The Role of US Army Halftracked vehicles

By 1943 the M3 and its derivatives were favored over the M2 series, and were the types mostly issued to the armored infantry. They could carry 13 men (i.e. a 12-man rifle squad and a driver), so five could lift a complete platoon of an MG squad, a mortar squad, and three rifle squads.

Between 1939 and 1945 the mobility of the halftrack imparted to all arms the ability to move at a pace that had not been even contemplated in 1918. Halftracks of all kinds moved the infantry, combat engineers, signalers and artillery around the battlefields of World War II at speeds -not even the prophets of armoured warfare had envisaged. Instead of the long lines of marching infantry that advanced across the battlefields of 1918, the frontline soldier of 1945 moved in formations of halftracks carrying not only the vanguard of the infantry but also all the supporting arms.

Various experimental models during the 1930s culminated in late 1940 in contracts for parallel production of two very similar but not identical halftracks: the “Car, Halftrack, M2”, and the “Carrier, Personnel, Halftrack, M3”. The most obvious differences were the M2’s slightly shorter body, with a machine gun rail running round its rim as on the scout car, and no rear door; and the M3’s longer body (and thus greater crew capacity), with a central rear door, and a “pulpit” machine gun position above the cab. Both lines would be produced by a number of companies, in models with slightly differing details and designations; retrospective modifications would further complicate the picture – in all more than 70 distinct models were built.

The impact of the internal combustion engine on the battlefield is frequently quoted with the example of the tank, but it was soon learned that the tank by itself could not operate without support, of which the most important was that furnished by the infantry, followed by those of the engineers and artillery. With the latter two went all the other supply, command and communication functions, which had to have the mobility and speed of the tank. The halftrack was the best way of satisfying this operational requirement, and of all the nations involved in World War II

Halftracked vehicles were used to enhance the mobility of almost every service arm, from infantry and artillery to engineers and medical staff. Their use as armoured personnel carriers (APCs) heralded the development of modern mechanized infantry tactics.

During World War II the main weapon of every mechanized army was the tank, and it has maintained this ascendency to this day. Its combination of firepower, protection and mobility made the tank the main cutting edge of massed attacks, and the main support for defence. However, the fact remained that it could not operate in isolation. Anyone who travels inside a tank under even moderate combat conditions will soon learn that his view is strictly limited. All that can be seen of the world outside the armoured carapace has to be observed through the narrow confines of periscopes, weapon sights and other limited viewing devices.

Thus tank commanders had to be provided with some form of observation outside the vehicle, and it was not too long before this role was undertaken by specialized infantry units travelling with the tanks. These infantrymen acted as the eyes and ears of the tank commander, relaying information and combat data to the crews, originally by manual signals such as f lags and later by radio or even telephones mounted on the outside of the tank. The infantry could look out for targets ahead, warn of obstacles in dead ground, keep an eye out for minefields and hidden anti-tank weapons and generally keep enemy tank-killing infantry squads away.

The problem for the infantry was that to fulfil these tasks adequately they had to keep up with the fast-moving tanks. Early experiments in carrying infantry in trucks soon demonstrated that while the trucks theoretically had the required speed they did not have the mobility to cross rough terrain that the tanks often traversed, and the trucks also lacked the protection that even thin armour could provide against small-arms fire arc shell splinters. When tanks co-operated with truck borne infantry, they usually left the infantry far behind in a very short time.

What was wanted was a vehicle that could keep up with the tanks, provide some form of protection for the occupants, and hopefully also act as a weapon platform. The ideal solution would have been to have the infantry carried in a fully-tracked vehicle, but this solution was initially discarded when it was realized that the infantry vehicles could spend a great deal of their time travelling along paved roads and that contemporary track development was still at a point where speeds were low and track life relatively limited. Another factor against the fully-tracked vehicle was up till World War tracked steering systems were still cumbersome and could not provide the degree of maneuverability demanded. The infantry had to wait until well after World War II before the fully-tracked armoured personnel carrier became a viable service equipment.

