George Patton watches as American tanks advance on Axis forces in North Africa. The flamboyant and controversial general was an armored warfare trailblazer and put many of the U.S. Army’s pre-war tactics to the test with his I Armoured Corps aka Western Task Force. “Patton led the I Armored Corps into combat in North Africa; it was deactivated on the eve of the invasion of Sicily, never to return to active duty.”
By Lee Perna
THE UNITED STATES deployed a total of 24 army corps overseas during the Second World War; all but one were still active at the end of the conflict.
Ironically, the one that was demobilized, I Armored Corps, played a key role in America’s preparations for war. It was also commanded by one of the U.S. Army’s most famous generals: George S. Patton, Jr. The first corps to see action in Europe, I Armored remains largely forgotten today.
Patton led the I Armored Corps into combat in North Africa under the name Western Task Force. It was deactivated on the eve of the invasion of Sicily, never to return to active duty. Nevertheless, it played a pioneering role in the development and deployment of American armored forces.
An American M2A3 light tank on parade in Washington in 1939. U.S. military planners studied the German use of tanks in opening years of the Second World War. (Image source: WikiMedia Commons)Formation of the Armored Force
In the 1930s, U.S. Army general Adna Chaffee Jr. was at the forefront of promoting the use of armored forces. At the end of the decade, he commanded the new 7th Cavalry Brigade (Mechanized) through the Louisiana Maneuvers of 1939. It was here that he began to develop the army’s armored doctrine. Two of his primary tenets were that armored forces should be grouped and used together and that infantry should follow and hold the ground taken by armored forces.
With America still neutral, U.S. Army commanders watched the German Blitzkrieg in France with concern. The effective use of panzer and mechanized units spurred the army to quickly expand its own armored forces. Indeed, just over two weeks after the fall of France, the army constituted the I Armored Corps to oversee its two new armored divisions. On July 15, 1940, the corps and the 1st and 2nd Armored divisions were activated with Chaffee in overall command.
Chaffee continued to champion the development of armored forces. In November 1940, his role as commanding general (CG) of the armored forces was separated from CG of the I Armored Corps, and General Charles L. Scott became CG of the corps. During the next year, Scott led the I Armored Corps through a variety of maneuvers and experiments, while Chaffee pushed Congress to create a total of four armored corps with two armored divisions each.
As early as mid-1940, the 4th Infantry Division began experimenting with a motorized configuration similar to the German motorized divisions. The War Department announced its intention to create motorized divisions in November 1940. The 4th Infantry Division, which was stationed at Fort Benning, Georgia along with the 2nd Armored Division, became the prototype. Operating with the I Armored Corps in the Carolina Maneuvers of 1941, the 4th Infantry Division tested the U.S. Army’s emerging armored force’s operating principles.
When Chaffee relinquished command of the armored forces due to terminal cancer, General Jacob L. Devers replaced him in August 1941. Devers actively promoted combined arms doctrine and recommended the creation of a “type” armored corps of two armored and one motorized divisions. His requests were initially rejected.
However, when the United States entered World War II, the War Plan Division recommended that a corps of two armored divisions and one motorized division be trained in desert warfare. Before the establishment of the Desert Training Center (see below), Scott was sent to observe the British XXX Corps in North Africa, and Patton was promoted to CG of the I Armored Corps in January 1942.
An American tank rehearses for desert warfare in California in 1942. The Desert Training Center prepared Patton’s I Armoured Corps to do battle in North Africa. (Image source: General Patton Memorial Museum.)Patton takes command
In response to the German successes in North Africa, the army began to prepare troops for combat in that theater. The General Headquarters (GHQ) created the Desert Training Center, a sprawling facility in the Mojave and Sonoran deserts of Southern California and Western Arizona.
Patton and his I Armored Corps were put in charge of establishing the center at the beginning of March 1942. Patton took only a few troops with him at first. His initial exercises included only the 2nd Tank Group and a few other small units. Meanwhile, the 1st Armored Division shipped out to Ireland to join the II Corps in training with the British.
By the time Patton’s I Armored Corps took over command of the Desert Training Center in April 1942, the army had activated a total of eight armored divisions and the II Armored Corps. It also converted the 6th, 7th and 8th Divisions to Motorized Divisions. The III and IV Armored corps would be activated in August and September after the new armored divisions had completed basic outfitting and training. Chaffee’s vision of four armored corps was coming to fruition, and the first of them was about to enter combat.
