The Tiger I heavy tank was the most famous tank of World War II. Built in relatively few numbers, rather slow and prone to mechanical problems, its 88mm gun and heavy armour made it a feared opponent on the battlefield. In the hands of a panzer ace such as Michael Wittmann it became almost invincible. The Tiger II tank, on the other hand, was less of a legend, and most fell prey to mechanical problems rather than Allied anti-tank rounds.
No tank epitomized the German panzer force better than the Tiger tank. The mere presence of a single Tiger on a World War II battlefield would send Allied tanks crews into a panic. These armoured monsters were almost invulnerable to Allied anti-tank weapons, and their powerful 88mm cannons could cut through the armour of American Shermans or Soviet T-34s like a hot knife through butter. On top of their armour and firepower superiority, German Tigers were always manned by the best panzer commanders and crews in the Third Reich, who were highly skilled at getting the best out of their machines.
Thankfully for the Allies, they never had to face large numbers of Tigers. The monster tanks were expensive and difficult to build, while Allied bombing further delayed and disrupted production. Germany’s reputation for its superb engineering even worked against the Tiger. Its very complexity, for example, made it hard to maintain, so that more were lost to breakdowns than enemy action.
There was more than one member of the Tiger family, which grew to include two tanks and two monster assault guns. This, however, was more by accident than design. The titans of the German armaments industry, Henschel, MAN, Daimler Benz and Porsche, all produced designs for heavy tanks during the late 1930s, as they rushed to win contracts to produce the weapons needed in Hitler’s rearmament programme.
Not much happened until late 1941, when the appearance of the T-34 in Russia caused a major panic. The new Soviet tank had revolutionary sloped armour, a powerful 76mm cannon and the Christie suspension system. German weapon procurement was in a highly chaotic state, the German Army’s weapons office placing an order with Henschel for its design of a new heavy tank and Hitler later being swayed by Dr Ferdinand Porsche to give the go-ahead for his design.
Eventually the modified Henschel design got permission to proceed, and later became known as the Tiger E or Tiger I after production began in August 1942. Some 1300 were built before construction ceased two years later. Some 90 Porsche chassis had already been built by the time the project was cancelled, and so they were later converted into assault guns armed with fixed 88mm cannons. A version of the Tiger I fitted with a 380mm mortar for demolition work was also built in small numbers. Late in 1942 work began to develop a new improved version, the Tiger II or King Tiger, with heavier sloped armour and a more powerful version of the 88mm cannon. Henschel and Porsche again competed and the former won. Different turret versions, however, were eventually built by both companies. Just under 490 Tiger IIs were built from January 1944 until March 1945. Weighing in at 71 tonnes (70 tons), compared to 58 tonnes (57 tons) for a Tiger I, the Tiger II was the heaviest German tank to actually see combat during the war. The final version of the Tiger family was the Jagdtiger tank hunter, which was based on a Tiger II chassis and sported a fixed 128mm cannon. Only 80 were eventually built.
Everything about the Tiger was impressive. The frontal armour of the Tiger I was 100mm (4in) thick and impenetrable to almost every Allied anti-tank weapon until 1944, when the British 17-pounder and Soviet 122mm guns appeared. In 1943 one Tiger on the Russian Front reported surviving 227 anti-tank rifle hits, 14 52mm shell hits and 11 7.62mm anti-tank guns hits – none of which penetrated the tank’s armour. The Tiger II was even better protected, with 180mm (7in) frontal armour that was sloped. This made the monster impossible to knock out except by attacking its side armour. The L/56 88mm carried by the Tiger I, and later the L/71 88mm of the Tiger II, were superb weapons that were able to destroy all but the most heavily armoured Allied or Soviet tanks, such as the Churchill or Josef Stalin, at ranges in excess of 2000m (2188yd).
