in: Character, Military, Podcast

• Last updated: May 21, 2024

Podcast #992: Patton and the Bulge: Blood, Guts, and Prayer

General George S. Patton is known for his aggressive, action-oriented tactical brilliance.

His character was also marked by a lesser-known but equally fundamental mystic piety.

Those two qualities would come together in the lead up to and execution of Patton’s greatest achievement during WWII: the relief of Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge.

Alex Kershaw tells this story in his new book Patton’s Prayer: A True Story of Courage, Faith, and Victory in World War II. Today on the show, Alex shares how, when the Third Army’s advance into Germany was stalled by plane-grounding clouds and road-muddying rain, Patton commissioned a prayer for better weather that was distributed to a quarter million of his men, and how that prayer became even more urgent after the commencement of the Battle of the Bulge. We also talk about Patton’s qualities as a leader and a man, including his reading habits, how he combined a profane assertiveness with a pious faith and a belief in reincarnation, and what happened to him as the war came to a close.

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Book cover of "Patton's Prayer" by Alex Kershaw, featuring soldiers marching in a snowy landscape during the Battle of the Bulge. Subtitled "A True Story of Courage, Faith, and Victory in World War II.

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Brett McKay: Brett McKay here and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. General George Patton is known for is aggressive action oriented tactical brilliance. His character was also marked by a lesser known, but equally fundamental mystic piety. Those two qualities would come together in the lead up to an execution of Patton’s greatest achievement during World War II, the relief of Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge. Alex Kershaw tells a story in his new book, Patton’s Prayer. A True Story of Courage, faith, and Victory in World War II. Today on the show, Alex shares how, when the Third Army’s advance into Germany was stalled by playing grounding clouds and rode money in rain, Patton commissioned a prayer for better weather that was distributed to a quarter million of his men, and how that prayer became even more urgent after the commitment of the Battle of the Bulge. We also talk about Patton’s qualities as a leader and a man, including his reading habits, how he combined a profane assertiveness with a pious faith and a belief in reincarnation, and what happened to him as the war came to a close. After the show is over, check at our show notes at Alright, Alex Kershaw, welcome back to the show.

Alex Kershaw: Great to be with you.

Brett McKay:So we had you on at the end of last year to talk about one of your older books. That’s the Longest Winter, which recounts the story of an 18 Man US Platoon that faced the thrust of the entire German assault at the Battle of the Bulge. You got a new book out, and it’s about the Battle of the Bulge as well but this time it’s about General George Patton’s role in rebuffing the Nazi’s last ditch assault on the Allies, and it’s called Patton’s Prayer. And we’ll get to the title of the book here in a bit, because there was an actual prayer that Patton had composed for his troops. But before we do that, let’s talk about Patton, the man first. This guy, he was a larger than life character. He had ivory handle pistols that he carried around, the shiny helmet riding boots, had all these pithy quotes about driving and putting people’s heads in meat grinders and calling everybody Sons of bitches. What’s Patton’s background? What was his family background and how did it shape who he became as a man?

Alex Kershaw: Well, he had a very Patrician background, not from New England, but California. He was a California aristocrat in many ways, and went to VMI and then West Point and was a hell of a character. I mean, his formative years, I guess after West Point were spent alongside people like Eisenhower. And he was a cavalryman above all, actually competed in the 1912 Olympics for the one of the events he had created his own sword. And famously in 1918, he commanded the first ever American tank unit, and that was in France, took to combat with great relish. He was very brave, almost killed, wrote, I think it was on his birthday, toward the end of the war. He said that would be a shame for hostilities to end because he was enjoying it so much. He wanted a few more scraps. So this guy was a natural born warrior, very much larger than life, deeply religious, believed in reincarnation, thought that he’d fought in several wars before, that he was a man of destiny, and that something big was gonna happen in his life eventually, where he would be truly tested. And the point in my book is that that big thing did happen. It was called the Battle of the Bulge or rather World War II, but certainly during the Battle of the Bulge, he performed magnificently. He was an extraordinary force.

Brett McKay: Well, so you mentioned that he was deeply spiritual, and you also talk about how he was actually incredibly intellectual. I think oftentimes I think of Patton as this unthinking brute. He just had a blood lust, and that was it. But he was extremely well read and thoughtful, and as a kid he really struggled with reading in school. He probably had what we call today, and he probably had dyslexia, probably had ADHD. And it really frustrated him because as a boy, he had this driving ambition even then to be this consummate warrior in both body and mind. And so he became this voracious reader as a young man. He read the classics, he read lots of biographies of about past generals. And during World War II, he just, he kept his reading up. Like he had this extensive field library that he brought with him that had books like the Bible and a prayer book going to his spirituality. But then he had things like the complete set of Rudy Kipling’s poems. And something he read a lot was the Caesar’s Commentaries.

