The Triumph and Tragedy of George S. Patton, Jr.: The Slapping Incidents in Sicily
The life and military career of George S. Patton, Jr. abounds with myths, misconceptions and half-truths, none more so than two disastrous incidents n early August 1943 in Sicily that all but ruined his career – and likely changed the course of the war.
In mid-August 1943 Lt. Gen. George S. Patton, Jr. was riding high at the end of his third campaign in the Mediterranean during the most turbulent year of his military career. It began in November 1942 when he led the Western Task Force during the Torch landings in French North Africa where, largely through his successful diplomacy with Vichy French forces, a major bloodbath had been averted in Morocco. In early March 1943, after the disastrous American defeats at Sidi Bou Zid and Kasserine Pass, Patton had been hastily summoned by Eisenhower to take command of the flagging II Corps, the American fighting contingent in Tunisia. A scant ten days after assuming command from his inept predecessor, Maj. Gen. Lloyd R. Fredendall, Patton led the corps to its first victory of the war at El Guettar. During his brief six-week tenure in Tunisia, Patton brought about a dramatic improvement in the combat performance of the corps.
Returning to Morocco in mid-April, Patton was promoted to command the Seventh U.S. Army during Operation Husky, the invasion of Sicily in July 1943, then the largest amphibious operation ever mounted. During the brief but bitterly fought thirty-seven day campaign, Patton’s flamboyant leadership was instrumental in removing the stigma of Kasserine and establishing once and for all that the U.S. Army could not only fight, but that it was now the equal of the British Army. Hailed as the conqueror of Sicily, during a single week in July Patton had appeared on the covers of both Time and Newsweek.
Before departing for North Africa in 1942 Patton had told his nephew: "It is my destiny to lead the biggest army ever assembled under one flag and to smash the Germans with it." Prior to Sicily the Germans knew virtually nothing of Patton; after Sicily they were unwavering in their conviction that he was the most competent and formidable of all the Allied generals against whom they fought in the West.
Patton was clearly poised to assume even higher command and responsibility in the cross-Channel invasion of Northwest France (Operation Overlord), then proposed for the late spring of 1944. However, even as he was being lauded for his success, an ominous chain of events had already begun to unfold that were to have grave consequences not only for Patton’s military career but also upon the decisive campaigns yet to be fought in Northwest Europe. In the space of little over one month, his triumph not only turned to ashes, but his career was nearly ruined by the two most self-destructive acts of his life.
On August 3, during a routine visit to see the wounded at the 15th Evacuation Hospital, Patton encountered Pvt. Charles H. Kuhl of the 1st Division. Kuhl had no apparent wounds and when asked what was the matter with him, replied: "I guess I can’t take it." In a sudden rage at what he considered a grave insult to the other wounded patients, Patton slapped Kuhl and physically kicked him out of the tent.
On August 10, a similar scene took place at the 93rd Evacuation Hospital when Patton again encountered a soldier he believed was malingering. Screaming that the man was "a goddamned coward" and a "yellow son of a bitch," Patton declared that, "I won’t have these brave men here who have been shot seeing a yellow bastard sitting here crying." Patton then pulled his pistol and shoving it in the terrified soldier’s face, slapped the soldier and ordered the hospital commander to "get that man out of here right away. I won’t have these boys seeing such a bastard babied." Patton then went directly to the II Corps command post and recounted the incident to the corps commander, Maj. Gen. Omar N. Bradley.
When Bradley received a written report of the incident from the hospital commander he ordered it locked in his safe. Despite his long-standing antipathy toward Patton, Bradley never hesitated in deciding that his conscience simply would not permit him to forward the report directly to Eisenhower. "I couldn’t go over Patton’s head," he later admitted.
However, the II Corps surgeon felt no such qualms and took matters into his own hands by sending the report through medical channels to Eisenhower’s surgeon general in Algiers, Brig. Gen. Frederick A. Blessé.
Patton finally began to discern just how much trouble he was in when a cable arrived from Algiers ordering him to meet Eisenhower’s liaison officer to Seventh Army, his long-time friend and confidant, Maj. Gen. John P. Lucas, at Palermo airfield the afternoon of August 20. Lucas would be carrying a personal message from Eisenhower and Patton was to listen closely to what Lucas had to tell him.
In addition to a blistering letter of reprimand from Eisenhower, Patton was ordered to apologize to the two soldiers and the medical staff of the two field hospitals. Lucas, however, suggested that Patton apologize to every unit in Seventh Army. In the weeks that followed Patton made his official apology at the two hospitals and toured his divisions and regiments where he offered a muted regret for his actions. Although others would have been humiliated by such a series of public acts, Patton accepted it with equanimity. However, the price was exceptionally high. The war went on without him and in the months following the slapping incidents, Patton was left behind to reside in isolated splendor in the great palace of Palermo, much as Napoleon had done during his exile on the nearby island of Elba. Gradually, his Seventh Army was stripped away to meet new Allied commitments in Italy and in England for Operation Overlord preparations. It was only in January 1944 that Patton’s Sicilian exile finally ended when he was summoned to England by Eisenhower and appointed to command the Third Army.
The immediate consequences of the slapping incidents went well beyond the damage to Patton’s military career and his virtual exile in Palermo during the remainder of 1943. It was the denial, first, of the command of U.S. forces for the invasion of Normandy and later the command of the 12th Army Group in the decisive campaigns of World War II. Instead, that command went to Patton’s one-time subordinate in Tunisia and Sicily, Omar Bradley.
Had Patton been a lesser general his career most certainly would have ended after Sicily. The reason that his superiors elected to retain him was best summarized by Assistant Secretary of War John J. McCloy who told Eisenhower: "Lincoln’s remark when they got after Grant comes to mind when I think of Patton – ‘I can’t spare this man – he fights.’"
Postscript. As a direct result of the slapping incidents Patton was not appointed to command U.S. ground forces for the cross-Channel invasion and the campaigns in Northwest Europe. Future articles will examine in greater detail the slapping incidents and its historic consequences both to Patton’s career and upon the outcome of the war.
Carlo D’Este, Bitter Victory: The Battle for Sicily (New York, Dutton, 1988)
______. Patton: A Genius For War (New York, HarperCollins, 1995)
______. "The Slaps Heard Round the World," Military History Quarterly, Winter 1996
Carlo D’Este, the best-selling historian and author of numerous critically-acclaimed books on World War II, is Consulting Historian for Armchair General.