The Tiger I and II were designed along conventional lines, with the main armament mounted in a rotating turret. They both required a crew of five: a commander, gunner, loader, driver and a hull machine gunner/radio operator. Fighting inside the Tiger was often a confusing and terrifying experience. When closed down for battle, the crew could only view the world through their small vision ports or periscopes. Only constant running commentaries from other tank crews over the radio kept them fully abreast of what was happening around their vehicle. When enemy infantry got close or anti-tank fire started bouncing off the armour, Tiger crews became very nervous. Mutual support from other Tigers often proved the best protection.
The tank’s sheer bulk created new challenges for the Tiger crews. The tank’s great weight of armour put a heavy strain on the engines, transmissions and tracks. Maintenance was a nightmare, and crews had to spend far more time keeping them going than other German tanks. If one Tiger should break down, the only way to recover one was with another Tiger. As the German Army began its long retreat from Russia in 1943, it was very common for broken-down Tigers to be abandoned because they could not be moved.
Initially it was intended to provide every panzer regiment with its own company of about a dozen Tigers, but soon afterwards the Army High Command decided this was a mistake. The Tigers were to be concentrated in independent heavy tank battalions, containing some 45 vehicles, for decisive shock action. Tigers were intended to be used en masse to overwhelm opponents with firepower. The new battalions were to be assigned to panzer corps for specific operations, rather than parceled out to individual panzer divisions. The Waffen-SS Leibstandarte, Das Reich and Totenkopf Divisions, as well as the army’s Grossdeutschland, had already formed their Tiger companies before the new structure was decided on, so they had small detachments of Tigers for most of 1943 until they could be expanded to battalion strength.
From the beginning it was envisaged that the Tiger battalions would be the elite of the German Army’s panzer troops. Only veteran panzer crews were posted to the new units when they began forming in early 1942, while the first Tigers were still on the Henschel production line at Cassel. The first two companies were formed in February 1942, and by May moves were made to activate the first three heavy battalions even before production tanks were ready. As the new tanks began to take shape the Tiger crews were sent to the factory to spend several weeks helping to build them, so they could master every intricacy of their construction. In the factory grounds and proving grounds, the crews put the Tigers through their paces for the first time. They then took their tanks to training grounds around Germany to learn how to drive, maintain and fight their new vehicles. The gunners zeroed their weapons, commanders tested out basic tactics, and drivers got the measure of their new charges.
It was intended only to commit the new units to battle when they were fully trained and equipped, so they could have a decisive impact and achieve maximum surprise over the enemy. Hitler, however, was impatient for his new toys to see action and so, in August 1942, ordered four Tigers of the 502nd Heavy Tank Battalion to move immediately to join the attack on Leningrad. The tank crews were not yet fully trained and, not surprisingly, the deployment was not a success. On their first mission, the tanks got stuck in swampy ground and had to be abandoned by their crews. Eventually three were recovered and the remaining tank was destroyed to prevent it falling into enemy hands. It was a far from impressive performance, and confirmed the Army High Command’s view on how the Tigers should be employed en masse.
By the end of 1942 the Tiger force was ready for battle, and the Soviet winter offensive provided ample opportunity for the new tanks to prove their worth. On the Leningrad Front in January 1943, the 502nd Heavy Tank Battalion’s detached company found itself called to rescue an infantry division being overrun by 24 T-34s. When the “Snow Tigers” arrived on the scene they were able to pick off 12 of the Soviet tanks at long range for no loss. For over three months, the Soviets sent in attack after attack against the same stretch of front, providing the Tigers with easy pickings. When a Soviet attack materialized, the “Snow Tigers” would drive forward from their hides to firing positions behind the German infantry and devastate the T-34 attack waves before they could reach the forward edge of the German line. During this time the Tiger company claimed more than 150 kills, beginning the legend of the “Tiger ace”.
In southern Russia, Field Marshal Erich von Manstein was soon to launch his famous counteroffensive to drive back the Soviet armies from the eastern Ukraine. The Waffen-SS and Grossdeutschland Tiger companies were to be in the thick of this action, when his panzer divisions turned on their pursuers in February 1943 and advanced to retake the city of Kharkov.
