriage on the companionate model, with both partners recognizing the importance of mutual harmony publicly expressed. Mutual incomprehension tempered by occasional fundamental disagreements did not exclude “a measure of tolerance and fruitful union.” Dwight Eisenhower, Torch’s commanding general, was more blunt: “The British and the Americans came together like a bulldog and a cat.”
The Americans were confident—almost exuberantly so at operational and tactical levels. Instead of the improvised formations of 1918, the United States was sending divisions organized since 1940 that had gone through through some of the most elaborate, largest-scale peacetime training in any modern army’s history. Under forced draft, the U.S. Army had developed doctrines and weapons systems specifically to wage modern mobile war. Relevant combat experience was nonexistent. The Army had nevertheless come far enough that Americans believed they had little to learn from allies that had spent the previous two years showing their backs to the Germans.
The British ground forces committed to Operation Torch, by contrast, were uncertain both of their general operational effectiveness and their specific readiness to fight the kind of war expected in Tunisia. The British army of 1942 was still learning how to fight on divisional scales, to say nothing of corps and army levels. The divisions sent to North Africa were a distinctly mixed bag, ranging from the regulars of the 4th through the second line Territorials of the 46th to a 78th assembled from three previously independent brigades, with a predictably low level of cohesion. As late as May 1943, Major General Francis Tuker, commanding the 8th Army’s elite 4th Indian Division, described the training of the formations out from home as deficient even after six months in the field.
Matters were not improved by a complex command structure that provided a joint Supreme Headquarters, a field army (British), and two corps, one British and one American, for an initial commitment of a half-dozen divisions. Underemployed staff officers of both armies would have much to answer for as relations grew strained. And there was much to strain them. Eisenhower, still feeling his way in command, tended to micromanage. First Army commander Sir Kenneth Anderson had to be reminded to submit his daily situation reports directly to Eisenhower instead of forwarding them directly to London. The initial U.S. field commander, II Corps chief Major General Lloyd Fredendall, made no secret of his Anglophobia despite back-channel admonitions.
Where did Patton fit into this kaleidoscope? Forrest Pogue, Marshall’s definitive biographer, suggests that Marshall, knowing he would never have a chance to see combat, regarded Patton as a surrogate whose uninhibited behavior was the other side of the chief of staff’s own rigid self-discipline: an id to Marshall’s superego. A more mundane explanation involves the lack of senior officers with tested capacity to command divisions and corps in combat: every appointment was a grab bag. The United States, moreover, was waging another war in the Pacific, where Douglas MacArthur was demanding generals as well as men and material. Marshall’s first choice to command Western Task Force was Robert Eichelberger, former superintendent of West Point. Instead, he felt constrained to send Eichelberger to the South Pacific, where he rose to Army command and may have saved MacArthur’s career by his performance in the Buna campaign.
Considered on his own merits, Patton brought another quality to the table: his potential as a diplomat in uniform. Operation Torch depended heavily on securing at least the acquiescence of the Vichy French governments in North Africa. Western Task Force would be landing in Morocco, a French protectorate where the sultan still exercised significant influence—an unusually complicated situation. Patton spoke French, had spent enough time in France to claim familiarity with the culture, and was accustomed to moving in social circles higher than those open to the average officer of the interwar Army. It was a better package than almost anyone else could offer.
During the two-week voyage to North Africa, Patton fretted constantly. This was the longest-reaching amphibious operation in history, mounted by a comprehensively green force, ending in a landing over open beaches. Possibilities for a fiasco, or a bloodbath should the French choose to fight, seemed infinite. Reality proved less dramatic. French naval and ground forces challenged the landings in Patton’s sector in what, on land at least, amounted to a baroud d’ honneur. By November 10, the French resident in Morocco arranged a surrender.
Patton’s picture was again featured on America’s front pages, and for the next weeks, he settled admirably into the role of a proconsul. His emphasis on French-American cooperation against a common enemy was accompanied by fingertip sensitivity to the sultan’s role and status. Success in Morocco, however, seemed to Patton to be keeping him away from the fighting developing farther east, in Tunisia. Initially, Eisenhower and his subordinates intended to minimize opportunities for friction by keeping British and U.S. contingents under their own respective higher commands. But troop dispositions in Operation Torch were shaped by the distance between the landing zones and the operationally relevant ground farther east. That required the Allies to deploy forward as fast as possible—and encouraged the tendency, already strong in both armies, to fight by improvised task forces rather than by tables of organization. Too often, too many units entered battle under strange commanders and alongside strange counterparts. Hart Force and Blade Force, the consistently reshuffled combat commands of the U.S. 1st Armored Division—all the various combat teams and task forces were sources of uncertainty and confusion to inexperienced officers.
Tensions increased as the Germans opened a Tunisian branch of their school of tactical tuition. In January 1943, Sir Harold Alexander was appointed Ground Forces commander in North Africa. Alexander, a man most histories legitimately praise for his tact, offered a brutal assessment of American soldiers. “They are soft, green, and quite untrained . . . they lack the will to fight,” he declared to British army Chief of Staff Sir Alan Brooke. But if the Americans suffered humiliation on larger scales, especially at Kasserine Pass in February 1943, their British counterparts did no better in similar circumstances.
At this point, Eisenhower took his first real steps toward great captain status—not in the field, but by an increasingly ruthless suppression of national backbiting wherever he found it. He informed Fredendall that when placing American troops under British command he did so “. . . unreservedly and expect any officer receiving an order from his next battlefield superior to regard that order as emanating from me and on up the line from the President himself.” No less remarkable in contemporary contexts was Eisenhower’s blistering of the war correspondents, warning them that anyone persisting in attempts to initiate British-American controversy would be removed from the theater.
Patton, initially on the controversy’s fringes, was drawn in when Eisenhower informed him that if he or anyone else criticized the British, “. . . by God, I will reduce him to his permanent rank and send him home,” and a few days later warned him against running his mouth before engaging his brain. Patton was bewildered by admonitions whose roots may have been in the Casablanca conference of January 1942. He was responsible for local arrangements, and for the first time mingled with top British as well as American leadership. Brooke was not impressed: “Definitely a character,” he concluded. But “I did not form any high opinion of him . . . wild and unbalanced . . . at a loss in any operation requiring skill and judgment.” Brooke made clear that no later events caused him to change his mind.
Eisenhower had decided to give Patton and his corps headquarters the central U.S. role in the Allies’ next move: the invasion of Sicily. In mid-February, Mongomery conducted a seminar in Tripoli on “lessons learned” in recent operations. He hoped to attract some American division commanders. He dismissed Patton, the only senior U.S. attendee, as “an old man of about 60.” Patton, with the exception of Montgomery and a few others, in turn characterized most of his new British colleagues as “the same non-committal clerical types as our generals.” What angered him far more was Eisenhower’s apparent deference, not to say submission, to British policies, methods, and personalities that to date had produced no achievements meriting that response.
Rommel’s November meeting with Hitler had escalated within minutes into an ugly confrontation, with the Fuehrer asking Rommel how he dared leave his command without permission, insisting the African theater must be sustained for political reasons, and accusing the Panzer Army of collective cowardice. He concluded by ordering Rommel to wait outside for orders.
It was the kind of calculated dressing-down a colonel might administer to a refractory junior officer, and it threw Rommel into a rage. Hitler’s assignment of Goering to accompany Rommel to Rome and improve the supply system was small consolation—especially when Goering, Kesselring, and the Italian High Command virtually ignored his presentations, his recommendations, and his recriminations.
Rommel was also increasingly committed to achieving a concentration of German and Italian forces in Tunisia. Only thus was it possible to create a mass of maneuver strong enough to have real prospects of achieving tactical success, as opposed to buying time by days and hours until the British and Americans grew strong enough, or confident enough, to push forward again. Kesselring argued that would increase the air threat to Tunisia. Goering talked of planning a counterattack eastward in the manner of 1941. Rommel returned to Africa on December 2, more convinced than ever both that the Axis higher leadership had lost touch with reality, and that his immediate professional and moral responsibility was to save the Panzer Army from destruction.
Despite repeated orders to hold fast wherever his units found themselves, on January 22, Rommel ordered the evacuation of Tripoli. Four days later, he was instructed to turn over command to a newly formed Italian headquarters—ostensibly, and reasonably, on the grounds of his still-fragile health. The Italian High Command, Kesselring, and Hitler concurred in a judgment reflecting their common conviction that Rommel’s time was past, and Rommel was past his best.
Rommel, for his part, “had little desire to go on playing the scapegoat for a pack of incompetents.” His spirits were at an all-time low, partly because of his debilitated physical condition and partly because of his deep resentment at being labeled a front-runner, unable to cope when the going got tough. As Panzer Army Africa, under its new sobriquet of First Italian Army, fell back into the Mareth Line, the prewar French defenses along the Tunisia-Libya frontier, it became an open secret that an “Army Group Africa” would be created to command it and the forces facing the Allies in Tunisia, organized by now as the 5th Panzer Army. The commander, it was generally understood, would be the 5th Panzer Army’s Hans Juergen von Arnim. He had done well in Russia, and done better pitting his improvised command against the numerically superior Anglo-Americans. He was fresh blood, and at the same time part of the Prussian/German military establishment, with a pedigree that would be the envy of most racehorses. Considered objectively, he was also a better bet than Rommel for a last-ditch holding operation, more inclined to obey than to challenge superior orders. But Erwin Rommel had one more shot in his African locker.
Rommel had been paying increasing attention to the conduct of operations on the Tunisian front. The Axis, he agreed, should concentrate its mobile forces and strike: first to remove the threat of an Allied drive from Gafsa to the sea that would divide the 5th Panzer and the rebaptized 1st Italian Army, then against Montgomery along the Mareth Line. Kesselring agreed, and Rommel and Arnim planned a double blow in Tunisia. On February 14, the 5th Panzer Army, with the 10th Panzer and Rommel’s veteran 21st plus a dozen of the new Tiger tanks with their 88-millimeter guns, struck through Faid Pass toward Sidi bou Zid. The defenders, mostly elements of the 1st U.S. Armored Division, broke and scattered, putting up no more than local resistance. Rommel appeared on the scene on February 15, leading elements of the 15th Panzer Division and the Italian Centauro Armored toward a Gafsa abandoned without a fight. As he drove toward Kasserine Pass through the detritus of the Americans’ disorganized retreat, Rommel saw a chance for another Gazala. Give him all three Panzer divisions, he told Kesselring on the 17th. Let him strike for the huge supply dumps at Tebessa and from there on to Bone, and the Allies would be forced to retreat into Algeria.
Kesselring wondered whether Rommel was simply seeking to restore his lost prestige by a gambler’s gambit. Arnim, whose vision extended no further than throwing the Allies off-balance, played his tactical cards cautiously. The 10th Panzer’s officers thought of time and space in European rather than desert contexts. The Italian High Command temporized, refusing to give either German general full command of the operation. In the face of divided Axis counsels and increasing Allied resistance, the Panzers broke through at Kasserine but were unable to break out. British, Americans, and French North Africans rallied, stood, and held. His forward units low on ammunition and running out of fuel, taking an increasing hammering from Allied air strikes, Rommel halted his attack on the 22nd. In one crucial sector, the American gunners had a fifteen-minute supply of ammunition remaining.
Rommel by now was obviously worn down mentally as well as physically; Kesselring observed that the Desert Fox had turned into a tired old man. He had achieved what he considered the major tactical objective of disrupting the Allied offensive in Tunisia. He had given the Americans a humiliating lesson in armored war. But he retained his situational awareness. What Rommel noted was not that the Americans had initially been easy meat but how rapidly they recovered, and the enormous material superiority they enjoyed, which contributed to the messy battlefield commented on by superficial observers. Sooner or later the African game would be up. All that remained was to minimize the coming catastrophe.
When Kesselring asked if he were interested in taking over Army Group Africa, Rommel initially refused the offer. He had had enough of Italian generals, enough of the Luftwaffe, and enough of superiors who saw everything through rose-colored glasses. The next day, however, he—not Arnim—was formally appointed to the post by the Italian High Command. Von Arnim promptly gave Rommel a dose of his own medicine by independently mounting an offensive about as operationally sophisticated as the beast that provided its code name of Ochsenkopf (Oxen-head). It quickly sputtered to a halt against a determined Anglo-American defense.
At the end of February, Rommel summarized the situation. The Tunisian “bridgehead,” he argued, was still too large, and correspondingly vulnerable to mobile operations by exponentially superior Allied forces. He urged withdrawal into a perimeter of about a hundred miles. Even preparing that position, he stated, would require 140,000 tons of supplies per month—a figure experience indicated was clearly unattainable. His recommendation that “an early long-term decision be reached” on the future conduct of operations was a fig leaf for the conclusion he favored: commence evacuation as soon as possible.
His recommendations predictably denied, Rommel planned a spoiling attack against an 8th Army continuing to push slowly but inexorably against the Mareth Line. Its intention was to disrupt its assembly areas around Medenine, forestalling the massive offensive Montgomery was sure to launch in the near future. This time, Rommel had all three Panzer divisions, or what remained of them, plus the 90th Light under his hand: the largest armored attack the Germans made in the entire campaign. But ULTRA intercepts gave Montgomery an outline of his enemy’s intention, and the 8th Army commander shifted forces to meet it. The attack went in on the morning of March 6, from a different direction than expected, but ran into a multilayered, prepared defense that tore the heart out of the Panzers. I have six hundred antitank guns, four hundred tanks, and good infantry holding strong pivots, Montgomery commented. “The man must be a man.” At 11 P.M., Rommel ordered a withdrawal from the battle that by all odds ranks as his greatest embarrassment. Perhaps indeed his heart was no longer in it. On March 9, he left once more for Rome and Rastenburg. This time he would not return.
Rommel’s last African offensive opened the door of opportunity for Patton. The defeat at Kasserine Pass highlighted the tactical shortcomings of the U.S. Army and the professional shortcomings of Lloyd Fredendall. In addition to his increasing inability to get along either with the British or with his American subordinates, he had chosen to construct an elaborate underground headquarters, a bunker that would not have been out of place on the Maginot Line. In the aftermath of defeat, it was bad enough that the senior combat officer of the U.S. Army had emerged as an incompetent. That he seemed a poltroon as well was too much. But again the question emerged: where best to find a replacement?
Ernest Harmon had come up from Morocco to restore initial order in II Corps’s demoralized ranks but refused to succeed an officer he had officially described as a “son of a bitch” unfit to command. Perhaps as well Harmon did not want what was so obviously a high-risk job. That left Patton as the next choice, though Eisenhower made plain that the assignment was temporary. At 10 A.M. on March 6, 1943, Patton arrived at corps headquarters. He had ten days to bring it back on line for an offensive ordered by Alexander to distract attention from Mongomery’s projected knockout blow against the Mareth Line.
Patton did not consider his new command fundamentally flawed. He had no serious doubts about American doctrine, American equipment, or American training. In any case, there was no time to return to first principles. The immediate problem involved getting II Corps to perform up to the U.S. Army’s standards. Eisenhower had given his old friend and new subordinate a free hand, with authority to fire anyone not up to his job. He began at a more basic level, by restoring a discipline badly eroded during the previous six months. Uniform regulations, generally dismissed as “chickenshit” even by field officers, were rigorously enforced, with fines of up to a half month’s pay for offenders. Officers were ordered to wear their insignia even if it made them better targets for snipers. Captains and lieutenants, Patton roared, were expendable. He lectured; he harangued; he exhorted. “Let me meet Rommel in a tank and I’ll shoot it out with the son-of-a-bitch,” he allegedly declared. He took his chances on the line as well as a target for German fighter-bombers, on one occasion almost being killed by artillery fire.
Did it work? Well enough to earn Patton more of the kind of publicity he had attracted in the States. Well enough to mark him as commander and leader even to soldiers calling him “Gorgeous Georgie” and “Flash Gordon.” Well enough to bring within a month his promotion to lieutenant general—one rank higher than an American corps commander normally held, but just right for the future commander of a field army. Major General Omar Bradley, a newcomer to Tunisia assigned to the II Corps as Eisenhower’s observer, saw Patton as living a role he had created for himself years ago: a cultivated gentleman in private who behaved like a profane thug before the troops. Bradley called it “talking down.” What Patton actually did was to appeal to the wish for respect latent in any potentially useful soldier—or person—and get the men of the II Corps believing he could help them earn it. That was his own fundamental desire, and it shone through the posturing and the fustian in a way few could mistake even if they disliked the manifestations.
The first results were manifested on March 23 at a place called el Guettar, when the 10th Panzer Division mounted a limited counterattack against the advancing 1st Infantry Division and was driven back with heavy losses. That was the only time Patton and Rommel would ever command against each other, though the confrontation was indirect. El Guettar was not an epiphany for the II Corps. The 1st Armored Division in particular remained sluggish by Patton’s standards. Patton rode Major General Orlando Ward, to the point of insult, on one occasion ordering Ward to “. . . get off your ass, get a pistol in your hand, and lead that attack yourself.” Ward responded, was slightly wounded, and Patton himself decorated him with a well-earned Silver Star. But the attack failed, and that was the bottom line. Ward was, by every standard, a more decent man than Patton. He was a capable enough commander. But he lacked the final spark of ruthlessness that takes a division forward in the face of casualties and obstacles. Patton fired him. And under its new commander, Ernest Harmon, the 1st Armored began learning how to win.
One of Patton’s first official acts was to issue a report deploring a “total lack of air cover” for his troops. The officer responsible for tactical air support in the theater was Australian-born Air Marshal Sir Arthur Coningham. He had spent years attempting to correct what he considered the dilution of air power by the demands of ground officers who essentially regarded planes as flying artillery. He resented the slur against his USAAF subordinates, who had been following his orders and policies. He responded by suggesting II Corps was not battleworthy in its present condition. Eisenhower ordered Coningham to apologize. After a bitter personal exchange, Patton accepted and was further mollified when the theater’s senior air officers, Air Marshal Tedder and USAAF General Spaatz, visited his headquarters to cement relations between air and ground forces.
Another source of friction grew from Alexander’s plan to remedy the 1st Army’s shortcomings by establishing a system of schools and programs to improve general levels of training. Intended for both armies, they were run by British officers. Alexander also established a network of liaison officers to advise their American counterparts. These men were as a group both experienced and competent. Their presence was nevertheless salt in an open wound. Patton greeted his factotum with “I think you ought to know that I don’t like Brits”; though in fact the two officers got along extremely well. In early April, British IX Corps commander Sir John Crocker criticized in the presence of reporters the performance of a U.S. division under his command. Alexander described the same division as being “no good.” Patton reacted by demanding in his diary that “God damn all British . . . I will bet that Ike does nothing about it. I would rather be commanded by an Arab.” His official response, however, was to tell Alexander that the division in question was a National Guard formation from the Midwest, where isolationism was prevalent. Its removal in disgrace from the front on the authority of a British general would have correspondingly serious political repercussions!
Apart from suggesting that Patton well understood the strategy of the indirect approach, his point was not lost among both British and U.S. commanders beginning to recognize there was blame enough to go around, and displacing one’s own command anxieties onto counterparts with different accents led nowhere. To extend Holden-Reid’s marital metaphor, it is not unusual for a companionate relationship to develop a significant affective element as well. That is not to be confused with passion. Senior officers in any military system are alpha personalities who reach the top by force of will and character at least as much as by demonstrated skill in warmaking. That produces levels of stress and antagonism that can shock the hardiest veteran of corporate or academic feuds, but are normative in high military commands. The best palliatives—there is no real cure—are experience and victory. As the Tunisian campaign developed, British and U.S. senior officers might not like each other. They might not even respect each other. They did develop a culture of cooperation.
Patton’s direct contribution to the Allied victory was limited. On April 15, after only forty days in command, he turned II Corps over to Bradley and returned to Casablanca. He had hoped to finish the campaign in the field, but Bradley handled the corps well in the final weeks that took the Americans into Bizerte as Axis resistance collapsed. Patton rejoiced in a message from Marshall telling him what a fine job he had done. “I have been gone 43 days,” Patton confided to his diary, “. . . lost about ten pounds, gained a third star and a lot of poise and confidence, and am otherwise the same.”
Patton would need that poise and confidence in the coming months. The invasion of Sicily was an even greater test of Anglo-American cooperation than the Tunisian campaign. At Casablanca, Brooke had argued, smoothly and convincingly, the advantages of maintaining the momentum gained in the Mediterranean and using the forces concentrated there: pushing forward with the aims of driving Italy out of the war and using Allied air and sea superiority to savage the vulnerable Axis southern flank—what Churchill called the “soft underbelly.” By this time, even Marshall had to concede the impossibility of accumulating sufficient resources in Britain to mount an invasion of northern Europe before spring of 1944. In turn, even had not Stalin been demanding a second front in western Europe, it was strategically inadvisable to close down the Mediterranean and maintain a holding position for a full year. The logic was as inescapable as it was unpleasant to Americans, who disliked losing the argument. The only remaining question was where best to strike, and on January 23, 1943, Eisenhower was instructed to plan Operation Husky, an invasion of the island of Sicily, to be mounted in July.
Brooke also argued successfully for a command structure that retained Eisenhower at its apex but put British officers at the head of ground, sea, and air forces. In part, that was no more than an application of a system with which the British were familiar: one considered particularly applicable to joint operations. All three of the appointees, Alexander, Tedder, and Admiral Sir Andrew Browne Cunningham, were experienced officers with established records of success no potential U.S. candidates could match. But Husky’s command reflected the British military establishment’s continuing lack of confidence in Eisenhower. His performance in Tunisia suggested that at best he was still learning his job, and an operation as complex as the Sicilian invasion was no place for an apprentice.
For weeks, staff officers argued tactics and priorities. The result, a classic committee product, involved two armies, Montgomery’s 8th and the newly created U.S. 7th, landing in ten separate areas with the objective of seizing as many ports and air bases as possible. Such a diffusion of forces was anathema to Montgomery, who informed Alexander that he proposed to develop his own plan for a concentrated landing in Sicily’s southeastern tip. His next step was an end run as well executed as any on the battlefield: buttonholing Eisenhower’s chief of staff in the headquarters toilet. Eisenhower approved Montgomery’s revision, partly because he saw its merits and partly as a way of asserting his shaken authority.
While this was going on, Patton maintained a consistently low profile. As designated commander of the 7th Army, he was the only American among Eisenhower’s senior subordinates. He was correspondingly unhappy with Montgomery’s plan, which assigned the 7th Army and its three divisions a role that amounted to the 8th’s flank guard. There is no basis for the often-repeated assertion that Montgomery sought to maximize his own opportunity for glory at the expense of the Americans in general and Patton in particular. At this stage, what he knew about Patton was that his tenure in field command was measured in days, and that he was a cavalryman, presumably correspondingly indifferent to the details of planning and execution Montgomery considered even more vital in an amphibious operation than in land war. The role he projected for the 7th Army seemed well within Patton’s capabilities, while offering opportunities for expansion should the Americans’ performance justify it.
In public, Patton held himself in check. Privately, he told his staff that Eisenhower had ceased to be an American and become an Ally. He confided to his diary that the United States was being “gypped” and reminded himself to retain his “SELF-CONFIDENCE.” With Patton’s assignment to Army field command, he took with him the staff of I Armored Corps, whose core he had assembled before leaving the states. Patton is described—by Bradley in particular—as disinterested in staff work and surrounding himself with mediocrities. He is also credited with giving staff officers freedom to do their jobs in their own way as long as they performed well, paying primary attention to results unless an officer became a disproportionate source of friction and correspondingly able to get more than most commanders from a mediocre staff.
Probably the best approach is to say that Patton followed a pronounced French model in forming a staff. He did not seek yes-men but at the same time felt no need for whetstones on the German staff model. He wanted men he knew sufficiently well who he could trust to do things his way, implementing policy rather than making it. His deputy in North Africa, Geoffrey Keyes, and his successive chiefs of staff, Hobart Gay and Hugh Gaffey, all fit that pattern. Patton was indeed almost Napoleonic in his belief that the duty of a commanding general was to command and, therefore, a chief must keep his mind clear of details.
Patton continued to emphasize formal inspirational speeches to large units. His overpowering, not to say overbearing, personality diminished his effectiveness in dealing with small groups of soldiers in the way made increasingly familiar by Eisenhower and Montgomery. When he addressed the 505th Parachute Regiment before the invasion, Colonel James Gavin noted that Patton’s stress on the indirect approach in combat depended on sexual metaphors that, though cleverly used, let Gavin “somewhat embarrassed.” It is not the easiest thing in the world to make a paratrooper blush, and this approach would return to haunt Patton in a matter of weeks.
