‘After Amiens’: Technology and Tactics in the B.E.F during the Advance to Victory, August–November 1918 Part II

Getting things right?

A review of combat analyses produced by units of the Tank Corps after Amiens and in the immediate post-war period suggests the Corps believed that its tactical principles and methods in the last months of the war were, largely, appropriate to the circumstances. ‘Tactical Experiences of all past Tank Corps Operations Collected and Issued by the 3rd Tank Group’ stated that:

The co-operation as laid down in S.S. 214 and ‘The Infantry and Tanks Training Leaflet, No. 12’ issued by I[nspectorate].G[eneral]. of Training, are both considered to contain the essential point of co-operation which have been brought out in the recent operations; the co-operation as laid down in these pamphlets is universally approved by tank commanders.

S.S. 214 has been mentioned above. Its publication had been intended to provide the BEF with tactical guidance for tank use in late 1918. Analysis of tank operations in the latter part of 1918 show it was widely used, supporting the remarks in the 3rd Tank Group document. But given the fact that, unlike most previous doctrinal publications, the Tank Corps had had a significant amount of involvement in the creation of both documents, it is hardly surprising that the tank arm felt they were appropriate to their needs and that a particular section or paragraph of S.S. 214 dealt with most or all of the situations that had been encountered. This was also the case with the Inspectorate-General of Training’s Training Note No. 12 Infantry and Tanks published in September 1918, which was ‘really excellent and fill[ed] a long felt want’ according to one Tank Corps staff officer in January 1919.

While this could be regarded as complacency, a more positive interpretation (and one supported by clear evidence) is that these publications were closely based on an analysis of the ‘lessons of the fighting’ detailed in the after-action reports produced by tank and infantry units. To take one example, S.S. 214 carried stern warnings that:

When, in any operation, continuity of attack is necessary, tank echelons must be organized in sufficient depth to enable the first echelon to reorganize by the time the last echelon goes into action. This means that from the beginning of the battle a strong reserve of tanks must be kept in hand. The hasty improvisation of reserves while the battle is in progress leads not only to a general disorganization of tank units, but also to the destruction of telegraphic and railway communication owing to the lateral movements of tanks. Unless all arrangements are made beforehand, infantry attacks are also liable to be delayed owing to the tanks arriving late at the assembly points.

This was clearly a reference to the experiences of Cambrai where a strong reserve of tanks had not been kept in hand and where the minor tank units (sections) operated to some extent in echelons, but where no echelons were employed by the Tank Corps as a whole. Furthermore, again and again, on 21 November 1917 and subsequent days, Cambrai had featured badly-coordinated and poorly-executed attacks in which tank co-operation was frequently unreliable and inadequate and liaison with the infantry ineffectual and fitful.

Yet the same combat analyses make clear that the need to adhere to this tried and trusted guidance was as strong as ever in the war’s final months. As one tank battalion commander advised after his unit’s operations on 23 and 24 October:

I would suggest that, in view of the character of the present operations, in future the greater weight of Tanks be held in reserve to be thrown into the battle as it develops and the strong points and positions which the enemy intends holding become apparent. If all tanks are committed to a fixed plan of action before the battle commences there will probably be none available to assist the infantry in any specific operation, which is to be undertaken on the spur of the moment.

In the same way, the IGT’s Training Note also drew on actual combat experiences. It suggested training exercises that might illustrate: the initial advance, dealing with machine gun opposition, dealing with enemy who had not been ‘mopped up’, how a tank might assist neighbouring infantry, infantry assistance to tanks, what to do when the tanks were out of action and action after the capture of the final objective. All these were likely or, in some cases, frequent occurrences during the fighting.

Training Leaflet No. 12’s simple ‘bullet points’ concerning an exercise covering action after the capture of the final objective neatly encapsulated all the crucial elements of learning in connection with this phase of operations and in particular that after the final objective was reached and the infantry had pushed out patrols and started consolidation, tanks should withdraw to the nearest cover. Only when the tank unit commander had ascertained from the infantry commander that the situation was OK, should the tanks withdraw to a rallying point flying red, white and blue flags.

The necessity for tanks to withdraw under cover and not to stay out in front of the infantry had been recognized before Amiens but success on 8 August seemingly prompted a loss of caution concerning this aspect of the assault. Operations between 21 and 24 August were reminders of the dangers inherent in undertaking this role, prompting one tank brigade commander to state frankly that it was ‘asking for trouble if Tanks hang about or patrol in front of an objective’. Yet in spite of the losses suffered, the doctrinal guidance issued on the subject and the warnings of many (including Lawrence in his 1 September memorandum), demands for tanks to cover consolidation continued although, in the latter part of the fighting, operation orders became more definite in instructions to counter this.

The risks to their tanks and themselves during consolidation were clear to the crew members as illustrated by the remarks of one concerning orders for his company’s attack on 3 September:

Imagine our poor tanks crawling along the brow of a slope for an indefinite period, in full daylight, in full view of the enemy’s gunners! It seemed to us as if we were to be deliberately offered up as a sacrifice to appease the anger of certain infantry commanders.

An interesting justification was given on this occasion for consolidation work:

There had been complaints in previous actions that tanks, after reaching their final objectives, had gone home and left the infantry to meet unaided any counter attacks that might have come. So in this particular show it seemed to us that we were not to have the slightest chance offered us of going home!

