WWII US Army and its Tactics I

Many of the issues that bedevilled development of the British Army and its tactics between the wars also affected the USA. Arguably the position was even worse, and by the end of 1919 the US Army was again entirely volunteer and reduced to about a quarter of a million men. As in Britain, the prospect of a major war was now regarded as extremely unlikely – but in the case of the USA the notional location of any theoretical conflict was also viewed as distant. The most immediate concerns were internal disturbances and the Mexican border: small expeditionary forces and overseas garrisons were furnished essentially by the Marine Corps. The Wall Street Crash and restatement of the isolationist ‘Monroe Doctrine’ by President Herbert Hoover pushed the profile of the army even further into the background. Given the world situation, the US Navy was given preference and the regular army shrank again to below 150,000, and only the maintenance of a larger National Guard lent any credibility to the force. As Chief of Staff Douglas MacArthur pointed out, the US Army was now just seventeenth in the world in numerical terms – and many units existed only as ‘skeleton’ in peacetime. Under the catch phrase ‘Fortress America’ it was assumed that the navy and tiny army would be adequate to keep foes at bay until there could be huge expansion. Indeed, it was only in the late 1930s that the seriousness of the world position was really apprehended, and with the outbreak of war in Europe a sum of $8 billion was found for the army – together with an aspiration for expansion to over a million men by October 1941. Major corps and army training manoeuvres were mounted in April 1940.

There were, however, a few potential advantages held by the USA, even though some of these might have appeared as negatives at the time. The first was that in having a small army, few colonial possessions, and relatively little equipment, there was not much to stand in the way of the development of new hardware and doctrine. The numbers of men tied to obsolete equipment were few, and the USA had massive potential both in terms of industrial and human material. It was also the case that ‘Fortress America’ was indeed a long way from potential major enemies and this geographic fact alone would help buy time. A genuine bright spot was a realisation of the importance of military education and staff training, and in addition to the US Military Academy, the Army War College at Washington, and the Command and General Staff School at Fort Leavenworth, there were thirty-one special service schools for branch training. Particular awareness of infantry tactics was cultivated by the infantry school at Fort Benning, Georgia. This produced the semi-annual publication Infantry School Mailing List, a journal intended to contain ‘the latest thought on infantry’.

Another highly relevant offering of the interwar period was a volume entitled Infantry in Battle, a digest of First World War infantry tactics and lore drawn from the examples of 1914 – 1918. This first saw light of day in May 1934 under the sponsorship of George C Marshall, and was revised and reprinted in 1938 and 1939. Amongst the maxims it offered was the following – something that already sounded as though it might have been loosely translated from the German Truppenfuhrung,

the leader who would become a competent tactician must first close his mind to the alluring formulae that well-meaning people offer in the name of victory. To master his difficult art he must learn to cut to the heart of the situation, recognise its decisive elements and base his course of action on these. The ability to do this is not God given, nor can it be acquired overnight; it is a process of years. He must realise that training in solving problems of all types, long practice in making clear, unequivocal decisions, the habit of concentrating on the question at hand, and an elasticity of mind, are indispensable requisites for the successful practice of the art of war. The leader who frantically strives to remember what someone else did in some slightly similar situation has already set his feet on the well-travelled road to ruin.

Highly pertinent also was the comment of Infantry in Battle on ‘fire and movement’. ‘Fire without movement is indecisive. Exposed movement without fire is disastrous. There must be effective fire combined with skilled movement.’ The format of Infantry in Battle gave concrete examples followed by ‘discussion’ and ‘conclusion’. Hence, for example, Chapter 18 focusing on the ‘Infantry-Artillery Team’ using examples drawn from French experience in 1914 and US experience in 1918. Sage and replete with good examples as Infantry in Battle might have been, it was hardly up to date by the Second World War, and the majority of the sources quoted were in fact written prior to 1930. The Infantry School Mailing List attempted to remain more up to date with periodic articles – and some of these did in fact turn out to be crucial to the direction of US infantry tactics after 1941. In July 1936, for example, the Mailing List carried a particularly important piece entitled ‘The Tactics of the New Infantry Rifle Platoon’. This represented the ‘tentative infantry school teachings on the new unit’, which, for the first time, included riflemen with the new Garand semi-automatic M1 rifle. Significantly, it was recognised that organisations were not fixed, being ‘merely the best machine we can devise for putting certain tactical principles into effect’.

The purpose of the recent changes was to increase firepower, without at the same time, decreasing mobility. As was explained, adopting the semi-automatic rifle was thought to increase firepower by a factor of about 2.5 : 1, whilst a Browning Automatic Rifle had just under half the firepower of the old heavy machine gun. Later training literature specified that the actual rates of fire for the M1 were ‘20 to 30 aimed shots’ per minute and 10 to 15 for the bolt-action Model 1903 rifle. Nevertheless, if semi-automatics replaced bolt-action rifles, and larger numbers of light machine guns (and ‘automatic rifles’) replaced the heavies, the firepower of the battalion increased, whilst its mobility – without cumbersome heavy machine guns – actually went up.

What may have been less apparent at the time was that formations made up of BARs and Garand semi-automatics actually led to units with high firepower quite evenly distributed amongst the team – as the Garands fired faster than bolt-action rifles, whilst the BAR with its twenty-round box magazines fired much more slowly than true belt-fed machine guns. It was also apparent that general issue of the new rifle, and information on how to use it most effectively, took time. In July 1936, for example, it appears that just 3,000 copies of Mailing List were produced, and the fact that some yet remain in pristine condition suggests that it was not universally read, even within a relatively small US Army. Nevertheless, the wholesale adoption of the Garand – what Patton called ‘the greatest battle implement ever devised’ – was an inspired move, especially at a time when the US Army had little slack and other nations had doubts about the wisdom of giving soldiers weapons so apparently profligate in terms of ammunition expenditure. Indeed, it is arguable that it was the Garand – alongside the BAR – as much as the troops themselves that gave the US infantry its unique character.

The invention of leading gun designer John Moses Browning, the BAR was more than twenty years old on the eve of the Second World War, having been introduced in the closing stages of the First. Yet whilst its reputation was not entirely spotless, it had been extremely advanced at the time of its appearance, being a weapon able to provide full automatic fire, at least in short bursts, but still light enough – at just 22lb – for one man to carry. In the event the basic concept remained good enough, and the guns serviceable enough, to be continued in use in one country or another throughout the twentieth century. Initially, it had been imagined that the BAR would be used mainly on the move, providing ‘walking fire’ from hip, or even shoulder, during the attack, but it was really too much hardware to make such an option very practical or accurate. As a result, it was normally fired prone from a small integral bipod – a posture well calculated to be least obtrusive and best protected in battle in any case. Latest thoughts on BAR fire and training were summed up by the official pamphlet Basic Weapons: Marksmanship – the Automatic Rifle of 1937.

The key attributes of the successful BAR gunner were accurate delivery, ‘mechanical skill’ where needed in distribution of fire over targets, and ‘maintenance of fire’ by quick re-aiming and reloading. In training gunners fired from various positions and distances, ‘but the soldier must be taught that the prone position is the normal position, and that he must seek firing positions which will enable him to use the prone position’. When lying down behind the weapon the firer was encouraged to position himself so that his right shoulder and hip bone were in line with the barrel of the gun, and the butt well into the shoulder. Legs were well spread, and the toes could be dug in for additional bracing. Left-handed use was actively discouraged as this impeded ejection of empty cases to the side. The sitting and kneeling fire postures were essentially self explanatory, but the 1937 instructions also continued to feature an ‘assault fire’ position. In this the butt was held under the right armpit, clasped firmly between the body and the upper portion of the arm, the sling being over the left shoulder for support. Soldiers practised quick magazine changes, counting the rounds as they were expended and allowing the box to drop under its own weight on release of the catch. A fresh magazine from the waistbelt carrier was then ‘placed in the receiver with one rapid, smooth movement’. The usual number of rounds to be fired in a burst was five, this being calculated as likely to be effective and about the maximum before the muzzle wandered far from point of aim. This allowed for four such bursts from the twenty-round magazine.

At the end of the 1930s BARs were still considered platoon assets that could be disposed as the commander required, with manuals of 1940 referring to the existence of ‘rifle’ and ‘automatic rifle’ squads within the rifle platoons. The BAR was seen as a ‘reserve of automatic fire for use in the critical emergencies of combat’. By US entry to the war the BAR had become an integral asset of the squad, the automatic rifle ‘team’ being three men providing,

the rifle squad leader with an easily controlled and manoeuvred weapon capable of a large volume of fire. It is used against ground targets in a manner similar to the light machine gun, and also engages air targets. Its light weight permits the automatic rifleman to maintain the rate of advance of riflemen and to fire from any position.

So it was that US practice fell into line with the basic tenets of squad operations as already practised in the German and British armies in which there was one basic type of front-line infantry squad, based around a light automatic support weapon. As of 1940 the small 8-man US squads of yesteryear were reorganised on a strength of 12, being a 3-man BAR team, 8 armed with semi-automatic rifles, including the leader and his assistant, plus the sniper with his bolt-action rifle. Remarkably, the BAR was useful enough during the course of the war that many squads took to carrying two of them, and eventually this practice was formally recognised.

