Death drive: General Patton. Exclusive extract from Stephen Bayley’s book. Death crash. Old Blood And Guts ’ Cadillac Of Destiny. In an exclusive extract from his latest book, Stephen Bayley examines the events that led to the controversial death of General George S Patton at the end of World War Two – when his Cadillac 75 crashed.
General George Smith Patton drove a cetacean 1938 Cadillac 75, a car with an ego as mighty as his own. It was a car that, in design terms, anticipated the gloriously absurd baroque follies of Detroit art in the 1950s. It was, like its most famous passenger, big, confident, imposing and a little loud. Some said Patton was the greatest warrior who ever lived and he had no difficulty in supplying a vivid iconography to support this ambitious claim. Though his achievements were real, including the liberation of Sicily (as head of the US Seventh Army), and rather stylishly capturing Northern France (as commander of the Third Army), his reputation was based on a camp-but-butch theatricality as much as it was on martial expertise, a general’s vision and a soldier’s daring.
He liked to pose for photographs with a helmet buffed to a non-essential shine, sporting aviator shades, jodhpurs and cavalry boots, with a trademark pair of pearl-handled Colt .45 ‘Peacemaker’ revolvers hanging from his spiffy gun belt. His army Cadillac was decorated with oversized military insignia and, lest he not be noticed in his triumphal progress through the Europe he had almost personally re-conquered, Patton liked to travel with the car’s siren wailing. Perhaps he made enemies in this fashion.
Patton was known and admired for his amazing profanities. ‘No bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his,’ was the opening gambit of one of his celebrated speeches to the men of the Third Army; and ‘An army without profanity,’ he once said, ‘couldn’t fight its way out of a piss-soaked paper bag.’ There is a fine 1945 colour photograph of him pissing into the Rhine, conscious, one would like to think, of the symbolism of such a gesture. And then he confessed that he sometimes got carried away with his own eloquence. He wrote a poem in 1944 called Absolute War and explained that profanity needed to be eloquent to be fucking effective.
Despite his earthy rhetoric, Patton was also a passionate believer in reincarnation, although no reports have been discovered of his return with an explanation of his last catastrophic accident.
That so extravagant a figure, a notorious hard driver of men and machines, died as a result of a low-speed crash in suburban Mannheim is so pitiful an irony that the hinterland of the accident has excited wild speculation, becoming a locus classicus of the demented fabulism that is now known as ‘conspiracy theory’. Patton, a rabid anti-Communist, was on Stalin’s death list and was murdered by the Russians! His putative rival for the future presidency, General Eisenhower, had him flattened to level the field! Patton was involved in art theft! His commitment to the de-Nazification of Germany was half-hearted, so the Jews got him! Patton knew stuff that could ruin careers! In order to acquire power over the entire world, he had, while passing through a bombed-out Nuremberg, looted the Hapsburg Spear of Destiny from Hitler’s Treasure House… and dark forces wanted it back!
Historian Robert Wilcox claims to have found diaries of General ‘Wild Bill’ Donovan, head of the Office of Strategic Services, or OSS (the predecessor of the CIA), which suggest that an American sniper called Douglas Bazata had been commissioned to assassinate Patton. In this theory, the collision with a 2½-ton GM truck was staged as a distraction from the shooting. Bazata was, the theory continues, not such a good shot and Patton did not die immediately, but US officials looked the other way when the NKVD infiltrated the military hospital in Heidelberg where Patton was recovering and poisoned him.
This Bazata, incidentally, was an interesting figure with plenty in his culture to stimulate conspiracy theorising. He was a disenchanted and embittered Lebanese Jew with connections to the OSS (although his New York Times obituary describes him as the son of a Presbyterian minister). He was a flamboyant soldier who irreverently called his colonels ‘Sugar’. The recipient of four Purple Hearts, a Distinguished Service Cross and three French Croix de Guerre, after the war Bazata became a wine-maker and a painter in the Abstract Expressionist manner, enjoying critical acclaim. His own portrait was made by Salvador Dalí, who whimsically painted him as Don Quixote. Among the collectors of his work was Princess Grace of Monaco.
Wilcox also claims that official documents about Patton’s crash have been removed from US Archives, although the proof of something not existing is a problem in logic and law. Nevertheless, in support of his theory, Wilcox says no postmortem examination was made of Patton’s body and that his driver, one PFC Horace Lynn ‘Woody’ Woodring, a graduate of the Army Chauffeurs’ Training School at Fort McClellan, Alabama, was dispatched to London before he could be cross-examined about the crash. Wilcox asked General Motors technicians to establish the authenticity of the Cadillac 75 now on display at the Patton Museum in Fort Knox and they were unable to make any formal confirmation.
The circumstances of the crash are as follows. After his Third Army was halted at the German border, allowing Berlin and Prague to fall into the Soviet sphere of influence, Patton’s prestige was damaged. He had been appointed Military Governor of Bavaria, a post to which he was so fundamentally unsuited that he was ‘kicked upstairs’ to command the Fifteenth Army at Bad Nauheim. The Fifteenth was a paper army, with no troops. As the commanding general, Patton’s role was to chair the Theater General Board, which was tasked with researching past campaigns in order to improve military tactics and operations.
It was a desk job. For a pugnacious man, it must have been demeaning. There was, however, an underlying psychological reality in his acceptance of the post. He tolerated the boredom because he found The Pentagon’s vengeful, bloodthirsty de-Nazification programme unacceptable and refused to take part in it, writing to his wife Beatrice that pen-pushing was ‘better than being a sort of executioner to the best race in Europe’.