Alex Kershaw: Yeah. He never stopped studying military history. And I have a quote in the book where he explains to a journalist that as he was crossing Normandy, he was reading Julius Caesar. And he said, I followed in the path of Julius Caesar because the guy knew what he was doing, and why not just copy the greats? And so literally, there were quite a few times in World War II when Patton would trace the root of Julius Caesar a couple thousand years before and follow it. He very much had a sense of his place in history, and he relished the fact that he was fighting in North Africa, he was fighting in Sicily, that he was determined to become the first Ally General to reach Messina, which is at the far eastern end of Sicily. He wanted to beat Montgomery, the British General to that because he wanted his name in the history books.

And I’d say that throughout World War II, he had an eye on making his name and going down in history as much as he did on defeating the enemy. And believe me, he really was highly aggressive when it came to trying to defeat Nazism. But yeah, he, it’s a good point because, people, when you look, when you watch the famous movie about Patton, you just think he’s a screaming maniac. I think that that’s kind of the takeaway. Although the movie’s really pretty accurate, and I think George C. Scott does a fantastic job. I think it’s probably his best role. He turned down the Oscar. Actually, Scott complained at the time when the movie was being made that it wasn’t accurate enough. He read hugely about Patton, and he said that Patton wasn’t being rendered as a complex enough figure, as a figure who had deep emotions and was profoundly religious, and was a hugely complex man, as well as being an intellect.

So one of the things that really drew me to Patton was that he was an intellect. I don’t think there was anybody in the Allied Supreme Command, an army commander, certainly, who was as well-versed in military history as Patton. He read everything he could. He read the enemy’s works, too. He studied tank warfare because he read German theorists. So he was a polymath in many ways, a man of immense culture and really great education.

Brett McKay: Yeah, well, I know maybe something that separated him and Eisenhower. I know in Eisenhower, when he had time off, he would read, but it would be like a Louis L’Amour, like a Western…

Alex Kershaw: Yeah, he would read Western novels for relaxation, whereas Patton’s there reading Julius Caesar and the Greeks and medieval history. It’s funny ’cause if you look at the route of the Third Army ’cause he ended up commanding the Third Army, famously, and if you look at the route of the Third Army from Normandy all the way to the Czechoslovakian border, Czech border now, often he’s following in the footsteps of the Romans. And he loved that. He loved the fact that when his army crossed the Rhine, it was the first time for a very long time, for many centuries, that an invading force had crossed the Rhine. And he loved the idea that he was making that kind of history.

Brett McKay: Yeah, and he decided to mark the occasion by peeing in the Rhine.

Alex Kershaw: Yeah. Yeah. In the book, you’ll see several pictures about that period. And it’s still debatable whether the famous photograph of Patton peeing in the Rhine, whether that’s actually accurate or not. But I have no reason, I’ve come across no evidence to suggest that he didn’t urinate in the Rhine. And that would be a very fitting thing for Patton to do. Very Patton-esque.

Brett McKay: Yeah. So this is a guy, very intellectual. He saw himself on the same stage as Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great. He had an epic view of himself inside of history. You mentioned his spiritual life. We’ll talk about the reincarnation here in a bit but what was his spiritual life like? He was Anglican, correct?

Alex Kershaw: Yeah. And he was a practicing Anglican. He went to church regularly, attended services, prayed everyday, as far as I can make out. In his diaries, would write messages to his lord, you know. He was very devout, more so than any other American army commander, more so than any allied commander that I came across in World War II. He truly did believe that he was doing God’s work, and that he was gonna be protected by God, and that God was gonna answer his prayers. So he was pious and religious. The great contradiction, and I guess if I think this through, I don’t know whether it is a great contradiction, in fact because people say, here’s this guy that’s God-fearing, and yet he swears, blasphemes, and is the most notorious user of God damn and the rest of it in World War II. The opening speech that you see in that great movie, Patton, is actually not one speech, but it’s cobbled together from three or four speeches that Patton actually made. So although he didn’t do have that full-on amazing rant, as he did in the movie, George C. Scott’s speech is actually taken from several that Patton made.

And he did swear a lot. I mean, he swore famously, he turned the air blue. And the instances where I found him to be most vocal, I don’t think they’re anywhere near what he actually was like. This was a guy that could use swear words in a very inventive way. [laughter]

Brett McKay: Yeah.

Alex Kershaw: I would not have liked to be at the end of one of his tirades. Needless to say, there would have been a lot of effing and blinding, as us Brits say and I think it does make sense, if you think of Patton as sort of embodying this warrior archetype, like Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great. These guys had a bloodlust, they were aggressive and they fought, but they also, they were pious. They made their sacrifices before they went out to war.

Brett McKay: And just because you swear a lot, doesn’t mean that you’re not devout.

Alex Kershaw: Yeah. God forbid the people who swore would not be regular church attenders.

Brett McKay: Yeah, they probably need it the most, right?

Alex Kershaw: We wouldn’t have many people going to church.

