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