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article number 756
article date 08-29-2019
copyright 2019 by Author else SaltOfAmerica
Preparing for Mechanized War: The 1st Armored Division is Organized, 1940
by George Howe

From the 1954 book "The Battle History of the 1rst Armored Division, ’Old Ironsides’."


A history of the 1st Armored Division must be a biography of a being rather than a chronicle of events. During the second World War, the United States Army prepared 90 divisions for combat, activated 2 others, and committed 88 divisions to battle. Of the 92, 16 were armored divisions.

This history is an account of the life of the first of them, described once as “Old Ironsides, the first of the mighty Armored Force, the pioneer in the art and science of armor, the father of other divisions, the first armored division overseas, the first to land on African soil, the first to engage German troops in World War II, the instructor of others entering combat, the first into Rome, and the first of the armored divisions in days of actual field service during World War II.”

The Division was a great combination of subordinate units united among themselves for one great job, but each having particular jobs to do and special ways of doing them, and therefore each having an important life of its own.

The Division was a large reservoir of armored power. Its capabilities permitted multiple actions. Sometimes it released units to support operations of units outside the Division; often its own missions could be executed by a temporary combination of subordinate units.

Its history is therefore more like that of a family than of an individual. It is not confined to what all elements undertook as a single task but applies to the performances of its different parts.

"Combat cars" of Troop B, 13th Cavalry roll at Fort Knox, Note uniforms and sabre.

Birth of the Armored Force

The Division traces its derivation as an armored unit back to World War I. The American Expeditionary Forces in France included, in 1918, a Tank Corps which used a rather tank-like, tracked vehicle with thin, steel sides shaped like a billboard with its opposite corners sagging. These boxcars on tracks could move securely against German machine-gun fire, which they had been developed to overcome by the British and the French.

The 174 French-built tanks of the Tank Corps were used as spearheads with American infantry in crossing the “no-man’s land” between the trenches, and penetrating past the pillboxes and machine-gun nests of the Hindenburg Line. The new vehicles succeeded in overcoming the defensive advantage of the German machine gun in trench warfare.

The tank was therefore an infantry-supporting weapon in World War I, and when the Tank Corps was inactivated in 1920, responsibility for tank development was naturally assigned to the Chief of Infantry.

The Tank School was shifted from Fort George G. Meade, Maryland, to Fort Benning, Georgia, in 1932, where it became the Tank Section of The Infantry School. By 1940, the Infantry branch had created one provisional tank brigade under the command of Brig. Gen. Bruce Magruder at Fort Benning.

In 1931, a short-lived Mechanized Force stationed at Fort Eustis, Virginia, was abruptly scrapped and its materiel transferred to the Cavalry. The Cavalry took up the development of armored warfare under the heading of “mechanization” when Gen. Douglas MacArthur, Chief of Staff, decided in 1931 to decentralize all such development. Fort Knox, Kentucky, soon became the Cavalry center for armored training.
- The 1st Cavalry (Col. Bruce Palmer) was shifted to Fort Knox from Camp Marfa, Texas, and mechanized on 16 January 1933.
- The 13th Cavalry (Col. Charles L. Scott) moved there from Fort Riley, Kansas, to be mechanized on 26 September 1936.
- The 68th Field Artillery Battalion came in 1934, as did a quartermaster company.

Together they formed the 7th Cavalry Brigade (Mecz) which in 1938 came under the command of Brig. Gen. Adna R. Chaffee. When the decision of 1931 had been in effect for seven years, the Army abandoned decentralization of mechanization, as distinguished from motorization, and confined mechanization to the Infantry and the Cavalry branches. By 1940, each of these two branches had established one brigade as its largest armored unit.

Each brigade adapted its organization, equipment and armament to serve the particular purposes deemed fitting for its branch.

The Infantry expected tanks to support infantry action, and felt no need for reconnaissance and security units. Their chief problem was whether to emphasize light, fast tanks or heavier, slow tanks to accompany infantry during its advance on enemy positions.

