It is one of the most memorable scenes of the 1970 Oscar-winning film “Patton.”
British Field Marshall Bernard “Monty” Montgomery rolls into the Sicilian town of Messina, expecting to bask in the glory of the moment. Instead, he finds a smug U.S. General George S. Patton waiting to see the look on his face, having lost their personal race to the city.
Indeed, Patton rolled into Messina on August 17, 1943, 77 years ago today, to proclaim victory over his ally yet rival Montgomery. Great filmmaking, but there was just one glaring inaccuracy.
The movie “gives a completely false version of this event,” wrote Major General Michael Reynolds. “Monty himself is depicted leading a British column into Messina, only to be greeted by Patton with a smirk on his face, having beaten his arch-rival into the city.”
Montgomery did not show. Instead, Reynolds wrote, “Brigadier J. C. Currie saluted Patton, ‘dazzling in his smart gabardines,’ and is reported to have said, ‘General, it was a jolly good race. I congratulate you.’ ”
Regardless, Patton and Montgomery displayed plenty of gamesmanship throughout the drive across Sicily, named “Operation Husky,” during the summer of 1943. Montgomery, in fact, convinced British General Sir Harold Alexander – who coordinated the operation – to use the American force in a supporting role, leaving the glory to Monty and the British.
Patton flew to Tunisia to meet with Alexander in July and successfully lobbied for the Americans to divide the Axis forces in the north, and obliterate what remained in the west. When Patton and Montgomery met on July 25, Montgomery surprised Patton by suggesting that the Americans move on in to take Messina.
Patton sensed Montgomery’s sudden graciousness had a motive behind it. Indeed, Montgomery wanted to rest his men after a tough fight with the Germans, letting the Americans fight their way to Messina. British forces would then be fresh to lead the invasion into the Italian mainland and gain far more glory.
Even so, Patton remained obsessed with beating Montgomery to Messina.
“This is a horse race in which the prestige of the U.S. Army is at stake,” he wrote in a note to the 45th Division command. “We must take Messina before the British. Please use your best efforts to facilitate the success of our race.”
On the way, however, Patton’s temper got the best of him. In a scene the movie depicted accurately, Patton visited a mobile hospital and Patton came upon a soldier who did not seem physically wounded. When he asked the soldier what was wrong, the young man reportedly replied, “I guess I just can’t take it.”
Patton unleashed a profanity-laced tirade upon the soldier – who suffered from shell shock – calling him a coward and more. The general used his leather gloves to slap the soldier’s face, and threw him out of the tent. He then did the same to another soldier with the same symptoms a week later at another hospital.
General Eisenhower later reprimanded Patton for the slapping incidents, forcing him to apologize publicly to the soldiers.
Patton continued his push across Sicily, taking Palermo with great fanfare and then moving on to a devastated Messina despite overall poor coordination between the British and Americans throughout the Sicily campaign. Alexander got most of the blame.
“Rather than firmly coordinating the moves of Seventh and Eighth Armies, Alexander had vacillated, first backing down to Montgomery and then allowing, almost forcing, Patton to set his own course,” Eric Ethier wrote in a 2001 piece in American History Magazine. “Poor decisions, such as the reassignment of Highway 124 to Montgomery (and poor air cover over the Messina Straits), ultimately cost time, and allowed Axis ships and ferries to evacuate roughly 60,000 Italian soldiers, 40,000 Germans, 10,000 vehicles, and 17,000 tons of equipment from the island–all of which would soon be used against the Allies in Italy.”