Of Tanks and Storm Troops II

Following the `holing’ of two Mark IV (female) tanks by `Nixe’, which forced the British tanks to withdraw from the Cachy Switch, 2nd Lieutenant Frank Mitchell’s Mark IV (male) engages his German adversary, striking its starboard plate.

Russia had at last staggered out of the war and was preoccupied with her own internal struggles, while it would be some months before American troops could reach the battlefields in any significant numbers. In the period before the American presence could make itself felt, the troops released from the Eastern Front could be used to deal the tired British and French armies a series of knock-out blows.

In Ludendorff’s eyes, Great Britain had become the dominant partner in the Alliance, not merely at sea, but also on land. He reasoned that if the French were beaten into surrender, the British would continue to fight; that the reverse did not apply; therefore the next major offensive must be designed to inflict a severe defeat on the British and physically separate them from their Allies.

The offensive, codenamed Michael, would begin with a massive attack on the Arras – Cambrai – St Quentin sector. The strategic objective would be the communications centre of Amiens, and a mere twenty miles beyond lay an even more glittering prize, the Somme estuary and the sea. If only the sea could be reached, the Western Front would be ripped apart and the British armies confined to a coastal enclave; from that point onwards the British would be fighting for survival and not for victory. It was an attractive strategy, and one which, some twenty-two years later, would form the basis of a plan presented to the Führer by Field Marshal von Manstein.

On the forty-mile stretch of front no less than 67 divisions of the German Seventeenth, Second and Eighteenth Armies had been concentrated against a total of 33 belonging to Gough’s Fifth and Byng’s Third Armies. In addition Ludendorff’s team would include a number of very important names, including those of von Hutier, hero of Riga, and von Below, the victor of Caporetto.

Also present was a Colonel Bruchmuller, who had fired the crucial opening bombardment at Riga. Bruchmuller was a brilliant artilleryman who commanded a “travelling Circus” of medium and heavy guns which moved up and down the line throughout Ludendorff’s 1918 series of offensives. He insisted that all batteries under his command should register their targets by mathematical survey rather than by the more usual ranging shellfire, thus achieving total surprise when they did open up. During its career, the Bruchmuller Circus consistently achieved such spectacular results that the colonel became know throughout the army as Durchbruch Muller (Break-Through Muller).

In great secrecy the German artillery was focused against Gough and Byng, so that 4,010 field guns opposed only 1,710, and 2,588 medium and heavy pieces were ranged against the 976 available to the British. In the meantime, events on the other side of the wire were also tending to further the success of the German plans. Not only had more of the front been taken over from the French, a new system of defence was being developed as well. This contained three elements: a Forward Zone, consisting of a series of strong-points which were in effect little more than fortified outposts; a Battle Zone trench system manned by about one third of the defenders, some two to three miles behind the Forward Zone; and a Rear Zone trench system, housing the reserves, some four to eight miles beyond the Battle Zone.

Every aspect of the system played right into Ludendorff’s hands. The Forward Zone provided the Storm Troops with the very opportunities they sought to infiltrate: the Battle Zone was within range of the German artillery yet lacked dug-outs in which the troops could shelter during bombardment; and in places the Rear Zone had not even been dug, its location being marked by a line of spit-locked turf. The system was, in short, a recipe for complete disaster, revealing how little the British understood of the new German artillery and infantry tactics, compounded by the fact that each nine-battalion division was badly below strength, battalions containing an average of 500 effectives in contrast to the 1000 with which they had gone to war.

Deserters had warned of the impending offensive, but none of the defenders had the slightest inkling of just what was in store for them.

At 0440 on 21st March almost 7,000 guns rocked the atmosphere with the opening salvo of the most concentrated bombardment in the history of the war. It is said that when the 2,500 British guns opened up in reply there was no appreciable difference in the noise level, since the air was too disturbed by continuous shock waves to conduct more than an impression of sound.