When Patton spoke to men scheduled for combat, he consistently reassured them that fear was normal. All soldiers were afraid in battle, he asserted; a coward was someone who allowed that fear to overcome his sense of duty. Patton’s emphasis on morale reflected his conviction that “battles are won by frightening the enemy . . . Never take counsel of your fears. The enemy is more worried than you are.” If he was not, then he must be taught to worry, and to be afraid—“by inflicting death and wounds on him.”
“Make the other son-of-a-bitch die for his country” was another constant message. In case of doubt, attack—never an enemy’s strengths, but his weaknesses. It was impossible to be too strong oneself. Get every man and gun available, as long as it did not delay the attack. Mortars and artillery were superb when they were firing. When silent, they were junk. See that your weapons fire, Patton insisted. Steel and lead save blood.
These were the kinds of points experience in Tunisia showed were consistently neglected or forgotten under the constant stress of combat. Patton believed in fundamentals. “It is not genus,” he wrote, “but memory . . . and character . . .” What may seem like a mishmash of inspirational one-liners was, in fact, an outline of an approach to combat that combined surprise, shock, and mobility, focused and applied by leadership. Patton’s experience of combat command added up to little over a month and then his primary task had involved restoring shaken morale. The operational situation he faced had offered little opportunity for his presumed specialties of breakthrough and exploitation.The jury on Patton as a general was still out—and Patton knew it.
He attended church services and noted in his diary that he prayed daily to do his duty and accomplish his destiny. When he thanked the women of a Red Cross club for entertaining some of his officers, he received a reply saying that they had never seen a “he man” general, and could he stop by and let them “Oh” and “Ah” over him. His soldiers agreed that Patton looked like a general. But someone with Patton’s background in military history might well have remembered that a general named George McClellan had also looked good in a uniform. He had been brilliant at inspiring the Army of the Potomac. What McClellan could not do was fight.
In the first hours of the Sicilian campaign, the 7th Army benefited from its commander on two levels. Before the landing, Patton convinced Eisenhower to let him replace an inexperienced division with the veteran 1st Infantry in what turned out to be a critical sector. When the Axis defenders mounted a series of armor-tipped counterattacks in Afrika Korps style, Patton on one occasion took charge of calling in the naval gunfire that played a major role in saving the beachhead. He reaped publicity accordingly, with the American press making it sound as though he had been in the front lines. The headlines may have had something to do with Eisenhower’s sharp criticism of what he called Patton’s inadequate progress reports. The commanding general’s outburst of temper was, however, primarily caused by the heavy losses a U.S. parachute regiment scheduled to drop in Patton’s sector suffered from the “friendly fire” of naval antiaircraft guns. The incident epitomized a comprehensive breakdown of land-sea-air cooperation despite the months of elaborate preparation, and a formal investigation later concluded no one was to blame. Patton nevertheless saw himself as a scapegoat. His opinions of Eisenhower as a commander and a colleague reached a correspondingly low point—at least in the diary entries and letters home he consciously used as safety valves throughout his overseas service.
Within a week of the landings, Patton’s judgment of his immediate superior and his 8th Army stable mate plummeted to similar nadirs. Alexander, who far more than Eisenhower merited the appellation “chairman of the board,” had failed to develop a plan for Sicily’s conquest that went much beyond Montgomery’s original conception as presented in the headquarters men’s room. When the 8th Army encountered greater difficulties than expected, Montgomery proposed a short flanking movement, whose implementation required giving the 8th Army the road Patton proposed to use as the 7th Army’s principal axis of advance.
Alexander, still highly dubious about American fighting power, assented despite the fact that the switch meant keeping the 7th Army in the supporting role Montgomery originally envisaged. Patton accepted the decision without overt protest. He may have feared Eisenhower was seeking an excuse to relieve him—an unlikely contingency in the context of an efficiency report in which Eisenhower rated him “superior” and described him as an outstanding leader: “aggressive, loyal, energetic.” In a wider context, Patton’s behavior was consistent with his previous performance as a team player. Superior after superior had offered the same observation: never confuse Georgie’s rhetoric with his actions.
Alexander, and by extension Eisenhower, have been generally criticized for neglecting the potential for a 7th Army breakout, taking advantage of superior U.S. mobility to disorganize an Axis resistance already hanging on by its fingertips. Montgomery’s “left hook” proved abortive, becoming in the face of resistance with a German core no more than the preliminary to a series of frontal assaults that transformed the Sicilian campaign from the lightning operation originally projected into an attritional struggle prefiguring the long, painful climb up the Italian boot. Alexander, however, had authorized the 7th Army to advance into western Sicily as long as that did not put the 8th Army’s flank in jeopardy. And because by no stretch of the imagination did Montgomery’s flank ever face serious danger, the 7th Army’s commander was free to take a fresh look at his maps.
Alexander, Patton declared, had “no idea of the power or speed of American armies.” Patton proposed to show him, multiplying striking power by dividing the 7th Army. Two divisions would drive straight north to the Tyrhennian coast; three more would overrun western Sicily and capture the port city of Palermo. The 7th Army would then advance from the west on Messina, presumably cutting off the Axis forces facing Montgomery. It was a mechanized version of the fencer’s coup de Jarnac: coming in behind an opponent with a hamstringing slash. The wider the sweep, the better the chances of fundamentally disorganizing the enemy’s base and rear areas, throwing him into self-reinforcing confusion.
Patton’s critics tend to dismiss the plan as an ego trip designed to increase the visibility of both the U.S. forces in Italy and their commander. On the other hand, Patton’s reading of the Germans was that they were particularly accomplished in defensive operations, especially on ground like that along Montgomery’s line of advance. The Italians were at their best in set-pieces where their German allies were close at hand. And it was no unfounded disrespect to Montgomery to recognize that his metier was the prepared attack. Put together, this was a recipe for delay. By contrast, the two-stage envelopment Patton proposed responded to the developing tactical situation; to the qualities of the U.S. Army as Patton perceived them; and to Patton’s concept of mobile war, which dismissed the German Tiger tank, with its formidable armor protection and its 88-millimeter gun, as a little more than a mobile pillbox, dangerous only when a Sherman was directly in its sights.
With that kind of confidence, Patton had little trouble obtaining Alexander’s consent to his plan—and receiving as well an indirect warning from Eisenhower that he must “stand up to Alexander” at the risk of being relieved! Though the operation showcased American logistical capacity and physical endurance more directly than fighting power, Patton exuberantly informed his diary that Fort Leavenworth would study the drive across western Sicily as a classic example of the use of tanks. Scattered Italian forces put up limited resistance, while the 3rd Infantry Division marched more than a hundred miles through mountainous terrain in three days—as good as the Wehrmacht’s best. That was paradigmatic for Patton’s way of war. “Old Sweat and Guts” would have been a more appropriate nickname than the more familiar version for this believer in maneuver operations. But with resistance in most of the island broken, and the Stars and Stripes flying alongside the Union Jack over Palermo by July 21, Patton was entitled to enjoy the perquisites of establishing his headquarters in the city’s royal palace.
Two days later, the 45th Division, showing its high quality in its first campaign, reached the Tyrrhenian Sea and cut Sicily literally in half. At that point, with his own advance still making heavy weather of it in the hills of eastern Sicily, Montgomery requested what the Mafia would call a sit-down, congratulating Patton on his successes and asking him to visit Montgomery’s headquarters to discuss the fate of Messina. To his incredulous counterpart, Montgomery recommended that the 7th Army advance east along the coast and occupy the city. Alexander arrived just in time to be informed of the new dispensation.
Montgomery’s many critics, most of them Americans, consistently underrate both his professionalism and his egocentricity. To the 8th Army’s commander, the operational situation had changed sufficiently in the past week to make his proposed revision of Allied strategy the optimal procedure. It was correspondingly natural that Patton and Alexander agree. Sealing the bargain by giving Patton what the latter described as a five-cent lighter was an equally natural action. After a reciprocal visit to Patton’s headquarters a few days later, he noted that, “The Americans are delightful people and are very easy to work with . . .” At least he did not expect Patton to tug his forelock deferentially.
A still-suspicious Patton, for his part, described the capture of Messina as “a horse race in which the prestige of the U S Army is at stake.” By now, few American senior officers did not have their own personal mental files of what they processed as insufferable and inappropriate condescending behavior by their allies. American military culture was to a significant degree more overtly competitive than Britain’s. Perhaps the British army’s heritage of standing in second place to the Royal Navy combined with a history of defeat and embarrassment to leave the soldiers fewer illusions and thicker skins than their American allies. Certainly Patton took the Messina sweepstakes seriously enough to assume what amounted to personal charge of the operation, securing landing craft and fire support for a series of three amphibious end runs around enemy defensive positions, berating his best division commander for alleged lack of initiative and just as quickly standing down when Lucian Truscott pushed back. Patton’s behavior did nothing to accelerate the date of Messina’s capitulation, which occurred on August 17. But his profane insistence on picking up the pace and his constant unannounced appearances in the front lines had other, far-reaching consequences.
Throughout the war, it was Patton’s custom to visit field hospitals unannounced, distributing Purple Hearts and engaging the less seriously wounded in conversations that were no less well motivated for being inevitably one-sided. On the afternoon of August 3, he paused at the 15th Evacuation Hospital. “All were brave and cheerful,” he recorded—until he encountered a soldier who informed the general “I guess I can’t take it.” Patton swore at him and called him a coward. When the man remained motionless, Patton struck him across the face with a glove, dragged him to his feet by his shirt collar, and kicked him out of the tent with a flurry of insults. That night he noted in his diary that such cowards, if they continued to shirk their duty, should be court-martialed and shot. Two days later, he issued a general memorandum to the same effect. The soldier in question was diagnosed as suffering from chronic dysentery and malaria, as well as combat fatigue.
On August 10, the event was repeated at the 93rd Evacuation Hospital. Again Patton began by talking to patients about their wounds. The fourth soldier he encountered told the general, “It’s my nerves.” The general called him “a goddamned coward,” “a yellow son of a bitch,” and “a disgrace to the Army”; told him he ought to be shot; and threatened to do it himself, flourishing one of the pistols he habitually wore. When he turned to leave and saw the soldier still crying, Patton hit him hard enough to knock off his helmet liner. “It makes my blood boil,” he declared, “to think of a yellow bastard being babied.” Later testimony described the patient as having begged to stay with his unit until ordered into hospital by the medical officer.
The slapping incidents have generated more discussion than any single element of George Patton’s tumultuous career. To borrow a phrase from novelist Herman Wouk, hounding officers is standard emotional ping-pong for generals, but the regulations bristle with the rights of enlisted men. Patton had committed two court-martial offenses merely by striking the soldiers; zealous perusal of the Uniform Code of Military Justice could probably have unearthed a dozen more.
The commander of the hospital, shocked and enraged by the general’s behavior, sent a detailed report through medical channels to II Corps’s chief of staff. Bradley ordered it held confidential. Patton was his superior, he explained; loyalty prohibited taking the matter over his head. It was also unnecessary. Patton’s behavior was not only as public as it was possible to be; he boasted of it to Bradley, claiming he had put fight into a coward. The corps surgeon received a copy of the report and submitted it to Eisenhower’s chief surgeon. The story spread quickly in journalistic, medical, and command networks, losing nothing in the telling, reaching even Alexander’s ears. The correspondents attached to the 7th Army verified the incident in general terms, then met to discuss its handling. Although no one was willing to file the story, they agreed that it was their responsibility to inform Eisenhower directly.
The commander in chief’s initial reaction was that the incidents, although unfortunate, called for nothing more than a “jacking up.” His mind began to change as he thought about the ramifications—and once the correspondents’ delegation requested an appointment. Accounts have varied over time as to whether the newsmen wanted Patton relieved in exchange for keeping the story quiet, or whether instead they simply made plain their conviction that Eisenhower take significant action. In any case, the situation was explosive. On August 17, Eisenhower wrote to Patton that if the allegations in the reports he had received were true, then “I must so seriously question your good judgment and your self-discipline as to raise serious doubt in my mind as to your future usefulness.” Eisenhower then instructed Patton to offer “such personal amends to the individuals concerned as may be within your power.”
