“Do more than is required of you.” – General Patton
George Smith Patton Jr. (November 11, 1885 – December 21, 1945) was a general of the United States Army who commanded the U.S. Seventh Army in the Mediterranean theater of World War II, and the U.S. Third Army in France and Germany after the Allied invasion of Normandy in June 1944.
Born in 1885 to a family whose members had served in the United States and Confederate States armies, Patton attended the Virginia Military Institute and the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. He studied fencing and designed the M1913 Cavalry Saber, more commonly known as the “Patton Saber”, and competed in modern pentathlon in the 1912 Summer Olympics in Stockholm, Sweden.
Patton first saw combat during 1916’s Pancho Villa Expedition, America’s first military action using motor vehicles. He saw action in World War I as part of the new United States Tank Corps of the American Expeditionary Forces: he commanded the U.S. tank school in France, then led tanks into combat and was wounded near the end of the war. In the interwar period, Patton became a central figure in the development of the Army’s armored warfare doctrine, serving in numerous staff positions throughout the country. At the American entry into World War II, he commanded the 2nd Armored Division.
Patton led U.S. troops into the Mediterranean theater with an invasion of Casablanca during Operation Torch in 1942 and soon established himself as an effective commander by rapidly rehabilitating the demoralized U.S. II Corps. He commanded the U.S. Seventh Army during the Allied invasion of Sicily, where he was the first Allied commander to reach Messina. There he was embroiled in controversy after he slapped two shell-shocked soldiers, and was temporarily removed from battlefield command. He then was assigned a key role in Operation Fortitude, the Allies’ disinformation campaign for Operation Overlord. At the start of the Western Allied invasion of France, Patton was given command of the Third Army, which conducted a highly successful rapid armored drive across France. Under his decisive leadership, the Third Army took the lead in relieving beleaguered American troops at Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge, after which his forces drove deep into Nazi Germany by the end of the war.
During the Allied occupation of Germany, Patton was named military governor of Bavaria but was relieved for making aggressive statements towards the Soviet Union and trivializing denazification. He commanded the United States Fifteenth Army for slightly more than two months. Severely injured in an auto accident, he died in Germany twelve days later, on December 21, 1945.
Patton’s colorful image, hard-driving personality, and success as a commander were at times overshadowed by his controversial public statements. His philosophy of leading from the front, and his ability to inspire troops with attention-getting, vulgarity-ridden speeches, such as his famous address to the Third Army, was met favorably by his troops, but much less so by a sharply divided Allied high command. His emphasis on rapid and aggressive offensive action proved effective, and he was regarded highly by his opponents in the German High Command. An award-winning biographical film released in 1970, Patton, helped solidify his image as an American folk hero.
Patton’s colorful personality, hard-driving leadership style, and success as a commander, combined with his frequent political missteps, produced a mixed and often contradictory image. Patton’s great oratory skill is seen as integral to his ability to inspire troops under his command. Historian Terry Brighton concluded that Patton was “arrogant, publicity-seeking and personally flawed, but … among the greatest generals of the war”. Patton’s impact on armored warfare and leadership were substantial, with the U.S. Army’s adopting many of Patton’s aggressive strategies for its training programs following his death. Many military officers claim inspiration from his legacy. The first American tank designed after the war became the M46 Patton.
Several actors have portrayed Patton on screen, the most famous being George C. Scott in the 1970 film Patton. Scott’s iconic depiction of Patton earned him an Academy Award for Best Actor, and it was instrumental in bringing Patton into popular culture as a folk hero. He would reprise the role in 1986 in the made-for-television film The Last Days of Patton. Other actors who have portrayed Patton include Stephen McNally in the 1957 episode “The Patton Prayer” of the ABC religion anthology series, Crossroads, John Larch in the 1963 film Miracle of the White Stallions, Kirk Douglas in the 1966 film Is Paris Burning?, George Kennedy in the 1978 film Brass Target, Darren McGavin in the 1979 miniseries Ike, Robert Prentiss in the 1988 film Pancho Barnes, Mitchell Ryan in the 1989 film Double Exposure: The Story of Margaret Bourke-White, Lawrence Dobkin in a 1989 episode of the miniseries War and Remembrance, Edward Asner in the 1997 film The Long Way Home, Gerald McRaney in the 2004 miniseries Ike: Countdown to D-Day, Dan Higgins in a 2006 episode of the miniseries Man, Moment, Machine, and Kelsey Grammer in the 2008 film An American Carol.