Brett McKay: Yeah, exactly. Well, tell us about this reincarnation, because I’ve read that about it, and that he believed that he was reincarnated, that he actually saw great battles from history.

Alex Kershaw: Yeah, again, without referencing too much the movie, there’s those famous scenes when he’s in North Africa, where, and I think Sicily, where he’s wandering around and he looks at the ruins of previous battles, and he genuinely believed that he had had many lives, and in several of those lives, he’d been a warrior in time’s gone past. So yeah, he absolutely did believe in reincarnation. He’d been reincarnated several times already. I don’t know which life he was on, but it wasn’t number one, put it that way.

Brett McKay: And you also talk about, he thought he was a man of destiny. He really thought providence, God had saved him for this period to take part in this great enterprise. And I’ve seen connections between him and Winston Churchill. Winston Churchill talked the same way about himself. He’s like, I’m a man of destiny. I was born for this.

Alex Kershaw: Yeah. Well, I think I made the parallel in the book where I point out that Churchill said that he’d walked with destiny, beside destiny most of his life. And then at age 65, suddenly becomes prime minister in May, 1940, the most critical point in modern British history where Britain basically stood alone against a Nazi onslaught.

And Churchill believed that his whole life had prepared him for that ordeal, that trial, that moment. And Patton was similar. He wasn’t 65, but he was nearing 60. During the Battle of the Bulge, he was 59 years old. He’d just turned 59. So not far off Churchill, but he definitely felt that he’d been waiting much of his 20s, 30s, 40s, and into his 50s to really seize the moment, seize the day and become what he was destined to become, which was in my view, the most effective American combat commander of World War II.

Brett McKay: So Patton famously led the Third Army. What was the Third Army’s role in World War II prior to the Battle of the Bulge?

Alex Kershaw: Well, the third Army was activated at the beginning of August, 1944. So we were about to break out of Normandy. A lot of the really heavy bloody fighting had been done in Normandy. And the Third Army under Patton was brought into play and basically led the American breakout from Normandy and did so in extraordinary style and speed. The spearhead of the Third Army, was the Fourth armored division that was Patton’s favored division. Hell on wheels, and they cut a slash across France. That was extraordinary. They literally, there were stories about how tank commanders would call up Patton and ask where they should rest for the night to refuel, et cetera. And Patton said, “What the hell are you doing calling me? You’re wasting time even picking up a field phone. Just keep moving. Don’t stop.” And so the Third Army in the summer of 1944 took more prisoners and traveled further than any other mobile force in history in basically about six weeks, all the way from Brittany right to within a hundred miles of the German border. The only thing that stopped Patton was lack of fuel and to some extent the weather. But it was mainly the lack of fuel to supply his armored divisions. It was a very potent force. Patton had studied German strategy and tactics and the Blitzkrieg that had been so effective in 1940.

And he basically developed an American form of Blitzkrieg, a very Patton-esque version of it. Which basically meant that he equipped, manned and planned for his armored units to act as really effective modern day cavalry, you know, flanked by infant divisions, et cetera but his main preoccupation was speed and movement and taking the fight to the enemy and never allowing them, if possible, to have a break. You know, constant, constant pressure, just keep pushing, pushing, pushing. He several times, gave instructions which were basically don’t worry about what’s going on 10 miles to the east or the west. Just keep pushing your head and fight, just keep fighting. And it proved to be very effective until you get into the late fall of 1944 where the weather became atrocious. Fuel supplies were very difficult, it was very hard to come across extra fuel and there was a manpower problem. So yeah, he was a genius of Ahmed warfare.

Brett McKay: And so, Patton, the Third Army makes this slash into Europe, but then in the fall of ’44, they get stymied. The weather’s bad. There’s no manpower. They’re outta fuel. But yeah, the weather becomes a problem. As you get into November, December, and this is when the title of your book comes into play, Patton’s Prayer, Patton decided to… He says, we gotta pray. And he had this great quote talking about Patton’s idea about what role prayer played in warfare. And he says, you got a plan and then you gotta work really hard, but then you have to pray really hard as well. So he goes and finds this chaplain to say, I want you to write a prayer for us. So tell us about this chaplain who wrote Patton’s Prayer.

Alex Kershaw: That was a guy called O’Neill. He was the senior chaplain in the Third Army, and I believe there were more than 20 denominations within the Third Army, but he was the overall chief. And on the 8th of December, 1944, while Patton was headquartered in Nancy in France, O’Neill was at his desk one morning and he received a call, and it was Patton. O’Neill came from Chicago. He was, I think he was 52 years old at the time, and he’s a Roman Catholic priest. But he received this call from Patton saying, you know, come and see me. And when he went to see him, Patton said, look, I want you to write a prayer for me, which was, you know, came as a big surprise to O’Neill. And the prayer was basically for good weather. And I can read a little bit of it.

Brett McKay: Yeah.