From 0440 until 0640 Bruchmuller’s men fired a mixture of gas and high explosive shells into the British gun batteries, command posts, communication centres and bivouac areas, punctuated at 0530 by a ten-minute switch directly onto the Forward Zone. At 0640 there was a 30-minute pause to rest the sweating gun crews, during which batteries fired check rounds only.

At 0710 the guns thundered out again, hammering the British trench systems while the heaviest pieces engaged targets in the rear. By 0940 the whole area had been combed and swept several times, and what was not smashed by high explosive was drenched in gas and shrouded in drifting smoke. At 0900 the fire rose to a crescendo, its pattern changing ominously to a barrage which obliterated what remained of the Forward Zone, then lifted 300 metres, halted for three minutes, lifted 200 metres, halted for four minutes, and lifted again, maintaining a steady progress into the Battle Zone.

0940 was the Storm Troopers’ H-Hour. Their rapid advance across No Man’s Land was cloaked by a natural mist and they met little resistance in the shattered Forward Zone. They pressed on into the Battle Zone, their green signal rockets soaring to request an acceleration of the creeping barrage, and were seen working their way through gaps in the main trench line. Behind came the Battle Groups, isolating and subduing small pockets of stubborn defenders, and in their wake followed the main weight of the attack. Only the Schlachtstaffeln were absent, grounded by the mist, but as this cleared they began to arrive over the battlefield about midday, their activities covered by a swarm of fighters.

One characteristic of the British soldier is his stubborn immobility in defence. With their telephone links to the rear cut by shellfire, battalions fought their battles with little direction from their higher formation. Some, the luckier ones, were able to withdraw, doggedly covering the retreat of the artillery; others, more quickly surrounded, fought on to the death and were never heard from again. These, and little group of cooks, clerks, batmen, signallers and drivers, rushed into the line at a minute’s notice, all took toll of their attackers, but the fact remained that by nightfall a forty-mile gap had been punched in the line and Fifth Army was on the point of disintegration.

The week that followed was one of deep trauma for the British both in France and at home. The Flesquiers salient, last remnant of the great tank attack at Cambrai, was swallowed up in the first day’s advance; four days later all the ground that had been bought so bloodily during the Somme battle was once more in German hands. British and French divisions, hurrying to plug the gap, found themselves caught up in the general retreat.

The crisis was of such proportion that on 26th March the Allies appointed a Supreme Commander, Marshal Ferdinand Foch, to co¬ ordinate counter-measures. Everyone appreciated the strategic significance of Amiens and divisions from both the British and French sectors were despatched quickly into the danger area. By 5th April the line had been stabilized at Villers-Bretonneux, a mere ten miles east of Amiens, partly because of these counter-measures and partly because the German offensive was running down in obedience to the laws of the attack.

The Storm Troops, having advanced up to forty miles in a week in the van of a hard-fought battle, were exhausted and had suffered a fiercer rate of attrition than had been allowed for. Their casualties been caused by the stubborn defence, by the RFC’s universal ground- strafing, and by encounters with tanks fighting in the counter-attack role.

These last encounters are of interest, for while it is true to say that tanks can take ground but not hold it, they can buy time, which in war is the most priceless commodity of all. On a number of occasions tanks caught Storm Troop and Battle Group units in the open and dispersed them with some slaughter, effectively blunting divisional spearheads and so delaying the advance of the main body until a reorganization could be effected.

There was another influence at work too, a factor which could not have been foreseen by either side. God tends to remain aloof from Man’s foolishness, but the devil does not and the battlefield is his playground. On 28th March German air reconnaissance reported that the country between Albert and Amiens was clear of Allied troops, but for no intelligible reason the advance did not proceed beyond the town of Albert itself. A staff officer was sent forward by car to investigate. On arrival he found a state of complete bedlam. Drunken men, some wearing top hats and other looted clothing, were staggering about the streets, helping themselves to whatever they fancied, quite beyond the control of their officers. By the time the advance was resumed, Amiens was no longer attainable.

