World War II: Geneal George S. Patton

George S. Patton in Sicily

Photograph Courtesy of the National Archives & Records Administration

George S. Patton (November 11, 1885–December 21, 1945) was an American Army general noted for winning battles in World Wars I and II. He first came to attention as a commander fighting Pancho Villa in Mexico and helped revolutionize the use of tanks in warfare. Despite his many successes, his aggressive, colorful personal style and his temper often caused issues with his superiors.

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

Born on November 11, 1885 in San Gabriel, California, George Smith Patton, Jr. was the son of George S. Patton, Sr. and Ruth Patton. An avid student of military history, the young Patton was descended from American Revolution Brigadier General Hugh Mercer and several of his relatives fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War. During his childhood, Patton met former Confederate raider and family friend John S. Mosby.

The old veteran's war stories helped fuel Patton's desire to become a soldier. Departing home, he enrolled at the Virginia Military Institute in 1903 before transferring to West Point the following year. Compelled to repeat his plebe year due to poor grades in mathematics, Patton reached the position of cadet adjutant before graduating in 1909.

Assigned to the cavalry, Patton went on to compete in the modern pentathlon at the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm. Finishing fifth overall, he returned to the United States and was posted to Fort Riley, Kansas. While there, he developed a new cavalry saber and training techniques. Assigned to the 8th Cavalry Regiment at Fort Bliss, Texas, he took part in Brigadier General John J. Pershing's Punitive Expedition against Pancho Villa in 1916.

World War I

During the expedition, Patton led the U.S. Army's first armored attack when he assaulted an enemy position with three armored cars. In the fighting, key Villa henchman Julio Cardenas was killed—earning Patton some notoriety. 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 new U.S. Tank Corps. Testing new tanks, he observed their use at the Battle of Cambrai late that year. Organizing the American tank school, he trained with Renault FT-17 tanks. Swiftly advancing through the ranks to colonel in the wartime army, Patton was given command of the 1st Provisional Tank Brigade (later the 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. Recovering, he took part in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive for which he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross and Distinguished Service Medal, as well as a battlefield promotion to colonel. With the end of the war, he reverted to his peacetime rank of captain and was assigned to Washington, D.C.

Interwar Years

While in Washington, he encountered Captain Dwight D. Eisenhower. Becoming good friends, the two officers began developing new armored doctrines and devising improvements for tanks. Promoted to major in July 1920, Patton tirelessly worked as an advocate for the establishment of a permanent armored force. Moving through peacetime assignments, Patton led some of the troops that dispersed the "Bonus Army" in June 1932. Promoted to lieutenant colonel in 1934 and colonel four years later, Patton was placed in command of Fort Myer in Virginia.

A New War

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 was given command of the division with the rank of major general in April 1941. In the U.S. Army's build-up prior to World War II, Patton took the division to the Desert Training Center in California. Given command of the I Armored Corps, Patton relentlessly trained his men in the desert through the summer of 1942. In this role, Patton led the Western Task Force during Operation Torch, which saw his men capture Casablanca, Morocco in November of that year.

A Unique Style of Leadership

Seeking to inspire his men, Patton developed a flashy image and routinely wore a highly polished helmet, cavalry pants and boots, and a pair of ivory-handled pistols. Traveling in a vehicle featuring oversize rank insignias and sirens, his speeches were frequently laced with profanity and espoused the utmost confidence in his men. While his behavior was popular with his troops, Patton was prone to indiscreet remarks which often stressed Eisenhower, who had become his superior in Europe, and caused tension among the Allies. While 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 Major General Omar Bradley. Assuming command with the rank of lieutenant general and retaining Bradley as his deputy, Patton diligently worked to restore discipline and fighting spirit to the II Corps. Taking part in the offensive against the Germans in Tunisia, the II Corps performed well. Recognizing Patton's achievement, Eisenhower pulled him to aid in planning the invasion of Sicily in April 1943.

Moving forward in July 1943, Operation Husky saw Patton's Seventh U.S. Army land on Sicily along with General 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. Taking the initiative, he sent troops north and captured Palermo before turning east to Messina. While the Allied campaign was successfully concluded in August, Patton damaged his reputation when he slapped Private Charles H. Kuhl at a field hospital. Having no patience for "battle fatigue," Patton struck Kuhl and called him a coward.

Western Europe

Though tempted to send Patton home in disgrace, Eisenhower, after consultations with Chief of Staff General George Marshall, retained the wayward commander after a reprimand and 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 (FUSAG). A dummy command, FUSAG was part of Operation Fortitude which was intended 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 was returned to the front as the commander of the U.S. Third Army on August 1, 1944. Serving under his former deputy Bradley, Patton's men played a key role in exploiting 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 August 31 outside of Metz due to supply shortages. As Montgomery's efforts in support of Operation Market-Garden took priority, Patton's advance slowed to a crawl, leading to a protracted battle for Metz.

Battle of the Bulge

With the beginning of the Battle of the Bulge on December 16, Patton began shifting his advance toward the threatened parts of the Allied line. As a result, in perhaps his greatest achievement of the conflict, he was able to quickly turn the Third Army north and relieve the besieged 101st Airborne Division at Bastogne. With the German offensive contained and 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 7/8.

Postwar

With the end of the war, Patton enjoyed a brief trip home to Los Angeles where he and Lieutenant General Jimmy Doolittle were honored with a parade. Assigned to be the military governor of Bavaria, Patton was irritated not to receive 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 Fifteenth Army, which was tasked with writing the history of the war. Patton died on December 21, 1945, from injuries sustained in a car accident 12 days earlier.