[Article] Cavalry, and I Don’t Mean Horses – by Major General James M. Gavin

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Cavalry, and I Don’t Mean Horse, il celebre articolo seminale del Generale James M. Gavin (1907-1990) pubblicato da Harper’s magazine nell’Aprile del 1954. Gavin, che comando’  l’82a Divisione Aviotrasportata durante la II Guerra Mondiale, auspica qui una drastica riforma della Cavalleria, arma che a suo parere aveva perso la propria ragion d’essere nel corso degli anni quaranta. Sebbene alcune delle sue proposte si rivelarono semplicemente troppo ardite per l’epoca, non di meno Gavin ebbe il merito di portare una ventata di novita’ in un esercito allora trascurato e messo in secondo piano dagli arsenali strategici di USAF e US Navy. La sua visione avrebbe in seguito ispirato un gran numero di ufficiali, in patria e all’estero.  Infine – molto importante –  Gavin vide nalla Terza Dimensione (l’aria) il riscatto della Cavalleria, anticipando la rivoluzione aeromobile avvenuta a partire dagli anni Settanta.

Buona lettura!


Some measure of undying fame was achieved by “Fighting Joe” Hooker in the War Between the States, when he asked, “Whoever saw a dead cavalryman?” From a war in which catch phrases were common, this one has been well remembered among the military: but it is a trifle lengthy for the Soldiers of today.

They are more likely to ask, “Whoever saw cavalry?”

Today it is the pastime of Soldier-historians to speculate about the use of cavalry in that most bloody of all our national conflicts. What would have happened if Jeb Stuart, instead of wagon hunting, had been roving ahead of Lee when he debouched from the Cashtown pass on Gettysburg? If Buford on Willoughby Run had been driven in by the full impact of Stuart’s incomparable cavalry, and the heights east and south of Gettysburg had been seized by the Southerners that first day, what effect would it have had on the hesitant Meade? Perhaps the whole course of our own history would have changed. Perhaps.

In the meantime, we have fought a few more wars. Recently, we reached a stalemate in one of them that historians may judge the most costly and least successful of all. In it, time after time, we committed our forces blindly to battle. While some historians are still lamenting the absence of Stuart at Gettysburg, no one has asked, “Where was Walker’s cavalry in Korea?”–and it is high time that someone did. Where was Walker’s cavalry on November 26, 1950, when his handful of divisions was struck with complete and overwhelming surprise by thirty Chinese divisions? Unit after unit stumbled into ambush and suffered the worst defeat in the history of American arms.

Where was the cavalry? It was and still is in the minds of military planners and historians. And I don’t mean horses. I mean helicopters and light aircraft, to lift Soldiers armed with automatic weapons and hand carried antitank weapons, and also lightweight reconnaissance vehicles, mounting antitank weapons the equal or better of the Russian T-34s.

Technologically we could have had them. Because of our deification of heavy equipment–and the combat practices of late World War II, which deluded us into believing that heavy armor is cavalry–we didn’t have them. We lost the cavalry when we mounted it in weighty tanks and trucks, all of which move (if the terrain will allow them to move at all) at exactly the same speed as motorized infantry, if not slower.

Cavalry is supposed to be the arm of mobility. It exists and serves a useful purpose because of its mobility differential—the contrast between its mobility and that of other land forces. Without the differential, it is not cavalry. Cavalry is the arm of shock and firepower: it is the screen of time and information. It denies the enemy that talisman of success–surprise–while it provides our own forces with the means to achieve that very thing, surprise, and with it destruction of the enemy.

Cavalry is not a horse, nor the crossed sabers and yellow scarves. These are vestigal trappings of a gallant great arm of the U.S. Army, whose soul has been traded for a body.

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It is the arm of Jeb Stuart, and Custer, and Sheridan, and Forrest. It is the arm that as late as World War II got there (in Forrest’s phrase) “fustest with the mostest” but is now rapidly becoming in terms of firepower and mobility, lastest with the leastest. Certainly gallantry, venturesomeness, and willingness to die are abundant in our armored and cavalry units, as they have amply demonstrated at every combat opportunity. But with the motorization of the land forces, and the consequent removal of the mobility differential, the cavalry has ceased to exist in our Army except in name.

