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Posted on May 2, 2022 in Books and Movies, Front Page Features

Seeing the Elephant at Kasserine Pass. “Patton’s Payback: The Battle of El Guettar and Patton’s Rise to Glory”. Book Review

Seeing the Elephant at Kasserine Pass. “Patton’s Payback: The Battle of El Guettar and Patton’s Rise to Glory”. Book Review

Ray Garbee

Patton’s Payback : The Battle of El Guettar and General Patton’s Rise to Glory. Author: Stephen L. Moore. Publisher: Caliber. Price $ 30.00

Stephen L. Moore’s 2022 book, Patton’s Payback: The Battle of El Guettar and General Patton’s Rise to Glory explores a chapter of the US Army’s history that rarely gets as much attention – the battles of Kasserine Pass and El Guettar. These events are perhaps best known in popular culture from the opening act of the 1970 movie Patton.

Moore’s book is a narrative of the events following the Allied landings in French North Africa. The story carries across the German push through Kasserine Pass, the following US Army counterattack and the collapse of the Axis troops in Tunisia. Moore focuses the narrative at the operational level on the events that impact the US Army’s II Corps, initially commanded by General Lloyd Fredenhall, but famously commanded by George S. Patton from March into April of 1943.

Despite its title, the book is less directly about George S Patton and more about the experiences recollected by a cross section of participants who fought in the campaign. Stephen Moore focuses almost exclusively on veterans of II Corps, who served in units that included tank destroyers, Rangers, infantry and artillery. While the narrative centers on American participants, it does include the perspective of a handful of German and Italian veterans for a sense of what things were like on the other side of the battlefield.

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Using research methods similar to his prior books such as Rain of Steel, Moore constructs a narrative that is driven by the memories of participants whom Moore either interviewed himself or who had previously recorded their memoirs in some other form. While what comes through is certainly a portrait of the “greatest generation”. It’s also a snapshot of the brutality of modern combat and the challenge of leading troops under fire.

Major General Lloyd Fredenhall (left) and his replacement, Lt. General George S Patton, Jr.

Part of that challenge falls under the heading of generalship. Here Moore provides a good comparison and contrast between the leadership styles of Major General Lloyd Fredenhall, Lt. General George S Patton and to a degree, Major General Omar Bradley. Moore lays out the reasons why Fredenhall was failing as a corps commander, exemplified by the II Corps headquarters complex dug into the ground 80 miles behind the action. This reflected Fredenhall’s need for a command control complex to manage the broad front that II Corps was operating on. But it stands in marked contrast to the leadership skills displayed by Patton.  Most readers will know of Patton’s penchant for enforcing discipline through uniform dress codes, including the infamous necktie. The narrative suggests that this basic level of discipline was what Patton thought his troops needed to restore a sense of both order and discipline that was foundational to building an effective fighting force.

At the same time, Moore demonstrates that Patton was much more of a front-line leader who knew that being seen by his troops was as important as what he was seeing himself. It’s an interesting portrait in command, but one that seems more grounded in presenting how Patton was perceived by his troops rather than providing a demonstration of Patton’s tactical or operational skill set. It’s an important point, as while that perception was key to motivating his men, it does not convey a sense of Patton’s operational skills.

Given the title of the book, you might expect a deeper exploration into the tactical and operational generalship that Patton displayed at Kasserine and El Guettar. We’re given insight into elements of Patton’s leadership style, but less so into the thought processes and decision-making that Patton used in directing the battles. The reader is left with a sense that Patton is repeatedly paraphrasing the old Spartan adage of “Come back with your shield, or on it” in his orders to subordinate leaders and soldiers.

The book presents a view of Patton’s generalship through events and information, and has the perceptions of the participants serve as a lens through which to view Patton’s performance. But in the end, the reader is left to grapple with the question of whether Patton was a truly great general or only a marked improvement in comparison to his predecessor’s lackluster performance.

 But what the book does deliver is a good overview of the U.S. Army’s campaign in Tunisia during a critical battle with the Axis. If the Americans had not held the line, Rommel’s panzers might have been able to turn the allied flank. While such an event may not have changed the ultimate course of the war in North Africa, this would certainly have extended the war in North Africa, and delayed the start of other campaigns as well. The interviews Moore conducted help convey a sense of the confusing chaos that Kasserine and El Guettar represented to the relatively untried US troops.

While Patton’s Payback provides a good overview of the battles of Kasserine and El Guettar, I struggled with a few elements in the book. First up was the information conveyed by the maps. A picture is worth a thousand words and that holds for maps too. A well-placed, well-executed map helps support the text and improves the message of the narrative. It’s painful to read text in which the writer feels compelled to explain geography and spatial relationships when a well-executed map could have done the job at a glance. The maps give good coverage of operations at the Army and Corps level, but lack a level of granularity that would have better connected to the combat narratives detailed in the text.

I’ll be the first to admit I am something of a pedant when it comes to the details of equipment and unit formations in a military history book. I quickly pick up on confusion in labeling formations and equipment. I tend to be more forgiving of the hardware errors, but the errors related to formation are painful as they impact the readers ability to follow the narrative. Units in a military history work are key characters and in a narrative those participants need to be clearly labeled. The Tunisian campaign is an especially tough theater as it featured multiple formations that shared the same numeric designation. It can result in a narrative that is as confusing as one of Lloyd Fredenhall’s infamous operations orders. Battalions are mislabeled as regiments or divisions. Early on, I encountered a reference to the ‘First Ranger Division’. I was left to determine if the narrative meant the First Ranger battalion, or the First Infantry Division, both of which were fighting in the campaign.  It’s confusing to a more casual reader who’s trying to follow the actors and characters in the story. You see this with German and Italian formations as well. This could have been corrected by a firm editorial style and format. Yes, to a degree I’m complaining about what I wanted to see versus what Stephen Moore chose to deliver. But the result here is a narrative that is not as clear and easy to follow as it could have been.

Those same rivet counters will likely be offended with the loose approach taken with identifying hardware. I’ll grant that this issue is compounded by the US Army’s habit of labeling a lot of hardware with similar designations. There are entirely too many items labeled as ‘M3’ to be sure that the item is clearly identified without an additional descriptor. The casual reader may not care, but the many readers of military history who do care about such things will need to roll with the occasional ambiguity. Fortunately, the captions accompanying the illustration are accurate and quite descriptive. There’s even a nice shot of a 155mm Schneider howitzer that captures how the US Army was transitioning from it’s stock of First World War weapons to a modern, mechanized force.

M3 Gun Motor Carriage at Fort Hood, Texas. Similar to those used by the Tank Destroyer Battalions during the Tunisian campaign.

At it’s core, Stephen Moore has crafted a narrative designed to give the readers insight into what the participants of these battle’s experienced during a critical period in in the North African campaign. It’s as much about these individual experiences, as it is about the impact of General Patton. Readers looking for an understanding of the US Army’s Tunisian campaign will find Patton’s Payback a good perspective for an overview of the events surrounding the Battle of Kasserine Pass. You can gain insight into how American military leaders viewed their mission as well as the nature of combat in Tunisia.

Battles such as El Guettar were brutal threshers that allow the US Army to sperate the warrior leader wheat from the administrative chaff. It’s a good narrative into how combat is a test that separates true warrior leaders from the merely competent administrators. Patton’s Payback is a good starting point for research into George S. Patton Jr.’s career both immediately before and after the Tunisia campaign. It’s also a good overview of the American baptism of fire in North Africa and prepared soldiers and leaders for the coming campaigns in Europe.

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