Killing Patton – The Strange Death of World War II’s Most Audacious General: My Review

Killing Patton Book CoverHaving recently reviewed Killing the SS (see my post dated August 23, 2019) I was asked by a friend whether I had read Killing Patton, another entry in the series by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard. I had not, so I was given his copy to read.

From the title you might think that the book focuses solely on Patton’s death in December 1945. It does not. In fact, only the last few chapters are devoted to the “accident” that initially left him paralyzed and took his life less than two weeks later. There’s a definite reason for this which I’ll address in a moment.

Most of the book is an account of the waning days of World War II. The Nazis are defeated but the Fuhrer, Adolph Hitler, clings to the delusion that he can somehow turn the tide of war and yet claim victory. He mounts an all out counterattack in the Ardennes Forest that is so unexpected that it nearly succeeds before the Wehrmacht and the SS Panzer Divisions simply run out of petrol and can advance no further.

The Battle of the Bulge, as it is known to history, sets the stage for General George Patton’s Third Army to rush to the relief of the 101st Airborne Division trapped in the town of Bastogne, Belgium. It will be his greatest moment in a career of amazing accomplishments.

Forever the warrior, Patton doesn’t believe that World War II is the war to end all wars. He sees the Soviet Union as the next big threat even as the Soviet Army is given the honor of taking Berlin. He is outspoken in his characterization of Soviet forces as Mongol hordes, and the ruthless slaughter and rape that occurs as they liberate previously held German territories is proof of Stalin’s brutal push for Soviet hegemony in postwar Europe.

Patton’s outspokenness has got him in trouble before. A casual remark to women at the opening of a “Welcome Club” for American soldiers in Knutsford, England causes an uproar when Patton slights the Soviets by telling the gathering that the Americans and British will rule a postwar world. The well-intentioned words make headlines around the world and he becomes a political liability. “His hopes of assuming a major postwar command in a world divided between the United States and the Soviet Union had all but vanished.”

“Old Blood & Guts” also has no tolerance for cowardice. While visiting with soldiers that have been wounded in battle he encounters two men suffering from what we refer to today as PTSD. There’s no such diagnosis at the time and when he sees no visible wounds, he not only berates the soldiers in question but orders them back to the front, and on two separate occasions strikes the afflicted servicemen. In the latter instance, he even pulls out his pistol and threatens to shoot the individual on the spot. Such actions almost lead to his relief from command and reduction in rank, but his skills as a battlefield commander are yet sorely needed. Patton is forced to issue a public apology and his standing and influence in a postwar world are further marginalized.

All of these accounts are well known, covered by the press and captured on celluloid in the 1970 Academy Award winning film “Patton” starring George C. Scott. Where O’Reilly and Dugard really standout, however, is in little known background information and insights involving world leaders such as Hitler, Churchill, Stalin, Roosevelt and Truman, and both the Allied and German military commanders; Eisenhower, Bradley, Montgomery, Zhukov, Rommel, Peiper and their personalities, ambitions, strategies and tactics that determined victory or defeat. No other historical writers offer these kind of anecdotes and details about World War II.

Ironically and through no fault of their own, these are exactly the type of details lacking in the story of Patton’s death. The official accident report no longer exists. The driver of the 2.5 ton vehicle that struck Patton’s jeep, Tech Sergeant Robert L. Thompson, was never investigated for driving a stolen vehicle or operating it under the influence and simply vanishes from the historical record. The only report is that of PFC Horace Woodring, Patton’s driver, who claims he never made or signed any such report.

Even more interesting is the initial diagnosis that, in spite of his paralysis, Patton will recover from his injuries and regain some mobility. Two weeks later he is dead and no autopsy to determine the cause of death is ever performed. And, still more damning is a confession on September 25,1979 by OSS operative Douglas Bazata that he was part of a hit team that assassinated the general. Bazata claims to have fired a projectile into Patton’s neck that snapped it, but when he didn’t immediately die, Soviet NKVD intelligence operatives poisoned him while he was recovering at the U.S. Army 130th Station Hospital in Heidelberg, Germany.

In the Afterword to their book, Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard call for a re-examination of the case in the belief that technological advances might resolve the mystery. Regardless of whether the many unanswered questions are ever resolved, this is another fascinating entry into the Killing series.