In June 1950, when the victory intoxicated North Korean forces were surging southward from the 38th Parallel, General MacArthur asked and was given authority to get in the ground battle. Obviously, the tactical situation called for a cavalry force to be committed at once, to screen and delay, while the heavier infantry and armored forces built up a more substantial defense.

What did we have that was equal to the occasion? One small infantry command of two-plus rifle companies and a battery of artillery lifted to Korea by Air Force transport. Once under fire, they were slowed down to the speed of the foot Soldier–actually slower than many of the tank-mounted North Koreans. They never had the proper means or mobility to perform their Cavalry mission.

As Walker fell back, trading his infantry and artillery for time, his flanks were wide open. On his left, particularly, a gap of a hundred miles extending to the sea could be readily penetrated. The situation begged for cavalry, but we lacked the contemporary kind of cavalry to do the job. As General Walker’s forces fell back to the constricted perimeter about Pusan, only the valiant efforts of his fire brigade infantrymen and their comrades of the Tactical Air Force made it possible to hold on.

Finally, when the landings at Inchon took place on September 15 there was again every promise of fluid action. I was present at Inchon, and after the first crust of resistance was broken, it seemed to me there was nothing worthy of the name in front of X Corps. The situation screamed for highly-mobile Cavalry forces to exploit this unprecedented opening. We should have pressed south to the rear of the Naktong River line in hours. Instead, we took almost two weeks to establish a link between these two forces. When the first break-out of our forces from the southern perimeter moved northward it was a combined tank-truck column, essentially an infantry column limited in its performance by its road-bound equipment. We were fighting an Asiatic army on Asiatic terms.

Walker’s divisions shortly thereafter swept forward and the entire peninsula was wide open.

Cavalry patrols should then have been on their way to the Yalu; likely concentration areas for enemy forces in North Korea should have been scouted out and the Yalu crossings kept under surveillance. With a properly composed and balanced cavalry force this would have been entirely practicable if we only had foreseen the need. Instead, the divisions of General Walker moved blindly forward, not knowing from road bend to road bend, and hill to hill, what the future held in store for them. If ever in the history of our Armed forces there was a need for the Cavalry arm – airlifted in light planes, helicopters, and assault type aircraft – this was it. The debacle that followed out acceptance of combat under these terms is now a tragic chapter in our history.

Today in Europe, Cavalry regiments are in battle position, assigned the job of covering, screening, and delaying. One of the most frustrating experiences that a professional Soldier now knows is to sit in at critiques of war games and maneuvers, and listen to staff officers endeavoring to rationalize the present-day cavalry’s inability to fulfill its role. The most common analysis of the problem usually ends with some such conclusion as this: “They’re Cavalry regiments aren’t they? Their mission is a Cavalry mission. The failure must be in the way their handled.” If Cavalry units failed to provide timely information, or effective screening, their commanders are suspected of – and sometimes charged with not having performed with sufficient celerity. Or an umpire is charged with allowing the enemy with too much mobility.

What I find alarming is the lack of awareness that Russian motorized armored forces are just as mobile as our own – if not more so. All the soul searching in the world, and the most brilliant staff cerebrations, will not conjure up tactical success in Cavalry action unless the means of achieving it are provided our Cavalry commanders. They do not have the means today. They are road-bound. Even assuming they will be fortunate enough to fight in countries where roads are numerous, they are no more mobile then the mechanized infantry division they are expected to screen from the enemy.

Hoplites and Pelasts

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It is a simple matter to be critical after the event. It is another to provide or attempt to provide, answers to the questions raised. Fortunately, most of the answers to the problems in the Soldiers trade are not as difficult to come by as may first appear. Several thousand years of experience lie behind us, awaiting understanding.

One of the most striking aspects of man’s military past is his persistent search for the technical means to get an edge on his opponent in his mobility. When he was successful, and especially when he could organize elements of varying mobility into a cohesive combat team, he was successful in combat. When he failed to solve the technical problem created by his needs, he failed in combat.