Exhausted by nearly three months of continuous offensive action and short on supplies, the Soviet armies in the Ukraine were in no condition to resist von Manstein’s panzer strike. In the first days of the offensive, German panzer units took the Soviet columns by surprise, catching anti-tank guns still attached to towing vehicles and tanks stuck between supply trucks. Von Manstein’s panzers enjoyed easy prey, shooting up almost defenceless convoys of panicked enemy troops. As the drive north to Kharkov gathered momentum the Tigers were in the lead. Now the Soviets had recovered their composure and the Germans began to run into whole brigades of anti-tank guns, dubbed “pak fronts”, dug into prepared positions and backed by scores of T-34s. The Tigers came into their own, because they were the only German tanks that could engage the pak fronts from a safe distance. If a direct frontal assault was required, then the Tigers could also safely advance and overrun the Soviet gun line. More lightly armoured tanks, halftracks and self-propelled guns followed in close behind, ready to exploit any gaps created by the Tigers. This tactic became known as the “panzer wedge”.
This tactic came into its own during Operation Citadel, the Battle of Kursk, when the Soviets deployed so many interlocking pak fronts that it was impossible to outflank them. The only thing for the Germans to do was to try to batter their way through by pushing the Tigers to the fore. At Kursk the Tigers made easy work of the pak fronts, but it was slow work and losses were heavy. Huge minefields protecting the Soviet positions slowed the advance and knocked out many of the Tigers. Pioneers had to be repeatedly called forward to clear a path through the Soviet minefields, so the advance could begin again.
A week into Operation Citadel the Tiger force was badly depleted, with only a handful of operational tanks left in each company. Only superhuman efforts by repair crews, who night after night ventured onto the battlefield to get the damaged tanks working again, kept the Tiger force in action. The tank crews were worn out and exhausted after continuous action. The offensive was fully defeated on 12 July after the Soviets committed their strategic reserves during the Battle of Prokhorovka. In the largest tank engagement of the war, more than 850 Soviet tanks surged forward in huge waves against II SS Panzer Corps. Across a flat open steppe, the brunt of the attack fell on the Leibstandarte’s panzer regiment. With barely 70 tanks and assault guns, including only four Tigers, the regiment fought a desperate action throughout the day, taking on and defeating wave after wave of Soviet tanks. The Tigers’ 88mm cannons gave the Leibstandarte a huge range advantage, allowing Soviet tank brigades to be decimated before they got to within firing range of the German lines. Almost 200 Soviet tanks lay burning in front of the division at the end of the day. One Waffen-SS Tiger commander, Michael Wittmann, established his reputation as one of the war’s best tank commanders during the fighting at Kursk. His kill total by the end of the battle was 30 tanks and 28 anti-tank guns.
After Kursk, Hitler’s armies were forced on the defensive in Russia and a growing number of Tigers were assigned to the Eastern Front, where they played a vital role in the futile German attempt to hold back the Soviet steamroller. Tiger battalions were thrown into a series of desperate battles, often holding long sections of front against overwhelming odds. However, during the winter of 1943–44, the effect of unending combat, mechanical breakdowns and unreliable supply lines meant Tiger battalions could often only put a dozen tanks into the field.
German commanders kept them back as a reserve to counterattack against Soviet breakthroughs, and only committed the Tigers once the focus of the Red Army attack had been properly identified. Then the Tigers rolled. These engagements quickly became deadly stalks, as pairs of Tigers often found themselves up against hundreds of T-34s. A pair of Tigers would usually be assigned a sector to hold and clear of enemy tanks. One Tiger would move into an over-watch position to cover its partner as it moved forward. When this tank reached cover, it would stand firm and the second tank would move forward to find another fire position. Tiger commanders usually stood up in their turrets, scanning the horizon for targets with binoculars, despite the risk from snipers or artillery fire. Once the enemy was detected, the Tiger commander would try to find a firing position to engage the enemy from the flank. While the Tiger’s 88mm cannon could be counted on to penetrate the front armour of almost all Soviet tanks, there were still sound tactical reasons for flank attacks. Soviet tanks had poor optical systems and few radios, so unless a target was to their front there was little chance it would be spotted. Even if one Soviet tank commander spotted a target, there was no way to share the information with other tanks.
