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With a tank and a smile

General Jacob Devers (left) with United States Army Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall in 1944 (Photo: United States Army)
General Jacob Devers (left) with United States Army Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall in 1944 (Photo: United States Army)

When it comes to leaders, commanders and generals, public imagination focuses on the spectacular: the colorful personalities, the theatrical individuals, the men who stay close to the battlefield. Wars, however, are not won only by these people. A military is a massive organization to run, and many of the men who make vital decisions and important contributions never get the spotlight. One American example of these forgotten leaders is General Jacob Loucks Devers (1887-1979), the man without whom we might not have had the Sherman tank (or several other iconic pieces of equipment).

General Jacob Devers (Photo: United States Army)
General Jacob Devers (Photo: United States Army)

Jacob Devers was born into a hardworking Irish-Alsatian family in Pennsylvania Dutch country. When not working on his grandfather's farm, he enjoyed outdoor activities like hunting and fishing. He was an excellent student, especially in math and science, but he was also a good athlete, who played baseball, football, and was captain of the high school basketball team.
 
He originally wanted to become an engineer, but a local Congressman offered him an appointment at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Devers joined the class of 1909, which also included George S. Patton and several other future generals. Like in high school, he was a good student and an excellent athlete, playing polo as well as basketball and baseball. He joined the Field Artillery Branch as a second lieutenant upon graduation.

West Point cadet polo players. Patton is third, Devers fourth from left. (Image: YouTube)
West Point cadet polo players. Patton is third, Devers fourth from left. (Image: YouTube)

His first posting was to a pack artillery unit, which still carried around all of its guns, ammunition and equipment on mules. His battery commander was then-First Lieutenant Lesley J. McNair, who would later become an ideological opponent to Devers's ideas on armor doctrine, and who would be killed by friendly fire during Operation Cobra in Normandy in 1944.

Lesley McNair in 1919 (Photo: United States Army Signal Corps)
Lesley McNair in 1919 (Photo: United States Army Signal Corps)

Devers's second posting was back to West Point, where he taught mathematics and was involved with the sport programs. Along with managing the baseball program, he was also Eisenhower's and Bradley's basketball coach. During the 1910s, he also served in Hawaii and at the School of Fire (today the U.S. Army Field Artillery School) at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. He was supposed to be sent to the Western Front in France in the late stages of World War I, but his orders were cancelled when the Armistice of November 11, 1918 ended the fighting. He still went to Europe for a short time with the American Army of Occupation, and he seized the opportunity to study both French and German guns, equipment and tactics.
 
Devers went back to West Point and served as Senior Field Artillery Instructor and Commander of the Field Artillery Detachment under the school's new superintendent, Brigadier General Douglas MacArthur. MacArthur was fighting an uphill battle against institutional resistance, trying to reform the school. He thought that many West Point graduates had insufficient knowledge of fields outside military matters, and he was also troubled by low morale, vicious hazing habits, and what he felt was an overly short and outdated curriculum. Devers became MacArthur's ally in his efforts. Though most of MacArthur's changes failed in the short term, they were eventually restored, vindicating the reformers.

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Douglas MacArthur during his time as West Point superintendent and reformer (Photo: United States Army Signal Corps)
Douglas MacArthur during his time as West Point superintendent and reformer (Photo: United States Army Signal Corps)

After his five years at West Point, Devers continued to serve in various officer training roles and further his own military studies, steadily advancing in rank. He became an advocate of phasing out horses and replacing them with mechanized artillery, a move that was heavily opposed by more conservative officers. While serving as graduate manager of athletics at West Point in the second half of the 1930s, he managed to get West Shore Railroad to change its nearby route. The new route was shorter and quicker, allowing the company to save money, while giving Devers enough land to develop new playing fields for the academy's sports teams.

An M7 Priest self-propelled gun, an artillery vehicle attached to tank divisions during Devers's time at the head of the Armored Force (Photo: Wikipedia, Yellowute)
An M7 Priest self-propelled gun, an artillery vehicle attached to tank divisions during Devers's time at the head of the Armored Force (Photo: Wikipedia, Yellowute)

In August 1939, World War II was looming on the horizon (and would, indeed, break out the next month). The Panama Canal Zone, which was U.S. territory at the time, was considered to be a vulnerable strategic location, and Devers was sent there to oversee improvements to its defenses. In May 1940, he was promoted to brigadier general, becoming the youngest officer of that rank at 52 years old. He was later recalled to Washington to serve on the Presidential Board tasked with surveying British bases in the Caribbean and Newfoundland which were to be transferred to America as part of the Destroyers for Bases Agreement (Read our earlier article – America's politics before World War II).