The Greeks were the first to refine their combat techniques to the point where mobility differs, and there was close team work, between the varying combat elements. The Greek Pelast was a light armed, mobile foot-Soldier who provided the security screen for the move heavily armed Hoplites. The Hoplites was a heavily armed soldier who was fitted into the Phalanx, the first thoroughly disciplined firepower team of which we have accurate record. Polybius tells of the impression it made on a Roman Consul.

The Consul had never seen a Phalanx in his life until he encountered one – for the first time – in the Roman war with Perseus; and when it was all over, he used freely to confess to his friends at home that the Mecedonian Phalanx was the most formidable and terrifiying sight that had ever met his eyes.

T he Persians who opposed the Greeks were fine horseman. If they had acquired the teamwork and disciple of the Greeks, they should by all odds have won. The Greeks were not only good fighters, however, but smart enough to learn the handling of horses from the Persians. Phillip of Macedon was the first Greek Soldier with the vision and organizational ability to match horseman effectively with the superb Greek foot-Soldier. He organized heavy and light Cavalry and trained them to fight in close cooperation with his infantry.

His skill was inherited by his son, Alexander, the world’s first Calvary leader, who fulfilled his father’s vision. “Calvary was his dominant arm” writes General J.F.C. Fuller, “and in battle he invariably lead (Cavalry) in person”. Alexander developed and exploited the mobility differential between his infantry and his Cavalry to the fullest extent possible in his time. There were subdivisions of each, based upon mobility, and the Pelast was obtained for close-in screening tasks.

Even as the Phalanx reached its highest performance, an opponent worthy of its challenge appeared in the Roman Legion. The Legion had been coming up the hard way, fighting the superb Cavalry of Hannibal; it finally defeated him and turned to the east. The Legion, like the Phalanx, was a traveling fort: yet it had one great advantage over the Phalanx: every man was equipped and trained to fight as an individual. As a consequence, the Legion was so flexible that it could fight in almost every direction: while the Phalanx, in some respects like a modern triangular division, was designed and trained to fight where it was pointed.

The reign of the Legion was long, and during it the field of combat experience Pax Romana. But, as with all victorious way in war, it could not last forever; and when the end came, the legion’s adversary was tough, combat-ready Calvary. Signs of the coming of the horseman had been seen but little appreciated until the great disaster at Adrianople in AD 378, when emperor Valus lost his legions and his life under the onslaught of the gothic Cavalry.

The Cavalrymen appeared invincible, after Adrianople, and with each passing century they improved their armor until they knew no opponent worthy of their mettle. True, they became heavier and more immobile, but in their eyes they became only more invincible. Finally, in the thirteenth century, there appeared on the eastern horizon, a horseman laying waste to all before him. On the 8th of January 1258, he came to the gates of Baghdad and challenged the pride of the western cavalry to come forth. The story of this meeting is told by an eye-witness:

We met at Nabi Bashir, one of the dependencies of Dujavl: and there would ride forth from amongst us to offer single combat a knight fully accounted and mounted on an arab horse, so it was as though he and his steed together were [solid as] some great mountain. Then there would come forth to meet him from the Mongols a horseman mounted on a horse like a donkey, and having in his hand a spear like a spindle, wearing neither robe nor armor, so that all who saw him were moved to laughter. Yet, ‘ere the day was done the victory was theirs, and they inflicted on us a great defeat, which was the Key of Evil, and thereafter there befell what befell us

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The impact of the Mongol Cavalry on the west was impressive but on military men it was particularly of limited duration. Barely a century had passed before both men and horses had again been armored to the point of immobility. The advent of gunpowder clearly spelled the end of the armored knight, but this was little realized at the time; those who used gunpowder were often considered criminals and occasionally hanged on the spot. Finally, at Agincourt in 1415, the flower of French knighthood met its doom at the hands of a lightly armored, much more agile force, armed with a long bow.

