Interview with Harry Yeide – Part 2: Fighting Patton

unnamed51S9DxWDeTLHarry Yeide is a foreign affairs analyst with the federal government in Washington, DC.  He lives with his wife, Nancy, in Hyattsville, Maryland.  Mr. Yeide is the author of eight books on World War II history, focusing primarily on US Armor.  He has a website at yeide.net.  Earlier this month he agreed to talk with Tank and AFV News.

Posted below is the second installment of the two-part interview.

Part 2: Fighting Patton

Let’s talk about your latest book, Fighting Patton.  Certainly, much has been written about Patton over the years.  How does your book differ from the previous literature on the subject?  What have other historians asserted about how Patton’s opponents viewed him?

51S9DxWDeTLI think it was worth looking at the topic because other historians had asserted a lot of things about what the enemy’s perspective of Patton was, but it was very thin gruel.  I became curious, in part because that’s the way I think.  I work for the federal government and spent two wonderful years in a unit that did analysis based primarily on looking at the world through other actor’s eyes.  So I’m just sort of in tune to that question and how would somebody else look at this.  I decided to look into it, maybe there’s no story there, maybe what everyone thinks is the case but it sure didn’t turn out that way.  The trouble is that the people that talked about what his enemies thought of him didn’t really look  at the records and actually see what people thought of him.  They were relying on a few little anecdotal bits of information and it created part of the myth of Patton.  The part that said he was the most feared Allied commander, that the Axis tracked his movements and viewed him as the key indicator of Allied intention, and that his participation in the deception campaign that ran before D-Day was crucial to confusing the Germans as to where the main D-Day landings were going to be.  None of that appears to be true.

Patton is such an iconic and in some ways mythical figure in the American consciousness.   How does the mythical Patton differ from the Patton you discovered in your research? 

I didn’t set out to discover a Patton, I just wanted to find out what his enemies thought.  So in a way, I’m just the messenger of other people’s opinions, although I insert some of my own into the analysis.  It was more than just looking at what they thought of Patton.  That could have been done actually in a much briefer way by simply compiling the actual comments they made.  I had a second goal to explore who these people were, who the enemy commanders were.  The reason I wanted to do that was that I thought I needed to understand what experiences they had that would shape the way they thought about Patton and then also to address the question of were they competent to have views that you could take seriously.  What I found was, in very brief summary, that by and large the people that fought against him had vastly more combat experience, and many of them, especially in Lorraine, had participated in some of the largest mechanized battles in history on the Eastern Front.  So they had the right and the experience to judge Patton on the grounds for which he became most famous, as a General who is good at mobile warfare.

The third goal, which I knew was going to raise questions in some eyes, was the Germans believed a lot in soldiers luck.  And it wasn’t just them, Eisenhower believed in luck, and he thought Patton was a lucky general.  You go back in history, Napoleon thought luck played a big role in war.  I thought lets also consider whether Patton was fortunate.  Did he walk into battles where everything was sort of leaning his direction?  Or did he face some of the toughest conditions that a commander could face?  And the fact is that when Patton enjoys his biggest successes in mobile warfare, in every case, starting in Mexico, First World War, Second World War his enemies were already on their back foot and getting out of his way.  He also controlled more mechanized forces than his enemy and he was pretty lucky in the conditions in which he fought his major battles of movement.  It was only his race through France after the breakthrough at Normandy that got the Germans talking about him.  The way they looked at him was interesting, they considered him a general of their own kind, a Panzer General.  Only in late 1944 they start comparing him to Guderian or Rommel, but he had not impressed them at all up to that point.  And that’s the flip side of it.  When he wasn’t lucky, when he found himself confronted with static warfare, his enemies characterized the troops under his control as being hesitant and missing opportunities.

Did you get any backlash for writing critically about him from people emotionally invested in the Patton myth?

