My presentation this evening is about “The GI Offensive in Europe,” which is the title of my book published in 1999 by the University Press of Kansas. I had originally entitled the manuscript “Building Blocks of Victory,” which I think more accurately portrays the essence of the thesis that I will discuss. The editors, however, felt strongly about including the term “GI” somewhere in the title – and having spent nine years researching and writing, I was not about to argue with them. I was gratified when The GI Offensive in Europe was honored as the distinguished book of the year by the Society for Military History and the Army Historical Foundation. More importantly, the work has sparked renewed debate about the combat effectiveness of American ground forces in the European Theater of Operations during the latter stages of World War II – debate that has implications for the U.S. Army today as we consider wholesale changes to the personnel, logistical, and training systems that grew out of that experience.
A fashionable argument in the past two decades has been that the Allies won World War II only through the sheer weight of material that they threw at the Wehrmacht in a relatively unskilled manner. The more combat effective German army was in the end bulldozed by less capable, but more numerous, enemies – or so the argument goes. All of the immense weight of material produced by the industrial strength of the United States, however, was just so much junk without trained soldiers to operate it and bring it to bear against the enemy, a coherent doctrine for its employment, and leaders who could command the formations into which it was organized.
The task of mobilizing and training an army of eight million soldiers in four years was enormous. More impressive, however, were the results those soldiers achieved when pitted in combat against one of the most tactically proficient armies ever to exist. In campaigns fought across the globe American soldiers proved their capabilities in battle, the ultimate test for an army and a nation.
Sheer numbers alone could not ensure the victory of the Allied coalition in World War II. Rather, the relative quality of the forces fielded by the Allied and Axis powers was crucial to the ultimate outcome. The combat effectiveness of these forces changed over time right up until the end of the fighting. In general, Allied combat effectiveness increased, while huge casualties and shortages of key resources eventually caused German effectiveness to decline. While the causes of the decay of the Wehrmacht are readily apparent, the reasons for the increase in Allied combat effectiveness are less well understood. Material superiority is an insufficient explanation for the ultimate triumph of the armies fielded by Allied powers. It is my belief that the relative combat effectiveness of the various armies had a major impact on the outcome of the war in Europe.
Comparing the American and German armies, the difference between the two forces is apparent. German units could maneuver well and generally had excellent leadership, discipline, unit cohesion, and training. Although German ground combat units were tactically outstanding, the Wehrmacht failed as a fighting organization because of its numerous deficiencies in other areas such as logistics, fire support, intelligence, interservice cooperation, and its inability to adapt to the changing tactics and operations of its foes as World War II progressed.
The American army possessed great advantages in terms of superior intelligence and the ability to devastate opponents with fires. American military leaders were also able to plan and execute joint operations to a much higher standard than their adversaries. American citizen-soldiers proved to be adaptable to changing conditions and were often able to develop new tactics, techniques, and procedures in the midst of a campaign. The most critical factor, however, was the endurance of the American army once engaged in extended combat.
American commanders in Europe rarely possessed the numerical superiority the revisionists claim overwhelmed the Wehrmacht in 1944 and 1945. Indeed, they would have resisted the notion that the American army overwhelmed its adversaries with sheer numbers or material superiority. Instead, American leaders used the personnel and logistical systems they created to keep a small number of divisions at a relatively high state of combat effectiveness. The ability of the American army to sustain its effort over an extended campaign tipped the balance in Western Europe. For an army whose strength was less than that of the Romanian army only a few short years before, perhaps the ultimate tribute was the fact that only one division out of eighty-nine completely failed the test of combat [the 106th Infantry Division during the Battle of the Bulge]. In the final analysis, American infantry divisions performed much better than either British or German military leaders believed they would.
