General George S. Patton Jr. – A Study in Leadership

No series on leadership and success would be complete without including a piece on General George S. Patton Jr., one of America’s most effective World War II combat commanders. Patton had his faults, without doubt, but his battlefield accomplishments, bordering on the legendary, spoke for themselves.

It is beyond the scope of this blog to describe the traits that marked Patton’s successes in World War II as Third Army commander.   But if one word could sum it all up, perhaps “audacity” might suffice. One is cautioned, however, by the limitations of a one-word description. It is reminiscent of the retort from Cyrano de Bergerac, the fictional French swordsman of 1640, who was known for his large nose. When a wealthy viscount accosted Cyrano in a tavern with the words, “Sir, you have a very big nose,” Cyrano’s classic reply, “Is that all?” proceeded his lengthy and poetic discourse criticizing the unimaginative comment and colorfully describing what could have been said. “Audacity” is of the same genre.

Perhaps the Third Army’s most storied accomplishment, also exemplifying Patton’s generalmanship, lay in coming to the rescue of the beleaguered troops of the 101st Airborne Division, remembered in some circles as “The Battered Bastards of Bastogne.” Badly outnumbered and exhausted, they were under siege in southeastern Belgium during the aptly named Battle of the Bulge, December, 1944, trying to hold off a massive German onslaught involving some 200,000 German soldiers paced by Panzer tanks, under the experienced, overall command of Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt. The huge German offensive, spread over a 60 mile front driving through the snow covered Ardennes forest, had driven a deep bulge in the American line at its most vulnerable point. Hitler’s ambitious objective was to break through the American line, thrust westerly, seize Antwerp, Belgium, a key military hub, and thereby split the Allied forces.

At a high-level conference in Verdun, France, on December 19, 1944, General Dwight Eisenhower, Allied Expeditionary Forces commander, turned to Patton for help in repulsing the German attack. Patton’s response, promising to attack with three divisions by December 22, raised more than a few eyebrows for being an overly optimistic assessment of what could be accomplished.  His daunting mission was to initiate a flanking attack against the Germans from the south to relieve Bastogne.

But Patton made good on his commitment.  At his direction, three army divisions effected a 90 degree turnabout involving a mass movement of an estimated 60,000 soldiers, including tanks, trucks, artillery, and supporting elements.  This diversion of men and equipment from what had been a slashing eastward campaign across southern France, to drive relentlessly north some 50-75 miles in appalling weather in the dead of Winter, traversing icy, snow driven roads, and then to be pressed into attack against the German southern flank, was an enormous undertaking.  It was arguably Patton’s – and the Third Army’s – finest hour, as their efforts together with other Allied forces led to the defeat of the German offensive.  His comment, “God, I’m proud of these men” (from the movie), acknowledging their long trek in freezing temperatures, with no hot food and little rest, was a mark of the leadership and training he had provided.  As noted by General Omar Bradley in his book, “A Soldier’s Story,” Patton’s shift of the bulk of the Third Army from its bridgehead on the Saar to the snow-covered Ardennes forest, where more than 133,000 tanks and trucks joined in the round-the-clock trek, was nothing less than brilliant.

Patton, however, was more than just a combat commander.  He was also a pundit and military historian.  Carlo D’Este’s fine biography, “A Genius For War”, notes that in 1937, as Army G-2, responsible for security in the Hawaiian Islands, he wrote a paper entitled “Surprise” in which he predicted with uncanny foresight the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

Patton’s life was tragically cut short at age 60 in December, 1945 as a result of injuries suffered in a vehicle accident in Germany.  He may have had his faults but there can be no doubt of his ability to lead men in combat.  His effectiveness as a general was unequaled.  He was precisely the type of military leader America needed in World War II.

Arnold G. Regardie

 

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