As a specific against the boredom of Army bureaucracy, Patton enjoyed hunting. Thus, on 9 December 1945, his driver PFC Woodring (who drove fast and was reported to have a taste for the fräuleins) was asked to prepare the Cadillac 75 for a trip that would culminate in a pheasant shoot.
This Cadillac, despite its olive drab paint (buffed up to a shine in deference to Patton’s tastes), was decidedly unmilitary in character. A vast automobile sculpture with abundant chrome and headlights in streamlined pods, it was one of the more integrated designs of Harley Earl, GM’s Wizard of Kitsch, as he progressed towards his post-war realisation of the sculptural possibilities of the Detroit automobile. The 75 was supremely smooth, while elegant radii disguised its formidable bulk. Its ‘Synchro-Flex’ flywheel was attached to a massive 346ci L-head V8. Of course, Patton’s own car had his General’s four stars mounted on a red plaque on the right front fender.
A convoy left Bad Nauheim led by a jeep with Patton’s Cadillac 75 following. ‘Lead me, follow me, or get out of my way’ was one of his idées fixes. On this occasion, he followed. Patton sat in the back, on the right-hand side, with his chief of staff, Major General Hobart R ‘Hap’ Gay, beside him as usual. En route, Patton stopped to inspect the Roman ruins at Saalburg, a rare moment of introspection and contemplation. More generally, he spent journeys admiring the passing landscape and fantasising, as all generals perhaps do, about what military actions might occur there one day.
At 11.45, the convoy slowed for a railway crossing near Neckarstadt. Patton, noting the abandoned vehicles along the roadside, said to Gay: ‘How awful war is – think of the waste.’ Distracted, Woodring glanced away from the road. At that moment, a 2½-ton CCKW US Army truck made a sudden left turn in front of the Cadillac. The GM CCKW 6×6 was the mainstay of the ‘Red Ball Express’, the convoy that supplied Allied forces after the Normandy invasion.
The impact was not severe, a mere fenderbender, and the Cadillac was not critically damaged. Neither Gay nor Woodring was injured. Patton, unfortunately, was not so lucky. In the deceleration, he hit his head on the metal rail running athwart the front bench seat, sustained severe head and spinal injuries and was paralysed from the neck down.
Some witnesses claimed the truck had been loitering, as if waiting for Patton’s car to approach before pulling out. The truck driver, a 20-year-old from New Jersey, Technical Sergeant Robert L Thompson, was photographed grinning broadly and idiotically at the scene of the crash. He was subsequently found to be high on drugs.
Old Blood and Guts was driven to the Seventh Army’s 130th Station Hospital in Heidelberg. Neurosurgeons were flown in from England and the US; Patton’s condition, while critical, was stabilised. Within ten days plans were made to fly him back home, where his ambition was to run the Army War College, if not bid for the presidency in the post-war elections. However, on 21 December, Patton suffered a pulmonary embolism and died in his sleep at 17:55. He was 60. The General was buried ‘with his men’, at the US Military Cemetery at Hamm in Luxembourg, a solemn memorial to the Battle of the Bulge.
With so many neurosurgeons in attendance, the suddenness of Patton’s death gave rise to speculation about deliberate neglect or malevolent interference. Although he died as the result of careless driving by a drugged-up punk, reputations of his stature cannot be contained in the banal metrics of road traffic accidents. The most fabulous of the fantasies surrounding the crash is described in The Spear of Destiny, a 1973 book by occultist and fantasist Trevor Ravenscroft, whose purple-hued prose and orotund cadences bring richness to the idea of historical kitsch.
Ravenscroft explains that Hitler’s Wagnerian interests were based in a youthful pseudoscholarly interest in Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival. And Hitler saw in the Speer des Schicksals or the Heilige Lanze on display in the Hofmuseum in Vienna the Redeemer’s Spear that, with its magical powers, is central to the Parzival myth.
With the Anschluss of 12 March 1938, Hitler stole the spear from the museum, believing it would enhance his powers. He seemed ignorant of the fact that the Kaiser had also possessed the spear during the Great War and it had done little to enhance his potency or endurance. Still, symbols do not have to be tested by science.
Anyone possessing the spear, who then lost it, would die. This was the fate that legend attributed to Barbarossa, who dropped the spear into a stream and expired. Hitler sent the stolen spear to the Katharinenkirche in Nuremburg. On 30 April 1945, Allied forces bombed the church and the spear was subsequently recovered, along with other treasures, from the haunted ruins.
The recoverer was Lieutenant Walter William Horn of the Seventh Army, an art historian who was working for the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archive Program – the subject of George Clooney’s 2014 film The Monument Men. Some occultists and fantasists believe that Patton himself took possession of the spear, but if so that would undermine the authority of its magic since it did little to protect him from a collision with a recklessly driven 2½-ton truck.
Patton’s Cadillac 75, incidentally, was swiftly repaired and returned to active duty.
Facing page. General Patton’s driver, Private Wooding, surveys the damage to the Cadillac. Everyone else survived and the car was repaired. Cue conspiracy theories.
Above. General George S Patton: as self-effacing as Donald Trump, but his post-war political ambitions were cut short.
‘THE IMPACT WAS NOT SEVERE, A MERE FENDERBENDER, AND THE CADILLAC WAS NOT CRITICALLY DAMAGED. PATTON WAS NOT SO LUCKY’
Buy the Book. This chapter is reprinted whole from Stephen Bayley’s Death Crash: There Are No Accidents (£29.95, ISBN 978 0 9930721 2 3), which is reviewed later in this issue.