British Armour – Lessons to be Learned I

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Following victory in Tunisia there was a pause in British ground operations for two months until the invasion of Sicily on 10 July. This gave the opportunity for re-organization of formations and units, for training and for re-equipment where necessary. It also allowed for rest and recuperation as well as reflection on how the campaign in North Africa had been handled, and how its lessons might be applied to future campaigns in Europe. Of course there had been a steady flow of information back to the UK on the campaign as it progressed, on the quality – or otherwise – of equipment, on tactical thinking and co-operation between arms. All this was shaping the doctrine that would be applied by the Army, including its armoured divisions, in the remainder of the war.

Allied grand strategy was also being discussed, with the Americans eager to invade north-west Europe as soon as possible and the Soviets calling for the western Allies to open a second front. British thinking was that the forces in North Africa should be committed to further operations in the Mediterranean to knock Italy out of the war and ‘tighten the ring’ on Germany. It had already been agreed that British and American forces would invade Sicily, but the Americans had yet to agree that this should be followed up with landings on mainland Italy. As a result, preparations were under way for operations in both the Mediterranean and north-west Europe. Many formations that had taken part in operations in North Africa were designated for the invasion of France and would be shipped back to the UK as soon as possible, although some would fight in Sicily and the early phase of the Italian campaign. These included 7th Armoured Division and 4 and 8 Armoured Brigades.

This pause in armoured operations permits an opportunity to look at how British armour had developed, in terms of doctrine, operations and equipment, since 1939. The crucible of operational experience had led to the distilling to its essence of all the doctrinal theory that abounded in military circles, as may be seen in the July to December 1942 progress report of the RAC, which noted that:

The tactical distinction between the employment of Armoured Brigades and Tank Brigades is becoming increasingly nebulous … This trend is naturally reflected in the … American Sherman tank – accepted by the troops as the best tank they have yet been given … the concept of the heavy slow powerful ‘Infantry’ or ‘Assault’ tank has definitely receded.

The basic divisional order of battle had had a major change in May 1942 with the second armoured brigade replaced by an infantry brigade, as had happened in the Middle East at the end of February. Further modifications in August 1942, April 1943, March 1944 and May 1945 retained that combination of one armoured and one infantry brigade. The Middle East orbat of February 1942 made the brigade group the basic battle formation with the support groups being broken up and their artillery units added to the brigade groups. While the May 1942 orbat for a division in the UK reflected this basic outline artillery units remained under divisional command. With Montgomery’s arrival in Eighth Army the division again became the basic battle formation, with artillery returning to divisional command. In the April 1943 re-organization the divisional reconnaissance regiment, until then an armoured car regiment, became an armoured regiment; and there were various other modifications. Military Training Pamphlet No. 41 of July 1943 (MTP 41/1943) included the ‘Normal organization of an armoured division’ which it noted ‘may alter as a result of evolution’. On a working basis the document noted that the division included:

An armoured divisional headquarters.

An armoured brigade.

An infantry brigade.

Divisional troops:

One armoured reconnaissance regiment.

Two field artillery regiments, one of which will normally be self-propelled.

One anti-tank regiment RA, of which one battery will be self-propelled.

One light anti-aircraft regiment RA.

Two field squadrons and one field park squadron RE.

Armoured divisional signals.

Services.

The pamphlet noted that an armoured division was organized for employment as a single fighting entity, was well balanced for that purpose, and would normally fight as a whole under command of its own GOC. It went on to point out that:

It is a mounted, hard-hitting formation primarily constituted for use against hastily prepared enemy defences, for exploitation of initial success gained by other formations and for pursuit.

It is designed for use in rapid thrusts against the enemy’s vitals, rather than in hammer blows against his organized defences. It is the rapier in the hands of the higher commander, rather than the bludgeon.

Its full power will only be exerted by the employment of its armour concentrated, and supported by all the other components of the division.

And that its normal roles were:

Co-operation with the main army and the Air Forces in effecting the complete destruction of the enemy, usually by envelopment, or by deep penetration through his defences after a gap has been made in his main position by other formations.

Pursuit.

Co-operation with other arms in the defence, usually by counter-attack.

To threaten the enemy and so force him to alter or disclose his dispositions.

With the armoured division operating as intended:

the enemy will be forced to react, and his armour will normally be constantly encountered. Only when the bulk of the hostile tanks have been destroyed will armoured formations attain such a measure of freedom and mobility as will enable them to exploit to the full their ability to inflict a decisive blow against the enemy’s main forces.

The division’s armoured brigade was intended to strike the decisive blow, with the remainder of the division’s resources, ‘together with all available aircraft’, deploying to:

  • fight any preliminary action necessary to enable the armoured brigade to be launched against a vital objective over suitable country.
  • support the attack of the armoured brigade.
  • consolidate and mop up after such an attack.