Whilst the BAR had arguably taken time to prove itself and find its optimum tactical niche, it was almost immediately apparent at introduction that the M1 Garand rifle was a significant advance. Designed by Canadian-born John Cantius Garand of the Springfield armoury, the weapon seemed vaguely conventional at first glance, and at over 9lb weighed a little more than German and British manual bolt-action comparators. Nevertheless, appearances were deceptive, since the Garand was in fact the culmination of about half a dozen experimental pieces that the inventor had produced since 1919. At its heart was a gas-operated system working a piston, which, by means of a cam, opened the bolt and recocked the gun. Unlike many previous attempts at the mechanisation of military small arms, the Garand proved reliable and relatively straightforward to produce in numbers, and its drawbacks were few. Perhaps most obviously its eight-round clip could not be topped up, and when empty was ejected from the gun with an audible ‘ping’, but in the great scheme of things these were minor criticisms.

The firepower of the Garand gave the individual US soldier a potential advantage over opposite numbers in other nations. Perhaps unsurprisingly other US Army commentators apart from Patton were not shy about this morale-raising fact. As the Infantry Journal publication How to Shoot the US Army Rifle, of 1943, put it, ‘your rifle is better than the enemy’s’. Besides, ‘the last war proved that if you hit a German in the right place with a caliber .30 rifle bullet, he falls over dead. This is also true in this war. It applies, moreover, to Japs as well as Nazis.’ The 1942 Rifle Company manual took a somewhat more detached view:

The M1 rifle is the principal individual weapon assigned to rifle company personnel. On account of its long range, ease of operation, and light weight it is well adapted for all types of infantry combat. These characteristics enable a rifleman or group of riflemen to deliver promptly a large volume of accurate fire upon any designated ground and air targets within range.

The new M1 cost $80 and was an innately a faster weapon than its competitors, but like all firearms required its user to know what he was doing with it. In How to Shoot the GI was offered a six-stage programme, dealing with aiming; positions; trigger squeeze; rapid fire; sight adjustment; and a final examination.

Practice was key, and ideally there was an element of one-to-one tuition with a ‘coach’ and ‘pupil’ working in pairs. It was not necessarily the case that every coach was a fully experienced expert, and the two could change places. This enabled correction of errors that one could not see in oneself, and at the same time it taught soldiers to teach others – ‘for an army as fast growing as ours, we need men to train new men coming into camp’. There were also some wrinkles that traditional training might otherwise miss, tips such as removing oil from sights and blackening them with lamp or candle black to create a clear and matt-black ‘sight picture’ even in unfavourable glare, careful breath control, and the use of the sling tightly looped around the arm for steadiest aim. Posture advice also stressed steady support, with the arm directly under the weight of the rifle, rather than reliance on stressed muscles. The prone firing position was naturally preferred, but only on level ground, being significantly improved by means of a rest, such as a sandbag. The trainee was taught to sink quickly down, bending both knees, placing butt and elbows to the ground and sliding smoothly but promptly forward into position. As alternatives during combat the soldier could go prone using ‘skirmisher’ or ‘rush’ techniques. In the skirmisher’s method the soldier went down initially by placing the right foot well back and bending the left knee as low as possible. The rush method integrated brief forward rushes with throwing oneself to the ground in a safe and controlled manner, advancing the left foot whilst dropping to the ground with the weapon held to the fore. In a less-tidy emergency variation, the soldier could also execute a ‘cover to cover’ manoeuvre, springing up from a flat position pushing from arms and right knee, dash forward, then fling himself down ‘breaking his fall with butt of rifle’.

Other firing possibilities included sitting, which was good for ground sloping downward to the front; kneeling, good for upward slopes; and standing, a versatile posture, though too obvious to the enemy unless cover was involved. A squat position was recommended as being quick to adopt, and ‘desirable when firing in mud, shallow water, snow, or a gas contaminated area’. One of the most important aspects of the training recommended by How to Shoot was rapid fire, which, to be effective required both timing and good posture. Some exercises were conducted as ‘dry firing’ without live ammunition, and given how quickly the M1 could be emptied in an uncontrolled manner, some of the training appears to have been geared to ensuring deliberation and aim between rounds. How not to do things was illustrated by a character called ‘Joe Jerk’ who ‘sleeps through demonstrations’ and learned his technique on Coney Island shooting galleries. Joe commits errors such as closing his eyes; failure to put himself squarely behind the rifle; poor grip, jerked trigger, and misplaced sling. The antidote to the antics of Joe Jerk was for the soldier to think of his M1 like his girl – something that ‘has habits for which you must allow’.

