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Gen. Jacob Loucks Devers in WW II: ‘True driving force in the creation of American tanks and tank divisions’

Gen. Jacob Loucks Devers, left, talks with Lt. Donald E. MacNutt, 85th Engineers, as light and heavy vehicles from the 10th Armored Division cross the Rhine River about 70 years ago – on April 1, 1945. The engineers installed this pontoon bridge across the Rhine at Worms, Germany, in nine hours, considered a major feat in World War II. Devers, a York native and York High graduate, was instrumental in development of mobile armored units such as those crossing the Rhine in the background. Also of interest: Book gives positive view about forgotten general and York native Jake Devers

York countian Rich Robinson, tireless researcher into York’s native son Jacob Loucks Devers, has started a biography of the four-star general and believes that work “may turn out to be the work of what ever lifetime I have left.”

“I would very much like to do him justice in view of the way he has been maligned over the years but without making him some kind of one dimensional figure,” he wrote in an email. “This is already proving to be a challenge.”

I’m was in touch with Rich as part of my preparation for a class that I’m teaching on World War II and Gen. Devers for the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute in York.

I asked Rich for little-known or under-appreciated facts about Devers, one of Eisenhower’s top lieutenants in Europe.

Here is Rich’s assessment, lightly edited, of Devers’ work with tanks and other armored vehicles:

The Armored Force and the Development of Tanks – For many professional and amateur students of the U.S. Army in World War II, any mention of tanks and armored divisions instantly brings to mind George S. Patton.  Fewer recognize the pivotal role played by General Devers in organizing, training, and equipping the Army’s armored divisions.

At the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, there was no consensus among senior officers of the U.S. Army regarding what a tank was and what it was supposed to accomplish.  To many infantry officers, a tank was a moving machine gun nest designed to lay down a constant stream of bullets to cover attacking ground troops.  The size of the main gun was not particularly important.  To the cavalryman, the tank was an iron horse with bogey wheels relying on speed to sweep around enemy formations and attack vulnerable rear echelons of communications and supply. For cavalry officers, too, the armament of the tank was a secondary concern if it reduced speed.   Both infantry and cavalry officers thought tanks ought to be the responsibility of their respective branches.

In 1941, it became apparent to the Chief of Staff of the Army, General George C. Marshall, the development of the Army’s “Armored Force” was faltering.  The officer in command, General Adna C. Chaffee, who was regarded as the Army’s ranking expert in mechanized warfare, was dying from a cancer of the brain. Insiders believed General Marshall would turn to infantryman General Bruce Magruder or cavalryman, George S. Patton to take over from Chaffee and accelerate the pace of development.  Instead, Marshall selected General Devers of the field artillery much to the surprise of everyone, including Devers.

Devers took command at Fort Knox and immediately put forward a third view of the tank and what it was supposed to do.  Devers saw the tank as a gun platform and a system to concentrate firepower. He was decisive in choosing the M-4 (Sherman) mounting a 75mm gun as the principal battle tank of the Army over the objections of officers such as George Patton.  In balancing the three competing element of tank design: speed, firepower, and protection, Devers came down in favor of speed and firepower.  He believed tanks carrying excessive amounts of armor in addition to a heavy main gun would prove to be mechanically unreliable. This view was shared by a number of German officers.  Devers insisted on equipping American tanks with gasoline engines instead of heavier diesel engines.  Diesel engines required more frequent maintenance, and required specific fuel.  Contrary to the view popularized in the film “Patton,” the Sherman tank did not catch fire simply because it carried gasoline. More often a Sherman ignited due to the storage of ammunition.

In addition to selecting the M-4 Sherman, Devers also pushed the development of self-propelled artillery, despite the disapproval of his immediate superior, General Leslie McNair.  Devers believed all units of a modern, mechanized army had to move quickly.  Artillery had to keep up with fast moving tanks.  McNair, himself a gunner, favored the conventional towed gun. Devers and McNair also parted company tactics and the development of the “tank destroyer” — basically a motorized gun carriage carrying an anti-tank gun. Devers thought the most effective means of fighting an enemy tank was a better tank.  In this debate, he was over ruled.  When the war ended, the wisdom of his approach was acknowledged.

Even after he was sent to England in May, 1943 to command the European Theater of Operations, Devers remained close to the development of tanks.  In England, he learned of the British plan to equip their armored formations with Sherman tanks carrying a heavier gun, the Sherman “Firefly,” capable of engaging heavier German Panther and Tiger tanks.  As a result, he requested a number of newer T-26 tanks carrying a 90mm gun be sent to England prior to the Normandy invasion. His plan was to integrate these newer, more powerful tanks with the M-4 Sherman.  His request was denied by McNair who did not believe American tanks should engage enemy tanks.

For many of the officers who served with him, Jacob Devers was the true driving force in the creation of American tanks and tank divisions.  One even called him the real “father” of the Armored Force, a title given to General Chaffee.

Also of interest:

Next post, Rich Robinson explains several other of Devers’ accomplishments.

Jake - The General From West York Avenue by Michael A. MarkeySubmitted
Jake – The General From West York Avenue by Michael A. MarkeySubmitted

Michael Markey’s brief biography of Gen. Devers is a great place to get an overview of his life and military career. It is filled with photos from the extensive Devers collection at the York County Heritage Trust, publisher of Markey’s book. The photo above comes from that collection. The Devers collection has occupied Rich Robinson for countless hours. To order: Jake.