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The 90 Division Gamble

By Robert M. Citino 
Originally published under Front & Center Blog. Published Online: January 14, 2010 
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You can break down the U.S. war effort in World War II by the numbers, and most of them are pretty impressive.  Tanks, aircraft, ships, weapons and weapons systems of all sorts:  the "arsenal of democracy" supplied them all in abundance, essentially out-producing the rest of the world both friendly and hostile in the course of the war.  It was this abundance of materiel that allowed the U.S. military to pursue its preferred strategy of applying overwhelming combat power directly against the enemy's main force and crushing it. 

But there was one area where it had consistent problems:  finding enough manpower.  The country had a good-sized population, to be sure, 133 million in 1941, compared to 80 million Germans (1939 population) and Japan (105 million, also in 1939).  But those countries managed to deploy somewhere around 300 divisions and 100 divisions, respectively, in the course of the war.  And as every student of the conflict knows, the U.S. limited itself to just 90 (actually 89, once the 2nd Cavalry Division was inactivated in early 1944).  That was nowhere near the 200 divisions General Lesley McNair estimated the army would need, an estimate he made the day before Pearl Harbor, and farther still from the 334 division army envisioned by the Joint Chiefs of Staff in early 1942.

It is often called a mistake, and indeed, there were times in this war–many times–that U.S. commanders wished they had another division or two to plug into a gap, or to relieve a front line division that was starting to feel the pinch of losses, fatigue, or demoralization.  By late 1944, with gigantic, infantry-heavy campaigns taking place in the Philippines and Western Europe simultaneously, the U.S. Army had been stretched about as far as you could stretch it.

But what were the alternatives?  Take those original impressive population numbers.  Now consider that one of the basic Allied strategies was to have the U.S. serve as the industrial arsenal for the alliance.  That means bodies–lots of them–in the factories.  Then take that war with Japan.  That's going to require a navy–a big one that was eventually some four million strong.  Now subtract the requirements for the U.S. Army Air Forces (another two million plus).  What does that leave?  Army Ground Forces that, by March 1945, numbered some 2.5 million men.  Subtract support personnel, and you wind up with… somewhere around 89 divisions to do the actual fighting.

It's not really a mistake if you have no choice. 

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22 Responses to “The 90 Division Gamble”


  1. 1
    Bill Nance says:

    What I actually perceive to be the greater issue is that AGF made several doctrinal decisions which limited their ability to concentrate combat power. The whole TD doctrine issue created two separate types of tank-like battalions that were attached to divisions and often conducted much of the same roles. Imagine what AGF could have done with the manpower diverted to TD Battalions instead going to extra riflemen and tankers?

    Also, AGF and the War Dept. got a little screwed by the Navy. We were building large warships with completion dates all the way to 1946 when the IJN had already been defeated by early 45. Granted some of these were big capital investments (My father flew recon missions in support of Iowa Class Battleships off Lebanon in the 80s) but I think service politics got the better of efficient use of resources.

    Finally, let's look at how you generate combat power. The AGF model was to use a cadre from existing Active, Reserve, or NG divisions to create a new division. With only 28 total divisions in 1939, that's a lot of cadre coming out of units that are themselves trying to get ready to fight. It takes a minimum of a year to take a division from scratch and make it combat ready, and that's cutting corners. Thus, the AGF could only create x number of divisions a year regardless of the bodies made available to them. As the records show, AGF was darn near at capacity every year until 44. To create new divisions past that point would have gotten divisions to the front too late to do any good.

    So, I really agree with you on the 90 division gamble. There really wasn't a good way to get any bigger any faster and still create combat ready units. That said, AGF made some bloopers which exacerbated the situation.

  2. 2
    Rob Citino says:

    Bill,
    I agree: human agency is always a factor, but like you, I see much of the problem here as being inherent and systemic. You want a big navy (and it could have been smaller), a big air force (ditto), you want to be the "arsenal," you want to build an atom bomb, etc etc etc… you're going to wind up with fewer front line divisions.

