ARMOR-CAVALRY: Part 1; Regular Army and Army Reserve/Cavalry in World War II

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  • With the approach of World War II and the creation of the Armored Force in 1940, one of the most perplexing problems confronting the U.S. Army was the form of organization and tactical doctrine for its cavalry. During the years of peace when economy had been the keynote for U.S. military forces, it had been easy to shunt this problem aside; but now, with danger to the free world increasing and partial mobilization already under way, the Army had to face up to how to organize and equip its cavalry.
  • At the heart of the question, of course, was the military value of the horse. And cavalrymen themselves were far from being united, thus making any solution even more difficult. Many cavalrymen favored complete mechanization, others supported a combination of horses and machines, and still a third group continued to prefer only horses. The last Chief of Cavalry, Maj. Gen. John K. Herr, in testimony before a Congressional committee in 1939 maintained that horse cavalry had "stood the acid test of war," whereas the motor elements advocated by some to replace it had not. Pointing to this country's more than 12,000,000 horses and over 4,500,000 mules at that time, as well as its predominant motor industry, he held that the United States was in a most favorable position to develop the best cavalry forces in the world, both mechanized and horse. On the role of cavalry General Herr declared that those "who wish to reduce cavalry to a purely reconnaissance arm, are entirely wrong, unless reconnaissance is the only mission which cavalry can perform." To Herr, reconnaissance was important to cavalry, but was not its primary mission. "While cavalry must fight in carrying out its mission of reconnaissance, pursuit and covering," he reasoned, "it must also fight in cooperation with the other ground arms to further the accomplishment of the main mission." On types of cavalry his view was that, "although in some cavalry missions it may be better to use horse cavalry alone or mechanized cavalry alone, on the whole the best results can be accomplished by using them together."
  • This horse-mechanized principle had been applied to two cavalry regiments, the 4th and the 6th. In those units large vans were used for transporting horses to keep pace with the mechanical elements. The horses could be unloaded quickly and employed in mounted actions to supplement operations of the mechanized cavalry. With the 4th and 6th Cavalry already partially mechanized and the 1st and 13th Cavalry under the Armored Force, ten horse cavalry regiments remained. Of these, the 5th, 7th, 8th, and 12th were organic elements of the 1st Cavalry Division, and by late 1941 the 2d, 9th, 10th, and 14th were in the 2d Cavalry Division. Only the 3d and 11th Cavalry were nondivisional mounted regiments.
  • The Office of the Chief of Cavalry was eliminated in March 1942, along with those of the other combat arms chiefs. His functions were transferred to the newly formed Army Ground Forces and the trend toward mechanization quickened. Nondivisional regiments and squadrons were completely mechanized in the same manner as were the cavalry components of infantry and armored divisions. Several cavalry regiments were used in farming new armored divisions.
  • Upon the activation of the 9th and 10th Armored Divisions in 1942, initial War Department directives converted and redesignated the 2d, 3d, 11th, and 14th Cavalry as the 2d, 3d, 11th, and 14th Armored Regiments. After transfer of personnel and equipment to the new organizations was almost complete, the directives were changed to inactivate the old cavalry regiments and to activate the armored ones as newly constituted units. During 1943 all four of the old cavalry regiments were reactivated as mechanized cavalry units. Later, in 1951, the descendants of these 4 armored and 4 cavalry regiments were consolidated and reorganized to form 4 armored cavalry regiments.
  • All nondivisional mechanized cavalry regiments were broken up in 1943 to form separate groups and squadrons. The reorganization coincided with a new War Department principle governing the employment of mechanized cavalry: the units were "organized, equipped, and trained to perform reconnaissance missions employing infiltration tactics, fire, and maneuver." The directive also specified that the units were to engage in combat only to the extent necessary to accomplish their missions. Except for the cavalry divisions, therefore, the official cavalry mission, in general, was reconnaissance, a doctrine that held for the remainder of the war.
  • Of the two cavalry divisions active during World War II, only the 1st Cavalry Division fought as a unit. It fought dismounted in four major campaigns in the Southwest Pacific and performed occupational duties in Japan following the war. The 2d Cavalry Division was partially inactivated in July 1942, its 4th Cavalry Brigade (including the 9th and 10th Cavalry regiments) remaining active. The division was fully reactivated in February 1943, then completely inactivated between February and May 1944 in North Africa, its personnel being transferred to service units.
  • Neither of the two cavalry divisions took horses overseas, the explanation being that transportation of horses was too costly in ship tonnage and feeding and upkeep too complex for a motorized army. Whether or not this explanation was valid, it was clear that horses were being banished from the last cavalry unit and, for all practical purposes, from the Army.
  • The 1st Cavalry Division fought as infantry under special tables of organization and equipment that increased its strength to approximately 11,000 men, around 4,000 less than an infantry division; it retained the basic square or 4-regiment, 2-brigade formation of the cavalry division. Special allowances of heavy weapons and other infantry-type equipment were supplied to the 1st Cavalry Division to compensate far its lack of a 155-mm. howitzer field artillery battalion.
