Saturday 26 September 2015

World of Tanks History Section: Adna Chaffee

The creator of the American armoured forces did not fight in a single large armoured battle. He was born on September 23rd, 1884, when tanks were far from the drawing board, and died on August 22nd, 1941, before the United States took an active part in the Second World War. However, Adna Romanza Chaffee Jr. did have combat experience.

He participated in the police action of American cavalry in Cuba in 1909, served in the Philippine occupational forces in 1914-1915, then transferred to France where he fought in the Battle of Saint-Mihiel and the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. Here, Chaffee first encountered tanks, a new weapon that has not yet reached its full potential. Soon, this weapon would become Chaffee's life.

Anti-tank trenches of bureaucracy

The experience of WWI was carefully studied by militaries of the world. Did senior American commanders understand the significance of the tank as an independent mobile fighting unit? They did, but not fully, and not unanimously. Many senior officers considered that the horse was still viable.

These disagreements were enhanced by the National Defense Act of 1920, which assigned tanks only one role: infantry support. Cavalry, where Chaffee served, was not supposed to have tanks. There was no talk of armoured forces as an independent branch, either. In order for it to appear, Chaffee and his allies would have to overcome the inertia of the American bureaucratic machine.

It was important to obtain authorization for at least a small mechanized unit and prove its usefulness in practice. This idea could be pushed through by a high ranking and respected field commander, whose opinion had weight to it in a discussion at any level. For instance, in the Soviet Union, Budyonniy was a proponent of total army mechanization. Americans that fought for the same thing did not have such a trump card. Major-General Chaffee, the main supporter of these reforms, earned his reputation only during peace time.

The American "tank lobby" won one small but significant victory over the bureaucrats: ordering a Combat Car for cavalry units. Even though it was a tracked vehicle with a rotating turret, it was not formally a tank, therefore Chaffee's opponents did not complain. This victory would soon become the foundation of the American tank program.

A willful general's theories

In 1928, Adna Chaffee managed to get his four year plan for the creation of a mechanized unit approved. However, Congress only allotted $284,000 for this task after two years, out of the required four million.

The foundation was laid, but the question of how to properly use these vehicles remained. The Americans could not follow the experience of other nations, as the doctrines of the leading tank-building nations, Britain, France, and Germany, varied wildly. Chaffee had to carefully analyze worldwide experience.

One of the first conclusions was that "with combined arms support, tank forces are the most powerful offensive force known today". WWII would confirm Chaffee's theory in less than 10 years.

His other theories also proved true. Indeed, the most effective way to use tanks turned out to be en masse, in corps or armies. Tanks without infantry, artillery, and air support turned out to be ineffective at cementing their success in battle. Chaffee's prediction that the coming years would see the increase in gun calibers and armour thickness was correct as well. Finally, the general remarked that the success of tanks on the battlefield was decided by "training and professional experience of specially selected and trained personnel. This training will take a large amount of time and cannot be replaced with any accelerated program".

In the end of 1934, Chaffee became the Budget and Law-making Coordinator in the Staff of the United States Army, giving him a real possibility of influencing the creation of independent tank and mechanized units with their own doctrine. He had one important thing left to do: confirm his assumptions in practice. This possibility arose in five years.

How to defeat regressives in two strikes

The Plattsburgh military exercise were held in the summer of 1939. Adna Chaffee participated as the commander of the 7th Cavalry (mechanized) Brigade and the "blue" side. His subordinates' actions against the "black" side were so successful that the exercise was stopped early, as the advantage of an aggressive tank offensive over traditional static defense was made very clear.

Chaffee widely applied speedy maneuvers, rapid change in the direction of attack, deep penetration into the enemy rear. In this way, he manages to paralyze the "black" team's attempt to adequately react to the changing situation. A combined arms attack with a concentrated fist of armour proved much more effective than infantry tactics with tanks pulled apart by battalion.

As the Plattsburgh exercises happened before the start of WWII, it is incorrect to state that he copied German Blitzkrieg. His strategy obviously was based on European experience, but it was independently created.

Despite the success of this doctrine, Chaffee decided that it needs serious improvements. In order to reach peak effectiveness, the tank "fist" needed infantry to hold ground and engineers to provide vital support. Chaffee worked on his mistakes and applied his new doctrine to large scale exercises in Louisiana a year later.

This time, the task was harder. Aside from standard objectives, Chaffee's 7th Cavalry Brigade was assigned the 66th Infantry-Tank Brigade as reinforcements. In 48 hours, these two units were supposed to join into one, march for 120 km, and deliver an attack against an enemy.

Despite the fact that this strike unit was formed ltierally on the march, it successfully penetrated organized defenses and reached operational depth. Here is where the exercise ended.

Adna Chaffee's stunning success allowed him to decide the future of the American armoured forces. Senior officers, including Brigadier General George Patton, formed the tank forces as an independent branch of the armed forces with its own doctrine. Conservative infantry and cavalry officers were no longer permitted to make these decisions. Chaffee himself died in 1941 and never saw his creation in action, but he did the most important thing, just in time.

Original article available here.

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