German and British Experimentation in 1920s-30s Inspired Emergence of U.S. Armor Force

Republished from ARMOR, March-April 1995 edition

Many writers (including this one) have concluded that MG Adna R. Chaffee developed the American armor force virtually alone. Chaffee’s associates bemoaned the lack of organizational and financial support Chaffee and other tank-warfare enthusiasts received in the 1930s.1

Chaffee certainly helped turn military opinion to support a strong armor force; his decade of quiet and consistent leadership paid off in the Louisiana Maneuvers of 1940 and the founding of the American armor force in July of that same year. However, Chaffee’s work in the 1930s, including successively expanded maneuvers, in many ways built on foundations laid earlier in Germany from 1918 until 1926 and, to a lesser extent, in mechanized maneuvers held in England after that time through 1938. Chaffee’s outstanding achievements by 1940 may well have evolved because of his knowledge of these European precedents. Throughout combined-arms exercises, he preserved the integrity of the mechanized and later of the armor force.

German experimentation

More than any other German leader, Hans von Seeckt, commander-in-chief of the new German army (Reichswehr) from 1919-1926, laid the groundwork for a revitalized German fighting force. For von Seeckt, the military-leadership training and battlefield maneuvers for a mechanized force could take place without the latest equipment. In his large-scale mechanized maneuvers through 1926, von Seeckt trained his leaders first, and he trained them well. German armor was the first to benefit from this training.

A political pragmatist, von Seeckt turned each event to his advantage. He took over a Reichswehr that had survived defeat by crushing the political left in the Spartacist Revolt of 1918-19. Crushing the revolt stabilized the Weimar Republic, making the new government more dependent on a strong army than its founders anticipated. Von Seeckt reconstructed the former General Staff under the redesignation of Truppenamt (literally: advisory council for troops). Von Seeckt accepted the Versailles reduction of officers from 34,000 to 4,000 but was able to compensate by recruiting 56,948 noncommissioned officers in 1924. Since Versailles placed restrictions on organizational strength, von Seeckt used the treaty’s provisions to create “triangular” divisions with three rather than four regiments.2

Above all, von Seeckt recognized the importance of maneuvers in assessing the mobility and maneuverability of his military forces. Troops often had to train using wooden weapons mockups. Trucks frequently were substituted for tanks. The largest-scale maneuvers since World War I in Germany took place in 1926, von Seeckt’s last year of active duty. There were two different maneuvers, each with five divisions. Tankers trained in defense, reconnaissance, support, surmounting obstacles and night river crossings. By the end of the maneuver, 3rd Cavalry Division reported to army headquarters that “battle without tanks is obsolete.”3

The cavalry divisions (using mockups and a limited number of tracked vehicles) conducted their portion of the mechanized maneuvers in eastern rather than in western Germany. This was no accident. Under Gustav Stresemann, the perennial Weimar foreign minister until his death in 1929, the German government pursued a policy of “fulfillment” of Versailles restrictions in dealing with governments in Paris and London. However, Germany had also been secretly negotiating with the newly formed Soviet Communist government in Moscow for the sale of military weapons in return for quietly training near or on Soviet soil. In 1927, just one year after von Seeckt’s retirement, a German armor school was established in the Russian university town of Kazan.4

Although interested in armor doctrine, von Seeckt left to others, like Ernst Volckheim and Heinz Guderian, to formulate new tactics and strategy after his retirement in 1926.

British experimentation

British interest in a mechanized force increased just as von Seeckt was departing from the scene. Tidworth Garrison, on the edge of England’s Salisbury Plain, had been developed after World War I to include ranges and maneuver areas ideal for tanks. In Summer 1927, an experimental force of tanks and armored cars engaged in a series of maneuvers at Aldershot, England, on the plain. The U.S. Secretary of War, Dwight Davis, attended one of these maneuvers and concluded that the United States, too, needed an experimental mechanized force.5

Davis arrived on the scene just as J.F.C. Fuller, one of the two leading British proponents of an experimental mechanized force, decided to leave the army. (Basil Liddell Hart remained on active duty.) Believing he had been offered the command of the new experimental force, Fuller rejected in March 1927 the offer to command instead 7th Infantry Brigade at Tidworth. His superiors informed Fuller the experimental force was considered only temporary; nevertheless, he declined the offer to command the infantry unit, which might have led to the eventual command of the experimental force.

Fuller officially retired in 1933. A solitary and relatively inflexible figure with much to offer an experimental force, Fuller proved, in the eyes of one biographer, to be “his own best friend and own worst enemy.” The decision to reject the Tidworth appointment may well have been the worst mistake in Fuller’s career. With his knowledge of tanks and his forceful presence, plus his contacts in and outside the army, Fuller’s resignation meant the death of a strong experimental mechanized force in Britain in the 1930s. Fuller found it hard to work within the system. The system was to find it hard to operate without him.6

The 1927 maneuvers were not the last held on the Salisbury Plain. In 1934, the first tank brigade, formed in April, maneuvered there in July, attacking small fortified areas and then advancing in armored formations. In the ninth set of maneuvers, the tank brigade moved out after midnight, engaging in daytime concealment to avoid detection by aircraft. In 42 hours, medium tanks traveled 120 miles, with light tanks up to 160 miles, proving the value of tanks and aircraft in battle.