Elsewhere along the front similar scenes were taking place whenever an Allied supply depot was captured. Weary Storm Troopers, suddenly presented with stocks of drink, real tobacco, real coffee and items of food which the British maritime blockade had long since made a memory in Germany, found themselves unable to resist the temptation to gorge themselves with unaccustomed luxuries; even such mundane things as boot polish and notepaper had not been seen in the trenches for many months, and now they were to be had for the taking.

The advance was resumed as soon as order had been restored, but the Storm Troops’ keen psychological edge had been dulled and the élan of the early days was lacking. The daily advance rate became slower and slower until it was clear that the Michael offensive was over.

Disregarding the demoralizing effects of the Allied supply depots, it must be admitted that Ludendorff had it within his power to capture Amiens. That he did not do so stemmed from a decision taken as early as 23rd March. Instead of maintaining the westward march of his three armies, he dispersed their effort, insisting that Seventeenth and Eighteenth Armies should turn respectively north-west and south-west, while in the centre Second Army alone continued along its original axis.

This can be justified only in part as the conventional strategy of building protective shoulders for the huge salient which was forming, but it also denied a basic military tenet and fundamental principle of Blitzkrieg, namely Maintenance of the Objective; in other words, having set Amiens as his primary strategic objective, the majority of his effort should have been directed at capturing the city in accordance with the aims of his original plan.

His decision, in conjunction with the various other factors already mentioned above, did not merely cost him a meticulously planned and gallantly executed infantry Blitzkrieg victory; ultimately it cost Germany the war.

The following month Ludendorff would attack again, this time in Flanders, recovering all the ground lost during the 1917 British offensive, and in May the French were forced back more than thirty miles on the Chemin des Dames sector, but neither operation possessed the same strategic menace as had the great drive on Amiens. Not that Amiens had been forgotten. On 24th April the Germans mounted a surprise attack on Villers-Bretonneux, heralded as usual by an intense bombardment with gas and high explosive. This time, however, it was not the Storm Troops who emerged from the morning mist but tanks of a totally unfamiliar design.

The tanks’ break-through at Cambrai had at last convinced the Germans that they must, after all, form their own Panzer Corps. Experiments had been going on in a dilatory sort of way since October 1916, conducted by the secret Allgemaine Kriegsdepartment 7 Abteilung Verkehrswesen (General War Department 7, Traffic Section), known as A7V for short, which also gave its name to the finished product, of which only a handful had been built by the Spring of 1918.

In form the A7V followed the French concept of an armoured box on a tracked chassis. Its armament consisted of one 57-mm Russian Sokol gun in the front plate, two machine-guns on each side and two at the rear. Although possessing a sprung suspension the vehicle was a poor cross-country performer and had a high centre of gravity. Inside no less than eighteen men were stuffed in supreme discomfort into a space measuring 24 feet by 10 feet, which also housed two 100-h.p. Daimler engines.

In conjunction with five captured Mark IVs, four A7Vs had been used in penny packets on the first day of the Michael offensive. Their use had gone unrecorded by the British, since those who had seen the tanks had either been killed or captured. Thereafter, the tanks’ low mechanical endurance had prevented them from keeping up with the advance.

At Villers-Bretonneux the Germans led their attack with a total of twelve A7Vs. The effect of the tanks on the British infantry was precisely the same as it had been on the German. A three-mile gap appeared in the line, through which the Storm Troops poured into the shattered town.

However, a little way to the south-west lay the Bois de l’Abbe, and lying up in the wood were two Female and one Male Mark IVs of No 1 Section A Company 1st Battalion Tank Corps, commanded by Captain J. C. Brown. The crews were still suffering from the effects of gas but those who had not been totally incapacitated manned their vehicles and proceeded towards the still unbroken Cachy switch-line. Throughout the subsequent action Brown controlled his tanks on foot, running across open ground between them to direct their movement.

