Eisenhower, Patton and Tank Innovation

“Nobody ever defended anything successfully, there is only attack and attack and attack some more.”

 – George S. Patton

Eisenhower first met George Patton in the summer of 1919 at Camp Meade in Maryland. Five years older than Eisenhower, Patton shared Eisenhower’s interests in horseback riding, pistol shooting, and poker, as well as a passion for the military. They also were both early advocates for the expanded use of tanks in battles.

At Camp Meade they were each responsible for their own tank corps. The military doctrine at the time had tanks supplementing infantry—they were to precede and accompany the troops and destroy enemy machine gun locations. These tanks had to go only as fast as the infantry, about three miles an hour.

Eisenhower and Patton had other ideas. They believed if tanks were fast and reliable and had more firepower, they could be used collectively for surprise attacks, to break down defenses quickly, and spread confusion and fear within the enemy ranks. The two of them spent about a year working through their theories. They designed the ideal tank, describing material to defend against machine guns that wouldn’t inhibit mobility. They learned what made tanks work by taking one apart completely and then putting it back together (and, to their surprise, there were no parts leftover).

They conducted field experiments by simulating battles, using the terrain to conceal and then surprise the imaginary enemy. One day they were working through an attack problem with a tank in a deep, muddy ditch. As the tank strained to come up the side of the ravine, a cable broke, whipping past both their heads at the speed of a bullet, missing both of them by about six inches. That night after dinner, Patton said, “Ike, were you as scared as I was?” Eisenhower responded, “I was afraid to bring the subject up. We were certainly no more than five or six inches from sudden death.”

Bradley, Eisenhower, and Patton

Bradley, Eisenhower, and Patton (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Another time they were testing how long the tank gun could fire before it lost its accuracy, caused by the barrel of the gun getting too hot. As they got out of the tank to have a look at the target, the gun started shooting on its own. They scrambled to safety and jammed the gun so it would stop. Embarrassed, they decided they had better not press their luck— they had taken their field experiments about as far as they could.

They documented all their successes and failures and described the exploitation of terrain and every other bit of information to add to World War I’s lessons. They analyzed military problems, modifying the tactics, and in every scenario where tanks were included, the battle was won. They were evangelists, and they worked on converting others.

These ideas were creative, innovative, and extremely compelling. But change doesn’t come easy, and some generals are notorious for always fighting the last war. These ideas were new, they weren’t aligned with existing military doctrines, and Major General Charles S. Farnsworth, the chief of the infantry, was not happy. Eisenhower was summoned to Farnsworths’s office, where he was warned that his “ideas were not only wrong but dangerous,” and that he should keep them to himself. If he “published anything incompatible with solid infantry doctrine,” he would face a court martial. Patton got the same message.

They were stunned. It seemed obvious to them that this was the future. They would commiserate about this strange turn of events over the next few weeks, but they weren’t down for long. They continued to drill at the camp, setting up teams and scenarios to sharpen their battle skills.

They were right about using the tank as a fierce and adaptable weapon, as the Germans proved during the Blitzkriegs of World War II. Eisenhower and Patton displayed admirable foresight into the future of mobile warfare, and Patton would go on to become one of the most celebrated tank commanders in military history.

[1] Eisenhower, At Ease, 169-172
[2] Eisenhower, At Ease, 173

Leadership and Respect

There is no such thing as human superiority.”

– Dwight D. Eisenhower

On a crisp autumn day at West Point as Eisenhower was walking to one of his third year classes he collided with a plebe who was running to carry out an order.  Although he wasn’t prone to participate in the hazing that occurred there, this time he made an exception. Collecting himself, Eisenhower sarcastically asked the plebe “Mr. Dungard, what is your previous condition of servitude? You look like a barber.”  The plebe responded meekly, “I was a barber, sir.”

Eisenhower was embarrassed. He didn’t say anything else to the plebe, and he went back to his room where he told his roommate, P.A. Hodgson, “I’m never going to crawl [haze] another plebe as long as I live. As a matter of fact, they’ll have to run over and knock me out of the company street before I’ll make any attempt again. I’ve just done something that was stupid and unforgivable. I managed to make a man ashamed of the work he did to earn a living.” Decades later it still bothered him that he didn’t apologize to the plebe for his rude behavior, but he learned a lesson that he took with him for the rest of his life – to respect each and every individual. “I learned the wickedness of arrogance and the embarrassment that can come about by the lack of consideration for others.” [1]

To get respect, you must give respect. Eisenhower was well known for not “engaging in personalities” – a phrase for his belief that it was always wrong to criticize a person’s motives or personality  regardless of the circumstances and the temptation to respond in kind. As President Eisenhower once told a speechwriter to strike out the word “deliberate” in a public statement because it amounted to an attack on a person. “When you said deliberate, what he had done, you were attacking his motives. Never, ever, attack a person’s motives” [2]

Respect and gratitude towards those who guide and follow you is also a trait among the greatest leaders. As rumors swirled regarding who would be appointed Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force for the invasion of Europe, Eisenhower was simply grateful to be in his existing role. Harry Butcher wrote “I have heard Ike speak of his gratitude to General Marshall, to the President, and to the country for the opportunity he has been given” as Allied Commander of the North African campaign. Eisenhower thought he “was the logical yet lucky choice” to lead the North African initiative. [3]

Eisenhower also had deep respect for the American citizen soldier. He enjoyed his assignments to train the troops, and as a commander he went to visit them as often as possible. “The trained American possesses qualities that are almost unique. Because of his initiative and resourcefulness, his adaptability to change and his readiness to resort to expedient, he becomes, when he has attained a proficiency in all the normal techniques of battle, a most formidable soldier. Yet even he has his limits; the preservation of his individual and collective strength is one of the greatest responsibilities of leadership.” [4]

[1] Eisenhower, At Ease, 17-1
[2] 25th Anniversary Reunion of the Staff of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, processed booklet, 1979, p.11.
[3] Butcher, My Three Years,  452
[4] Eisenhower, Crusade in Europe, 453