Generals at War
With the Germans and with each other.
May 30, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 35 • By ANDREW ROBERTS
Monty and Patton
The Field Marshal's Revenge
WHEN ONE CONSIDERS THE RIVALRY between several of the senior commanders serving under Dwight D. Eisenhower on the Western Front in the last 18 months of the Second World War--but principally among George S. Patton, Bernard Montgomery, and Omar Bradley--one has occasionally to be reminded that they were, at the time, three-star generals. For spite, gangings-up, showing off, bitchiness, whining to their superiors, and general pettiness, they might just as easily have been squabbling 13-year-old schoolgirls. These three well-researched and forthrightly written books illustrate the incredible degree to which pique, pride, lust for fame, and intense competitiveness affected the actions of some of the greatest soldiers of their age.
General George S. Patton was, as Trevor Royle points out in the preface of his intensely readable short biography, "one of the few U.S. Army officers with a vision of how armor might be used in battle," insights that Patton had gained when fighting with the U.S. Tank Corps in World War I. But something in his personality also meant that he felt the need to wear riding breeches, riding boots, ivory-handled revolvers, and to drive around "in flashy motorcades that always ensured that he was noticed and the center of attention."
On two infamous occasions in August 1943, Patton became more of a center of attention than even he desired when, during the advance on Messina in Sicily (which he captured partly to prevent Montgomery from doing so), he slapped a GI whom he called an "arrant coward " and then a week later threatened to pistol-whip another soldier, who he called "a yellow bastard" and "a disgrace to the Army." Both men were suffering from what we today recognize as a form of shell-shock, or post-traumatic stress disorder. In the second incident, at the 93rd Evacuation Hospital, the senior medical officer had to place himself between Patton and his victim, Private Paul G. Bennett, as Patton raged: "I won't have those cowardly bastards hanging around our hospitals. We'll probably have to shoot them sometime, anyway, or we'll raise a breed of morons!"
Patton was very keen on breeding. He himself came from a distinguished line of soldiers, and he was as proud of his military ancestors as any samurai or junker. His grandfather had commanded a brigade in the Civil War, and the history of the Confederacy was a living thing for him, as when he likened Operation Torch in 1942 to the Battle of Manassas, and wondered what Robert E. Lee or Stonewall Jackson would do in any given strategic situation.
The obverse side of Patton's racial pride was a virulent anti-Semitism; he believed in the Bolshevist-Zionist conspiracy, and his prejudice was in no way lessened after the liberation of the Nazi death camps. Royle fails to mention this in an otherwise fine work. To appreciate quite how weird Patton was, Royle states that he "actually believed that he had been reincarnated many times, usually as a soldier." By the end of his career, the Army had placed a psychiatrist on his staff to keep an eye on him, and was monitoring his phone calls.
Although Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery is popularly believed to have been Patton's greatest enemy, the Germans hardly enter the lists in terms of these inter-general enmities. By the way, it was General Omar Bradley, in fact, who reduced Patton to a gibbering wreck when, after the Sicilian campaign, Bradley was selected to command the First Army--earmarked for the cross-Channel invasion of Europe--instead of him. When Bradley paid a final courtesy call on Patton, on September 7, 1943, at his palace in Palermo, he found Patton "in a near-suicidal state. This great proud warrior, my former boss, had been brought to his knees." (And it's hard to escape the conclusion that Bradley loved every moment.)
In contrast to these people, General Mark Clark comes over in all three books as a sweet poppet, which is probably the reason that he is not nearly so famous today as the other three.