Re-discovering General Patton

 

General Patton, 1944The message arrived at headquarters. By-pass the town of Trier because it would take too long and too many divisions to capture. With a grin, Patton sent back the reply: “Have taken Trier with two divisions. Do you want me to give it back?”

George Patton is an American legend. His leadership, wit, and tenacity are part of the World War II “culture.” He had complex character qualities, a tendency to act without thinking, and a vocabulary of profanities possibly unrivaled in military history…but who was the real man? What did he accomplish? What positive examples should we emulate from his life?

Today I’m pleased to welcome Wesley R. Thornton to Gazette665 for a question and answer session. Wesley has studied General Patton, owns a large collection of biographies about the commander, and has excellent insight into the life, character, and actions of this American general.

(Note: this is a G-rated article on Patton; young readers strongly advised not to read other biographies about Patton without parental consent! I was not joking about his vocabulary.)

The Brief Introduction

Never heard of Patton? Here’s a quick review of his WWII military action:

After fighting in North Africa (1942) and Italy (1943), General Patton’s Third Army played a key role in the liberation of Europe from Nazi rule. Though not part of the original Normandy landings, the Third Army and its commander fought in the break-out of Normandy, the liberation of France, the Battle of the Bulge, and the advance into Germany. Patton’s troops were the first Allied soldiers to cross the Rhine, and, despite the general’s horror at the Soviet capture of Berlin, the Third Army held a key southern position to prevent a German stand in the Czechoslovakian mountains.

Discussing The General: Q&A with Wesley Thornton

What prompted your interest in General Patton?

(Wesley) I was an armored officer in the United States Army and that created a lot of interest as I began to study how I was going to command an armored unit. It was just a nature offshoot of that. He [Patton] was the “father of armor vehicles and tanks. He started in World War I, and he was the guy. If you want to know about armor and how to fight it…you study Patton.

George Patton in 1919, as he begins studying tanks and developing new strategies for mechanized warfare

George Patton in 1919, as he begins studying tanks and developing new strategies for mechanized warfare

How did Patton develop and revolutionize tank strategy?

(Wesley) Well, I think from the very beginning he saw the advantage of being able to move rapidly and without a lot of cover. And he saw that right away and developed his strategy around: move, move fast, and keep moving. The best defense is an offense, and he certainly proved that.

Can you tell us about Patton’s leadership style? What made it unique and why do you think it was successful?

(Wesley) He really spent lots of time becoming perfect in what he was doing. He didn’t have to ask anybody how a fifty caliber machine gun worked; that wasn’t his job and it might not have meant anything to anybody, but he knew. He knew every detail of everything, so he was always prepared.

He was very decisive. He determined how his army was going to operate. They were going to look like a seasoned army, and if that meant you wear a tie and your boots are polished, then your boots are polished and you wear a tie [just like the commanding general.]

He’d studied warfare so much that he knew what to do and he knew he had a superbly trained army.

British General Montgomery and American General Patton

British General Montgomery and American General Patton (I like their friendly smiles in this photo!)

From your reading, how did the other Allied commanders feel about Patton? What about the Axis generals?

[Wesley’s answer concerning the Allied generals was very lengthy, so for the sake of keeping this post under 2,000 words, I’ll summarize and then we’ll go back to direct quotes 🙂 ]

Some of the Allied commanders were jealous of Patton, others simply didn’t know what to do with him. His direct leadership style and “press forward” strategies were not always popular in command headquarters. Other generals weren’t willing to take the big risks or attack with speed  because they didn’t have Patton’s mindset of “How can I win this war quickest and with the least amount of casualties.” Thus, there were times of tension between Patton and other generals, mostly because of their different viewpoints.

(Wesley) The Axis generals were afraid of him. They put him down as the number one general and I think they would have – if they’d had a secret vote – voted him above their own. Now, that’s saying something. They wanted to know every detail about Patton, and they wanted to know where he was at all times. They thought very highly of him; I’ve never read anything that didn’t say that.