The Historical Debate
The debate over combat effectiveness started early and has hardly waned since. The initial assault on the reputation of the American army came from an unexpected source. In 1947 Colonel S.L.A. Marshall, the Deputy European Theater Historian during World War II, published a book entitled Men against Fire that called into question the quality of American infantrymen. Marshall contended that fewer than 25 percent of American infantrymen fired their weapons in any given battle. In his view, the inability of American infantry units to gain "fire superiority" over their adversaries was the primary reason for their failure to maneuver in order to close with the enemy and destroy him. Given the credibility of the source, for nearly four decades military officers and historians took Marshall's thesis as fact.
Three decades later another military historian, Trevor N. Dupuy, also cited statistics in his assertion of the inferiority of American combat units on the European battlefields of World War II. His work, Numbers, Predictions, and War, applied the techniques of quantitative analysis to the outcomes of eighty-one combat engagements in 1943 and 1944. Using a mathematical equation he called the "Quantified Judgment Model," Dupuy concluded that German units were on the average 20 percent more effective than their British and American counterparts. Dupuy believed some of the factors that caused this "superiority" could be better utilization of manpower, more experience, greater mobility, better doctrine, more effective battle drill, superior leadership, and inherent national characteristics.
Dupuy was the vanguard of a group of historians who trumpeted the tactical superiority of the Wehrmacht at the expense of the American army. Russell Weigley gave the American army faint praise in his now classic work, Eisenhower's Lieutenants. Weigley claims that the American army in 1940 could not escape the inheritance of the western frontier on its military thought. Although the Civil War taught the Army the importance of power on an European-style battlefield, the frontier heritage emphasized the importance of mobility in tactical units. The result of this legacy was that American divisions lacked the staying power to fight a war of attrition against their German opponents, while the mobility of American units could not be used to the best effect in the slugging matches of France and Germany in 1944 and 1945. The pedestrian tactical abilities of inexperienced American generals resulted in a battle of attrition, waged by an army fashioned more for mobility than staying power. Material resources, Weigley concludes, enabled the American army to "rumble to victory," despite its relative combat ineffectiveness against its German opponents.
A year later Martin van Creveld made the most extreme case for the combat superiority of the Wehrmacht with the publication of Fighting Power: German and U.S. Army Performance, 1939-1945. The Wehrmacht, Van Creveld argues, "developed fighting power to an almost awesome degree," and totally outclassed the American army on the battlefield. Van Creveld believes that the American army had a managerial view of war and treated its organizations as parts of a vast industrial enterprise. American emphasis on centralized planning, organization, and logistics relegated its soldiers to the status of cogs in a vast machine of war. By contrast, the German focus on small unit cohesion, training, and tactics made their combat units much more effective on the battlefield. Van Creveld saved his harshest criticism for the American personnel replacement system. "Perhaps more than any other single factor," Van Creveld argues, "it was this system that was responsible for the weaknesses displayed by the U.S. Army during World War II." The American army, by attempting to maximize its efficiency in the numerical sense, ended up reducing its combat effectiveness by lack of attention to the psychology of the fighting man.
Three British historians, John Keegan (The Second World War), Max Hastings (Overlord and Armageddon), and John Ellis (Brute Force), all accept the arguments of Weigley and Van Creveld without much alteration. The German army, all three authors contend, was much more competent and combat effective than its allied counterparts. The allies won through brute force by bringing to bear the full weight of their material resources against the German military forces, which fought skillfully but unsuccessfully against overwhelming odds.
Historian Geoffrey Parker once noted that the half-life of an historical theory is roughly ten years, so it should not be surprising that scholars have not left the theory of German battlefield supremacy unchallenged. The first person to do so was John Sloan Brown with the publication in 1986 of Draftee Division, a history of the 88th Infantry Division during World War II. The 88th Infantry Division, commanded by Brown's grandfather, Major General John E. Sloan, earned an excellent reputation fighting in Italy from the spring of 1944 to the end of the war. The reason for the division's success, Brown argues, was that the War Department's Mobilization Training Program worked as long as a unit could stabilize its personnel early and keep them from being stripped away for other purposes. The 88th Infantry Division was one of the more fortunate units in this regard. With good leadership, sound training both in the United States and overseas, and a solid logistical structure behind it, the 88th Division was an example of the American mobilization system at its finest.