From concealed firing positions, Tigers regularly reaped a deadly harvest of death against Soviet tank columns. Often the Russians had no idea what was happening for several minutes as Tiger fire started to rip into T-34 after T-34. Even if the Tigers were spotted, the Soviets could rarely coordinate an effective response. By then the Tigers were already pulling back into cover and moving to a new fire position, leaving burning Soviet tanks behind them.
The arrival of heavily armoured Josef Stalin tanks in early 1944 made it even more important for the Tigers to use guile to stalk their prey. It was now vital for the Tigers to get the first shot in.
In the West, Tigers retained their armour and firepower supremacy and could hold their own against vast numbers of Allied tanks. Wittmann on one occasion even engaged a whole British armoured brigade by himself and destroyed 25 Cromwell tanks, stopping a division attack in its tracks.
The greatest threat to the Tiger in the West was from Allied air supremacy. Camouflage and concealment was the best defence against prowling squadrons of rocket-armed Typhoons. During the Normandy campaign in 1944, Tigers operated from hides in woods or farm buildings and would only move forward to the front when an attack was imminent. Once they had completed their task, they would quickly move back to cover.
During the December 1944 Ardennes Offensive, the mountainous terrain and limited number of roads meant unusual tactics had to be adopted by the Waffen-SS Tiger II battalion, attached to the Leibstandarte Division. The unit spearheaded the advance of Joachim Peiper’s battlegroup into the heart of the American defences. With no room to deploy offroad, Peiper put his Tiger IIs at the head of his column. Even though this slowed up the advance it meant that whenever his columns ran into opposition, the Tiger IIs easily blasted a way through. American anti-tank gunners could only watch in horror as their shells literally bounced off the front armour of the German monsters.
What of the individual Tiger battalions? The 501st Heavy Panzer Battalion was formed in the summer of 1942. The battalion took its tanks to North Africa in December 1942 and clashed with British and American troops until it surrendered in May 1943. The unit was reformed and sent to Russia in November 1943, and fought there until it was decimated in the Soviet offensive that destroyed Army Group Centre in July 1944. After being reformed with Tiger IIs, it was sent to the Eastern Front again as the redesignated 424th Battalion.
502nd Heavy Panzer Battalion
The first Tiger I unit to be formed, it was the first one to see action on the Leningrad Front in August 1942. It remained in action on the northern sector of the Eastern Front until the end of the war. In January 1945 it was redesignated the 511th Heavy Panzer Battalion.
503rd Heavy Panzer Battalion
Perhaps the most effective Tiger unit of the war after it was sent to join Army Group South in January 1943, where it spearheaded von Manstein’s winter counteroffensive. It then saw constant action as part of III Panzer Corps during the Battle of Kursk and the retreat to the Dnieper. In January 1944 it was grouped together with a Panther battalion to form Heavy Panzer Regiment Bake, under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Dr Franz Bake. This regiment neutralized a pocket of 267 Soviet tanks and then spearheaded the German relief attempt to free the Korsun-Cherkassy Pocket. After being decimated later in the spring, the battalion was reformed and sent to fight in Normandy. In the autumn of 1944 the unit was re-equipped with Tigers IIs and sent back to the East as the Feldherrenhalle Heavy Panzer Battalion. It was trapped in Budapest in January 1945 by the Soviet winter offensive and destroyed. A new 503rd Battalion was formed in early 1945 and sent to fight with Army Group Vistula until the end of the war.
504th Heavy Panzer Battalion
Most of this unit was sent to Tunisia in January 1943, where it was destroyed. Some elements survived and fought in Sicily, and it was reinforced to help defend Italy as part of the Hermann Goering Panzergrenadier Division. The units remained there until the end of the war.
505th Heavy Panzer Battalion
Dispatched to join Army Group Centre in the late spring of 1943, it then spearheaded the offensive against the northern front of the Kursk salient. It remained in this sector until the following summer, when it was almost destroyed during the Soviet summer offensive. Re-equipped with Tiger IIs, it fought to the end in East Prussia.
506th Heavy Panzer Battalion
Committed to fight with Army Group South in the autumn of 1943, the battalion fought in the Ukraine until the summer of 1944 when it was withdrawn and re-equipped with Tiger IIs, and was sent to help defeat the Allied airborne landings in Holland in September 1944. In December it was assigned to support the I SS Panzer Corps during the battles in the Ardennes and Hungary.
507th Heavy Panzer Battalion
Formed in September 1943, the unit was committed to the Eastern Front the following January and served there until February 1945, when it was re-equipped with Tiger IIs while still in the line.
508th Heavy Panzer Battalion
Sent to Italy in January 1944, the battalion spearheaded the German offensive against the Allied bridgehead in Anzio. It remained in Italy for a year until it was decided to pull it back to Germany to be re-equipped with Tiger IIs. The unit was then sent to fight on the Western Front.
509th Heavy Panzer Battalion
Ordered to the Eastern Front in November 1943, the battalion fought there for almost a year until it was withdrawn to be re-equipped with Tiger IIs, before being sent to fight in Hungary in January 1945.
510th Heavy Panzer Battalion
One of the last Tiger I battalions, it was formed in June 1944 before being rushed to the East to try to halt the Soviet summer offensive in the central sector. It remained there fighting the Soviets until the end of the war.
301st Heavy Panzer Battalion
Equipped with both the Tiger I and the BIV remote-control demolition robot vehicles, the unit was formed in the summer of 1944. Sent to the West in November 1944 it saw action during the Ardennes Offensive, where it was all but destroyed.
Kummersdorf Panzer Battalion
A scratch unit that was formed to defend Berlin in February 1945, it went into action with the Munchenberg Panzer Division the following April and was destroyed as Soviet troops swept into Berlin.
III Battalion/Panzer Regiment Grossdeutschland
During the first half of 1943, the elite army division had only a single Tiger I company, but it was later joined by a full Tiger battalion late in the summer. The battalion fought with the division for remainder of the war.
SS Heavy Panzer Companies
The Leibstandarte, Totenkopf and Das Reich Divisions were all provided with Tiger I companies in late 1942, and saw action on the Eastern Front throughout the following year.
101st SS Heavy Panzer Battalion (later redesignated 501st)
Formed from the Leibstandarte’s Tiger company in the autumn of 1943 as the heavy battalion assigned to the newly formed I SS Panzer Corps. It was ready for action when the corps was sent to defend Normandy in June 1944. Michael Wittmann eventually commanded the unit until he was killed in action near Caen. It was later re-equipped with Tiger IIs and saw action in the Ardennes and Hungary.
102nd SS Heavy Panzer Battalion (later redesignated 502nd)
Formed to support II SS Panzer Corps, the unit saw action in Normandy from July 1944 onwards. By the end of 1944 it had been re-equipped with Tiger IIs.
103rd SS Heavy Panzer Battalion (later redesignated 503rd)
Originally formed with Tiger Is in 1943, it never saw action and was eventually re-equipped with Tiger IIs. It was then ordered to the Eastern Front.
653rd and 654th Panzerjäger Battalions
Formed to use the 90 Elephant or Ferdinand heavy self-propelled guns in early 1943, they used them in action on the northern wing of the Kursk Offensive. They suffered heavy losses because the vehicles lacked a hull machine gun to counter close-quarter infantry attacks. The remaining Elephants were withdrawn to Italy and fought at Anzio. Others were then sent back to the Eastern Front. The 653rd Battalion was re-equipped with the monster Jagdtigers in time for the Ardennes Offensive. Two other Jagdtiger battalions were formed in early 1945 and they fought in the West until the end of the war.
On every World War II battle front Germany’s Tiger tanks proved to be formidable opponents. Allied tank crews rightly feared these monster tanks whenever they appeared. A heavy price was always paid to put them out of action. Not only were they technologically superior to anything the Allies produced, but their crews were always professional and very determined opponents. The German Army’s Tiger battalions were always at the centre of the action, driving all before them or dying in the process. Though only just over 1500 Tiger Is were built in total, such was the reputation that this armoured fighting vehicle established during the war that it has become the most famous tanks in the whole of military history.
