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Turning Things Around: Patton Takes Over II Corps

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The American debacle at the Battle of Kasserine Pass had brought the simmering command crisis of II Corps to a head. But Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, Supreme Commander of Allied forces in North Africa, still had yet to decide on whether or not to relieve II Corps commander Maj. Gen. Lloyd Fredendall. In early March following a command conference at Tébessa in northeast Algeria, Eisenhower pulled aside Maj. Gen. Omar Bradley, newly arrived from the States, who at Ike’s request had recently completed an inspection of II Corps. Eisenhower asked, “What do you think of the command here?” Bradley replied, “It’s pretty bad. I’ve talked to all the division commanders. To a man they’ve lost confidence in Fredendall as the corps commander.”

On March 4 in the outskirts of Casablanca, a dust-caked motorcycle messenger flagged down Maj. Gen. George S. Patton, Jr. who was out riding for exercise, a break from his planning for Operation Husky, the invasion of Sicily. He was to immediately depart for Tunisia where he would be the new, temporary, commander of II Corps. Patton’s March 4 diary comment was, “Well, it is taking over rather a mess but I will make a go of it.”

In his reorganization of the combat command in Tunisia, Eisenhower made Field Marshal Harold Alexander the Army Group commander. Alexander scheduled an offensive for March 17. The primary thrust would be made by Gen. Bernard Montgomery’s British Eighth Army in the east, with II Corps conducting a diversion in the west.

“I cannot see what Fredendall did to justify his existence. Have never seen so little order or discipline.”

Lt. Gen. George S. Patton, Jr. March 13, 1943 diary entry

Patton arrived at II Corps headquarters on March 6, at 10:00 a.m., finding Fredendall still at breakfast. With just ten days to turn things around before the offensive, Patton wasted no time. On March 7, his first day of command, the newly promoted lieutenant general ordered the mess closed at 7:30 a.m. That was just the start. A round of inspections commenced. Finding discipline lax, even non-existent (“No salutes. Any sort of clothes and general hell.”), he imposed a sweeping range of shock tactics designed to transform a dispirited mob of citizen soldiers into a fighting force. Rigorous training regimens were imposed. Some orders – such as the wearing of neckties by officers and strapped helmets even while using the latrine – seemed trivial and nonsensical, but the $25 fines (half a month’s wages for a private) were not. Bradley, now Patton’s deputy corps commander, noted, “Each time a soldier knotted his necktie, threaded his leggings, and buckled on his heavy steel helmet, he was forcibly reminded . . . that the pre-Kasserine days had ended, and that a tough new era had begun. . . .” Predictably, the troops became mad as hell.

Yet Patton was more than a martinet. Of Patton’s impact, Brig. Gen. Paul Robinett of 1st Armored Division wrote, “[Patton] radiated action, glamor, determination, and hearty but reserved comradeship. He came with a Marsian speech and a song of hate; gross, vulgar, and profane, although touchingly beautiful and spiritual at times. . . .”

Because of Kasserine, Alexander didn’t trust American troops, thus II Corps’ limited, diversionary role in the upcoming offensive. Patton seethed, but knew only victory in battle could change things. On March 16, Patton melodramatically told his staff, “Gentlemen, tomorrow we attack. If we are not victorious, let no one come back alive.”

Lt. Gen. George S. Patton

Lt. Gen. George S. Patton (second from right) personally directs the drive toward Gabes, Tunisia in a M3A1 scout car, March 15, 1943. General George Patton Museum photo

Alexander only wanted II Corps to regain ground lost at Kasserine. But Patton saw the campaign as a reenactment of Second Bull Run, with II Corps playing the role of Stonewall Jackson’s corps to Montgomery’s Eighth Army in the role of Longstreet’s corps.

In the eight-day offensive that followed, culminating with the American victory at the Battle of El Guettar, Patton was constantly on the move, visiting various headquarters and observing battles. Though El Guettar would be a minor clash in the scheme of the war, one participant later said, “Probably, the greatest training benefit of the Battle of El Guettar was learning that the opponent was not ten feet tall.”

“Probably, the greatest training benefit of the Battle of El Guettar was learning that the opponent was not ten feet tall.”

By mid-April, Eisenhower felt confident enough about II Corps’ turnaround to return Patton to Morocco and resume preparation for Husky. Bradley succeeded Patton as II Corps commander and participated in the final victory in Tunisia.

Though Alexander continued to have reservations about the quality of American troops, Afrika Korps commander Field Marshal Erwin Rommel harbored no such prejudice, writing, “In Tunisia the Americans had to pay a stiff price for their experience, but it brought rich dividends. . . . The Americans, it is fair to say, profited far more than the British from their experience in Africa, thus confirming the axiom that education is easier than reeducation.”

Lt. Gen. George S. Patton

Lt. Gen. George S. Patton at the front viewing troops, south of El Guetter, Tunisia. General George Patton Museum photo

YouTube features a video of Patton’s command of II Corps, part of a five-part sequence. Patton 360 Episode 2: Rommel’s Last Stand, which shows the transition of command, can be viewed at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bUpmSDnG_Sc. Patton 360 Episode 3: Rommel’s Last Stand, which shows the Battle of El Guettar, can be viewed at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rdl8jKPMjLk.

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DWIGHT JON ZIMMERMAN is a bestselling and award-winning author, radio host, and president of the...