Dwight Eisenhower was no headquarters naïf. The AEF had spawned an underground of anecdotes of soldiers taken into combat on the toe of a shoe or at the point of a gun. As for Patton’s language, most regiments of the interwar Army had at least one or two old-school officers who prided themselves in peeling paint off the walls when addressing an enlisted recalcitrant. Nor was Patton by any means the first and only officer to strike an enlisted man in front of witnesses. The resolution of choice was a “man-to-man apology” offered and accepted under the eye of a senior officer of the unit. Egregious or systematic abuse usually resulted in a discreet transfer or a resignation “for the good of the service.” But nothing remotely like these incidents had ever happened before in all Patton’s history of over-the-top behavior. Indeed, as a young lieutenant he had voluntarily and publicly apologized to a soldier for swearing at him.
Great generals, Eisenhower mused to his naval aide, had often gone temporarily crazy under stress. In any army, he continued, two-thirds of the soldiers are natural cowards and skulkers. Making them fear public ridicule was one way of forcing them to fight: Patton’s methods might be deplorable, but his results were excellent. Moreover, even though Patton had exercised operational command for a total of less than three months, Eisenhower considered him the Army’s best senior armor officer, a man who would be needed in future campaigns.
Given Patton’s still very limited experience, Eisenhower might be described as “betting on the come.” He understood clearly, however, that at the best of it, most of the corps and armies that invaded Europe would be led by men inexperienced in the positions they held. The only other general officer in the Mediterranean who had as yet shown himself even arguably ready for high-level command was Omar Bradley, and Bradley was an infantryman.
Eisenhower’s conundrum was a product of the convergence of four separate threads, each in its way highlighting a corresponding aspect of World War II. The first was personal: the character of George S. Patton. The commander of the 93rd Evacuation Hospital characterized him as “a nasty bully.” At least one staff officer in Tunisia was so frightened of Patton that he allegedly suffered a breakdown. General John Lucas, whom Eisenhower had assigned to the 7th Army’s headquarters as his representative before the invasion, processed the first incident as “Patton being Patton”: an unfortunate side effect of the hard-driving personality that made him an effective commander. One of the privates Patton struck later observed that the general seemed to be suffering from combat fatigue himself, and Patton was certainly functioning in a high-stress environment throughout the Sicilian campaign, even if he did generate much of the stress by his own command decisions. He was pushing sixty and had used his body hard most of his life—there were good reasons why Marshall was reluctant to assign older generals to combat commands.
The account Patton offered his patron and former commander Kenyon Joyce is probably as close to a self-critical explanation as he came. He described being overcome to the point of tears by the courage of the desperately wounded men he initially encountered. When he encountered someone who looked and whined like a cowardly rat and rejected admonition to act like a man, “something burst in me . . . I was a damned fool.” The second incident had the same background, “and in that I was equally a damned fool.”
It is clear enough that Patton regretted his behavior rather than rejecting his belief that battle fatigue was a euphemism for cowardice. For the rest of his life, he believed he had done both men a favor by challenging a manhood that had been temporarily eclipsed. But Patton’s behavior had more complex roots. Sucessful generals rarely suffer from inferiority complexes. Clausewitz describes war as the province of danger and considers courage the first quality of a warrior. It is unusual for a physical coward to rise to high rank in any army. At the same time, “to everything there is a season,” and the appropriate time to manifest physical courage is in the junior ranks. A senior officer, like an experienced eighteenth-century duelist, is considered to have “given his proofs”: a general who routinely behaves like a lieutenant is doing two jobs badly.
Seniors’ courage is usually understood in moral terms: the ability to make decisions and abide by them. Erwin Rommel, blunt and matter-of-fact, took charge of front-line situations in what he considered emergencies. Though Rommel was not averse to showing off occasionally to journalists and other rear-echelon types, the courage he demonstrated was essentially a requirement of a particular situation. The high-strung, imaginative Patton by contrast in Tunisia wrote to his wife of his “fear of fear” and then walked through an uncleared minefield. When he went ashore on Sicily, he timed his pulse rate and was “disgusted” at finding it elevated. He systematically recorded his near misses from air attacks and shellfire. Nigel Hamilton, Montgomery’s biographer, interprets this behavior as an effort to reject his “shyness” and “timidity,” suggesting even that Patton’s front-line appearances were “extremely rare” in the context of his heroic reputation. A more nuanced interpretation is that Patton considered moral courage the primary requisite of a commander, believed that form of courage to be directly congruent with physical courage, and believed he best monitored his fitness for command by testing his nerve.
Front-line soldiers cope with terrors more immediate than death—helplessness and mutilation stand out in particular. Patton’s fear of being seriously wounded again is a recurring subject in both his diary and his letters home during the preliminaries to the Sicilian invasion. There is a certain irony in Patton, so often presented as a throwback, taking what amounts to a late-twentieth-century approach to his “core issue” by confronting it directly. It seems correspondingly reasonable to suggest that in Patton’s case, visiting hospitals was part of an ongoing comprehensive process of self-mastery that he regarded as necessary to maintain his effectiveness as a commander and his identity as a man.
It seems no less reasonable to assert that Patton in Sicily tested himself across the board, to near-destruction. Might there have been a connection between Patton’s learning on the morning of July 3 that Eisenhower planned to award him the Distinguished Service Cross for his conduct on the beach, and his apparently impulsive decision to stop off at the 15th Evacuation Hospital to put his courage to another test? Perhaps what Patton’s headquarters lacked above all was an aide sufficiently attuned to the Old Man to sense the underlying dynamics of his hospital visitations, and possessing sufficient force of character to steer him away from them the same way his subordinates sought to limit his high-risk trips up front.
In a short story by science-fiction author Roland J. Green published in an anthology titled Alternate Generals, Patton visits the hospital and encounters the soldier, but instead of flying into a rage, remembers the men he lost in the Argonne. He declares that it is not cowardly to be scared, that there are no cowards in the American Army. He prescribes a good meal, some sleep, and a stiff drink of medicinal whisky, then leaves before he bursts into tears. In Green’s alternate reality, the incident becomes public and Patton becomes a national hero for his insight and his empathy. He commands the invasion of Italy, captures Rome in a matter of weeks, and returns to the United States in triumph on the inside track for command of the Normandy invasion. The irony is that Patton, mercurial and sentimental, was in fact just as capable of the fictional response as the actual one. After the war, he visited the amputee ward of Walter Reed Hospital, resplendent in full uniform. Suddenly he burst into tears, saying, “Goddammit, if I had been a better general, most of you would not be here.” That, too, was George Patton.
The slapping incidents also came at a time when military psychiatry was on the cusp of a major change. During the Great War, AEF psychiatrists, like their counterparts in the French and British armies, concluded that battle stress was best treated close to the battle zone, as soon as possible, with everyday responses like food, rest, and showers, and with the stated assumption that the soldier would return to his unit. During the interwar years, a more Freudian approach became dominant. That perspective interpreted battle exhaustion as a subset of all adult dysfunction: a manifestation of childhood trauma. The national mobilization of 1940-1941 institutionalized this approach in the armed forces. Its principal thrust was to avert collapse at the front by screening out those considered susceptible to psychiatric breakdown before they entered the service, or when necessary discharging them during training—the well-known “Section 8.” More than a million and a half registrants were turned away on mental or educational grounds. Discharge rates for psychiatric reasons were two and a half times as high as during World War I.
Despite the multiple screening processes, during the North African campaign, the rate of “neuropsychiatric” casualties soared. They were treated essentially like all other casualties: moved away from the combat zones as rapidly as possible, then evacuated to the United States if recovery was prolonged. Because collective medical wisdom considered their circumstances as blameless, in practice, psychiatric casualties received the same levels of what might be called sympathy from doctors, nurses, and orderlies as did men with combat wounds.
There were two problems with this approach. One was medical, and became apparent as the evacuation pipeline developed: psychiatric casualties did not improve in anything like the numbers expected. Instead, their symptoms frequently grew worse the farther they were removed from the front. The second problem was military. The ordinary soldier preferred to consider himself sick rather than afraid. Battle stress offered a correspondingly honorable, potentially permanent way out of combat. A young captain, Fred Hanson, who had previously worked with the Canadian army, was assigned to II Corps in the aftermath of Kasserine Pass—about the same time as Patton. He introduced an alternate form of treatment based on the AEF experience. Built around rest and sedation, it was predicated on keeping patients as far forward as possible, in a context of overt expectation that they would quickly return to duty. Hanson’s early figures showed as many as 30 percent of acute cases were back on the line within thirty hours.
It required time and effort to implement the new approach. Not until D-day was army policy on psychiatric casualties fully established. It defined “combat exhaustion” as a medical emergency. Most army psychiatrists accepted what had become collective wisdom in front-line units: everyone is scared; everybody breaks. Exhaustion was a near-universal consequence of somewhere between ninety and a hundred twenty days in combat. Treatment, incorporating sedation for up to seventy-two hours and a matter-of-fact regime of hot food and clean clothes as well as psychiatric consultation, was applied as far forward as possible, even at battalion aid stations. Its objective was to return as many exhaustion cases as possible to the front for as long as possible. Three quarters and more went back to the line, at least for a while.
This harsher, more realistic reorientation of the approach to battle exhaustion certainly had no room for generals cursing and striking privates. It is nevertheless reasonable to suggest that had Patton’s loss of self-control occurred a few months later, it would have been in a medical environment, where the approach to combat fatigue incorporated more of George Patton than Sigmund Freud—and just possibly, a climate more sympathetic to Patton’s argument that exhaustion cases, however legitimate, left their share of the burden to their comrades. In war, timing is everything.
Patton’s behavior was also processed in the context of a paradigm shift in war reporting. For practical purposes, war correspondents did not exist in the United States of 1939. The nation’s mobilization was covered by reporters who transferred from other specialties and learned the nuances of their new beat while on the job. One result was a flourishing of a variant form of celebrity journalism. Focusing on personalities was a familiar way of reaching a mass audience: from Babe Ruth or Clark Gable to George Patton was not a major adjustment. Celebrity reporting continued well after the first overseas deployments. In July 1943, Time magazine captioned a photo of Patton with a quotation: “It makes no difference what part of Europe you kill Germans in.” But the North African campaign inaugurated a change in emphasis.
In part, that was a consequence of an initial policy limiting journalistic access to the fighting. With little real reporting to do, they began filing human interest stories about home-town boys at war in an exotic land. Ernie Pyle proved himself a particular master of the genre. For several yeas before the war, he had written a nationally syndicated column focusing on the lives and hopes of ordinary Americans coping with the depression. He applied the same approach to depicting the lives of ordinary soldiers coping with the war and became a national figure widely imitated by his colleagues.
The Pyle approach did not abandon celebrity journalism. It transformed GI Joe into a celebrity, giving every American in uniform at least the prospect of the proverbial fifteen minutes of fame. In this structure, generals were remote figures, having little to do with the grim, everyday realities of combat. If exceptions were made, they were for those senior officers who came on as homespun, rumpled, and unassuming—men like Omar Bradley. Pyle in particular “discovered” Bradley, consistently depicting him as “so modest and sincere that he probably will not get his proper credit . . .” “Having him in command,” Pyle declared, “has been a blessed good fortune for America.”
A few years after the war, T. Harry Williams, then at the beginning of a distinguished career as a military historian, described American military leaders as either “Ikes,” open, friendly and down-home, or “Macs.” Exemplified by George B. McClellan and Douglas MacArthur, “Macs” were haughty, cold, theatrical, and elitist. Applying the same template to combat commanders and we get the “Georgies” and the “Brads.” Both are stereotypes—arguably caricatures, and best not taken too seriously. But Pyle’s brand of publicity helped Bradley emerge as the media’s archetype of an American general. It also helped nurture Bradley’s increasingly open dislike for Patton. Bradley was a poor man’s son whose wife was a mortal foe of alcohol in any form. Having spent his military life in obscurity, uncomfortable with the trappings of rank, Bradley was disgusted by the flamboyance that was by now as natural to Patton as breathing. Patton’s close supervision of Bradley’s corps, amounting to interference on occasion, during the early stages of the Sicilian campaign only exacerbated the friction. Bradley came to consider his superior incapable of thinking through either his personal behavior or his operational plans—“a shallow general” and a glory hunter.
Higher headquarters in any army are nurseries of gossip and innuendo that take their cue from the commanding general. By the end of the Sicilian campaign, Bradley’s II Corps was a focal point of anti-Patton anecdotes, with even the nurses invited as dinner guests contributing to a discussion of the 7th Army’s commanding general as a posturing vulgarian.
Potentially more serious were a series of atrocities committed against Italian prisoners of war and Sicilian civilians by members of the green 45th Division. The perpetrators’ defense was that they had been following Patton’s orders to take no prisoners. Their evidence was a speech made to members of the division before the landing, in which among other admonitions Patton said killers were immortal, “We will show no mercy,” and urged killing anyone who fought to the last ditch and then attempted surrender. Because the shootings were impossible to deny and the principal ones did not occur in the heat of combat, the only possible defense was to involve the chain of command high enough up the ladder that the system would have to bury the matter.
It did not work. That defense seldom does before a military court. After a detailed investigation, eventually Patton was exonerated by the Inspector-General’s office of suborning murder.
The incidents themselves best suggest interpretation as part of the filth of war, reflections of fear, ignorance, and misjudgment rather than command policy. Some of that misjudgment was Patton’s. Like most senior officers with experience in Tunisia, he had become increasingly concerned with motivating American soldiers to aggressive 'margin-bottom:6.0pt;text-align:justify;text-indent: 12.0pt;line-height:normal'>Patton probably did accept on-the-spot denial of quarter to combatants visibly resisting, then seeking to give up at close range—a technical violation of the laws of war, but one widely practiced and usually overlooked in twentieth-century armies. What is certain is that Bradley, who ordered the initial courts-martial, was outraged—one more point on a mental list of Patton’s defects that was growing as long and heavy as Jacob Marley’s chain.
It was against this background that Patton embarked on a series of apologies. The two enlisted men were perfectly willing to shake hands—as one of them accurately observed, “I could not imagine anything similar happening in any other army.” The hospital staffs remained collectively unimpressed. In addressing the rest of the 7th Army, Patton usually expressed a generalized regret for incidents he described as best forgotten, in the aggressively profane, scatological style that was by now his trademark.
Reactions varied. One regiment is described by a participant as cheering Patton to the echo; other troops of the same division are said to have inflated condoms and released them during his speech. Responses to the apology seem in general to have been influenced strongly by the degree to which units were inconvenienced to hear it; tired men were on the whole more indifferent or antagonistic. The increasingly dominant reaction, for those who gave a damn, seemed close to Eisenhower’s original reflections, which shaped the text of his detailed report to the Secretary of War. There was a lot of war still to fight, and if everyone who temporarily lost control of himself were to receive a ticket stateside, those left to fight it would be few indeed.
The story nevertheless continued to snowball. Bob Hope and his troupe, after a command-performance dinner with Patton in Palermo, encountered Ernie Pyle, who described the slapping in detail and called Patton a son of a bitch. The Associated Press bureau chief heard about it in the airport at Marrakesh. Its domestic breakthrough came on November 21, when Washington journalist and radio personality Drew Pearson delivered a broadside on his weekly radio program. Pearson was to journalism what Patton was to soldiering: a flamboyant, controversial polemicist. His admirers called him a crusader; his foes—and targets—denounced him as a scandalmonger. He had been leaked the story by a contact in the Office of Strategic Services but paid it little attention. Pearson’s current primary target was Secretary of State Cordell Hull, whom he denounced as delaying a second front because he wanted to see Russia bleed white. Roosevelt replied by calling Pearson a chronic liar. Following his familiar pattern, Pearson sought to change the subject and brought up the Patton story from his files.
Immediately America’s journalistic community began bombarding its representatives on the spot for corroboration or denial. This was an era when “scoops” and “inside stories” dominated reporting. There was ample material for both on the wind in Sicily and more to be unearthed by asking the right questions in the right quarters. In the context of the developing cult of the GI, Patton made a vulnerable target even apart from his specific behavior. Novelist John P. Marquand, visiting his headquarters in the immediate aftermath of the scandal, wrote him down—and off—as “a tactless, high-strung, profane officer with a one-cell, juvenile mind.”
More was involved, however, than a Fourth Estate feeding frenzy. The eighteen months after Pearl Harbor had been a time of anxiety, a time of rallying around the flag, a time of searching for larger-than-life heroes. Now the emergency was over. The German and Japanese empires were recoiling. The Soviet Union was safe from destruction—an issue important to an American Left strongly conditioned to view Stalin’s “grand experiment” sympathetically. As the war moved into its midgame and America extended its mobilization, other questions were beginning to surface. It was increasingly clear that Roosevelt would stand for a fourth term in the coming presidential elections. What might a victory portend for America’s democracy and constitution? Yet a Republican Party dominated by Robert Taft and Thomas E. Dewey was an unpalatable alternative to the New Deal intelligentsia. No less to the point, the American people had taken to the war with an unexpected gusto. Was there not a danger of a Man on Horseback emerging as a consequence of victory?
In such contexts, Patton’s behavior took on aspects impossible for his military superiors to ignore. Public opinion, perhaps lagging behind the elites, on the whole supported Patton as a colorful winner. Some congressmen and editorial writers demanded his recall. One representative, an Iowa Republican, wondered whether the Army had too much “blood and guts” and expressed concern that parents might worry about “hard boiled officers” abusing their sons in uniform. Marshall and Secretary of War Edward Stimson responded by stressing the need for Patton’s “aggressive, winning leadership in the bitter battles which are to come.” Marshall, whose iconic status was by this time extending to Capitol Hill as well as the White House, paid similar respects to Patton as a warrior.
They were doing little more than paraphrasing Eisenhower’s communication to Marshall of August 27. “Patton,” Ike declared, “is preeminently a combat commander . . . the first thing that usually slows up operations is an element of caution, fatigue, or doubt on the part of a higher commander.” Patton was never affected by these, and consequently his troops and his subordinate commanders were not affected. Patton was also “a one sided individual . . . apt at times to display exceedingly poor judgment and unjustified temper” when dealing with subordinates. But as Eisenhower put it in a letter of September 6, Patton was “a truly aggressive commander and, moreover, one with sufficient brains to do his work in a splendid fashion.” In other words, the Patton package was worth buying, despite its risks.
A consistent element of Eisenhower’s discussions of the slapping incident was his assertion, stated or implied, that he could handle Patton. His chosen approach in the final months of 1943 was to keep him off-balance, reminding him at frequent and unpredictable intervals that his career hung by a thread and Eisenhower had hold of the scissors. Patton grumbled and sulked, resorted occasionally to sleeping pills, criticized Eisenhower bitterly in private, and noted carefully in his diary and letters any signs of Eisenhower’s returning goodwill.
On September 2, Eisenhower informed Patton that Bradley would be transferred to Britain as an army commander to participate in planning the cross-channel attack. The news generated no reaction. Perhaps Patton believed it prefigured his own transfer to an even higher command. He certainly believed he and his 7th Army staff, combat experienced and with landings in Morocco and Sicily on their résumé, were professionally qualified to spearhead the invasion. And when it came to inspiring men to the desperate effort required to crack open Hitler’s Fortress Europe, Patton considered himself second to none.
Four days later he was undeceived by two cables from Washington. The first stood down the 7th Army, transferring all its combat units, leaving only the headquarters. The second confirmed Bradley’s appointment and suggested “the prestige of Seventh Army” would prove of great advantage in the follow-up to the Normandy invasion. Patton had hoped to command that invasion. “The second [cable] ruined me,” he wrote in his diary.
Did the slapping incident cost George Patton the command and the role in Overlord that eventually went to Bradley? Its military consequences are best addressed in the context of Eisenhower’s professional growth, his focusing and harnessing of his talents in a task no American general had ever faced. In Tunisia, he had been in truth little more than a chairman of the board, brokering among squabbling allies. Sicily took him a long way further on the path to greatness in High Command by testing him at choosing and developing subordinates.
Eisenhower’s problem was exacerbated by the Allies’ decision, finalized at Casablanca, to pursue a Mediterranean option by invading Italy as in the aftermath of Sicily’s fall while simultaneously preparing for the invasion of Northwest Europe. As a consequence, Eisenhower had created two army headquarters. In January 1943, the 5th U.S. Army was activated and given primary responsibility for planning ahead to the Italian beaches. Its designated commander was Lieutenant General Mark Clark, Eisenhower’s deputy for the North African landings. Patton’s 7th Army and its commander would be responsible for Sicily and then become available for service as required, presumably in the invasion of Europe. Bradley was designated as Clark’s understudy, giving him an opportunity to indicate whether he possessed, or might develop, ability above corps level.
The assignments precisely reflected seniority. Clark outranked Patton; Patton outranked Bradley. Eisenhower understood the axiom that any hand can be a loser or a winner, depending on how it is played. And Mark Clark was a card often overlooked by historians. Eisenhower admired Clark’s intellect and regarded him as the U.S. Army’s outstanding planner and amphibious specialist. Eisenhower was by now well aware that the choice for supreme command of Overlord lay between him and Marshall. If he could produce a command-experienced, operationally tested senior team of Clark with his reputation for cool intelligence commanding the army group, with the steady Bradley and a chastened Patton each seeking to outdo the other as his subordinates at army level, this would serve the war effort in a way the Washington-bound chief of staff could not match, even should the eventual assignments be different.
Events transformed the prospect to ephemera. Clark’s plan for the Italian landings proved seriously flawed. The Germans were waiting at Salerno and came within an ace of driving the invaders into the sea. Clark performed heroically at a captain’s level, but his conduct of later operations showed no sign of either superior command abilities or an inspiring personality. In the face of a defense brilliantly organized and commanded by none other than Kesselring, the Allies made haste slowly up the peninsula, stalling in front of a Gustav Line Clark proved unable to breach despite increasingly high casualties. His relations with Alexander, his superior, his British colleagues, and even the French, who made a significant contribution to the campaign, correspondingly deteriorated. At the same time, Clark acquired a reputation among his own subordinates as a cold, contentious, selfish egomaniac.
The metastasizing crisis caused by Patton’s self-indulgent behavior was arguably less significant for Eisenhower’s future than Clark’s failure to step up in the field. Eisenhower abandoned any serious consideration of supporting him for a high command in Overlord. For a time, he even considered relieving his disappointing subordinate. On September 25, Marshall became directly involved when he radioed Eisenhower to the effect that since July he had been under pressure to appoint a U.S. Army commander to work with the British in planning Overlord. His choice was Omar Bradley. Could Eisenhower spare him?
The request was arguably the best news of its kind Eisenhower had heard in months. He respected Bradley’s character and ability. Before the landings in Sicily, Eisenhower even mentioned to Patton that should Sicily become a slugging match, he might put Bradley in charge and recall Patton to prepare for the next operation. In Sicily, Bradley had shown more awareness of logistical issues than Patton appeared to. He had demonstrated competence in handling infantry on a restricted battlefield. And by the end of the campaign, he had accumulated more time in combat command than any senior officer in the Mediterranean—Patton included. None of this had escaped Marshall’s notice, and Eisenhower’s response was the proverbial no-brainer. While making sure the Chief of Staff knew how much he had come to depend on Bradley, Eisenhower characterized him as “the best rounded combat leader I have yet met in our service” despite “possibly” lacking some of Patton’s driving power. The rest was a process of cutting Bradley’s transfer orders.
For practical purposes, there is no evidence anywhere that George Patton was ever at the top of the short list to command on D-day. There is, indeed, no evidence that a short list for the job existed. The U.S. Army’s fundamental institutional problem was more basic: to find anyone at all who could bring an army to shore, keep it there, and break out of the beachheads. As a practical matter, that someone had to be from the European theater. It would be too embarrassing to appoint a D-day commander who had served his apprenticeship in the Pacific under the Navy, the Marines, and Douglas MacArthur. D-day, moreover, was an operation that, for a broad spectrum of reasons, could be mounted only once. That made it a correspondingly unacceptable risk to assign someone like General Devers, who by this time was commanding the administrative headquarters in England. If nothing else, the British, who were putting the last of their resources into the operation, were sure to object.
That left three possibilities: Clark, Patton, and Bradley. Clark took himself out of the running at Salerno and afterward. Taken on the record, Bradley cannot be said to have clearly matched or surpassed Patton in generalship or command ability in Tunisia and Sicily. What he had done, partly by design, was establish himself as Patton’s opposite. Whatever Patton did, Bradley came to mind as a counterpoint. It was flamboyance and convention, daring and steadiness, and not least cavalry and infantry—which, in 1943, still mattered.
