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Assault On Sicily
Monty And Patton At War
By Ken Ford
The History PressCopyright © 2013 Ken Ford
All rights reserved.
The Two Generals
In bright spring sunshine on 14 February 1943, Lieutenant General George S. Patton Jr boarded a B-17 bomber aircraft bound for Tripoli. He left the Tunisian battlefield to fly east to hear Britain's most famous general give an address on how he had outwitted Germany's most famous general in the Battle of El Alamein. The next day in Tripoli Patton sat through the two-hour lecture on 'How to Make War', given by General Bernard Law Montgomery.
The talk started with Montgomery announcing that there would be no smoking allowed during his lecture which immediately infuriated the chain-smoking Patton who took out a packet of gum. Unimpressed by the monotonous clipped tones of the British general explaining how he had beaten Generalfeldmarschall Rommel, Patton spent the time chewing and yawning. When the gathering broke for lunch, one of Monty's corps commanders, the amiable Lt-Gen Brian Horrocks, chatted with Patton and asked him what he thought of his master's talk. 'Well,' Patton replied dismissively, 'I may be old, I may be slow, I may be stoopid, but it just doan mean anything to me!' Back in his caravan that night, Montgomery wrote to his boss in London, Gen Alan Brooke, Chief of the Imperial General Staff: 'The party from Tunisia was very disappointing ... only one American general has come; an old man of about 60.'
George Patton, hero of the Moroccan landings of Operation 'Torch', had met Bernard Montgomery, hero of the desert, and neither of them appeared to be impressed with the other. More than two years later at the war's end, after each of them had further enhanced his reputation as a battlefield commander, their opinions of each other had changed little. Immense self-belief in their own military prowess could only find fault with the performance of the other. Their eccentric natures and love of soldiering allowed neither of them to subscribe to many of the common views held by others as to how battles should be fought.
Montgomery and Patton were made for war. Both were blessed with great ability and blighted by considerable conceit. Both were regular soldiers who had made the military not just a career, but their life's work. They lived to command men and fight battles in their own way, each believing implicitly in his own methods and ideas. Few others ever came up to their own exacting standards; to them virtually all other commanders were to be found wanting in some virtue or other. Both had a sense of history and wished to be seen as being utterly unique. They were insufferable.
The source of the later antagonism between the two generals can be traced back to the invasion of Sicily in July and August 1943 when their armies first fought together as Allies in what should have been a campaign to evict Axis forces from the island. As the battle progressed, there was as much personal quest for glory in their actions as there was determination to annihilate German and Italian formations. While Montgomery and Patton manoeuvred to have their own troops be the first to enter Messina, the enemy slipped away to fight another day.
The campaign in Sicily was the crucible from which developed the future conduct of the war. During this short struggle, just thirty-eight days long, the Allies began to forge an administration that would eventually carry them to victory. It was here that Allied tactics, procedures and support finally came together to formulate the means to carry the fight back to the mainland of Europe. It was also in Sicily that personal relationships would form that would affect the manner and speed of victory.
George Smith Patton Jr was born on 11 November 1885 in the family home near Los Angeles in California. Both of his parents came from well-to-do backgrounds. George's father was a lawyer, the elected district attorney of Los Angeles County. Home life was idyllic on the family's 1,000-acre ranch where his loving father spent a great deal of time teaching the young Patton to ride, swim, shoot, hunt and fish. From a very early age George Patton Junior realised that he wanted to be a soldier and follow in the footsteps of his predecessors. His grandfather and seven of his uncles had served as officers in the Confederate Army.
Patton attended the Virginia Military Institute for a year and then went on to West Point. He was a very bright and intelligent scholar, but suffered from what we now know to be dyslexia. He found it very difficult to read and write in his early years and never fully mastered the arts of spelling and mathematics. His studies at West Point were arduous as he struggled to keep up with fellow pupils. His enthusiasm for all matters military, however, never waned and he was always top for military discipline and deportment.
After graduating in 1909, he was commissioned as a 2nd lieutenant into the 15th Cavalry. His physical condition and his commanding height – he was over six feet tall – led him to excel in sports. He drove himself hard and became accomplished in a range of outdoor activities including swimming, riding, fencing, shooting and polo. He was also good at track events and represented the USA in the military pentathlon at the 1912 Olympic Games in Stockholm. Two years previously he had married Beatrice Dyer, the daughter of a rich industrialist.
Bernard Law Montgomery was born in London in 1887. He was the son of a clergyman who later became the Bishop of Tasmania. Montgomery was the fourth of nine children and spent an unhappy childhood at the hands of a very strict mother. His unruly ways invariably earned some censure; his mother was often heard to remark: 'Go and find out what Bernard is doing and tell him to stop it.' Montgomery attended St Paul's School in London where his performance was below average, but it bucked up somewhat when he learned that he would have to pass a competitive examination to get into the Royal Military College Sandhurst, for he was desperate to become a soldier. By sheer hard work and application he managed to pass the examination to enter the college. After some eighteen months of study he received a commission into the Army in 1908.
