AUGUST 17, 1943: U.S. Army commander George Patton narrowly beat his bitter British rival Bernard Montgomery in a race to seal the conquest of Sicily on this day in 1943.
The 39-day campaign had pitted the Allies’ two greatest – but also most egotistical – generals against one another in one of the greatest contests of World War II.
The two very eccentric soldiers met in Messina after the hard-driving American defied orders not to advance and had been accused of gambling with his men’s lives.
Montgomery, who was stunned when his parading British Eighth Army encountered the U.S. Seventh Army, dryly told his rival: ‘Don’t smirk Patton, I shan’t kiss you.’
The American, who was also famed for his larger-than-life persona, replied: ‘Pity, because I shaved very close this morning in preparation of getting smacked by you.’
As the Briton left, Patton ordered his brass band to strike up and, with a rendition of Stars and Stripes forever, drowned out the Scottish bagpipers leading their parade.
Patton had been determined to outdo Montgomery, whose so-called Desert Rats had earned the first Allied victory by defeating Germany’s seemingly invincible ‘Desert Fox’ Erwin Rommel at the Second Battle of El Alamein in North Africa in 1942.
<!–more–>The American, George Patton, was famed for his larger-than-life persona (Getty)
But Monty, as he was affectionately known by his troops, was equally determined not to be outdone by a general he had publicly described as a ‘madman’.
Yet both men were equally self-promoting.
Patton once telling his officers: ‘I’m my favourite general’ – a concept Montgomery surely would have shared, although for both men Rommel came a close second.
Upon receiving the command of the Eighth Army, Montgommery, reputedly told a colleague: ‘After having an easy war, things have now got much more difficult.’
When the fellow officer tried to cheer up, the famously bombastic general allegedly replied: ‘I’m not talking about me, I’m talking about Rommel!’
And Patton once admitted: ‘I know I’m a prima donna. I admit it. What I can’t stand about Monty is, he won’t admit it.’
Yet, while both Montgomery and Patton could both be considered prima donnas, they nevertheless had very different commanding styles, personalities and appearances.
Monty, as he was affectionately known by his troops, was equally determined not to be outdone by Patton (Getty …
Unlike statuesque Patton, who revelled in being well groomed with a highly polished helmet and boots, the diminutive Montgomery, who was nicknamed the Spartan General, saw little point in flashy uniforms.
However, he did have a penchant for outlandish hats and frequently donned the black beret of the Royal Tank Regiment despite being an infantryman.
He also liked to wear Australian bush hat while travelling around during the Western Desert campaign, where he made his name as a strategic genius.
And, unlike Patton, who preferred to be feared but respected, Montgomery craved affection from his men and his kindness towards them ensured high morale.
A British Pathé shows him handing out cigarettes to his men following the capture of Sicily, which was followed by an even harder invasion of the Italian mainland.
By contrast, during that same campaign, Patton was reprimanded for slapping a soldier suffering battle fatigue and calling him a coward during a hospital visit.
Yet the American, who was also famed for his use of coarse language, also inspired his men to fight hard and was probably the most aggressive commander on all sides.
Patton preferred to be feared but respected by his followers (Getty)
In a speech given to troops before D-Day, he told his men: ‘We’re not just going to shoot the b*stards, we’re going to rip out their living goddamned guts and use them to grease the treads of our tanks.
‘We’re going to murder those lousy Hun ****suckers by the bushel-****ing-basket.’
The two generals, who were certainly the two most able field commanders, also had different fighting styles.
Monty, having witnessed firsthand the blunders before the Dunkirk Evacuation, preferred detailed planning and striking only when strength was guaranteed.
Patton, however, derided that as tactic a stagnant, play-it-way-too-safe style of warfare and instead preferred to charge hard and never stop.
He also told his troops: ‘I don’t want any messages saying ‘I’m holding my position.’
‘We’re not holding a goddamned thing. We’re advancing constantly and we’re not interested in holding anything except the enemy’s balls.’
Montgomery craved affection from his men and his kindness towards them ensured high morale (Getty)
However, Patton, whom the Germans believed to be the best Allied general – surpassing even compatriot Dwight Eisenhower, had one weakness: predictability.
As a military history scholar and someone who genuinely believed he had been a top soldier in several past lives, he preferred to follow the path of his ‘ancestors’.
By contrast, Montgomery liked to formulate plans the Germans would not be able to second guess.
But, as in the case of his audacious bid to capture Holland by sending troops behind enemy lines in Operation Market Garden, he sometimes came unstuck by the rigidity of his plans.
Patton, on the other hand, was happy to change tack when situations changed.
His finest moment was he performed a Christmas miracle at the Battle of the Bulge when he punched a hole through the Germans’ last big offensive to relieve the besieged American soldiers holding the Belgian fortress city of Bastogne.
He went on to lead his troops to advanced further, capture more enemy prisoners and liberate more territory in less time than any other army in history.
Yet he died only months after the end of the war after losing post as military governor of Bavaria following his comparison of the Nazi Party to Democrats and Republicans.
Montgomery, for his part, was celebrated as Britain’s finest commander and was rewarded with the job of Chief of the General Staff and given a peerage.
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