Thomas D. Morgan ( words) ike and the tank

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Thomas D. MORGAN (...2173 words)

IKE and the TANK

1920 was not a good year for 30-year old Captain Dwight D. Eisenhower (Tanks), Infantry. Frustrated at not being sent to France during World War I, he had trained troops instead at Fort Ogelthorpe, Georgia; Fort Leavenworth, Kansas; Camp Meade, Maryland; and Camp Colt, Pennsylvania. He had volunteered for combat, but his instructional and organizational abilities had made him invaluable to the home front, mobilization effort. He ended the war a temporary Lieutenant Colonel, only three years after graduating from West Point in 1915. After the war in 1919, he lost his temporary rank. In 1920, he was back at Camp Meade, the second-in-command of the 305th tank Brigade, as a permanent Captain. His friendship with Major George S. Patton, commander of the 304th Tank Brigade, stems from that period.1 Although temperamentally different, they shared a professional interest in the profession of arms. Dwight "Ike" Eisenhower and George “Georgie” Patton had developed and tested tank theories. In many ways they shared a passionate hope for the future of tank warfare. They both published articles in professional military journals about their beliefs.

Patton, wealthy with influential friends (including the Secretary of War), had fewer problems with his innovative writings than Eisenhower did. Patton went off to rejoin the Cavalry rather than be put in the Infantry when the 1920 National Defense Act did away with the Tank Corps and placed tanks under the Infantry branch. Eisenhower's writings in the Infantry Journal found disfavor with the Chief of Infantry who told young Eisenhower that his ideas were wrong and dangerous. That, if he published anything further incompatible with "solid Infantry doctrine," he would be hauled before a court-martial.2 The reader will remember that this was the same postwar era that tried to stifle Billy Mitchell's airpower ideas.

Eisenhower's article in the November 1920 Infantry Journal was titled innocuously "A Tank Discussion."3 While professionally written, it did not necessarily mark the writer as the future leader of the Great Crusade in Europe during World War II. The article candidly discussed the advantages and disadvantages of the tank as seen during World War I. The ability of tanks to cross trenches, ditches, and streams was key as befitted an Infantry support vehicle. Eisenhower mentioned the faults of the existing U.S. Mark VIII (Heavy) and French Renault (Light) tanks. He went on to describe a more desirable tank that could well have been the requirement specifications for the famous Sherman tank of World War II. He was quick to grasp the mechanical problems of the current tanks and expressed optimism that those problems could be overcome by modern technology. After all, Eisenhower had participated in the 1919 U.S. Army Transcontinental Truck Convoy that showcased the use of Army vehicles. Even a small Renault tank was taken on that trip over primitive roads from Washington, D.C. to San Francisco. This trip was probably the inspiration for the modern interstate highway system sponsored by the Eisenhower Administration more than thirty years later.

The lead article in the same November 1920 issue of the Infantry Journal as Eisenhower's was "Infantry, Its Role, Capabilities, Limitations and Relation to Other Arms" by Colonel Robert McCleave, Infantry.4 It was based on a lecture given at Fort Leavenworth's School of the Line. The assumption one makes is that McLeave's article represented the official thinking of the day. In it he emphasized that the planning of Infantry action was almost entirely a "matter of art."5 He also mentioned how all combat arms were to assist the Infantry forward movement in battle. He said that "... tanks open the passage through the obstacles, and demoralize the opposition."6 Much emphasis was placed after World War I on surprise and moral force being the soul of battle. What better way than to use the shock action and surprise of a new weapon such as the tank. In the face of strongly fortified positions: "The infantry can do nothing without concentrations of artillery and tanks."7

In view of McCleave's article, it is hard to see how Eisenhower violated "solid infantry doctrine" in his article. Perhaps Eisenhower hit a sore spot when he acknowledged that few American-manned tanks actually got into combat in France and that "... the number of officers of the Army who are advocates of this machine as a supporting weapon is correspondingly few."8 Eisenhower may have also made a mistake, as far as the Chief of Infantry was concerned, in advocating the replacement of the Divisional Machine Gun Battalion with a company of tanks. The Machine Gun Battalion was motorized, but it did not have cross- country mobility. Eisenhower wrote how a company of 15 fighting tanks, and about half the number of personnel and other vehicles as the Machine Gun Battalion, could provide more effective firepower and maneuver capability than the battalion. Armed with extra machine guns, the tanks could carry more ammunition and support infantry attacks better, and for a longer time, than the Machine Gun Battalion. Young Eisenhower had a vision of the future, apparently not enthusiastically shared by his Chief of Infantry, when he stated:

The clumsy, awkward and snaillike progress of the old tanks must be forgotten, and in their place we must picture this speedy, reliable and efficient engine of destruction.9
After his run-in with the Chief of Infantry, Eisenhower's fortunes did not improve. Late in 1920, the Eisenhowers' firstborn son, three-year-old "Icky," caught scarlet fever and died. Later another crisis occurred. Eisenhower had erroneously received $250.67 in child support while "Icky" was staying with an aunt in Iowa. Eisenhower identified the error himself, but the matter was pursued by the Inspector General's office for several months and Ike was threatened with discharge.10

In the meantime, Eisenhower had been invited by Brigadier General Fox Conner to join him on his staff in Panama. Eisenhower had met Conner, known as one of the "brains" of the Army, in George Patton's quarters at Camp Meade. Conner had been very impressed with both Patton and Eisenhower as they explained to him their training wargames and theories relating to tank warfare. Conner resolved the issue with the Inspector General's office and Eisenhower went to Panama. Thus, what Eisenhower later called the "Tragic Road to Panama"11 ushered in a new career for him, and the tank crusade was left to be kept alive by others.

It is interesting to note that the Infantry in 1925 saw tanks in a better light. The November 1925 issue of Infantry Journal contains an article entitled "The Development of Tanks" by Major John W. Leonard, Infantry.12 This was an upbeat article that acknowledges technological improvements in the new tanks being developed for the Infantry. It was endorsed favorably by Brigadier General Rockenback, formerly Chief of the Tank Corps and Commandant Tank School.13 Leonard, Eisenhower's West Point classmate, would go on to command the 9th Armored Division in World War II and retire as a Lieutenant General. By 1927, mechanization of military forces had become a popular topic of military discussion. The Infantry Journal was firmly on the side of tanks when it published a series of articles by Captain George Rarey, Infantry (Tanks)* about "The Tank in the World War."14

Eisenhower was more careful and politic in his future writings. He probably "ghost wrote" some articles in an April 1925 Infantry Journal edition devoted to military duty in Panama. He also wrote an article for the June 1927 Infantry Journal entitled "The Leavenworth Course" signing himself "A Young Graduate."15 No doubt finishing first in his class at Fort Leavenworth in 1926 made him eminently qualified to write about it. In the article, he described the course as "... a year which should be one of the most enjoyable, and in many ways the finest of an officer's peacetime service."16 This may have been one of the origins of the saying that Leavenworth is "the best year of your life." Eisenhower later wrote a guidebook to World War I battlefields for General Pershing who was then the Chairman of the American Battle Monuments Commission. He also wrote speeches and papers for Pershing and met for the first time George C. Marshall who had been Pershing's aide.17

History records little of the Chief of Infantry who almost squashed Eisenhower’s career. Eisenhower worked closely with General MacArthur when he was Army Chief of Staff and then went with him to the Philippines in 1935. MacArthur considered him at the time the best officer in the Army.18 Eisenhower and the tank seem to have parted ways. Others pushed the cause of the tank. Eisenhower's Camp Meade friend George Patton, along with a host of others, wrote the book on tank warfare in Europe during World War II.


* Note that (Tanks) now followed Infantry in the branch designation after an officer's name rather than the other way around as with Captain Eisenhower (Tanks) in 1920.

Just before and at the beginning of World War II, Eisenhower seemed to revert to his World War I status. He became a trainer as General Kreuger's Third Army Chief of Staff during the Louisiana Maneuvers. He authored the winning battle plan for the maneuvers, the largest in U.S. history, but he was still a relative unknown.19 In a photo taken of him with General Kreuger and some others, he was identified as "Lt. Col. D. D. Ersenbeing."20 But, while not yet a national military figure, Eisenhower was well known in the professional Army. He had worked for some of the most famous and respected general officers of the pre-World War II era. Generals Pershing and MacArthur had considered him the best and most promising officer that they knew. Their efficiency reports on Eisenhower testifying to this are on display at the Eisenhower Museum in Abilene, Kansas. It was Pershing who recommended Eisenhower to Marshall and he became known as "Marshall's protege."21 He became the principal war planner as General Marshall's Chief of War Plans at the beginning of World War II. He authored another winning plan that time, the plan for the defeat of Nazi Germany.