Neither Eisenhower nor Marshall seem to have regarded Patton as in practice particularly hard to handle. His buttons were obvious and easily pushed. As Eisenhower observed to Marshall, Patton’s “intense loyalty to you and to me makes it possible for me to treat him much more roughly than I could any other commander.” The problem was that Patton required handling. Bradley did not, and anything diminishing the complexity and the unpredictability of D-day was likely to be welcomed with open arms. A U.S. Army that in 1942 had been almost cavalierly optimistic in evaluating a landing in northwest Europe was increasingly influenced by the British perspective on the difficulties facing that operation. The more specific the planning became, the clearer it appeared that getting ashore would be no bagatelle and might demand special qualities from the responsible generals. Was the high-strung, labile Patton the best choice for an operation that might turn into a meatgrinder? Would not the constricted landing zone offer better scope for Bradley’s particular tactical abilities? Bradley might be a good plain cook to Patton’s gourmet chef, but he seemed less likely to produce military indigestion. Or—just perhaps—old-time infantrymen like Marshall and Eisenhower preferred to go to war riding a gelding rather than a stallion.
Patton’s public behavior remained correct. He turned out a band and an honor guard for Bradley’s courtesy call and lent his personal C-47 for the first leg of Bradley’s flight to England. Bradley, less than gracious in triumph, responded by describing his former superior as brought to his knees and in a near-suicidal mental state. Patton was certainly miserable enough in the final months of 1943—a condition probably not improved by the stream of advice from friends and well-wishers to keep his chin up while mending his ways. “Send me some more pink medicine,” he wrote Bea. “This worry and inactivity has raised hell with my insides.” He nevertheless expected his turn to come again. “On occasion it is best to do nothing,” he wrote, “and however repellent it is to my character, I am doing exactly that.”
By December 1943, President Roosevelt’s fear that he could not rest nights without George Marshall in Washington finally outweighed the chief of staff’s desire for field command. The prize, as increasingly expected, went to Eisenhower. Patton learned of the appointment on December 7. In discussing his likely future with Assistant Secretary of War John J. Mc Cloy, he was told Marshall approved his having an army. Presidential advisor Harry Hopkins informed him the slapping incident was closed. In preparing Patton’s efficiency report, Eisenhower rated him “Superior” for the second half of 1943, ranked him fifth among two dozen lieutenant generals, and recommended him for command of an army. He concluded by saying Patton should always serve under “a strong but understanding commander.” Readers were free to fill in the name of that general.
During December, in discussing senior appointments for Overlord with Marshall, Eisenhower reiterated his choice of Patton as one of his army commanders. Bradley would lead the assault; Patton would command the follow-up army. But when that second army took the field and warranted forming an army group, Bradley would move up to command it. “In no event,” Eisenhower stated, “will I ever advance Patton beyond army command,” and Patton would always serve under the steadier Bradley.
In one sense the question was moot. If Bradley brought victory on D-day, his promotion would be deserved. If the invasion failed, Eisenhower would be in no position to recommend anybody for anything. “I should have a group of armies,” Patton commented, “but that will come. I think my luck is in again.” He spent most of December in a series of highly publicized tours of the Mediterranean—part of a general plan to keep German attention focused on that theater. He explored ruins, Norman, Greek, Roman, Carthaginian, and ruminated on the follies of history. He visited Malta at the invitation of the governor. He visited the 5th Army in Italy and recorded a set of predictably scathing comments on Clark’s ability and his conduct of the campaign. On January 1, he was formally relieved of the 7th Army’s command, which was simultaneously tasked with planning Operation Anvil, the invasion of southern France developed by the Allied High Command as a counterpoint to Overlord. Disappointed at leaving a staff that had served him loyally in both victory and adversity, Patton characterized Bradley as “a man of great mediocrity” and wondered if his ultimate fate would be a training assignment in England.
Marshall came up with another possibility when he asked Eisenhower about returning Patton to the 7th Army and placing him in charge of the invasion of southern France instead of Clark, who had been penciled in for the appointment. Eisenhower agreed that if Clark remained in Italy, Patton’s prestige, his experience in the theater, and his remarkably good relations with the French favored the move. On the other hand, Devers, who would replace Eisenhower as senior U.S. Army officer in the Mediterranean, and Patton were “not congenial”—a clear reference to Eisenhower’s earlier comment about the “strong but understanding commander” Patton needed.
Marshall promptly dropped the subject. Yet it is tempting to speculate on the course of events had Patton led the 7th Army onto the beaches of Marseilles. Devers’s previous contacts with Patton offered no indication of inability to work with him. In terms of temperament, Patton and the French 1st Army commander Jean de Latttre de Tassigny were natural stablemates: aggressive risk-takers. Patton was far more likely to have empathized with the complex baggage of emotions and attitudes that accompanied the returning French than either Devers or Alexander Patch, transferred from the Pacific, who in the event commanded the 7th Army in a drive up the Loire Valley against German resistance that failed to cope with even the measured pace set by the two American generals. What might Patton have done as the central figure and the driving force of the “champagne campaign”? The question became forever moot on January 22, when he received a cable ordering him to Britain. He left three days later—no less a collection of paradoxes than when he landed in North Africa in the autumn of 1942.
Erwin Rommel spent his first weeks in Germany recovering his health and his equilibrium. He informed his now-teenage son that he had fallen into disgrace and could expect no major assignment for the present. Instead, he underwent a series of “cures” and observed the Reich’s declining positions in Russia, North Africa, and on the air over Germany itself. He worried about his generals as the Tunisian situation deteriorated and sought vainly to convince the High Command to organize an evacuation of technicians and senior officers while time remained. As his energy returned, Rommel also began organizing his memories and experiences in North Africa for what he intended as a work similar to Infantry Attacks but on an operational instead of a tactical level. He made little progress, though the material he collected formed the base for a memoir published in 1950 by his wife and Bayerlein, suggestively titled War Without Hate (Krieg ohne Hass).
This interim ended as the Tunisian campaign approached endgame. On May 8, Rommel was summoned to Berlin. The next afternoon he was once more tête-à-tête with Hitler. “I should have listened to you,” declared the Fuehrer. For the next weeks, he remedied his purported error by soliciting Rommel’s views on the emerging Italian crisis. Hitler had long since lost any confidence he might have had in Italy’s government, its armed forces, and its Fascist Party. There remained, he declared, only the Duce.
Rommel was scarcely reassuring. Goebbels noted that he dismissed Mussolini as a tired old man and made no secret of his opinion that the Italians would not make even a token resistance to an Allied invasion. Italy’s image as a liability instead of an ally was reinforced by the virtual annihilation of its Expeditionary Corps at Stalingrad, by long-simmering disputes over Balkan occupation policy, and by demands for material support that escalated into the ridiculous—in February alone, Italy submitted a wish list including 1,250 tanks, 1,350 antitank guns, and 7,400 trucks, with guns, fuel, and spare parts in proportion.
Hitler was sufficiently concerned to consider canceling the projected offensive in Russia that he intended would reverse the consequences of Stalingrad. On May 15, he spoke of stripping the Eastern front of a dozen divisions to rush into Italy with or without its government’s approval should the Allies invade. The obvious candidate for the job was ordered on May 18 to form a skeleton planning staff for what was christened Operation Alaric—a nice historical touch referring to the sack of Rome by Gothic invaders in 410 C.E.
Rommel, with Gause back in harness as his chief of staff, reported to Berchtesgaden and spent the next weeks planning to move as many as twenty divisions into Italy at Hitler’s word—a word that never came. In his spare time, he attended Hitler’s war conferences as what he described as “a kind of adviser,” but is better understood as living window-dressing. The meetings themselves never came to anything, as much because of their large size and heterogeneous composition as from Hitler’s behavior. They enhanced the concern Rommel had earlier expressed on realizing: “Our star was in decline and . . . how little our command measured up to the trials which lay ahead.”
He later described to his wife and son a long private conversation building on Hitler’s concern for Germany’s Italian position. Rommel focused on Allied war production and asked if Germany could keep pace with the entire world. Hitler supposedly replied that he, too, believed there was little chance of winning the war, but that the West would never conclude peace with him. According to Rommel’s son, his father had another one-on-one encounter with Hitler at the end of July 1943. This time, the Fuehrer raged that if the German people were unable to win the war, they could rot. The best of them were dead, and in any case a great people must die heroically. “Sometimes you feel that he’s no longer quite normal,” was Rommel’s alleged response when telling the story to Lu.
These kinds of anecdotes, by their nature unverifiable, are correspondingly suspect. The memoir literature of the Third Reich in particular is replete with accounts in which the author either speaks unvarnished truth to Hitler or sees him at an unguarded moment of self-revelation. It is, however, not necessary to take Rommel at his literal word to accept the argument that his time at the Burghof encouraged him to focus his doubts about the course of the war and the future of Germany. Rommel’s professional ethos conditioned him to obey the legal political authority embodied in Hitler. He saw Germany’s cause as both legitimate and righteous: the preservation of a Europe ordered under German hegemony. Certainly nothing from either the Russian front or the Combined Bomber Offensive suggested the Allies would be merciful or generous in victory. The “unconditional surrender” proclamation that concluded the Roosevelt-Churchill meeting in Casablanca earlier in the year suggested just the opposite. Was Adolf Hitler the man to bring Germany through the greatest challenge of its history? Once, perhaps, yes. Now—?
Another encounter, suggesting a different perspective, also took place in July. On the first of the month, Hitler returned to his East Prussian headquarters for the start of Operation Citadel. Rommel accompanied him, to the benefit of a headquarters rumor mill that quickly had the Fuehrer naming Rommel commander in chief of the army. Erich von Manstein, another of the army’s masters of armored war, was recalled to Rastenburg for consultation during the Battle of Kursk and met Rommel for the first time under casual circumstances—as casual as possible, because Manstein was enjoying a swim au naturel in a nearby lake. Rommel informed his colleague that he was taking a sunlamp cure: soaking up sun and faith. Lest he meaning be mistaken, when Manstein asked if they would meet later Rommel replied, “Yes, under the sunlamp.” The reference to Hitler was impossible to miss.
Was Rommel in fact seeking a renewal of his optimism in Hitler’s dynamic presence? Or was there a hint of irony, even sarcasm, in his choice of words? Rommel was seldom given to verbal subtleties. At the same time, he did not know Manstein save by reputation—which at that time still included high standing with the Fuehrer. The possibility that he would even hint of doubts to a complete stranger, even a fellow tanker, is vanishingly small, especially given the passionate desire to return to active command reflected in another July meeting, this one with Fritz Bayerlein.
Bayerlein had been evacuated sick from Tunisia just before the collapse, with a brilliant record as both a staff officer and a troop commander that he considered owed much to Rommel’s mentoring. He, too, was summoned to Rastenburg for a consultation, and Rommel took the opportunity to discuss the need for a completely new approach to the war. For the next few years, he declared, there was no possibility of resuming the offensive anywhere. That meant a comprehensive shift to the defense: producing fighters instead of bombers; increasing exponentially the number of heavy antitank guns in a division from the current thirty or forty to a hundred or two hundred. (Eventually, he would request no fewer than four hundred.) Generals like Guderian, who called for increasing tank production, were missing the point. It was impossible for Germany to keep pace with the Allies’ outputs. But guns, cheap and simple to manufacture, were another story. Rommel talked of antitank screens six miles deep on the style of the Russian pakfrontscurrently chewing up the Panzers at Kursk. When the troops saw they could hold their ground, morale would soar again.
Nothing there indicates loss of hope. Erwin Rommel in the summer of 1943 maintained an opacity worthy of his Swabian ancestors, hinting at the contents of his hand but never tipping it in a performance any poker player must admire. Destiny did not allow a full-scale clash of armor between Rommel and Patton. Rommel and Eisenhower in an all-night game of five-card draw might have been no less memorable.
Rommel played his cards close enough to the chest to bring him the command he wanted. On July 10, the Allied invasion of Sicily began. Initially, Rommel’s staff was ordered to Greece to prepare for the contingency of a second landing in the peninsula. Then on July 24-25, a palace coup deposed Mussolini. The new head of state, Marshal Pietro Badoglio, promptly opened armistice negotiations with Eisenhower. A confused Hitler ordered Rommel back to Germany and put him in charge of implementing the German response: occupying Italy before either Badoglio or the Allies could react.
Rommel, though forbidden by Hitler to cross the frontier himself, by most accounts enjoyed the assignment as a chance to settle scores with Italy’s establishment. His original plan was to infiltrate as much of the country as possible by what were masked as routine troop movements, then pounce. Success depended particularly on controlling the rail lines through the Alps. At the same time, Rommel insisted that everything possible be done to sustain good relations with Italian officials, troops, and citizens. The Germans were entering Italy as allies—though resistance was to be broken by force. Rommel understood his own reputation for hostility to Italians and denied it at every opportunity. He nevertheless expected Italy’s new government to change sides as quickly as possible— “Even the Pope is now wanting to lean on us.” Why, he mused, did Italy go to war in the first place with its inadequate armed forces? In any case, better to fight there than at home.
Not until August 15 was Rommel authorized to enter Italy. Accompanied by Alfred Jodl, Chief of the Armed Forces High Command, he promptly flew to Bologna for a meeting with the Italian High Command. Its ostensible purposes, arranging the logistics of the new German arrivals and deciding which army would be responsible for what, rapidly segued into a discussion of Italy’s policies and Germany’s intentions. An indication of the mutual ill will informing the proceedings is that the German officers carried pistols. Plans for the occupation continued—with the particpation after August 30 of an SS contingent tasked to study internal security problems. It was Rommel’s first systematic contact with an organization he had done his best to avoid since 1940.
On September 3, elements of the British 8th Army began landing in Calabria, at the toe of the Italian boot. For two weeks previously, the Italians had been making difficulty about German rail and road movements. They had even redeployed some of their units from the south. Rommel, summoned to Rastenburg once more, found Hitler essentially in agreement with his own views that Italy could no longer be trusted and enjoyed Hitler’s criticism of Kesselring for his excessive credulity where Italians were concerned. Considering himself fully restored to favor, Rommel suggested that he be given command of all German forces in Italy, with his army group headquarters near enough to Rome to lay a thumb on the Italians’ windpipes if—or when—it should be necessary. Kesselring would presumably resign or be transferred: the smart money was on his being reassigned to Norway. Rommel found that particular fringe benefit pleasant to contemplate.
On September 8, the 5th Army went ashore at Salerno. Eisenhower also announced that Italy’s leaders had agreed to an armistice. A project to land the 82nd Airborne Division in Rome was abandoned on the grounds of excessive risk. Instead, Badoglio and the king slipped through a still-nominal German security screen to the Allied zone of occupation, perhaps with Kesselring’s knowledge. They left no orders for a disorganized army and a demoralized administration, beyond forbidding taking any initiative against the Germans. Some Italian units, especially in Greece and the Balkans, fought back and paid the price of annihilation. Others disbanded themselves and went home. And still others grounded arms and awaited the course of events.
That course was largely determined by the Germans. The Allied High Command, from the beginning dubious about the value of its new partner, had no interest in a power drive up the peninsula, nor anyone on the ground capable of leading it. By September 19, Army Group B reported that more than 400,000 Italians had been disarmed. The process was initially facilitated by Rommel’s orders to treat the Italians as former comrades, appealing to their soldierly honor to prevent needless killing. But a policy of deporting disarmed Italians to the Reich as forced labor—accepted and implemented by Rommel without any hesitation—quickly disillusioned soldiers and civilians alike. Resistance movements began springing up everywhere north of Rome. Mussolini’s rescue by German special operations troops, and his installation as head of a shadow Salo Republic did nothing to mitigate a Fascist/Nazi occupation that grew increasingly brutal. As defeat came to stare the Third Reich and its representatives in the face, all the masks of civilization were dropped in favor of a merciless oppression whose consequences finally engulfed Mussolini himself.
Rommel was not involved in Italy’s partisan war, though the orders he issued prescribing death for Italian soldiers taken in arms and Italian civilians sheltering escaped British prisoners do not suggest he would have behaved significantly different from his Wehrmacht counterparts. Rommel’s focus was on Italy as a theater of war where he expected to be named commander in chief. His final projected approach to operations was an economy-of-force plan that reflected both his respect for Allied air and naval superiority, and the conviction expressed to Bayerlein that Germany must now switch to a defensive mode. He advocated abandoning the south, with its vulnerable coastlines and long lines of communication—even Rome itself. The forward line of defense, he argued, should be in the Apennines north of Rome, from the Rapido River on the Mediterranean side to Ortona on the Adriatic, roughly along what later became the Gustav Line, with the main positions established south of the Po. Even then it was necessary to guard against amphibious landings behind the front—and here Rommel first introduced his emphasis on stopping landings at the coastline as the best practical counter to Anglo-American air strikes and naval gunfire.
Rommel’s plan reflected an exaggerated calculation of Allied amphibious capabilities. The demands of the Pacific theater created a comprehensive shortage of landing craft from mid-1943 to just before D-day. Churchill himself grumbled that it seemed impossible that strategic planning for a global war could be determined by the presence or absence of things called LSTs: the ungainly cargo carriers that were the backbone of over-the-beach invasions. Rommel also overrated his potential opposition. The Allied campaign in Italy remained characterized by a stupefying lack of imagination and initiative that underwrote Kesselring’s preference for an extended fighting withdrawal.
The wisdom of the German decision to make any kind of fight for the peninsula remains debatable. Central Italy’s mountainous terrain, its narrow valleys and swift-running rivers, combined with the winter weather mocked the familiar images of World War II as a war of movement and technology. The Germans proved masters of defense, creating networks of observation posts and killing grounds that turned what open ground existed into tactical deathtraps. Yet when the final figures were in, the Allies suffered 312,000 casualties while inflicting 435,000—attrition on the wrong side of the balance sheet.
What might Rommel have done with the Italian theater had he been given command there? Would he have made the shift from master of mobile warfare to coordinator of a protracted defense? Hitler’s decision on the appointment was still hanging fire when in mid-September Rommel suffered an appendicitis attack and underwent emergency surgery that kept him hospitalized till the 27th. Three days later, he was summoned to Rastenburg. Kesselring was also present, and in what was becoming a typical situation, each general made his case before a Fuehrer who, observers agreed, demonstrated none of the vitality he usually brought to these sessions. Hitler’s summary showed his line of thought. Every day the Allies could be contained in southern Italy was vital. They were running out of men and material; sooner or later they would become war-weary enough to give Germany victory by default.
Shortly after the meeting, Kesselring made a concrete proposal for a defense south of Rome, which he said he could maintain at least over the winter. Previously he had not asked for reinforcements; now Hitler was sufficiently impressed to order Rommel to send troops south. Rommel warned of the near-certainty of amphibious landings behind the proposed defensive line and repeated his doubts Rome could be held for any length of time. Kesselring protested Rommel’s interference. On October 17, Hitler told Rommel he would be named commander in Italy but was expected to take over Kesselring’s deployments. Rommel answered by setting three conditions: he wanted to inspect the front himself; he demanded clear instructions allowing him operational flexibility; he would submit his plan only when his appointment was confirmed.
At this stage of the war, no one spoke to Hitler in that fashion. Rommel, never a model of tact, was frustrated by the failure to resolve the kind of divided command situation that had caused so much trouble in North Africa. He must also have been in a fair amount of pain despite his legendary toughness: “minor surgery” is what another person has. Air force general Wolfram von Richthofen, himself no shrinking violet, described Rommel at this period as “pigheaded” and “worn out.” One of Hitler’s adjutants mentioned how difficult the field marshal was to get deal with. Rommel did not help his situation by referring to Jodl and High Command operations chief Wilhelm Keitel as “assholes”—an epithet much stronger in German than in English and no less an insult.
Hitler vacillated for a couple weeks. Then, on November 5, he informed Rommel he had a new job for him: inspecting the Atlantic Wall, the major barrier to Allied invasion of Northwest Europe. He would leave on November 21. That same day, Kesselring would become Commander in Chief, Southwest—which meant Italy. “Smiling Albert” had taken the pot, and Rommel was disgruntled. When he bade farewell to those of his headquarters who remained in Italy, he described the war as lost and said Germany’s soldiers were led by people whose fantasies amounted to delusion. “Do we make peace then?” asked one officer. Rommel replied that there could be no question of peace with the Russians. Four months earlier, in his conversation with Bayerlein, he had declared that if the British and Americans were once thrown back into the sea, it would be a long time before they returned. Now he was responsible for evaluating that prospect—and for considering its implications.
The Atlantic Wall began when, at the end of 1941, Hitler ordered the construction of a line of fortifications along the Atlantic coast. He intended this as the main position securing the conquered continent and Germany’s western provinces. Initially no comprehensive plans for the system were developed, though by 1942, it was clear to the newly created High Command West that the Allies would eventually strike northwestern Europe in force. The Command’s initial response was to deploy whatever divisions were available to cover directly what seemed the most vulnerable ports and landing sites. It was a wing-and-a-prayer proposition, but point defense seemed the most promising immediate response to the German experiences in Norway and Crete. These indicated that not merely the first hours, but the first minutes of an invasion could be crucial.
That perspective seemed validated on August 19, 1942, when a division-size assault with heavy air and naval support was decisively broken on the beaches of Dieppe. Terrain favored the defenders. Fortune smiled as well that day on the men who fought under the swastika. The Germans nevertheless won their victory with military pocket change, and Dieppe generated a new optimism among the senior officers who contemplated the burned-out tanks. In September 1942, Hitler ordered the coastal defenses increased by no fewer than 15,000 strong points. Given enough concrete and barbed wire, the Wehrmacht’s leftovers might be able to make “Fortress Europe” a reality.
As Hitler’s initial vision of kicking in the Soviet Union’s front door drowned in blood, France increasingly became a rest-and-recuperation zone for burned-out front-line units. A few weeks in France to absorb equipment and replacements, to forget the war as far as possible, was a dream that ran a close third to a long furlough or a million-mark wound. Even the West’s supreme commander as of March 1942, Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt, received his appointment after being removed from his army group in Russia. At the same time, the “hero-thieves” of the replacement service staged comb-out after comb-out in the formations that watched the coasts.
The Germans who remained, the lame and the halt, the elderly and the invalid, saw themselves as garrison troops. Some historians of World War II have argued that the United States-initiated projects for a full-scale landing in the spring of 1943 would have caught the Wehrmacht at its lowest ebb. German fixed defenses in the west were still embryonic. At sea, the argument runs, the Allies were supreme. In the air, they could count on a significant margin of superiority. The disaster at Stalingrad and the preparations for Kursk reduced the German army in the west to a shell primarily concerned with rebuilding shattered divisions, providing cadres for new ones, and conducting training courses at all levels. For a good part of 1943, High Command West had fewer combat-ready divisions than it possessed in 1942. Ostlegionen, battalions recruited from Russia’s Asian communities or from prisoners of war, filled out its orders of battle. The invasions of Sicily and Italy and the German occupation of Vichy France increased the stresses on already-overstretched field forces. The growth of demands for forced labor from a conquered Europe converted what had been large-scale compliance to a seemingly permanent occupation first to sullenness and hostility, then to opposition and resistance.
The case for a 1943 invasion of northeastern Europe nevertheless becomes plausible chiefly because of distractions caused by Anglo-American initiatives in the Mediterranean. Without Operation Torch and its consequences, High Command West would have been correspondingly free to concentrate on preparing for a major landing from Britain. Despite the challenges generated by the Russian and Mediterranean theaters, the Atlantic Wall began taking on a life of its own. By mid-1943, particularly around the major ports, the Wall looked authentic, with trenches, ditches, minefields, machine-gun nests, concrete strong points, and heavy artillery emplaced in what even to men who knew better seemed impregnable bunkers. By June 1943, more than 8,000 permanent installations were operable. By November, more than 2,300 antitank guns and 2,700 guns larger than 75 millimeters were in place.
The building program, however, tailed off in the final months of the year. Allied air raids drew away skilled workers. German firms that had obtained sweetheart contracts or low-balled their bids produced unsatisfactory work or failed to meet commitments. Nor were the commanders on the spot exactly sure what to do with the system in place. The defense of western Europe, originally regarded as a joint-service undertaking, had by late 1943 become an army responsibility. The Kriegsmarine, defeated in the U-boat campaign, its remaining surface vessels penned in harbor, could expect to do little more than conduct coast-defense operations with a mixed bag of small craft. The Luftwaffe’s attention had shifted to the Eastern Front and, increasingly, to the Reich itself. Staff and operational assignments to Air Fleet 3, responsible for Western Europe, were viewed as either dead ends or rest cures.
