Biography of George S. Patton, Famed American General

Patton in Sicily
Photograph Courtesy of the National Archives & Records Administration

George S. Patton (Nov. 11, 1885—Dec. 21, 1945) was an American Army general famous for winning battles in World Wars I and II. He first came to attention as a commander fighting Pancho Villa in Mexico, and he helped revolutionize the use of tanks in warfare. Despite his many successes, his aggressive, colorful personal style and his temper kept him in hot water, and eventually, he was relieved of combat command.

Fast Facts: George S. Patton

Known For: Famed but controversial American combat general

Also Known As: "Old Blood and Guts"

Born: Nov. 11, 1885, in San Gabriel, California

Parents:  George Smith Patton Sr., Ruth Wilson

Died: Dec. 21, 1945, in Heidelberg, Germany

Education: West Point

Spouse: Beatrice Ayer

Children: Beatrice Smith, Ruth Ellen, George Patton IV

Notable Quote: "Battle is the most magnificent competition in which a human being can indulge."

Early Life

George Smith Patton was born Nov. 11, 1885, in San Gabriel, California, the son of George S. Patton Sr. and Ruth Wilson. An avid student of military history, the young Patton descended from Revolutionary War Brig. Gen. Hugh Mercer, and several of his relatives fought and died for the Confederacy in the Civil War. During his childhood, Patton met former Confederate raider John S. Mosby, a family friend.The old veteran's war stories fueled Patton's desire to become a soldier.

He enrolled at the Virginia Military Institute in 1903 and transferred to West Point the following year. Forced to repeat his first year due to poor math grades, Patton graduated in 1909 and was assigned to the cavalry. On May 26, 1910, he married Beatrice Ayer, daughter of Boston industrial tycoon Frederick Ayer.

Patton competed in the modern pentathlon at the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm, Sweden, finishing fifth overall. He returned to the United States and was posted to Fort Riley, Kansas. While there Patton, an expert swordsman, developed a new cavalry saber and training techniques.

Next he was assigned to the 8th Cavalry Regiment at Fort Bliss, Texas, and took part in Brig. Gen. John J. Pershing's Punitive Expedition against Pancho Villa in 1916. Patton led the Army's first armored attack, assaulting an enemy position with three armored cars. Capt. Julio Cardenas, Villa's top aide, was killed In the fighting, earning Patton some notoriety.

World War I

With the U.S. entry into World War I in April 1917, Pershing had Patton promoted to captain and took the young officer to France. Desiring a combat command, Patton was posted to the Tank Corps. He tested the new Renault FT-17 tanks, observing their use at the Battle of Cambrai late that year, and organized the American tank school.

He was given command of the 1st Provisional Tank Brigade (later 304th Tank Brigade) in August 1918. Fighting as part of the 1st U.S. Army, he was wounded in the leg at the Battle of St. Mihiel that September. He recovered and took part in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, for which he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the Distinguished Service Medal, and a battlefield promotion to colonel. At the end of the war, he reverted to his peacetime rank of captain and was assigned to Washington, D.C.

In Washington, he encountered Capt. Dwight D. Eisenhower. They became close friends and began developing armored doctrines and devising improvements for tanks. Promoted to major in July 1920, Patton strongly advocated establishment of a permanent armored force. Patton was promoted to lieutenant colonel in 1934 and colonel four years later, and then was put in command of Fort Myer, Virginia.

World War II

With the formation of the 2nd Armored Division in 1940, Patton was selected to lead its 2nd Armored Brigade. Promoted to brigadier general in October, he received command of the division and the rank of major general in April 1941. In the Army's buildup before the U.S. entered World War II, Patton took the division to California and trained the soldiers relentlessly in the desert. Given command of the armored corps, Patton led the Western Task Force during Operation Torch, in which his men captured Casablanca, Morocco, in November 1942.