Quarry Heights in the Panama Canal Zone in the early 1930s (Photo: National Archives and Records Administration)
Quarry Heights in the Panama Canal Zone in the early 1930s (Photo: National Archives and Records Administration)

In late 1940, Devers was sent to Fort Bragg, North Carolina, to command the newly formed 9th Infantry Division. Under his command, Fort Bragg's strength grew from 5,400 soldiers to 67,000. By working closely with local contractors, engineers and staff, and by being willing to cut through red tape, Devers managed to have 2,500 new buildings and 93 miles (150 km) of roads built in six months.
 
In August, 1941, Devers made what was probably the single most defining step of his career, when he became Chief of the Armored Force, replacing the terminally ill Major General Adna R. Chaffee, Jr. At this time, General George C. Marshall was the Chief of Staff of the Army. The head of Army General Headquarters (GHQ, reorganized as Army Ground Forces in 1942) reported to him, and that head was none other but Devers's old battery commander, General Lesley McNair. Now, GHQ was in tactical charge of all U.S. ground forces, but the Armored Force was in something of an organizational limbo. It was considered a "quasi-arm" and was not specifically under GHC's control, as it was responsible for its own training, doctrine and organization. The lines of authority and responsibility between GHC and the Armored Force were distant and unclear, and McNair felt it best to just generally leave Devers and his tanks alone.
 
As part of America's preparation for getting involved in World War II, several large-scale exercises were held in the second half of 1941, called the Carolina and Louisiana Maneuvers. Armored units did not perform very well at these exercises. Devers believed the poor performance was due to insufficiently trained junior and staff officers, as well as faulty military doctrine that failed to properly coordinate tanks, infantry and artillery.

George S. Patton during the Louisiana Maneuvers (Photo: Fort Polk Museum)
George S. Patton during the Louisiana Maneuvers (Photo: Fort Polk Museum)

However, Devers also believed that the exercises' rules, which determined how umpires assigned losses to various units, were biased against tanks. As mentioned in our earlier article about the M4 Sherman (Read our earlier article – The M4 Sherman), U.S. military doctrine considered tank-to-tank combat to be of secondary importance, and held that enemy tanks are best fought with anti-tank guns and tank destroyers – an idea McNair believed in, and which Devers thought led the umpires to declare unrealistically high tank losses in the exercises. Devers believed that "the weapon to best the tank is a better tank", but he was in the minority with his opinion.

An African American anti-tank gun crew standing ready during the Louisiana Maneuvers (Photo: history.army.mil)
An African American anti-tank gun crew standing ready during the Louisiana Maneuvers (Photo: history.army.mil)

One thing that didn't help Devers in getting his idea accepted was his personal demeanor. He was cheerful, had little gravitas, and little tolerance for bureaucracy, which made him rather unlike most American generals at the time. He was also very direct in offering criticism, which would rub his superior, General Eisenhower, the wrong way later during the war. He was noted for almost always smiling or smirking, which was another strike against him in the eyes of other officers, though it's been suggested that he just had a face like that.

Devers with his characteristic if unintentional smile (Photo: United States Army)
Devers with his characteristic if unintentional smile (Photo: United States Army)

During his time at the Armored Force, Devers was constantly pushing the organization towards his own vision of armored warfare. Previously, the emphasis was on light tanks which were mobile enough the exploit breakthroughs and run wild behind enemy lines, striking at valuable but poorly defended targets. Devers realized that light tanks just didn't have the survivability that would be needed in World War II, and that the 37 mm cannon that was the heaviest on American tanks at the time just wouldn't cut it. He was unimpressed by the new M3 Lee medium tank, but Britain's urgent need of tanks meant its production had to go ahead anyway. Devers played an important role in designing and manufacturing the M3's replacement, the iconic M4 Sherman. He also ordered Patton, who was commanding I Armored Corps at the time, to set up the Desert Training Center in the Mojave Desert to prepare American infantry and armor for desert warfare. (20 infantry and armor divisions were trained there, but none of them actually saw desert combat during the war.)
 
