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  • James Houser

July 10, 1943 - The Invasion of Sicily and the Paradox of George Patton

Updated: Jun 12, 2021

July 10, 1943. The Allied armies storm onto the shores of Sicily, their first conquest of Axis home territory since the beginning of World War II. Leading the charge for the Americans is Lieutenant General George S. Patton, one of the towering figures of American military mythology. The campaign in Sicily will reveal all the greatness – and the darkness – of one of America’s most famous soldiers.

In the minds of most Americans, there is an image of “Patton.” He is a figure in perfect uniform, standing in front of an enormous American flag, haranguing and inspiring his soldiers. In one minute he tells them to “murder the Kraut bastards,” and in the next he tells them how honored he is to lead them. It is, of course, George C. Scott in the 1970 film “Patton” that people are seeing – not the real Patton. Scott delivered a tour de force performance, of course, but it was a performance in spite of its sheen of authenticity. It could never be the real man.

I’ve talked a lot in my posts about mythology and how it’s created. Whether it’s Gettysburg in film, Boudicca on the side of a British ship or the Wars of the Roses in Shakespeare’s plays, how a person or event is mythologized tells us far more about the mythmakers than it does the origin of the myth. So it is with George S. Patton. To many he symbolizes everything good about America, but to others he conveys our darker images, our less savory aspects and the worst parts of our national character. Who was George S. Patton, really?

When the United States 7th Army came ashore on the Italian island of Sicily on July 10, 1943, the 1st Infantry Division and William O. Darby’s U.S. Rangers formed the main assault wave near the town of Gela. Patton spent most of July 10 raging at the Air Force for poor airborne drops and lack of fighter cover, but it did not stop him from restlessly pacing the deck of his command ship, watching his men go ashore. As an army commander it was not his place to be on the frontlines, but he would look for any excuse to get there.

By July 11, he gave up and was on the beach with the 1st Division at 9:30 AM, only 24 hours after the first landing, and just as the Germans launched an armored counterattack. Panzers had burst through the center of the 1st Infantry Division’s defenses and were trying to throw the division back into the sea. It was a last stand on the very beaches that saved the 1st Division, which had to throw the panzers back with naval gunfire.

Cameramen recorded the scene as Patton waded ashore, resplendent in a perfect uniform with a neat necktie, knee-length polished black leather boots, and his iconic pearl-handled pistols at his waist. Even as shells fell around him, he was unperturbed. He flitted across the beaches in a Jeep, bellowing at Ranger officers to “kill every one of the goddamn bastards” and shouting at naval officers to “Connect with your goddamn navy” to shell the oncoming tanks.

Even though the Big Red One and the Rangers threw the Germans back by their heroic resistance, Patton’s presence had little to do with it. His showboating and photo ops were classic of George Patton, and got huge play in the American press, with headlines starting with “PATTON LEAPED ASHORE TO HEAD TROOPS AT GELA” and “PATTON LED YANKS AGAINST NAZI TANKS”. Truth was, Patton’s real impact on the battle had been persuading Eisenhower to replace the inexperienced 36th Infantry Division with the veteran 1st for the initial landing – a move which bore dividends in the Big Red One’s tough and heroic resistance. This was the sort of less flashy, but far more astute leadership that the press rarely covered, and never really fit into the Patton legend. When Patton received a second Distinguished Service Cross for his leadership at Gela – the first had been in World War I – he confided to his wife that it was an award “I rather feel I did not deserve…but won’t say so.”

The subsequent Sicily campaign would equally fit the Patton legend. According to the 1970 film and many classic accounts of World War II, the Americans under Patton and the British forces under Sir Bernard Montgomery had a spectacular “race for Messina,” a breakneck competition between the two armies to see who would capture the key Sicilian city first. Patton’s 7th Army broke out from the Gela bridgehead, sprinted northwest to seize the port city of Palermo, then lanced west into the flank of the German and Italian forces facing Montgomery. Patton and his troops faced tough opposition from veteran panzer units, and used their superior amphibious abilities to “leapfrog” along the north coast of Sicily, outflanking German defensive lines one after another. These amazing feats enabled Patton and his G.I.s to beat the Brits to Messina, thumbing their noses at the snobby Englishmen.

Much of this is true – even if the rivalry only really existed in the headlines of reporters. One person who was not well pleased by Patton’s lust for glory, though, was Omar Bradley, his immediate subordinate. Bradley was infuriated by what he saw as Patton’s willingness to risk his men’s lives – and higher casualties – for glory and headlines. Much of this attitude made it into the 1970 film. Patton is portrayed as ruthless, almost tyrannical in his race to Messina. This suddenly makes a lot more sense when you realize that Bradley was the chief historical advisor to the filmmakers, and so they got a very skewed view of Patton’s leadership.

The truth was that Patton and Montgomery were never as antagonistic as film and popular media have portrayed. Montgomery was certainly happy to see Patton taking the pressure off his flank, the real responsibility for the perceived “British-American rivalry” came not from Montgomery -who impressed Patton – but from their mutual boss, Sir Harold Alexander. Montgomery and Patton had a great deal more in common than either would admit publicly, mainly in that both men were committed actors. They were flamboyant, charismatic, preening men, always ready for a photographer, video camera or headlines.

Even their “rivalry” was more of an act than anything. Bradley had far more ill feeling for Montgomery than Patton ever did – and they would remain rivals until 1945, when tables had turned and Patton was Bradley’s subordinate.

This is the sort of thing that became the Patton myth – American can-do spirit, spiting of superiors, ingenuity and flexibility, profanity and courage in the face of fire. All of this was real to a degree, of course, but it was only part of the picture.

