Today seventy years ago Operation Cobra began, the breakout of First United States Army from the Normandy Peninsula. By the end of July the First Army had shattered the German forces before them and broken out of Normandy. The stage was set for Patton and his Third Army, which became operational on August 1, 1944. My favorite living historian Victor Davis Hanson describes the military masterpiece that followed:
When Patton’s Third Army finally became operational seven weeks after D-Day, it was supposed to play only a secondary role — guarding the southern flank of the armies of General Bradley and British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery while securing the Atlantic ports.
Despite having the longest route to the German border, Patton headed east. The Third Army took off in a type of American blitzkrieg not seen since Union General William Tecumseh Sherman’s rapid marches through Georgia and the Carolinas during the Civil War.
In fact, his theatrics masked a deeply learned and analytical military mind. Patton sought to avoid casualties by encircling German armies. In innovative fashion, he partnered with American tactical air forces to cover his flanks as his armored columns raced around static German formations.
Naturally rambunctious American GIs fought best, Patton insisted, when “rolling” forward, especially in summertime. Only then, for a brief moment, might the clear skies facilitate overwhelming American air support. In August his soldiers could camp outside, while his speeding tanks still had dry roads.
Allied supplies had been redirected northward for the normally cautious General Montgomery’s reckless Market Garden gambit. That proved a harebrained scheme to leapfrog over the bridges of the Rhine River; it devoured Allied blood and treasure, and accomplished almost nothing in return.
Meanwhile, the cutoff of Patton’s supplies would prove disastrous. Scattered and fleeing German forces regrouped. Their resistance stiffened as the weather grew worse and as shortened supply lines began to favor the defense.
Historians still argue over Patton’s August miracle. Could a racing Third Army really have burst into Germany so far ahead of Allied lines? Could the Allies ever have adequately supplied Patton’s charging columns given the growing distance from the Normandy ports? How could a supreme commander like Eisenhower handle Patton, who at any given moment could — and would — let loose with politically incorrect bombast?
We do not know the answers to all those questions. Nor will we ever quite know the full price that America paid for having a profane Patton stewing in exile for nearly a year rather than exercising his leadership in Italy or Normandy.
Go here to read the rest at National Review Online.
The unstoppable quality of Patton and his Third Army as they careened across France in August of 1944 was summed up at the time by one of the German generals opposing him: On August 21, the commanding general of the 21st Panzer Division, General Edgar Feuchtinger, reported: “The situation is completely out of hand. From Chartres, Patton has turned north with part of his army and is advancing on the Rouen area. No one seems able to stop him.”
True genius in any field of endeavor is a rare and precious commodity. Patton was a genius at waging war, and a great many Americans are alive today because that genius turned the battle of France into the race across France, sparing the lives of their fathers, grandfathers and great-grandfathers as a result. Patton was bombastic and arrogant, but in his case his bombast and arrogance paled in comparison to the ability of the man to make good every promise he made to his men about what they would accomplish against their enemies.