Forward with Patton
The World War II Diary of Colonel Robert S. Allen
Edited by John Nelson Rickard
University Press of Kentucky, Lexington, Kentucky, 2017, 338 pages
Book Review published on: November 24, 2017
We have seen a number of personal diaries that focused on World War II made available to the public in the last several years. Some are portions of personal papers discovered or held for many years by family members. Others have been kept, many in relative obscurity, in the deep archives of a library or within a historical society. In either case, the vast majority of these diaries-turned-books have been extremely valuable additions to the body of knowledge. A recent entry to this genre, and every bit as beneficial, is the superb diary of Col. Robert S. Allen, titled Forward with Patton: The World War II Diary of Colonel Robert S. Allen.
Before delving into the merits of this book, let me provide a synopsis of Allen’s exceptionally intriguing life. In fact, it is a life that would undoubtedly make a highly readable and provocative biography itself. The highlights of Allen’s life are many and eclectic. They include lying about his age to join the U.S. Army to fight in the Mexican border campaign in 1916-1917, his later experiences in France during World War I, and then his focus on a career in journalism until the start of World War II. During this period, he was extremely successful as a decidedly controversial, syndicated columnist; coauthor of a newspaper strip; and the Washington, D.C., bureau chief for the Christian Science Monitor.
When the United States entered World War II, Allen left his career in journalism and reenlisted in the Army. He would eventually serve as an intelligence officer in Gen. George Patton’s Third Army and rise to the rank of colonel. On 7 April 1945, the jeep in which he was riding was ambushed, and Allen was severely wounded and taken prisoner by the Germans. He was taken to a German field hospital and had his right arm amputated. Days later, Allen was freed, and he would begin the long recovery process to regain use of his left arm, learn to type with his left hand, and resume his work in journalism. After a difficult period, Allen published a book titled Lucky Forward, which detailed his time with Third Army. For the next three decades, Allen continued his career, and, for many years, he was a well-known, polarizing conservative writer who often criticized key governmental agencies. Allen’s later years were not happy ones, as his wife passed away and he developed cancer; in early 1981, he committed suicide.
Perhaps, the most interesting facet of Allen’s has just recently come to light. Various sources have reported that for a brief period in 1933, Allen worked for the Soviets as an intelligence spy with the cover name of George Parker. It is not fully known what Allen’s specific motives were for this work. However, it is presumed that he did not share a communist ideology. Additionally, what he did share with the Soviets is not believed to be secret, nor was it illegal, since the Foreign Agents Registration Act was not passed until 1938. Regardless, Allen’s activities add another intriguing aspect to a life that was anything but ordinary.
As you might expect from Allen’s journalistic background, he composed a diary covering his World War II service. The entire diary covered the period from July 1942 to June 1945. However, it is this period in which Allen served as chief of the Situation (Combat Intelligence) subsection and executive officer for Operations in Third Army (February 1944 to June 1945), which is the focus of this book. This is a book that readers will find clearly controversial, vastly informative, and incredibly engaging.
The task of organizing Allen’s thoughts into a coherent book would be a challenge for anyone. It is one that military historian John Nelson Rickard (author of Advance and Destroy: Patton as Commander in the Bulge) accepted and clearly met. As with any editor of a diary, you must decide how much liberty you take in transforming a diary into book form. There is a fine line of interjecting too much or not adding enough to augment the diary and bring more clarity. I believe Rickard has effectively straddled this line and added tremendous value to the diary.
He has accomplished this with the several decisions he made regarding content and revisions. First, he has dramatically improved the comprehension and readability of the diary by inserting minor words (to, the, or, etc.), adding major words (in brackets), making spelling corrections, and including unit designators, and spelling out abbreviations. Second, he has placed editorial comments within the text that address factual errors and some clearly biased statements made by Allen, and that provide background information on individuals mentioned in the diary. Third, Rickard has inserted numerous maps, photos, and diagrams throughout the diary that put Allen’s words into perspective. Finally, the editor has added a superb group of appendices at the end of Allen’s diary. They include some examples of intelligence work Allen produced in theater and an outstanding annotated notes section.
Having discussed Allen’s life and Rickard’s contributions, it is time to address the diary itself. I believe Allen’s diary will be of great value and interest to readers in several distinct areas. To begin, it certainly provides an excellent view of Allen himself. His words paint a picture of a man who possessed no filter and felt far superior to most people around him. He was quick to criticize and even character assassinate those who disagreed with him. However, he was also a man who had incredible loyalty to those few he did respect, especially Patton and his unit.
Allen’s thoughts of others are clearly on full display within Forward with Patton. As it can be surmised from the above paragraph, many (if not most) senior leaders did not fare well in the eyes of Allen. The list of those who Allen held in various degrees of resentment and disrespect include Dwight Eisenhower, Omar Bradley, Courtney Hodges; and corps commanders Manton Eddy, Wade Haislip, and Walton Walker. He did not limit his criticism to those above him, as peers and subordinates received their own share of distain from Allen, as did Allied leadership (in particular Bernard Montgomery).
There was a very short list of those that Allen admired, and clearly leading that group was Patton. Allen revered Patton, and you will not find many (if any) negative comments of him in the diary. Besides the numerous comments of admiration, readers will also find that Allen delves into various other areas involving Patton. This includes his interaction with his staff, his command philosophy, his interaction with his subordinate commanders, and his techniques on how he engaged Eisenhower and Bradley. Additionally, he addresses several events and controversies in which Patton was a key figure.
Once you put aside Allen’s biases, I believe readers will find two additional areas of discussion especially insightful and beneficial. First, Allen provides significant detail on the interworking of the Third Army staff during planning and execution. He discusses some of the thought processes that went into planning and the interaction between various staff sections. He additionally addresses information that the staff presented to Patton prior to key decisions that were made. Clearly, Allen was in an excellent situation, due to his positions on the staff, to offer a unique perspective.
The second area that is extremely enlightening is Allen’s references to Ultra. Prior to deploying to theater, Allen attended the British Secret Intelligence Service School in London in May 1944. This set the conditions for Allen to be afforded access to Ultra intelligence. Throughout the diary, Allen makes reference to Ultra messages he received and their utility. In terms of overall value, it appears that Allen is mixed on its usefulness. There are times when he believes Ultra was of benefit and other times where other intelligence gathering methods were far more effective.
Forward with Patton is one of the best World War II diaries or memoirs to be published in many years. It is one of those select books that is equally adept at informing and entertaining its readers. A great deal of credit in achieving this must go to Rickard. He provides outstanding context and greatly improved readability without depersonalizing the diary. The result is a book that truly adds to the body of knowledge and to our understanding of specific aspects of World War II. Let us hope there are more diaries out there waiting to be discovered and historians like Rickard ready to make them available and valuable to the public.
Book Review written by: Frederick A. Baillergeon, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas