The final stage of World War II in the European Theatre commenced with the Western Allied invasion of Germany. It began with the crossing of the River Rhine in March 1945, with forces fanning out and overrunning all of Western Germany until their final surrender on May 8, 1945.
Patton knew his entrance into German-occupied territory was of monumental historical importance. So he decided to imitate William the Conqueror’s entrance into England before leading Norman forces in their heroic conquest of the entire island in 1066.
On the night of March 22, 1945, elements of the Third Army crossed the Rhine at the German town of Oppenheim. To their surprise, they were not opposed by enemy forces. Patton, not wanting to compromise his army’s success with publicity, telephoned Omar Bradley the following morning and uncharacteristically told him to keep it a secret. “Brad, don’t tell anyone, but I’m across.” A surprised Bradley responded, “Well, I’ll be damned. You mean across the Rhine?” “Sure am,” Patton replied, “I sneaked a division over last night. But there are so few Krauts around there they don’t know it yet. So don’t make any announcement—we’ll keep it a secret until we see how it goes.”
By that evening, the Germans had discovered Patton’s forces, and perhaps more important, Patton’s British rival, Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery, was preparing to cross the Rhine as well. So Patton called Bradley again. “Brad, for God’s sake tell the world we’re across . . . . I want the world to know Third Army made it before Monty starts across,” he shouted.
The following day Patton arrived at the pontoon bridge his engineers had constructed over the Rhine. He made his way halfway across the bridge before suddenly halting. “I’ve been looking forward to this for a long time,” Patton said as he unzipped his fly and urinated into the river while an Army photographer recorded the moment for posterity. When he reached the other side of the river, Patton pretended to stumble, imitating William the Conqueror, who famously fell on his face when landing in England but transformed the bad omen into a propitious one by leaping to his feet with a handful of English soil, claiming it portended his complete possession of the country.
Patton similarly arose, clutching two handfuls of German earth in his fingers, and exclaimed, “Thus, William the Conqueror!” That evening Patton sent a communiqué to General Eisenhower: “Dear SHAEF [Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force], I have just pissed into the Rhine River. For God’s sake, send some gasoline.”
On March 23, 1945, Eisenhower wrote a warm letter to Patton:
I have frequently had occasion to state, publicly, my appreciation of the great accomplishments of this Allied force during the past nine months. The purpose of this note is to express to you personally my deep appreciation of the splendid way in which you have conducted Third Army operations from the moment it entered battle last August 1. You have made your Army a fighting force that is not excelled in effectiveness by any other of equal size in the world, and I am very proud of the fact that you, as one of the fighting commanders who has been with me from the beginning of the African campaign, have performed so brilliantly throughout. We are now fairly started on that phase of the campaign which I hope will be the final one. I know that Third Army will be in at the finish in the same decisive way that it has performed in all the preliminary battles.
A week before the Rhine crossing, Patton had held a press conference in which he delivered a classic performance, mixing the humorous, provocative, and the profane. He announced that the Third Army would shortly capture its 230,000th prisoner of war. Having previously been denied permission to photograph the face of the 200,000th prisoner (the Geneva Convention required that a prisoner be protected against acts of “public curiosity”), Patton announced that “this time we will take a picture of his ass.” (A week later their POW capture would top 300,000.)
Patton also requested the help of the press corps in informing the Germans that four of his armored divisions were slashing away at them. The publicity was “not for me—God knows I’ve got enough—I could go to heaven and St. Peter would recognize me right away—but it is for the officers and the men.” Patton then complained “that the Marines go to town by reporting the number [of their men] killed, I always try to fight without getting [our] people killed.”
This article is part of our larger selection of posts about the George S. Patton. To learn more, click here for our comprehensive guide to General Patton.