The young subaltern entered the Royal Warwickshire Regiment and soon joined his battalion in India. For the next six years he spent a dispiriting time in the colonial outpost surrounded by officers prematurely tired by the climate and the staid conditions of military service. 'As for the officers,' he was later to write, 'it was not fashionable to study war and we were not allowed to talk about our profession in the Officers' Mess.' His battalion returned to England in 1913 shortly before the start of the Great War. When hostilities broke out he was sent to France and arrived just after the British Expeditionary Force began its retreat from Mons. He was seriously wounded after just two months in battle and was awarded the Distinguished Service Order for his actions. Monty was shipped back to England to recover from his wounds, before once again returning to the front in 1916 as Brigade Major of 104th Infantry Brigade. For the remainder of the war he served in various staff positions and by the war's end he had risen to Chief of Staff of 47th Division.
In 1916 the young Patton served with Gen Pershing in the skirmishes along the Mexican border against the followers of Pancho Villa and proved himself to be an expert marksman with the Colt revolvers he always had strapped to his waist. In later years these ivory-handled guns became something of a symbol and Patton liked being photographed with the weapons firmly buckled around him. During the Great War Patton served for a time in Gen Pershing's HQ in France, then moved to the newly formed Tank Corps where he set up a tank training centre. He later commanded the 1st Brigade of the corps as a full colonel during the Meuse-Argonne campaign of 1918 and was awarded America's second-highest award, the Distinguished Service Cross, for bravery on the battlefield. After the war Patton became one of the USA's leading specialists in tank warfare and championed the cause of armoured tactics while the bulk of the US Army was still dominated by the cavalry.
Patton was a great military thinker and a well-read student of history; he spent a good deal of his time studying past wars. From his entire enquiry he came to the conclusion that it was the commander himself that was the greatest influence on how a battle was won or lost. He felt that a commander should influence every encounter on the battlefield by his presence and by gaining the trust of his troops. Patton made it his objective to be seen by his men wherever the action was the greatest and to inspire them to success.
Between the wars, in an ever-shrinking American Army, Patton idled away the time playing polo and pursuing a range of sports during his various tours of duty. During these inter-war years, the USA was gradually turning towards isolationism and had little use for a large tank arm. In the late 1930s, this opinion started to change as European armies began experimenting with the tank as an offensive weapon rather than as just a support for infantry. After the start of the Second World War and the exploits of the German panzers in Poland and France, it became clear that America needed an armoured force of its own. Patton was one of the few experienced officers in that field so he was naturally called to Washington and appointed to command the 2nd Armored Brigade at Fort Benning; he was 55 years of age.
After the Great War, Montgomery served as an instructor at Sandhurst and in 1927 married the widow of an officer killed at Gallipoli in 1915. A son was born in 1928, but the marriage lasted just a short ten years and ended when his wife died of blood poisoning after an insect bite. The loss was a great blow to Montgomery and he now completely devoted himself to his profession. The austere Montgomery had few interests outside the military, neither did he drink or smoke or indulge in any social activities. The Army was his entire life. He was promoted to major-general in 1938 to command British forces quelling an uprising by Arabs in Palestine before returning to England to take over the 3rd Infantry Division three days before the start of the Second World War.
Soon Montgomery found himself in France as part of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF). This time, however, he had the chance to acclimatise with his division before the German blow fell. Montgomery was able to exercise his formation and train it to the peak of efficiency before it was called into action. He rooted out any doubtful subordinate commanders and replaced them with those who were compatible with his way of thinking. When the German Blitzkrieg finally broke across the British and French armies in May 1940, Monty's 3rd Division performed with merit, but the Allies were unable to hold the massive enemy onslaught and the their forces fell back to the coast. For a while it looked as though the BEF would be annihilated. As disaster loomed, changes were made in the British high command which resulted in Monty taking over Lt-Gen Alan Brooke's II Corps and helping to organise the British withdrawal via Dunkirk. Lt-Gen Harold Alexander did likewise with British I Corps.
Monty's performance was noted in high places and he was earmarked for future promotion. A corps command in southern England followed and then, in December 1941, Montgomery was appointed to command South-Eastern Army. By this time he had very definite views on the conduct of affairs, insisting that all troops must be physically fit, well trained and their officers competent in all aspects of warfare. He did not tolerate any underachievement in his officers; all had to pass his meticulous examination of their ability. His prickly personality had by then created many detractors and much criticism, but all units serving under his command made great improvements in efficiency and effectiveness. Churchill met Monty while he was serving as a corps commander and was not impressed enough to single him out as being destined for high command. Alan Brooke, by then Chief of the Imperial General Staff, thought differently.
