British Armour – Lessons to be Learned II

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The Cromwell tank, officially Tank, Cruiser, Mk VIII, Cromwell (A27M),

Tanks were growing bigger as demonstrated by the appearance of the Panzer Mk VI, or Tiger, in Russia and Tunisia. The United States had begun developing a 50-ton heavy tank, M6, armed with a 3-inch gun, but the US Army’s Armored Force decided that mobility came before either armour or gun power and cancelled the project. (In addition, as already noted, the Americans remained fixated on the tank-destroyer concept, a belief that self-propelled anti-tank guns on lightly-armoured hulls would fight other tanks, allowing US tanks to execute the exploitation role.) A British heavy tank, TOG, was also abandoned, but this had been a throwback to the Great War whereas the American M6, although beset by problems, had potential. Cancellation of M6 was followed by another programme, T20, which was also killed off by the Armored Force, which preferred to up-gun and up-armour Sherman; it had been expected that T20s would also enter British service. Eventually the US Army did get a heavier tank, the M26 Pershing with a 90mm gun, but only towards the end of the war. None were supplied to the British Army which was waiting for the A41 universal tank, which became Centurion, the finest tank of its generation. The mid-war period was one of flux in the development of armour with many new theories being promoted about weapon performance and armour protection. The American cancellation of M6 may be seen as short-sighted in light of the appearance of the Tiger but DAFV made a similar decision in Britain; the DRAC even described the 88mm-armed Tiger as ‘a clumsy fighting vehicle’. Macksey commented:

The evidence concerning anticipated enemy equipment and techniques was inevitably incomplete and therefore subject to a measure of guesswork. It was not entirely unreasonable that, at a moment when DAFV was rejecting heavy assault tanks, the defensive potential of the Tiger tank … was for some time underrated, although DAFV’s expectation that the Germans would mount heavy anti-tank guns on self-propelled mountings, in the same way as the British and Americans intended to do, was entirely justified.

The Defence Committee, prompted by the Ministry of Supply, made clear that it preferred not to rely on American production for Britain’s tank needs in the remainder of the war ‘on the grounds that it was undesirable to let it appear that the war had been won by American tanks. A preference to continue with Churchill and Cromwell was stated’.

As well as Tiger the Germans had developed another new tank, Panzer Mark V, or Panther. A medium tank weighing 45 tons – half as heavy again as demanded in the original specification – it carried a 75mm gun twice as long as that of the improved Panzer Mark IV. On Hitler’s orders the gun was made even longer. Having overcome teething problems, Panther proved an excellent tank; a powerful gun, thick armour and speed all contributed to it being the best German tank of the war. It was developed to combat the Russian T-34 and was superior to it in most respects, except that Germany could not match Soviet production levels: only 5,500 Panthers were built between 1942 and 1945 whereas 11,000 T-34s rolled off the production lines in 1944 alone. Although there are no doubts about the technical qualities of the Panther, it was over-engineered which meant longer time in production and more complicated maintenance in the field. Had the Germans been willing, a captured T-34, which provided the specification for Panther, could have been used to reverse engineer a German version, of which many more could have been built; but German engineering hubris ensured that this simpler Panzer Mark V did not develop beyond a thought.

It is worth considering the T-34 briefly. The best all-round tank of the war, it was also built in the greatest numbers, with over 57,000 produced by 1945 (the USA produced over 50,000 Shermans). Design work started in 1936, based on the BT-7. With a high-velocity 76.2mm gun, low turret, sloped armour, powerful engine and Christie suspension, T-34 was a shock to German panzer crews. It was later fitted with an enlarged turret and the 85mm anti-aircraft gun to become T-34/85. Wide tracks and excellent suspension allowed it to operate effectively, even on ground covered in snow or mud, giving it a tactical as well as numerical superiority over its adversaries. Not surprisingly, T-34 remained in service and production after the war and its production totals have been exceeded only by its successor, the T-54.

Also under discussion at this time were armoured warfare tactics since it was not clear whether those that had worked in the desert would translate to Europe. However, it was appreciated that the conditions experienced in Tunisia approximated more closely to those of Europe and that the armoured division as deployed in Tunisia, with its armoured brigade and lorried infantry brigade, was well balanced. Its only apparent defect lay in having only an armoured car regiment for reconnaissance and so it was decided to use an armoured regiment instead.

The revised organization was not viewed as definitive since emphasis was laid on the fact that the division had to be flexible with its organization adjustable to circumstances. In the next phase of the war, as British armoured divisions fought in Italy and north-west Europe, that flexibility was demonstrated by the adoption of the battlegroup within the divisions, and the addition of a second infantry brigade to cope with the problems created by Italy’s terrain.

By this stage of the war the British armoured division was a much more professional formation. Training of new soldiers, many posted as casualty replacements, had been improved so that new crews reporting to units for the first time were better prepared for combat. This contrasted sharply with the earlier days of the war when the arrival of inadequately trained replacements had added to the existing burden on fighting men. There had been a Royal Armoured Corps Depot in Egypt, at Abbassia, north-east of Cairo, since pre-war days that fed men into the armoured units in the Middle East. As the war progressed the lessons learned in action had been taught to new arrivals whilst specialist courses for all ranks in skills such as gunnery, signals and maintenance were also provided. By early 1943 the system of assimilating reinforcements and preparing them for their units had been refined to such an extent that an Armoured Replacement Group had been created, consisting of armoured delivery regiments and, closer to the fighting front, armoured delivery squadrons to feed both battle-ready men and machines to their new units. This scheme mirrored that established in the UK.