This is the first book I have written where there are two reactions and very little in the middle.  Some people love it.  I have gotten more super positive feedback on it than on anything else I have written.   On the other hand, some people HATE it.  I tell you, it’s not just the Amazon reviews, people have gone through the trouble of finding my email and sending me messages saying that I have gratuitously assassinated the character of the great American hero.  I kind of expected some of it because when I was trying to sell the book my agent was encountering reactions like “you can’t say this about George Patton!”  I had a sense there was going to be some push back.  Frankly I have been surprised by the vitriol, but again, it’s like shooting the messenger.  By and large, I’m conveying the views of his enemies, and they don’t line up with that part of the myth of Patton.

How many hours went into researching the book?  How much of it is based on materials that have not been examined in prior works on Patton?

It took me about two years to write the thing.  I’m on a flex schedule so every other week I have one weekday off.  I was probably putting in an average of twelve hours a week when I was working on the book.  Most of that was at the National Archives.  The overall answer to the question as you posed it would be to say that almost all of my sources were not examined in prior works on Patton.  That was one of the points, that people hadn’t bothered to go look at this stuff.  And if they had, that part of the myth of Patton probably wouldn’t exist.  The totally new information I used is the World War I records of the German units that Patton’s tanks fought against in the First World War.  You have to remember that in World War I he had three days in combat before he was wounded.  It was a very short period, but he did build the American tank force.  And his first operation was in the St. Mihiel salient.  It wasn’t easy, but I figured out who the enemy force was, primarily the 10th Infantry Division.  And their records, it was amazing, I never had a find like this at the archives.  Those papers had not been touched since they were put in folders at the National Archives.  It was a beautiful thing.  There were after action reports that reached down to the battalion level.  So I was pleased to be able to identify the unit that fired machine guns at Patton at Pannes when he was advancing alone with a tank.  There was a hand sketch of the action.  Certainly, none of Patton’s biographers have ever gone back and looked at that stuff.

A second valuable source was the Italian Comando Supremo records for the campaign in Sicily.   These were not new sources, if you look at the Green books (US Army in World War II series) there are a few passing citations from it, so army historians had looked at it.  Comando Supremo had command of the island,  the German forces were operating, in theory at least under Comando Supremo.  The records are very informative.  They tell you things like Axis forces had completely disengaged from Patton’s front when he decided to make the dash to Palermo.  The memoir of the deputy G2 at the time makes clear that Patton knew that the Axis had gotten out of his way when he set off to Palermo.  You may remember in the movie Patton forces Truscott to launch a very bloody amphibious operation at Brolo and Truscott says we don’t need to do that and threatens to quit and so on.   The Comando Supremo records make clear that the 29th Panzer Grenadier Division was going to have to withdraw the next day because the Third Infantry Division was advancing inland off the coast so that entire operation was just unnecessary.

I looked at the Italian and German intelligence reporting from the North Africa period up through the Sicilian Campaign.  It’s perfectly clear that they were not tracking Patton.  It’s a big part of the myth that the Germans were tracking Patton so Eisenhower started moving him around and I’m pretty sure that I found at the Marshall Library a letter that Marshall had sent to Eisenhower that explains the whole thing.  He told Eisenhower that it’s self evident that the Germans are interested in Patton and his movement so why don’t you start sending him around places.  And Ike writes back and says well, you know that thought had never occurred to me but he always does what Marshall tells him to do and he starts moving Patton around.  Well, nobody was watching him.

For the Morocco Campaign I relied on Vichy French operational reports that are translated in the US Army records at the National Archives.  Again, the Green Book historians have looked at that, but it’s pretty clear that no one that has worked on Patton has looked at them.  I also found the French language diary of the colonel who commanded the force at Port Lyautey.

When I started looking at the enemy commander’s 201 files, that was key to it because those contain their ratings over the course of their career with commentary from their commanding officers and so on.  For each of them I also drilled down through the German after action reports of their units, including the Russian campaign and the French Campaign, although for the Polish campaign most of the records were gone.  I went to see exactly what experience these German officers had that would shape their view of war, especially armored warfare and would shape their views of Patton down the road.  I also found German language memoirs by people like Herman Balck, who commanded in Lorraine and Knobelsdorff who commanded First Army in Lorraine.