MTP 41/1943 compared the operation of an armoured division to the work of a rugby scrum with the armoured brigade as the wing forward. ‘The vast majority of the players at first employ all their strength and energy to hold and push back their opponents’ but when this is done the wing forward may ‘break away … to penetrate the defence, and the remainder of the forwards will back up his attempt to score’. The success of the armoured brigade depended on the initial efforts of the remainder of the division, or other formations, and their continuing support when the breakaway had been made.

By the time MTP 41/1943 was issued the armoured brigade included a brigade HQ, three armoured regiments and a motor battalion. Each regiment deployed sixty-nine tanks (fifty-five gun tanks, six close support – CS – and eight anti-aircraft – AA – tanks) while the armoured reconnaissance regiment had fifty-one tanks (thirty-one gun tanks, twelve CS and eight AA tanks), the armoured brigade HQ had a further ten gun tanks and divisional HQ employed eight gun and two AA tanks, giving the division an overall total of 278 tanks. (The term ‘cruiser’ was still being used to describe the Grant and the Sherman although ‘gun tank’ or ‘battle tank’ are more appropriate.) In addition to this substantial armoured force, there were armoured cars, scout cars, carriers, two field artillery regiments – a total of forty-eight weapons – an anti-tank regiment with both 6- and 17-pounders, and a light AA regiment with Bofors 40mm guns, as well as the lorries to carry the armoured brigade’s motor battalion and the three infantry battalions of the lorried infantry brigade. In all the division had over 3,000 vehicles, including its tanks, and almost 15,000 personnel.

The infantry brigade in an armoured division included a brigade HQ, three battalions and a support group. Unlike other infantry, those attached to an armoured division were usually carried in lorries and were therefore mounted infantry, with tactics resembling ‘those of mounted infantry in the past’, trained especially for their role. ‘When mounted their speed on roads is greater than that of the armoured brigade. When dismounted it is essential that they should be trained to move for considerable periods at a really rapid pace.’

How did the lorried infantry differ from the motor battalion of the armoured brigade? The principal difference was that the motor battalion was tactically mounted, i.e. carried as far forward as possible (the provision of half-tracks was to assist in this). Other differences included the fact that the motor battalion had greater firepower, although weaker in manpower, and had many more vehicles, including carriers and scout cars, and also  possessed anti-tank guns. Each motor battalion company had integral reconnaissance and administrative elements, making it flexible enough to operate as a self-contained sub-unit. By contrast the infantry brigade units had greater manpower but less firepower. Their role was described thus:

If the ‘rugger’ analogy is maintained, infantry brigades may be considered as the ‘front row forwards’ since their first object is to get the better of their opponents in the ‘tight’ and to push them so as to produce an opportunity for penetration, and then to back up the battle.

Since tanks by themselves cannot win battles, it is the function of the infantry brigade, as of the remainder of the division, firstly to enable the armoured brigade to come into action on favourable ground, secondly to support its attack, and thirdly to mop up and consolidate the ground it has gained.

The artillery element of the armoured division was now stabilized at two regiments, one of towed 25-pounders and one of self-propelled 25-pounders, or M7 Priests with 105mm howitzers, with the SP regiment normally with the armoured brigade. However, both regiments came under command of the divisional Commander Royal Artillery (CRA), a centralized command which meant that the fire of both could be concentrated ‘for the achievement of the divisional commander’s object’. Although not intended to fire in the anti-tank role, the 25-pounders were to be sited ‘with adequate anti-tank fields of fire’. However, it was also emphasized that the SP guns were artillery ‘and that any attempt to employ them improperly as tanks will result in most serious casualties, without the attainment of any compensating advantage’.

Defence against enemy armour was the role of the divisional anti-tank regiment, now evolving into a four-battery unit, deploying forty-eight guns, of which two were towed batteries each with twelve 6-pounders and the other two were self-propelled with American M10 tank destroyers, armed with 3-inch guns (later replaced by 17-pounders in M10s and Achilles). This regiment was usually used ‘with a view to furthering the achievement of the general plan of the divisional commander’; it also provided protection during long halts while the division was on the move, replenishing, recovering or in harbour. It was emphasized that:

The skill, determination, and resource of every member of an anti-tank regiment must, therefore, be of the very highest order, especially in the armoured division where, because of the circumstances of its employment, the anti-tank personnel will be confronted with situations demanding the highest qualities of courage, self-reliance, and initiative.

