Whenever it gets very cold in January, I think of the men who fought in the Battle of the Bulge in the same month in 1945. It was the coldest winter in living memory in Europe. Men huddled together in foxholes, sharing body warmth, afraid to fall asleep in case they froze to death.
I’ve visited Luxembourg, Belgium and the Ardennes - where the Battle of the Bulge took place - several times, twice during winter. The last time I was there, I found the grave of General George Patton, commander of the Third Army. He’s buried at the Luxembourg American Cemetery alongside more than 5,000 other dead. He is the only four star general among the perfect rows of crosses.
I wanted to pay my respects to ‘Old Blood and Guts’. To my mind, he was the most aggressive and certainly the most charismatic and fascinating American general of WWII. Having written about him in several books, and having visited battlefields where he had at times brilliantly led hundreds of thousands of Americans in combat, I knew that his finest hours came during the Battle of the Bulge, which began on December 16, 1944 and lasted some six weeks. It is fitting that his final resting place is beside men who died for him as they defeated Hitler’s last great attack on the Western front.
Patton has long since disappeared into myth and legend. While the 1970 movie about him won George C. Scott an Oscar, and was in many respects remarkably accurate, it turned Patton into a cliché – a foul-mouthed, impetuous blowhard. Patton was very much a hot-head, impolitic, and hilariously foul-mouthed. But he was also the only senior Allied general to emerge from the Battle of the Bulge with his reputation enhanced. His talented intelligence staff had predicted a significant German strike and Patton had prepared accordingly. When Allied Supreme Commander Dwight Eisenhower held a crisis meeting on December 19, 1944, Patton alone promised and then delivered decisive action, pivoting his entire Third Army of over 250,000 men, and hundreds of tanks, in atrocious conditions, and then sending the 4th Armored Division to break the German siege of Bastogne.
For much of the Battle of the Bulge, Patton’s headquarters were in Luxembourg. He stayed in the same hotel, the Alfa, as Omar Bradley, commander of the 12th Army Group. Unlike Bradley, Patton was often to be found in his jeep, red-faced from the cold, famous ivory-handled pistol strapped to his waist, braving the elements and enemy fire. At the height of the fighting, he was seen near the action, urging his men on, and at command posts, haranguing, cursing, cajoling, inspiring, leading from the front. He had famously ordered his head chaplain to devise a prayer, beseeching God to grant his men good weather, and when the skies in Belgium cleared on December 23rd Patton made sure his forces fully exploited the support of Allied air power which could at last make a critical difference.
Patton was tireless and merciless, forcing the exhausted and battered 4th. Armored to fight through darkness, against bitter German resistance, toward Bastogne, which a spearhead reached on December 26th, not a moment too soon. Eager to maintain the momentum, Patton again kept up the pressure, throwing green units into the fight, determined to reach the strategically important town of Houffalize before his rival, Bernard Montgomery, the British commander of 21st Army Group.
Patton’s men narrowly beat Montgomery’s soldiers to Houffalize on January 16th, thereby closing the bulge caused by the German surprise attack a month before. It capped a magnificent performance by Patton and his Third Army. Patton wrote to his son George that day: “Leadership…is the thing that wins battles. I have it – but I’ll be damned if I can define it. Probably it consists in knowing what you want to do and then doing it and getting mad if anyone steps in the way.”
Some 19,000 Americans died in the Battle of the Bulge, the largest and bloodiest battle fought by the US in WWII. Patton pushed on that winter, crossing the Rhine on March 24th. He urged Eisenhower to let him go all the way to Berlin but alas political factors came into play and Patton’s hopes of reaching the capital of the Third Reich were dashed. He was dejected and increasingly listless when the war in Europe ended. He hoped to be sent to help defeat Japan but that was not to be. He was relieved of his command of his beloved Third Army in the fall of 1945 after making many insensitive public comments about the Soviets, whom he truly detested. He died after a car accident that December, aged sixty.
Patton’s grave is the most visited in the Luxembourg American Cemetery. More than any other American leader in WWII, he understood that his public image mattered, that his actions should inspire. It was vital to be colorful, to be aggressive, to swagger, and to be seen to do so at the front where men – generals as well as privates – needed the most support. Many of those who carried out his strict orders may have cursed him in the cauldron of conflict but those who survived and came home were inordinately proud to have served under him. He had pushed them to the limit and therefore to victory and they knew it.