No sooner had No 1 Section emerged from the wood than they were warned by the infantry of the presence of German armour. The following extracts are taken from an account of the engagement written by Lieutenant Frank Mitchell, commanding the Male tank.

“I informed the crew, and a great thrill ran through us all. Opening a loophole, I looked out. There, some 300 yards away, a round, squat¬ looking monster was advancing; behind it came waves of infantry, and farther away to the left and right crawled two more of these armed tortoises.”

Mitchell’s right-hand gunner at once engaged the German vehicle with his 6-pounder. He worked under the greatest difficulty, being all but blinded by gas, and was forced to load for himself while the Male pitched in and out of shell holes, his usual loader being one of those left behind in the wood. Meanwhile the A7V, Elfriede of 3rd Panzer Abteilung, was firing at the other tanks in the section with its 57-mm gun. The two Females, being armed only with machine-guns, were powerless to reply and were quickly forced to retire with holes blown in their armour plate. Simultaneously the A7V’s machine gunners were engaging Mitchell’s vehicle, sending the crew diving to the floor as a continuous shower of sparks and splinters flew off the inside of the hull. Mitchell decided to halt so as to give his gunner a better chance.

“The pause was justified; a well-aimed shot hit the enemy’s conning tower, bringing him to a standstill. Another round and yet another white puff at the front of the tank denoted a second hit! Peering with swollen eyes through his narrow slit, the gunner shouted words of triumph that were drowned by the roar of the engine. Then once more he aimed with great deliberation and hit for the third time. Through a loophole I saw the tank heel over to one side; then a door opened and out ran the crew. We had knocked the monster out! Quickly I signalled to the machine gunner and he poured volley after volley into the retreating figures.”

Elfriede’s driver, probably concussed by the thunder-clap explosion of the first 6-pounder round against what Mitchell calls, with some justice, the conning tower, had lost direction and run his tank slantwise onto a steep slope. The second and third hits seem to have caused little damage, but the ground had given way beneath the A7V, which slowly toppled onto its side into a sand pit.

Well pleased with the result of the action, Mitchell set off in a slow-motion pursuit of the two remaining German tanks, which had begun to retire towards their own lines. Unfortunately, a direct hit from an artillery shell brought an end to the chase and Mitchell and his crew were forced to evacuate their vehicle and shelter in the nearest infantry trench.

The state of play was now as follows. On the British side, Mitchell’s Male had been immobilized and Brown’s two Females had retired with battle damage; to balance this one German tank had been knocked out and two more had voluntarily withdrawn, leaving the Storm Troops vulnerable to counter-attack if more British tanks appeared.

That this actually occurred was rather the result of personal initiative than of any grand design. An RFC pilot, flying over the area of the tank battle, had observed the stalled German infantry preparing to advance again towards the switch-line and had dropped a message to that effect into the harbour area of a 3rd Battalion Tank Company three miles west of Cachy.

The tank company consisted of seven Whippets commanded by Captain T. R. Price, who at once set his vehicles in motion. As he approached the battle area Price deployed his tanks into line abreast and advanced at top speed over good going. The Germans, amounting to two battalions, were taken completely by surprise while forming up in a hollow and were massacred as the Whippets tore into them, machine-guns blazing. At the end of their run the tanks wheeled round and combed the area again, the crews later being sickened by the discovery that their tracks were “covered in blood and human remains”. Both German battalions were utterly dispersed with the loss of 400 men killed. British casualties amounted to three killed and two wounded. Three Whippets were slightly damaged by shellfire. A fourth, which against Price’s orders had shown itself on a skyline, was knocked out – at the time it was thought by artillery, although it was later found to have fallen victim to a solitary A7V which remained in the area.

So ended the first tank battle in history. The Germans abandoned their attempt to take Cachy and during the night an Australian attack threw them out of Villers-Bretonneux.

 

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