Training literature of 1940 assumed that what riflemen actually did in battle would be defined by mission, but there were common basics. Cover was expected to be used to best advantage as matter of course – crests for example being only occupied whilst actually firing. On an order to cease the soldier resumed his ‘cover position’, looking to his squad leader for fresh directions. Soldiers were to learn to distinguish between good fire and good cover positions: the former gave good observation and field of fire, the latter protected him from ‘hostile flat trajectory fire’. The ideal spot for a rifleman was one where a cover position was located just behind a fire position – with the two not more than three paces apart, allowing him to duck in and out of complete cover as required. ‘Aimed fire’ was the point of the rifleman, but this did not mean that individual enemies would always be there to be shot at. Fire could be directed at muzzle flashes, emplacements, or cover. The rifleman,

fires his first shot on a part of the target corresponding generally to his position in the squad. He then distributes his fire by aiming at selected points a few yards to the right or left of his first shot. A slower rate of fire than standard for rapid fire practice will often be advisable because of the difficulty of selecting indistinct targets on the battlefield.

When acting as a skirmisher rushes were to be kept short, from one piece of cover to another, as directed by the squad leader. Walking was only possible under cover; creeping and crawling could be used to advantage for short moves, or through partial cover; often the soldier would have to rush as rapidly as possible, combining this with other moves as necessary. Squad rushes would be executed with the rifle locked and loaded, the leader warning the squad with ‘Prepare to rush’, then the command ‘Follow me’. That safety locks should be kept on during movement was seen as important – as the Soldier’s Handbook, 1941, explained, ‘as you may catch your trigger in brush and kill yourself, or a comrade’.

Another semi-automatic seen in the hands of many US soldiers was the M1 Carbine. In theory this should not have seen much combat action, for at the time of introduction in 1941 it was not regarded as an infantry weapon but a defensive arm for specialists such as weapon crews, drivers, cooks, and others, who might have to protect themselves or fight in an emergency. The logic behind the specification for a semi-automatic weapon that weighed only 5lb, and used only a relatively low powered Winchester .30 ‘short rifle’ cartridge, was that pistols proved problematic in the hands of non-experts attempting to engage anything more than a few yards away and had a poor safety record, whilst on the other hand it seemed unrealistic to expect personnel who had other tasks to perform to tote about full-sized rifles. In the event Winchester’s handy little carbine, using a gas tappet mechanism by David M Williams, was designed and built in record time, and fitted the bill almost too well. It was quickly popular on account of its light weight and rapid fire, and was soon being used in many circumstances far beyond the original brief. It saw duty as squad leader’s weapon, parachutist’s arm, and in many other front-line combat situations. Many of its users were perfectly content, but a few complained, unfairly, that it lacked punch. Not many seemed to have realised that the request for its production had required only an effective range of 300yd. Interestingly, there was also an M2 version of the carbine produced towards the end of the war capable of full automatic fire.

According to the 1942 manual FM 23-7, US Carbine Caliber .30 M1, use of the weapon should have been governed by its characteristics,

It is highly effective at close quarters and at ranges up to 300 yards. Its 15 round magazine and semi automatic action, together with its greater effective range, make it much superior to the pistol or revolver as a close defence weapon. Men armed with the carbine are capable of dealing effectively with parachutists landing in their immediate vicinity, and with other hostile personnel encountered at up to 300 yards. Carbineers are not organised into squads or other fire units, but deliver their fire as individuals. However a small group of such personnel may be collected for the execution of group fire in situations where this action promises the best results. Carbines may be grouped with other available weapons, especially automatic rifles.

Commonly, niceties such as target designation were unnecessary for such a close-range weapon and range estimation was ‘by eye’. Nevertheless, users were encouraged to become familiar with, and hold in their minds, the appearance of objects and possible targets at 50 and 100yd distant, as this allowed pointing and shoot naturally and fairly accurately without undue delay or too many first-time misses. Carbine training involved the teaching of a variety of standard firing positions, as for example prone, kneeling, sitting, and standing. Pupils were taught rapid fire by gradually building up speed of delivery, beginning with a fairly leisurely and carefully aimed round every 5 seconds, until finally they were able to fire ‘25 or more accurate shots per minute’.

