(W)Archives: The Myth of Germany’s Obsession with Patton

August 29, 2014

On August 31, 1944 the rampage of General George S. Patton’s Third Army that had started in Normandy at the beginning of the month came to a halt on the Moselle River, just short of Metz. The reason for the halt was not German resistance, but a lack of gasoline. Many Americans viewed this offensive as the latest evidence that Patton was the U.S. Army’s most capable and aggressive general. Surely the Germans viewed Patton the same way.

Indeed, the idea of a German obsession with Patton has become a truism in military history and reappears frequently in published works.   In particular, the idea was popularized by Ladislas Farago in his biography of the general.

In fact, the Germans paid Patton little attention until he raced with Third Army around the German flank in Normandy in August 1944. While researching my book, Fighting Patton: George S. Patton through the Eyes of His Enemies, I found no indication in the surviving German military records—which include intelligence reports at the theater, army, and division levels—that Patton’s enemies had any idea who he was when he took command of II Corps in Tunisia in March 1943. Likewise, the immediate postwar accounts of the German commanders in Tunisia, written for the U.S. Army’s History Division, ignore Patton. The first mention of Patton in German documents appears in a mid-May 1943 report by the Detachment Foreign Armies West, which simply noted that Patton had taken command of II Corps—which he had already left. In mid-June, another detachment report described Patton as “an energetic and responsibility-loving command personality”—merely a passing comment on one of the numerous Allied commanders.

The Axis powers had known before the July 1943 landings on Sicily that Patton was in command of American ground forces in the western Mediterranean, and they knew he led Seventh Army in Sicily. But his race to Palermo through countryside they had already abandoned left German commanders unimpressed. Nevertheless, it was just after the end of the campaign in Sicily that senior American officers tried to use Patton as a decoy regarding Allied intentions in the Mediterranean and later in Britain prior to D-Day.

After gaining a foothold in Italy, Allied commanders needed to keep the Germans guessing about their plans in the Mediterranean. In an October 21, 1943 document preserved at the George C. Marshall Foundation, U.S. Army Chief of Staff General Marshall, the U.S. Army Chief of Staff wrote to Eisenhower:

It seems evident to us that Patton’s movements are of great importance to German reactions and therefore should be carefully considered. I had thought and spoke to [Eisenhower’s chief of staff, Walter Bedell] Smith about Patton being given a trip to Cairo and Cyprus but the Corsican visit appeals to me as carrying much more of a threat [to northern Italy].

Eisenhower replied:

I am quite sure that we must do everything possible to keep [the Germans] confused and the point you have suggested concerning Patton’s movements appeals to me as having a great deal of merit. This possibility had not previously occurred to me.

For all Marshall’s apparent certainty, however, he was making an assumption for which he had absolutely no evidence.

As a result of this assumption, Patton made a series of highly visible appearances, beginning with Corsica on October 28 and followed by Malta and Cairo. There is no evidence in German intelligence records that the enemy paid any attention to Patton’s movements.

Thanks to false information fed through double agents, by March 23, 1944 the Germans began associating Patton with the fictional First U.S. Army Group (FUSAG), a key part of the D-Day deception. But they had not yet conclusively identified him or anyone else as the commanding general. In fact, on April 1, Germany’s Foreign Armies West noted, “It seems possible that [Patton] has taken command of the First or Ninth Army in England.”

Despite the Allies’ best efforts, the Germans did not decide until mid-May—months after they concluded that the Allied invasion would land at Pas de Calais or in Belgium—that Patton had indeed taken command of FUSAG. However, his leadership of the supposed landings at Pas de Calais appears to have been incidental to the strategic conclusions the Germans reached regarding the Allied invasion. None of the surviving pre-invasion records from the command of Army Group B, responsible for defending northwestern France, mention Patton outside the FUSAG order of battle.

A myth that began in the minds of American generals during the war carried over into the mainstream understanding of the European war. But believing it to be true does not make it so.

 

Harry Yeide is the author of several histories of the U.S. Army in World War II, including The Longest Battle: September 1944-February 1945: From Aachen to the Roer and Across and Steeds of Steel: A History of American Mechanized Cavalry in World War II. His most recent book is Fighting Patton.

 

Photo credit: Marion Doss