However, the tank brigade fared less well in the July 1935 maneuvers. Two divisions were fighting two other divisions in a corps vs. corps maneuver. Older tanks were distributed among infantry divisions for the first time since 1925. Infantry rather than armor was placed in the forefront. Perhaps had Fuller not declined the post offered to him in 1927, armor and the two-year old tank brigade, with the concept of a mechanized force, would have fared better in the late 1930s.7

American experimentation

It is hard to say how much Chaffee borrowed from German and British precedents. His doctrine and operational skills resembled those of von Seeckt rather than Fuller. When Davis’ hope for an experimental mechanized force failed to materialize, Chaffee continued in the 1930s to work within the system – like von Seeckt, without tracked-vehicle equipment.

At Fort Knox, Chaffee trained 1st Cavalry Regiment, “unhorsed” at Marfa, TX, for the Fort Riley Maneuvers in Summer 1934. The mechanized forces at Fort Riley, under COL Dan Van Voorhis, included an armored-car troop and a combat-car squadron, with only six of the 18 vehicles actually “combat cars” or tracked vehicles. This 1st Cavalry Regiment initially fought the horse units of the Fort Riley Cavalry School Brigade. Then both forces fought a common enemy. Lessons-learned included the need for more night training for 1st Cavalry and support in overcoming obstacles – especially bridges. To at least one observer, horse units operated better at night.8

In the maneuvers to Allegan, MI, in August 1936, 1st Cavalry traveled 400 miles in two days. Under COL Bruce Palmer, 1st Cavalry fought with the Red Team against the Blue Team for the first time in a division-level maneuver. Horse units engaged in a close envelopment, with mechanized-cavalry units in a wide envelopment, delaying the advance of the Blue Force. Lessons-learned included the fact that the mechanized force could successfully engage in night surprise attacks.9

All this training paid off at the August 1939 Plattsburg maneuvers, the largest American peacetime exercise to date, with 1st and 13th Cavalry regiments (both now in 7th Cavalry Brigade) engaging in mock combat between two corps. The brigade leaders refined cavalry doctrine, with tracked vehicles traveling at night, without lights, to take the major road center of Peru by surprise. Unlike the British use of a mechanized force to support infantry, 7th Cavalry Brigade at Plattsburg followed the German example by preserving the separate organizational integrity of the mechanized force.10

The 7th Cavalry Brigade went on to fight in the corps-level Louisiana Maneuvers of 1940, which were the largest peacetime maneuvers conducted in the United States up to that time. Together with the recently arrived 6th Infantry Regiment (Mechanized), the brigade was attached to IX Corps. A provisional tank brigade from Fort Benning, GA, under BG Bruce Magruder, was attached to IV Corps. The two brigades fought first against each other and then on the same side, with mechanized brigades emerging as clear winners in the maneuvers. IV Corps borrowed from von Seeckt’s organizational model, employing the “triangular” division concept with three, rather than four, regiments per division.11

Chaffee consciously or unconsciously borrowed from the German and, to a lesser extent, from the British example. Major accomplishments included the ability to conduct long road marches without mishap and, at and after Plattsburg, the capacity to use tracked vehicles effectively at night. Throughout his career, and especially after 1938, Chaffee took care to preserve the organizational integrity of his mechanized units in keeping with the German example but in contrast to the British maneuvers of 1935.

Certainly Chaffee, like von Seeckt, could have benefited from more and better tracked vehicles. However, both these leaders showed that, between the two world wars, officers and noncommissioned officers in a mechanized force could be trained in superior doctrine, tactics and strategy without the latest weapons.


1 See especially Grow, Robert W., MG retired, The Ten Lean Years: from the Mechanized Force (1930) to the Armored Force (1940). Manuscript in Patton Museum Collection, Fort Knox, KY. For the description of Chaffee, see Mildred Gillie, Forging the Thunderbolt (Harrisburg, PA, The Military Service Publishing Company, 1947). Gillie worked with the now-missing Chaffee Papers.

2 Corum, James S., The Roots of Blitzkrieg: Hans von Seeckt and German Military Reform, Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 1992.

3 Ibid.

4 Ibid.

5 Noted in Gillie.

6 See Tythall, Anthony John, ‘Boney’ Fuller: Soldier, Strategist and Writer: 1878-1966, New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1977.

7 Liddell Hart, Basil H., The Liddell Hart Memoirs, 1895-1938, New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1965, Vol. I.

8 See “The Cavalry Maneuvers at Fort Riley, Kansas, 1934,” Cavalry Journal, July-August 1934.

9 COL Bruce Palmer, “Mechanized Cavalry in the Second Army Maneuvers,” Cavalry Journal, November-December 1936.

10 Gillie.

11 Ibid.

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