Golden Journal No. 29:
The AEF’s Tank Corps
Even before his American Expeditionary Forces formally came into existence, Gen. John Pershing decided that it should include a Tank Corps. American staff officers visited the front in May 1917 to see tanks in action, and they issued a written report to Pershing in June. The tanks, they wrote, had many technical problems but the morale effect on German troops more than offset them.
American productive capacity had yet to be truly harnessed to the war effort beyond some factories were pumping out ammunition and weapons for the Allies. The AEF was projected to number 20 massively oversized infantry divisions (each with four infantry regiments, an artillery brigade, an engineer regiment and machine-gun battalion). To match that, the Tank Corps would field 20 battalions of light tanks, and five more of heavy tanks (later increased to 10 battalions).
That would require 2,000 light tanks and 200 heavy tanks, plus steady delivery of 300 light tanks and 30 heavy tanks per month as replacement machines. Pershing’s staff soon altered those requirements, halving the number of light tanks in each battalion but tripling the number of heavy tanks, some of which would be troop and supply carriers. They also laid out requirements for soft-skinned vehicles to carry supplies, act as tank transporters and carry maintenance gear.
Capt. Patton and a Renault FT light tank, sometime in 1918.
Next the Americans reviewed the tanks fielded by their British and French allies, both those in service and those still on the drawing boards. They quickly rejected the French heavy tanks, which seemed to be merely slow and poorly-protected artillery carriers. The new Renault FT17 light tank, in contrast, looked to be exactly what the Americans desired. It was mobile, reasonably well-protected, had a crew of just two and offered the same firepower as much larger and more expensive tanks.
Perhaps more importantly, the French were ready if not eager to make a deal. The tank had been ready for production in February 1917, but had nearly been cancelled in favor of the massive Char 2C heavy tank, and work did not actually begin until September 1917. The Americans could have the production license, models from which to work, and complete plans. In exchange, the French wanted American factories to build 2,000 tanks for them in addition to the production of French plants.
For their heavy tank, the Americans initially settled on the British Mark VI, then the most advanced British design. This was a “rhomboid” design with tall tracks moving about the entire circumference of the tank. It had just reached the prototype stage; the first wooden mockup had not been completed when the Americans reviewed the plans.
The Mark VI lacked the sponsons of previous, similar tanks and was somewhat smaller. It had a single 6-pounder (57mm) gun mounted in the faceplate and apparently four machine guns. The U.S. Navy, wishing to equip the Marines with tanks, wanted 600 of them and service rivalry threatened to break out.
The Mark VIII Liberty tank.
While the British were quite willing to sell the tank to either American service, that didn’t suit the agenda of Sir Albert Gerald Stern, head of the Mechanical Warfare Supply Department, in charge of British tank procurement. The Mark VI had been designed to the physical limits of British manufacturing facilities, with labor shortages and financial difficulties also pressing for a smaller tank. Stern cancelled the Mark VI before the Americans could bring it to life, telling them that it was not, in fact, the most advanced British heavy tank design. That would be the Mark VIII.
No such tank existed. Design work hurriedly began, with the Americans invited to contribute their own ideas. The new tank would be built in American factories, with the British providing guns and armor. Eventually, the allies agreed, an assembly plant would be built in France, perhaps using Chinese unskilled labor.
While the Americans negotiated for tanks, they energetically set about establishing their Tank Corps. The Corps received its first officer, Capt. George S. Patton, in November 1917 and a commanding officer, Samuel D. Rockenbach, a month later. Patton set up a training center for the light tank battalions in France, while the heavy tank battalions would be raised in the United States and shipped to England for training.
Patton, previously commander of Pershing’s palace guard, lobbied hard for the job on the grounds that he had both cavalry and machine-gun experience, had fought from motor vehicles during Pershing’s 1916 Mexican Expedition, and spoke fluent French. He energetically leapt into his new duties, setting up training schedules, drafting battalion organization tables (which remained intact, with only minor adjustments, until the 1980’s), designing tanker uniforms, touring tank factories and design studios, and finding time to learn how to drive an FT17 and fire its weapons.
Patton also wrote the first combat doctrine for American armor. The tank’s role was to support the infantry, not to act as armored artillery or an independent arm. The tanks should accompany the infantry in their breakthrough, destroying wire entanglements, suppressing machine-gun and trench cannon positions, and acting as “a heavily-armored infantry soldier.” A strong tank reserve should be held back from the initial breakthrough operations and then “assume the role of pursuit cavalry and ‘ride the enemy to death’.”
The first two light tank battalions, armed with French-made Renault FT17 light tanks and consolidated as the 304th Tank Brigade, fought in the St. Mihiel Offensive of September 1918 under Patton’s command. The first of the heavy tank battalions, equipped with British-supplied Mark V heavy tanks, went into action a month later attached to the Australian Corps.
M1917 light tanks await distribution to National Guard tank companies, 1920.
Eventually the Tank Corps raised 29 battalions, 21 of them light tank battalions and eight of them heavy tank battalions. Of those 29, four saw combat before the war ended. Since the Tank Corps wasn’t expected to fully participate until the anticipated 1919 grand offensive, they actually got into combat earlier than anticipated.
The American tankers had no chance to absorb the lessons of combat before the war ended in November. The Tank Corps immediately began to draw down its numbers, and by late 1920 it had two heavy and four light tank battalions, organized into two brigades combined into the 1st Tank Group in 1921. The tanks came under the infantry in 1922, following Pershing’s recommendation, with two regiments, one operating light and one heavy tanks. They would be re-designated as the 66th Infantry Regiment (Light Tanks) and the 67th Infantry Regiment (Medium Tanks) in 1932. The heavy Liberty tanks were soon placed in storage, and the regiments operated license-built FT17 light tanks. In 1940 they became Armored Regiments and saw extensive action in the Second World War.
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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and award-winning journalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects.
He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold.