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Book Review

Killing Patton:
The Strange Death of World War II’s Most Audacious General
Bill O’Reilly & Martin Dugard
This is another superbly written book by the O’Reilly–Dugard duo. In my opinion, it is the second-best read in the “Killing” series. This is not faint praise, for all of the books in this series have sold in the millions of copies and been on every best-sellers list.

killing patton david thayer
The story is primarily about Lieutenant General George S. Patton, easily both the most ferocious and audacious general of World War Two. There is also background material on all of the major players in that conflict, including generals Dwight Eisenhower and Omar Bradley; British Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery; German Field Marshall Erwin Rommel—the only general in the war whom Patton considers his equal, with the possible exception of Eisenhower—and of course Adolph Hitler, Josef Stalin, Winston Churchill, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the heads of state in the European Theater of the war.

The book is replete with details of the war in Europe. Unless you have studied that war in great detail, you will learn many things you probably did not know before.

The story opens with the Allied forces poised to dig deeply into the German homeland. Patton’s Third Army confronts a German fort, Driant, an underground stronghold that blocks the way to the city of Metz, gateway to the Saarland—a region crucial to German war production. In the very first chapter we meet Private First Class Robert W. Holmlund, an explosives expert in Company B, Eleventh Infantry Regiment, Fifth Infantry Division of the Third Army. He is part of the force attacking Fort Driant. The date is October 3, 1944.

Holmlund and the others in Company B, however, find themselves pinned down by enemy fire on the top of a hill with Fort Driant beneath them. Just as all seems lost, PFC Holmlund discovers a pipe leading straight down into the fort—a ventilation shaft. The pipe is too narrow for Holmlund to drop his TNT satchel charge into, so he calls for a Bangalore torpedo. A Bangalore is a narrow bomb, perhaps two inches in diameter and four feet long, packed with nine pounds of TNT, a blasting cap, and a timer to detonate the whole thing. Holmlund calculates how long it will take something to fall down the shaft, sets the timer accordingly, and drops the torpedo into the pipe. Everybody ducks. There is a loud explosion followed by the sound of Germans yelling.

Holmlund calmly prepares a second Bangalore torpedo and drops it into the ventilation shaft. More yelling ensues. Evidently the Germans can’t wait to get out of the place. The Americans are ecstatic. They believe the fight for Driant is over. They are wrong. After blasting their way into the fort through an entrance, they discover that the place is a maze of narrow tunnels, and the Germans are not about to give it up easily.

That evening, a German sniper’s bullet kills PFC Holmlund, whom General Patton posthumously awards the Distinguished Service Cross. The Allied forces bypass Fort Driant. They capture Metz and starve out the occupants. The Germans surrender Driant on December 8, 1944. So goes the war, and Killing Patton is filled with fascinating stories like this one.

O’Reilly and Dugard describe the machinations and plotting, triumphs and mistakes, and all the other things that occur when powerful personalities interact or even clash on the battlefield.

The authors reveal many things that are not common knowledge. For example, Patton was the G-2 (intelligence) officer in charge of Hawaiian Island security from 1935 to 1937. During this period, he forecast accurately that the Japanese could and probably would launch a surprise attack on the islands, thus becoming the first American officer to predict the attack on Pearl Harbor. What’s more, Patton’s own G-2, Colonel Oscar Koch, was the only Allied intelligence officer who believed that the German Wehrmacht was “poised to launch a withering Christmas counteroffensive” in December of 1944.

Col. Koch has discovered that thirteen enemy infantry divisions, under cover of darkness, have crept into an area near the Ardennes Forest. Furthermore, he has confirmed that five Panzer divisions with some five hundred tanks have recently moved toward the Ardennes. He is convinced that the Germans plan a surprise counterattack—and soon.

George Patton takes his intelligence officer seriously. He tells his commanders to begin planning on emergency measures to rescue the First Army if the Germans attack to the north in the Ardennes. He says that should this happen, his own planned offensive into Germany—called “Operation Tink”—will be called off, “And we’ll have to go up there and save their hides.” Prophetic words. Just two weeks before this, Patton had written in his diary, “The First Army is making a terrible mistake. It is highly probable the Germans are building up east of here.” Seldom have truer words been written.

At precisely 5:30 a.m. on December 16, 1944, the Wehrmacht launches its counteroffensive. It begins with a massive artillery barrage that deafens some of the troops firing the weapons. Within four days the Germans punch a hole fifty miles wide and seventy-five miles deep into what had been Allied territory.

In most instances, the authors are careful to point out the correct terminology used by the military for the facts of warfare. But here there is a mystifying omission. The great German counterattack, dubbed almost instantly by the press as “The Battle of the Bulge,” was—as the authors point out—a salient. The dictionary definition of salient is “an outwardly projecting part of a fortification, trench system, or line of defense.” That it was. But this was not the term the military high command used for the Battle of the Bulge. They called it the “Ardennes Breakthrough” or the “Ardennes Counteroffensive.”