Despite the crushing demonstration, the role of the armored knight in the warfare of the middle ages continued to be an important one. Often the presence of a mounted man in battle reflected his prosperous station in life, and thus an ability to afford a horse and all its trappings, rather than any awareness of a tactical need. Jousting was a popular military sport, and the charging of armored knights was an approved tactic through all the years while firearms continued to improve. Even after the efficiency of gunpowder had made the armored horse ineffective, many Soldiers persisted in arguing that the most decisive and effective tactic in combat was still the Cavalry charge.

In our Civil War, the Cavalrymen shed his armor and adopted the pistol and saber as proper weapons for the charge, but it was in this war, the era of our great Cavalry leaders, that such men as Sheridan last enunciated the heretical view that the purpose of Cavalry was not merely to ride hell for leather. By the wars end, it was established beyond question that the real purpose of the horse was to deliver firepower where it was needed most. Frequently, the Cavalrymen dismounted, sheltered their horses, and dug in to the let the opposing side destroy itself against the high volume of fire they were to develop – a shred adaptation of an existing weapons system to the existing combat environment.

Clearly firepower was building up to such intensity on the battlefield that flesh and bone could no longer prevail against it. The efficiency of firearms and the number of automatic weapons continued to increase, until in World War 1 and impasse was reached. The mobility differential between the components of the land forces had disappeared. The defense completely dominated combat: and Verdun, the Somme, and Passchendaele were the result. The British casulaities at Passchendaele were 8,222 for each square mile captured – an all time high in human sacrifice for the real estate game.

While men were piling up their bodies in battle of attrition in World War 1, the commanders and their staffs were desperately trying to solve their dilemma – only to fall back on a still greater massing of artillery, and assaulting infantry, in the hope of saturating the defenses.

Yet already a new form of mobility had appeared: the gasoline-driven land vehicle. Its arrival was too late by a small margin for full exploitation in World War 1, but to those who read its meaning correctly it showed certain promise of breaking the stalemate. Tank Warfare was sufficiently tested to convince a few visionaries of its great possibilities.

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Between the wars they preached, J.F.C. Fuller, Liddell-Hart, de Gaulle and Chaffee argued wherever they could obtain a hearing for the new form of war – or new form of Cavalry, which is unquestionably was – offering a mobility differential never before seen or even thought of. Unluckily, a number of the German senior officers foresaw its possibilities with equal clarity and instituted an appropriate development in the Wehrmacht. The German campaign in Poland 1934, and France 1940 proved men like Guderian and Rommel to be apt students of their allied teachers. Now we are at a point in history where Soldiers in the past have often found themselves. In out time, we have seen the great defensive battles of World Ware 1 and the great offensive battles of the 1940’s. Understandably, many veterans understand vividly and well how the lessons of ten years ago were applied in battle. But memory can become idolatry of things past and close our minds to the meaning of events. We quote the preaching of Liddell-Hart and Fuller in the 20’s, as though mere repetition would extend their validity into the present. We run the risk of forgetting that it is not what was said and done, but why it was said and why it was done, that is most important.

In the meantime, one of the most – if not the most-critically evolutionary periods in military history is upon us.

The Aerial Instrument

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Not many years elapsed between Kitty Hawk and the Great offensive of World War II, yet they were years full of intensive search for the proper exploitation of the new air vehicle in combat. There were those, like their predecessors in years past who saw the new aerial instrument as the absolute weapon – one such was Douhet. Others, like the visionary Mitchell and Hap Arnold, saw it for what it was: mobility to enable the means for victory to be brought to the area of decisive combat. General Mitchell’s definition of airpower is still the best written: “anything that flies.”

he common search for the means of survival brought the Airmen and the Soldiers together: and once joined, their imaginative use of the new form of mobility was rapid. I consider myself most fortunate to have been associated with one of our first unit in this new field. I was a member of the Army’s 505th Parachute Regimental Combat Team in the invasion of Sicily July 9, 1943. Its mission was to land between the known enemy reserved and the beaches to be used by our assault division, and to screen the landings. There were a number of subordinate missions; to deny the use of an airfield seize dominate domain, secure several crossroads, and so-on- a typical Cavalry mission.

A fter the landings, the first ground forces we encountered were the reconnaissance elements of the Herman Goering panzer division; the Calvary of Fuller and Liddell-Hart’s disciples.

