George Patton

The master of mobile warfare

9 minutes read.

George S. Patton Jr. witnessed the debut of the tank in the late stage of the 1st World War. He was the first American tank instructor and tank unit commander, and led his men and their tanks in their first battles. 25 years later, as the commander of a Corps and then an Army in the 2nd World War, he had spectacular achievements in fighting against some of Nazi Germany's best generals. Patton demonstrated how a commander's meticulous care for men, machines, morale, combined with unceasing vigorous leadership, brings results previously considered impossible.

Early life

Patton was born in 1885 to a family with an extensive military background, and since childhood he read a lot of military history and intended to have a military career. In 1909 he graduated from the US Military Academy at West Point, where he initially failed in mathematics, but excelled as a horse rider, swordsman, and pistol shooter. Right from the beginning of his 36 years career as an officer he demonstrated a leadership style which demanded very much from the troops, but also meticulously cared for them, both for their logistical needs and their training, and for their morale. He was strict with regard to military discipline, especially the type of military discipline that saves lives. Patton also showed innovation. In 1913, after learning fencing techniques from the top fencing instructor of the French Army Cavalry academy, Patton re-designed both the US Cavalry saber and its saber combat doctrine. It is no wonder then, that even as a young officer he was well-noticed by the highest ranks. This enabled Patton to be sent to war quite early, as the personal aide of the commander of an expeditionary force, but Patton never wanted to stay in headquarters after the operational planning and preparations phase, and demanded to command troops in battle.

In 1916, when the US Army was sent to Mexico in the Pancho Villa Expedition, Patton appealed to General Pershing, the expedition's commander, and became his personal aide. He then asked to command troops, and as a Cavalry troop commander he killed Pancho Villa's second-in-command, which got him his first media publicity, and a promotion.

World War I, and tanks

In 1917, when the US entered World War I and General Pershing was named commander of the American Expeditionary Force on the Western Front, Patton again joined him as part of Pershing's advance party to Europe. Patton knew of the revolutionary new British weapon that was invented then, the tank, and was very interested in them.

On November 10, 1917 he was assigned to establish the first US Light Tank School, to be equipped with French-built Renault FT light tanks, which were the first operational tanks to have a fully rotating turret containing the tank's main weapon. Ten days later, the British Army launched the first ever large scale tank attack. In order to learn as much as possible, Patton met the British tanks commander after the battle, and also visited the Renault tanks production factory. Patton was promoted, and promoted again, to Lieutenant Colonel, and in August 1918 became the commander of the first US tank brigade. Tanks were a new type of Cavalry, with very different logistical needs than those of horses, so Patton personally made sure that these needs were met. On September 26, 1918, shortly before the war ended, Patton personally led the first US tank battle. Two weeks later he led them, in thick fog, in their second battle, where he was wounded by a bullet. He continued to command for another hour before being evacuated. He was promoted again, advancing a total of five officer ranks in just two years (1916-1918), from Second Lieutenant to Colonel, and was also decorated with the Distinguished Service Cross for his courage, and with the Distinguished Service Medal for his exceptional achievements.

Between the wars

After WWI, the US Army was drastically shrunk to peacetime size and budget, and Patton's rank was reverted to Major. He spent the next 20 years in various assignments, but remained a key proponent of tank warfare in the US Army. He was involved in the continued development of doctrine for tank warfare and combined warfare, and in the technological development of tanks. He also met Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1919, and the two corresponded frequently since.

In 1939 Nazi Germany invaded Poland and the US Army began to mobilize and prepare for war again. Between 1938 and 1941, when the US joined the war, Patton was promoted twice, and during the war he was promoted twice more, becoming a 4-star General in April 1945, just before the end of the war. During these years he advanced from commanding a tank regiment to commanding an army, which he first trained, and then led in battles over 1000 miles across Europe, from the French Atlantic coast to Austria and Czechoslovakia.

Patton's main doctrinal argument with regard to warfare, and particularly tank warfare, was that fast and continued advance, constantly attacking the enemy, can be achieved, logistically and otherwise, and that it would actually save many lives, by not giving the enemy time to recover from its continued retreat and disorder, and he trained his troops accordingly. In 1940-1941 he demonstrated the ability to actually do so, in very large scale military exercises. It was now the time to do it in the battle field.

North Africa

Patton participated in planning the Allied campaign in French North Africa, and then commanded the 1st Armored Corps, with 33,000 troops, designated as the Western Task Force, which landed in Morocco on November 8, 1942. Four months later, after the U.S. II Corps was beaten by German forces commanded by the famous Field Marshal Erwin Rommel in what was the first major battle between American and German forces in WWII, Patton was given command of II Corps, with an order to restore the beaten and demoralized force and return it to battle in just 10 days. Patton ordered strict adherence to discipline and orders, he visited the units one by one, talked to the men, cared for their needs, praised accomplishments, encouraged, demanded hard work and sacrifice, and generally projected leadership which brought effective results. Just 11 days later, his forces defeated the Germans and Italians in battle.


