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The 2nd Armored Division was the direct descendant of the U.S. Tank Corps of
World War I. This was America's first armored unit, formed to stand alongside
British and French armored forces, which had shown that the tank might possibly
be the answer to the murderous infantry and artillery deadlock on the Western
After a disappearance of about 400 years, the massed armored charge had
reappeared in Europe at the Battle of Cambrai in November 1917. The attack, from
out of a dawn mist, of nearly 350 Allied tanks surprised the Germans, and their
formerly impenetrable front caved in for three miles. For a short time it
appeared as if the Western Allies had invented a war-winning weapon. But,
stripped of surprise, the early tanks could not best heavy firepower, and ten
days later the Germans counterattacked, reclaiming the lost ground along with
about 180 destroyed or abandoned machines.
Nevertheless the tank pointed to the future of warfare, and the Americans,
using French vehicles, were quick to form their own armored units. A cavalryman
who had grown restless on General John Pershing's staff, Major George Patton,
became the driving force behind America's tank effort. He not only organized and
trained the new Tank Corps but fought on the front line, receiving a wound
during the Meuse-Argonne battle and awards for gallantry. His wound had actually
been received when he was on foot, looking for help for some of his machines
that had become mired in mud.
During the war, as many problems as solutions had emerged from the use of
tanks. For one thing they were slow - with a top speed of 4mph hardly able to
keep up with a trotting rifleman - and they were unable to penetrate obstacles,
such as holes in the ground, woods or streams, that were easily passed by
infantry. Initial models were also huge, up to nine men rattling along inside
the ponderous contraptions, so they were very simple targets for German
artillery. (Others were so small as to be completely unformidable.) The biggest
problem for the Great War tanks was that firepower technology was already at an
advanced stage, due to naval battles where all sides had already studied how to
penetrate armor. In order to be mobile at all, initial tanks needed to have very
thin armor, which, along with the tanks' propensity for mechanical breakdowns,
presented a field day to any enemy weapons that could get a clear shot. For a
brief period, the heavy machine gun served as an excellent anti-tank weapon.
The British had first introduced tanks in desperation in September 1916
during their disastrous offensive on the Somme, where the machines frightened no
one but their occupants. Cambrai provided a hint of their usefulness, and then
the Battle of Amiens in August 1918 seemed to reveal them as a trump. Again,
hundreds of tanks churned forward at dawn and this time the entire German line
collapsed, calling it quits. Following their armor, thousands of Allied troops
made unprecedented gains. It was called the "Black Day" of the German Army. Of
course since Germany was by then on the brink of material, physical and moral
collapse, it was suggested afterward that a crowd of maids waving feather
dusters could have collapsed the enemy front just as rapidly. It was not clear
at all whether tanks had achieved the breakthrough or whether the Germans - for
numerous other reasons - had simply thrown in the towel.
After the Great War, the American doughboys returned home, less 117,000 dead,
to find their country swept by isolationist sentiment. In 1920 the United States
Tank Corps was disbanded and Patton, among others, returned to the horse
cavalry. The original tank battalions were shuffled through a series of
organizational shifts and nomenclature until on October 25, 1932, in their
latest incarnation, the 1st Tank Regiment, they were converted and redesignated
the 66th Infantry Regiment (Light Tanks). A sister formation invented in 1929,
the 2nd Tank Regiment, was renamed the 67th Infantry Regiment (Medium Tanks).
It was not that tanks had failed to prove their usefulness in the Great
War - in fact, used in mass they had seemed an excellent bludgeon against enemy
defense lines. It was more that none of the Allies foresaw being placed once
again on the strategic offensive. France devoted most of its energy to
constructing a system of static fortifications, the Maginot Line, along its
border with Germany. Britain saw its best promise in the concept of strategic
bombing, meant, like the French fortifications, to be a deterrent.
In the United States, where fears of land invasion were nonexistent, armor
became a military backwater, pulled between the infantry and cavalry, neither of
whom really wanted it. The cavalry clung stubbornly to its horses (and swords,
boots and riding pants) while the infantry was convinced that the only possible
use for tanks was to assist the efforts of the foot soldier. An independent
armored force that could undertake separate operations was considered foolish,
if not heretical.