Patton’s undeniable military brilliance and instinct for the cameras were only the surface elements of an enormous intellect, concealed by both his profane public persona and his learning defects. He did poorly in school before he willed himself to success through sheer discipline, suffering from a condition that was probably undiagnosed dyslexia – which plagued his spelling until the end of his days. Despite this, he was a far greater brain that he is typically given credit for – a true soldier-poet in many aspects. He read military history and theory voraciously, wrote (usually terrible) poetry in his diaries and journals, and had a deep appreciation for the classics.

Patton also had a tactile sense of his own destiny, constantly worrying about his place in history and projecting this obsession with memory onto his own knowledge of the past. He often expressed a belief in reincarnation – though not precisely the Buddhist kind. He declared that he had died on the plains of Troy, had fought with Caesar, had followed Bonnie Prince Charlie to Culloden, marched with Alexander, and vividly described Napoleon’s retreat from Russia to his wife, insisting that he had been there. This was not a joke to Patton, and he would get offended if someone assumed he was being silly; unlike many aspects of his personality, he seems to have legitimately believed these stories.

Indeed, Patton was an unusually sensitive soul, prone to enormous mood swings and bouts of long-lasting depression, often coupled with a very masculine fear of impending age. At his daughter’s wedding in the 1930s, he had something of a psychotic break, climbing on top of her car and blasting his pistol in the air – after which he took a much-needed sabbatical owing to the stress and the insecurity of his midlife crisis. He was occasionally suicidal, or at least courting death, which may have led to his apparent lack of concern for danger. He could also fly into a towering temper, but this was vastly overmatched by bouts of depression. At one point his wife Beatrice had to bribe their daughters to spend time with the grouchy, morose Patton, since he was brooding in a hammock moaning that no one loved him.

On August 3, in the midst of the Sicilian Campaign, a chain of events began that nearly undid Patton’s entire career. He stopped at a field hospital behind the lines to talk to some of his wounded soldiers and was visibly moved, solemnly pinning the Purple Heart on one man, almost moved to tears by the sight. Then he encountered Private Charles Kuhl of the 1st Division, who had no visible wounds. When he asked what was wrong, Kuhl said “I guess I can’t take it.” This reply instantly enraged Patton, who swore at Kuhl, called him a coward, and ordered him out of the tent. When Kuhl failed to respond, Patton slapped his face with a glove, pulled him up by the collar and kicked him in the rear out of the tent.

A second incident occurred a week later, on August 10, when Patton encountered Private Paul Bennett, who had suffered from a nervous collapse. He immediately began to berate him, “Hell, you are just a goddamned coward, you yellow son of a bitch. Shut up that goddamned crying.” Patton even pulled out his pistol and waved it in the solder’s face before slapping him too. Medical personnel placed themselves between Bennett and Patton, and the General finally left.

Bradley and Eisenhower attempted to bury the incidents, but they eventually reached the press. Patton, who had been on the list to command the initial attacks in Normandy, was quietly shelved for months until he could be rehabilitated. Only Eisenhower’s grace ended up saving the general – many authorities in Washington were planning to relieve him, but Ike insisted in keeping him on for the battles in France. Bradley would take command in Normandy instead, and when Patton did enter France it would be under his old subordinate’s command.

What can explain Patton’s behavior in the infamous slapping incidents? There was certainly his belief in discipline and manhood – the notion of iron self-control and courage, notions that seemed to be lacking in the men he encountered. Even in 1943, the issue of combat fatigue – now known more commonly as PTSD – was well-documented. But it was not always apparent, and this strikes at the heart of what happened.

Soon after the incident, when Patton came to realize the import of his actions, he apologized in person to the nurses and doctors at the hospital, and to Kuhl and Bennett – each of whom, after a brief period of recovery, went on to serve well in their original units. After the news got to the press, Patton apologized to the entire 1st Division. Bennett and Kuhl were both thrilled at the apology, with Kuhl commenting that “I think he was suffering a little battle fatigue himself.”

And isn’t that the core of it? Patton later remarked to someone that he had a World War I comrade who had committed suicide after combat fatigue, and he had thought that by “shocking” these men out of their condition he might help them, not hurt them. His own stress, rage and passion transformed itself into abuse, in a pattern many can recognize. His behavior cannot be excused or condoned, but Patton had his own list of traumas, men killed in front of him, great hardships and trials – including the usual horror show that was the Western Front of World War I. A sensitive, emotional, passionate and deeply self-conscious person like George Patton would be more affected than most by PTSD, and it explains much of his behavior that I described above. He was not just a victimizer – he was a victim himself.

America’s most legendary warrior was not immune to the effects of war. His brilliance, discipline and courage helped bring him into the highest ranks of the U.S. Army, but his complexity of emotion and depth of psychic injury made him unstable, irrational, and at times abusive. Though we can never know the true depths of his mind, this was something far closer to the real Patton: the flamboyant tough guy who wrote sappy poetry, the rebellious subordinate who craved the affection of his daughters, the advocate of discipline and self-control who could not acknowledge or confront his own demons.

The modern myth of Patton has no room for these complexities. He is the man who gets things done, the great leader, the symbol of American military might. Maybe so. But maybe he also represents the great weaknesses of America’s character – our confidence in destiny, belief in image, our ostentatious show of strength and failure to grapple with the moral and spiritual weaknesses inside. We have gained the ability to conquer the world, but not to conquer our past.

Maybe the real Patton fits us better than we’d like to admit. Like the myth of a great American soldier, the American myth holds shadows and weaknesses some would rather see forgotten.

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