Here was a good demonstration that different arms in late 1918 drew entirely contrary lessons from after action analysis.

Thus, lessons might be learned inconsistently. To continue on the subject of consolidation, 3rd Tank Group’s Tactical Experiences report also remained concerned regarding tank support for infantry consolidation:

In the past tank commanders have on many occasions, been much too keen to move their tanks elsewhere and to leave an objective, before the Infantry have actually arrived to take it over. This must be carefully guarded against by Tank Commanders and should never happen if they are carefully watching the advance of the Infantry.

The tank arm also acknowledged therefore the fine balance between success in giving the right amount of assistance and failure in ‘abandoning’ the infantry.

Yet, despite the potential for inconsistency in how the tank arm considered the lessons arising from the fighting at Amiens and afterwards, this was in fact largely avoided. In many cases, learning was consistent and appears to have been widely disseminated both within and beyond the Tank Corps. Innovation in responses to battlefield problems was also evident and especially so in the technological responses. Two examples were the ‘crib’ and smoke.

The fascine was a medieval siege device reintroduced to the modern battlefield in late 1917 to counter a particular problem the tanks encountered there, that is, a means to cross the wide trenches the Germans were increasingly employing in their defensive systems. It was an enormous bundle of brushwood about 5 feet in diameter that weighed over 1½ tons. One was carried on the top of each tank and secured there by chains. It proved valuable at Cambrai but the need for an improved version was identified and lead to the production of the ‘crib’ – ‘an immense hexagonal [open] crate of timber and steel, carried as before on top of the cab’. This comparatively lightweight device was available for use in operations in late September 1918.

The necessity for greater use of smoke to mask the movements of tanks had been a lesson from the 1917 Ypres fighting and at Amiens in 1918 both artillery barrages mixed with smoke and co-operation from the Royal Engineers No. 2 Special Company using Livens Projectors to screen tanks and infantry on 3rd Canadian Division’s front were employed. In addition, at least one tank battalion had provided its tank crews with rifles and rifle grenades. These were to ‘be fired out of the top of the tank should it be desired by Tank Commander to temporarily cover themselves with a smoke screen.’

After Amiens, the Tank Corps concluded that the ‘necessity of smoke protection for Tanks operating in daylight was again conclusively proved’ but it is interesting that the idea of tanks providing their own local smoke protection had been firmly grasped and was being immediately pushed forward. The first edition of Weekly Tank Notes issued on 10 August 1918 noted a decision that ‘all fighting types of Tanks will be equipped with Commander Brock’s exhaust smoke device’. This decision was already being enacted by the time orders were being issued for the operations with Third Army which commenced on 21 August and the devices proved especially useful in the capture of Bourlon village on 27 September. However, it is clear that the ambition to equip all tanks with such devices was not met in reality and most tanks were still using smoke grenades for local smoke protection. Nevertheless, although the technology fell short in this case, the pragmatic use of smoke rifle grenades was typical of the Tank Corps’ clear and consistent response to the lessons of previous fighting.

Conclusion

British armoured operations in late 1918 may be said to have been characterized by a degree of pragmatism and practicality within a general framework of commonly understood principles and methods.

This would suggest that such operations were conducted along the lines suggested by Albert Palazzo, that is, the use of an effective ‘ethos’ compensating for a formal series of doctrinal principles. However, there is clear evidence that in the tactical employment of tanks, as in all other areas of its conduct of operations, the BEF did evolve and apply a ‘doctrine’, albeit a semi-informal one based on the pre-war Field Service Regulations (FSR). The report on ‘Tactical Experiences’ issued by 3rd Tank Group contained several references to the applicability of principles defined in S.S. 214 and Training Note No. 12, and the latter made specific reference to FSR when stating that the actions of infantry and tanks in the firing line should be governed by the principles of mutual support. Since S.S. 214 was based on combat experience, the link between doctrinal theory and operational practice was a strong one.

What is of particular interest concerning the BEF’s use of tanks in late 1918 is the dichotomy between, on the one hand, the tactical flexibility and technological innovation the BEF continued to demonstrate during this period and, on the other, the rigid logistical and practical constraints under which it was necessary to carry out operations. Most especially, the logistical arrangements necessary to support the tanks in the field were the chains that bound them to use in particular circumstances, that is, set piece operations.

These limitations were understood and accepted by the tank arm. Indeed, in some cases, tank brigade and battalion commanders had to remind corps and divisional commanders of these practical constraints when they had been requested to co-operate in a planned attack at short notice. With the same corps and divisional commanders pressing for more tanks for use in operations and with the numbers of available tanks under pressure from mechanical wear and tear and a shortage of the right spares, it is remarkable that the Tank Corps managed to deliver on its tasks on so many occasions in the war’s last months.

Throughout the period, the processes for after action reporting continued. Frequently the suggestions drawn from the lessons of operations were minor enhancements or changes to existing tactical principles or technologies. Generally, the tank units believed that the principles they were guided by were the correct ones. What remained keenly felt was the absence of training opportunities. Two days before the war’s end (a fact of which he was, of course, unaware), one experienced senior tank officer was still stressing the need for as much training as possible to be undertaken during the winter months. Nevertheless, even without extensive training opportunities in the war’s final months, armoured operations had been highly successful and the tank, while not the ‘war-winning weapon’ had made a significant contribution to the BEF’s overall success.

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