Probably the best-armed and protected tank to take the field in World War II, the Tiger II suffered from low production numbers, a relatively weak power train, and German tactical decisions that worked to the benefit of the Allies.
Designed by Henschel, the Tiger II was originally fitted with a turret of Krupp’s design. Three prototypes and the initial forty-seven production vehicles had turrets that were originally intended for Porsche’s ill-fated Typ 180. On orders from the German Führer himself, Tiger II armament was based on the 88 mm FlaK 41, which now had the form of the 8.8 cm L/71 KwK 43.
Though the original intent was for the Tiger II to be based on the Tiger I, in the event the Tiger II relied for much of its design and components as well on the stillborn MAN Panther II project. As things finally played out, the only Tiger II component taken over from the Tiger I was the transmission, and even this was slightly modified.
Ultimately, although the Tiger II entered production in January 1944 and remained in production through March 1945, only 474 of the vehicles were constructed.
Even though the number of Tiger II vehicles was relatively low, those that were produced exhibited several variations. As noted above, the first 50 Tiger II tanks incorporated Krupp turrets originally intended for the Porsche heavy tank project and therefore called “Porsche” turrets. Krupp turrets designed specifically for the Henschel Tiger B were used on the remaining Tiger II vehicles.
A few of the earliest Tiger II vehicles featured a telescoping snorkel for fording, but this was soon discontinued. In April 1944, changes were made near the two shackles on the front and rear hull extensions so as to allow the use of “C” hooks. Other changes occurring at about the same time included the addition of a four-segment turret ring guard and a notch that was added to the glacis in the area of the radio operator’s periscope. At the same time, the screens on the rear deck of the tank had to be modified to accommodate the new ring guard. Meanwhile the left hole in the turret face was plugged so that the binocular TZF 9b/1 gunner’s sight could be replaced with the monocular TZF 9d sight.
Most of the tanks constructed after April 1944 incorporated a two-piece stepped gun barrel, in place of the earlier single-piece tapered tube.
In May 1944, the very flexible original track design, which featured small bar links, was replaced with a new track that had a solid-bar connecting link and was more rigid. This feature exacerbated rolling resistance, but decreased the likelihood of a track working its way off the sprocket. The change to the new track necessitated a switch to a new drive sprocket that had only nine teeth, instead of the eighteen on the sprocket used with the earlier track. Meanwhile, a vane sight was incorporated in the roof of the turret for the commander to use.
June 1944 saw major changes in Tiger II manufacture. In order to mount a jib boom crane with a 2-ton lifting capacity, three sockets were added to the tank’s turret roof. A shorter muzzle brake was incorporated at about the same time. But the biggest change that June was the new turret that was introduced. This turret, known as the “production turret” or “series turret,” was very different from its predecessor. The Porsche turret had featured a rounded face and a left-side bulge to accommodate the cupola. In the new series, the turret’s face was flat and the turret’s side armor was less steeply sloped, a design that obviated the need for the bulged side.
The commander’s cupola began to be bolted, rather than welded, onto the turret, beginning in August 1944. The weld seam, a prominent feature on earlier models, obviously is absent from the tanks with the cupola bolted in place. That same month, Tiger II tanks started to roll off the assembly line wearing a three-color factory camouflage scheme.
Already in September, however, that three-color scheme was abandoned and the new Tigers were left in their red oxide primer to which patches of dark yellow, reddish brown, and olive green were added. That same month the Zimmerit antimagnetic mine coating was dispensed with.
In October 1944, the 20-ton jack and the corresponding mounting brackets were discontinued.
Things remained largely the same, then, for nearly three months—apart from changes in the design of the latches on the hull personnel hatches and the intermittent use of a rain shield over the gunner’s sight aperture.
Then in January 1945, Henschel’s assembly plant began to receive the armor components prepainted in RAL 6003 olive green. After assembly, RAL 8017 red brown and RAL 7028 were sprayed on to the vehicles in a hard-edge camouflage scheme.
