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The German View of Patton

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Harry Yeide. Fighting Patton: George S. Patton Jr. Through the Eyes of His Enemies. Zenith Press. $30.00

Of the allied world War II generals, George Patton may be considered the most “German.” He had carefully studied the early Blitzkrieg campaigns against Poland and France and shared the conviction of the Wehrmacht commanders that that a war of movement — short, sharp, and furious — was the way to avoid a repetition of the endless slaughter of World War I. “Always take the offensive. Never dig in,” was Patton’s motto. He expressed his aversion to fixed positions in graphic fashion: After having found some slit trenches around a command post in Tunisia meant to protect it from air attacks, he asked the commanding officer, Terry Allen, to show him his, whereupon he promptly urinated into it. “There. Now try to use it.”

Like Field Marshal Erich von Manstein, Germany’s most skillful World War II commander, Patton would also carefully monitor performance. This he did by sending out his staff officers to the front line units.

To Patton, war meant destroying the enemy’s main force, not clinging to territory. His favored approach was the oblique one: Hold them by the nose and kick them in the rear, which in more polite textbook terms translates into pinning the enemy while the tanks attack his flanks. Patton saw tanks as upgraded cavalry, infinitely more powerful, whose deep penetrations could collapse enemy lines.

Patton was also a keen student of translated German military literature, such as the World War I memoirs of Hans von Seeckt, the chief of staff of the German 11th Army, and Adolf von Schell’s Battle Leadership. According to military historian Harry Yeide, Patton’s style of commanding comes close to the German concept of Auftragstaktik, or mission-type orders: In German, whereas ein Befehl is a direct order, eine Direktive, a directive, is something broader and less detailed, where the commander states what he wants to achieve but leaves it up to his men how to go about it.

“Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and they will surprise you with their ingenuity,” runs a famous Patton quote. On meddling generals, he noted, “The tactics belong to battalion commanders. If generals knew less tactics, they would interfereless.”

The advantage of this way of operating is that it makes for speed, initiative, and flexibility, allowing the officer on the spot to adjust to the rapidly changing situation of the battlefield and to exploit sudden opportunities. But like Field Marshal Erich von Manstein, Germany’s most skillful World War II commander, Patton would also carefully monitor performance. This he did by sending out his staff officers to the front line units. Often he would go and have a look-see himself.

On this background, it is only natural to ask what the Germans thought of him, and how he measures up to the Wehrmacht’s panzer generals, which is what Yeide’s Fighting Patton: George S. Patton Jr. Through the Eyes of his Enemiessets out to do. As Yeide emphasizes, this not a biography but a meticulous recreation of Patton’s campaigns seen from the German perspective. On the benefits of this method, Yeide quotes British military historian Basil H. Liddell Hart: “It is different in one important aspect from looking at it through the opposite end of the telescope. For instead of being minimized, the picture is magnified, with startling vividness.” Having been on the receiving end, the German officers were uniquely positioned to assess Patton’s effectiveness, though there are certain caveats.

From the movie Patton and from the biography on which it is partly based, Ladislas Farago’s Patton: Ordeal and Triumph, one is left with the impression that the German High Command spent most of its waking hours fretting about Patton and his whereabouts. According to Farago, after his campaign in Sicily, Patton was the Allied general the Germans regarded as “their most dangerous adversary in the field,” which led them to watch his comings and goings “like rubbernecked spectators following a tennis ball at Wimbledon. ” The problem is, notes Yeide, that “there does not appear to be an iota of fact behind this claim.”

Thus when Patton was under a cloud for having slapped two shell-shocked soldiers in Sicily, the army sent him on the a well-publicized tour around the Mediterranean to Corsica, Malta, and Cairo: The idea was to mask the fact that the Seventh Army was being transferred from Sicily to England, but there are no indications that German intelligence attached any great significance to these visits. “The notion that Patton could be used to deceive the Germans appears to have arisen from a presumption about German thinking in Washington rather than any evidence that the Germans had a particular interest in the general’s activities,” Yeide writes. To the Germans, he says, Patton was just one of many threats.