  3. 3
    Bill Nance says:

    It's a hugely complex equation trying to balance the manpower and logistical needs of an army, AF, and Navy across two huge theaters. To be honest, it's amazing that the planners got as much right as they did. I've got my own beliefs that FDR made things harder than they had to be, but that's a topic for another blog.

    Still in the end, whatever can be said about the 90 division gamble is this – it worked. It might not have been the prettiest, most efficient, or elegant solution, but warfare rarely is any of those things.

  4. 4
    Rob Citino says:

    But it also helps clarify things, operationally. You really see why the loss of much of the 106th Division at the start of the Bulge was so catastrophic. We didn't have that many divisions to go around! And frankly, it adds weight to the contention that Eisenhower was right, after Market-Garden, to go back to broad front, systematic, careful advance, rather than a potentially more decisive (but potentially more dangerous) "operational level" solution. We could afford attrition, in other words, but we couldn't afford the loss of formations and cadre.

  5. 5
    Rob Swanson says:

    Understanding that this was a gamble, did the US have any plans if the 90 divisions proved to be too few? We may never know, but we really don't have to. One can't argue with success, and because I'm not commenting in German, I think we were successful.

  6. 6
    Bill Nance says:

    There really WASN'T a fallback plan. by the end of 44, the US had almost no ground forces left in the states. Thus, to create new combat formations would have required producing new formations out of fresh recruits, and thereby cutting into the replacement stream available to those units already in the fight.

  7. 7
    Rob Citino says:

    And Rob Swanson makes his appearance! Welcome. Yes, Rob. Since there still is a USMA, we can assume the 90 Div. gamble worked!

  8. 8
    Adam Rinkleff says:

    With the new 'army of one' concept, our manpower shortages are solved forever! Just the other day I saw like five armies at the mall, and I felt very secure.

  9. 9
    TF Smith says:

    Considering that the USMC put six divisions into action by 1945, it was actually the "96 division" gamble,,,

    Likewise, the 2nd Cavalry actually went overseas as a functional combat division; it was disbanded in the Med because of a need for additional service units to sustain the 5th Army in Italy in 1944-45, which was necessary because more than a few of 5th Army's service and support units had gone to the UK in 1943-44 in support of the 2nd Armored, 1st, 9th, and 82nd Airborne, or to Provence in support of the 3rd, 36th, and 45th divisions in 1944-45. That was a question of strategy (two theaters in Europe), not of organization.

    It is also worth considering that almost throughout the war, there was an "extra" Army division equivalent or two that never gets included in the "90 division" figure – in 1941-42, the 12th Division (the US Army's "Phillippine Division" on Luzon); in 1944-45, the Mars Task Force in the CBI and the 7th Army Airborne Task Force were both in action at the same time.

    It also does not address the US non-divisional manuever formations/units – infantry brigades, RCTs, regiments, and battalions; tank destroyer brigades, groups, and battalions; armored groups and battalions, and cavalry regiments, groups, and squadrons – which are not reflected in the "90 division" count.

    It is also worth pointing out that the US individual replacement system, however reviled in terms of unit cohesion, did substantially better than the British/Commonwealth unit replacement system (or the German and Japanese systems, for that matter), which required quite a few painstakenly raised combat divisions to be broken up throughout the course of the war to provide replacements.

    It is also worth considering the Allied divisions that were equipped at the expense of the 15 additional US Army divisions planned for mobilization in 1943 under the revised 1942 troop basis – these were almost 1 for 1 trades, essentially, and included the eight French divisions (3 armored and five infantry) that were re-equipped and deployed in 1943-44, and four more under the Liberated Manpower Program in 1944-45; the Brazilian 1st Division in 1944-45; and the Chinese 22nd, 30th, and 38th divisions that were organized and equipped at Ramgarh as the elements of X Force in 1944-45 – 16 Allied divisions. Considering that all but one were already in theater, as opposed to 15 US divisions that would have had to be deployed and supported overseas, it seems like a reasonable trade-off…

    That's also not counting the 12 Phillipine Army "light" divisions organized and equipped in 1941, as roughly the equivalent of 6 AGF triangular divisions, TO&E, or much less the British, Indian, Canadian, Australian, New Zealander, South African, Polish, and Italian divisions that were at least partly equipped and sustained by the US, through Lend-Lease or otherwise.