Patton had a “press image” during the war. Do you think that image was the real Patton?

(Wesley) No, I don’t think so. I think some of the “press image” came from frustration, [though] he was obviously a man who spoke exactly what he thought… The minute he got into trouble, of the course, the press was there.

One thing you don’t often hear about is Patton’s letters to his family. When he was a young man, he wrote weekly to his parents and the letters began “Dear Papa, Dear Mama.” There’s a lot about Patton that was never publicly known during his lifetime.

PattonphotoWhat’s your favorite story about Patton?

(Wesley) Oh boy, there’s so many of them. I don’t know if I have a favorite story.

Well, I think it was pretty great that whenever he got a promotion, his men would come in and put on the new star…and he always had it ready. He was very optimistic. (Laughter) I think that was pretty cute.

I think something most people [don’t know] is that he was a very religious person. He had real faith, and I think if you’re going to be a dynamic leader you’d better have faith or you can’t stand out there and let’em shoot at you… He truly read his Bible…and I think he had strong faith…and certainly no fear.

And I just have to ask…there’s a new book about Patton that’s been recently released: Killing Patton by Bill O’Reilly. Have you read it? What did you think of it?

(Wesley) I read it, and I was disappointed in that I wanted it to be more about Patton. It was really about WWII; of course he [O’Reilly] covered Patton in it, but…because I’ve read so many books about Patton that I know [his story] real well [and therefore realized what was missing].

But I think it was excellent for anybody who doesn’t know about WWII, and they should read it. [In this way] it was excellent, and it tells about all the leaders [in an easy to understand way.]

What are some of the most important things we can learn from Patton today?

(Wesley) Well, the first thing is to have knowledge which takes lots of study. Then prepare yourself well [for whatever you’re doing.] Always do what’s right… Be truthful and honest. Be prepared. Be understandable… And [as a leader] be able to gain the confidence of [those around you] otherwise they’re not going to follow you.

A big thank you to Wesley R. Thornton for sharing his knowledge and opinions on General Patton! Watch Gazette665 Facebook this week for fun facts, trivia, and more history about this American general.

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

P.S. What new information did you discover and enjoy through this interview?

 

 

Preach, Heal, Proclaim, Open

As I look at the historical accounts of the liberation of Europe from the Nazi power, I’m reminded of a Scripture verse from the book of Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon Me…to preach good tiding to the poor; He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound…” (Isaiah 61:1)

To the civilians and prisoners of Europe – long oppressed by fear – the arrival of the Allied troops meant liberty. What were some of the interactions? How did they learn they were free again? Taking a few key words and themes from the Scripture verse, let’s examine the history…

Allied Troops and Civilians1. Preach

…to preach good tidings to the poor. Preaching is proclaiming. Telling something in a strong voice, telling something important. Some families in German-occupied Europe had hidden radio sets which they used to tune into Allied stations. There, they would have heard the electrifying news of the coming liberation on the radio broadcasts. Those proclamations kept the people’s hopes alive.

When the actual liberation came to a small village, the American troops probably did not stand up and make a glorious speech. Sure, they were friendly to the people, but speech-making was not high on their priorities. While there might not have been a grandiose verbal proclamation of freedom in a little town square, the message was clear. With each turn of the tank’s tracks and each crunch of a GI’s boots, the proclamation was made: we’re free!

American Soldiers and Civilians

An American medical unit tries to communicate with civilians. (Note the translation book.)

2. Heal

…heal the brokenhearted. War scars the body and the mind. We recognize that it scars soldiers physically, mentally, and emotionally, but we often forget its same injuries to civilians.

American military medical units and the Red Cross traveled with the armies. They did not neglect the civilian populations; they reached out to heal the physical injuries and illnesses.

