Victor Davis Hanson

Nearly 70 years ago, on Aug. 1, 1944, Lieutenant General George S. Patton took command of the American Third Army in France. For the next 30 days they rolled straight toward the German border.

Patton almost did not get a chance at his summer of glory. After brilliant service in North Africa and Sicily, fellow officers -- and his German enemies -- considered him the most gifted American field general of his generation. But near the conclusion of his illustrious Sicilian campaign, the volatile Patton slapped two sick GIs in field hospitals, raving that they were shirkers. In truth, both were ill and at least one was suffering from malaria.

Public outrage eventually followed the shameful incidents. As a result, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower was forced to put Patton on ice for 11 key months.

Tragically, Patton's irreplaceable talents would be lost to the Allies in the soon-to-be-stagnant Italian campaign. He also played no real role in the planning of the Normandy campaign. Instead, his former subordinate, the more stable but far less gifted Omar Bradley, assumed direct command under Eisenhower of American armies in France.

In early 1944, a mythical Patton army was used as a deception to fool the Germans into thinking that "Army Group Patton" might still make another major landing at Calais. The Germans apparently found it incomprehensible that the Americans would bench their most audacious general at the very moment when his audacity was most needed.

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 Gen. 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 Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman's rapid marches through Georgia and the Carolinas during the Civil War.

Throughout August 1944, Patton won back over the press. He was foul-mouthed, loud and uncouth, and he led from the front in flamboyant style with a polished helmet and ivory-handled pistols.

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.


Victor Davis Hanson

Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and a recipient of the 2007 National Humanities Medal.