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  • Writer's pictureMeirion Harries

DAY SIXTY FOUR The Death of a Poet

After breakfast, I pedalled down the River Nekar to its confluence with the Rhine at Mannheim where General George S Patton, the great tank commander who had fought across North Africa, Sicily, France and Germany, died in a freak car crash on 8th December 1945, the day before his intended return to America.

I became interested in him when we were writing our book on America in the First World War (for a time he was the only American able to drive a tank) - which is when I first encountered his poetry. One of his poems was The Precious Babies, a little throwaway about his beloved armoured beasts, :

Up and down the roadways, through the German ranks,

Nosing out machine guns, come the baby tanks.

But Patton was not just a rhymer. Much of his poetry - he wrote some 80 poems in all - drew on deeply held beliefs, some Christian and some which might be regarded as eccentric. In the 1970 biopic Patton there's a scene set in the North African desert where he tells Omar Bradley that:

The battlefield was here. The Carthaginians defending the city were attacked by three Roman legions …. Two-thousand years ago. I was here.

And when Bradley looks somewhat disbelieving, Patton recites lines from his 1922 poem Through a Glass, Darkly:

As if through a glass, and darkly

The age-old strife I see -

Where I fought in many guises, many names -

but always me.

This belief that he had been resurrected through the ages, always as a soldier, was unshakeable. In the same poem, he even suggests that he was the Roman soldier whose spear penetrated Christ's side:

Perhaps I stabbed our Savior

In His sacred helpless side.

Yet I've called His name in blessing

When in after times I died.

Of an evening, after supper at home with friends, he would lead off with a recitation from Robert Graves and repeat his prediction that he would die in a foreign field – to which his wife would just nod.

But Patton was right - he did not die at home. He was killed here in Mannheim when an army truck turned suddenly in front of his Cadillac. The crash broke his neck and he lingered on paralysed until 21st December. Sipping my coffee, I could only wonder in what uniform he been resurrected this time – and puzzle about his death.

We know that he was considering resigning his commission to become a civilian, free to express his opinions both of the conduct of the war and of the current laissez faire approach to the Soviet Union.

Patton was deeply critical of some of the decisions made by Eisenhower - not least the redirection of Patton's fuel supplies to another operation, depriving him of the chance to beat the Soviets to Berlin and to Prague. Again, at the start of the occupation of Germany Patton had been appointed military governor of Bavaria; but Eisenhower had relieved him of command because of his outspoken views on both denazification and the Soviets.

Patton believed, not wrongly, that we had failed to liberate eastern Europe – rather, we had merely replaced one dictator with another: ‘We’ve kicked the hell out of one b.....d, only to help establish a second one, more evil and more dedicated than the first.’ In his view, the Allies should be using their peak fighting capacity at war's end to sweep the weakened Red Army out of Europe.

To have this combative, vengeful, popular figure return unconstrained to the USA could be seen as a threat not only to Eisenhower and to the American policy of non-confrontation - but also to Stalin, who was enjoying being given a free hand. So Patton's death was extremely convenient all round.

And here a conspiracy theory starts: in Target Patton - The Plot to Assassinate General George S. Patton, Robert Wilcox assembles his case. Two core elements worry him: that we can't know the exact details of the crash because the files of the five investigations have disappeared; and that the damaged Cadillac is no longer to be found.

Then there are the two individuals who have come forward with testimony supporting the assassination theory. One, former counter-intelligence officer Stephen Subik, claims in his book that Ukrainian intelligence warned of a plot to assassinate Patton, but when Skubik passed this up to 'Wild Bill' Donovan, head of the OSS, he was silenced and disciplined.

The second claim comes from inside the OSS itself: Douglas Bazata has confessed to being the assassin, acting under Donovan's orders. Bazata says he shot Patton with a projectile that would cause the ‘the equivalent of a whiplash suffered at a speed of 80 or 100 miles an hour.’ This projectile after impact would look like debris and the wound would not look something caused by gunshot. This is meant to explain why Patton was so much more severely injured than the others in the car - and why he broke his neck - something that should have been impossible at that sort of speed.

But the conspiracy theory doesn't end there: a second writer, Bill O'Reilly, alleges that when Patton failed to die in the crash, the Russian NKVD finished him off with poison - and since no autopsy was ever performed, we will never know.

If it be my lot to die, let me do so with courage and honor

In a manner which will bring the greatest harm to the

Enemy, and please, oh Lord, protect and guide those I

Shall leave behind. (from his Soldier's Prayer)

This is a hell of a way to die - Patton, on being told of his paralysis.

The official army biography of Patton narrated by Ronald Reagan -

Shooting USA's film about Patton's famous .357 magnum pistol -

Patton giving a speech in Los Angeles after the war -

His poem Through A Glass, Darkly -

That scene from Patton (1971) -

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