Training for war in the summer of 1941…and the making of a future Supreme Commander
Summer is finally here and in most places it’s hot and getting hotter. The summer of 1941 was equally torrid. With America on the verge of war, an unusual event took place in the South: the largest military maneuvers ever staged by the U.S. Army. The army of 1939 and 1930 inherited by new Army chief of staff, Gen. George Marshall was a mess, untrained, lacking doctrine and modern equipment, rapidly expanding and filled with overage Regular Army officers well past retirement age and unfit to fight a modern war that everyone knew was only a matter of time before the United States became involved in.
After Germany invaded the West in May 1940 and overran and seized France, Belgium, Luxembourg, Holland and France, followed by Dunkirk, Britain endured one military debacle after another as the German Army occupied Scandinavia, Greece, and Crete. The British homeland was under siege from a German naval blockade, and although the Royal Air Force had staved off invasion by winning the Battle of Britain, the outlook was still grim. In North Africa, Hitler’s expeditionary force, General Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps, inflicted a series of stinging defeats upon the British Eighth Army. By the summer of 1941 Western Europe had become a Nazi-held dominion, while in the Far East, Hong Kong had fallen to Germany’s Axis partner, Japan. In Mein Kampf Hitler had declared in 1925 that, “An alliance with Russia is a blueprint for the next war whose outcome will be the end of Germany.” In late June 1941, Hitler broke the Russo-German non-aggression treaty, and his own maxim by invading Russia. Operation Barbarossa was a massive surprise attack against his Russian “ally” in which more than three million German ground troops supported by three thousand tanks and two thousand aircraft swarmed over a front extending from the Black Sea to the Arctic, catching the Red Army flat-footed. Less visible but no less important was that the Allies were losing control of the Atlantic Ocean to German U-boats which were feasting on Allied shipping faster than it could be replaced. Despite the loss of the battleship Bismarck in May 1941, Admiral Karl Dönitz’s German U-boats were exacting a mounting toll on convoys in the icy waters of the North Atlantic. Between September 1939 and the end of 1941, Allied shipping losses were an appalling 2,361 ships, totaling 8,545,606 tons.[i]
The situation in the Soviet Union was dire and were it not for German unpreparedness for the winter of 1941-42, would likely have fallen to Hitler’s massive invasion force. Leningrad was under a siege that was to last nine hundred days and kill some one million people, including three thousand a day from starvation alone. If Hitler had bothered to read about Napoleon’s campaigns the war on the Eastern Front might have turned differently. However, he made the same mistakes by starting his offensive too late and failing to prepare for the harsh Russian winter. The Red Army managed to hang-on by the slenderest of threads until winter closed down the campaign until the spring of 1942. Thus, Russia survived to become a mistrustful ally.
Although the United States remained officially neutral, Roosevelt responded to pleas from Churchill for help and had begun circumventing an isolationist Congress by means of a ploy called Lend-Lease. In September 1940, the President “loaned” the British fifty destroyers in return for the granting of leases to the U.S. Navy in Bermuda, the Caribbean and Newfoundland. In what came to be known as the “Undeclared War” against German submarines, Roosevelt proclaimed the U.S. Navy would protect American shipping over an area that covered half the Atlantic Ocean. As Germany and the United States edged closer to outright war, Roosevelt committed the nation to supplying a steady flow of war material vital to Britain’s survival.
As American industry began gearing for war, Army Chief of Staff, Gen. George Marshall and his training expert, Lt. Gen. Leslie McNair, continued to mastermind the creation of an army, both in size and, perhaps more importantly, in its doctrines as a fighting force. Conflict continued to rage over the concept of the mobility of the lightly armed cavalry of the old West versus the newer belief in the use of massive force first employed by U.S. Grant in the Civil War, and taken to new levels by Pershing during the World War I. Conversely, Robert E. Lee had demonstrated that force combined with mobility could produce significant results. Marshall’s dilemma was to enlarge and convert the army into a force that could successfully challenge the mobility and mechanization of the German army whose success on the battlefields of Poland and France forewarned of the difficulties ahead.
By 1941, there was no doubt left that America would be drawn into the war; the only question was when and under what conditions. Unfortunately, however, the United States had an army more in name only. A worried McNair remarked, “We didn’t know how soon war would come, but we knew it was coming . . . and we had to get together something of an Army pretty darn fast.”[ii] CBS correspondent Eric Sevareid has described how Roosevelt was slowly “gathering together a reluctant, bewildered, and resentful army. No civil leaders dared call them ‘soldiers’ – as though there were something shameful in the word . . . few made so bold as to suggest that their job was to learn to kill.”[iii] Indeed, the process of assembling an army was as difficult and frustrating. The first manpower draft in 1940 authorized the call-up of National Guard and Reserve units but initially mandated only one year of military service. Morale and discipline suffered accordingly. Disgruntled draftees coined an acronym, O.H.I.O. (Over the Hill in October ) that was scrawled in latrines and became their graffiti of choice. The United States was, after all, still devoutly isolationist. One soldier called it “a goddamn mess,” while another common complaint was “I want to get the hell out of this hole.” After inspecting one division in September 1940 McNair observed with foreboding that it was a case of “the blind leading the blind.”[iv]
Nevertheless, Marshall and McNair forged a more mobile, streamlined, triangular infantry division, the creation of the armored division, and the introduction of improved new weapons. By the end of 1940 the army’s strength was 620,000 men, and on June 30, 1941 it stood at 1,460,998. Now, the time had come to test the U.S. Army’s preparedness to fight on a modern battlefield.[v]
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