We had a rough time.

Badly scattered, we found that our mobility was not as great as we thought it was.

Badly outgunned – the Tigers were impressive against our 2.36 inch bazookas – we nonetheless survived. The success of our mission can be best judge by an enemy evaluation of it:

It is my opinion that if it had not been for the allied airborne forces blocking the Herman Goering armor division from reaching the beachhead, that division would had driven the initial seaborne forces back into the sea. *

We came back with a burning convection on two points: we needed 1.) More accurate air delivery and 2.) better anti-tank weapons. Although first priority was immediately given these problems, when we jumped in Italy two months later we faired not much better. The mission was again a typical Calvary one. The 2nd Battalion, 509th Parachute Infantry, was to land at Avellino, a key to the road network leading to Salerno and block all enemy movement through that area. The remainder of the 82nd Airborne Division moved from Sicily to Salerno, as a highly mobile reserve, and overnight was in combat of the beachhead.

Between Salerno and Normandy every effort was concentrated on improving anti-tank weapons and accuracy of delivery.

For the first time we began the search for a lightweight land vehicle to exploit the unexpected opportunities which invariably characterized – so we were beginning to realize – a landing in the enemy rear.

Washington and, through the personal efforts of Dr. Charles Waring (now head of the chemistry Department of the University of Connecticut) we were able to obtain colored lights that could be jumped with an individual, set up after landing, and triggered remotely by code (they were later replaced by infared lights). For antitank weapons, General Ridgway obtained a company of 57mms from a division newly arrived in North Africa. We also redistributed our individual jump loads so that we could jump seven hundred [700] antitank mines per regiment, and we adopted the British Gammon antitank hand grenade.

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The 57mms were the best guns we had, though we rarely had them when we wanted them, since they had to be flown by glider. They had to do until we captured the first German panzerfausts in Holland: these made one man equal to the heaviest German tank and started us on an era of relative prosperity.

For the solution to the vehicle problem, we put extra armor plate on jeeps. When equipped with automatic weapons and panzerfausts, they compared to other forms of mobility in World War II–were the best Cavalry known to date. Capable of moving by glider several hundred miles in a few hours, and after they landed of coping with anything they met on favorable terms, they invariably gave a good account of themselves.

The mission assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division in Normandy was to block all enemy attempts to reinforce the beaches and to attack them from the rear–again a Cavalry mission. Two months after Normandy, the division was in the air once more and on its way to Nijmegan. Much had been learned in the interim. The accuracy of the Holland landings was almost perfect, and antitank weapons were soon obtained in abundance. The division’s cavalry troop, the reconnaissance platoon, fully motorized with new armored jeeps, proved worthy of every confidence. Here was Cavalry in the historical sense.

After Holland we began to talk about dropping fuselages, track-laying aircraft, assault transports, helicopters. We were not sure what form the air vehicle would take but we knew that we were on the right track.

What we needed next was a closer integration with the inheritors of the Cavalry role, the armored forces, without loss to the highly mobile and aggressive character of the airborne forces, the “lean and mean” philosophy. This at once suggested a future for armor in the air-transportable field, possibly the future. Certainly it was the area in which the frontier of military knowledge had to be pushed back.

It should be realized that at this time a complimentary development of the greatest significance was taking place in antitank weapons. In several fields of research the antitank weapon was showing itself far superior to the tank, clearly indicating that in the near future antitank weapons would reduce even further the mobility differential enjoyed by armor in the early 1940s. Hence, the clear and immediate requirement was for exploration of the airborne armor field in which a new mobility could be found.

If we failed to do this, the least that could happen would be a war of stagnation in which our armored forces, our so-called Cavalry, would be as immobile as the enemy.

At the worst, an enemy would develop it and achieve overwhelming tactical surprise at the opening of hostilities–as the Germans did in 1939 and 1940. We should find it worth remembering that the first maneuver of airborne troops was conducted by the Russians in 1930 and that in 1935 they moved an entire division by air from Moscow to Vladivostok–3, 500 miles.