In writing about a general staff meeting—held on December 19, 1944, at Verdun, France—the authors make a mistake. They write that Eisenhower asks for “a counterattack with at least three divisions.” And just a few minutes later, when Patton says he can attack the morning of December twenty-first “with three divisions,” everyone is stunned because Patton “has made a fool of himself”—by telling Ike that he will do what he has just been asked to do? Please!

What Ike actually said was, “I want you to command this move—under Brad’s supervision, of course—making a strong counterattack with at least six divisions. When can you start?”

Patton, however, sticks to his guns. True to his word, he launches his rescue effort with three divisions beginning on December 21, 1944. Moving as fast as they can under trying circumstances, the Third Army divisions manage to get to Bastogne and relieve the beleaguered First Army’s 101st Airborne Division before the Germans can overrun it. They stop the German advance. The date is December 26, 1944.

The most amusing episode related in Killing Patton is also one of the most revealing, in that it exposes the inner nature of both Eisenhower and Patton. It begins when Patton’s Third Army takes the German stronghold of Trier on the Moselle River. After a week of ferocious fighting, the Third Army came out on top—as usual. The city fell on March 1, 1945.

Shortly afterwards, Patton receives a message from Allied headquarters, presumably on Eisenhower’s orders. The message reads, “Bypass Trier. It will take four divisions to capture it.”

With acid humor, Patton sends his reply, “Have taken Trier with two divisions. What do you want me to do? Give it back?”

One can only imagine Patton’s mischievous grin as he wrote those words.

Patton also predicted that Eisenhower would become president of the United States. He told one of his generals, “Before long, Ike will be running for president. You think I’m joking? Just wait and see.”

Once again, Patton has been uncannily prescient.

One week after the reply to headquarters about Trier, Eisenhower approves Patton’s plan to invade the Palatinate. While Montgomery procrastinates, building up his forces to cross the Rhine, Patton is attacking. His Palatinate campaign is regarded as one of the most brilliant strategies of the war. “The greatest threat,” said one German officer later, “was the whereabouts of the feared U.S. Third Army. Where is [Patton]? When will he attack? Where? How? With what?”

Patton has eight full divisions on the western shore of the Rhine. All he needs is a way to get across.

Finding a weak spot, he builds a pontoon bridge, which he uses to sneak a division across the river—without the loss of a single man. On March 23, 1945, he calls Omar Bradley and says, “For God’s sake, tell the world we’re across.” Then he adds, “I want the world to know [the] Third Army made it before Monty starts to cross.”

Patton’s audacity knows no bounds.

O’Reilly and Dugard describe these and many other episodes like them to depict both the complexities and abilities of George S. Patton. We widely regard him as having been the best general on any side in the Great War. If we had General Patton and his Third Army available to us today, I believe we could clean out ISIS inside of three months. He and his army were as close to invincible as any fighting force in history.

Yet as O’Reilly and Dugard point out, Patton made many enemies during the war, some of them powerful men. Hitler came to both despise and fear Patton. Stalin considered Patton dangerous and wanted him dead. Field Marshall Montgomery hated Patton. The feeling was mutual. The only mystery was which of the two held the other in greater contempt. Harry Truman, who had become president after the death of Roosevelt, “detest[ed] Patton’s flashy style.” Even Eisenhower turned against Patton in the end, relieving the general of his command over the Third Army. Patton’s fighting days were over.

In the end, however, his demise remains a mystery. It should not be a spoiler to say that O’Reilly and Dugard did not solve the secret of Patton’s death. Many have tried; all have failed. Why should these two be an exception?

All the authors could find were indications of possible accidental or intentional cover-up: missing accident reports, lost records. An official report stating that there were others in the vehicle that struck Patton’s jeep “like every other document relating to the accident has disappeared.” And “Attempts by the authors of this book to find the official accident report were unsuccessful. It if it does exist, it is well hidden.”

At the end of their Afterword, the authors write that “the tough old general did not go out on his own terms, and there are many unanswered questions surrounding his death. Those questions deserve to be addressed.”

Regardless of the authors’ inability to solve the mystery of Patton’s death, their book Killing Patton is one of the most fascinating reads you are liable to come across any time soon. Masterfully written and highly recommended.

References

O’Reilly, Bill, and Martin Dugard. Killing Patton: The Strange Death of World War II's Most Audacious General. New York: Henry Holt and Company LLC, 2014. ISBN 978-0-8050-9668-2 (hardback); ASIN B00JYZAPXY (Kindle).
About David Thayer


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