Killing Patton; The Strange Death of World War II”s Most Audacious General by Bill O’Reilly & Martin Dugard. Henry Holt, 2014.

Killing Patton is one of several books by these two authors which have made The New York Times Bestseller Lists. Killing Lincoln and Killing Kennedy were both about assassinations. This suggests the possibility that the authors may be presupposing that George Patton’s death in December 1945 was also an assassination. He died several days after being involved in a road accident. His staff car collided with a US army truck.

“Audacious” is one of many words used by the authors to describe George Patton’s generalship. He was commander of the Seventh Army in North Africa and Sicily plus the Third Army in France. The Third Army is given credit for the relief of Bastogne in December 1944 during the Battle of the Bulge.

Patton was an advocate of armored (tank) warfare. Always on the move, he believed that slowing an army down for any reason was a waste of the lives of the soldiers under his command. He felt keenly any slight, believed in himself, and wondered why others in the American high command did not share that same level of confidence. He was not a team player; hard to like. The authors talk about his fierce determination to “speak the truth,” which usually doesn’t garner good colleagues.

Dugard and O’Reilly argue that Patton was right about his distrust of any continuing relationship with our Russian Allies after the war. While he admired the Russian armies as massive fighting machines, he, like many other Americans and Brits, was beginning to worry about the Russian dominance of Eastern Europe after the War.  The Russians, on the other hand, believed that Patton was sheltering some of the SS leadership, in anticipation of a post-war conflict with the Soviet Union.

Patton was a strong advocate for an American capture of Berlin, a city of little strategic value and now largely in ruins. The agreement had been that the Russians would have that honor, and General Eisenhower intended to abide by that agreement. Besides the Russian armies were nearing the German capital. Any American thrust toward Berlin, on the other hand, would have resulted in huge American casualties.

On two different occasions while visiting military hospitals in Sicily, Patton slapped soldiers who were suffering from “battle fatigue.” In World War I their condition was called shell-shock; in our more recent wars post-traumatic stress disorder. Patton viewed it as cowardice. Eisenhower found out about Patton’s conduct and tried to suppress mention of the two incidents. But Drew Pearson, popular columnist and radio commentator, ran the story. Patton was immensely popular with the U.S. media (two-time cover of Time Magazine.) so the matter blew over. Just as well! Eisenhower needed Patton and his aggressive campaigning.

But then there was a more serious transgression: the Hammelburg Mission. Patton found out that his son-in-law, John Waters, was incarcerated in Stalag XIII-B, a POW camp near the German town of Hammelburg. Patton sent Captain Abraham Baum and a task force of 300 U.S. soldiers with Sherman tanks and armored vehicles behind German lines to liberate Waters and his fellow prisoners. He claimed that this was not a rescue mission but rather a diversionary tactic to draw off Wehrmacht troops from the front. Patton was impressed by how much public esteem Douglas MacArthur had recently garnished for his liberation of American POWs in the Philippines.

Things went badly. There were many more POWs than the 300. There was a fire fight.  Waters and other POWs were wounded. There were not enough vehicles to transport all of those in the camp, and they were not in good shape for a sixty-mile hike back to the American lines. The column was spotted by German aircraft and an ensuing attack killed thirty-two men. Most of the POWs and the task force were captured. Only thirty-five made it back to safety.

Nine days later Stalag XIII-B was liberated by another American armored division. The prisoners were probably never in much danger. Except for a massacre during the Battle of the Bulge, Germans generally honored the Geneva Convention regarding Prisoners of War.

The authors of Killing Patton suggest that the facts surrounding the death of Patton are troubling. Though the authors stop short of accusations, they hint at conspiracy and suggest the possible motives of several individuals who might have wanted Patton out of the way. For example, William Donovan. He was the head of the Office of Strategic Services (which became the CIA), and hence had command of the wherewithal for just such an assassination. Possible motive: Donovan was one of those advocates for continuing our alliance with Russia after the war.

My cousin Hollis Rider was killed in Alsace-Lorraine on 27 November 1944, shortly after his arrival in France.  He was in the 315th Infantry, part of Patton’s Seventh Army. Had he not been killed by German machine gun fire, he would have participated in the crossing of the Rhine.

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