As with the SP field guns, there was an injunction against becoming engaged in an armoured mêlée, although the SPGs’ light armour and good performance across country made them ‘suitable for employment in support of the attacking brigade, especially for consolidation, and as a mobile reserve’. It may be noted that US Army doctrine saw the tank as the main weapon of exploitation but envisaged SP anti-tank guns dealing with enemy tanks; those SP weapons were dubbed tank destroyers, a doctrine found to be flawed deeply.

Diminishing enemy air strength in the Mediterranean meant that the divisional light AA regiment may not have been as important as before but continued to be included in the orbat to protect the field artillery positions, defiles, and troops and transport while forming up. It also had a secondary role against enemy tanks although this was considered ‘exceptional’ by July 1943.

The overall number of armoured formations in the Army had reduced from its peak in 1942. Two of the three youngest armoured divisions – 42nd and 79th – were to be disbanded although the latter was reprieved by being chosen in early 1943 as the parent formation for all British specialized armour; 42nd ceased to exist in October 1943. A month after the invasion of Europe 9th Armoured Division was also disbanded in the UK; neither 9th nor 42nd Divisions ever saw action. As we have already noted 8th Armoured Division was broken up shortly after landing in Egypt and disbanded on 1 January 1943; although 23 Armoured Brigade survived as an independent brigade, 24 Armoured Brigade was also disbanded, its only action having been at El Alamein. Tenth Armoured Division saw no further action after El Alamein and deployed to Palestine and Syria, eventually being disbanded in Egypt in June 1944.

Concerns felt by crewmen about the reliability of the Crusader had also been reported back to Whitehall where the Director of Armoured Fighting Vehicles (DAFV) expressed serious concern at the poor state of reliability, as did the Deputy Chief of the Imperial General Staff, Lieutenant General Ronnie Weeks. In Weeks’ view ‘reliability must be considered more important than numbers’, a theme that now permeated official thinking in Whitehall where an emphasis was placed on producing better tanks. Six design requirements were set: reliability; gun; speed; endurance; armour; fighting compartment. The Sherman, then being delivered in increasing numbers, was reliable with a satisfactory gun, but was outgunned by the latest German tanks. In fact, it was felt by the General Staff that the American 75mm, as fitted in the Sherman, was ‘the best dual-purpose tank weapon yet produced’ and, at the earliest opportunity, should be adopted as the standard gun in British tanks. In a sense this was a return to the mistake made, for different reasons, with the 2-pounder. Fortunately, there was another view. ‘A first-class anti-tank weapon of the six-pounder or heavier type modernized to its highest performance’ had been called for. Work was in hand to lengthen the 6-pounder and provide it with armourpiercing Capped Ballistic Capped Ammunition (APCBC) with greater penetrative power. This was overtaken by a War Office request that a quarter of tanks in British service should be fitted with the 17-pounder to engage more heavily-armoured tanks. As a result it was decided to adapt Cromwell, then under development, to mount the 17-pounder. However, the changes to the basic design, involving a lengthened hull, stronger suspension and a very high turret, led to another tank, A30 or Challenger, which proved a disappointment and certainly did not live up to its name.

Nonetheless, the idea of mounting the 17-pounder in a quarter of British tanks did come to fruition with the adaptation of the Sherman to carry the new weapon. This British version, dubbed Firefly, was issued on a one-in-four basis to all British armoured units in the armoured divisions, including those later equipped with Cromwells; the Firefly in a Cromwell troop was even more obvious than its counterpart in a Sherman troop. (The arrival of Firefly brought about a troop- and squadron-level re-organization, with a Firefly added to the existing three tanks of a troop but the number of troops in a squadron reduced from five to four.)

Cromwell had begun life in 1941 as a requirement for a heavy cruiser, weighing about 25 tons, with a 6-pounder gun and 75mm frontal armour. The General Staff, realizing that the earlier concept of light cruisers ‘swirling around the battlefield like a naval fleet’ did not match the reality of warfare, wrote this requirement. The resultant tank, Cavalier, was not a success but Leyland Motors suggested modifying the design using a de-rated Rolls Royce Merlin aero-engine with mechanical reliability of a level not yet seen with British tanks. With insufficient Merlins available, Leyland had to make do with the Nuffield Liberty engine and the result was given the name Centaur. As an interim design it saw limited service. Leyland continued pursuing the Merlin alternative and when de-rated Merlins, re-named Meteors, became available the design was changed once more. The end result was Cromwell, a 25-ton tank capable of 40mph and carrying a 6-pounder in its turret with a 7.92mm Besa co-axial machine gun. Cromwell’s distinctive large, flat-sided turret was spacious enough for its armament to be improved to a 75mm while a support version mounted a 95mm howitzer. Cromwell also met the reliability criterion, although there were early worries on that point. Its performance and cross-country agility were welcomed by crews.

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