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.
Of course, Patton and Montgomery did cordially loathe each other--Patton called Monty "that cocky little limey fart" and Monty thought Patton a "foul-mouthed lover of war"--and Charles Whiting seeks to place this dislike in its overall geopolitical context. By mid-1943, America was overtaking the United Kingdom in every aspect of the war effort, a fact that Winston Churchill acknowledged and which led him subtly to adapt his political posture accordingly. Yet Montgomery could simply not bring himself to face the new situation, and became progressively more anti-American as the preponderance of the United States became more evident.
The moment when Montgomery publicly cracked came on January 7, 1945, during the Battle of the Bulge, when (Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force having lifted its near-three-week censorship restrictions) he gave an extensive press briefing to a select group of war correspondents at his headquarters at Zonhoven. It was a disgraceful performance by anyone's estimation--including his personal staff, who were shocked by his ineptitude or, some think, his malice.
Montgomery's presentation of the story of the Germans' great Ardennes offensive, and the way that it had been turned back, implied that his 21st Army Group had had to save the Americans: "General Eisenhower placed me in command of the whole northern front," boasted Monty in his most vainglorious manner. "I employed the whole available power of the British group of armies. You have this picture of British troops fighting on both sides of American forces, who had suffered a hard blow. This is a fine Allied picture." Although he spoke of the average GI being "jolly brave" in "an interesting little battle," he claimed he had entered the engagement "with a bang," and although he might not have quite meant it like that, he left the impression that he had effectively rescued the Americans from defeat. There were some generous references to the courage of the American fighting man, but none to the American generals other than Eisenhower.
As a result of the Zonhoven briefing, Bradley, saying that Montgomery was "all-out, right-down-to-the-toes mad," told Eisenhower that he could not serve under Montgomery, but would prefer to be transferred back to the United States. Patton immediately made the same declaration. Then Bradley started courting the press, rarely "venturing out of his [headquarters] without at least fifteen newspapermen." Bradley and Patton subsequently leaked information to the American press that damaged Montgomery, and then proceeded, in the words of the American journalist Ralph Ingersoll, "to make and carry out plans without the assistance of the official channels, on a new basis openly discussed only among themselves. In order to do this they had to conceal their plans from the British and almost literally outwit Eisenhower's Supreme Headquarters, half of which was British." Charles Whiting shows how Anglo-American generalship in the West from 1943 to 1945 was indeed a special relationship: specially dreadful.
Michael Reynolds's book, Monty and Patton: Two Paths to Victory is an admirably evenhanded work that shows how both generals were excellent fighting men in their own very different ways, but also how their arrogance, personal unpleasantness, and giant egos were bound to produce clashes when they had only the western half of the European continent in which to operate together. A former British major-general who led NATO's Allied Command Europe Mobile Force, Reynolds has written three books on the Battle of the Bulge, and no one could be better qualified to cover this ground, which he does highly effectively.
By the end, the reader is certain that of the two, Patton was the nastier, madder man, and one understands why he was demoted so soon after the war--but not before he had suggested arming the Wehrmacht in order to force the Red Army "back into Russia" at a time when the Soviet Union had over five million men under arms. (Reynolds's book also has 16 pages of maps that are invaluable in understanding Patton's strategy.)
The true hero of all three of these books is not mentioned in the title or subtitle of any of them. How General Eisenhower held the ring between these competing, strutting martinets, using charm, good humor, but occasionally veiled threats too, is a fascinating study in diplomacy. Thank God they all--even Monty for much of the time--liked Ike.
Andrew Roberts is the author, most recently, of Hitler and Churchill: Secrets of Leadership.