Posted: March 18th, 2023
General Patton and Mission Command: the Battle of the Bulge
Fought between 16th December 1944 and 25th January 1945, the Battle of the Bulge remains one of the most notable battles during World War II not only because of the significant death count on both sides, but also because of the various tactics as well as strategies applied by the allied forces that informed its outcome in the end. Towards this end, this text highlights the role played by General George Patton in the Battle of the Bulge â€“ and more specifically in the redemption of Bastogne from German encirclement, in what is widely considered to be one of the battleâ€™s most significant turning points. Pattonâ€™s effectiveness will be reviewed in the context of the principles of mission command.
From the onset, it is important to note that were it not for the brilliant operation, strategic conduct, and gallant efforts of General Pattonâ€™s Third Army, it is possible that the Allied forces would have failed in their efforts to advance in the west. It is with this in mind that Bastogneâ€™s relief in the Siege at Bastogne remains one of the most defining moments in the greater Battle of the Bulge. In essence, the city of Bastogne was of great strategic importance to the Germans. As a matter of fact, it was one of the two cities (the other being St. Vith) whose fall would have offered a clear path for the Germans to not only reach Antwerp, but also effectively separate the Allied forces. In that regard, therefore, as shall be demonstrated elsewhere in this text, General Patton and his role in the outcome of the Battle of the Bulge could be regarded a good example of the application of mission command principles.
In essence, the Battle of the Bulge ensued when â€œthe German army launched a counteroffensive that was intended to cut through the Allied forces in a manner that would turn the tide of the war in Hitler’s favorâ€ (U.S. Army, 2018). As the U.S. Army further points out, this particular battle brought the fortitude as well as courage of the American soldiers to the ultimate test â€“ with their response being not only tactful, but also audacious and strategic. This retaliation, in coordination with allied forces, â€œultimately meant the victory of freedom over tyrannyâ€ (U.S. Army, 2018).
The Battle of the Bulge essentially resulted from Adolph Hitlerâ€™s spirited endeavor to ensure that the Allied forces in northwest Europe were split so as ease a German offensive that would ensure that allied forces were pushed back, dismantled, and possibly annihilated. If the offensive had succeeded, the American force would have been cut off from their British counterparts, thereby cutting off supplies of some allied forces and making it easy for the German forces to obliterate isolated forces â€“ particularly the British army which would have been cut off from critical supplies had the Antwerp, Belgium breakthrough succeeded (Collins and King, 2013).
According to the U.S. Army (2018), the battle was launched with a German offensive through the Ardennes Forest, and on its march was a 200,000 man army backed up by approximately 1,000 tanks. The â€˜launch padâ€™ stretch was at the time being â€œheld by four inexperienced and battle-worn American divisions stationed there for rest and seasoningâ€ (U.S. Army, 2018). This American unit was totally caught by surprise. It is important to note that as Collins and King (2013) point out, the difficulty of the territory could have made the area to be perceived as unattractive for a large scale attack of this nature. Further, matters were made worse by the fact that the German offensive was launched at a time when the weather as not conducive for allied forces to respond with their far more superior air power. Although caught flatfooted, the American forces were able to put up a spirited defense that was however torn apart after a day of fighting, allowing the German force to not only surround the infantry division, but also seize crossroads while at the same time â€œadvancing their spearheads towards the Meuse Riverâ€ (U.S. Army, 2018). It is the projection created as a consequence of this particular advance that gave rise to the term â€˜bulge.â€™
Further confusion was created by the move by German forces to don American uniform. Within a few days, German forces had made some significant advances and managed to corner outflanked American detachments at the Bastogne crossroads. Bastogne was deemed to be a prized takeover by the Germans. In the words of Collins and King (2013), â€œGerman high command had identified the strategic location of the city during the initial planning stages for the offensiveâ€ and an agreement had been reached to the effect that â€œthe two key cities of Bastogne and St. Vith would have to be taken within the first forty-eight hours if they were to achieve their intended objective of reaching Antwerp and dividing the Allied forcesâ€ (37). In that regard, therefore, the city of Bastogne was of great strategic importance to the Germans.
The resilience that the American Divisions demonstrated in preventing the capture of Bastogne was largely unexpected. This effectively slowed down the Germans â€“ effectively taking them almost a week to encircle the city, whereas if everything had gone according to plan, the Germans would have captured Bastogne within two days. In one of the most memorable moments of the Siege of Bastogne, General Anthony McAuliffe, when contacted by a German commander with a proposal for the Americans to surrender, simply answered â€œNUTSâ€ (Rickard, 2011). The siege eventually came to an end following the arrival of the 4th Armored Division, under the very able command of General Patton.