Finally, in March 1945, came the final major change: another change of the track. In place of the earlier double-link track, the track introduced in March 1945 was a single-link version. Once again the drive sprocket needed to have eighteen teeth. Only a few vehicles were actually produced with this track, since it was in March 1945 that US troops seized control of Henschel’s Kassel factory, the Tigers’ home.
The Tiger II’s long main armament, the epitome of the family of 88mm antiaircraft/antitank guns that had terrorized enemy armor since the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), fired high-velocity rounds along a relatively flat trajectory. In combination with an excellent gunsight, the weapon system was accurate at long range, which enabled rapid targeting and a high first look/first hit/first kill probability. However, the lengthy barrel’s overhang stressed the turret ring, and made traverse difficult when not on level ground. Optimally initiating combat at distances beyond which an enemy’s main armament could effectively respond, the Tiger II’s lethality was further enhanced by its considerable armor protection, especially across the frontal arc that provided for a high degree of combat survivability. Although the vehicle’s glacis does not appear to have ever been penetrated during battle, its flanks and rear were vulnerable to enemy antitank weapons at normal ranges.
In the hands of an experienced crew, and under environmental and terrain conditions that promoted long-range combat, the weapon system achieved a high kill ratio against its Allied and Red Army counterparts. 503rd Heavy SS Panzer Battalion, for example, was estimated to have scored an estimated 500 “kills” during the unit’s operational life from January to April 1945. While such a figure was certainly inflated as accurate record keeping was hindered by the unit’s dispersed application and chaotic late-war fighting where the Soviets eventually occupied a battlefield, it illustrated the success of the weapon system if properly employed and supported. Of 503rd Heavy SS Panzer Battalion’s original complement of 39 Tiger IIs only ten were destroyed through combat, with the remainder being abandoned or destroyed by their crews due to mechanical breakdowns or lack of fuel. As 503rd Heavy SS Panzer Battalion never received replacement tanks like its brethren in 501st and 502nd Heavy SS Panzer Battalions (which were given 2.38 and 1.7 times their respective 45-vehicle TO&E allotments), its Tiger II combat losses averaged less than 50 percent.
Because of the chaotic combat environment throughout Pomerania, and the need to quickly allocate resources to several threatened sectors at once, the Tiger IIs were frequently employed singly, or in small groups, often at the will of a local senior commander. In much the same way as with the French in 1940, 503rd Heavy SS Panzer Battalion’s armor acted more in an infantry-support capacity than as a unified armored fist. The Tiger IIs would perhaps have been better used organizationally to fill a Panzer regiment’s heavy company by strengthening existing, depleted parent formations; but instead they remained in semi-independent heavy Panzer battalions until the end of the war. Forced to rely on small-unit tactics, Tiger II crews played to their strengths by adopting ambush tactics to minimize vehicular movement and pre-combat detection, especially from enemy ground-attack aircraft.
As tankers regularly spent long hours in their mounts the Tiger II’s relatively spacious interior helped reduce fatigue, and made operating and fighting within the vehicle somewhat less taxing. A good heating and ventilation system improved operating conditions, which then reduced crew mistakes that were all too common during a chaotic firefight. Although the Tiger II had well-positioned ammunition racks that facilitated loading, projectiles that were stored in the turret bustle were susceptible to potentially catastrophic damage caused by spalling or projectile impacts. Even after Henschel incorporated spall liners to reduce such debris, concerned crews would often leave the turret rear empty, which correspondingly made room to use the rear hatch as an emergency exit.
The cost to produce the Tiger II in manpower and time (double that of a 45-tonne Panther), and its high fuel consumption, brought into question why such a design progressed beyond the drawing board considering Germany’s dwindling resources and military fortunes. It was partly a response to the perpetual escalation of the requirement to achieve or maintain battlefield supremacy, and much of the blame rested with Hitler and his desire for large armored vehicles that in his view presumably reflected Germany’s might and reinforced propaganda. By not focusing resources on creating greater numbers of the latest proven designs such as the Panther G, German authorities showed a lack of unified direction and squandered an ability to fight a war of attrition until it was too late to significantly affect the outcome. Limited numbers of qualitatively superior Tiger IIs could simply not stem the flood of enemy armor.