    All of the above equals a lot more than 90 US division equivalents.

  10. 10
    Bill Nance says:

    Adam – we got rid of that slogan – wasn't that great for retention after all. All us in the active army thought that one guy had it covered and took the day off.

    TF Smith – great thoughts. However, as the division was the standard combat formation, you can't really count all the GHQ stuff (sep tank BNs, Cav Groups, TD BNs, etc.) as they were never intended to fight by themselves, and as such were enablers, NOT independent fighting formations. They were draws on manpower, and did provide combat power, but did not really allow any division to come off the line, except for cav groups, and they were relatively small and light formations. Great example of them working – 3d group along the moselle. Bad example of them working – losheim gap at the Ardennes.

    I agree with you about the replacement system. I would add that it is much easier from an organizational and equipping standpoint to train individual replacements than to create completely new formations. Plus as creating the cadre for a new division, took a built division 'out of the pipeline' for a while, the decision to stop making new units makes sense.

    I think manpower shortages were a greater part of the 43 changes to the troop basis. All the divisions that could be raised in 43 were in the pipeline, and AGF was running into a severe manpower issue, especially with losses mounting in the AAF and navy, all of which got first pick of quality recruits. Do you think that AGF willingly decided not to raise those 15 divisions, or figured that they couldn't use those 15 division sets of equipment anyways, as they didn't have the manpower to raise them and still reinforced their units going overseas?

    I agree with you about the Philippine divisions and the 12th US, however, by the time of the 'gamble' those were already destroyed and off the Order of Battle.

    Finally, good point about the marine corps, but AGF was an army organization, so we don't count squids :).

  11. 11
    TF Smith says:

    Phil –

    Except that the qualifier in Dr. Citino's initial post is " And as every student of the conflict knows, the U.S. limited itself to just 90 (actually 89, once the 2nd Cavalry Division was inactivated in early 1944)." so the misguided children "counted" – otherwise there would have been a need for an "extra" six AUS divisions in the Pacific…

    And considering the amount of energy expended to get the 6th, 7th, and 9th Australian divisions from the Med to the SWPac in 1942-43, it seems a "little" churlish not to count a deployed ground combat force larger than any other "Western" Allied army but those of the US itself, the UK, India, and France by 1945…including the Australians, Canadians, Poles, South Africans, and New Zealanders.

    Worth pointing out is that the 12th Division was re-raised as an officially AUS "Scout" formation in 1945 in the PI, so it should probably be reckoned as such in the Allied OOB by V-J Day – its existence certainly allowed one more AUS division to be freed up from chasing down the IJA on Luzon for Okinawa (or Kyushu, if necessary), for example.

    The 1st TD Brigade served as a formation in the ETO in 1944-45, as did the 1st Airborne Infantry Brigade, at least according to Shelby Stanton, and these were both "square" brigades on the WW I US pattern, so were more than an RCT equivalent…fairly close to some of the British-type two-brigade divisions by 1945,

    The question of the 15 AUS divisions NOT activated in 1943 is an interesting one; they were definitley programmed in 1942, and the question of their activation or not, based on manpower vis a vis overseas needs is discussed in Matloff, among other sources – the majority were airborne or infantry, and so "could" have drawn in some of the existing separate RCTs and regiments that did, in fact, remain operational throughout 1944-45; manpower may not have been as tight, in some ways, as generally thought – if the idea was simply to create formations that one could designate as "divisions," as it appears to have been for the Axis in 1943-45, the US could have played that game…

    The facts are that the decision to not activate them was made in almost the same period that various commitements were made to the French, Chinese, and Brazilians certainly was fortuitous, and the equipment that went to the Allies for these formations was certainly all US standard or subsititute standard; there is an anecdote in Rearming the French about the French divisions in North Africa receiving full sets of US TO&E equipment, down to and including (US) national flags.