General Pattonâ€™s Performance and Role in the Battleâ€™s Outcome
With Americans trapped in Bastogne, â€œthe supreme Allied commander, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower rushed reinforcements to hold the shoulders of the German penetrationâ€ (U.S. Army, 2018).With his 3rd Army on Bastogneâ€™s southern side, an order came through for Pattonâ€™s army to move north. In a strategic maneuver, Patton was able to enter the city by way of breaching German lines (Perrett, 1999). In a matter of days, the Germans were pushed across the Rhine, further eastwards. Towards this end, in seeking to define, evaluate, and assess the effectiveness of General Patton with reference to the larger Battle of the Bulge, it would be prudent to highlight four of the six mission command principles in reference to Pattonâ€™s performance.
According to Department of the Army (2012, â€œthe mission command philosophy helps commanders counter the uncertainty of operations by reducing the amount of certainty needed to actâ€ (2-1). Experienced commanders are well aware of the fact that in most cases, due to the urgency of the need to adopt a certain course of action, some decisions have to be made in the face of uncertainty. Department of the Army (2012) points out that the basis of mission command is largely the trust and common objectives shared between key stakeholders who include, but they are not limited to, commanders, partners, staff, as well as subordinates. Towards this end, six key principles guide commanders in their application of mission command. Four of these will be used in reference to General Patton.
1. Build cohesive teams through mutual trust
Department of the Army (2012) observes that commanders tend to be effective when they foster a mutual trust environment in which cohesive teams can thrive. Trust must be earned and it takes time for it to be built, with Department of the Army (2012) being of the opinion that â€œit is the result of upholding the Army values and exercising leadership, consistent with the Army leadership principles.â€ During the Battle of the Bulge, General Patton not only upheld Army values, but also demonstrated leadership that was in line with the leadership principles of the Army. In his 1944 Christmas message to his soldiers, he reiterated his confidence in their abilities and sense of duty. In cards that were the size of a wallet, Patton wrote, â€œI have confidence in your courage, devotion to duty, and skill in battleâ€ (Weintraub, 2007). This is a good example of a simple act of goodwill on the part of the commander that fostered trust.
Also, according to Department of the Army (2012), trust could further be reinforced in a team setting when soldiers see the chain of command share their hardships. Patton never shied away from danger. In the words of Knight (2004), â€œGeneral Patton spent time in the trenches with his men and his army ran wellâ€ (188).
It is also important to note that since the month of June in 1944, the exposure to tough battle field situations had seen the morale of the 90th Division drop significantly. Patton was aware of the need to rejuvenate the spirit of the division. It is at this point that he sought to make changes to the leadership of the division by way of appointing a new division commander and assistant division commander. Those appointed were BG McLain and NG Weaver respectively (Wright, 2013). According to Department of the Army (2012), such qualities as integrity and professional competence are deemed to be the foundation of trust. Both BG McLain and NG Weaver â€œhad an excellent reputation as tough warriors, which served to start rebuilding trust among subordinate leaders in the divisionâ€ (Wright, 2013, p. 163).
2. Provide a clear commanderâ€™s intent
The commanderâ€™s intent could essentially be described as the clear but brief highlights of the operationâ€™s objective and the perceived outcomes that are in line with the mission command, ensure that subordinates remain focused, and come in handy in seeing to it that â€œsubordinate and supporting commanders act to achieve the commanderâ€™s desired results without further orders, even when the operation does not unfold as plannedâ€ (Department of the Army, 2012, p. 2-3). From time to time, Patton would bring the corp. commanders together for reviews and restatement of key objectives and goals. According to Rickard (2011), such meetings were meant to â€œachieve the unifying effect of a common operating picture, but the frequent changes in plans required continual updating of his intent to themâ€ (306).