Thus an interim between the truck and the fully-tracked vehicle was sought, and indeed found in the halftrack. The halftrack or semitrack, as it is sometimes known, could combine the mobility provided by the fully tracked drive system with the steering system of the wheeled vehicle. As the type was relatively light, it was not always necessary to make use of heavy steel tracks, so the rubber or rubber-based tracks of the type developed by Alexandre Kegresse could be used. During the 1920s and 1930s many nations developed the halftrack concept, most of them to the point where they could be placed into production for the armed forces.

ln the main the halftrack were issued to formations known as mechanized infantry, although the name varied from nation to nation: for instance, in Germany they were known as Panzertruppen and later Panzergrenadiere. The proportion of mechanized infantry to tanks varied somewhat, for some nations decided to go tank heavy and used two tank battalions with one battalion of mechanized-infantry while others had balanced ‘one for one’ proportions; some armies even had more mechanized infantry than tanks, and the proportions varied not only nationally but according to terrain. ln large open areas such as the North German plains more tanks than infantry could be used, but once tanks approached ‘ built-up areas the numbers of infantry increased.

Once mechanized infantry were on the scene it was not long before they were joined by combat engineers who built bridges, demolished obstacles, cleared mines and generally kept up the momentum of armoured moves. They too often used halftracks to move forward and to carry or tow their heavy equipment, and if the engineers were mobile so were the artillery. During World War II self-propelled artillery was not common, most guns and howitzers being towed. Here the halftrack could be used to advantage to keep pace with the tanks, but since the artillery was a supporting arm that rarely had to move directly in the front line there was less need for armour. Thus many halftracks used as artillery tractors and ammunition carriers were little more than halftracked trucks with no armour at all. Armoured artillery tractors were usually used to tow anti-tank guns, for anti-tank units obviously had to operate directly in the face of the enemy. However, some artillery halftracks that also used armour were the mobile forward observation posts. These usually travelled with the tanks to call down supporting fire when needed, and they too required armour for protection.

With the main combat arms of mechanized infantry, artillery and combat engineers mounted in highly mobile halftracks, it was not long before the rest of the supporting arms travelled in them too. Commanders obviously had to keep pace with their forces and halftracked command and communication posts became standard. Recovery units used the mobility of the halftrack to carry their cranes and other recovery equipment, and halftrack ambulances become common place.

Thus by the end of World War II whole formations moved on halftracks, the US Army probably being the best example of this tendency. But with this large-scale move towards protected mobility came an unforeseen shift in combat tactics and capabilities. Many of the halftracks sprouted armament of all kinds, ranging from machine-guns to heavy guns and howitzers. Halftracks became not just weapon carriers but mobile platforms from which the weapons could be used directly. This was particularly true with infantry: the troops no longer had to use their carriers only as ‘battle taxis’ from which they dismounted to fight, but instead used their halftracks as mobile platforms from which they could direct their fire, in both attack and defence. Thus tactics were introduced that allowed the halftracks to move forward firing as they went to deliver their infantry loads directly onto enemy positions or else move through them to wreak havoc in the rear areas. They did not do this in isolation, for they still travelled with the tanks, but at times it was not the mechanized infantry who supported the tank but the tank that supported the infantry. By 1945 the halftrack had thus made possible radical alterations in tactics, and this presaged the balanced battle groups and combat teams of today, where one arm cannot operate in isolation but only as part of a balanced and co-ordinated team.

Halftrack Road Report

With an empty weight of just under eight tons, the basic halftrack APCs have a top road speed of 45mph; fuel consumption is a little better than three miles to the gallon, and range between 180 and 215 miles. They drive very much like a modern four-wheel-drive off-road vehicle – on which the power steering has failed…. The controls for the driver are absolutely conventional, and almost anybody could drive one on the road with minimal training. Operation off-road is a bit more of a challenge, particularly in soft going. Incidentally, all these light armored vehicles vibrate like hell and are extremely noisy – loose bits of iron clank and rattle all over, even without a load of GIs and their kit and weapons, and would-be drivers are advised to carry plenty of aspirin.

Veteran armor officer Duane Klug comments: “The halftrack is a bear to steer at low speeds, although it’s not bad once you get it moving. As long as the front wheels aren’t engaged, it will move along pretty well and is pretty easy to control. But once you engage the front axle it becomes much less responsive. I had to learn to double-clutch it, but if everything is set up right it drives like a regular transmission. It has a surprisingly good turning radius [59ft]. Visibility is good, as long as the armor windshields are up and the side curtains are down. It shakes the heck out of you, though.”

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