On October 25, 1943, Rundstedt submitted a comprehensive memorandum describing the challenges and requirements of a sector that in the next year could expect to become a major theater of operations. The field marshal pulled no punches. The Allies already had as many divisions available as Rundstedt could muster in his entire expanded theater. Most of them were first class: young men, sound of wind and limb, and equipped with the best American and British industry could provide. Rundstedt expected an invasion no earlier than the spring of 1944, and probably not much later. He believed the Allies would land first in the Pas de Calais, then in Normandy and Brittany. Admittedly, that would pit them against the best-defended sector of the Atlantic Coast. On the other hand, those invasion sites offered the easiest passages across the Channel, the shortest supply lines to Allied bases in England, and the closest distances to Germany’s frontiers. Anglo-American air and naval supremacy meant they could shut down German reconnaissance at will, thus securing tactical surprise.
Rundstedt went on to argue that trenches, pillboxes, and strong points were only half of a successful defensive system. Depth was also necessary: fall-back positions in the rear areas, mobile artillery, and enough troops for counterattacks to seal off the inevitable breakthroughs. High Command West, however, not only lacked anything resembling an effective mobile reserve, it also lacked enough static troops to do more than observe and patrol much of the endangered area.
These weaknesses paradoxically made the Atlantic Wall more important than ever. Abandoning the coast without a fight would sacrifice the advantage of the channel as a moat. It would mean the loss of a heavy investment in fortifications. Above all, it would require the conduct of a mobile battle in northeastern France against an enemy whose strong point was a capacity for mobile warfare. Therefore, Rundstedt argued, the coastline must be defended to the last. Experience in both world wars showed that landings in force would nevertheless succeed. But local counterattacks, combined with the concentrated blows of a massed reserve, provided the window of an opportunity for defeating the invasion, or at least so bloodying the Anglo-Americans’ noses that they might reconsider their military and political options.
Hitler read this complex document with a level of attention by this time unusual. Instead of responding by insisting on the importance of willpower, a Fuehrer Directive of November 3, 1943, accepted most of Rundstedt’s basic propositions. For two and a half years, the Reich’s energies had been directed against Asiatic Bolshevism. Now an even greater danger had emerged: the Anglo-American invasion. An Allied breakout from a successful landing would have prompt and incalculable consequences for the Reich. No longer could the West be stripped for the sake of other theaters. Instead, its defenses must be strengthened by every means possible. Panzer divisions must be created or reequipped with the latest models of heavy tanks and assault guns. The supply of antitank, infantry, and artillery weapons must be increased. High Command West was ordered to reduce the garrisons of less-threatened areas and improve the counterattack capacity of static formations by improvising their mobility through internal resources.
Hitler believed even more than Rundstedt that victory in the West ultimately would depend on throwing the Allies into the sea at all costs. Was Rundstedt, a man of advanced years and fixed opinions, the general to perform that mission? Kesselring seemed to be bringing Italy under control. Time then to plug another hole by the well-tried method of personal competition in true National Socialist terms: survival of the fittest. Rundstedt, not one of Rommel’s chief admirers, was nevertheless familiar enough with that process, and pleased enough with the Fuhrer’s newfound interest in the West, that he offered the newcomer full cooperation. Rommel, for his part, recognized the awkwardness of his position and took pains to avoid stepping on his senior’s toes. But these men, the army’s senior and junior field marshals, were like oil and water. Rundstedt had been to the circus and seen the clowns. He tended to let situations develop before he acted, all the while commenting on those developments with an irony that could alternately inspire admiration or fury in his associates. Rommel was a driver, accustomed to seeing every situation as an emergency, making snap decisions, and making those decisions work.
The problem was exacerbated because both men were respected and admired by their subordinates. Each possessed charisma: Rundstedt the “last Prussian,” patrician, dignified; Rommel the frontline commander who talked like a first sergeant and paid little attention to formalities. The old pro and the new broom—small wonder that within weeks even senior officers in the theater were uncertain who was really in command.
It was Rundstedt who broke the ice. On December 30, he made a formal proposal to bring the headquarters of Army Group B under High Command West, with direct responsibility for the region most exposed to invasion. Rundstedt’s command style, like that of most of his old-army contemporaries, was based on the delegation of authority. His responsibilities as theater commander had been so extended by recent Allied initiatives that he could not hope to supervise directly every area under threat. And if, as was frequently murmured behind closed General Staff doors, Rommel was no more than a good corps commander, his tactical record was nevertheless sufficiently distinguished to make him a solid choice to command western Europe’s most likely hot spot.
Rommel applied the energy that had made him famous to strengthening and vitalizing the Atlantic Wall. He estimated that no fewer than fifty million mines would be needed to establish a viable belt around the coast! Such an astronomical number was of course unattainable. Nevertheless, between October 1943 and May 1944, the number of antitank and antipersonnel mines in place rose from two million to six and a half million. Rommel also oversaw the introduction of underwater obstacles at the most likely landing sites. These ranged from angled wooden stakes to steel Belgian antitank barriers transplanted from their original sites on the German border. By mid-May, more than 500,000 of these passive defenses had been installed, many of them with mines attached. Behind the coast the field marshal planted “Rommel asparagus”—pointed stakes driven into the ground on terrain deemed suitable for paratroops or glider landings.
Rommel brought new vigor as well to the construction and renovation of manned defenses. He was shocked to find that many of the gun positions and machine-gun emplacements were open, offering no significant protection from air strikes or naval gunfire. Engineers and workers from the Organization Todt began bringing as many heavy weapons as possible under bombproof protection. Camouflage and camouflage discipline improved sharply. Local commanders assigned troops to the construction efforts, which included establishing dummy positions in hopes of deceiving the by-now ubiquitous Allied reconnaissance aircraft.
On paper and in reality, the results were impressive. In 1944, the Germans laid more than four million land mines—well over double the number that had been put in place since 1940. Between January and May, more than five thousand new permanent fortifications were erected: no small number even though the figures included the French Mediterranean coast. In the Pas de Calais sector, 93 of 132 heavy guns had been put under concrete, as were 27 of the 47 heavy guns in Normandy.
In his initial report, submitted on December 31, Rommel said the major Allied effort would most probably be made in the Pas de Calais, largely because that would be the sector from which the projected V-weapon offensive against London would be launched. Rommel’s ideal was to defeat the invasion on the coast, fighting the main battle in the fortified zones. The most difficult phase of a landing was its beginning: the movement from ship to shore. The Germans, Rommel insisted, must take every possible advantage of this fact. Passive defenses, mines, and offshore obstacles must complement the fire of artillery, antitank guns, and automatic weapons covering the landing sites. Infantry should be deployed as close to the beaches as possible. But the heart of Rommel’s tactics was his proposal to deploy the Panzer formations so close to the coast that combined-arms battle groups would be able to engage the enemy in the invasion’s first hours.
Without the immediate help of mechanized reserves, the field marshal insisted, the German divisions holding the coastline could not expect to maintain their positions. Once the Allies disembarked, their fighting power multiplied exponentially. Left undisturbed, they would flank the defenders out of their fixed defenses and roll up the Atlantic Wall like a rug. Rommel’s approach offered the advantage of employing the mechanized divisions in ways grown familiar to their officers in recent years: counterpunching a tactically vulnerable enemy, with dash and tactical skill compensating for inferior numbers. It offered as well a closer link between the two tiers of the defense, the infantry divisions at the water-line and the mobile formations. His plan made it less likely that the former would regard themselves as pawns for sacrifice, and correspondingly less likely that they would break or capitulate quickly.
Rommel had experienced a similar situation in Africa with the Italians. One of the reasons for the German infantry’s Homeric combat record on the Eastern Front was the widespread knowledge that surrendering to Ivan involved high levels of immediate risk and complete certainty of subsequent discomfort. By contrast, conditions of British or American captivity were so favorably mythologized that not a few prisoners taken during the D-day campaign seemed surprised when their first meal did not include steak.
Rommel’s principal critic was not Rundstedt, but Leo Geyr von Schweppenburg. An experienced staff officer and longtime commander of armored forces, with extensive experience on the Russian Front, Geyr had been appointed commander of Panzer Troops West in July 1943 and immediately began developing his own plans for using armor against an Allied invasion. Geyr recognized the potential impact of Allied sea and air power but was no admirer of the battle group tactics he believed had emerged in Russia and Africa as a response to a chronic shortage of tanks. These small formations, Geyr argued, would be particularly vulnerable to Allied firepower. What was needed were large-scale counterattacks against the invasion beaches, counterattacks in divisional strength or more. Hold the mechanized forces back from the beaches, he argued, and commit them in mass. Air power could not stop movement—only delay it. Properly trained troops under competent officers could expect to arrive in time where they were needed.
Rommel, unlike Geyr, had spent a fair amount of his time in North Africa personally dodging Allied aircraft. He expected the invasion to have higher levels of air support than anything previously seen in history. The terrain, moreover, was ideally suited for tactical air power. In contrast to the wide-open desert, northern France was so heavily built up that only a relatively few roads could be used for major troop movements. These led across rivers and through cities. Bridges and buildings alike offered inviting targets for Allied medium and heavy bombers. Rommel did not expect any feelings for the French people to restrict such uses of air power. The French resistance was also likely to be a factor, both directly in partisan operations and by providing up-to-date intelligence to the Allied airmen. It was unreasonable, Rommel argued, to expect divisions positioned according to Geyr’s proposals to reach the battle zone, reorganize, and refit in less than ten days or two weeks. That was all the time and more the invaders would need to establish a bridgehead impregnable to anything High Command West was likely to bring against it.
The decision was Rundstedt’s, and the field marshal remained torn between his own belief that the invasion was best defeated at the water line and the lure of Geyr’s arguments for attempting something more decisive. As more and more armored and Panzer grenadier divisions joined High Command West, Rommel sought Hitler’s intervention. The Fuehrer was reluctant to decide, particularly because a decision in Rommel’s favor meant the corresponding necessity of relieving Rundstedt. Geyr did not have Rommel’s access to the supreme commander, but his patron, Heinz Guderian, was in renewed good order at the Fuehrerhauptquartier.
With more and more armored divisions arriving in France, in February 1944, Rommel’s Army Group B was given the right to command any formations of Panzer Group West in its operational area as part of its preparation for the invasion. Rommel also received the right to recommend sector assignments and command appointments for the mobile formations directly to Rundstedt, thus bypassing Geyr. The result was an increase in friction among the senior officers that finally led Hitler to intervene directly. He began in April by stating he reserved the decision to determine when mobile formations should be assigned to Army Group B. Until that point, High Command West retained full control of those divisions. A month later, the Fuehrer became even more specific. He created a new Army Group headquarters under Rundstedt to control southern France and assigned it three Panzer divisions: the 9th, 11th, and 2nd SS. Rommel’s Army Group B also received three Panzer divisions: the 2nd, 21st, and 116th. The mobile units that remained were the cream of the crop: the 1st and 12th SS Panzer, 17th SS Panzer Grenadier, and the army’s Panzer Lehr. They remained under control of Panzer Group West—but not exactly under Rundstedt’s command. Instead, the Panzer Group was designated part of the Wehrmacht High Command reserve, which in practice placed it under Hitler’s direct control.
The reorganization invites dismissal as no more than another example of Hitler’s high-test meddling in matters outside his competence. Assigning three mechanized divisions to southern France left seven available for the decisive sector. Either massed as a central reserve or posted close to the prospective beaches, they represented a force strong enough to shape, if not decide, the coming battle—not a queen, but properly used, perhaps a pair of knights. Their division not only created the obvious possibility of being too weak everywhere. It generated a subtler risk of making everyone just strong enough to generate a false sense of security. Rundstedt’s sarcastic comment that Hitler’s decision left him only the authority to move the sentries in his headquarters was, however, at best a half-truth. The field marshal had forgotten a fundamental military axiom. The first duty of a commander is to command: in this case, to decide the organization of his theater. War abhors vacuums. Adolf Hitler filled that created by Gerd von Rundstedt.
Rommel’s direct contact with the Fuhrer was more recent and more extensive than anyone else in High Command West. His faith in “final victory” had been correspondingly weakened. In that at least he had much in common with almost every senior officer west of the Rhine River. But while Rommel’s counterparts were content to play the cards in their hands with a cynical shrug, Rommel thought in wider terms. Repulsing the landings at the shoreline would buy military time that might be exploited politically. A decisive victory presented to the Fuehrer by his favorite marshal might well prove an entering wedge for a negotiated peace. If not, there was always a developing military resistance, whose plans and hopes for direct action against “history’s greatest warlord” were increasingly open secrets among those in the know at High Command West.