Finest Hour 129, Winter 2005-06
Great Contemporaries – Churchill and Patton
By John Marshman
Mr. Marshman is a member of ICS (UK). We are grateful to The Churchill Archives Centre Cambridge for permission to quote the Churchill-Patton correspondence from the file CHUR 02/142/031.
Churchill’s appreciation for General George S. Patton, who died sixty years ago this December, can be summarised by his remarks read by his son Randolph at the White House in 1963, upon Sir Winston’s receiving from President Kennedy honorary citizenship in the United States: “Our comradeship and our brotherhood in war were unexampled. We stood together and because of that fact the free world now stands.”
Churchill was always ready to support and recognise the worth of dynamic leaders, especially military leaders. His admiration for Patton as a brother campaigner in arms in World War II is well recognized, and closely followed General Patton’s efforts in all the many theatres of war in North Africa, Italy and the allied invasion and advance to Berlin. He understood Patton’s frustrations during the period when he was sidelined, between “the soldier slapping incident” in Italy and his command of the Third US Army in France, having experienced for himself similar “wilderness” periods in his own career. But for Patton, like Churchill, reverses served as an indispensable springboard for further achievements. They were kindred spirits.
Churchill was particularly impressed by General Patton’s counter-offensive rescue of hopelessly outnumbered Americans at Bastogne in the Ardennes in the “Battle of the Bulge”; and in Patton’s leadership of the Cobra Plan and the battle for France. (“Cobra” was a deception to make the Germans, who feared Patton more than any other Allied general, believe that Patton was in England with a fictitious First Army, waiting to launch an invasion after the Normandy “diversion.”)
On 1 April 1945, Churchill in London cabled President Truman that the liberation of Prague by Patton’s Third Army “might make the whole difference to the postwar situation in Czechoslovakia,” and would influence the politics of the nearby Balkan countries. He also directly appealed to Eisenhower: “I am hoping that your plan does not inhibit you to advance to Prague,” supporting Patton’s distrust of the Soviets.
On 12 December 1945, after Patton’s unexpected accident which led to his death, Churchill sent the General a telegram: “I earnestly hope that you are making a good recovery. Your accident has caused pain to your British friends and comrades who have admired your brilliant services in the common cause.”
Mrs. Patton replied on the 19th: “Your telegram to my husband was one of the first that came and I need not tell you how pleased he was to receive it. I believe that the sympathy and concern of his associates is helping just as much towards his recovery than any other factor. Thank you for yours with all my heart.”
Paralysed from the neck down, George Patton died of an embolism on 21 December 1945. Churchill cabled Eisenhower the next day: “Pray accept my deep sympathy in the loss of our gallant comrade General Patton, that great captain of war.” American Ambassador to Britain Gilbert Winant replied five days later:
“Dear Winston, I have just received the following message from General Eisenhower for delivery to you: ‘My heartfelt thanks for your expression of sympathy over the loss of General Patton. The death of this great leader and gallant comrade has been a severe blow to the U.S. Army.’”
To date the only senior statesman ever to honour General Patton’s grave in Luxembourg is Churchill, who laid a wreath on it during a visit in 1946.
Cometh the hour, cometh the men? We give thanks for General George Patton and Winston Churchill for their shared inspirational qualities, and for the Anglo-American relationship that is so much needed in today’s troubled world.