War as I knew it is arguably one of the best books on the subject by an author who was an expert in the subject – US General George S Patton, Jr.
Author and journalist Rick Atkinson writes in his well-crafted introduction that Patton was a “great tangle of calculated mannerisms” and a greater tangle of contradictions. Affectionately known as “Old Blood and Guts” to his troops; he was for long “a kind of house intellectual” to the US Army. Once called a “mentally unbalanced officer” by General Dwight Eisenhower, the same also described him a “great fighting leader in pursuit and exploitation.” A devout Episcopalian (American Anglican), he was also a mystic and a firm believer in reincarnation, causing Atkinson to conclude that it is tempting to say that we shall never see his like again. “But given Patton`s fixed belief in reincarnation, such an assertion could well be premature.”
Patton`s biographer Ladislas Farago has lamented that his death in a traffic collision in December 1945 “destroyed what could have been the best book to come out of World War Two.” Atkinson says absent the full-blown autobiography Patton could and would have written, “we are left with a posthumous wartime memoir, which the general, drawing from his dairies, wrote at the war`s close.”
He describes War as I knew it as “by turns stark and brutal, rich and witty, part combat yarn and part travelogue”. It is indeed. One can continue quoting Atkinson at length but that would be cheating. I do advise the reader to study it. It is excellent writing – as is Patton`s.
War as I knew it is largely chronological, starting with operation Torch – the invasion of North Africa in November 1942. Next, Patton describes his role in Operation Husky – the taking of Sicily. Then the main course: his role as leader of the 3rd US Army charging across France and tearing into Germany. Desert is equally good. Patton adds several appendices of which his Letters of Instruction (Appendix D) and his “Reflections and Suggestions” are the most valuable and indeed should required, examinable, reading for all officers and non-commissioned leaders.
He writes here that anyone, “in any walk of life, who is content with mediocrity is untrue to himself…” The trick expression “dig or die” is “much overused and much misunderstood”. Do not dig trenches under trees if you can avoid it, he further cautions. “‘Hit the dirt` is another expression which has done much to increase our casualties.” In street fighting, “it is very essential to avoid hurrying.” Tired officers “are always pessimists.” A favourite of mine is: “The best is the enemy of the good. By this I mean that a good plan violently executed now is better than a perfect plan next week.”
Patton had a keen eye for terrain and an aptitude for tactics and the operational art. He was no mean strategist and a religious diarist, meaning he wrote down his thoughts while they were still fresh. When he could he revisited battlefields to see what he could learn, his own and that of others. A keen historian, he offers valuable insight. Visiting Palestine in late 1943, he was flown over what is now the Gaza Strip and the Wadi el Arish where British General Edmund Allenby had attacked the Turks in 1918. “It is a much less formidable obstacle than I had gathered from the books,” he observes.
Flying over some Tunisian terrain he attacked through, Patton has cause to remark: “Had I known how difficult it was, I might have been less bold… On the other hand, the gum-tree road which penetrated our position, and over which I spent many anxious hours, is not anywhere as dangerous an avenue as it shows on the map, and had I been able to look at it from the air, I might have slept better.”
He, of course, also vents his spleen, particularly when Eisenhower declines to reinforce his success and cuts back on his logistics in favour of parcelling out supplies to all the Allied armies. This of course was part of the narrow versus broad front debate. British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery and Patton both favoured a narrow “rapier thrust” – with their own troops rather than an advance along a broad front. For political reasons Eisenhower had to follow the latter approach.
War as I knew it is a fine book and gets better with re-reading. Read it. Better still, own it. This is truly one of the best book on warfare yet written and the author was a master at it.
War as I knew it (2nd Edition)
General George S Patton, Jr.
Houghton Mifflin Company