The legend of World War II General George S. Patton finds its genesis 75 years ago this week with the advent of the U.S. Third Army.
The famed unit, which he commanded, officially came into being on Aug. 1, 1944, nearly two months after the Allies’ successful D-Day landings in Normandy, France.
The going was slow following securing a foothold on continental Europe in June.
The Allied powers — the United States, Great Britain and Canada — did not anticipate how fierce the German resistance would be.
The countryside, with its ancient fields enclosed with rock walls that were topped with high hedges, proved very advantageous for Nazi defenders.
Fifty days after D-Day, the Allies were only about 20 to 30 miles inland, a point they had hoped to be five days after the landings. Further, taking the territory they won had come at a cost of 122,000 casualties, Rick Atkinson records in his book, “The Guns at Last Light.”
Patton was about to help change all that, turning the Allied crawl into a dash across northwest Europe to the German border.
The flamboyant general had been on the sidelines the last eleven months, due to incidents during operations in Sicily in August 1943 when he slapped one soldier and berated another for cowardice, both of whom were being treated at field hospitals for combat fatigue.
Patton later apologized to the soldiers and his entire unit for his conduct, but these incidents and others made Supreme Allied Commander Dwight Eisenhower believe that his best fighting general, arguably, needed a break.
Dr. Conrad C. Crane — chief of historical services for the Army Heritage and Education Center — told The Western Journal that Eisenhower employed Patton as a decoy in the lead-up to the D-Day landings.
The Supreme Allied Commander knew the Germans held Patton in high regard and sent him to different locations in order to confuse the Nazi high command as to where the landings would actually come.
By July 1944, Patton was like a highly taut spring: His desire to get back in the fight was great, and he was about to get his chance.
On July 25, the Allies launched Operation Cobra, which first involved the concentrated bombing of an area of land on the German front lines in Normandy about 3.5 miles long by nearly 1.5 miles deep.
According to Atkinson, 2,500 Allied bombers together dropped approximately 11,000 bombs per square mile, making it one of the “greatest concentrations of killing power in the history of warfare.”
The Allies quickly rolled into the breach in German lines in what became known at the breakout at St. Lo.
Operation Cobra was a resounding success for the Allied forces on their path to liberating France in the summer of 1944, and one of the key turning-points in the history of #WWII.
See the battle map from the 15-page special published in our April issue: https://t.co/Sx2k7NInbj
— Military History Matters (@MilHistMag) July 31, 2019
Though the Third Army had not officially come online yet, Patton’s immediate superior, Gen. Omar Bradley, gave the warhorse operational control of the units that would comprise it during closing days of July.
Patton’s forces, numbering close to 150,000 soldiers at this point, moved quickly through the breach and into the French countryside, overtaking tens of thousands of enemy soldiers and liberating thousands of square miles of land in the weeks ahead.
75 years ago, U.S. Operation Cobra was underway. Beginning 7 weeks after D-Day, it was a decisive moment in the collapse of Germany’s position in Normandy and the eventual liberation of Europe. pic.twitter.com/zpNnJWBc4y
— Ambassador Johnson (@USAmbUK) July 28, 2019
The Third made amazing strides rolling eastward toward the German border. By the end of August, the unit marched four hundred miles through central France as other Allied armies to the north also made strong advances east.
“When the Americans do break out with the mechanized forces, they really will explode across France,” Crane said.
The military expert noted how quickly the Allies went from being way behind their front line goal at D-Day plus 50 days to far exceeding it by D-Day plus 90 days.
Part of the reason for the rapid success was Patton’s battle philosophy in the age of mechanized warfare — tanks, armored personnel carriers, mobile artillery, planes and motorized supply chains — which was far different that the slow methodical advances of World War I, 20 years before.
In his book “Patton: Blood, Guts, and Prayer,” Michael Keane wrote that the general had standard lines he often employed in speeches to his troops, which among other topics emphasized the importance of movement on the battlefield.
“I don’t want to get any messages saying, ‘I am holding my position.’ We are not holding an [expletive] thing. Let the Germans do that,” he said. “We are advancing constantly and we are not interested in holding onto anything, except the [enemy].”
“Our basic plan of operation is to advance and to keep on advancing regardless of whether we have to go over, under, or through the enemy. We are going to go through him like crap through a goose,” the general added.
Another favorite Patton line was: “Sure, we want to go home. We want this war over with. The quickest way to get it over with is to go get the bastards who started it.”