Alex Kershaw: That it was printed onto over 250,000 prayer cards. So that basically every guy in the Third Army received one. And I think the last of these prayer cards, which, you know, it’s like a business card, I’ve actually got one, it fits into your wallet nicely. It would fit into any GIs combat pocket neatly. And the last of those prayers was distributed on the 14th of December, 1944. And that’s a hell of a lot of copies of a prayer and a hell of a lot of people to receive them. But anyway, on one side, there was a Christmas message that O’Neill wrote on behalf of Patton. And then the main prayer on the other side of the card read like this, “Almighty and most merciful Father, we humbly beseeched thee of thy great goodness to restrain these in moderate reigns with which we have had to contend. Grant us fair weather for battle, graciously hearken to us as soldiers who call upon thee that armed with thy power, we may advance from victory to victory and crush the oppression and wickedness of our enemies, and establish justice among men and nations.”

So that was the prayer. And Patton was very pleased with it. And in my book I go into quite some detail, but, O’Neill recorded the conversation he had with Patton in quite some detail, and I shamelessly used a lot of the dialogue from O’Neill’s memoirs for that meeting between the two of them on the 8th of December, 1944. So yeah, Patton made some good points though when he was talking to O’Neill. He asked O’Neill, how much praying was being done. And O’Neill said that it was pretty difficult to find places for people to pray as a congregation. And that in the middle of a war it was difficult to hold services, but basically not a lot of praying was going on. And Patton said, well, we need to change that. And Patton said, up to now in the Third Army, this is up until December of 1944, God has been very good to us.

We have never retreated, we have never suffered defeats. This is because a lot of people back home are praying for us. We were lucky in Africa, in Sicily, and in Italy, simply because people prayed. But we have to pray for ourselves too. And he, I love this about Patton, he added that a good soldier. Quote, “A good soldier is not made merely by making him think and work. There is something in every soldier that goes deeper than thinking or working. It’s his guts. It is something that he is built up in there. It is a world of truth and power that is higher than himself.” And Patton basically told O’Neill that everybody in the Third Army should be praying all the time. And if they didn’t pray sooner or later they’d crack up as he said, you know.

Go insane or go to pieces. And so O’Neill not only wrote a Christmas message from Patton, plus the famous Patton’s prayer for good weather and he also issued a directive in Patton’s name that actually went to unbelievably 486 chaplains in the Third Army, 32… I’m correcting myself now, 32 denominations and the officers of 20 divisions that were under Patton’s command. And the directive was really precise. Pray when driving, pray when fighting, pray alone, pray with others, pray by night and pray by day, pray for the cessation of immoderate rains for good weather for battle, pray for victory, pray for our army and pray for peace, lastly.

Brett McKay: We’re gonna take a quick break for a word from our sponsors. And now back to the show. So Patton, he has his prayer issued. He hands it out the same time Hitler’s planning his attack, right? This is like a last ditch effort. We talked about this in our last conversation, secret attack. No one knew it was coming. The Allies were caught completely off guard. How did Patton respond? Like what was his response when he found out that the Nazis had made this surprise attack?

Alex Kershaw: Well, you say that nobody knew that it was gonna happen, and that’s true to the extent that no one knew the extent of the German attack. No one knew that there were gonna be over 200,000 troops involved, and that this was Hitler’s last desperate gamble on the Western Front. But in fact, Patton did know that something was gonna happen because he had a superb intelligence staff. His entire staff were first class, but he had a head of intelligence called Oscar Koch, who he’d worked with since 1942. And he trusted him hugely. He didn’t ever make a major decision without consulting Koch. And Koch in late November and early December of 1944, had received a lot of intelligence, field intelligence, et cetera, interrogations of POWs, which suggested that the Germans were building up a significant force to the north of the Third Army near the Ardennes.

And so Patton, when he was told about this, he gave orders to make preparations in case there was a significant attack further north. And so when the attack finally came on the 16th of December, stunning and shocking, the Allied command and Patton himself was surprised by just how many men and how many tanks the Germans had been able to bring into play without anybody really realizing it. But when it happened, when the disaster unfolded, Patton was the only guy with a plan. In fact, he had three plans because he’d consulted with Koch and had asked his staff to draw up preparations in the likelihood of such a large scale movement of German forces. He had no idea that it was gonna be so vast, so big that the Germans would punch almost 70 miles through, past Allied lines. But he did have a plan in place, and it was that plan that the… One of those three operational plans that he adopted in the early days of the Battle of the Bulge. There was a famous meeting of Eisenhower, Bradley, Patton and other senior staff at Verdun, a fitting place given what had happened there in World War I on the 19th of December.

