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A Fateful Friendship
Eisenhower dreamed of serving under Patton, but history reversed their roles. Their stormy association dramatically shaped the Allied assault on the Third Reich
April 1969 | Volume 20, Issue 3
Eisenhower’s most important responsibility as Supreme Commander was the defeat of the German armies. He felt that whatever trouble Patton caused him in other ways, he would make a tremendous combat contribution to victory. Without accepting Patton’s contention that execution was more important than planning, Eisenhower recognized that “the first thing that usually slows up operations is an element of caution, fatigue or doubt on the part of a higher commander.” Patton was never affected by these.
So Patton, who had been in the doghouse without a real command since Sicily, went to England to prepare for the great invasion. On April 25, 1944, he went to the opening of a Welcome Club that the people of Knutsford had organized for the growing number of American troops in the town. About sixty people were there, sitting on hard-backed chairs in a cold, damp, depressing room, listening to insipid speeches on Allied unity. Patton was thoroughly bored. When asked to speak, he ad-libbed: he thought Anglo-American unity important “since it is the evident destiny of the British and Americans to rule the world, [and] the better we know each other the better job we will do.”
Patton thought the meeting was private; but a reporter was present. The statement went out over the British wire services, and the next morning the British press indignantly featured it. Some editorial writers were angry because Patton had omitted Russia from the list of ruling powers; others cited the implicit insult to the smaller nations. The next day Patton’s remarks were widely circulated in the United States, where he was denounced by both liberal and conservative congressmen. All agreed that generals ought to stay out of politics.
Patton, in short, had put his foot in his mouth. Eisenhower was disgusted. In his small office at SHAEF headquarters in Bushey Park, on the Thames River near London, he dictated a letter to Patton. “I have warned you time and again against your impulsiveness in action and speech and have flatly instructed you to say nothing that could possibly be misinterpreted.“” Eisenhower said he was forced to “doubt your allround judgment, so essential in high military position.” Then he sent General Marshall a cable expressing his disgust over the incident. He added, “I have grown so weary of the trouble he constantly causes you and the War Department to say nothing of myself, that I am seriously contemplating the most drastic action”…namely, sending Patton home.
Marshall told Eisenhower to do what he thought best, and on April 30 Eisenhower replied: “I will relieve him unless some new and unforeseen information should be developed in the case.” Eisenhower felt Lieutenant General Courtney H. Hodges would be satisfactory as Patton’s replacement—and Hodges had no record of getting his superiors in trouble. Eisenhower admitted that he had about given up on Patton: “After a year and a half of working with him it appears hopeless to expect that he will ever completely overcome his lifelong habit of posing and of self-dramatization which causes him to break out in these extraordinary ways.”
At 11 A.M. on May 1, Eisenhower met with Patton at Bushey Park. An old hand at getting out of a fix, Patton let out all the stops. He told Elsenhower that he felt miserable, but that he would fight for his country if “they” would let him. Alternatively, he dramatically offered to resign his commission to save his old friend from embarrassment. He seemed on the verge of tears. The outpouring of emotion made Eisenhower slightly uncomfortable; he did not really want Patton on his knees begging. He ended the interview by dismissing Patton without having made a decision.
For the next two days Eisenhower mulled it over. He finally decided that Patton was too valuable to lose, and sent a wire informing him that he would stay on. Patton celebrated with a drink, then sent a sentimental letter to Eisenhower expressing eternal loyalty and gratitude. To his diary, however, he confessed that his retention “is not the result of an accident” but rather “the work of God.”
Eisenhower’s aide, Harry Butcher, noted that Patton “is a master of flattery and succeeds in turning any difference of views with Ike into a deferential acquiescence to the views of the Supreme Commander.” But if Butcher saw something that Eisenhower missed, there was a reverse side to the coin. Patton bragged that he was tolerated as an erratic genius because he was considered indispensable, and he was right. The very qualities that made him a great actor also made him a great commander, and Eisenhower knew it. “You owe us some victories,” Eisenhower told Patton when the incident was closed. “Pay off and the world will deem me a wise man.”
Patton paid off. On July 30, 1944, eight weeks after the invasion of Normandy, his Third Army began to tear across France in a blitzkrieg in reverse. Eisenhower used Patton’s talents with the skill of a concert master, giving him leeway, holding him back when necessary, keeping him away from Montgomery’s throat (and vice versa), and making sure that Bradley kept a close watch on his movements. It must be added that Patton showed small appreciation of Eisenhower’s peculiar responsibilities. To hold the alliance together, Eisenhower had to humor Montgomery on a number of occasions. When he learned that Eisenhower had given more supplies to Montgomery than to the Third Army, Patton is said to have mumbled, “Ike’s the best damn general the British have got.”