Nevertheless, motor technology, in the air as well as on the ground,
progressed rapidly during the 1930s, and both the cavalry and infantry were
forced to admit vehicles with new potential into their services. A series of
maneuvers in Kansas pitting horses against armored cars, ended decisively in
favor of the machines. The cavalry reluctantly began to mechanize some of its
units. When the fully tracked M2A2 began to appear in 1934, it was called the
"Combat Car," so as not to be confuse it with an "infantry" tank. Elsewhere,
sentiment held that tanks should support the infantry, not the other way around.
The argument polarized around two beliefs: one was that tanks, if they had to
happen at all, were to be the modern successors of cavalry - fast and nimble,
able to perform reconnaissance, raids, or exploitation of a retreating enemy.
The other belief, forged through the front-line massacres of the Great War, held
that tanks should be heavily armored, lumbering big brothers to the infantry,
accompanying them at their own pace into battle, or perhaps standing as resolute
rocks in defense.
Not only the Americans but the British and French (and Russians, who, as the
Soviets, immediately began building as many tanks as they could) subscribed to
the same general view. Cavalry would gradually be mechanized, though it would
retain the same functions as always; while the infantry would be
buttressed - not replaced - by tanks that could accompany them into battle.
The victors of World War I thus clung to their war-winning systems, only
reluctantly incorporating new armor developments into their schemes. The only
great power that readily embraced the concept of tanks was the loser in the
Great War, Germany.
When Hitler took power in 1933 he began a crash program to rebuild Germany's
might from scratch. Since an entrenched military bureaucracy no longer existed,
his Nazi regime was free to adopt new ideas - particularly those of Germany's
leading tank expert, Heinz Guderian - and arm its new legions with the most
modern available equipment. The Germans gambled on an independent armored force,
grouping tanks into self-standing divisions with their own specialized armored
infantry and reconnaissance units. Aside from motorized or self-propelled
artillery, the tanks would receive fire support from Germany's other innovation,
the dive bomber. The Germans' new concept of warfare would be called
"Blitzkrieg," or lightning war.
On September 1, 1939, the Germans began World War II in Europe by invading
Poland. Their five Panzer divisions sliced through the front, devastating rear
areas while executing huge encirclements of front-line Polish forces. Instead of
an interminable slugging match along Great War lines, the campaign was decided
in three weeks. Afterward, the Germans dismissed their own tentative experiment
with "light" armored divisions, converting these to full Panzer divisions,
relying on captured Czech tanks.
It cannot be said that Germany's demolition of the fledgling state of Poland
caused any panic in Western military councils. The French and British had
manufactured more tanks than the Wehrmacht, and the combined Allied strength was
not to be confused with that of Poland should the Germans turn west.
Nevertheless, this first example of Blitzkrieg caused some tremors, and in
January 1940 the French began organizing their disparate battalions of infantry
and cavalry tanks into three armored divisions. The British also started
assembling their first.
On May 10, 1940, the Germans invaded west with 10 Panzer divisions, eight of
them grouped together and aimed at vulnerable points in French defenses along
the Meuse River. In less than a month the British Army was forced to flee from
the Continent, leaving all of its equipment behind. France, holding a southern
stub of its territory, requested an armistice with the Germans, which took
effect on June 25, 1940. According to Omar Bradley, "Militarily, the Nazi forces
had operated with awesome efficiency. The coordination between air and ground,
tanks and motorized infantry, exceeded anything we had ever dreamed of in the
Three weeks later, on July 15, 1940, the United States activated its 1st and
2nd Armored Divisions. All debate came to a halt. The U.S. needed its own
In a reflection of the former tug-of-war between the cavalry and infantry
branches, the 1st Armored Division was built around the 7th Cavalry Brigade
(Mechanized) and the 2nd Armored was built around a provisional brigade
consisting of the 66th Infantry Regiment (Light Tanks) and 67th Infantry
Regiment (Medium Tanks). Conversely, the 1st Armored's initial commander was an
infantryman, General Bruce Magruder, while the 2nd was commanded by a avalryman,
General Charles L. Scott. The 2nd Armored was assigned to Ft. Benning, Georgia,
which housed the Infantry School and the 4th Infantry Division, and the 1st
Armored was based at Ft. Knox, Kentucky, which housed the new Armor School. It
would turn out that the 1st Armored was disadvantaged by being based at Ft.