And Patton stole the show. He was the only guy in the meeting that actually was confident, that saw this as a real opportunity to finish off the Wehrmacht. And he had a plan. He was the only guy with a plan and said that he could pivot his Third Army in 48 hours and move that Third Army over a hundred miles to the north, to the Ardennes and then counter attack. And the reaction, particularly from one British senior official at the Verdun, was laughter. This guy’s joking, this guy really is a maniac. But… And Eisenhower himself said that he was somewhat surprised by Patton’s plan and said, well, don’t go off half-cocked. Take a little bit more time than that. But in fact, Patton did only really need 48 hours and did actually pivot his entire Third Army in just over two days, which is that act of changing the axis of advance of an entire army in such a short period of time and then moving over a hundred miles in terrible winter conditions was the greatest achievement of Patton’s illustrious military career. It was a phenomenal achievement.

Brett McKay: Yeah. Because he had a plan, even though he didn’t know exactly what was gonna happen, he had a plan, it allowed him to execute with speed. That was, again, it just allowed him…

Alex Kershaw: Yeah.

Brett McKay: To be fast, fast, fast, fast, fast.

Alex Kershaw: Yeah, exactly. Yeah. Action was what was required. And he knew that the German forces were overextending themselves. They were vulnerable. But what it took was someone to act quickly and with immense aggression and to take the fight to the enemy. And the reason why the Battle of the Bulge is known as the Battle of the Bulge is not because of any Weight Watchers. It’s because the… If you looked at a map in, certainly on the 18th or 19th of December of 1944, it would show a big bulge in the Allied lines. And Patton, when he looked at that bulge, he saw opportunity that, well, if I can cut off the spearhead of the Wehrmacht, if I can attack, we can take great advantage of this. What others saw as a crisis, he saw as an opportunity. And I think that he not only saw as an opportunity to defeat the Wehrmacht decisively, but he saw it as a way to shorten the war.

That if we did the right things, threw enough men into this battle. If he was given the right kind of command, if he was allowed to make the decisions that he wanted to make, then this could be the last great battle of the war. It ended up being the last great battle on the Western Front anyway. But he thought that German collapse would soon follow. It actually took four months after the conclusion of the Battle of the Bulge in January, late January of 1945, it took until the 7th of May, 1945 for the Third Reich to finally collapse. But it was speeded up…

Brett McKay: Yeah.

Alex Kershaw: By defeat in the Battle of the Bulge.

Brett McKay: And you do such a great job in this part of the book, talking about, you know, that this drive that Patton was making with the Third Army. They’re trying to reach Bastogne, and you do a great job of showing the leadership style of Patton. He was one who led from the front. He actually talked about it. He said, it’s important for my men to see me at the front, and it’s also important that the enemy sees me at the front ’cause he understood the power of presence. He understood the power of having an image, and that it could inspire his own men, but also strike fear in the enemy. You recount this. There’s points where Germans talk about, “Oh my gosh, where’s Patton? Is Patton here?” They start freaking out when they hear that Patton’s on his way. And talking about this theatrical aspect of Patton’s leadership style, you do this great quote when he got asked about it in the press, and he started talking about it. He was very self-aware of it.

He said, you quote this, I like this a lot. He says, “You know, people ask why I swagger and swear, wear flashy uniforms, and sometimes two pistols. Well, I’m not sure whether some of it is any of my own damn fault, but however that may be, the press and others have built a picture of me. So now, no matter how tired or discouraged or even really ill I may be, if I don’t live up to that picture, my men are going to say the old man’s sick. The old son of a bitch has had it. Then their own confidence, their own morale will take a big drop.” So yeah, you could see it. There’s instances where he would help push a truck out of the snow. That was really important for the men to see that.

Alex Kershaw: Yeah, definitely. I mean, if you’re in the battle of your life and things are really, really tough, it’s nice to see the big boss lending a hand. One of the things that I love about Patton is the fact that he walked it as he talked it. I mean, he talked big, but he walked big, if you know what I mean.

Brett McKay: Yeah.

Alex Kershaw: And, you know, in contrast to someone like Bradley, who was the so-called GI’s general, you know, that was a myth propagated by Ernie Pyle, who wrote a bunch of columns about Bradley eulogizing him. You know, Bradley barely left his hotel in Luxembourg throughout the Battle of the Bulge, whereas Patton was out there almost every single day for sometimes all day in an open jeep, armored jeep, visiting division commanders, corps commanders, and being seen by countless of his men. And there were so many examples and so many instances of guys under his command actually spotting him as he passed by in a jeep. And he would stand up and shout out encouragement and swear and say that they had the Germans nuts in a grinder.

You know, et cetera, et cetera. You can only imagine. But the fact was that he was there, he was seen, and he was seen at the front pushing his Third Army towards victory. And I think that that says everything you need to know about Patton, that he was a man that was there and led from the front, was seen at the front, and knew how important it was to be regarded that way by his troops.

Brett McKay: Yeah.

Alex Kershaw: He was very strict. He was a disciplinarian.

Brett McKay: Oh, yeah. He was a big stickler for that sort of thing.

