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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
Patton had something of the boy in him. He liked to believe that he was putting something over on his superiors, that he was getting away with mischief. On a number of occasions Patton thought that he was fooling both Bradley and Eisenhower. When he received orders to carry out a reconnaissance in force at the German border, for example, he turned it into a full offensive. He thought neither Bradley nor Eisenhower realized what he was up to; but of course they did, and had counted on it.
Aside from his drive through France, Patton’s two great moments came during the Battle of the Bulge and when he crossed the Rhine River. On December 19, three days after Hitler’s last offensive began, Eisenhower and his chief subordinates at SHAEF met at Verdun with Bradley, Patton, and other field commanders. The Germans had caught the Allies by surprise and were making significant gains. Sitting around a potbellied stove in a damp, chilly squad room of an old French barracks, Eisenhower opened the meeting by announcing that he wanted to see only cheerful faces at the table. “The present situation is to be regarded as one of opportunity for us and not of disaster,” he said. Patton grinned and declared, “Hell, let’s have the guts to let the — — — go all the way to Paris. Then we’ll really cut ’em off and chew ’em up.” Eisenhower grinned back, but said that the Germans would never get across the Meuse River.
When the Germans struck, Patton had been preparing an offensive of his own, headed east. Eisenhower ordered him to switch directions, attack north, and hit the Germans in the Bulge on their left flank. In three days Patton got all his divisions turned and was on the road. By December 26 he had battered his way through to Bastogne and, along with Montgomery’s forces on the German right flank, had stopped the German thrust.
In March, 1945, Patton’s Third Army reached the Rhine. A few American troops had already made a surprise crossing at Remagen, where they had found a bridge intact, but the main crossings were yet to come. The big effort was to be made in the north, near the Ruhr industrial concentration, by Montgomery’s British and Canadian troops. Ever since Sicily, Patton had been in keen competition with Montgomery, and he was determined to get his men across the historic river first. The British general’s preparations were detailed and meticulous. On March 24, after a massive artillery barrage, Montgomery started to cross. To his astonishment, he learned that Patton and his men were already over. Patton had been carrying bridging equipment and a Navy detachment with landing craft close up behind his infantry ever since the liberation of Paris, for just this moment. With less than half Montgomery’s strength, he beat the British to the east bank. While he himself was going over one of the Third Army’s pontoon bridges, Patton paused and deliberately undid his fly. “I have been looking forward to this for a long time,” he said.
Six weeks later the war was over. Peace highlighted the contrasting personalities of Eisenhower and Patton. Eisenhower moved smoothly into his new job as head of the occupation. He faithfully and without question carried out his superiors’ orders. Patton chafed. He talked about driving the Russians back to the Volga River. He got chummy with German generals. As military governor in Bavaria, he kept former Nazis and even some SS officials in the local administration because, he argued, no one else was available. Actually, there were others available, men of Konrad Adenauer’s stamp; but it was easier for Patton to work with the old hands. In any case Patton’s policy ran exactly counter to the national policy, and Eisenhower ordered him to get rid of the Nazis. But except for a few prominent officials, Patton did nothing. He was sure that, before long, German and American generals would be fighting side by side against the Russians.
His area soon gained a dubious reputation, and the press waited for a chance to bait Patton into damning the de-Nazification policy. It came on September 22, when he called a press conference and asserted that the military government “would get better results if it employed more former members of the Nazi party in administrative jobs.” A reporter, trying to appear casual, asked, “After all, General, didn’t most ordinary Nazis join their party in about the same way that Americans become Republicans or Democrats?”
“Yes,” Patton agreed. “That’s about it.”
The headlines the next day screamed that Patton had said the Nazis were just like Republicans and Democrats back home.
Eisenhower phoned Patton and told him to get over to his headquarters in Frankfurt right away. Patton arrived wearing a simple jacket and plain trousers rather than his fancy riding breeches, and he left behind the pearl-handled pistols he usually wore. The generals were together for two hours. When Patton walked out he was pale: Ike had taken the Third Army away from him.
Eisenhower gave Patton a meaningless paper army to command. He stayed in Germany, spending most of his time hunting. In December, on a hunting expedition, his neck was broken in an automobile accident. Eisenhower, who had returned to Washington to become Chief of Staff, wrote him on December 10. “You can imagine what a shock it was to me to hear of your serious accident,” the letter began. “At first I heard it on the basis of rumor and simply did not believe it, thinking it only a story … I immediately wired Frankfurt and learned to my great distress that it was true.”