I think it’s safe to say the soldiers did their part in the healing work too. Imagine spending years hiding in terror because the Nazis might kill you because of your ethnicity; you emerging from your shelter one spring day, still afraid of these new soldiers, and one approaches you saying, “you’re free…you don’t need to be afraid.” That’s a healing action. Or think of a young woman, frightened by the attitudes of the occupying German soldiers – then one day they’re gone. The next soldier you see is a “GI Joe” who gifts you a candy bars, compliments your pretty smile in a genuine respectful way, and then heads on down the road. That’s a healing action.

3. Proclaim

…proclaim liberty to the captives. As the American force moved into Germany, they found prisoner of war camps. The prisoners were promptly liberated, welcomed, fed, gifted with supplies, and started on their journey back to their families.

Not all prisoners of war were treated kindly by the Germans. One particular group of POWs captured during the Battle of the Bulge (December 1944) endured harsh prison conditions before their transfer to and starvation in a work camp. Their ordeal didn’t end there, however; in the spring of 1945, they were forced on a horrible death march. They’d prayed for deliverance and dreamed of a day when Patton’s tanks would come. One morning during the death march, the POWs refused to get up and then…

“A Sherman tank rolled in front of the barn… ‘I saw the white star on the side of the tank, and then some men started to shout and scream that they are Americans. It was after some time, just sitting there and hearing the commotion, that I realized that I was liberated.’ ”  (“Given Up For Dead” by Flint Whitlock, 2005, page 191-192)

Eisenhower (center) and generals at Buchenwald

Eisenhower (center) and generals at Buchenwald

4. Open

…opening of the prison to those who are bound. Many of the Nazi death camps were located east of Berlin and were therefore liberated by the Soviets. However, there were several death camps and work camps which the Americans discovered.

In an effort to keep this blog friendly for readers of all ages, I’m not going to share graphic details regarding what the American troops found. But I will tell you this: they opened the prison gates, they cut through the barbed wire, they brought medical aid and comfort to thousands of men, women, and children who had suffered years of indescribable cruelty because of their religion or nationality.

While the American soldiers broke down the physically barriers of the prison camps, the generals made certain the truth was also “set free.” General Eisenhower, supreme Allied commander, took some of his subordinate generals and the press to walk through the horrifying scenes of prison camp at Buchenwald. He was determined that the world would know the atrocities committed by the Nazis. The prison doors were open, and the truth would also be told.

Conclusion

Before you start thinking of the liberation of Europe through completely rose-colored spectacles, let me destroy that idea. Allied army headquarters received quite a few complaints about soldiers’ bad behavior.

However, I think it’s safe to say that many of the GI’s had compassion for the European people they were freeing from oppression.

Whether they realized it at the time or not, the Allied soldiers were exemplifying strong character and God-honoring actions as they brought hope, healed injuries, rescued prisoners of war, and flung open the gates to death camps.

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

P.S. What part of Europe’s liberation seems most dramatic to you? Share your thoughts in a comment.

 

6 Things to Know About VE Day

This is it. May 8, 2015. Seventy years ago it was VE Day for the first time in history, and the crowds went wild. Unfortunately, many people are going to head to work today praising the fact that it’s a Friday and never considering the historical anniversary. Even in my own family I got puzzled looks when I tested their knowledge of the day. (Yikes! And they have a historian living in the house…)

Women reading news of VE DaySo what exactly happened on VE Day? Why is it significant? How does it impact us today? Here’s six things you need to know about the historical event.

1. VE stands for “Victory in Europe”

May 8, 1945, was a historic, never to be forgotten day in European history. It was the day the Allied leaders announced the surrender of Nazi Germany.

2. VE Day ended World War II in Europe

Six years earlier – in 1939 – Germany, at the instigation of Hitler, invaded Poland, beginning the Second World War in Europe. In the following year, German tanks swept through Western Europe, conquering the smaller nations and France. To the south, Mussolini’s Fascist government controlled Italy and worked in league with the Nazi Reich. For months, Britain held on, alone, but supported by a life line of American supplies while in the skies British and German pilots fought for air superiority.