The provisional tank brigade consisted in 1940 of one full regiment plus two separate battalions of light tanks, and only one company of medium tanks.

An M2A4 light tank crosses the Salt River. This shot shows what was then considered adequate armament.

The 7th Cavalry Brigade (Mecz), on the other hand, was expected by the Cavalry to perform normal, traditional cavalry missions ― reconnaissance and pursuit, envelopment, and exploitation of penetrations to rear areas. Such operations would necessitate having organic artillery, air observation, engineer, and signal units.

The Cavalry strongly preferred to develop the new mechanized cavalry without eliminating traditional horse units. Cavalry units were officially distinguished as “Horsed” or “Mechanized.” The departure of the horse from the battlefield was resisted by a combination of conservatism and sentiment not unlike that which attended the replacement of sailing vessels by steamships.

In the summer of 1939 the 7th Cavalry Brigade (Mecz) took part in maneuvers in the Champlain Valley near Plattsburg, New York, visited the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and the New York World’s Fair, and then returned to Fort Knox.

The Nazi invasion of Poland was then reversing a tendency to depreciate armored units which had arisen from their misuse during the civil war in Spain. Although no armored division was authorized, before the spring and summer maneuvers of 1940 in Louisiana, various units (signal, medical, engineer, and aviation) had been attached or assigned to the 7th Cavalry Brigade (Mecz). Of great importance was the attachment of the 6th Infantry Regiment (Motorized) which left the 6th Division in October 1939.

During these Louisiana maneuvers, Generals Magruder and Chaffee combined their two armored brigades on short notice as an armored task force. Its effectiveness was impressive.

Moreover, while the maneuver was in progress, the German invasion of France ended all doubts that armored divisions were essential to a modern army. On 25 May 1940, in the basement of a high school in Alexandria, Louisiana, Maj. Gen. Frank M. Andrews (G3 of the War Department), Generals Chaffee and Magruder, and Col. George S. Patton, Jr., among others, agreed to recommend strongly to Washington that the United States Army should have an Armored Force.

On 10 June, a conference convened by order of the Chief of Staff of the Army considered the merits of organizing two armored divisions plus a GHQ Reserve tank battalion.

Two weeks later, General Chaffee was told that he would head a new Armored Force. On 10 July, his directive was announced. He was to organize a provisional Armored Force for a “service test” pending legislative authority which would give it a firm status within the Army.

A medium tank of the Armored Force crosses on a ferry constructed by the 16th Engineers. Note pontoons powered by outboard engines.

As the first commander, General Chaffee spent the last year of his life without sparing himself in developing the basis on which American armor could rise to meet the challenge of modern warfare.

The Armored Force drew its personnel from various branches of the Army, although those originally identified with its leadership came principally from the Infantry and Cavalry. The initial roster was as follows:

• Chief of the Armored Force and Commanding General, 1 Armored Corps . . . Lt. Gen. Adna R. Chaffee
- 1st Armored Division . . . Maj. Gen. Bruce Magruder
- 2d Armored Division . . . Maj. Gen. Charles L. Scott
• Commanding Officer, 70th GHQ Reserve Tank Battalion . . . Major Thomas N. Stark
• Chairman, Armored Force Board . . . Lt. Col. Clarence C. Benson
• Commandant, Armored Force School . . . Lt. Col. Stephen C. Henry
• Commandant, Armored Force Replacement Center . . . Lt. Col. Jack Heard

The Armored Force Board replaced the Mechanized Cavalry Board, and consisted of two officers each from the Cavalry and the Infantry, and one from the Ordnance Department. Its recommendations on tables of organization and equipment developed from the hard, concentrated work of various officers under General Chaffee’s command and from the years of development and testing that had preceded activation of the Armored Force.

