Like Bernard Montgomery, General George Smith Patton Jr. was both a skilled and a controversial soldier. His aggressiveness on the field of combat helped him win many decisive battles, particularly in Italy and North Africa, but his problems with authority and his obvious lack of people skills (including an incident in which he slapped a soldier he thought was wasting time in a field hospital) nearly cost him his career. In the end, however, history proved Patton to be an invaluable asset to every Allied campaign in which he participated.
George Patton was born in San Gabriel, California, in 1885 and attended the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. After his graduation in 1909, he was commissioned a second lieutenant. Patton served as aide-de-camp to General John J. Pershing on Pershing's 1917 expedition to Mexico and proved the usefulness of armored tanks during World War I, eventually establishing a tank training school and commanding a tank brigade.
Patton's work with armored vehicles led to his receiving command of the Western Task Force that landed in Morocco as part of the North Africa invasion in November 1942. As a lieutenant general commanding the U.S. Seventh Army in the July 1943 invasion of Sicily, he made headlines around the world by capturing Palermo with what was considered just a reconnaissance force, pushing ahead despite contrary orders from his superiors.
Media reports that he had belittled his men nearly resulted in his termination, but General George Marshall and General Dwight Eisenhower knew Patton's value as an aggressive commander and intervened on his behalf. However, Patton was given little to do after the Sicily invasion until he was called to Great Britain and placed in command of the fictitious First U.S. Army Group, which was created to confuse the Germans for the impending Normandy invasion.
Patton was then placed in command of the Third Army, which was activated just six days after the American breakout following the Normandy landing. Under his direction, the Third Army cut a wide swath through German-occupied territory, devastating German defenses. Within weeks, Patton was at the Seine River, German forces encircled. With the enemy on the run, he was eager to push on to the Rhine River and keep pushing forward. However, his plans were set aside in favor of a similar action proposed by Montgomery, and Patton was forced to sit and fume while a lot of his fuel and supplies were given to Montgomery for his own offensive.
Patton was able to reclaim much of his glory during the Battle of the Bulge, though, when he rerouted the Third Army to save the town of Bastogne from a German siege. The speed of Patton's movement was astounding, and many historians consider his counterthrust one of his greatest military achievements.
Patton continued his aggressive move against Germany and crossed the Rhine in late March 1945 — a day before Montgomery's crossing farther north. He was able to move his army through southern Germany and into Czechoslovakia before Germany finally surrendered. When the war was over, Patton was transferred to command of the Fifteenth Army Group.
Unfortunately, on December 9, 1945, just months after the end of the war, Patton broke his neck in a freak automobile accident near Mannheim, Germany. He died twelve days later. In 1970, his exploits were turned into a motion picture starring George C. Scott, who received an Academy Award for Best Actor for his portrayal of the flamboyant and controversial general.