Seeking to inspire his men, Patton developed a flashy image that included a polished helmet, cavalry pants and boots, and a pair of ivory-handled pistols. Traveling in a vehicle featuring oversize rank insignia and sirens, his speeches were laced with profanity and espoused the utmost confidence in his men. While he was popular with his troops, Patton was prone to indiscreet remarks that often created stress for Eisenhower, who had become his superior in Europe, and caused tension among the Allies. Tolerated during the war, Patton's vocal nature ultimately led to his relief.

North Africa and Sicily

In the wake of the U.S. II Corps defeat at Kasserine Pass in February 1943, Eisenhower appointed Patton to rebuild the unit at the suggestion of Maj. Gen. Omar Bradley. Assuming command with the rank of lieutenant general and retaining Bradley has his deputy, Patton restored discipline and fighting spirit to II Corps, which performed well in the offensive against the Germans in Tunisia. Recognizing Patton's achievement, Eisenhower directed him to help plan the invasion of Sicily in April 1943.

In July 1943, Operation Husky saw Patton's Seventh U.S. Army land on Sicily with Gen. Sir Bernard Montgomery's Eighth British Army. Tasked with covering Montgomery's left flank as the Allies moved on Messina, Patton grew impatient as the advance bogged down. He took the initiative, sending troops north and capturing Palermo before turning east to Messina. The Allied campaign concluded successfully in August, but Patton damaged his reputation when he slapped Pvt. Charles H. Kuhl at a field hospital, denigrating "battle fatigue" and calling Kuhl a coward.

Western Europe

Though tempted to send Patton home in disgrace, Eisenhower consulted with Chief of Staff Gen. George Marshall and retained the wayward commander after a reprimand and an apology to Kuhl. Knowing that the Germans feared Patton, Eisenhower brought him to England and assigned him to lead the First U.S. Army Group, a dummy command that was part of Operation Fortitude, an effort to make the Germans think that the Allied landings in France would occur at Calais. Though unhappy with losing his combat command, Patton was effective in his new role.

In the wake of the D-Day landings, Patton returned to the front as commander of the U.S. Third Army on Aug. 1, 1944. Serving under his former deputy Bradley, Patton played a key role in using his men to exploit the breakout from the Normandy beachhead. Surging into Brittany and then across northern France, the Third Army bypassed Paris, liberating large chunks of territory. Patton's rapid advance came to a halt on Aug. 31 outside Metz due to supply shortages. Montgomery's efforts in Operation Market-Garden took priority, so Patton's advance slowed to a crawl, leading to a protracted battle for Metz.

With the beginning of the Battle of the Bulge on Dec. 16, Patton began shifting his advance toward the threatened parts of the Allied line. In perhaps his greatest achievement of the conflict, he quickly turned the Third Army north and relieved the besieged 101st Airborne Division at Bastogne. With the German offensive defeated, Patton advanced east through the Saarland and crossed the Rhine at Oppenheim on March 22, 1945. Charging through Germany, Patton's forces reached Pilsen, Czechoslovakia, by the war's end on May 7 and 8.

Postwar

With the war over, Patton enjoyed a brief trip home to Los Angeles, where he and Lt. Gen Jimmy Doolittle were honored with a parade. Patton was irritated to be named military governor of Bavaria instead of receiving a combat command in the Pacific. Openly critical of Allied occupation policy and believing that the Soviets should be forced back to their borders, Patton was relieved by Eisenhower in November 1945 and assigned to the 15th Army, which was tasked with writing the history of the war.

Patton died on Dec. 21, 1945, from injuries sustained in a car accident 12 days earlier.

Legacy

Most historians say Patton was one of the greatest military leaders in American history but also one of the most complex and contradictory. Patton’s legacy has come to be defined almost as much by his controversial behavior as by his military prowess.

He was criticized for brutal treatment of soldiers, such as Kuhl. Also, although many distinguished black soldiers fought under his command, he saw blacks in general as inferior, and he made many anti-Semitic comments despite having helped to liberate several concentration camps.

Additionally, in Sicily on July 14, 1943, two of Patton’s men were tried in connection with the killing of dozens of Italian and German prisoners of war, known as the Biscari Massacre. Both claimed to be following orders from Patton not to take prisoners, but Patton denied responsibility and was exonerated. Both men were eventually acquitted.

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