Among changes that began in the Middle East were some affecting gunnery. Initiated in the summer of 1942, these were soon being taught at the Gunnery School at Lulworth in England. Macksey notes that these changes inspired the commandant of the Gunnery School, Colonel R. A. H. Walker, to start ‘a crusade to develop long range fire (up to 2,000 yards) and indirect shooting’. At that time tank guns were generally free elevating and controlled by the gunner’s shoulder. Walker averred that the free elevating gun ‘had to be replaced by an elevating wheel; that elevating and traversing gears must be tightened up; and that telescopes with improved magnification must be introduced’. Walker’s comments were supported by Major General Raymond Briggs who became Director RAC in early August 1943. However, as Macksey states:

the indirect fire requirement was already shown to be less important than the enthusiasts believed. Rarely was it undertaken above troop level, but longer range shooting had already been demonstrated in action both in Tunisia and Sicily. Early in 1944 the new techniques were adopted and, as the seat of war moved to Europe, the centre of activity in the development of better gunnery shifted to the UK, at the AFV Schools and in the experimental establishments.

The AFV Schools were making a major contribution to the development of armour as the ‘whole of the British-orientated armoured forces, including elements from certain foreign nations, looked to Bovington and Lulworth’. Officers were being instructed at the Tactical School where lessons from the front were passed on but it also served as a ‘brains trust’ to discuss and argue over ideas. Elsewhere, the Military College of Science had a Fighting Vehicles Wing where suitably qualified officers could qualify as instructors in the more rarefied aspects of tank technology. This Wing developed, first, into the RAC School of Tank Technology and then the Armour School. By mid1943 new recruits for RAC units – and there were about 2,000 each month – were receiving training based on battlefield experience, as were new officers. Nor was there any shortage of AFVs for training. The days of scarcity had gone: at the end of 1943 the RAC had 15,732 AFVs across the world.

The experience of Operation JUBILEE, the Dieppe raid of 20 August 1942, knowledge of the German work on coast defences – the so-called Atlantic Wall – and the problems created by the enemy use of minefields in North Africa all led to the decision to employ specialized armour in the invasion of Europe. By July 1943 a range of specialized armour was being developed, including updated Sherman-based flail tanks to supersede the early rudimentary mine-clearing tanks. Assault engineer tanks, based on the Churchill, were also in development as was a range of other ‘Funnies’, as they were known. General Sir Alan Brooke, CIGS and a former GOC Mobile Division, believed that all such specialized armour should be grouped under a single commander. This decision led to the reprieve from disbandment for the most junior British armoured division, 79th, which was re-roled to assume the specialized armour task. Command was given to Major General Percy Hobart, who had already raised 11th Armoured Division.

As well as operating the specialized armour 79th Armoured Division was to train British, Canadian and American armoured units in the use of amphibious tanks, Shermans fitted with flotation screens and Duplex Drive (DD), allowing them to travel through water. The DD Shermans were intended to play a major role in the landings in Normandy, although sea conditions restricted their use. They were also used later in the campaign. The conversion and deployment of 79th Armoured Division illustrates the most enlightened and innovative use of armour by the British Army in the Second World War. It was unmatched by any other combatant, especially in the method of employment, with Hobart acting as specialized armour adviser to the commander 21 Army Group, General, later Field Marshal, Sir Bernard Montgomery, and with a similar command and oversight system at formation, unit and sub-unit levels so that the special skills and equipment of the division were not misused.

At much the same time each field army HQ received a new element of staff with the introduction of a Brigadier RAC (BRAC) and staff. Brigadier George Richards, who had commanded 4 and 23 Armoured Brigades, was appointed BRAC to HQ Eighth Army in time for the invasion of Italy while Brigadier Harry Watkins became BRAC at Allied Forces HQ with the special remit of protecting RAC interests there, as well as setting up the RAC structure in southern Europe. No BRAC was appointed to First Army which was allowed to fade away as preparations continued to invade Sicily.

There were other changes at higher levels that indicate maturing attitudes towards armour. In late 1941 three armoured groups had been created, commanded by Crocker, McCreery and Creagh, the most experienced armoured commanders. These had been intended as operational formations and to co-ordinate training at formation level but were short-lived; they were armoured corps in all but name. As well as the abolition of the armoured groups, the post of Commander RAC was replaced by a post of Major General RAC at Home Forces HQ while, in February 1943, DAFV had been retitled DRAC; the AFV branches in the War Office also became RAC branches.

Perhaps the most important change that had come about was not one that could be quantified. It was the recognition that armour was not something different but an integral and essential part of any field army. An armoured division was seen as a ‘formation consisting of all arms’ to work with all arms and the air forces to destroy the enemy’s forces. The ‘them and us’ attitude of the past was dying out and its disappearance ensured that much more effective use would be made of armoured divisions in the future and that those divisions would work more closely with other arms.

As training and preparations were being finalized for the invasion of Sicily, armoured divisions in the UK were training for another invasion that would take place in 1944 and put British troops back on French soil for the first time since 1940. However, only three of the five armoured divisions in Britain would fight in north-west Europe, where they would be joined by 7th Armoured, the Desert Rats. Those were Guards, 11th and 79th Armoured Divisions.

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