Patton’s Payback

From The Wall Street Journal:

Like any good soldier, Maj. Gen. George Patton wrote regularly to his wife, though perhaps not as tenderly as she would have liked: “I wish I could get out and kill someone,” he told her in the winter of 1942-43.

November had started out in pleasing fashion, with Patton commanding 35,000 soldiers and 250 tanks in Operation Torch, the invasion of North Africa that marked the first time that Americans had faced German and Italian troops in World War II. But within a few weeks he was stuck in Casablanca. Gen. Dwight Eisenhower had him moving supplies and men to the front, while the rest of the Anglo-American army marched through Morocco and Algeria and into Tunisia. This wasn’t his idea of warfare. When it came to the enemy—in the words of his son-in-law, then-Col. John K. Waters—Patton expected “to hold them by the nose and kick them in the ass.”

That job had unfortunately been entrusted to a more timid two-star, Maj. Gen. Lloyd Fredendall, who preferred to stay well away from the fighting. Even with roughly 90 miles between him and the Axis forces, as Stephen L. Moore tells us in “Patton’s Payback: The Battle of El Guettar and General Patton’s Rise to Glory,” Fredendall ordered his engineers to dig “subway-like tunnels and underground complexes” to protect his headquarters in Tunisia from German bombers.

. . . .

Not until spring 1943 was Fredendall kicked upstairs, promoted and sent home to train young Americans for future combat—thus delaying Patton’s return to a front-line command. The hiatus doesn’t trouble Mr. Moore, who isn’t writing a campaign history. Instead, like a latter-day Ernie Pyle, he wants to tell the story of men at the tip of the spear. Letters home, diaries and postwar interviews are the grist for Mr. Moore’s mill, and he has a gift for melding them into a coherent narrative.

Thus we learn the story of the invasion and the subsequent march across North Africa through the eyes of the men who fought it. We read about the gallant Col. Bill Darby of the Ranger battalion and about enlisted soldiers like Pfc. Harley Reynolds, who in his first hour under fire notices that his platoon’s machine-gunner has frozen up. “Reynolds grabbed the gunner’s feet and yanked him away,” writes Mr. Moore, and another brave lad flops down beside him to feed the ammunition. At one point, we see troops just ahead of combat, as viewed by a lieutenant who is gauging their mental state: “Some chatted excitedly while heating C rations over their little stoves, while others enjoyed a few hours of sleep ‘after rereading by candlelight for the hundredth time a crumpled and smudged letter from home.’ ”

Such details are so absorbing that one scarcely notices that it is not until halfway through the book—and halfway across North Africa—that Patton takes charge. He shows up for breakfast at Fredendall’s bunker-like headquarters at 0700 hours (7 a.m.) on March 7, 1943. Only one other officer is present. “Patton immediately passed orders to the cooks that the mess hall would be closed at 0730 on this day and every day forward,” Mr. Moore tells us. Nor is that his only dictate. “Every man old enough will shave every day,” he decrees. “Officers will wear ties into combat. And anyone wearing a wool knit cap without a steel helmet will be shot.” Appearances are important to Patton, and he is seldom photographed without a tie, steel helmet, knee boots, flared cavalry breeches and an ivory-handled pistol on each hip.

He immediately gathers Fredendall’s scattered American forces—now 88,000 men in three infantry divisions, an armored division, a field artillery brigade and seven battalions of “tank destroyers” (basically heavy trucks, each with a cannon firing over the driver’s head)—into a unified command. His headquarters is never far from the fighting. More than once, the troops plead with him to get back, perhaps for fear that his three stars (he’s now a lieutenant general) will attract sniper fire.

. . . .

Since November 1942, as Mr. Moore reminds us, the Operation Torch troops (British, American and French) have taken a 1,000-mile swath of land, from Casablanca to central Tunisia, while another British army has pushed the enemy out of Egypt and across Libya to the Tunisian coast. Against orders, Patton tells his troops to drive for the coast

. . . .

[O]n April 14, Patton is called to Eisenhower’s headquarters and told to start planning Operation Husky, the forthcoming invasion of Sicily that will mark the Allies’ return to the European continent. “In a mere five weeks of command,” concludes Mr. Moore, “Patton had turned the tide. . . . He had charted a course for victory, and had whipped an ill-prepared army into shape.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (Should be a free link, but PG apologizes if you hit a paywall.)