Military Horses & Mules During WW II

World War II was the first highly mechanized war, and the most vivid images of the war include tanks, long convoys of trucks and jeeps, masses of bombers flying over. But there were still large numbers of horses and mules employed as cavalry, field artillery draft animals, and in supply trains. The United States was the most fully mechanized, but even the U.S. used animals throughout the war.

Loading a mule for amphibious operations during World War II
Loading a mule for amphibious operations during World War II.

Today in WW II: 21 Sep 1943 In the most bitter combat of the New Georgia campaign [Central Solomons], Japanese lose 600 men in an unsuccessful defense of Arundel Island, withdraw on 22 Sep.   

Military Horses and Mules During WW II

German Army horse cavalry on its way to clear the area of the remnant of Polish forces, September 1939
German Army horse cavalry on its way to clear the area of the remnant of Polish forces, September 1939.

At the outset of World War II almost all the participants had horse mounted supply, artillery and cavalry units in combat. By the end of the war, the vast production of war machines in North America had equipped the U.S. and its allies with armored vehicles and transport, as well as reconnaissance and special purpose vehicles, which eliminated much of the need for horses and mules. Still, the war ended in 1945 with large numbers of equines still employed, particularly by the German Army. German propaganda notwithstanding, the horse played a very large role in the Wehrmacht's logistics.

U.S. Horses and Mules During WW II

G Troop, 10th Cavalry Brigade, Fort Riley, KS, April 1942. Up to the early 1940s, the U.S. Army had active horse cavalry units, little changed since the Indian Wars of the 19th Century
G Troop, 10th Cavalry Brigade, Fort Riley, KS, April 1942. Up to the early 1940s, the U.S. Army had active horse cavalry units, little changed since the Indian Wars of the 19th Century.

Horses: During World War II, the U.S. Army Veterinary Corps was responsible for the professional care of over 56,000 horses and mules used by the Army, as well as thousands of war dogs. When mobilization for World War II began in 1939, it was predicted that the Army would need 200,000 horses. In 1940, mechanization of the Army was well under way, but the Army still had two horse cavalry divisions (the 1st and the 2d), two horse-drawn artillery regiments, and two mixed horse and motor transport regiments, with a total authorization of 16,800 horses and 3,500 mules.

As mobilization and expansion of the U.S. military proceeded in the early 1940s, the need for horses continuously decreased as active, reserve and National Guard units rapidly converted to trucks and jeeps. The Cavalry officially lost its horses as full mechanization became the reality in 1942. The displaced horses were returned to the QM Remount Depots. Only four horses were procured in the 1943 fiscal year and none from then on through the end of the war. From 1942-1945, only 49 horses were shipped from the United States to the armed forces overseas.

U.S. Army 2604th Veterinary Station Hospital officers examining and treating sick and wounded animals at the 5th U.S. Army Remount Station, San Martino, Italy, 10 May 1945
U.S. Army 2604th Veterinary Station Hospital officers examining and treating sick and wounded animals at the 5th U.S. Army Remount Station, San Martino, Italy, 10 May 1945.

In Sicily and Italy, horses were used to overcome terrain that stymied mechanized units. On the drive to Palermo, 3d Inf. Div. captured hundreds of horses and mules. Gen. Truscott pressed them into service on his drive to Messina and they added enough value to be shipped to Italy when the fighting moved there. Truscott believed that more horses and mules in Sicily would have enabled him to capture more of the German force that ended up in Italy. Other commanders commented during the Italian campaign that horses would have helped and were superior to mechanized means in difficult, constricted terrain. However, when fighting bogged down at the Anzio beachhead, Truscott's horse troop was disbanded.

After D-Day, horses to equip the 10th Mountain Division in Italy were procured from the mainland of France and mules for the same unit from the United States. They proved essential in the rugged Appenine mountains, north of Rome. From the beginning of the Sicily/Italy animal program until VE-day, approximately 15,000 animals were received and processed from local sources, Sardinia and Corsica, North Africa and the British Middle East. Quartermaster Remount Service in Italy issued 11,000 horses and mules to using forces. QM also had to supply food for the animals since local forage was insufficient.

When Allied forces captured the Po Valley in the north of Italy, tens of thousands of riding and draft horses were discovered running free, abandoned by the retreating Germans. They included some of the best German and Austrian stock, along with the best of the Italian breed, which had been procured as the Germans rolled back from Reggio and Salerno to the Po River.

Mounted Coast Guard Beach Patrol during World War II
Mounted Coast Guard Beach Patrol during World War II.

A peak in demand for military horses in the U.S. occurred in 1943. The Coast Guard asked for 3,000 horses to be used by its beach patrols on the shores of the East, West and Gulf Coasts watching for hostile submarine activity. By 1944 however, the danger was deemed to have passed and the horses were returned to Remount Depots.

Use of Mules by U.S. Forces in WW II

For the U.S. Army in WW II, transportation of supplies, equipment and personnel was almost entirely based on motor vehicles. However mules continued to be used in certain circumstances for their ability to negotiate rugged terrain inaccessible by vehicles. Mules could negotiate jungle or mountainous terrain that no horse or vehicle could traverse. In North Africa, the mountains of Italy and jungles of Burma, mules made a significant contribution. Locally obtained donkeys and burros added capacity to Army mules shipped from the U.S.

Pack mules were used by US forces in Tunisia during the winter of 1942-43 and were employed extensively in the rugged mountain terrain of Italy. In the hard mountain fighting before Cassino, pack animals were extensively used. During 1944-45, the 10th Mountain Division employed over 14,000 mules in the rugged terrain of northern Italy during its drive through the North Apennines Mountains and the Po Valley. Animal pack outfits were also used in the China-Burma-India theater especially during the active combat operations in Burma. Very often the Army would procure animals in the theaters where the troops were operating and in emergencies would commandeer animals on the spot.

Mars Task Force mule skinners (2d Bn., 475th Inf. Regt.) lead mules through the swift river that impeded their progress to Bhamo, Burma, 17 November 1944
Mars Task Force mule skinners (2d Bn., 475th Inf. Regt.) lead mules through the swift river that impeded their progress to Bhamo, Burma, 17 November 1944.

Unconventional forces in Burma (now Myanmar), including Merrill's Marauders, used mules quite effectively. During the operations against Myitkyina (pronounced Mish-i-naw), the key objective in Northern Burma, the 475th Infantry Regiment, 124th Cavalry, two battalions of pack artillery and QM Pack Troops became the Mars Task Force. A Liberty ship brought about 275 mules of the 35th Pack Troop to India, then to Ledo by train. An overland march 300 miles down the Ledo Road brought them to Camp Landis, Burma. The mules were divided among the units of the force and served to carry machine guns, mortars, ammunition and other supplies in terrain where no other method was feasible. On 17 May 1944, Merrill's Marauders took their pack mules on a 65 mile march traversing the Kumon Mountain range to attack and capture the airfield at Myitkyina, the only all-weather airfield in the country, and the gateway to the road to China.

Other Countries Uses of Horses and Mules in WW II

The United States military had the highest degree of mechanization in World War II. U.S. Allies benefited from production shipped to them, particularly the British Commonwealth countries and the Soviet Union, although even they remained heavy users of horses and mules. Most of the world's armies relied heavily on draft animals throughout the war. Cavalry was also still in use when the war ended in 1945.

German horse-drawn supply wagon, in Soviet Union, WW II
German horse-drawn supply wagon, in Soviet Union, WW II.

Germany: German General Heinz Guderian, the father of the Panzers, was convinced that tanks could not be successful without logistical support from a specialized armored division. However, Guderian's request to motorize heavy artillery battalions was turned down. In his memoirs, he remarked, "The heavy guns remained horsedrawn, with unfortunate results during the war, particularly in Russia." German propaganda focused on the highly mechanized parts of the Wehrmacht that carried out the Blitzkreig, but even near the end of the war, in November 1944, of a total of 264 German combat divisions, only 42 were armored or motorized. The German Army maintained an average of about 1.1 million horses through the war with a single German Infantry Division using 4,000 animals. The great bulk of the German combat strength -- the classical infantry divisions -- marched into battle on foot, with their weapons and supply trains propelled almost entirely by horses or mules. The light and mountain divisions had an even greater proportion of animals, and the cavalry divisions were naturally mainly dependent on the horse. German Army independent cavalry units were used on all fronts, throughout the war. Use of cavalry actually increased toward the end of the war due to lack of motorized transport. Much of the field artillery in infantry divisions was horse-drawn, at least eight horses per gun, plus spare teams. The radios of each division were carried along on pack horses. [Information from: German Horse Cavalry and Transport, Intelligence Bulletin, March 1946.]

Japan: The Imperial Japanese Army was less mechanized than European countries or the U.S. They relied heavily on horses for artillery and transport of men and supplies. The typical IJA division had approximately 22,000 men and 5,800 horses. The IJA Infantry regiment T/O called for roughly 3,800 troops and over 700 horses. They had an 81 man ammunition section that carried a day's supply of ammunition for the entire regiment on 60 two wheeled horse carts or on 120 pack horses. The 40 man field section (rations and other supplies) utilized 30 one-horse two-wheeled carts or 40 pack horses. In an Artillery Regiment, about 2,000 horses were assigned to towing guns. The heavy IJA reliance on horses was not a liability in China but was so in the island campaigns. [Information from: Japanese Army in World War II: The South Pacific and New Guinea, 1942-43 , by Gordon Rottman, and others.]

Cavalry charge on the steppes of Russia during WW II.  Photo: Sovfoto
Cavalry charge on the steppes of Russia during WW II. Photo: Sovfoto.

Soviet Union: Cavalry was employed against Germany at the beginning of World War II by the Polish and Soviet armies, but the German highly mobile tank and armored units that were introduced in that war led to end of the use of mounted troops. Historians consider the Russian Cassock and the German Uhlan Cavalries among the world's greatest. During World War II, the Russians were believed to have used 300,000 horse cavalrymen.

Poland: On 1 Sep 1939 the Polish 18th Lancers of the Pormoska Cavalry Brigade fought with the German 20th Motorized Division in Chojnice (or Krojanty), Western Poland. The attack was planned against German infantry moving eastward, but the Poles were surprised by the German armored unit that suddenly appeared. The Poles were massacred. German propaganda exploited the action to mock the Poles by staging a cavalry charge in a 1941 propaganda movie "Geschwader Lutzow" (Lutzow squadron). Despite the lack of an authentic cavalry charge, Polish horse-mounted cavalry was utilized during the defense of Poland until 1 Oct 1939, when the German and Soviet armies overran the country.

China: For such a huge and populous country, the Chinese did not have a large number of horses in WW II military units. Natural Horsemanship Explained states that the Chinese "used more than 20,000 horses and mules, often successfully, against the Japanese." In China, animals were procured for the Chinese military forces by a Sino-American Horse Purchasing Bureau whose U.S. veterinary officers were sent into far-distant Tibet. Beginning in April 1945, the first of a group of 2,000 or more such horses were shipped into Hsi-ch'ang, China. Others were assembled elsewhere in the Sikang Province as of V-J Day. In 1944, the U.S. Coast Guard sent a team of beach patrol experts to China to help train the Nationalist Chinese Army in the use of dogs and horses for patrol and counter-insurgency duty.

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