During this same period Patton rose to command 2nd Armored Division and then, in April 1942, I Armored Corps. He trained and exercised these formations with a fanatical zeal which tried hard to simulate the actual conditions of war and in so doing created a great personal reputation as an aggressive and forceful commander and gained the nickname 'old blood and guts'. Patton was fortunate to have friends in high places, for both the retired but still influential Gen Pershing and the Chief of Staff of the US Army, Gen George Marshall, both admired his ability.
In the third year of the war, Montgomery's career surged forward through a stroke of extremely bad luck for a fellow general. The campaign in North Africa, against Axis forces including Gen Erwin Rommel's Afrika Korps, had gone from bad to worse for the British with defeat following defeat. Prime Minister Churchill had decided that there needed to be a shake-up in command in the Middle East, and in particular a new leader for Eighth Army. Gen Claude Auchinleck was to be replaced as Commander-in-Chief, Middle East, by Gen Alexander and Churchill's suggested that Lt-Gen William Gott, already serving in North Africa as a corps commander, should take over as head of Eighth Army, although Brooke favoured Montgomery for the role. Churchill got his own way and Gott was given the post. Misfortune then befell Gott when his plane was shot down en route and he was killed. In stepped Montgomery at what was a crucial time in the progress of the war.
Britain was at low ebb and desperately needed a victory. Montgomery gave the country one in the Battle of El Alamein in October/November 1942 when he defeated Rommel's army and put it to flight. His arrival at the head of Eighth Army transformed the morale of the troops and weeded out the dead wood among its commanders. He refused to attack the enemy until his army was numerically stronger than Rommel's, despite constant urging and great criticism from Churchill. He was the master of the big build-up and set-piece attack and displayed this admirably in the desert at Alamein. With this one triumph Montgomery was catapulted to national and international fame. It was, for Britain, a turning point in the war and was the last great victory achieved solely by British Empire forces before American troops entered the conflict in Europe and North Africa.
When America declared war in December 1941, its politicians and military quickly looked for a theatre in which to commit their as yet untried forces. An attack across the English Channel was deemed to be too hazardous at that time and so, for a variety of reasons, it was decided that an Anglo-American force would be landed in north-west Africa in November 1942 to engage Axis forces.
Operation 'Torch', as the invasion was called, began with three landings – at Casablanca, Oran and Algiers – followed by a drive into Tunisia to seize all of French North Africa. Gen Dwight D. Eisenhower was appointed Supreme Commander for the invasion and his forces were grouped under the British Gen Kenneth Anderson in First Army. Patton led the Western Task Force with his I Armored Corps HQ and formed a successful beach-head in Morocco. Little real resistance was met at any of the landings, but when Allied forces moved into Tunisia they found that Axis troops had taken over the country. From then on a desperate struggle developed which lasted until May of the following year.
After Montgomery had routed Axis forces at El Alamein, Rommel led his troops back across North Africa with the British snapping at his heels. Monty never managed to overtake the elusive German field marshal, nor pin him down in another decisive battle, even though British forces out-numbered the enemy by a large margin. At places of Rommel's choosing, he would turn on Eighth Army and make a stand. Montgomery then waited, built up his strength and attacked. Rommel stood for a while, inflicted a bloody nose on Monty's army, and then pulled out to continue his retreat towards a link-up with German forces in Tunisia.
The battle for Tunisia took place during a cold wet winter over broken terrain and high mountains. The country was vast and barren and it required a good number of men to try to hold down the elusive enemy. First Army performed adequately, but at no time did it have enough men to do what was expected of it; nowhere did it hold more than isolated positions surrounded by wide open spaces and never was it able to take command of the enemy. The result was a gradually grinding down of men, equipment and morale. The Americans had a cruel baptism into action and took a great deal of time to hone their offensive capabilities. When Rommel arrived in the north of the country, with British Eighth Army in close pursuit, he failed to be intimidated by the fact that the Allies were both in front and behind him. Aggressive as ever, instead of remaining on the defensive, he resorted to the attack and turned on the American sector of the line. Rommel launched a brilliantly executed drive through the mountains and inflicted a very costly defeat on Eisenhower's forces at Kasserine. American troops of Lt Gen Lloyd Fredendall's US II Corps broke and ran and it took some time for order to be restored. British troops were called in to help stop the rot, most notably 6th Armoured Division, in an action which helped to reinforce the idea that the Americans were still short of what was needed to counter the Germans. The failure at Kasserine influenced British opinion into thinking that the US troops and their commanders were inferior.
Excerpted from Assault On Sicily by Ken Ford. Copyright © 2013 Ken Ford. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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