“The quicker they are whipped, the quicker we can go home,” he continued. “The shortest way home is through Berlin and Tokyo. And when we get to Berlin, I am personally going to shoot that paper hanging son-of-a-b—- Hitler, just like I’d shoot a snake!”
Dr. James Carafano — a national security expert with The Heritage Foundation and author of the book “After D-Day: Operation Cobra and the Normandy Breakout” — told The Western Journal that the Third Army set the gold standard for the Americans in the execution of mobile warfare.
“His forces did much to accelerate the speed of the advance on the Western Front and hasten the liberation of Europe,” Carafano said. “The Third Army blazed the way, leading American forces in rediscovering operational maneuver warfare.”
Crane believes Patton’s most impressive military feat as Third Army commander came late in 1944 during the Battle of the Bulge, which was Germany’s last major offensive on the western front.
The surprise Nazi attack made a 50-mile deep and 20- to 30- mile wide bulge in the Allied lines.
“[Patton’s] greatest accomplishment is when he turned his army 90 degrees in the middle of winter in December of ‘44 to attack into the flank of the Bulge, relieve Bastogne and help blunt the German drive there,” Crane said.
— History Albert (@WW2Albert) June 10, 2016
“During the operation the Third Army moved farther and faster and engaged more divisions in less time than any other army in the history of the United States — possibly the history of the world,” Patton wrote in his book “War As I Knew It.”
The maneuver was depicted in the 1970 film “Patton,” which won the Academy Award for best picture. George C. Scott also garnered the prize for best actor in a leading role.
The movie did much to propel the Patton legend to new heights.
A remarkable incident that occurred during the Battle of the Bulge is when Patton asked Third Army Chaplain James O’Neill for a good weather prayer. The skies had been overcast for weeks and heavy rains had made the roads muddy, all but stopping the Allied advance.
O’Neill drafted one which Patton liked so much he ordered the chaplain to print up prayer cards and distribute them to all the Third Army’s 250,000 troops.
General Patton, desiring good weather for his advance to Bastogne, had Chaplain Fr. James O’Neill compose a card to be distributed to each one of the 250,000 troops under his command of the Third Army, and had all of the men pray this prayer. #WW2 pic.twitter.com/lbuQOFILY1
— WWII Pictures (@WWIIpix) December 22, 2017
“Almighty and most merciful Father, we humbly beseech Thee, of Thy great goodness, to restrain these immoderate rains with which we have to contend. Grant us fair weather for battle,” the prayer card read.
“Graciously harken to us as soldiers who call upon Thee that armed with Thy power, we may advance from victory to victory, and crush the oppression and wickedness of our enemies, and establish Thy justice among men and nations. Amen.”
The prayer cards went out into the Third Army ranks starting just days before the Germans launched their offensive on Dec. 16. The Nazi troops quickly surrounded thousands of American soldiers, including the 101st Airborne Division in Bastogne, Belgium.
After weeks of inclement weather, the skies finally broke crisp and clear on Dec. 23 allowing the surrounded Americans to get in badly needed supplies by air drop. Three days later, elements of the Third Army punched through the German defensive perimeter into Bastogne, rescuing the 101st.
Patton, amazed by how quickly the weather changed, decided to award O’Neill a Bronze Star.
“Chaplain, you’re the most popular man in this Headquarters,” he told the priest. “You sure stand in good with the Lord and with the troops.”
In March, the Third Army, and other allied units, crossed the Rhine River into the heart of Germany as the Soviet Army converged on Berlin from the east. In less than two months, the war in Europe was over.
In a letter to the Third Army following the Nazi surrender in May 1945, Patton recounted some of his soldiers’ astounding accomplishments.
“During the 281 days of incessant and victorious combat, your penetrations have advanced farther in less time than any other army in history,” he wrote. “You have liberated or conquered more than 82,000 square miles of territory, including 1,500 cities and towns, and some 12,000 inhabited places.
“Prior to the termination of active hostilities, you had captured in battle 956,000 enemy soldiers and killed or wounded at least 500,000 others. France, Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany, Austria, and Czechoslovakia bear witness to your exploits.”
In “War As I Knew It,” Patton lamented the end of the great conflict.
“It is rather sad to me to think my last opportunity for earning my pay has passed,” he wrote. “At least, I have done my best as God gave me the chance.”
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