Knox, where cadre was spread in all directions. The 2nd Armored at Ft. Benning
was able to train with less distraction.
In terms of lineage, while the 1st Armored inherited the finest traditions of
the U.S. cavalry, including the 1st Cavalry Regiment, the 2nd Armored, through
the 66th Infantry, became the direct offspring of the U.S. Tank Corps in World
War I. Less than two weeks after its founding it inherited another legacy of
that corps, when Colonel George S. Patton arrived to command the 2nd Armored's
At the time of its activation, the 2nd Armored had only 99 officers and 2,202
men, from an authorized complement of nearly 10,000. Due to its home in
Georgia - or to the famous Confederate preference for riding instead of
walking - the division's first recruits came primarily from the South. By 1941,
once the national draft had kicked in, the division filled out with men from
throughout the United States. At first the 2nd Armored was ill-supplied with equipment
as well as men and Scott, as profane an old coot as Patton, had to lobby hard for
weapons, spare parts, and even uniforms.
On November 3, 1940, General Scott was promoted to command the U.S. I Armor
Corps (1st and 2nd Armored), and George Patton took over the 2AD. With his usual
touch of flair, Patton quickly organized a 600-mile road march from Ft. Benning
to Panama City, Florida and back. The spectacle of the division's then 6,500 men
and 1,200 vehicles (175 tanks) rolling across the American southeast attracted
nationwide media attention, and in small towns en route people lined the roads
and school kids were released from classes to witness the march. The public had
heard all the news about Germany's Panzer divisions, and for the first time got
a glimpse of America's homegrown armored phalanx. Of course this, at the time,
consisted mainly of Combat Cars, M2s and early M3 tanks.
In January 1941, over 2,000 new draftees came in, but the division lost just
as many fully trained men as cadre for the newly forming 3rd and 4th Armored
Divisions. During the spring the division held exercises along with the 4th
Infantry Division and engaged in live-fire training. Gradually, 2AD's hodgepodge
of equipment began to standardize with new halftracks, artillery, radios, and
the M3 series of light and medium tanks.
No one is sure who invented the division's nickname, "Hell on Wheels," but
during April and May of 1941 the phrase appeared repeatedly in Columbus, GA,
newspaper articles and in Ft. Benning's newsletter. The name stuck (and prompted
the 1st Armored Division commander to find a nickname of his own, which was
voted in as "Old Ironsides"). The U.S. Army then set up a series of wide-scale
exercises, to test the proficiency of its new divisions.
Patton's one and only divisional command took shape rapidly under his stern
tutelage. He expected the men of the 2nd Armored not only to know their jobs as
soldiers, but to look and act like soldiers, with firm discipline and strict
dress codes. He earned his nickname, "Ol' Blood and Guts," during this period
(far before the revise in the ETO, "Our blood and his guts") for inspirational
speeches he gave to the troops in which he repeatedly invoked the phrase. The
"Hell on Wheels" under its flamboyant commander was unveiled to the American
brass and national public at the multi-divisional Tennessee Maneuvers in June
1941. This series of wargames took place on the old Civil War stomping grounds
between Nashville and Chattanooga, and the participation of the 2nd Armored was
much anticipated. The division rolled from Ft. Benning to Camp Forrest,
Tennessee, and then Patton sent its components to secret locations for the
kick-off of the games on June 19.
The 2nd Armored, as part of the Red force, got off to a tentative start
on its first day of maneuvers. The 67th Armored Regiment ran into cleverly
placed anti-tank concentrations, and umpires ruled the division had lost
135 tanks and suffered heavy casualties. By the end of the simulation the
2nd had bulldozed its way to its objectives and cornered Blue infantry, but
was also about to suffer a flank counterattack from Blue armor. The first
day ended in a draw.
The performance - and some resulting criticism - lit a flame under
Patton and in the following simulations the 2nd Armored could not be
stopped. In the next exercise, 67th Regiment tankers cut through opposing
lines and captured the headquarters of the 5th Infantry Division, forcing
umpires to call a halt.
Excerpted from SPEARHEAD 2ND ARMORED DIVISION
by Steven Smith
Copyright © 2003
by Compendium Publishing.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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