Despite its contribution to the debate, Draftee Division was too limited in its scope to come to any definitive conclusions about the combat effectiveness of the American army as a whole. More recent works have filled in some of the gaps in the discussion. In a study of the Seventh U.S. Army's campaign in the Vosges Mountains (When the Odds were Even), Keith Bonn compares the strengths and weaknesses of the American and German armies which contended for the northeastern corner of France from October 1944 to January 1945. Not only did the Seventh U.S. Army emerge victorious in this campaign, it did so without the aid of extensive logistical and close air support and in terrain and weather conditions that clearly favored a defensive stand by the numerically superior German forces. The divisions of the Seventh U.S. Army, Bonn argues, were more combat effective than their German counterparts in Army Group G. The American replacement system functioned better in maintaining those divisions at an adequate strength level, their uniform organization was superior to the ad hoc organizations employed by Army Group G, and American commanders were more tactically flexible and were able to use their initiative more often than their German counterparts. Bonn concludes that in a campaign fought without the combat multipliers available to other American armies, without numerical superiority, and in atrocious weather and terrain conditions, the Seventh U.S. Army proved its superiority against its counterpart, Germany Army Group G – and it did so when the odds were even.
Published the same year as Bonn's book, Closing with the Enemy by Michael Doubler examines how the American army was able to adapt to different conditions in France and Germany in 1944 and 1945. What was most impressive about the American combat performance, Doubler argues, was the American ability to learn from their mistakes and adapt new tactics, techniques, and procedures in the face of unexpected conditions on the battlefield. Adaptability was crucial to the success of American combat units. After a period of adaptation, American divisions became effective instruments of national policy, able to close with and destroy the enemy in a variety of combat environments.
In Why the Allies Won, Richard Overy also tackles the commonly held view that the Allies defeated the Axis powers through sheer weight of industrial abundance. Although Allied victory in 1945 seems inevitable from the distance of half a century, it was not so clear to those nations that fought the war. The vast potential of Allied resources had to be turned into combat power. The gulf in fighting power, Overy argues, narrowed as the war progressed, with the Allies closing the qualitative gap with the German army by 1944. The German army, on the other hand, stagnated due to its unwillingness or inability to change. In the end, the Wehrmacht proved skillful in retreat, but withdrawals do not win wars. Imbued with the will to win and certain that their cause was just, the Allied nations turned their economic potential into combat power and thereby gained the ultimate triumph.
I would also add the works of Stephen Ambrose – no stranger to the D-Day Museum – into this counter-revisionist school, particularly his two seminal works, D-Day and its companion successor, Citizen Soldiers. As important as these works are, what was lacking in the argument for American combat effectiveness is a comprehensive approach to the subject. Revisionist historians have focused too heavily on the early struggles of the Army of the United States in World War II, such as the campaign in North Africa or the Normandy invasion, to the exclusion of later operations in 1944 and 1945. Additionally, some historians have mistaken Allied mediocrity in devising operational concepts for tactical ineptitude at the division level and below. Due to decisions on allocation of resources made early in the war, American divisions operated with severe handicaps; nevertheless, nearly all of them developed into effective fighting organizations that accomplished their missions on battlefields literally oceans apart.
Mobilization and Training
Given the resource and time constraints under which it operated, the Army of the United States adequately developed the large number of combat formations required to fight a global war. The most important limitation by far was time. The United States was the last major combatant to enter World War II and began at a relatively low level of mobilization and readiness. Production of equipment for lend-lease competed with the needs of combat divisions and air groups. Construction of training facilities took place simultaneously with the activation of numerous new military formations. Personnel needs of the services competed with each other and with the needs of war industries. As a result of this turmoil, new divisions took a longer time to organize and train than called for by the Mobilization Training Plan and the Army eventually had to scale back the number of divisions it activated.
Despite these drawbacks, the process of creating new divisions was sound. When the system worked properly, divisions were able to progress through their training relatively unmolested by personnel turbulence, received adequate time to train small units at their home stations, and then deployed to take part in army level maneuvers. When the mobilization plan fell short of its stated goals, the problem usually rested in constant personnel turnover as the War Department called upon divisions in training to provide large numbers of replacement soldiers, officer candidate and air cadet drafts, and cadres to form new units.
Army Ground Forces under Lieutenant General Lesley J. McNair attempted to create each combat division with the same pattern to ensure that they were equally combat effective. In an attempt to economize manpower, however, General McNair centralized many assets – such as independent tank and tank destroyer battalions – at army level under the assumption that every division did not need these assets all the time. What General McNair failed to see was the need for the combat division to be as self-contained as possible to foster the teamwork and cohesiveness necessary for successful functioning on the battlefield. The results of this centralization were inadequate numbers of tank battalions to support infantry divisions and a bloated, centralized supply system that lacked the flexibility the combat divisions required of their own organic logistical organizations. American infantry divisions successfully improvised to meet the demands of the battlefield with the organic and attached assets at their disposal.
Throughout the war, American infantry divisions in World War II routinely operated with numerous attachments in combat – to include artillery, tank, tank destroyer, engineer, and anti-aircraft units – which gave them much greater power than one would surmise from a look at their tables of organization. Additionally, the conversion to the triangular infantry division – an organization that contained three infantry regiments instead of four as in the ponderous units of the AEF in World War I – did not cause a lack of staying power in the Army of the United States during World War II, contrary to Russell Weigley’s thesis in Eisenhower's Lieutenants. In his comments on the 1940 maneuvers, General McNair stated:
Both square and triangular divisions embody a high degree of strategic and tactical mobility; great fire power; and when employed properly, adequate ability to sustain combat…The impression that the triangular division is weak is erroneous. While the triangular division is the smaller, a given man power permits correspondingly more triangular divisions than square divisions. Thus a given front can be held equally strongly by both types with the same total number of men. Fewer square divisions, each occupying a larger front, give the same strength as more triangular divisions, each occupying a smaller front.
Weigley's argument would only hold true had the Army substituted square for triangular divisions on a one-for-one basis. The extra infantry strength of the square division would then have allowed an internal unit replacement system at the division level.
The revival of the square division was proposed and rejected after World War II. In a G3 conference held in June 1945 with representatives from three corps and six infantry divisions, Army Ground Forces inquired regarding the advisability of adding a fourth infantry regiment to the triangular division for the purpose of allowing regimental rotations. Every officer but one responded negatively to the idea. Although they considered the goal of rotating units in combat an admirable one, "they would not take the idea seriously because they were unanimous in the belief that higher commanders would be unable to resist the temptation to use the extra regiment tactically instead of restricting it to its intended role." Given the constraints of the ninety division gamble, the Army of the United States simply lacked enough divisions in 1944 and 1945 to operate a unit replacement system. Individual replacements were the only other recourse.
The United States mobilized eighty-nine army divisions during World War II, a decision based more on the erroneous belief that American industry could not cede more manpower to the military without incurring shortfalls than by any rational calculation of battlefield needs. The official historian of the Army believes that the performance of its combat divisions on the field of battle in 1944-1945 "vindicated the bold calculation in Washington" not to produce more units. This conclusion is highly debatable. The decision to cap the Army at ninety divisions had ramifications beyond whether or not the United States and its allies would win the war. The limitation on the number of divisions, when combined with the inability of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his chiefs of staff to adhere to the "Germany first" strategy, resulted in a shortage of divisions when the western allies conducted their crucial campaign in France in 1944. This situation forced American commanders to keep their divisions engaged in battle more or less continuously during the campaign.
As weeks and then months passed, the combat effectiveness of American divisions rose and fell as they lost men to enemy fire, disease, cold weather injuries, and exhaustion, and integrated hundreds of thousands of replacements into their ranks. A greater number of divisions would have enabled American commanders to rotate units more frequently for periods of rest, refitting, and retraining, thereby reducing the rate of casualties. Due to the ninety division gamble and the employment of nearly one-third of the Army along with all six Marine divisions in the Pacific, systematic unit rotation was impossible in the European Theater of Operations.
Lack of personnel stability also weakened many divisions, especially those mobilized after Pearl Harbor. These divisions endured high personnel turnover as the War Department stripped them for replacements to meet the pressing needs of overseas battlefields. Lack of personnel stability complicated the training of these divisions, often forcing them to repeat basic training for new inductees at the expense of more advanced collective training for battalion and regimental combat teams.
Shortages of equipment also plagued the Army in 1942 and early 1943, and many units trained with equipment different from that with which they went into combat. Training facilities were initially inadequate, but expanded rapidly as the Army mobilized. Huge maneuver areas located across the United States allowed the Army to conduct sustained large-scale, multi-division maneuvers for the first time in its history. Facilities and training improved as mobilization progressed and reached a peak in early 1944 as the Army prepared for the invasion of France.
In the end, however, Army Ground Forces only partially met its goal of sending fully trained and combat ready divisions into combat. Divisions attained various degrees of combat readiness based on numerous factors and although most of them achieved an adequate baseline proficiency, the certification of some divisions as combat ready was a paper drill that masked their inadequacies. Not that the War Department had much choice in the matter; by the end of 1944 during the Battle of the Bulge the need for divisions in Europe was so great that the Chief of Staff, General George C. Marshall, sent Allied commander General Dwight D. Eisenhower every division left in the strategic reserve, regardless of its state of readiness.
With so few divisions in the line, the War Department worked hard to keep them at full strength. The Army was able to avoid breaking up units for replacements, an expedient that plagued the American Expeditionary Forces in World War I. The Army trained approximately 2,670,000 enlisted men as replacements from 1941 to 1945, more than twice the number of men assigned to the eighty-nine combat divisions at the end of the war.
Replacements could keep a division numerically at the correct strength, but the proportion of well-trained and combat experienced soldiers declined as minimally qualified replacements entered the ranks. Soldiers entering combat for the first time without adequate training and teamwork experienced an inordinate amount of casualties. Without enough divisions available to rotate units out of combat on a regular basis, however, there was little choice other than to integrate individual replacement soldiers into the combat divisions fighting on the front lines. The American army could certainly have administered its replacement system better, but given the assumptions underpinning the Army's end strength, the decision to implement a system of individual replacements was the correct one.
Once an infantry division of the Army of the United States entered combat in Europe and sustained losses, it could never maintain a high level of combat effectiveness unless it integrated its replacements in a suitable manner. Although replacement soldiers were treated poorly by the system through which they traveled to their final destination, divisions adopted various expedients to integrate replacements more smoothly. Some divisions formed training centers to indoctrinate and train replacements, rehabilitate combat exhaustion cases, and train junior officers and noncommissioned officers before they assumed leadership positions. Most divisions came to realize that they had to treat incoming replacements well and ensure their smooth integration into combat units behind the front to enable them to train with their units, learn survival skills from combat experienced veterans, understand their role in the team, and get to know their leaders. Failure to do so meant an increase in casualties and a drop in combat effectiveness, for once engaged in combat, divisions were only as good as the replacements they received to keep them up to strength. The alternative was to leave units in the line without giving them replacements, as the Wehrmacht often did.
The German system of employing numerous kampfgruppen, small units formed from the fragments of divisions or regiments that had once been at full strength, was vastly inferior to the American system of keeping every combat division effective through the infusion of individual replacements. Not only did the American replacement system function better in maintaining U.S. divisions at an adequate strength level, the uniform organization of American units was superior to the numerous ad hoc organizations employed by Germany as the war progressed. The employment of kampfgruppen as an emergency measure may be a justified necessity, but one should not view crisis management of combat forces as a superior method to the careful administration of individual replacements on a continual basis.
The United States was the only nation able to maintain its fighting forces near full strength throughout the war, a fact which greatly impressed German commanders. The individual replacement system had its flaws, but these flaws stemmed from poor administration of the system rather than an inherent flaw in the concept. The task for division commanders was to take these replacements and integrate them in such a manner as to maintain the combat effectiveness of their organizations. By doing so American commanders were able to maintain the combat effectiveness of their organizations even as the Wehrmacht slowly disintegrated.
Compounding the difficulties many divisions faced in mobilization and training was the fact that only a few of them received any combat experience before D-Day. The fierce battles of attrition in Normandy pitted mostly untested Allied divisions, backed by a healthy superiority of artillery and airpower, against under-strength German units leavened with combat experienced leaders and possessing many technologically superior weapons. The Allies prevailed by wearing down the German army in bloody fighting among the hedgerows, and then penetrating through the weakened German line with American armored and infantry divisions.
Organizational Effectiveness of AUS Divisions and their German Counterparts
Comparisons of the relative merits of the German and American forces that faced each other in Normandy can be misleading. Germany began its rearmament program in 1933 when Hitler came to power and enjoyed six years of peace in which to expand the 100,000 man Reichswehr, but even that rather luxurious time interval strained the competence of the force. German divisions fought in campaigns in Poland, Norway, France, the Balkans, Africa, and Russia prior to D-Day. They suffered many casualties, but by June 1944 the Wehrmacht had combat veterans in command of its units and an established, combat-tested tactical doctrine. Most German units had solid noncommissioned officer leaders and well-trained soldiers, kept in line through ideological indoctrination and rigid (and often brutal) discipline. German equipment was among the most technologically advanced in the world, especially their tanks and machine guns.
The Army of the United States lacked most of these advantages when compared to the Wehrmacht. Germany began rearmament six years before the Polish campaign. American rearmament, on the other hand, began in June 1940 after the fall of France, and within two and a half years the first American divisions engaged in combat in North Africa against an experienced enemy. The United States rapidly produced an army of citizen-soldiers. Few American divisions had received a baptism of fire before D-Day. Significantly, of those divisions sent to Normandy that had been in combat before (the 1st and 9th Infantry Divisions, the 82nd Airborne Division, and the 2nd Armored Division), all performed well. The Army also still had to work out critical elements of its doctrine, such as anti-armor defense, at the unit level. Most American divisions lacked combat tested leadership, had not weeded out all of the incompetent leaders, and found training difficult due to the shortage of space in Great Britain. One wonders how the German army would have fared had it been forced to fight under similar circumstances in the Rhineland, Austria, or Czechoslovakia between 1936 and 1938.
Few divisions were fully effective upon their entry into combat, but on the whole Army Ground Forces succeeded in developing divisions that could attain a high degree of effectiveness after their initial battles. Differences in effectiveness were a function primarily of the leadership exercised by the division commander and combat experience. Unit effectiveness changed over time as leaders emerged, casualties left and replacements arrived, combat taught new lessons, and units trained to new standards. The cyclical nature of combat effectiveness was common to all of the divisions that fought in Europe, an unavoidable result of high casualties and the functioning of the individual replacement system. By way of example, between June 1944 and May 1945, the 9th Infantry Division sustained over 33,000 battle and non-battle casualties, nearly two and one-half times its authorized strength. Given this amount of turnover, sustainment of combat effectiveness remained a significant challenge.
One enormous advantage that American divisions had in combat was their vastly superior fire support, made possible by the advances in fire support coordination and technique during the interwar period. American artillery was the best in the world by the time the Army entered into combat overseas. Tooled with new, more powerful, more mobile weapons, and directed through a combination of radio-equipped forward observers and fire direction centers, American artillery had the ability to mass fire on the enemy that impressed both friend and foe alike. This firepower largely negated the superior ability of German units to maneuver at the small unit level. Most American commanders, however, eventually learned that they must strike a balance between maneuver and firepower or risk failure in combat.
Despite S.L.A. Marshall’s arguments to the contrary, American infantrymen in World War II fired their weapons as necessary to survive and accomplish their mission. The fact is, however, that small arms fire from the M-1 rifle was not the determining factor in whether American units achieved "fire superiority" on the battlefield. Firepower for infantry units came from many sources, most of them external to the infantry battalion itself, and chief among which was the excellent artillery support which American units enjoyed throughout the war. Reflecting on his experience as an infantry battalion commander in World War II, General William E. Depuy concluded that what he really accomplished "was that I moved the forward observers of the artillery across France and Germany." The artillery massed firepower that the infantry lacked, and although the infantryman was essential to take and hold ground, he was not the primary killing instrument of the American army in the ETO. The Army of the United States achieved its dominance in firepower over the German army through the skillful use of all of the fire resources at its disposal. The victory belonged to the combined arms team – not any one part of it.
American divisions had other advantages in battle, advantages sometimes overlooked by historians who focus too narrowly on the tactical maneuvers of armor and infantry units in battle. The Allies had an outstanding intelligence system, although noticeable failures in 1944 at Arnhem and in the Ardennes tarnished its reputation somewhat. The information provided by ULTRA was of tremendous value to those commanders who possessed knowledge of it. At corps level and below, a steady stream of enemy prisoners, patrol reports, and superior aerial reconnaissance also provided a great deal of information to American commanders. American logistics and transportation assets surpassed those of any other nation. Although certain American weapons, such as tanks and machine guns, were not as effective as their German equivalents, American soldiers successfully used the weapons at their disposal to close with and destroy the enemy. The American armed forces also proved their ability to operate in a joint environment with air and naval forces, although this took longer than it should have in the case of the development of an effective close air support system. Looked at in its totality, the combat effectiveness of the Army of the United States in 1944 and 1945 was impressive.
The experience of senior American commanders was also an important element in the development of combat effectiveness in the Army of the United States. Senior American leaders lacked experience in commanding large formations due to the scarcity of resources in the interwar Army. They had learned their profession mostly through intensive study in the Army's professional school system. How they would perform in battle was anybody's guess. During the war, American commanders at the operational level of war (army and army group level) made many mistakes – such as the failure to complete the encirclement of the Germany army in Normandy – that unnecessarily prolonged the war. Commanders at division level and below, on the other hand, displayed the ability to learn from their experiences and change their tactics and techniques, sometimes even in the midst of combat such as during the bitter fighting in the hedgerows during the Normandy campaign. Without a doubt, one of the strong suits of the Army of the United States in World War II was its ability to improvise solutions to tactical problems on the battlefield. American infantry divisions adapted to combat in a variety of environments and innovated extensively to get their missions accomplished. American tactical commanders learned how to combine the efforts of the various arms and services to defeat the enemy and accomplish their missions.
Given the difficulties of rapid mobilization, the achievements of American combat divisions appear in a different light. By the late summer of 1944 the Army had largely overcome its handicaps and had reached a high level of military effectiveness – superior to that of its enemies. A more balanced comparison of German and American forces would compare each organization at its zenith, say, the German army in June 1941 and the American army in April 1945. I submit that one would be hard pressed to choose between the two forces on the basis of technical or tactical proficiency at the division level. Given the pernicious ideological bias of the German army, however, the choice would in fact be easy to make for the people of a democratic society. The Army of the United States reached its zenith of combat effectiveness without the extensive ideological indoctrination and fear-based discipline that infused many German units with their will to fight.