  • The National Guard, before any of its units were inducted into Federal service during 1940-41, had 4 cavalry divisions, the 21st through the 24th. All 4 were broken up and none entered Federal service, although many of their elements did. Also, conversions and reorganizations of 17 National Guard cavalry regiments before induction resulted in the organization of 7 horse-mechanized cavalry regiments, as well as several field artillery regiments, coast artillery regiments and separate battalions, and an antitank battalion. Thus, after the reshuffling, 7 partially mechanized regiments and a brigade of 2 horse cavalry regiments entered Federal service. The horse-mechanized regiments were the
  1. 101st ( New York),
  2. 102d ( New Jersey),
  3. 104th ( Pennsylvania ),
  4. 106th ( Illinois ),
  5. 107th ( Ohio ) ,
  6. 113th ( Iowa ) , and the
  7. 115th ( Wyoming ) ;
  • the horse brigade was the 56th (Texas), consisting of the 112th and 124th Cavalry (Texas). While in Federal service, all of the horse-mechanized regiments were completely mechanized and split up to form groups and separate squadrons, similarly to those of the Regular Army. The horse regiments, the 112th and 124th, were dismounted, withdrawn from the 56th Cavalry Brigade, and reorganized as infantry with much the same composition as regiments of the 1st Cavalry Division. Finally, in mid-1944, the Headquarters and Headquarters Troop, 56th Cavalry Brigade, became the 56th Reconnaissance Troop, Mechanized.
  • Seventy-three nondivisional cavalry units were active in the Army during the war. In general, they were squadrons and groups, many of which had been formed by breaking up nondivisional cavalry regiments. Each mechanized cavalry group was composed of a headquarters and headquarters troop and two or more attached mechanized cavalry reconnaissance squadrons. Groups were assigned to armies and further attached to corps, most of the attachments, in practice, being permanent. Corps frequently attached the groups to divisions- usually infantry divisions- for operations only.
  • Divisional cavalry units included a mechanized cavalry reconnaissance squadron for each light armored division, an armored reconnaissance battalion for each heavy armored division, and a cavalry reconnaissance troop for each infantry division.
  • The last horse cavalry unit of the Army to fight mounted was the 26th Cavalry regiment of the Philippine Scouts, which, in early 1942 after withdrawal to Bataan, was forced to destroy its horses and fight on foot. The fall of the Philippines did not bring the military use of horses to an end. Although no U.S. unit while overseas was fully organized under tables of organization and equipment providing for horses, there were several instances of their use by provisionally organized units. For operations in jungles and mountains, horses proved to be especially suitable as pack animals. For example, during a 700-mile march through the jungles of India and Burma, the 5307th Composite Unit (Provisional), a task force under Brig. Gen. Frank D. Merrill and nicknamed "Merrill's Marauders," had approximately 340 horses as well as 360 mules. In another action the 3d Infantry Division, while in Sicily, organized the 3d Provisional Reconnaissance Troop, Mounted, which was employed for several months during the invasion of Italy and the subsequent fighting in its mountainous terrain. In September 1943 the troop had 143 horses; 349 mules were also in its attached pack train.
  • Between mid-1940 and mid-1941 the cavalry strength of the active army more than quadrupled, from slightly under 13,000 to over 53,000. By 31 May 1945 it reached 91,948, its peak strength during the war.
  • Most of the mechanized cavalry units fought in Europe, where, notwithstanding their prescribed general reconnaissance role, the types of missions assigned and the approximate percentages of their frequency of occurrence were:
  1. defensive combat, including defense, delaying action, and holding of key terrain until the arrival of main forces, 33 percent;
  2. special operations, including acting as a mobile reserve, providing for security and control of rear areas, and operating as an army information service, 29 percent;
  3. security for other arms, including blocking, screening, protecting flanks, maintaining contact between larger units, and filling gaps, 25 percent;
  4. offensive combat, including attack, pursuit, and exploitation, 10 percent; and
  5. reconnaissance, 3 percent. Hence, purely reconnaissance missions for mechanized cavalry were rare, and defensive missions were common. For offensive, defensive, and security missions, the mechanized cavalry group was normally reinforced by a battalion of field artillery, a battalion of tank destroyers, and a company of combat engineers.
  • Mechanized cavalry units operated dismounted during combat almost twice as frequently as they did mounted. But this was no surprise to cavalry leaders, whose general mood was that such units in the future should be trained and organized far considerable dismounted action.
  • A unique role was spectacularly performed by the 6th Cavalry Group, assigned to the Third Army, in Europe. Taking advantage of the power of its communications equipment and the speed of its vehicles, the army commander, Lt. Gen. George S. Patton, Jr., used the group to maintain contact with his far-flung forces, elements of which were often as much as a hundred miles away from his army command post. Patton actually renamed the group the Army Information Service; it became more popularly known as Patton's "Household Cavalry."
  • Many cavalrymen were of the opinion that mechanized cavalry had been either generally improperly employed or inadequately organized for the several types of missions it had been called upon to perform during the war. In fact, a group of combat-experienced senior officers and mechanized unit commanders concluded that "the mission which was assigned to mechanized cavalry, reconnaissance with minimum of fighting, was unsound …," and that its mission "should be combat." They believed that "the future role of mechanized cavalry should be the traditional cavalry role of a highly mobile, heavily armed and lightly equipped combat force, and that the capability of mechanized cavalry, particularly that normally operating under the corps, to perform that role, should be exploited."


This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States federal government (see 17 U.S.C. 105).