World War II: General George S. Patton's Race to Capture Messina
Inside Seventh Army headquarters on the southern coast of Sicily, a scowling Lieutenant General George S. Patton, Jr., greeted Lieutenant General Omar Bradley with bad news. 'We've received a directive from Army Group, Brad,' Patton said between puffs on a cigar. 'Monty's to get the Vizzini-Caltagirone road in his drive to flank Catania and Mount Etna by going up through Enna. This means you'll have to side-slip to the west with your 45th Division.'
'My God,' Bradley replied angrily, 'you can't allow him to do that!'
But Patton had nothing else to say on the subject. 'Sorry Brad,' he said evenly, 'but the changeover takes place immediately. Monty wants the road right away.'
To Patton, Bradley, and just about every other senior United States Army officer, British General Sir Bernard Montgomery got his way entirely too often. This time, just four days into Operation HUSKY (the code name for the Allied Invasion of Sicily), Montgomery had convinced 15th Army Group Commander General Sir Harold Alexander to grant his Eighth Army exclusive use of a highway previously promised to the Americans. Patton and Bradley considered the decision an insult to American military prestige.
On July 10, 1943, Allied ships had deposited Patton's Seventh U.S. Army on the beaches along the Gulf of Gela, on Sicily's southwest coast. Montgomery's British Eighth Army went ashore to the east, south of Syracuse. The Allies targeted the city of Messina, at the northeast tip of the triangular island. Capturing Sicily would eliminate persistent Axis attacks on nearby Mediterranean supply routes, and if Messina could be taken quickly, the invaders would snare thousands of Axis prisoners and gain a convenient jump-off spot for the upcoming invasion of Italy.
By July 13, Bradley's II Corps had advanced inland to within 1,000 yards of the Vizzini-Caltagirone road (Route 124)–a major transport route that cut east to west across the center of the island. Meanwhile, dug-in German troops had blunted Montgomery's advance up the island's east coast, hemming Eighth Army in on the plain of Catania between towering Mount Etna and the sea. In a sudden change of plan, Montgomery decided to send a flanking force west around Etna. To do so he needed Route 124, and Alexander, who had overall command of HUSKY's ground forces, gave it to him. The Americans, one of Patton's frustrated staff officers said, were left to'sit comfortably on our prats while Montgomery finishes the goddam war!'
The British generals thought little of American fighting ability. In February, German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel's Afrika Korps had thrust across the hot sands of North Africa and smashed through inexperienced and poorly led U.S. troops at Tunisia's Kasserine Pass. The unfortunate performance of the young Americans–many of whom had never before seen battle–distressed the British commanders. Alexander declared, 'they lack the will to fight.' Montgomery believed 'they have no confidence in their Generals.'
In the wake of the disaster at Kasserine Pass, the Allied Commander in the Mediterranean, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, sent Patton to Tunisia to take over U.S. II Corps. Patton quickly injected discipline and his fighting spirit into the corps and led it to victories at Gafsa and El Guettar. In mid-April as the Tunisian Campaign neared its end, Patton left the corps in Bradley's hands and returned to French Morocco to take part in planning for the Sicily operation.
Despite the Americans' improvement on the battlefield, Alexander and Montgomery remained unimpressed. For their part, Patton and many of his colleagues resented British impertinence, especially on the part of Montgomery. Arrogant, self-centered, and pushy, the 56-year-old general in the natty black beret irked his colleagues with outlandish statements and demands. In many ways he was not unlike Patton. At the age of 58, Patton was deeply religious, swashbuckling, 'human dynamo' who strutted around in a polished steel helmet with a pair of ivory-handled revolvers strapped to his waist. 'His vigor was always infectious, his wit barbed, his conversation a mixture of obscenity and good humor,' Bradley wrote. 'He was at once stimulating and overbearing. George was a magnificent soldier.' By the time he waded ashore on Sicily, Patton's antipathy toward his British counterparts had also come to affect his relationship with his boss, Eisenhower. Patton's long-time friend had the difficult job of holding together the young Anglo-American alliance. But Patton felt that American interests and honor too often took a back seat to British demands. 'God damn all British and all so-called Americans who have their legs pulled by them,' Patton wrote in his diary in Tunisia. 'Ike is more British than the British and is putty in their hands . . . .'
For the first invasion of the Axis' home turf, Patton commanded the new Seventh U.S. Army, including Bradley's II Corps. Patton welcomed the chance to assert U.S. military might. Initially scheduled to land on the island's northern coast and capture Sicily's capital Palermo, American troops expected to go on the offensive in Sicily. But Montgomery favored a less dispersed landing to the south and in the end, his plan won out. Patton still expected Seventh Army to make its mark. But to Alexander, it was clear that 'Eighth Army would have the glory of capturing the more obviously attractive objectives of Syracuse, Catania, and Messina . . . .'
From the outset Eighth Army strategy left little room for Patton to operate, and Montgomery essentially imposed his will on Alexander. Montgomery reasoned that if the Americans could simply 'hold firm against any action from the west I could then swing hard with my right with an easier mind. If they draw enemy attacks on them my swing north will cut off enemy completely.' Two days later, Alexander transferred use of Highway 124 to Montgomery. 'They gave us the future plan of operations,' Patton wrote bitterly, 'which cuts us off from any possibility of taking Messina.'
Patton considered himself, with good reason, 'the best damn ass-kicker in the U.S. Army,' but he accepted this outrageous decision without a protest. This was not the time to raise a fuss. For the moment he saved his invective for his diary. 'Ike has never been subjected to air attack or any other form of death. However, he is such a straw man that his future is secure. The British will never let him go.'
Yet Patton did not simply give up Highway 124 with a smile. He slyly secured authorization to expand the American perimeter west. Patton had his eyes set on Palermo, and, ultimately, Messina. The next day Patton and Major General Lucien K. Truscott, who headed up the 3rd Infantry Division, discussed a westward reconnaissance in force toward Agrigento and Porto Empedocle. Truscott felt that Alexander would not object to such a move, and Patton, Truscott wrote, 'with something of the air of the cat that had swallowed the canary, agreed . . . .' Patton had his foot in the door and he meant to swing it open.