M24 Chaffee light tank of US Army 1st Armored Division in Bologna, Italy, late-1944.
A US 3rd Armored Division M10 tank destroyer negotiates a narrow alley in St Fromon.
9th Armored Division, 1st U.S. Army move through Engers, Germany, 1945.
The Army fielded a total of sixteen armored divisions during the course of the war. The 1st and 2d Armored Divisions made their combat debut in North Africa. After the Sicilian campaign and Italy’s subsequent surrender, only the 1st Armored Division remained in the Mediterranean Theater of Operations. Following the June 1944 Normandy landings, the 2d, 3d, 4th, 5th, and 6th Armored Divisions entered the Normandy beachhead and participated in Operation Cobra. During the ensuing pursuit across France, the 7th Armored Division entered combat. The 9th and 10th Armored Divisions joined this armored concentration as Allied forces neared France’s eastern borders. In December, both of these formations conducted defensive operations during the German Ardennes offensive. During the Battle of the Bulge, the 11th Armored Division served as a mobile reserve. By late January 1945 the German attack had been defeated and American forces began operations into the Rhineland and against the Maginot Line. They were reinforced by the 8th and 12th Armored Divisions. The 13th Armored Division entered combat during the encirclement of the Ruhr Pocket, and the 14th Armored Division led operations out of southern France and into Germany. By early spring American armor was spearheading Allied drives into Germany and central Europe. The final days of the war brought the 16th and 20th Armored Divisions into combat.
In all these campaigns the armored divisions fought as collections of combined-arms teams. However, the widespread application of combined-arms principles was merely a wartime phenomenon. In 1940–1941, under the direction of General Headquarters, the Army had abruptly adopted integrated doctrine and tactics in response to the success of German arms during the blitzkrieg era. The rapid change in American doctrine and organization occurred simultaneously with implementation of Selective Service, large-scale expansion of training, and changes in the Army’s structure. The pace and requirements of mobilization prevented the thorough grounding of military personnel in the fundamentals of combined-arms action. Hence, commanders at all levels sought to overcome their own inexperience while training new units.
Few armored commanders possessed a mastery of combined-arms principles and their application before entering combat. Such expertise was a prerequisite for fully exploiting the organizational flexibility of the combat command structure. While most officers grasped the value of molding different unit and weapon types into a single, cohesive team, they did not prefer amorphous organizations that lacked consistent definition. Hence the combat commands, designed to accommodate continuous change in response to enemy action and the operational environment, often received fixed troop assignments. This tendency restored organizational rigidity to the combat commands. By war’s end many armored-division commanders were recommending a standard regimental structure in lieu of the flexible combat command.
The principal exception to this trend lay in the 4th Armored Division. This formation served as the test bed for the combat-command concept. Its personnel thus became immersed in exploiting the combat-command structure and in combined arms operations, an experience made yet more unique by the deliberate stabilization of its key personnel for two years before the formation entered combat. Not surprisingly, this division made full use of the flexibility inherent to the combat commands throughout its wartime activities.
Greater acceptance and use of organizational flexibility occurred at the task-force level. Task force assignments often changed to meet specific mission needs and evolving tactical situations. Indeed, as combat experience was acquired, frequent configuration changes became routine—even in the midst of ongoing operations. Even so, some division commanders still sought consistency in the organization of task forces, routinely employing the same task-force configurations.
Regardless of the degree of stabilization, combat command and task force composition normally included a mix of tanks, infantry, artillery, engineers, mechanized cavalry, tank destroyers, and antiaircraft assets. However, the ability to effectively employ these different unit types required time to acquire. Despite periodic stateside maneuvers, the battlefield served as the principal school for the conduct of combined-arms operations. Through acquired battlefield experience, armored commanders learned how best to employ the combined-arms teams at their disposal.
During the drive across France in the summer of 1944, standard practices began to emerge. Armored divisions routinely operated three combat commands, each controlling as many as four subordinate task forces. Whenever possible, the divisions functioned as a collection of fast-moving task-force columns whose separate actions and objectives were coordinated at the combat command and division levels. In France, these columns used both primary and secondary roads to keep the Germans confused as to their location and intent. At least one armored division routinely targeted telephone lines and communications centers, adding to the enemy’s confusion.
American armored columns operated at a pace faster than that at which the Germans could respond. The rapid, continuous action of these armored columns disrupted defensive efforts and accelerated the disintegration of German resistance. In Italy, the 1st Armored Division performed similar actions during the capture of Rome and the subsequent pursuit of German forces.