What German officers had learned from the United States Army or from others, and had now tested in combat, supplemented the experience of the 7th Cavalry Brigade (Mecz) and the provisional tank brigade.

Birth of the 1st Armored Division

The original 1st Armored Division was activated at Fort Knox on 15 July 1940, as the elder of twins. It consisted of the following units:

Units of the 1st Armored Division, 15 July 1940.

For more than two years after its activation at Fort Knox the Division trained there, in the South on maneuvers, at Fort Dix, New Jersey, and in Northern Ireland.

The cadre of officers changed. Noncoms and other enlisted men were drawn away to officer candidate schools or to form the cadres of other divisions and separate tank battalions.

Divisional equipment was also used in the work of the Replacement Training Center.

In common with all the mushrooming American armed forces, the Division got along with what equipment could be provided and strove to achieve unity under conditions that might charitably be called fluid.

The Division pioneered the development of tank gunnery and was among the first to utilize the forward observer fire direction technique developed after World War I.

After individual small-unit training and some larger exercises at Fort Knox, the Division took part in the maneuvers in Louisiana and North Carolina in 1941. There, simulated combat experience in day and night marching, maintenance, and living in the field, and good practice in control, logistics and administration, advanced its training.

Big. Gen. Adna R. Chaffee (right), first commander of the Armored Force, with Maj. Gen. John K. Herr, Chief of Cavalry. In background, a "scout car" of 1940.

Returning to Fort Knox at a time highlighted by the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Division realized that it was no longer preparing for probable war; it was faced with reality. Defects the maneuvers had revealed thereafter received constant attention.

About the same time that the armored division came into existence with its modern weapons, the fundamental problem of control beyond the range of visual signals was being solved.

When Poland was invaded in September 1939, American mechanized units had no adequate radio communications equipment. During the following year, specifications concerning size, weight and operating characteristics of four types of sets were established, and the first actual tests of FM radiotelephones in tanks took place at Fort Knox in November.

These sets were adaptations of Connecticut State Police equipment. They worked satisfactorily enough in tanks but were not sufficiently rugged or flexible for tank warfare. They were highly useful as training aids, and enough were ordered for three battalions. Each set had two transmitters on different, crystal-controlled wave lengths and two receivers for simultaneous monitoring of the battalion and company frequencies.

The first delivery arrived at Rock Hill, South Carolina, during maneuvers and the sets were installed and used until the Division returned to Fort Knox on 6 December 1941.

During the next few months, as the Division prepared to go overseas, its signal equipment was completed. The vehicular radio, SCR-299, with a continuous-wave range up to 250 miles, to be used for division control, was obtained by sending men to the factory in Chicago to drive six of them back to Fort Knox shortly before the Division left there.

The SCR-506, designed for regimental headquarters to talk with rear, battalion, and reconnaissance, supply or maintenance units, was not yet available. As a substitute the regiments received the much less satisfactory SCR-193.

The SCR-508, designed to enable battalion headquarters to communicate with all companies and supporting artillery units, and company commanders with platoon leaders, was being issued early in 1942. Although it incorporated ideas of Major Grant Williams (the Division’s signal officer) and reflected his initiative, the supply was sent instead to the 2d and 3d Armored Divisions. The 1st Armored Division went overseas, therefore, with the SCR-293 and -294, which it had pioneered as training equipment, to meet this type of need.

Radiotelephones to enable operators of motorcycles, jeeps and individual tanks within a platoon to communicate within a radius of about five miles, the SCR-509 and -510, were also part of the Division’s equipment.

First Army Maneuvers in the Carolinas. Unloading tanks at Rock Hill, S.C.

At the time the Division was activated, the completely obsolete M2A4 light tank, or “combat car,” was the only type available in any considerable numbers.

Only 66 American medium tanks existed as late as June 1941.

The maneuvers that summer found the Division heading for Louisiana in August with many new M3 lights, carrying a 37mm gun, and some of the M3 mediums, which had a short-barrelled 75mm gun in a sponson mount. These General Grant mediums had begun to be produced in good quantity for the many claimants in the U.S. and British armies.