Few American commanders of the World War II era would agree with the contention that the German army was more effective. While the cream of the Wehrmacht, the panzer and panzer grenadier divisions, were effective organizations and a match for the divisions of the Army of the United States, the bulk of the German army was not composed of these units. The average German infantry division could not defeat an American infantry division in battle, while American infantry divisions consistently proved their ability to accomplish their missions against the enemy divisions in front of them. In terms of mechanization and their ability to conduct mobile warfare, American infantry divisions were in a class by themselves. Nor could the German army consistently sustain its fighting power. The Wehrmacht could field superb formations equipped with technologically advanced weapons, but its failure to provide the means for their logistical sustainment led to their undoing.
The sheer magnitude of American industrial mobilization may cause one to overlook the quality of the end product. The abundance of industrial resources gave the Army of the United States a large quantity of equipment and munitions, but Army leaders still had to form units capable of using these weapons in an effective manner. Beginning with mobilization in mid-1940, Army leaders turned the potential of industrial and manpower resources into the capabilities of combat power as expressed in the divisions of the Army of the United States. Over time, these formations developed into lethal fighting organizations. The American army in Europe never had enough divisions at its disposal simply to overwhelm its adversaries with mountains of men and material. It accomplished its mission of assisting in the destruction of Axis forces through the superior effectiveness of its ground combat divisions, backed by powerful air and naval forces which ruled the seas and skies of Europe. American industrial capability did not assure victory; rather, material abundance enabled the United States to maintain the effectiveness of its divisions overseas in extended and grueling campaigns fought thousands of miles from the homeland.
The great achievement of the Army of the United States in World War II was to rapidly mold a large army of citizen soldiers into an effective fighting force. American divisions, led by a small slice of Regular Army and National Guard cadre and filled with draftees and the products of officer candidate schools, performed competently on the battlefield once they overcame the initial shock of combat. The first battles were for the most part traumatic affairs, but American divisions displayed the ability to learn from their mistakes and improve their performance in future battles. Lieutenant General Lucian K. Truscott, Jr., who fought in operational command of American soldiers from the invasion of North Africa to V-E Day, recognized this progression. "When American soldiers first came in contact with the German soldier," Truscott wrote,
the latter was already a veteran with a long military tradition, the product of long and thorough military training, led by experienced and capable officers, and equipped with the most modern weapons. The German was then better trained especially for operations in small units, and the quality of his leadership was superior. German soldiers displayed an ingenuity and resourcefulness more American than British. The American quickly adapted himself and learned much from the German. Sicily and southern Italy proved that he had mastered his lessons well. From Anzio on there was never a question of the superiority of American soldiers.
There was never a question, that is, in the minds of American commanders. It remained for the defeated German army and its apologists to perpetuate a flawed theory that the Army of the United States had blundered its way to victory by throwing mountains of material at the superior but hopelessly outnumbered forces of the Wehrmacht.
The Army of the United States succeeded in World War II due to its development of combat effective organizations that could not only fight and win battles, but sustain that effort over years of combat. Logistical superiority helped to give American ground combat divisions endurance, but did not assure victory on the battlefield. With only forty-two infantry divisions, sixteen armored divisions, and three airborne divisions in the ETO, American commanders had to ensure that the combat effectiveness of their units matched or exceeded that of their enemies. The key to this development was the transformation of the standard American infantry division from untested organization to a fighting unit capable of closing with and destroying the enemy in a variety of combat environments. Throughout the battles for North Africa, Italy, France, and Germany, the infantry divisions of the Army of the United States became the building blocks of victory upon which American commanders crafted their operations to annihilate the Wehrmacht and achieve ultimate victory in the largest and most destructive war in human history.
Col. Peter R. Mansoor is the author of The GI Offensive in Europe:The Triumph of American Infantry Divisions, 1941-1945 published by the University of Kansas Press. He received his Ph.D. in history from Ohio State University, taught military history at West Point, and was special assistant to the director for strategic plans and policy. The Joint Staff, 1997-1999. He is an active duty colonel in the United States Army and former commander of 1st Brigade, 1st Armored Division in Iraq in 2003-4. He is currently s a senior military fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Col Mansoor's comments on the Training of Iraqi Forces
can be seen at this link at the Council on Foreign Relations