This is another in the series of “Killing” books written by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard, and my wife says this is her favorite book in the series. The subtitle of the book is “The Strange Death of World War II’s Most Audacious General.” The book does present some compelling evidence that Patton may have been killed. He did create some powerful enemies, including some in the U.S. military, Stalin, and some Germans.
The book begins with a description of Private First Class Robert W. Holmund, an explosives expert in Patton’s army. Private Holmund and his fellow soldiers have been ordered to attack a heavily fortified and mostly underground fortification called Fort Driant. The bombing and artillery strikes that preceded the assault have had no effect on the Wehrmacht fighters who have remained safe within the fort’s fifteen-food thick walls and hidden forest pillboxes. Machine guns that the soldiers have named “Hitler’s Zipper” because of the high-speed ripping sound as it fires twelve hundred rounds a minute open up on the attackers as their advance stalls at the barbed wire around the fort. The machine guns are joined by rifle fire, mortars, and artillery. The Americans eventually disengage and crawl back to safety. Eighteen have been killed or wounded. And that’s just the start.
The soldiers try again a few days later, and this time they make it through the barbed wire to again be faced with precision fire from everything the Germans have. The survivors are forced to hastily dig foxholes to escape the barrage. The medics race from foxhole to foxhole to tend to the wounded until they are killed. The soldiers find a way into to the tunnels and battle the Germans underground. The survivors withdraw to the foxholes and the Germans mount a counterattack. There are only four of Holmlund’s squad left alive by the time a sniper’s bullet fells him. The descriptions of the combat are vivid.
The book intersperses descriptions of Patton and the speeches he gave his troops to prepare them for war with descriptions of the war. He said, for example, “Americans despise cowards.” “Americans play to win all the time. I wouldn’t give a hoot in hell for a man who lost and laughed. That’s why Americans have never lost nor will ever lose a war; for the very idea of losing is hateful to an American.” I wondered whether the parents of Private Holmlund wished he had been a little less brave.
I commend O’Reilly and Dugard for this and the other “Killing” books. All of them are full of history that many readers would never know without the books. There are always interesting small facts that add to the interest in the book. For example, I had never read that Hitler “…suffers from a condition known as meteorism, the primary symptom of which is uncontrollable flatulence.” Hitler and his staff always appreciate when he has the opportunity to venture outside for some fresh air. As another example of a small historical fact that is very interesting, Stalin ordered that the drapes over the windows in his dacha must not reach the floor. Short drapes would prevent an assassin from being able to hide his feet.
There are many descriptions of historical events and accounts of Patton and his career and troubles during the war. The failed plot by German officers to kill Hitler resulted in execution of those involved in the plot or believed to have been involved in the plot. Rommel was allowed to commit suicide with a cyanide capsule. Rommel knew of the plot, but his crime was in not reporting what he had heard.
I had never heard of the German commando Otto Skorzeny. British Intelligence was said to consider “…Skorzeny the most dangerous man in Europe.” He is one of the suspects in the mystery of how Patton dies. Slorzeny was the man responsible for sending German soldiers dressed as American soldiers to infiltrate and create confusion wherever possible under the code name “Operation Greif.” This is part of the plan for Operation Watch on the Rhine, which would become known to the Allies as the Battle of the Bulge.
Much of the book is about the Battle of the Bulge and Patton’s army’s audacious race for long distances across frozen roads to relieve the surrounded airborne soldiers fighting to hold the crossroads in Bastogne. The book doesn’t mention, but I’ve read in other places, that the soldiers in Bastogne resented that much was made about how “Patton rescued them.”
I was interested in the descriptions of what Patton thought of his fellow generals. It is well known that he thought little of Montgomery and had on occasion put his soldiers at unnecessary risks to “beat Montgomery to some objective.” It isn’t a surprise that Patton seldom thought highly of any of the generals who he saw as being competitors for the fame he sought (although the others weren’t as interested in that competition as he). I found the most interesting descriptions were of Eisenhower. Ike is described as a general who had never been in a battle but was an astute politician, which is why FDR chose him to command the Normandy Invasion. The book reinforces my suspicions that Ike was far too trusting of Stalin, or was aware that FDR was trusting of Stalin. Patton got in trouble more that once offering the opinion that after the Germans were defeated that we should join with them to fight Stalin.
There is a description of Churchill being treated by Stalin and FDR “…as a drunken fool.” Churchill tried in vain to negotiate an Eastern Europe that was not completely controlled by the Communists. He carries a handwritten note he calls his “naughty document” that is his wish list for the sharing of control of various countries after the war. There is no hope for Poland; it has been ceded to the Soviets. However, Churchill had hopes for other countries and negotiates with Stalin and FDR. It makes no difference. Stalin and the Soviets have no intention of honoring any of the agreements.
The Germans desperately want the Americans to take Berlin and make plans to stand aside on the Western front while defending against the Soviet army that is pillaging and raping their way into Germany. Eisenhower orders the Allies on the Western Front to hold while the Soviets fight their way into and capture Berlin.
I don’t intend to write about the central issue of the book, which is whether Patton was killed. That would be a spoiler, and you should read the book and reach your own conclusions. The book is certainly well written and is worth reading for several reasons.
I do have a nit to pick with the book. O’Reilly has always said that he and Dugard never include anything that hasn’t been fact-checked. The book mentions German nuclear weapons. “He (Hitler) is cheered by the news that Nazi scientists are developing a bomb with nuclear capacity…” Another description mentions, “Nazi scientists are currently working on a new type of nuclear weapon known as an atomic bomb.” A footnote to that sentence mentions, “There is evidence that the Germans built and tested a nuclear weapon in underground tunnels near the central German town of Ohrdruf. It was on a smaller scale that the ones detonated by the Americans at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.” I have done considerable reading about the whether the Germans had pursued the development of nuclear weapons. A quick summary is that the Germans realized it would take a massive investment in time and resources and decided to put their efforts into other weapons such as the V-1 and V-2 rockets and the jet fighter plane. I’d be interested in hearing where O’Reilly and Dugard found other information. And I’m trying to understand how you could have a nuclear weapon “…on a smaller scale…”