Specifically the whole D-Day deception thing intrigued me.  I went through very well known German records with a particular eye as to whether they were paying attention to Patton.  And you can actually track a thread, because the Allies were feeding the Germans intelligence saying Patton was in command of the First US Army Group and it was sitting there in England and it was ready to land in Calais and so on and so forth.  What’s interesting is that the time line shows that the Germans had already made their decision about where the landings were going to be by the time Patton was supposedly in command of First US Army group.  His role was utterly meaningless in terms of German decision making.  Once the D-Day landings happen it’s clear that it was the inflated and false order of battle of units still in the UK that had the Germans still thinking that a Calais landing was still possible, it had nothing to do with Patton.

Also, you can find in German operational records the course of events when they discovered he was there.  The 17th SS Panzer Grenadier after action report record capturing Americans who said that Patton had arrived in France.  That’s reported on the 22nd of July.  It works its way up to corps, and ultimately army level over the next four days.  Clearly nobody cares, it is handled as a routine matter.  Word does not go out that the great American general George Patton has arrived in France.  It finally gets to Army Group B’s intel staff on the 26th of July and they list on the order of battle for July  27th Third Army under Patton, but it doesn’t show up on their situation map until the 30th of July.  Patton has already been in command of 8th Corps for several days and on the situation map there is still a question mark after him.  As best as I can tell, that information stayed at Army Group B.  One positive piece of information confirming that is that Jodl told interrogators that they did not know Patton was in France on the first of August when Third Army became active.

And the last thing, a couple of historians have criticized this book because I used the Foreign Military Studies Series.  The US Army History Division, after the war had captured German officers write reports on their experiences.  It’s unbelievable, there are hundreds of these things.   Primarily it’s division, corps, army commanders who are doing it, and most of them have to do it from memory.  The critique of using those sources, again these are familiar to people, but one of my critics said that these are “much maligned among scholarly historians.  After all, they were often written by men who were facing war crimes charges who feared for their futures and were seeking friends in the West.”  And to me this just seems like academic arrogance to take this pool of firsthand accounts written right after the war and throw them in the dustbin.  It’s an incredible resource.  Were these people biased?  Yeah, of course they were but so were Eisenhower and Montgomery and Bradley and Patton and everybody that wrote a memoir after the war.  And nobody says you can’t use those things because their authors were biased.  You can also cross check these things with German military records, which I’ve done now for three books (First to the Rhine, The Longest Battle and Fighting Patton) and they stand up very well.

What do you have planned for your next book?

When  I was shopping Fighting Patton around, one editor who rejected it said it would be interesting to look at something broader in scale like “what did the Axis leaders think of the United States?”  I wanted to kind of nudge that question a little bit.  So the next book is going to look at why did the Axis leadership think it made sense to declare war against the United States.  And how did their view of the US change as the war went on.  I was hoping I would find a pretty clear “aw crap” moment for each national leadership where it dawned on them American participation meant that they were going to lose the war.  With Japan, people have really looked at the year before Pearl Harbor, so factors such as the oil embargo or balance of forces meant they had to fight now or lose, and all that’s true, but my supposition was that there had to be a lot going on before that.  I’ve been looking at the army and navy attaché reporting out of Japan from the 1920’s forward.  There was a faction in the Japanese navy all the way back into the 1920’s that wanted to go to war with us.  My tentative conclusion is that it became something like George Bush and Iraq, there was just so much momentum that there was no way around it and that they actually decided to go to war when they decided to go into South East Asia because they thought that would provoke us to declare war.  They were wrong.  I found for example the war crimes trials records for Asia, handwritten translations of diaries of some of these senior Japanese officials that I’m not sure anyone has looked at before.  So, I hope that I have something to add to the story.

How far are you into that project?

I’d say I’m over half done with it. But I kind of got derailed because my dad had serious health problems and I had to quit the project for a while.  Now I’m gearing up again slowly.

*****

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