Patton was also known to give pep talks to soldiers from time to time in an attempt to remind them of their mandate in war. He also gave well-structured speeches that were, according to Collins and King (2013), designed to not only uplift the morale of soldiers, but also highlight what was expected of them. His intent as the commander could also be derived from the now well-known phrases where he often made use of very colorful language to make his intent known. In one particular speech, simply referred to as Pattonâ€™s Speech, and which remains one of the best speeches he ever delivered, Patton articulates the reason for the offensive and calls for brevity. Although it was written just before the invasion of Europe, Rickard (2011) is of the opinion that this particular speech brought a sense of purpose and focus that remained with soldiers throughout the Battle of the Bulge and beyond. This is more so the case with regard to his call for hard work and sacrifice with his quip; â€œan ounce of sweat will save a gallon of bloodâ€ (Rickard, 2011, p. 107).
3. Exercise disciplined initiative
Disciplined initiative could be defined as â€œaction in the absence of orders, when existing orders no longer fit the situation, or when unforeseen opportunities or threats ariseâ€ (Department of the Army, 2012). During a meeting to plan a viable and urgent response to the German assault and redeem Bastogne, Eisenhower was apprehensive that it would take a lot of time to disengage the Third Armyâ€™s six divisions for the northward counter attack. Addressing Patton, Eisenhower pointed out thus; â€œI want you to command this move â€” under Brad’s supervision, of course â€” making a strong counterattack with at least six divisionsâ€ (Perrett, 1999, p. 329). He then asked Patton when he could start, perhaps expecting a response citing a few days. Pattonâ€™s answer was simple; â€œas soon as you’re through with meâ€ (Perrett, 1999, p. 329). Unknown to Eisenhower at the time, Patton had already anticipated the command meetingâ€™s intent, and had thus instructed his staff to make plans for the same. This is a good example of disciplined initiative on the part of Patton. In addition to having adapted to the situation and made adequate plans for various scenarios without necessarily consulting, Patton had already delegated the contingency plans task ahead of time. He applied his judgment in an appropriate manner by taking a course of action that he believed would be of help in seeking to accomplish the mission.
4. Accept prudent risk
Prudent risk is defined as â€œa deliberate exposure to potential injury or loss when the commander judges the outcome in terms of mission accomplishment as worth the costâ€ (Department of the Army, 2012). In one of his writings during the Battle of the Bulge, Patton advises on the need to â€œtake calculated risks; that is much different than being rashâ€ (Luecke, 1994, p. 30). It would, therefore, be safe to state that although Patton may have appeared rash and quite aggressive in some instances during the battle, his calls for action were well calculated and measured. For instance, in his advance to Bastogne, Dâ€™Este (as cited in Rickard, 2011) is of the opinion that â€œthe prospect of relieving three divisions from the line, turning them north and traveling along icy roads to Arlon (in southern Belgium) to prepare for a major counterattack in less than 72 hours was astonishingâ€¦â€ However, it would later on appear that this was a well calculated move to fast-track his 4th Armored northward. It is important to note that although the maneuver was quite risky, it largely paid off.
Like many commanders before him, Patton benefited from the application of the principles of mission command in an attempt to neutralize the various uncertainties he encountered on the operational front. Pattonâ€™s most significant contribution in the Battle of the Bulge was in providing the much needed reinforcement to American troops trapped in Bastogne. As it has been pointed out elsewhere in this text, the outcome of the Battle of the Bulge would have effectively been decided at Bastogne. This is more so the case given that the city would have provided German forces with immense options for further expansion. Thus in essence, the arrival of Pattonâ€™s army at Bastogne was effectively a game changer. Within the next few days, Patton was able to repulse the German forces â€“ using a myriad of tactical and strategic maneuvers â€“ bringing the Siege of Bastogne to an end, and effectively deciding the outcome of the Battle of the Bulge.
Collins, M. & King, M. (2013). The Tigers of Bastogne: Voices of the 10th Armored Division in the Battle of the Bulge. Oxford: Casemate
Department of the Army (2012). ADRP 6-0 Mission Command. Washington, DC: Army Doctrine Reference Publication
Knight, R.L. (2004). The Crimson Flake. Victoria, B.C: Trafford Publishing
Luecke, R.A. (1994). Scuttle Your Ships Before Advancing. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Perrett, G. (1999). Eisenhower. New York, NY: Random House
Rickard, J.N. (2011). Advance and Destroy: Patton as Commander in the Bulge. Kentucky: University Press of Kentucky.
U.S. Army (2018). The Battle of the Bulge. Retrieved from https://www.army.mil/botb/
Weintraub, S. (2007). General George S. Patton and the Battle of the Bulge. Retrieved from http://www.historynet.com/battle-of-the-bulge
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