The opposite side of the close-range combat question was the fact that sub-machine guns were not standard issue to the ordinary US infantry rifle squads, and in contrast to the M1 carbine do not seem to have been particularly popular. The Thompson SMG had great historical reputation, was well made, and boasted massive close-range stopping power: but against this was heavy, old fashioned, expensive, and not of much use in open areas. The M3 ‘grease gun’ introduced at the very end of 1942 was actually disliked by many, though it did what it set out to do tolerably well. A cheaply stamped weapon, it cost less than half the price of the Thompson, also used the powerful .45 round, and had a thirty-round box magazine. So it was that relatively small numbers of SMGs available to the infantry – some accounts speak of a dozen, or less, per company – were used as HQ assets. These could be distributed as and when needed for particular tasks, as for example in street fighting, or to arm patrols at night or in close country. SMGs also saw some use as junior commanders’ arms.

The Browning-designed Colt model 1911A1 semi-automatic .45 pistol was the standard side arm of officers and ‘second weapon’ of many specialists. Adopted before the First World War, it had been trialled against a range of other possibilities including the 9mm ‘Luger’ Parabellum, and a Savage arm. By 1917 the US Army had in excess of 75,000 of the new pistols. The original 1911 model was slightly remodelled in the early 1920s to make it more ergonomic, thus becoming the model 1911A1. Arguably one of the best combat pistols of any nation, it had the valuable characteristics of good stopping power and reliability, combined with a seven-round detachable box magazine integral to the butt, though to shoot such a powerful weapon accurately requires some practice. Like the M1 Garand, the semi-automatic service pistol was seen as sufficiently ubiquitous to be featured in the Soldier’s Handbook and was thus one of a relatively few pieces of equipment that pretty well every soldier had instructions on, whatever his duty or designation.

Good as it was, the Colt 1911 A1 still had many of the faults inherent to most pistols. Its effective range was short, even in the hands of an expert, and it was much easier to have accidents with than long arms. So it was that the 1942 Rifle Company manual described it as ‘an arm of emergency’ intended for ‘individual defense’ at ranges up to 50yd. Whilst the Colt was the main combat pistol, it is often forgotten that there were others that saw at least limited use. Production of pistols was not top priority, and so it was that ‘substitute standard’ arms were used as supplements, though as far as possible front-line troops got the 1911A1 Colt. The additional arms were mainly .38 revolvers by Colt and Smith and Wesson, and these, as well as other second-line pistols and revolvers, were also supplied to Britain during the emergency that followed Dunkirk. Though semi-automatic weapons now predominated, it remained usual for at least one bolt-action 1903 model Springfield to remain part of squad assets. The reason for this apparent anomaly was that there were still a few things that the Garand had not been designed to do, or had not yet been adapted to perform. Chief amongst these were sniping and grenade launching.

Most destructive against close-range targets, especially those within fieldworks and pillboxes, was the grenade. US types included a Mark III ‘offensive’ model with a fibreboard casing and other specialist munitions, but the one that saw most use in combat was the Mark IIA1 fragmentation grenade. It looked very much like a small pineapple, and was sometimes nicknamed accordingly. The parentage of this bomb was French, being derived from a type used in the First World War. The thrower pulled the pin, and the side lever was released as the grenade left the hand, allowing the ‘Bouchon’ or ‘mouse-trap’ igniter to snap initiating the fuse. After 4½ seconds the bomb exploded into lethal fragments. Whilst theoretically antiquated and less than perfect, nothing better was devised before the end of the war, and the fragmentation grenade did most of what was asked of it. Indeed, in terms of sheer destructiveness it was found more potent than the German stick grenade, as 36th Division infantryman Michael Stubinski explained, ‘I captured a German potato masher, my first, and threw it. It went off just like a concussion grenade, not like ours, which we carried on our belts. Ours . . . tears a body to pieces whereas the potato masher shook the hell out of you’.

The key infantry manual at the time of US entry to the war was FM 7-5, Organisation and Tactics of the Infantry: The Rifle Battalion, 1940. This was particularly significant since nothing of such a comprehensive nature had been produced since the 1920s and it superseded a whole raft of other documents. Its publication by the War Department that October post-dated both the invasion of Poland and the Blitzkrieg campaigns in the West, but how much it was able to take note of both latest campaigns and recent home exercises is open to some debate as at least part appears to have been prepared earlier in the year. Nevertheless, in many aspects the new bible was already influenced by European examples and interwar German tactical manuals in particular. Whilst the US had already begun a titanic struggle of rearmament and recruitment, Rifle Battalion accepted that material factors were only part of the problem as, ‘Man is the final and decisive element in war. Combat is a moral struggle, and victory goes to the side that refuses to be discouraged. Numerical factors, armament, equipment and technical training affect morale but at the same time derive their full value from the moral qualities of the soldier’.

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