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The Movie "Patton", The Battle for Metz, and Task Force Baum

on Fri, 03/14/2014 - 20:31

Since I was a kid one of my all time favorite WWII movies was "Patton." For those of you who have spent the past half century living under a rock the film, originally released in 1970, is not only about one of the most iconic and controversial Generals in U.S. Army history, but also starred George C. Scott, who deservedly won an Academy Award for his portrayal of U.S. Army Four Star General George S. Patton.

Now, there is no question the film is far from perfect. In particular, I can not for the life of me fathom how 20th Century Fox could, among other things, obviously shell out ungodly sums of money to assemble the military hardware that they did; including to my great delight Spanish knockoffs of German Heinkel He-111 bombers; and yet turn around and use Cold War era M-47 and M-48 tanks to portray both German and U.S. tanks. After all the movie was shot in hard would it have been to have gotten ahold of some real WWII era tanks? At that time there were even major armies still using modified M-4 Shermans (Israel in the October 1973 Yom Kippur War represented just one such example), and as late as 1967 the Syrian army, for one, employed Panzer IV's during the June 1967 Six-Day War.

Regardless of technical oversights such as these, and a whole range of other goofs (use of M41 Walker Bulldog light tanks, an appearance by a Korean War era M37 self-propelled gun, both real WWII-era military jeeps - good, and civilian one's - ugh, and so on...); the movie does a great job of portraying much of what made Patton such a controversial and captivating historical figure that continues to attract tremendous attention to this day. In part the movie holds up in this regard because at times it did not flinch from the good or the bad. There was even an unsparing look at one of Patton's famous "slapping incidents" of shell-shocked soldiers which occurred during the liberation of Sicily. Note that in real life two different soldiers and incidents were condensed down into one scene for the movie.

However, where the movie really failed was in not taking the time to also highlight two other aspects of Patton's war time leadership and decision making that together offer us a more complete look at the man (which was of course the whole point of the film). The first and perhaps most important omission is the film's failure to even remotely explore Patton's disastrous decision making and leadership of the U.S. Third Army during the Metz Campaign of the Fall of 1944. As previously covered by this website in a more detailed look at the U.S. Army's overall struggles during the Fall of 1944:

"From September 5th to November 21st the fortress city of Metz held out against The Third Army's most strenuous efforts. By the middle of November Major General Walton Walker's XX Corps comprising the 10th Armored Division, 5th Infantry Division, and 90th Infantry Division had spent the better part of two months hammering away to almost no avail at a couple of poorly trained German infantry divisions and the under strength 17th SS Panzer Grenadier Division. The German defensive efforts ended up exhausting Walker's Corps, and resulted in Patton ordering the U.S. 95th Infantry Division into the meat grinder at Metz; where it ultimately played a pivotal role in the ancient city's capture.

Why Patton insisted on stubbornly blasting away at Metz, a fortress comprising some 43 smaller mutually supporting interconnected forts, remains a question debated to this day. Patton's attempts to take Metz meant only 86,000 German soldiers in Lorraine tied down an allied army a quarter of a million men strong. As a testament to the difficulties the Third Army faced during these months one only has to look to the fact that General Patton's Army had liberated 40,000 square miles of territory in the heady days of August and September. In October, the Third Army had only freed 125 square miles of territory. Fierce German resistance and allied logistical difficulties had slowed Patton's advance to a crawl, and inflicted approximately 50,000 casualties on the Third Army."

Now admittedly Patton the movie is already an ungainly 172 minute film, and it's not like I would have wished for the producers to have instead made it into a mini-series....Ok, maybe just a little. After all how cool would that have been (of course assuming the same actors, production values, and an even bigger budget hopefully buying much greater historical accuracy)! But seriously, how hard would it have been to cut some of the "slapping incident" aftermath and in turn substituted in a segment on the fighting in and around Metz (no less the equally dramatic and compelling September 1944 Battle of Arracourt)?

Beyond the Metz oversight however, lies another equally illuminating and overlooked incident (by the film at least) in regards to getting at a more complete understanding of Patton the man as well as Patton the General. That being Patton's decision to set up the ill fated Task Force Baum, and then send it on a disastrous late war rescue mission.

In March 1945 and some 50 miles behind German lines opposite Patton's U.S. Third Army was Camp Hammelburg, a former German military training ground and at that time POW camp for Allied enlisted men and officers (actually divided into two separate camps at the same location just outside of the German town of Hammelburg). The following point is still debated, but the bulk of the available research indicates that Patton was very much aware that one of the roughly 1,400 officers and men housed at this camp was none other than his own son-in-law, John K. Waters (who had been captured while fighting in Tunisia during 1943).

To reach the camp Patton ordered a mobile task force to be formed from the U.S. 4th Armored Division's Combat Command B. This task force consisted of 314 officers and men in 57 tanks, half-tracks, and other vehicles all under the command of Captain Abraham Baum. Regardless of the small task force's lack of hitting power one has to seriously question what Patton was trying to accomplish beyond liberating his son-in-law. Such a small force had barely enough vehicles to move its own men, including armored infantry, no less the requisite space to transport more than a pittance of what were likely to be weakened and potentially ill prisoners of war. Regardless, Patton overrode the objections of the 4th Armored Division's commanding officer, and ordered the Task Force to begin its advance on March 26th.

Task Force Baum almost immediately ran into heavy resistance. When the task force arrived at the camp on the 27th it had been badly beat up to such an extant that of course there was no way to move more than a handful of prisoners. The vast majority ended up electing to remain behind. To compound these issues Waters was injured in the fighting that occurred when Task Force Baum broke into and secured the POW camp. On the return back to American lines Task Force Baum ran into a German ambush. By March 28th the task force had not only been critically weakened but surrounded as well. In the face of overwhelming odds Baum ordered the task force dissolved with each man to attempt escape on his own. Of Task Force Baum's original 314 officers and men, over 30 were killed and the remainder captured (though many would be liberated just over one week later when the Third Army swept into the area in strength). All vehicles were lost.

None of this was portrayed in the movie Patton. In spite of my childhood love of the movie, the complete failure of the film to discuss the fighting near Metz during the fall of 1944, or the debacle of Task Force Baum means that this seminal portrayal of one of American's most interesting military leaders will remain very much incomplete.


Roger Gallagher's picture

Would I need your approval for a picture of a U boat to place on my new novel's cover?  My story is about the U boat threat on shrimpers during 1942, in the Gulf of Mexico. 


Thank you for your reply,


Roger Gallagher

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