By the time of the great German Ardennes Offensive in December 1944 that caused a large salient in the Allied lines, called the "Bulge," Eisenhower commanded the European Theater of Operations as a 5-star general. The resulting Battle of the Bulge gave Eisenhower a chance to demonstrate his knowledge of tank warfare and the doctrine of how best to contain and reduce an enemy salient. Army service schools during the period between the World Wars had taught that the shoulders of a salient must be firmly held before its reduction by counterattack. Eisenhower had been a good student and knew the doctrine well. The old Leavenworth solution paid off. Because of his tank corps assignments during and right after World War I, and his experience gained from the Louisiana Maneuvers, few officers could match his familiarity with armor and tactics. He ordered American and British armored units from north and south of the "Bulge" to reinforce the shoulders. He brought reinforcements from Great Britain and committed his strategic reserve, the two US airborne divisions. He ordered the Communications Zone combed for replacements to fill vacancies in the ranks of combat units. He motivated his subordinates, especially his old Camp Meade friend George Patton, to go on an immediate offensive with a heavily armored force that rallied the Allies and rebuilt shattered morale. Eisenhower was the epitome of a coalition commander - calm, in control, and optimistic.22 The dark days of the 1920 Tank Corps were over. He had learned from adversity and his own determination over the years. He had developed his organizational and leadership skills by working for the best officers in the Army. He was now able to direct large armies. It was his finest hour as a commander.

In a campaign after the "Bulge," Eisenhower again showed that he recognized the importance of an armored force to exploit a key situation. At the end of the Third Army's successful Eifel Campaign, General Patton needed a fresh armored division to penetrate the Saar-Mosel Triangle and capture Trier. Patton asked Eisenhower for the use of the 10th Armored Division, part of the Supreme Commander's strategic reserve. Eisenhower approved Patton's request. Patton considered the capture of Trier as the start of his highly successful Palatinate Campaign and one of his best military actions where he really "earned his pay."23 Once again Eisenhower's knowledge of tanks helped gain a victory in what was considered by many, including the Germans, as one of the best campaigns of the war.24

Thus, the active involvement in direct combat and tank warfare for which he craved so much in 1917-18 when training the fledgling Tank Corps eluded Eisenhower again in World War II. But, the bitterness of that, and his troubles in 1920, were made up for because he had the biggest prize of all, the Supreme Command of the whole European Theater of Operations. He accepted the surrender of the German Army at Reims, France on 7 May 1945.


LTC Thomas D. Morgan, USA (Ret.) is a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy. He was commissioned in the Field Artillery, and served on active duty in various assignments in the United States, Germany, Vietnam, Panama, and Belgium. Until recently, he was a defense contractor supporting the Battle Command Training Program at Fort Leavenworth. He holds an MPA degree from the University of Missouri and an MA in History from Pacific Lutheran University.

1. Mark C. Bender, Watershed at Leavenworth: Dwight D. Eisenhower

and the Command and General Staff College (Fort Leavenworth, KS: U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, 1990), 18-20.
2. Dwight D. Eisenhower, At Ease: Stories I Tell to Friends (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co, 1967), 169-173.
3. Dwight D. Eisenhower, "A Tank Discussion," Infantry Journal (November 1920): 453-458.
4. Robert McCleave, "Infantry: Its Role, Capabilities, Limitations and Relation to Other Arms," Infantry Journal (November 1920): 441-450.
5. Ibid., 442.
6. Ibid., 444.
7. Ibid., 447.
8. Eisenhower, "A Tank Discussion," 453.
9. Ibid., 457.
10. Bender, "Watershed at Leavenworth," 22.
11. Eisenhower, At Ease, 178, 182.
12. John W. Leonard, "The Development of Tanks," Infantry Journal (November 1925): 483-491.
13. Ibid., 491.
14. George H. Rarey, "The Tank in the World War," Infantry Journal

(January, February, May 1927): 43-50, 128-138, 493-504.

15. A Young Graduate (pseud.), "The Leavenworth Course," Infantry Journal (June 1927): 589-600.
16. Ibid., 598.
17. Eisenhower, At Ease, 204-208.
18. U.S. Army Center of Military History, Dwight D. Eisenhower: The Centennial (Washington, D.C.: 16 March 1990).
19. Christopher R. Gabel, The U.S. Army GHQ Maneuvers of 1941 (Washington, D.C.: Center of Military History, 1991), 187; and Dwight D. Eisenhower: The Centennial.
20. Dwight D. Eisenhower, Crusade in Europe (New York: Doubleday, 1948), 12.
21. Dwight D. Eisenhower: The Centennial.
22. Hugh M. Cole, The Ardennes: Battle of the Bulge, US ARMY IN WORLD WAR II (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1965), 305-306, 332-34; and Forrest C. Poque, The European Theater of Operations: The Supreme Command, US ARMY IN WORLD WAR II (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1954), 374-382.
23. Ladislas Farago, Patton: Ordeal and Triumph (New York, NY: Ivan Obolensky, Inc.,1963), 747-48; and George S. Patton, Jr., War as I Knew It (Boston, MA: Houghton Miflin Company, 1947), 230, 247-50, 256, 388.
24. Patton, War as I Knew It, 257.

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