- Historic Sites
“You Will Be Afraid”
Next to Winston Churchill, Gen. George Patton gave the war’s most famous speeches. But nobody knew quite what he said—until now.
June/July 2005 | Volume 56, Issue 3
Millions of people have seen the movie Patton, which begins with a view of the general standing before a giant American flag giving a speech to his troops. The actor George C. Scott gave a superb performance in this film; all who ever saw the general in action will agree that he came as close to being George S. Patton, Jr., as is humanly possible. The script for the movie speech itself was a fair representation of the talks to soldiers that Patton actually gave on several occasions.
But it was not exactly the speech I remember hearing as a member of the 65th Infantry Division, 3rd Army, as we were about to enter combat in the late winter of 1945, standing in the square of a little French town named Ennery. We were 30 or 40 miles west of Saarlautern, where the 65th was soon to attack the Siegfried Line. That speech was probably never reported, and the reason for that may be found on page 231 of Gen. Omar N. Bradley’s book A Soldier’s Story:
“Few generals could surpass Patton as a field commander. But he had one enemy he could not vanquish and that was his own quick tongue. It was this unhappy talent of Patton’s for highly quotable crises that caused me to tighten the screws on press censorship at the time he joined my command.
“‘Public relations will cuss me for it,’ I told Bill Kean, ‘but the devil with them. I’ll take the chance. Tell censorship that they are not to pass any direct quotes from any commander without my approval.’”
Since Bradley was Patton’s superior at the time (as his Army group commander), this is the reason why the speech to the 65th Division men almost certainly never saw the light of print or broadcast, for it was full of language that was objectionable, particularly in the climate of the 1940s. In polite society Patton was said to be an erudite, urbane, perfect gentleman. But when he spoke to soldiers, his speech was laced with profanity, obscenity, sacrilege, blasphemy—anything to make his words memorable.
And it worked. I certainly remembered. Of course I had had some training in remembering. I had worked for a while as a newspaper reporter in the days when there were no portable tape recorders. Everything had to be written down on the folded sheets of copy paper we carried in our pockets. Early that evening—six or seven hours after hearing Patton’s speech—I went back to my billet and wrote it all down. There is something about hearing such a talk on an ominously gray winter day with war just over the horizon that sharpens one’s senses remarkably. The speech had made such an impression on me that I am sure I got it down almost word for word.
In his book Patton: A Genius for War, Carlo D’Este includes a chapter (38) titled “The Speech.” This reproduces parts of speeches given to troops just prior to the invasion of Europe. In the Notes section of the book D’Este names his sources: “There is more than one version of Patton’s famous... speeches. The version cited here is primarily from a speech titled ‘A General Talks to His Army,’ copy in the Patton file, VMI archives; and another... alleged to have been taken down verbatim by one of Patton’s officers, who was also a former court reporter. There are some minor variations in other versions of The Speech,’ including one published in 1963 by an admirer named C. E. Dornbusch, titled Speech of General George S. Patton, Jr., to His Third Army on the Eve of the Normandy Invasion .”
There must be other privately recorded versions of the speech. But I believe my record has unique value as a historical document. I have the date as March 5. A division history gives the date as March 2. One of us has it wrong. But it was obviously late in the war; the 65th was one of the last divisions to enter the combat, so this was one of the last and possibly the last “fight talk” that Patton gave. Therefore it is logical to assume that the general—always the consummate showman—had by that time sharpened and polished it to perfection.
When General Patton arrived in the square shortly after 1100 hours, we were called to attention. He quickly appeared on the stand overlooking the crowd. He was dressed in a combat jacket, matching olive drab trousers, and a helmet adorned by three stars. There appeared to be 10 or 12 ribbons on his left breast. He looked just as he did in news photos.
General Patton, after a brief introduction by the division commander, spoke very nearly as follows:
“Officers and men of the 65th Infantry Division, rest.
“You are now on a winning team. But you have never played. Therefore you must listen closely to what I have to tell you.. You think that you are disciplined, but you will never know whether or not you are disciplined until you hear a bullet go past. When you hear that bullet go past your ear, you will know whether or not you are disciplined.... Now a lot of people don’t know why we have discipline in the Army. They think that discipline is the Army and the Army is discipline, and that’s that. But I’ll tell you why we have discipline in the Army. It is because you must act from habit , and the habit must be stronger than the fear of death.