The same applies to Patton’s role as commander of the fictional U.S. 1st Army Group in Kent, designed to create the impression that the invasion would occur at Calais rather than Normandy. In Yeide’s view, Farago’s assertion that the Germans concentrated on Patton as the general likely to command American forces in the invasion of France is mainly based on a misinterpretation of an entry in the German High Command’s war diary and on a routine Air War Academy paper entitled Invasionsgenerale. In fact, says Yeide, in a copy distributed in February 1944 Patton is “the only senior Allied general in Britain and the Mediterranean notprofiled with a brief, one paragraph summary.” Bradley appears and so does Montgomery, but no Patton. Yeide does not rule out his inclusion from a later version now missing, but anyway, such papers were standard products with the all services, from which nothing much can be inferred.

What is significant, however, he notes, is that the German High Command did not identify Patton as the commander of this fake U.S. 1st Army Group until well after they had fallen for the Calais ploy. So Patton’s presence in Kent was not the decisive factor in the German miscalculation.

“The Germans did not track Patton’s movements as the key to allied intentions. They never raised his name in the context of worthy strategists.” Hence their intelligence efforts were much more focused on people like Montgomery and Eisenhower, because this was the level on which strategic decisions were made.

Instead, says Yeide, the Germans viewed Patton “in the narrow context of armored commanders,” as a skillful tactical commander, i.e., an executer of the plans of others. He quotes General Gunther Blumentritt:

We regarded general Patton extremely highly as the most aggressive panzer-general of the Allies. . . His operations impressed us enormously, probably because he came closest to our own concept of the classical military commander. He even improved on Napoleon’s basic tenet — activité, vitesse — vitesse.

When interrogated in 1945, Heinz Guderian, the Wehrmacht’s foremost practitioner of Blitzkrieg, stated, “I hear much about General Patton and he conducted a good campaign. From the standpoint of a tank specialist, I must congratulate him on his victory since he acted as I would have done had I been in his place.”

But according to Yeide’s figures, while the U.S. possessed only one armored commander above division level and only a handful of first class armor generals at division level, the Germans produced them by the bushel: Out of 266 officers with armor experience, he says, “55stayed with the panzers throughout the war, most achieving the rank of General der Panzertruppe.” (Moreover, The Waffen SS and the Luftwaffe had their own panzer generals.) “Among this group, Patton probably would have been merely above average.”

What is more, notes Yeide, the Germans have a tradition of rather stringent assessment of military commanders, and it would take more than Patton’ s campaign in Sicily to seriously impress them. Yeide quotes Helmuth von Moltke, chief of the Prussian General Staff and the man responsible for Germany’s victory in the 1870–71Franco Prussian war, who, when compared with Napoleon and Frederick the Great by a flatterer, declined the honor, “for I have never conducted a retreat,” the trickiest of all military maneuvers. Neither had George Patton.

Patton’s adversaries, on the other hand, had plenty of experience in this art form from Russia, where the Wehrmacht’s early victories had turned into a nightmare struggle against the cold and against a Russian enemy that seemed to have an inexhaustible supply of manpower and replacement tanks. Thus many of the commanders Patton was to meet in France had participated in Manstein’s retaking of Kharkov, a brilliant move designed to straighten out the German line, and in the subsequent Battle of Kursk, the largest tank battle in history, which resulted in irreplaceable German losses of materiel. In short, writes Yeide, German officers were “prepared psychologically” for the Allied invasion of France.

Coinciding with the Battle of Kursk was the Allied invasion of Sicily. The Germans considered the island undefendable and their Italian allies useless: Facing superior numbers, German forces still managed to put up a successful defensive battle, allowing them to get 60,000men plus heavy weapons across to the mainland, thanks to “relatively weak” delaying forces. As Yeide notes, the German commanders were not impressed by Patton’s drive to Palermo, which involved territory they had already given up. Nor were they overawed by the American performance in what he calls “smash mouth” fighting.

As the chapter heading “Sicily: Empty Glory,” indicates, Yeide, like others before him, is highly critical of Patton’s race to beat Montgomery to Messina, especially the “risky and bloody” amphibious operation at Brolo which proved unnecessary and can only be ascribed to Patton’s thirst for personal glory.

In Normandy, the Germans were again defending. On August 1, Patton, finally back in good graces after the slapping incidents, had been given command of the Third Army, and played the starring role in the American breakout at Avranches. The German forces were on the verge of being encircled, but owing to the failure of the Canadians to quickly close the Allied pincer and a furious Patton being under strict orders to stay put at Argentan, the Germans managed to slip through what became known as the Falaise Gap: The gap was only twelve miles wide, but through it some 100,000Germans managed to escape, whereby “an Armageddon was reduced to an outright disaster.” As a result, those who had gotten away would regroup and be among the forces Patton would fight along the German border.