Alex Kershaw: Very, very loyal. I mean, everybody complained… Everybody complained in the Third Army that they only had to wear neckties, that their helmets had to be polished, whatever. It was that there seemed to be this sort of ridiculous level of neatness that Patton required. But that was part of a broader philosophy that Patton had, which was that he did demand discipline, that he wanted men to be extremely well trained, to do what they were told, to perform at a very high level. And that came through discipline.

Brett McKay: Yeah.

Alex Kershaw: You need great discipline in a great army. And they might have bitched and moaned about it, but after the war, when they looked back, they were all proud to have served under old blood and guts. They realized that that kind of order and discipline and pride of unit mattered, mattered a great deal.

Brett McKay: Did Patton’s prayer get answered, like the weather clear up eventually?

Alex Kershaw: Yeah, it did. And Patton certainly believed that it was answered. And other men in the Third Army believed that it had been answered. And the main answer came… The answer came on 22nd of December, when the weather started to change. And then in the morning of the 23rd, Patton awoke and looked out of his headquarters in Luxembourg up at the sky, and it was bright blue. So the cloud cover and fogs and mists that had shrouded the Wehrmacht and shrouded the battlefield since the beginning of the Battle of the Bulge, the 16th of December, that finally all went away. And the point was that with clear skies, the Allied Air Forces could go to town, and they had air superiority, massive air superiority, and could do a hell of a lot of damage. But they couldn’t do that with low cloud cover and mist and fog.

In fact, they’d been grounded until that point. But with clear skies on the 23rd of December, they just, boy did they, they pounded everything they could find between the Rhine and the Ardennes. They hit columns of German tanks, they strafed and pounded and bombed and shelled and… You name it, and did a hell of a lot of damage and made the critical difference in the Battle of the Bulge. So when Patton looked up at the clear blue skies, he absolutely believed that his prayer had been answered. And then soon after, he called for his chaplain, O’Neill, his head chaplain, O’Neill, and he gave him a medal.

He’s the only chaplain in World War II that we know of that received a medal for writing a prayer.

I think it was a bronze star.

Brett McKay: Yeah.

Alex Kershaw: So…

Brett McKay: It’s very Patton-esque.

Alex Kershaw: And Patton pinned it onto him himself. He wasn’t just handed it by some underling. It was Patton who pinned the medal on him himself.

Brett McKay: Alright, so they make it to Bastogne and this basically, this is kind of the Battle of the Bulge sort of winding down. It took a few more weeks for it to happen. What happened to the Third Army after that? What did they do?

Alex Kershaw: Well, you know, Bastogne was relieved on the 26th of December, but actually, in the first couple of weeks of January of 1945, there were much higher casualties suffered by the Third Army, annexed back by the 101st Airborne, then from the 16th of December through to the end of 1944. ‘Cause it’s one thing to stop a German counter attack and to relieve a besieged town. It’s quite another thing to push the Wehrmacht back to their starting point. And that took most of January of 1945, and it was a very bloody ordeal indeed, because the Germans fought very, very hard. They knew they had their backs to their homeland. Finally, the two key armies involved in the Battle of the Bulge met up at a place called Houffalize and the Americans pipped the Brits to Houffalize by just a matter of a few hours. And so that was the join up of the two main armies involved on the Allied side in the battle. And from there until the end of January, from Houffalize until the end of January, it was a slogging match to push the Germans back to where they’d started from on day one of the Battle of the Bulge.

They took a break for a while, and then by early February, the Third Army was on the move. Its progress was relatively slow through February, again because of the winter conditions and determined German counter attacks and stubbornness. But then finally by March, they’re starting to move, they’ve broken the back of the Wehrmacht on the Western Front, and they’re moving to towards the Rhine. The Allies crossed the Rhine first on the 7th of March, 1945 across the Ludendorff Bridge at Remagen. And then through the rest of March, the rest of the Allied armies crossed the Rhine from north to south. Patton crossed the Rhine on the 25th of March, and then Oppenheim, and famously urinated in the river and got to the other side to the Eastern Banks of the Rhine and fell to his knees and grabbed a bunch of dirt and shouted out. Thus William the Conqueror.

Basically, this is… We were talking earlier on about his understanding of military history and his love for those who had come before. So only Patton would’ve dropped to his knees on the other side of the Rhine and invoked William the Conqueror. So that takes you to April of 1945. Once we were across the Rhine, that was the last natural barrier between us and Berlin. You got Siegfried Line and then the Rhine, and then that’s it, basically. It’s that… There was still a lot of heavy fighting going on, but it was all over really for the Third Reich on the Western Front.

Brett McKay: And Patton became, he was a celebrity. He became a hero. Everyone loved Patton.

Alex Kershaw: Oh yeah. I mean, his name was in the headlines through much of the Battle of the Bulge. I mean, he became a superstar.

Brett McKay: Eventually. So Patton’s not fighting as much. There’s still some fighting going on, but he starts getting into trouble and eventually he gets in a lot of trouble, and he got relieved from his command of the Third Army. What caused that?

Alex Kershaw: He hated the Soviets. That was the main reason. And he spoke out about it unwisely and time and time again, just couldn’t keep his mouth shut and basically said that we should carry on fighting, and that rather than the Nazis, we should be fighting the Red Army. It’s not what people wanted to hear, certainly not what Eisenhower or any politicians wanted to hear it. That’s…

Brett McKay: When I read that, I thought he kind of has a point. He said that, we got [laughter] to probably fight these guys ’cause if we don’t, we’ll be fighting them in 20 years. And that’s exactly what happened.

Alex Kershaw: Yeah, it was called the Cold War. But that looming conflict was pretty hot even in 1945.

Brett McKay: Yeah.

Alex Kershaw: And that… If you ask somebody that lived throughout the Cold War or was in the part of Eastern Europe that was occupied by the Red Army, they certainly didn’t regard themselves as being liberated. And Patton insisted on trying to get to Prague and was stopped. He was told, no, you gotta stop. We’ve agreed that… Also, these are the lines that we’re gonna finish with at the end of the war. Stalin gets this, we occupy this, and that’s it. And Patton wanted to go as far as he could, as fast as he could. And the reason why was because he knew that he was a liberator, not a conqueror, that he wanted to set people free rather than enslave them, which is what he believed the Soviets would do and did do. So in terms of identifying the Soviets as the main enemy of democracy in Europe, he was dead right. But that was not the time to do it when we… You know, over 19 millions European civilians lay dead, and we’ve gone through a horrific global conflict. It was just not what people wanted to hear, and it’s not what his men wanted to hear either, to be honest. All they could think about in 1945 was going home and they didn’t wanna go… They didn’t wanna stay in Europe and fight against a formidable Red Army. That would’ve been a horrific bloodbath.

Brett McKay: Yeah. So yeah, Eisenhower, he was thinking about the Ally. He was thinking about relationships and trying to figure out how are we gonna organize this post-war thing.

Alex Kershaw: Yeah.

Brett McKay: He’s thinking bigger picture, and Patton’s comments weren’t helping that. And so yeah, he basically got sacked from his command.

Alex Kershaw: Yeah. He didn’t get sacked for comments about the Soviets, although those were very impolitic. And it’s surprising that he wasn’t disciplined severely. He got sacked eventually because Eisenhower ran out of patience. And the reason why he ran out of patience finally, was that in a press conference, Patton had been set up by a journalist, and Patton was pretty easy to set up. You just asked him a question about the Red Army, or you asked him a question that would set Patton off, and one of the questions was, it was seemingly benign, and it was basically about his role after the end of the war, which was that he was the governor of occupied Bavaria, and it was his responsibility to put that shattered part of Germany back together and make it run and organize things. It was an army of occupation that he was commanding, and he was asked a question about the treatment of Nazi officials.

And Patton basically pointed out that if you didn’t allow any Nazi official back into government, if you didn’t allow them to… Some of them to run the show, to make the electricity work, to organize various things, to run towns and cities, then who were you left with? ‘Cause pretty much anybody that had been in power of any kind since the rise of Hitler had been in the Nazi Party. You had to be in the Nazi Party to be a senior government official anywhere in Germany. That’s what it was all about. And so Patton basically said, well, the Nazis aren’t that different to the Republicans and the Democrats. It’s like if you belong to them, it’s not that much different to being in the Nazi Party. And of course, that comparison of the Republicans and Democrats to the Nazis just lit a bonfire. That was a step too far.

Even though when you really think about it, what Patton was saying was pretty true. And as we learned to our great dismay, but not a lot of people’s shock in some parts of the world, when we invaded Iraq, there was no plan for… Real plan for what we were gonna do once we’d invaded, just a lot of idealism. And when we got rid of Saddam Hussein’s forces and his senior command structure, et cetera, and all those who had obeyed Saddam Hussein, you were left with a vacuum. You didn’t have anybody to turn to to help you organize our occupation of Iraq. And Patton was basically saying the same thing, you know, you need to find people who can actually run the show. Otherwise, we’re going to have to do it all and we can’t do it all on our own.

Brett McKay: How did he respond to his getting removed from command?

Alex Kershaw: Well, you have to remember that Eisenhower’s patience had been tested since 1943 with the famous slapping incident. And there were several other occasions since then that had caused him a lot of irritation. He basically just wanted Patton to keep his goddamn mouth shut. And when they finally met, it was in September of 1945 in Europe, in Germany, and they had a real ding dong. I mean, the meeting went on for about two hours. Voices were raised. Eisenhower’s assistant and driver, a woman called Kay Summersby, wrote in a memoir that this was the most annoyed that she’d ever seen Eisenhower, that he’d aged like 10 years during this whole episode when he was having to basically fire a good friend. And that was what Patton was.