    Best

  12. 12
    TF Smith says:

    Sorry – Bill, not Phil. Incipient Alzheimers….

  13. 13
    Bill Nance says:

    TF – Had to give the library back my copy of Matloff, but I do have my Green books handy.

    I refer back to the problem of creating functioning divisions and the AGF model wherein each unit of a type was to be identical and have identical training. Didn't work like that in practice always, but within reasonable limits. Thus, AGF wasn't going to call a beefed up RCT a division simply to have a 'division'. It didn't fit with their institutional thinking. Also, many of these sep. RCTs and whatnot were ad-hoc formations put together for special purposes (Merrill's Marauaders, etc.)

    Also, it took a year to create a division. Also included in that build requirement are Cadre, training facilities, equipment (of all types from tanks to belt buckles) and field exercises. The fact of the matter was that in 1940 there were only so many trained officers and NCOs around. You can send a good soldier through a 'shake and bake' program and make him a sergeant, but he won't be as effective as one that has grown into the position. Good officers and NCOs must be grown and that takes time. This is just talking about tactical level units. It takes even more time to build and develop divisional staffs and commanders, to say nothing of corps and echelons above corps staffs and commanders. Especially when almost nothing of the sort had existed prior to the war.

    Thus, it was a math problem, provide too few cadre and training time increases as you have to develop more leaders. Provide too many, and you incapacitate the donor unit. With just these manpower issues, the number of units that AGF could field was quite nearly a fixed proposition. Camps could be built, soldiers could be inducted, but if the proper leadership was not available to train them, then the time until that unit was ready for combat would become unacceptably long. I've built a unit from scratch to combat in a year, and it was damn hard, and that was with a solid core of NCOs.

    This brings me to a side point, but it bears saying. The US army is often accused of never really producing 'genius'. However, that said, the fact that the US army was able to triple in size and produce effective (if not brilliant) leadership is a testament to its officer development and education systems developed post WW I.

    The separates that existed did indeed fight as independent units. However, they were still enablers for the combat force of divisions and not intended to be main force formations. In fact the very existence so many of these 'separates' speaks to the inability of the US to build full divisions as fast as necessary.

    Interesting data on the 12th US in 45. However, I had the understanding that this was a locally raised division of Filipinos mixed with US soldiers left behind. Thus, with most of its manpower coming from Filipinos, it really should be counted more as an allied division (very closely allied – mind you) than a US division. Even if you do count it, the term 90 division gamble refers to the number of divisions that were planned for being mustered in the US.

    As for why it's called the 90 division gamble and not the 96 division gamble is, as I noted earlier, was because it was an AGF decision and name, and not one that included the marines which were under the Dept. of the Navy, which was not subordinate to the War department.. If Roosevelt had made the decision, you would be right. However, the fact of the matter is that AGF named it, so that's what it's called. And if we're really splitting hairs, the US actually raised 91 divisions, as the 2nd Cavalry was raised and deactivated twice. Of course there's a whole history there that really isn't pertinent to this discussion.

    Hope you're having a great weekend.

  14. 14
    TF Smith says:

    Bill –

    We're not really disagreeing; I think we've read much the same sources – Command Decisions (which is where the "90 Dvision Gamble" name comes from, I believe, as the title for Matloff's essay); Procurement and Training of Ground Combat Troops, Organization of Ground Combat Troops, etc.

    My main point here is simply that (in total) the US (War and Navy) departments organized, raised, deployed, and sustained in combat a very substantial ground combat force (larger than any one of the Allies but the Soviets, after all), made up of divisions (and various brigades, task forces, etc, as formations, rather than units) that remained in action, and capable of action, as formations to a substantially longer time than their Axis equivalents, largely because of the superb organizational work by AGF and ASF during the pre-war planning and mobilization periods (1940-41, especially).