All the way towards the frontier, the Americans faced delaying tactics, courtesy of General Kurt von der Chevallerie, a veteran of the fighting around Kiev. On der Chevallerie’s achievement, Yeide quotes Patton’s assistant intelligence officer Colonel Robert Allen:

The enemy’s continued tactical control, despite the tremendous difficulties under which he operated, was a remarkable military feat. In the face of shattered communications, tremendous losses, constant retreating, and practically no air support, the enemy still maintained overall control of his tactical situation. He constantly fell back, but there was no mass collapse. At every critical point, he stubbornly defended and delayed.

In Lorraine, Patton’s bloodiest campaign, he was up against some of Germany’s toughest officers. Of these, Yeide singles out General Hermann Balck, who performed the kind of flexible defense he had practiced in Russia on the Chir river. Thus on the Moselle and in the siege of Metz, the Germans forced Patton, short on gas and ammunition, into practicing the type of piecemeal attack that he deplored in others, and leading Balck to speak of “the poor and timid leadership of the Americans.”

Waffen ss GruppenfuhrerMax Simon likewise saw the American tactics as “cautious and systematic:”: “The tactics of the Americans were based on the idea of breaking down a wall by taking out one brick at a time,” he said, adding, “Had you made such attacks . . . on the eastern front, where our anti-tank guns were echeloned in depth, all your tanks would have been destroyed.” Patton himself admitted, “While my attack was going forward by short leaps, it was not very brilliant.”

According to Yeide, even Patton’s logistical feats before running out of gas and his boast that “as of 14 August [1944] the Third Army has advanced further and faster than any army in history,” totaling some 300 miles altogether, still put him well behind General Georg-Hans Reinhardt, who at start of Operation Barbarossa covered more than 500 miles towards Leningrad, and Otto von Knobelsdorff, who in six weeks managed 800miles, a feat which Knobelsdorff himself termed “unique in Prussian-German military history.”

The book clearly takes its place in the school of “the Allies won the war, but the Germans had the better army,” a school that includes the Israeli military historian Martin van Creveld, and the Brits Max Hastings, John Keegan, and John Ellis. This view was most starkly presented by John Ellis in Brute Force, a comprehensive assessment of the Allied effort in World War II against Germany and Japan, which, in passing, reduces Patton to some sort of a glorified traffic cop. While acknowledging Patton’s ability to maneuver, Ellis characterizes his dash across northern France as well as his earlier “much overrated” pursuit through Sicily as more of “a triumphal procession than an actual military offensive.”

On Patton’s performance in Lorraine, Ellis gets caustic:

Here is the story of the Normandy campaign in a nutshell. Acute German shortages on the one hand, and on the other an Allied cornucopia which could provide an overwhelming level of firepower and a remorseless stream of replacements that could compensate for the grossest tactical bêtise. Add skilled public relations and a press hungry for heroes, and you had the circumstance so propitious that even Montgomery and Patton could seem like great commanders.

Ouch.

The purpose of Ellis’s book was not to downplay the sacrifices made by the American troops, but to serve as a warning to the West about getting complacent in its defense spending, instead putting its faith in the ability of some great general to save the day in a future war: “By ignoring the vital question of material preponderance we do not only inflate the reputation of ‘great commanders,’ but we are also in danger of encouraging absurd obsessions of innate national ability at the expense of a solid admission that the odds were stacked heavily in the Allies favor.”

Yeide isn’t quite as reductionist as Ellis, but the more complimentary German assessment of Patton’s abilities tend to be drowned out by those who stress the tremendous resources at his disposal, and by the author’s own constant emphasis on Patton’s luck, such as his having taken command in France “after nearly seven weeks of hard fighting by the British, the Canadians, and the Americans of the First Army had worn the German army in Normandy to tatters.”

And a bit further on, “Just as Patton strode onto the stage of the European theatre, the other fellow in Normandy was reeling backward and out of Patton’s way; off balance, running out of men and equipment, and looking for a way to extricate himself from an alreadylosing fight” (italics mine). As an indication of the mood in the German high command, Yeide quotes Alfred Jodl, the German chief of staff, who in captivity confessed, “The war was already lost in the West at the time of the breakthrough and the beginning of the war of movement in France.” As with Ellis, this tends to reduce Patton to a mere pursuer, impressive when chasing a fleeing foe, less so when meeting determined opposition.