And he basically relieved Patton of command of the Third Army, which was a stunning blow to Patton. When Patton left the meeting, an observer said that he was white, maybe with shock, but certainly with disappointment. And he was given sort of a bogus role as head of the 15th Army, which was basically… Was gonna write the history of World War II as an historical unit. So that was a real comedown from, at the end of the war, Patton had almost 500,000 Americans under his command as Third Army commander. And then to suddenly find himself in charge of a bunch of guys who were gonna write the history of World War II was a real demotion. And it hit him hard.

He pretended that it didn’t in public anyway, but it left him somewhat embittered, deeply saddened and wondering about what the hell he was gonna do with the rest of his life ’cause his glory days were definitely over.

Brett McKay: Yeah.

Alex Kershaw: The problem for Patton was that even then, when the war ended in Europe on the 7th of May, 1945, he wanted to go to Japan. He was all for it. And in fact, he visited Washington, DC in June of 1945, and he was on a mission to try and get sent to Japan. At his last meeting with his Third Army staff, he said, I’ll see you in China. So he was all up for even more of a war. But MacArthur, who was the king of the Pacific Theater, he wouldn’t have Patton anywhere near him. I think he was threatened by Patton. He certainly didn’t want that size of ego anywhere near him.

And so Patton, there was no role found for Patton in the Pacific, even though Patton had actually asked President Truman, when he was at the White House in June of 1945, to send him there. It wasn’t gonna happen because MacArthur wouldn’t allow it, basically. And so it raises a question about what would have happened to Patton had he not died in a car accident in December 1945. So yeah, he was a man without a real role or purpose or, as he saw it, a future. And it hurt him a great deal. He’d spent his entire… Devoted his entire life to the US Army.

Brett McKay: Yeah, that car accident, it was a pretty banal death for Patton. I don’t think it was the death that he thought he’d have, like this glorious warrior death. So yeah, it’s the end of 1945. He’s about to leave Europe. He’s thinking about retiring from the Army. And he gets in this dumb car accident ’cause his limo driver was driving too fast. Everyone else was fine, but he ended up being paralyzed from the neck down. He had to spend, I think 12 days, in spinal traction in a hospital. But even during that time, he was a stoic soldier. The nurses said he was the ideal patient. But he said, yeah, this is a hell of a way to die. And he ended up dying from those injuries from that car accident. What’s interesting, though, is that Patton had a clear premonition of his death several months before.

So he went back to the United States for leave. And while he was there, right before he went back to Europe, he told his family, “This is our last goodbye.” And they were like, “What are you talking about? The war’s over. You’re not gonna die.” But he knew he was gonna die soon because he thought, he believed you had a certain amount of protection from providence or a certain amount of luck, and his had run out. But he did think he would be reincarnated again. So after writing this book, did you take any life lessons from Patton?

Alex Kershaw: Yeah, that’s a great question. The one thing that I came to realize by looking at Patton is that today he would be totally ostracized. He wouldn’t stand a chance in the modern US military. He was too outspoken. He wasn’t a team player in some ways. But if you look at human history, if you look in detail at human history, a lot of it is about conflict. Modern history is the history of war in many ways, one war after another. And we would be very naive to assume that we’re not going to stay that way as a basically conflictual species. And we need people like Patton. We’re always gonna need figures like Patton in the future. If we face great military tests, we’re gonna need aggressive, brilliant commanders who want to win and are prepared to do whatever they can to win. You don’t want to have your hands tied behind your back in a war if the stakes are everything.

And if national survival is on the line, you’re out to win. And from my point of view, men like Patton, we’ve always needed them and we will always need them in the future.

Brett McKay: Well, Alex, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?

Alex Kershaw: You can go to all the usual online bookstores. And you can also go to my website,, and follow me on Twitter. Yeah, the book’s published on the 21st of May and hopefully people will enjoy it. I had a great time writing it ’cause I got to write about an incredibly fun, fascinating, colorful figure, which is Patton.

Brett McKay: Yeah, I had a great time reading it. It’s a great book.

Alex Kershaw: Oh, thank you.

Brett McKay: Well, Alex Kershaw, thanks for your time. It’s been a pleasure.

Alex Kershaw: My pleasure, mate. Thanks a lot.

Brett McKay: My guest here is Alex Kershaw. He’s the author of the book, Patton’s Prayer. It’s available on and bookstores everywhere. You can find more information about his work at his website, Also, check out our show notes at, where you can find links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.

Well, that wraps up another edition of the AOM Podcast. Make sure to check out our website at, where you can find our podcast archives, as well as thousands of articles that we’ve written over the years about pretty much anything you think of. And if you haven’t done so already, I’d appreciate it if you’d take one minute to give us a review on Apple Podcasts or Spotify. It helps out a lot. If you’ve done that already, thank you. Please consider sharing the show with a friend or family member who you think would get something out of it. As always, thank you for the continued support. And until next time, this is Brett McKay, reminding you to not only listen to the AOM Podcast, but put what you’ve heard into action.

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