As an enthusiastic supporter of our Cavalry arm, I am convinced that we will never win another war without it, and that without it we may very likely lose. Korea is eloquent testimony. My own convictions and experiences in World War II led me to write a brief piece on the subject called “The Future of Armor”, which was published in both the Combat Forces Journal and Armored Cavalry Journal in November 1947.

It seemed to me at the time, that we would have to lighten all items of combat armored equipment, and develop and produce the aircraft to carry the new light armored forces into battle. But I accomplished little. The vehicles in our infantry and Cavalry units are no lighter now than they were five years ago–in fact, in most cases they are heavier. Currently, the mobility differential between our infantry and our Cavalry–in the form of armored divisions and Cavalry regiments–is nil.

The same is true of the differential between ourselves and the Russians–unless, of course, if we have to fight them, they will be accommodating enough to walk while we are rolling on wheels and tracks.

And the Big Bombs

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There is naturally much speculation now over the implications of atomic warfare. In spite of conflicting opinions, it seems clear at least that bombs, guided missiles, and artillery projectiles with destructive power measured in the kilotons and megatons are here to stay. If they are used at all, they will sooner or later be used directly against land forces: and the only counter-measure possible is to reduce drastically the numbers of Soldiers per square mile in the battle area, which will itself have to be regarded as a zone hundreds of miles deeper than it is at present. Since fewer Soldiers will have to cover much more ground, there will be a proportionately greater need for automatic weapons and for a more rapid and efficient supply system to provide them with ammunition. In the solution of these problems the air vehicle will inevitably play a major part.

Since dispersion–individual and unit–will characterize the defense, the greatest need of all will be for the means of concentrating rapidly in the area, and at the same time, of decision. Major reserves will have to move by air, and in the tactical zone smaller units will have to be mutually supporting by air as well as land.

Cavalry-type screening missions will have to be conducted at much greater distances, and with much greater rapidity, than have hitherto been considered acceptable. The mobility differential to make this possible must be achieved. It is within our grasp, fortunately in the air vehicles now being developed–assault transports, light utility planes, helicopters, and convertiplanes.

Forces so organized and equipped will have a predominant influence on future warfare. Their readiness at the very outset of combat is essential, yet unfortunately they cannot be produced, Aladdin-like, overnight. The lead time to their availability could be measured in years while the lead time to disaster could be zero, and this could happen while we relied almost exclusively on the concept of mass retaliation–a concept which finds no justification in human experience as an exclusive and self-sufficient means to victory.

The appeal of the weapon of mass retaliation is understandable: it is spectacular, it carries the war far away from our homeland, and most people believe it to be uniquely American. It does have a role to play–that of destroying the enemy’s strategic forces before they can be brought to bear. Thereafter it must take its place among the resources, human as well as material that our people provide to make victory possible. The weapons systems that encompasses every decisive role which men can play, with the least drain on a nation’s economy, will be in the long run the system to survive. For man is a land animal and he remains the common denominator in war, whatever form it takes.

Today, even the most casual awareness of the historical lesson should suggest that in ground combat the mobility differential we lack will be found in the air vehicle. Fully combined with the armored division, it would give us real mobility and momentum.

Military tactics are not so recondite that there should be anything mysterious in such a conclusion. We have an apt Americanism that sums it up: “Hit ‘em where they ain’t!”

A ll of this may seem very remote from the Greeks, with their Hoplites and Pelasts, the roman Legion, the armored knight, and the combat philosophy of Nathan Bedford Forrest. It is in time but not substance: for to survive and win in battle, Soldiers have always had to think of these things, and to move along the curves of history, lest they giddily precipitate themselves and their people into oblivion.

When a modern nation embarks on an unwise military course; however, not only its Soldiers are at fault. “In our democracy” said General George C. Marshall fifteen years ago, “where the government is truly an agent of the popular will, military policy is dependant upon public opinion, and our organization for war will be good or bad as the public is well informed or poorly informed…”

What we now need, as a nation, is an understanding of the past that can be converted into tactics and battle hardware, and give its soul back to the Cavalry.

jodyLegacy of Valor
by Jody Harmon

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