Patton and his headquarters staff were recalled to Washington to begin planning Operation Torch. The II Armored Corps, with the 3rd and 5th Armored divisions and the 7th Motorized Division took over the Desert Training Center at the beginning of August 1942. The next month, Patton’s headquarters was reflagged as the Western Task Force. Under its new name, the staff of the I Armored Corps planned out the invasion of Northern Africa.
Patton next to his M3 Stuart Light Tank at the Desert Training Center. (Image source: U.S. National Archives.)Western Task Force
With the departure of the 1st Armored Division for Ireland, the I Armored Corps only had the 2nd Armored Division formally assigned. Although the 4th Motorized Division had exercised extensively with the I Armored Corps, the 3rd and 9th Infantry Divisions had received amphibious training from the amphibious corps of the Pacific and Atlantic Fleets respectively. The planners chose these divisions to round out Patton’s corps. After a period of intensive amphibious training, Patton’s corps landed in Morocco on November 8, 1942, as part of the Torch invasion.
Despite the designation of Western Task Force, Patton continued to wear the patch of the I Armored Corps on his uniforms during the campaign. When his command vehicle landed in Morocco, it bore a flag with “WTF” above the armored forces insignia.
The objective of the Western Task Force was to secure Morocco, starting with the port of Casablanca and its associated airfields. Patton landed his forces in three locations in the face of resistance from pro-Axis local French forces. Despite the initial resistance, Patton was able to secure Casablanca and a cessation of hostilities in three days. Afterwards, Patton’s troops had the difficult and delicate task of securing all of Morocco with the assistance of French forces.
I Armored Corps insignia. (Image source: WikiMedia Commons)Once Morocco was secured, Patton’s headquarters was reflagged back to I Armored Corps on January 9, 1943. The reactivation of the I Armored Corps was part of the establishment of the Fifth Army. Activated on January 5, the Fifth had the mission to “prepare a well organized, well equipped, and mobile striking force with at least one infantry division and one armored division fully trained in amphibious operations.”
The Fifth Army consisted of the I Armored Corps in Morocco and the II Corps in Algeria. Patton’s I Armored Corps consisted of the 2nd Armored Division, 3rd Infantry Division and 9th Infantry Division along with two tank battalions and two armored field artillery battalions.
After a six-week detachment to command II Corps in Tunisia, Patton returned to command of the I Armored Corps on April 15, 1943. Patton was now focused on the planning and training necessary for the invasion of Sicily. With no active combat in Morocco, the staff of the I Armored Corps took the lead in planning the invasion of Sicily, the largest amphibious assault ever conducted. The American contingent would consist of the I Armored Corps and the II Corps with Patton in overall command of American forces.
Patton in Sicily wearing the shoulder patch of the defunct I Armored Corps. (Image source: WikiMedia Commons)Transformation into Seventh Army
As the plan for the invasion was negotiated between Patton and British General Bernard Montgomery, it was determined that the British forces under Montgomery would be designated the British Eighth Army. To clarify Patton’s position as overall commander of the American forces and place him on an equal footing with Montgomery, the I Armored Corps was reflagged as the Seventh United States Army on the eve of the invasion. On July 10, 1943, the I Armored Corps was inactivated off the coast of Sicily.
Despite the inactivation, Patton continued to wear the patch of the I Armored Corps throughout the Sicilian Campaign. Later, as CG of the Third United States Army, Patton wore the insignia of the I Armored Corps on the right side of his dress helmet.
As part of the Army’s overall restructuring in 1943, the corps became a generic headquarters. Motorized divisions were reorganized as infantry divisions in May 1943, and the II, III and IV Armored Corps were redesignated XVIII, XIX and XX Corps in early October 1943, leaving the number XVII for the inactive I Armored Corps. The I Armored Corps was never reactivated, and its pioneering role in American armored warfare and amphibious operations has been largely forgotten.
Lee Perna is a resident of Alexandria, VA and CEO of Potomac Information Collection Services, a small historic research and genealogy company. He is also President of Del Ray Films and a retired officer of the United States Government, having served in a variety of locations around the world.
Frequently Asked Questions
How did the Vietnam War begin?
The North Vietnamese Army (NVA) had more men, better equipment, and superior training as the war began. However, American soldiers had greater firepower and air support as well as artillery.
The NVA also saw a significant increase in human resources; nearly twice as many Communist troops were fighting them than U.S. troops.
After two years of constant combat, the United States' military force became stronger and its enemy weaker. In 1969, Americans were more killed in action than during World War II.
This change in momentum was due to the development of new weapons systems and tactics. U.S. commanders were able to strike deep inside enemy territory thanks to the introduction of helicopter gunships.