Patton was then assigned to help plan the next amphibious operation, the invasion of the island of Sicily in the center of the Mediterranean Sea, between North Africa and Italy. In the invasion of Sicily on July 10, 1943 he commanded his former command, the 1st Armored Corps, which was re-designated The Seventh Army and augmented with additional forces. The landings were counter-attacked, but the counter-attacks where repulsed, with Patton personally leading the fighting against an elite German unit, the Hermann Goering Armor Division. After the fighting in Sicily was over, Patton had two incidents which almost ended his career. While visiting his wounded troops in a military hospital in Sicily, he slapped and insulted a battle-fatigued soldier and ordered him back to combat duty, and acted similarly in another visit a week later. Eisenhower, the Allied supreme commander in Europe and Patton's long time friend, reprimanded Patton and ordered him to apologize, which he did, but both Eisenhower and secretary of war Stimson refused calls by some politicians and journalists to dismiss him, considering Patton essential for the continued war effort. A month after the incidents, Patton's former deputy Omar Bradley was selected to command the 1st US Army in the coming invasion of Normandy, but four months later Patton was selected to command and train a fresh army, the 3rd US Army, for the coming invasion.


Unlike the landings in North Africa and in Sicily, which were countered by limited German and Italian forces, the invasion of "Fortress Europe", the mainland, on the beaches at Normandy, was about to take place against the main force of the German army, which expected the invasion. So although it was going to be the largest invasion in history, it was absolutely crucial to deceive the Germans about the location of the invasion, in order to make them keep their strongest mobile units elsewhere. Allied intelligence conducted an elaborate disinformation operation of unprecedented magnitude in order to deceive the German intelligence and leaders about the location of the coming invasion.

Since Patton was already well-known to the Germans and very highly appreciated by them as a leader of mobile forces, the Germans believed that Patton must have a central role in the coming invasion. The Allied deception operation fully exploited that. Beside his actual assignment as commander of the new 3rd US Army, Patton acted a fictitious role as the commander of FUSAG, the First United States Army Group, which did not really exist. He made appearances in front of troops, gave speeches, giving credibility to the non-existent army group that was allegedly deployed around Dover, opposite Pas de Calais in France, which is about 180 miles North-East from the beaches of Normandy, where the actual invasion took place. The Germans held their entire 15th Army at Pas de Calais, waiting for Patton's invasion there, and kept them there even after the invasion at Normandy started, thinking that it's just a diversion and that Patton's "main" invasion was still coming.

The breakout from Normandy

On August 1, 1944, two months after the Allied invasion at Normandy had started, Patton's 3rd Army had completed its transfer from England and became operational in France. The army was deployed North of Avranches, at the extreme West flank of the Allied forces, at the "corner" of the Cotentin peninsula and the Brittany peninsula. The initial landings at Normandy, followed by Operation Cobra which achieved a breakout from Normandy, were successfully completed. Now it was time to exploit that success and to liberate the rest of France, and it was Patton's role to lead the advance.

On August 1, 1944, the 3rd Army went through Avranches, crossed the Pontaubault bridge on the Selune river just South of Avranches, and from there the 3rd Army just "burst" in all directions, advancing rapidly West, across Brittany, South, East, and then North, to close the Falaise Pocket, where the German Army Group B was encircled by Allied forces.

Patton's method was basically similar to the German Blitzkrieg method, but with Patton's emphasis on much more efficient and more flexible coordination between the rapidly advancing ground forces and ALL their supporting services, including logistics, intelligence, air reconnaissance, air support, and artillery.

After a month of rapid advance all across France, from Brittany in the West, to the pre-war German border in the East, Patton's army was ordered to stop in order to let the other Allied armies advance and keep a broad frontline. The army's continued immobility enabled the Germans facing it to reinforce their positions, and the army suffered significant casualties in fighting in and around Metz.

The Battle of the Bulge

Then, on December 16, 1944, the German army started its last major attack of the war, attacking via the Ardennes mountains in Belgium in very bad weather, which helped them maintain surprise during their initial advance.

As part of the Allied counter-attack, Patton's army made one of the most impressive maneuvers of the war. The task was to reach the American airborne troops besieged by the Germans at Bastogne, about 100 miles away. Within just two days, three of Patton's divisions were fully disengaged from their immobile fierce fighting at their section of the front, moved rapidly on icy narrow roads to the area of the German attack, and there counter-attacked the German forces, followed by three more divisions which did the same. After three more days of heavy fighting, Patton's forces reached the American troops at Bastogne, and saved them.

Advance across Germany

After that, in the last four months of the war in Europe, Patton's army resumed its advance deep into Germany, although it was not allowed to advance as rapid as Patton wanted. The army advanced to southern Germany, then to Austria and reached Czechoslovakia when the war ended. Under Patton's command, the 3rd Army advanced over 1000 miles of enemy-held territory, fighting all the way from the Atlantic coast to central Europe, and destroyed German forces totalling at least five times its size.

Patton's death and legacy

After the victory, Patton returned home, and then returned to his command in Germany. He became the military governor of southern Germany, but was dismissed a few months later by Eisenhower after making politically problematic statements, and was assigned to a staff task. On December 21, 1945, General George S. Patton Jr. died from wounds caused by a car accident several days earlier. He was buried alongside wartime casualties of the 3rd Army, his troops.

Patton was definitely one of the greatest generals of WWII, both as a combat commander and as a leader and trainer of troops. He was the master of mobile warfare, not just tank warfare, and his training and fighting methods were largely adopted by the US Army and greatly affect it since.

Related essays:
Blitzkrieg (10 minutes read)

Back to main page