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Patton: Old Blood and Guts
Trevor Royle

Great Commanders Series. London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 2005
£14.99, Hardback, 224 pp. ISBN-10: 0297846760 ; ISBN-13: 9780297846765.


Reviewed by Dennis Showalter


Royle, a British journalist and well-known writer on military affairs for a general audience, relies on a familiar list of published sources for this analysis of George Patton as a military commander. Patton was—and is—nothing if not controversial. German professionals praised him during and after the war as unique among British and Americans in his mastery of mobile warfare at the operational level. "Patton is your best," Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt told his Allied interrogators. Panzer General Fritz Bayerlein compared Patton to General Heinz Guderian, the mastermind of German blitzkrieg and commented on the aftermath of El Alamein, "I don't think he would have let us escape so easily." Contemporary American aficionados and popular writers credit Patton with being the only US senior officer who understood and practiced the concept of mobile warfare based on shock and finesse, as opposed to attrition based on mass. They also see in Patton an appealing combination of successful general and rebellious outsider, as opposed to the "GI-general" and "everyman at war" images projected by such counterparts as Dwight Eisenhower and Omar Bradley.

In an age when leaders' feet of clay are regularly sought and exposed, Patton's various indiscretions appear less unusual than they did in 1943—and Patton at least was no hypocrite. His behavior reflected his beliefs, a welcome congruence in an increasing age of spin. British and US military agree that Patton was a first-class battle captain, at the top of his form in exploiting victory. But when it came to the hard fighting necessary to set up the mobile operations, Patton is described as falling short—a quintessential cavalryman in an army whose heritage is dominated by the infantry and artillery, and a corresponding commitment to a firepower/attrition model of war-making. In that same context, while Patton may have been denied command above army level because of his personal behavior, doubts linger regarding his emotional and mental staying power in a higher post. British Field Marshal Alan Brooke put it bluntly: "at a loss in any operation requiring skill and judgment."

Royle strikes a judicious and welcome balance. He presents Patton as an educated soldier and a military intellectual, with a lifetime of reading and reflection on war's nature and conduct. From his days at West Point, Patton also defined himself as a hero in the making. He spent his life preparing for the opportunity to fulfill his destiny on the battlefield. He believed above all that command in war demanded a certain kind of personality. Its essence was a man of indomitable strength and will, a man of war who understood that war meant killing and was not afraid of the implications. Its manifestation was comprehensive flamboyance, reflecting and projecting the inner certainty. This identity need not be natural. It could be deliberately constructed. And from the efflorescent profanity to the ivory-handled pistols, George Patton was in good part his own creation.

This was by no means self-indulgence. Patton was convinced that the citizen soldiers composing the army of a democracy required the personalized leadership of a modern cavalier. That image served Patton well in a major and overlooked part of his war service. Patton was a trainer. From 1940 through most of 1942, Patton made his professional mark by his contributions to developing the armored force out of a collection of regiments and battalions. In North Africa, his primary achievement was to compel green Americans, from privates to generals, to take the war seriously. During the run-up to D-Day, Patton spent most of his time not planning operations but introducing green divisions to the conditions they would face in France, inspiring them with pep talks larded with good advice couched in strong language.

In Europe, perhaps the most outstanding characteristic of 3rd Army's order of battle was the constant accretion of formations with everything to learn at all levels: even the cadres were raw, and few commanders had any combat experience in the current war. While all US field armies had the same problem, 3rd Army's newcomers seemed to adjust more quickly and suffer fewer casualties relative to their early missions. Patton's undeniable and comprehensive racism did not deter him from employing—and personally welcoming—black tank battalions, or to integrate black volunteers into 3rd Army's replacement-starved infantry formations. On another level, Patton was more willing than most of his contemporaries to allow senior officers to find their footing in command, as opposed to relieving them at the first mistake. In the end, the general and the command remain identified in the same way Robert E. Lee is synonymous with the Army of Northern Virginia. Patton molded 3rd Army in his own likeness, into a fighting force comparable with those of Hannibal, Cromwell, and Napoleon.

The image of Patton the outlaw, Patton the rebel, reaffirmed by George C. Scott's portrayal of the general in the 1970 movie, is significantly overdrawn. When the distinction is made between public behavior and private comments intended to discharge steam—Patton emerges as a consistent team player. Even his often-cited feud with British Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery over the latter's alleged slowness has been exaggerated, and may well have been mostly a product of Patton's projections. It was Eisenhower, not Patton, who was Montgomery's principal target of criticism throughout the D-Day campaign.

A major contribution of this work is its demonstration that Montgomery regarded Patton highly as a soldier, praising his boldness as early as the Sicilian campaign. And though well aware of Patton's habit of insulting him in public with such phrases as "a tired little fart," Monty seemed to find the American mildly amusing much of the time—like an ill-trained puppy whose messes someone else had to clean up.

In the years of the Cold War a myth arose that Patton had advocated continued national mobilization and a hard line, to the point of using force, against the Soviet Union. Reality was a good deal more pedestrian. As early as V-E Day he declared the impossibility of doing business with the Russians, and argued for keeping America's armies intact to counter what he considered an inevitable Soviet challenge. NATO's creation in the 1950s and its endurance into the XXIst century suggest that Patton's concept of keeping the Americans in, the Russians out, and the Germans at least under control was not entirely the product of a belligerent imagination.

George Patton was far more than the sum of his public achievements and public performances. He cultivated a complexity of character that defies explanation and developed a personality whose force was terrifying. Stronger than the individual or the collective personalities of his soldiers, it tapped into the spectrum of motivations for making war. It appealed to blood lust and vengeance as well as courage and comradeship. And it generated rapport with the citizen soldiers of a democracy—to a degree still making Patton's critics uncomfortable.



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