Riding to War:
The U.S. First Cavalry Division in 1941
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
The case for the mounted cavalry: wars flow over all kinds of terrain, in all kinds of weather, and an alert enemy will try to fight in the kind best suited to his resources.
- Maj. Gen. John K. Herr
Determined that horsed cavalry would have its place in the modern U.S. Army, Chief of Cavalry John K. Herr designed a divisional structure that he believed could operate on the modern mechanized battlefield and conduct deep penetration of enemy territory.
When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in December 1941, the First Cavalry Division was one of the few American divisions immediately ready for combat. It had performed well in maneuvers in 1940 and 1941, and its officers and the cavalry branch looked forward to its commitment to action.
The division had two cavalry brigades, each of two cavalry regiments. Each brigade had a heavy weapons troop as well, though these were re-assigned to the regiments in late 1941. The divisional artillery had three battalions: two of horse-drawn 75mm pack howitzers and one of 105mm truck-drawn howitzers.
Each cavalry regiment had two rifle squadrons, a machine-gun troop and a special weapons troop. Each squadron had three troops, and each troop in turn had three rifle-armed platoons and one machine-gun platoon. The organizational tables were adjusted several times in 1941, with the heavy weapons (.50 caliber machine guns and 81mm mortars) and machine guns shifted back and forth between the regiment’s control and direct assignment to the squadrons and troops, and steadily increased in number.
A rifle platoon numbered 31 troopers, plus a second lieutenant in command. Three rifle squads of eight men each provided the basic platoon organization (the other five men included the platoon sergeant, a pair of scouts and a pair of “Basics” – extra men carried on many U.S. Army tables of organization of the period, apparently to serve as a replacement pool). All riflemen carried the full-sized M1 Garand rifle; the M1 Carbine (a completely different weapon) would not be issued to troops until after the 1st Cavalry Division had lost its horses.
By contrast, an Army infantry squad at the time had 12 men, including a three-man team with a Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR) and a squad leader with a .30-caliber Springfield bolt-action instead of an M1 Garand. The cavalry squad had no BAR or Springfield; the squad leader was armed identically to the troopers. Every member of the cavalry regiment (even the cooks, saddlers and horseshoers) was issued a .45-caliber M1911 pistol. They also carried a saber, but these supposedly were not intended to encourage mounted combat. It’s not clear if the sabers would have even been taken overseas had the 1st Cavalry deployed as a horsed division.
The tables did not specifically assign any soldiers as horse-holders; when cavalry dismounts to fight, somebody has to keep the horses in check. The “Basics” may have been intended for this duty, but the pre-war maneuvers showed that each squad had to leave someone behind to tend to the horses, further reducing the cavalry platoon’s firepower.
The cavalry machine gun platoon had four machine guns, against two machine guns and three of the nearly-useless 60mm mortars in the infantry version. The only mortars in the cavalry organization were the 81mm tubes arming the heavy weapons troop; all the mortarmen rode and pack horses carried their weapon and its ammunition.
Foot soldiers had difficulties manhandling the M2 Browning .50 caliber machine gun thanks to its weight (more than 80 pounds for the weapon alone, without its ammunition and extra barrels). Therefore it was usually mounted on vehicles, and only issued in small numbers on its tripod ground mount. At least to the infantry. With pack horses to carry the heavy gun and its gear, the cavalry could and did make much more use of the big machine gun. The heavy weapons troop’s machine gun platoon initially had this weapon instead of the smaller .30 caliber Browning, and more of them were issued in late 1941 and early 1942, apparently equipping at least some platoons in the rifle squadrons as well.
Regimental headquarters also included a pair of reconnaissance platoons, one mounted on motorcycles and one in M3 White Scout Cars (a vehicle initially produced specially for the cavalry). General Herr did not like the Scout Car’s cross-country performance and sought a new, more rugged vehicle. The prototype, submitted by Bantam Motor Company as the “bantam car,” would become the ubiquitous jeep and enter full production until mid-1941.
The divisional structure was notably deficient in anti-tank capability, a problem acknowledged by Herr. The division directly controlled single anti-tank troop (company) armed with 37mm guns mounted on the M3 Scout Car chassis (the expedient known as the M6), later parceled out among the regiments. The M1 bazooka might have provided some anti-tank defense, but it was not issued until the eve of the Operation Torch landings, and then with no instruction as to its use. So the cavalry likely would have had them had they fought in Tunisia, but like the infantry would have had no clue as to their use.
The division’s small tank troop of M2 light tanks was expanded in late 1941 to a full company with 18 vehicles late in 1941. The reconnaissance squadron gave up its motorcycles and armored cars when the additional tanks arrived, but the regiments appear to have retained their motorcycle platoons.
Without an effective horse-borne anti-tank weapon (the United States did not produce lightweight anti-tank guns until the war’s last months), the 1st Cavalry Division would have been at a serious disadvantage when facing German and Italian armored formations in Tunisia. Had that problem been solved, perhaps by attaching some of the 75mm halftrack-mounted anti-tank guns sent to Tunisia, the cavalry’s awesome automatic firepower would have made the First Team extremely effective.
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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.