While Devers disagreed with the creation of the Tank Destroyer Arm, he did agree with the Army's emerging doctrine of combined arms warfare, and did much to promote it, including ordering the translation and publication of a German manual on tank combat, written by German armor expert Heinz Guderian, one of the pioneers of the German blitzkrieg doctrine. Being a former artillery officer, he also reorganized the artillery component of tank battalions to make it more effective. He added light aircraft to the divisions to serve as recon and artillery spotter planes. He also supported the development of the DUKW amphibious vehicle, another American World War II icon (Read our earlier article – The American "duck").

A DUKW, another vehicle Devers supported (Photo: United States Army)
A DUKW, another vehicle Devers supported (Photo: United States Army)

In December 1942 – January 1943, Devers visited North Africa to gather information on tank performance. He conferred with several notable British and American commanders, including Montgomery and Eisenhower, and his findings proved that the introduction of the Sherman was a good idea. He also recognized the need for a more powerful gun for the Sherman; this eventually became the 76 mm gun. Interestingly, the intelligence he gathered in Africa was almost lost. The documents were being taken to England by a B-17 Flying Fortress, which crash landed in Ireland. Ireland was a neutral country and interred any air crews, Allied and Axis alike, who landed there. The people on board the plane managed to avoid capture and traveled to Northern Ireland (which was and is part of the United Kingdom) by train the next day, carrying the documents with them.

Devers (right) with Polish General Kazimiers Sosnowsky in Algiers, 1944. Note that photo was taken not during Severs's first visit to Africa, but later in the war. (Photo: United States Army)
Devers (right) with Polish General Kazimiers Sosnowsky in Algiers, 1944. Note that photo was taken not during Severs's first visit to Africa, but later in the war. (Photo: United States Army)

Devers spent much of his career stateside, but he finally got to serve in Europe in 1943. In late 1942, Eisenhower became supreme commander of all Allied forces in North Africa, and his previous position, Commanding General, European Theater of Operation (ETOUSA) opened up. It was filled by General Frank Andrews, but Andrews died next May when his plane crashed during an inspection tour in Iceland, and Devers was picked as his replacement. His organizational skills came in handy in England, where he oversaw the buildup of troops and war material in anticipation of Operation Overlord, the landings in Normandy. While preparing for Overlord, he foresaw the need for a heavy tank that could go toe-to-toe with German Tigers and Panthers. He requested 250 of the new T26 tanks, which would later become the M26 Pershing, to be made available for the landings. This request was torpedoed by General McNair, who considered the Sherman to be sufficient for the job.

An up-armored "Super Pershing" later in the war (Photo: United States Army)
An up-armored "Super Pershing" later in the war (Photo: United States Army)

As Commanding General, ETOUSA, Devers also got to decide how American heavy bombers stationed in England were to be used. At the time, most of these bombers were used in the Combined Bomber Offensive, the bombing of German-held Europe. The matter of bombers put him at loggerheads with Eisenhower in North Africa. Eisenhower repeatedly requested more bombers from England for the capture of Sicily and the liberation of Italy, and Devers repeatedly turned him down. Ike even tried to go over Devers's head and pleaded his case directly with George C. Marshal, but even the Chief of Staff of the Army took Devers's side in the matter; a rejection Eisenhower was not used to. The conflict over bombers increased friction between Ike and Devers, whose professional relationship was already somewhat strained after Devers's blunt criticism of Eisenhower's actions in North Africa earlier in the war. (To be fair to Devers, he eventually did agree to spare some bombers when he personally believed it was necessary.)
 
Another shakeup came in late 1943. Eisenhower became Supreme Allied Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force, and his old position in North Africa and Italy was filled by Devers. Despite having a primarily administrative job, Devers spent much time on the front and got along especially well with French and Polish troops, whom British generals often found difficult to handle. His good relationship with the French was in no small part thanks to French-speaking Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr., who resigned his Senate seat so he could serve in the battlefield.