    These formations included (arguably) 96 "American" TO&E divisions (AUS and USMC); one additional "AUS" division (the 1945 12th Division (PS); various and sundry smaller "American" formations (whether TO&E square brigades or ad hoc division- or brigade-sized "task forces") and (depending on how they are reckoned) 15-26 more "Allied" divisions (French, Philippine Commonwealth Army, Chinese, and Brazilian) that were – other than their manpower – sustained entirely by the US and functioned under US chains of command and higher headquarters…in effect, they were "auxiliaries" of the AUS, although no one described them as such at the time because of the politics involved.

    Considering their deployment at VE Day (27 + the 12th US (PS) in the Pacific, and 68 in the ETO and MTO) it is a pretty impressive example of planning to requirements, especially given that only one AUS divisions (the 2nd Cavalry) was broken up because of personnel requirements – as opposed to (for example) a half dozen or more British Army divisions.

    Put it this way about the six USMC divisions; at the time, no one among the US decision makers (FDR or the JCS) ever didn't "count" them among the correlation of forces between the Atlantic/European theaters and the Pacific, so it seems only appropriate to include them in the mix when considering what resources the US had to do the job during the war…

    Best

  15. 15
    Bill Nance says:

    TF – Sounds fair. As a friend of mine put it, we're aggressively agreeing. One nit pick though. The 2nd cav was broken up the first time to provide service troops as it was comprised of one white brigade and one black brigade (the 9th and 10th cavalry regiments). The white cavalry regiments were released from the division to form separate cav groups, and no one wanted to use the black formations for combat. Thus, the division was broken up for use as service troops. The second time was for more manpower reasons.

    I don't know if LeClerc would have agreed with your assessment of his division as a US auxiliary, even if I do.

  16. 16
    dalla via says:

    Bonjour
    Fils de libérateurs j'écris un livres sur "hommahe aux soldats américains de la war3"
    Qui a réellement libéré Cherbourg, peut t on avoir la lioste et les grades de ces hommes
    Merci
    Michel

  17. 17
    TF Smith says:

    Bill –

    Stanton's "US Army Order of Battle" is my source on all this; the 2nd Cavalry Division (as activated in 1941 from mostly existing units) was inactivated in 1942 to provide the cadre (and then some) for the 9th Armored Division…

    The 3rd Cavalry Brigade headquarters (the "white" brigade assigned ot the 2nd CD) was re-designated the 9th Division trains headquarters, while the 2nd and 14th cavalry regiments became the 2nd and 14th armored regiments, respectively, also assigned to the 9th AD.

    When the 9th was switched from the heavy, triangular TO&E to the "light" TO&E in 1943, two of its three tank battalions were the 2nd and 14th…likewise, the 3rd and 16th FA battalions and the 9th Engineer battalion of the 2nd CD all lived on in the 9th AD.

    The 4th Cavalry Briagde (the 2nd CD's "colored" brigade), which contained the 9th and 10th cavalry regiments, remained a separate brigade after the 2nd CD was inactivated in 1942 and then was re-assigned to the "new" 2nd CD when it was re-raised in 1943.

    What is kind of interesting is that given the number of separate tank destroyer brigade and group headquarters, and armored/tank group headquarters (and separate tank, TD, and FA battalions and infantry regiments and battalions) raised in 1942, the nine (!) armored divisions raised in 1942 (probably a record in any 20th Century army, I'd guess) probably could still have been created (and deployed overseas in 1944-45) without the 2nd CD being broken up…and there would have been one more "pre-war" regular division to deploy in 1942-43…

    Certainly an additional "light" infantry division (i.e., a dismounted cavalry division), with a strongly "RA" cadre, could have been very useful in the SW Pacific, CBI, or the Apennines in 1943-44…

    Best

  18. 18
    Bill Nance says:

    You got me on the white brigade of the 2d CD. That'll teach me to go off the top of my head, considering that I had their unit histories sitting on my bookshelf, no excuse for that!!

