US Army Tactics WWII

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Infantry/tank co-operation. The cornerstone of US Army tactics was the all arms team, with infantry and tanks working closely together, supported by the rest of the arms and services. Here tanks, loaded with infantry, belonging to the Seventh (US) Army wait for orders in the main street of Munich, 29 April 1945.

With a tactical doctrine based largely upon outdated weapons and concepts, the American Army was perhaps more profoundly impressed by the success of the German blitzkrieg of 1940 than they should have been. As we have already seen, this led to an immediate call for 50 to 60 armoured divisions and the formation of the ‘Armored Force’. For a time the exponents of separate all conquering armoured forces held the stage. However, “Until the enemy main positions could be breached, the idea of armour sweeping into the heart of enemy territory was clearly a non-starter. The ‘armour above all’ lobby had as one of its major opponents the Chief of Staff of the Army Ground Forces, Lesley J. McNair, who firmly believed that armour on its own could only be successfully used for exploitation, after more conventionally balanced forces had done the job of fixing the enemy, manoeuvring to strike them in the flank or the rear, while maintaining a reserve to exploit any advantage gained, or, if things went wrong, to cover a withdrawal. These tasks called for the traditional infantry and artillery team, but now well supported by tanks and close support aircraft. McNair was also vigorously against all types of specialised units designed to carry out only one particular type of mission. Instead, he preached flexibility and the need for the balanced team of all arms. This doctrine became the basis of American tactics once they got into their stride and it was used to great effect. However, to be fair to the exponents of the swift armoured thrust, such as Gen George S. Patton Jr, tying tanks down to a more slow moving type of battle did lead to some great ‘lost opportunities’. The actual detailed use of the doctrine of course varied with the terrain and the enemy opposition. For example, in the bocage country of Normandy, the thick hedgerows and sunken roads required very close cooperation and detailed planning between armour, infantry and engineers. In the jungles of the SW Pacific, the coral atolls of the Central Pacific, the deserts of North Africa and the mountains of Italy, it was necessary to develop means of applying the doctrine to suit local conditions. However, it was clear in all cases that modern warfare required closer than ever cooperation by all arms.

Assault Doctrine

Basic infantry assault doctrine was initially based on the covering fire tactics as used in the final phase of World War 1. Each 12-man rifle squad was divided into a squad leader, a two-man scout section, a four-man fire section and a five-man manoeuvre and assault section. The scouts, with the squad leader, would locate the enemy, the squad leader would then call the fire section (which contained the BAR) to give covering fire while the third section advanced. Unfortunately, this brought only a part of the squad’s firepower to bear on the enemy during the advance, and only too often the squad leader was unable to play an active part as he was pinned down with the scouts. Controlling and directing the fire of both the squad and the platoon was one of the most difficult tasks. When a platoon was engaged in a firefight it was virtually impossible for the platoon leader to control personally the fire of his complete platoon, so he had to rely on his squad leaders. In rugged terrain it was often impossible for the squad leader to direct the fire of his complete squad. In addition, all too often both the squad and platoon leader joined in the firefight instead of trying to control the fire.

So the infantry squad turned for help to the tanks and partly for this reason it became the ‘norm’ to assign tanks to all sizeable infantry formations. A favourite method of attack was by using an infantry company supported by a team of 3-7 tanks. Sometimes the tanks would advance first, sometimes with the infantry skirmish line, sometimes they carried the infantry on the tanks. The tanks took on the enemy strongpoints, while the infantry dealt with anti-tank weapons. Communications between all parts of the all arms force were clearly essential and success or failure could well depend upon them.

Marching Fire Offensive

This type of advance was much favoured by Gen Patton’s Third Army and was very successful, although it did at times result in heavier casualties. All the infantry moved forward together in a thick skirmish line, with close tank support. All the BARs and LMGs went with them and everyone fired at all possible enemy strongpoints which were in range, while all the large weapons that could be mustered laid down covering fire. The principles of mutual support and shock action were used to the full. Even in Italy, there were occasions when marching fire was used, although the mountainous terrain did not lend itself to this type of manoeuvre. When attacking down ridge lines, over reasonably open terrain, or on hills easily accessible to infantry, it was very effective and resulted in fewer casualties from enemy small arms fire.

Use of Armoured Divisions

In one of his ‘Letters of Instruction’ to all corps and division commanders, Gen Patton covered this important subject in some detail. In brief, the points he made were as follows: after beginning by explaining the important differences between haste and speed, he emphasised the need for armoured attacks to be as closely coordinated as in the infantry division, with the tanks, infantry and artillery all working as a team. The latter should when possible be under divisional control, with their forward observers in tanks ready to deal quickly with enemy anti-tank guns (by HE, smoke or white phosphorus), enemy OPs and hostile artillery. Circumstances would dictate whether the attack would be led by tanks or by the infantry, the latter definitely leading when the attack was against known enemy anti-tank guns, extensive tank minefields, or when it was necessary to force a river crossing or a defile. When the tanks led, then they must use their guns for ‘reconnaissance by fire’, that is to say, shooting at likely hiding places for enemy anti-tank guns, etc. When they approached hedgerows they should comb them with machine gun fire. He goes on to recommend the use of smoke to blind the enemy OPs and guns when it was necessary to cross open ground; to deprecate the use of tanks to provide indirect fire except in an emergency and to advise against tanks entering villages (but to go in from the rear when it was really necessary). After giving some detailed points for both tank crews and armoured infantry he summarises this particular instruction thus:

We must take great and calculated risks in the use of armor, but we must not dive off the deep end without first determining whether the swimming pool is full of water. You must never halt because some other unit is stuck. If you push on, you will release the pressure on the adjacent unit and it will accompany you. Troops are never defeated by casualties but by lack of resolution – of guts. Battles are won by a few brave men who refuse to fear and who push on. It should be our ambition to be members of this heroic group. More casualties occur among those who halt or go to the rear than among those who advance and advance firing. Finally, all of us must have a desperate desire and determination to close with the enemy and destroy him.

Extracted from: Letter of Instruction No 3 dated 20 May 1944 and issued by HQ Third United States Army.

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