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Posted on May 4, 2005 in Carlo D'Este, Front Page Features

The Triumph and Tragedy of George S. Patton, Jr.: The Slapping Incidents in Sicily

By Carlo D'Este

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.

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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.

Further Reading

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.

10 Comments

  1. any further mentions of the slapping incident in sicily by ggsp should be referred to as the slaps that won the war if not for the tenacity of the 101st and the mobility and predictive planning of the 3rds staff along with “the prayer” and its being answered the nazis may have been able to reach antwerp fuel and have been able to finish production of “wonder weapons” extend the war and we would all be living in a much different world i still wonder why the orders to keep “malingerers” out of the field hospitals were not followed but am glad they were not if you feel the same feel free to contact me at johnnythetruckdrivernyc@yahoo.com

  2. Is Charles Kuhl still living and how was his life postwar?

  3. mr. Kuhl died in January of 1971. At the time of the incident, he was suffering from dysentery and malaria, not battle fatigue. In fact, years later, Kuhl described the incident and suggested that it was actually Patton who was likely suffering from battle fatigue, not Kuhl. Kuhl’s medical condition was entirely organic in nature; not some kind of mental condition.

  4. General Patton has been a hero of mine since childhood.In fact,My Grandfather reminds me of the General. I am a civilian Pilot now,However,I was in the military. I sincerly believe that if the U.S. conducted it’s “War on Terror”, as it conducted itself in W.W.Two, there would be little terror now. Patton once said”Does anyone here believe that Offensive war with out quarter or boundary not come without risk?” we consider enemy rights before our own. This is not why the world Loves us,But it is the core reason behind it’s hate for us. I say return to carpet bombing,disregard mosques,let us not make the mistakes we as a country and a military have made since Korea.

    • The world hates America BECAUSE of your indiscriminate acts of violence towards civilians, your supplying of weapons and hardware to dictators, your consumate conceit with regard to your own cultural importance and because of a minority of avaricious, ignorant tits who seem to be perpetually calling for yet more war.
      Your own government brought down the twin towers and fabricated the attacks on the pentagon so you lot could justify enjoying life at the expense of others.

  5. Joseph,

    I’m all in with with you!!!

  6. General Patton became tempermental and short in patience as the war raged on.Yes, I agree that he was, to some degree, suffering from “battle fatigue” himself. After all, why would a high ranking general of his magnitude lower himself to slapping two privates? In the movie “Patton” George C. Scott (Patton) slapped one soldier but the incident was really a composite of the incidents with two privates involved–a Private Bennett and a Private Kuhl.Yes, I agree that General George S, Patton contributed to the capitulation of Germany. I read that he was the only General that the Wehrmacht truly feared. My Uncle served in World War II and he told me, when I was young, that Patton sent troops to rescue his son but later I read that it turned out that it was really his son-in-law that was held a prisoner–not his son–since his son was still a West Point cadet at the time. Later, when I was in the Army, my Operations Officer, who would later retire as a full-bird Colonel, said that Patton conducted a failed rescue attempt to rescue his son-in-law or some close relative. There is not a whole lot of information on this incident. Some historians doubt that Patton would send troops on a failed rescue attempt just to rescue one man. Did it really happened?

  7. Failed rescue. Yes. Several books. I believe that one is “The Hammelburg Affair.” Another maybe The Hammelburg Raid”.
    Whatever, it was a raid on the PW camp at Hammelburg, Germany.
    Patton supposedly said that the raid was his only mistake on the war in that he did not send enough men & tanks!

  8. Thanks for finally writing about > Armchair General Magazine
    - We Put YOU in Command!The Triumph and Tragedy of George S.

    Patton, Jr.: The Slapping Incidents in Sicily | Armchair General
    < Loved it!

  9. The whole affair was a ruse. Ike needed to get Patton out of Italy; to head up the secret Army cluster being built in Scotland. A direct assault across the Channel would make Hitler hold back two whole armies and the Tanks. Rommel, himself told Hitler, when he first came out of Africa … The American Leader would be Patton; none other. He would lead them across. The ruse, with so many other things also indicating the same … WORKED!

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