When the Americans joined the war in 1941, manpower for offensive campaigns became available. Fighting in North Africa, Italy, and Southern France weakened the German hold on the continent. In June 1944, Allied Forces landed on the shores of Normandy and pushed their way toward Paris. While the Russians advanced from the east, the Germans launched a desperate assaulted in the frozen woods in December 1944; this is now called Battle of the Bulge.

However, with Allies controlling the skies and steadily advancing their armies, Hitler’s “fantastic” plans crumbled like the city of Berlin itself. The Russians captured Berlin on May 2, 1945, and the following week, German generals met Allied commanders to discuss terms of surrender. The documents were signed on May 7th and the leaders of the Allied nations – Truman, USA; Churchill, UK; DeGaulle, France; Stalin, USSR; – made their announcements of victory on May 8th.

Ve_Day_Celebrations_in_London,_8_May_1945_HU418083. VE Day was celebrated with great enthusiasm

United States, Britain, Russia, France, and all the small European countries rejoiced. Crowds cheered wildly as their leaders announced the electrifying news: the war in Europe was over! Citizens danced in the streets. Women kissed soldiers. Russians and Americans toasted the success of their armies.

There’s a book on our WWII history shelf and it’s titled “VE Day in Photographs.” When I open it and glance through a few photos, I can’t help but smile. The incredible joy and enthusiasm can be “felt” through the smiles and expressions captured in the photos.

However, as I turn to the last pages in the book, I see the photos of German civilians, and I think it would be wrong not to comment. They’re not smiling; some look bitter and sad. But others look relieved. Perhaps one of the most startling photos shows Soviet troops ladling soup into a container for an old woman. The German woman is looking at the soldier – her former enemy – in amazement; there’s a sense of relief on her face. The war’s over…maybe life will get better.

4. VE Day was not the end of World War II

Victory in Europe, yes. End of WWII, no. Remember, there were two theaters of war in this global conflict: the European theater and the Pacific theater.

So, while the war ended in Europe, the island fighting in the Pacific continued. While doing some research on VE Day, I found an interesting photo of American soldiers on Okinawa; they are listening to a radio broadcast of Europe’s news. They are full battle uniform and the looks on their faces clearly show that for them the war is not over. (I’m sorry I haven’t found these photos digitally yet, I’ll keep looking and if I find them I’ll share them on Facebook.)

5. VE Day was the beginning of a new era

The Russian advance from the east and their “liberation” of Berlin became the setting for a new era: The Cold War. Less than five years after the celebrations of VE Day, Winston Churchill would proclaim an iron curtain had fallen on Europe, separating East from West.

Though the Russians and Americans celebrated the victory in WWII together, there were underlying squabbles. The generals didn’t always agree. Stalin – the Soviet leader – irritated Churchill and Truman by insisting that he be the first Allied commander to announce the victory. And even while the Soviet and American troops partied together, there was an ever-present awareness of their differences, particularly in their ideology, religion, and government forms. The beginnings of the Cold War simmered even in the victory days.

Winston Churchill waving to crowds on VE Day, 1945

Winston Churchill waving to crowds on VE Day, 1945

6. VE Day is still important

“Why?” you’re asking. I’m going let one of the victors answer your question…here’s Winston Churchill, speaking to the British people on VE Day:

I say that in the long years to come not only will the people of this island but of the world, wherever the bird of freedom chirps in human hearts, look back to what we’ve done and they will say “do not despair, do not yield to violence and tyranny, march straightforward and die if need be-unconquered.” Now we have emerged from one deadly struggle…

Victory in Europe Day is important because it reminds us to have courage. To fight on against forms of tyranny in our world today. To never lose heart, to never lose faith, to never lose courage.

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

P.S. What does VE Day mean to you? Your thoughts?