The movement of multiple task-force columns occupied much of the combat command staff’s energy. Radio supplemented by couriers provided the principal means of communication, even over long distances. The use of radio nets that corresponded to different tactical functions and command echelons refined the original communications organization pioneered by the interwar mechanized cavalry. When time permitted, security protocol mandated the use of encoded messages. In combat, however, such protective measures were often abandoned in the interest of rapid communication and clarity. Responsibility for maintaining the communications net lay with the armored signal company within the division headquarters. Oral orders were considered the norm, with written orders issued only when time permitted. Division liaison officers ensured effective coordination among the combat commands and task forces. For whatever echelon they were assigned, they served as the commander’s representative, relaying his intent and instructions to subordinate elements. They also carried key information to the formation commander. As human conduits of information and commander intent, they played a vital role in sustaining situational awareness.
Small liaison aircraft assigned to the division artillery provided an aerial dimension to coordination as they transported commanders and liaison officers among subordinate units. These aircraft were also used to coordinate the movement of task force columns from the air, a practice also pioneered by the mechanized cavalry. The 1st Armored Division used such aircraft during operations in the Po River Valley to conduct route reconnaissance, track friendly troop movements, and identify enemy strong points. The value of liaison aircraft led to recommendations to increase the number of such aircraft in the armored division.
Units attached to the division posed additional challenges. They did not share the common training experience and purpose of the division’s organic units. Attachments had to integrate themselves into this team environment as best they could. Their effectiveness generally improved the longer they remained attached to a formation, but their independent status meant that recognition through awards and citations did not always occur. Attached units also remained responsive to their controlling headquarters, usually a corps. The latter sometimes reassigned them without informing the division. One armored division, having made its dispositions to include attached mechanized cavalry and tank destroyers, discovered only by accident the loss of these units.
The tank infantry team represented the core of the task force. Thus commanders sought to keep armored infantry close to the tanks. Doing so ensured the halftrack-mounted infantry could secure any gains the tanks made, thus sustaining forward momentum. The complementary strengths and weaknesses of the tanks and infantry provided maximum combat power and security. However, dissatisfaction with the halftrack’s mobility led some commanders to favor mounting their infantry on tanks. Aware that the Germans learned on the Eastern Front to separate enemy tanks from their supporting infantry, American commanders believed that tank-mounted infantry could be carried directly onto their objective to surprise and overwhelm the defenders. This practice reduced the infantry’s firepower to its small arms, because heavier weapons could not be carried in this fashion.
Lunsford Errett Oliver (March 17, 1889 – October13, 1978) was an American soldier, who commanded the 5th Armored Division during World War II.
The 5th Armored Division carried the integration of tanks and infantry further. In June 1944, while still in England, the division commander reorganized his division. He matched an equivalent number of tank and infantry companies within each combat command. He further “married” tanks and infantry squads. Because the armored infantry platoon possessed five squads and each tank platoon included five tanks, each squad was assigned to a single tank. The division employed this reconfiguration through the end of the war. Formation personnel believed this structure maximized tactical cohesion and minimized casualties. From its entrance into combat on 2 August until the end of April 1945, the division’s losses totaled 3,043 casualties and 116 tanks. The 6th and 7th Armored Divisions also entered combat within days of the 5th Armored Division yet suffered greater personnel and materiel losses during the same period.
Combat operations revealed that even in the armored divisions’ communication between tanks and infantry proved less than ideal. While the riflemen remained mounted, their transport’s radio kept them in contact with the rest of the parent task force. Once they dismounted and maneuvered away from supporting vehicles, they lost this link. In one instance, German artillery fire forced the infantry out of their open-topped halftracks, whereupon German foot soldiers attacked them. American tanks were nearby, but the dismounted infantry lacked the means to communicate with them. The armor therefore remained idle while friendly infantry fought to survive.
The ability of task-force columns to move rapidly into and through enemy rear areas depended on their ability to discover and exploit defensive weaknesses. This role fell to the reconnaissance assets available to each task force, including mechanized cavalry and available liaison aircraft. These elements normally preceded the task force and screened its movements. Information obtained through reconnaissance influenced command decisions. Hence, doctrine stressed the criticality of including reconnaissance actions in the operations planning process and providing sufficient time for their completion. When the importance of sustaining forward momentum precluded the conduct of a thorough reconnaissance, armored units simply placed continuous, suppressive fire on suspected enemy positions as they advanced. This reconnaissance by fire sought to trigger an enemy reaction that revealed his position.
Effective fire support also proved critical to maneuvering task-force columns in the face of opposition. Artillery moved at the same pace as the column, ready to engage on short notice. To facilitate rapid-fire missions, field observers accompanied all tank, infantry, engineer, and reconnaissance elements in addition to each headquarters. Each observer possessed a direct link not only to a particular battery but also to the parent battalion’s fire-direction center. Consequently, one observer could direct the fire of either a single battery or an entire battalion.