Devers (second from right) with three French generals in front of the monumental Lion of Belfort in northeastern France. The statue was made by the same Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi who also sculpted the Statue of Liberty. (Photo: Photo12/UIG/Getty Images)
Devers (second from right) with three French generals in front of the monumental Lion of Belfort in northeastern France. The statue was made by the same Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi who also sculpted the Statue of Liberty. (Photo: Photo12/UIG/Getty Images)

The Italian front was a slow and grinding slog against well dug-in German troops. Things came to a head at the medieval mountaintop abbey of Monte Cassino, which was an important element of the German defensive line. After bloody and failed attempts to capture the location, the idea of bombing it into rubble was raised by commanders on the ground. Devers and Air Force General Ira Eaker played a critical role in the decision. Knowing that the Germans rarely opened fire on small aircraft so as not to reveal their positions, they took a recon plane above the abbey. They believed they saw machine guns and German uniforms on a clothesline, indicating German presence inside the compound. Their report helped settle the debate, and the abbey was destroyed (Read our earlier article – Razing Monte Cassino). Modern historians agree that Devers and Eaker were mistaken, and there were, in fact, no Germans inside.

Devers leaving a command post during a visit to the front in Italy (Photo: United States Army)
Devers leaving a command post during a visit to the front in Italy (Photo: United States Army)

Operation Overlord was on the doorstep by mid-1944, but it was not going to be the only amphibious landing in France. Operation Dragoon in southern France was to follow shortly, further dividing German forces and speeding up the liberation of France (Read our earlier article – Operation Dragoon). A new army group, the 6th Army Group was set up for the job, and it was going to be led by Devers. Strictly speaking, the landing didn't need a new army group; it could have been accomplished as part of the already existing 12th Army Group's responsibilities. Giving the job to a separate army group, however, meant that the French troops involved would have to be handled by Devers, and not by Eisenhower, who really didn't want to deal with them. As the head of 6th Army Group, Devers became one of only three people who reported directly to Ike, the other two being Bradley and Field Marshal Montgomery.

Devers, Eisenhower and Bradley in November 1944 (Photo: United States military)
Devers, Eisenhower and Bradley in November 1944 (Photo: United States military)

Operation Dragoon was a great success, and Devers remained at the head of his army group until the end of the war. His rapid push east toward Germany destroyed 6 of the 8 divisions of the German 19th Army, and surprised Eisenhower with its speed. When Ike and Bradley visited the 6th Army Group in late November – that's before the Battle of the Bulge -, they were astonished to find that Devers was already making plans to cross the Rhine in early December. The German side of the river had strong defensive structures, but Devers told Bradley he already had them scouted out, and they were empty.

Soldiers disembarking in Southern France during Operation Dragoon (Photo: Naval History and Heritage Command)
Soldiers disembarking in Southern France during Operation Dragoon (Photo: Naval History and Heritage Command)

Devers was ready to cross the Rhine and enter Germany, but Eisenhower forbade him from advancing, as he wanted all German forces on the west side of the river to be neutralized before any crossing was attempted. Devers had already isolated and surrounded a strong German presence in the so-called Colmar Pocket, and planned to attack them on the 15th of December. That operation, however, had to be delayed because the Battle of the Bulge had started in the north. While the battle raged, another German offensive hit Devers's army group in the south. Devers's forces were stretched thin, and he was ordered by Eisenhower to abandon the liberated city of Strasbourg and retreat to a more defensible location. Refusing to comply with the order, Devers held the city against a desperate German attack, suffering 14,000 casualties in the fighting. It was only after this sore battle that he could turn his attention to the Colmar Pocket, and eventually cross the Rhine on March 26, some five months after he first wanted to. What would have happened had Devers been allowed to enter Germany in late 1944 remains one of the big hypothetical questions of the war.

Devers (left) overseeing U.S. forces crossing the Rhine in spring 1945 (Photo: United States Army)
Devers (left) overseeing U.S. forces crossing the Rhine in spring 1945 (Photo: United States Army)

Devers stayed with the Army after the war, and was responsible for buying the military's first Bell H-13 Sioux light helicopters, which remain one of the most highly recognized helicopters to this day. After his mandatory retirement at the age of 62 in 1949, he tried his hand at ranching and being managing director of the American Automobile Association Foundation for Traffic Safety, jobs he did not enjoy. Instead, he successfully lobbied for the Air Force's adoption of the Fairchild C-123 Provider transport plane, and the adoption of the famous M16 rifle. He served as chairman of the American Battle Monuments Commission for most of the '60s. He passed away in 1979. General Jacob Devers rests at Arlington National Cemetery.

The grave of Jacob Devers and his wife in Arlington National Cemetery (Photo: Arlington National Cemetery)
The grave of Jacob Devers and his wife in Arlington National Cemetery (Photo: Arlington National Cemetery)
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