Enough halftracks were available to serve the needs of training, and scout cars, command cars, four-wheel-drive trucks, and even a few peeps could be seen in the road convoys. Antitank guns larger than 37mm, and howitzers larger than 75mm, were still in the future.

Improved equipment was beginning to replace the older types when the Division went overseas, but it took with it most of what it was to use during its first six months in combat, materiel which it obtained in the winter and spring of 1941-42.

It was to go into battle with two battalions of light tanks armed with a 37mm gun, three battalions of Grant medium tanks with the low-velocity 75mm gun in the sponson mount, and one battalion of early-model Sherman mediums which it picked up in the United Kingdom.

As antitank weapons, the Division had the small rifle grenade, the 37mm antitank gun mounted in a small truck, or towed, and French 1897-type 75mm guns mounted on trucks or halftracks.

In 1942, its artillery battalions were issued the self-propelled 105mm howitzer which had begun to appear before the end of 1941.

The tanks (except for the Shermans), although equipped with movable turrets, periscopes, telescopic gun-sights and FM radios, were riveted rather than welded. All had high silhouettes which made them excellent targets. But their relative weakness in armor and fire power when compared with the German tanks was not suspected until they met in Tunisia.

General Magruder (at machine gun) issues orders to his commanders gathered at the map. The scene was set up for newsreel and newspaper photographers at Fort Knox.

The drastic reorganization of the armored divisions which was ordered on 1 March 1942 took place at almost the same time as the transfer of Maj. Gen. Orlando Ward from the 8th Armored Division at Fort Knox to relieve General Magruder. General Ward’s service had included action in 1916 in the expedition into Mexico under General Pershing’s command, as a Cavalry officer, and in 1918 in France during World War I as a Field Artillery officer.

Between wars Ward taught the ROTC cadets at the University of Wisconsin, attended several of the Army’s advanced schools, served in the Philippines, and with the War Department General Staff.

From 1939 into 1941, Ward was Secretary of the General Staff, before coming to Fort Knox. He first came to the Division as a tank brigade commander, then worked with the nucleus of the 8th Armored Division.

Finally in March, General Ward returned to Old Iron-sides as its commanding general.

The new tables of organization required important changes:

• The armored brigade headquarters was eliminated.
• Two combat commands with headquarters detachments were substituted to gain greater flexibility.
• Each combat command had intelligence and operations capabilities but depended upon division for logistics and administration.
• The 68th Armored Field Artillery Regiment was dropped in favor of three separate artillery battalions (27th, 68th, and 91st) under a division artillery command.
• A headquarters, division trains, controlled the service elements.
• Greater flexibility and a higher proportion of infantry to tanks came from reducing the tank regiments from three to two, while retaining the armored infantry regiment.
• The 69th Armored Regiment was dropped, its medium-tank companies going to the 1st and 13th Armored Regiments. Each of these two regiments had a 1st Battalion of light tanks and two battalions of mediums. A tank destroyer battalion (701st) was attached to the Division.

Brig. Gen. Raymond E. McQuillin took command of Combat Command A and Brig. Gen. Lunsford E. Oliver, previously Division engineer officer, became commander of Combat Command B.

Col. John Davis commanded the 1st Armored Regiment and Col. Paul M. Robinett transferred from the 80th Armored Regiment to command the 13th Armored Regiment.

The 6th Armored Infantry was commanded by Col. Claud E. Stadtman.

Ward’s Division Artillery Officer was to be Col. Robert V. Maraist. His Chief of Staff was Col. Robert W. Hasbrouck.

The principal items in the new tables of organization and equipment were as follows:

The 6th Armored Infantry, with 27th Armored FA Battalion in the background, passes in review for photographers at Fort Knox in March 1941.
Principal items in the new tables of organization and equipment.
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