    Neat point about the second incarnation of the 2nd CD, but with the only remaining regular formations left in it being the black formations, I think there was something else going on too. Note that the all black TD and sep tank battalions were notable by their uniqueness.

    Another point also is that by 43 AGF doctrine had evolved to the point that cavalry divisions were obsolete. You had infantry divisions, armor divisions, and airborne divisions in AGF. Motorized divisions had been cut as too costly, and simply redundant (given the number of trucks assigned to a US infantry division). The armor division did all the tasks of a cavalry division per FM 100-5, except strategic recon, and that was seen as being done by the AAF. The 1st Cav was already in the fight, so was left alone (although they were essentially infantry anyways).

    That said, to me, it doesn't make a lot of sense to fully break apart an existing division to man others. There are many other ways to deal with this to include reflagging, retasking, or reorganizing. So, to back up a little, I think there was something that made the powers that be want to break up that division rather than simply modify it.

    I agree with you that AGF really diluted its combat potential alot with all the GHQ separates that they raised. Some of it made sense, but much was simply adhering to a rather faulty initial doctrine.

    Interestingly, the US Army is actually returning to a WW II organization in many ways. The concept of modular, 'plug and play' formations, light cav only recon formations, etc. It'll be interesting.

    Have a good day.

  19. 19
    J Kenneday says:

    in addition to the 90? Divisions, the US Army also had the equivakent of about 22 Infantry & 2 Airborne Divisions deployed as Separate Regiments.

    These units were not always at 100% TOE, mostly performed Garrison and training duties in CONUS, Panama, Alaska, Iceland though there were some standout performers like the 442nd Infantry & 5307 Prov.

  20. 20
    paul penrod says:

    Unlike the Germans, who placed all of their power and might in the arrowhead alone, the US wanted a solid lance from tip to end. The uS was the only power that maintained a huge establishment for all three armed forces. The closest rival was Britain, but only if the Dominion and colonial forces were included. The US may have only had 90 divisions, of their own, but in addition their industry provided the armored hitting power to the Canadian and Polish armored units, and some to the British as well. The contribution in trucks alone gave the Soviets a force multiplier of being able to sustain their offensives. The US completely equipped the Nationalist Chinese and the reconstituted French Army. All of this I would estimate to equal 50% of the fighting power of the US divisions. Add to this the US force multipliers of complete motorization, the leviathan airlift and sealift capacity, an unsurpassed communication system, technological and quantitative mastery of the air, the world's most deadly and accurate naval and field artillery, an endless cornucopia of logistics support, industry and supply (don't forget about the manpower requirements for all of this). Yes, I think with all of this the US could endure the shortcomings of the M-4 Sherman!

    • 20.1
      Wisniewski says:

      You underestimate the British dependence on American Tanks with the phrase "some to the British as well" In fact by Normandy nearly 66% of British Tanks were Sherman variants for example in June 1944 the Commonwealth Armored forces in the 21st army group possessed 2,418 Sherman Tanks of all types. 600 Churchills, 451 Cromwells and 427 Stuarts along with a handful of Valintines crusaders and grants employed in engineering and AA roles. This is a bit more than some of the British Armored force its almost a large enough majority to pass a constitutional amendment. More over those British models were fulfilling the minor tank roles of "Infantry tank" and "Divisional Recce" for Churchill and Cromwell respectively. Only the 7th division equipped its Armored Brigades with British tanks (cromwells)

  21. 21
    Aussie says:

    The 90 division gamble was a bold decision that understood the importance of logistics, the lance being as important as the tip of the spear. But it also understood the proper importance of having strategic air command with a massive aircraft advantage. That is where as a strategy it was brilliant, it drove USA industry to war materiel and the war winning formula of scaling up factory output, volume and quaility. By keeping a large percentage of your best resources in the factories, rather than as cannon fodder your brightest people designing, running and manning them, a mighty war engine was built. It also meant at the end of the war, the USA despite its indebtedness, could "easily" win the peace. And thanks be to God, spared us of a complete Soviet take-over of post-war Europe.



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