As a consequence, the conflict became more unpopular with the general public, especially among young people. A poll found that less than half of college students support the war effort. This was when the U.S., South Vietnam and VietCong used chemical warfare. Students for a Democratic Society was one of the many groups that protested this tactic.
Who won the Battle of Gettysburg
This battle took place near Gettysburg in Pennsylvania during the American Civil War (1861-1865). The Union Army under General Ulysses S. Grant (1822-85) defeated Confederate troops led by General Robert E. Lee (1807-70).
The outcome of the battle had a profound impact on both sides. For the Confederacy, it marked the turning point of the war. It marked the turning point of war for the Confederacy. For the Union it was the beginning of the end to slavery.
Lincoln's "Emancipation Proclamation" of 1863 freed slaves in rebellion states. He signed the 13th Amendment in the Constitution, which effectively abolished slavery throughout America.
General Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox Courthouse, Virginia to General Ulysses S Grant on April 9, 1865.
After the surrender, Lee became a prisoner of war. He died in 1870.
Grant was awarded the Medal of Honor because of his leadership in the battle.
He died in 1885.
Who is the inventor of the submarine?
Alfred Nobel was the inventor of the first practical submarine, in 1872. This invention allowed ships to safely travel through the oceans, without being attacked or sunk by enemy warships.
Nobel developed a series sub-marines powered by compressed oxygen. Two propellers were used in his first design. However, they were too noisy to be useful underwater.
His second design only had one propeller. The vessel could then move silently below the water's surface.
Nobel patented his invention in 1883 and called it the "Hydrostatic Motor."
How long has the U.S. army been around?
The United States Army traces its roots back to 1775, when General George Washington established the Continental Army. Congress established the United States Marine Corps by enacting legislation in 1784.
The history of the Navy goes back to the March 27, 1794 signing by President George Washington a joint resolution that established the United States Navy.
In 1815, during the War of 1812, the U.S. government created the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service to collect customs duties along America's coastlines and inland waters.
The United States Office of Strategic Services (OSS) was founded during World War II. The OSS evolved into the Central Intelligence Agency, (CIA) in 1947.
To consolidate the various federal agencies involved in domestic safety and security, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) was established after the September 11 attacks.
The U.S Armed Forces currently include the Army (Air Force), Coast Guard Marines, Navy and National Guard.
- Of all services, the U.S. Army has paid the heaviest price since 911, with almost 42,000 active, guard, and reserve soldiers killed or wounded while serving overseas, according to Department of Defense figures. (militaryhistoryonline.com)
- According to Peter Fraser Purton, the best evidence of the earliest gun in Europe is the Loshult gun, dated to the fourteenth century. (en.wikipedia.org)
What did the U.S. do during WWII?
China, Russia, and the United States had been allies ever since 1941 when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. But after Germany invaded Russia in June 1941, Hitler turned his sights toward the Soviet Union. Operation Barbarossa was his invasion of the Soviet Union. It was launched in December 1941.
Hitler wanted Stalin to be forced to make peace with him, so he could prepare for future operations against Britain. He also hoped that the Red Army would be destroyed so that German troops could concentrate their efforts on destroying the British Royal Air Force.
Stalin continued to fight, even though it was clear that the war was over. He believed that the USSR needed to hold out long enough to continue its industrialization efforts.
The Soviets made their biggest mistake later. Hitler sent Field Marshal Erich von Manstein along with General Heinz Guderian from Germany to Moscow in July 1944. They tried to persuade Stalin not to surrender. Stalin refused to listen because he felt the Germans had already committed too much blood and treasure to defeat the Russians.
In August 1944, the Red Army began launching counterattacks against the Wehrmacht (German military) in East Prussia. On September 2, 1944, Hitler ordered the encirclement and destruction of the Red Army.
The German army seized Stalingrad in February 1943 and Leningrad January 1944. During the summer of 1944, Hitler began a massive offensive against the Soviet Union. Hitler had plans to invade Finland in July 1944.
The Allies arrived in France on August 21, 1944. Two days later the Soviet Union declared War on Germany. This led to the Battle of Kursk. The Red Army was defeated by the Germans.
Hitler launched a major attack against the Western Front shortly after the battle. Hitler's goal was to seize Paris. The German advance on the River Seine was stopped by the Allies.
The Americans also dropped atomic bombs upon Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Japan, at the same time. In the end, Emperor Hirohito gave up unconditionally. World War II came to an abrupt halt on August 14, 1945.
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