Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Guest Blog: On Patton's Flank

My youngest brother, the amateur World War II historian, volunteered to write about our ancestor, Gen. Wade Hampton Haislip, in honor of Veteran's Day this year.

“My flanks are something for the enemy to worry about, not me.  Before he finds out where my flanks are, I’ll be cutting the bastard’s throat.” 
--Lieutenant-General George S. Patton, Jr.

Such bold remarks make for great reading in history books and helped to create the legendary image of Patton that we know and love today.  But, someone on the ground had to be the bearer of the risk that Patton assumed by ignoring his flanks.  Quite often in the summer of 1944 that risk fell to the men of US XV Corps.  Commanded by Major-General Wade H. Haislip—one of Patton’s favorites—XV Corps entered the Normandy campaign in July, just a few weeks after the D-Day landings.  Haislip’s headquarters was subordinate to Patton’s Third US Army.  Combat operations began shortly after the American breakout from St. Lo when the formations of XV Corps passed through the Pontaubault bridgehead and spearheaded the celebrated drive east, which brought Patton’s forces into the rear of the German armies opposing the Normandy beachhead.  Haislip’s troops raced 75 miles to Le Mans in just three days.  No wonder he was a favorite of Patton’s, he followed his boss’s instruction to fill “the unforgiving minute with sixty seconds worth of distance run.”  

At this point the Allied leadership saw a chance to trap a large German force by closing on the town of Falaise from north and south.  XV Corps was directed to wheel north from Le Mans and meet a Canadian army at Falaise.  Haislip led his men northward—without flank protection—to cut the enemy’s throat.  They reached Argentan, 15 miles from Falaise, before being slowed by an onrush of Germans forces desperately fleeing the closing jaws of a pincer.  Here Haislip was ordered to halt by Patton’s superior, Lieutenant-General Omar N. Bradley.  Bradley was more conservative than Patton or Haislip and was not of the mind to risk the loss of Haislip’s corps by venturing deeper into the enemy zone.  Patton itched to move forward again, famously asking “shall we continue and drive the British into the sea for another Dunkirk?”  Bradley would latter describe his logic to stop at Argentan as preferring a “solid shoulder at Argentan to a broken neck at Falaise.”

Normandy campaign map, showing XV Corps' sweep into the German
rear; image courtesy of the United States Military Academy

Haislip and XV Corps found themselves on Patton’s flank again in early September—and again found it to be an unenviable position that attracted a lot of attention from the enemy.  The German high command considered the danger posed by Patton’s army and its drive across Northern France to be the most threatening of all the Allied advances.  As Patton directed XV Corps to close up to the Moselle River in the Charmes-Epinal area, the Germans were gathering a panzer army in the same sector for an attack on Patton’s flank.  The showdown took place at Dompaire in a battle that lasted three days.  It proved an unequal fight, however.  A Free French force attached to Haislip’s corps defended the town of Dompaire and virtually destroyed an entire panzer brigade that had run headlong into a gauntlet of anti-tank guns sited on the hills around the town.

Generals Patton (left) and Haislip (right); photograph courtesy of

Patton has rightly gone down in history as one of the great American generals of World War II.  His dashing maneuvers often transformed the operational situation of the campaign in Western Europe, as his envelopment of the Germans in Normandy demonstrated.  But Patton’s daring thrusts often exposed his flanks to counter-attack.  The fact that Haislip and the troops of XV Corps were able to control Patton’s exposed flanks, in large measure, enabled Patton’s success.

Commander, Seventh Army

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