Even the feat that is considered Patton’s greatest achievement, turning the three Third Army divisions 90 degrees and heading north within 72hours to fight the Battle of the Bulge, does not escape a slight deflation: “By the time Patton gained real contact with the enemy, most Germans had concluded that the offensive was already spent. Patton once again would attack his enemy when the other fellow was switching to his back foot.”

Like Ellis, Yeide emphasizes that in no way does this detract from the men who sacrificed life and limb in the Allied cause. And at no point is there a hint of glorification of the German side, only a clinical assessment of its fighting abilities. Yeide scrupulously registers the crimes of people like Max Simon, who killed 10,000 civilians in Kharkov when with the Totenkopf division in Russia, and who helped massacre a further 2,000civilians at Marzabotto, Italy. Unfortunately, Nazi war criminals could be quite effective on the battlefield.

How would the Patton corner respond? It is a fact that while the Germans had long prepared for war, the Roosevelt administration had to scramble to build an army in a hurry. This meant greener troops and a less experienced officer corps. It is also a fact that since the Civil War, America has relied on overwhelming firepower to win its wars.

But as participants, the Germans could hardly be expected to be unbiased observers of their own defeat. At this stage of the war, Hitler was busy promoting committed Nazi officers in the belief that they would put up a more stubborn defense. Such people would surely have found it easier to blame their defeat on an enemy relying on raw industrial might than to acknowledge his fighting skills. One is reminded of an incident in the final days of the war when a German officer was berating the Americans for sending their tanks through buildings instead of fighting it out in the open, a bit rich coming from a representative of the Third Reich’s armed forces, which had been perfectly happy to use tanks against Polish cavalry.

Yeide, like Ellis, does mention that some former Wehrmacht officers later upgraded their views of Patton, which he ascribes partly to a cooling of passions, partly as an attempt to curry favor when Germany joined nato. (A number of retired Wehrmacht generals became nato consultants.) This may be so, but at least this cannot be said of Erwin Rommel, who was forced by Hitler to commit suicide in October 1944. Carlo D’Este’s excellent Patton biography A Genius for Warquotes Rommel noting that after the initial American setback in Kasserine Pass, things had rapidly improved for them, “although we had to wait until the Patton Army in France to see the most astonishing achievement in mobile warfare.”

Concerning Patton’s thirst for glory, of which Yeide views his race with Montgomery across Sicily as a prime example, Martin Blumenson, the leading Patton specialist, sees a less suspicious motive: British Field Marshal Alexander, mistrustful of American prowess on the battlefield, had relegated Patton’s forces to a secondary role, acting as shield to Montgomery’s sword. This Patton was determined to change, “Not so much for his personal glory, although that was important, but rather to prove to the world that American soldiers were every bit as good as — indeed better than — British troops.” That meant entering Messina before the Brits.

On Patton’s performance in France, his campaign in Lorraine was certainly no beauty but might have been avoided altogether, if he and not the plodding Omar Bradley, his former subordinate, had been in overall charge of the American forces. As both Blumenson and Carlo D’Este see it, Patton would not have waffled over the Falaise Gap, and his plan, an ambitious long envelopment rather than Bradley’s short hook, might have trapped and killed the German Normandy army west of the Seine. Unfortunately, as a result of the slapping incidents in Sicily, the less gifted officer was calling the shots.

As to the element of luck, Patton, like Napoleon, believed that luck was an essential element in the make-up up of a great commander. But one reason Patton was lucky was due to his meticulous planning; another was his intuition. Thus Blumenson stresses his uncanny ability to be in the right spot at the right time, and his instinctive feel for when something was up, perhaps best illustrated in the days leading up to the final German offensive. His intelligence section was reporting enemy activity in the Ardennes, and Patton seems to have grasped its significance sooner than others. And as Yeide himself points out, “the Third Army headquarters was the only Allied headquarter to begin planning for its eventual role in the Battle of the Bulge.” “We will be in a position to meet whatever happens,” Patton noted.

But interestingly enough, on the main point that the Germans were the more effective soldiers, Patton would almost certainly agree (himself excluded, of course). As Yeide writes, in contrast to his public statements, his diary and letters often deplore the lack of initiative of his troops. Even during the Battle of the Bulge, he wrote, “The Germans are colder and hungrier than we are, but they fight better.”

Yet he kept goading, pulling, and willing his troops on to victory. That is his great achievement.