Jagdtiger SdKfz 186
Faced with increasing numbers of increasingly capable Allied vehicles, Germany sought to develop a tank destroyer that was so heavily armed and armored it could absolutely dominate the battlefield.
That armament was 12.8 cm PaK 44 L/55, inspired by the Soviet 122 mm gun. The Germans opted for the slightly larger gun in part to utilize some of the tooling previously created to produce 12.8 cm naval weapons.
While some of these formidable weapons were mounted on towed artillery carriages, two types of mechanized mounts were proposed. One was the German superheavy tank Maus. The other was the largest tank destroyer to enter series production, the Jagdtiger. It was hoped that not only would this vehicle be effective against enemy tanks, including those beyond the effective range of other guns, but also would be decisive against fortifications.
In order to mechanize the weapon, first a mock-up based on the Panther chassis was created. This style was discarded, and in October 1943 a second mock-up based on the Tiger II chassis, albeit lengthened forty centimeters, was shown to Hitler.
Two trial vehicles were assembled: chassis number 305001 utilized an eight-roadwheel Porsche torsion-bar suspension system, while chassis number 305002 used the Henschel nine overlapping wheel suspension system like that used on the production of Tiger II.
Both were assembled by Nibelungenwerk in February 1944. In total, 150 of the vehicles, dubbed Jagdtigers, were ordered. Ten more of these vehicles were built with the Porsche-designed suspension, while the balance of the seventy to eighty-eight vehicles actually produced featured the Henschel suspension.
Only two units were issued the massive vehicles, the heaviest armored vehicles to see series production during the war, schwere Panzerjäger-Abteilung 653 and the schwere Panzerjäger-Abteilung 512. Their considerable weight, compounded by the vehicles often being crewed by young, inexperienced men, led to the Jagdtiger being of limited usefulness.
Dr. Professor Ferdinand Porsche suggested a paired external torsion bar suspension with single roadwheels, as opposed to the individual internal torsion bars with double roadwheels on the Henschel version. The roadwheels themselves were 800mm in diameter on Henschels Jagdtiger, and 700mm on Porsches.
The Porsche Jagdtiger was 1.2 tons lighter than the Henchel one, demanded 450 less working hours and was much cheaper. It was also possible to remove one 2-wheel section, without touching the other wheels – something that was impossible with Henchels overlapping wheels. On the other hand, the weight on a single roadwheel was about 200kg on Henschels Jagdtiger, and the Porsche one over 4600kg! Furthermore, there were 1/8 part more wear and tear on the Porsche roadwheels per centimetre than on the Henschel ones.
Only 11 Porsche suspension vehicles were built, and between 77 and 83 Henschels though the exact figure isn’t known due to the confusion right at the end as to how many were completed and released off the production lines including the handful of almost mythical 88mm versions.
It was a case of Porsche jumping the gun a bit before the Henschel Torsion bar system prevailed. There is even a factory shot of a lower hull originally fitted for the Porsche bogey units being re-machined to take the torsion bars over the scars of the bogey mounts.
Eleven (11) were done with the Porsche running gear (not 9 as is oddly stated by Karl-Heinz Münch on p.431 of his otherwise excellent “Combat History of s.Pz.Jg.Abt.653” book even though the delivery table he supplies on p.452 correctly amounts to 10). One of the 11 had defective armour and wasn’t issued hence the correct 10 figure in the delivery stats.
Their chassis/Fgst. No.s ran from 305001-305012 (not to 305010 as is commonly thought), but didn’t include 305002 which was the first Henschel chassis prototype built alongside the first Porsche.
While as mentioned some of the books point to only 9 incl. “653”, and some to 10, Tom Jentz in his Panzertracts Special No.9 “Jagdpanzer – Jagdpanzer 38 to Jagdtiger”, claims the correct figure of 11.
He calls out the first 2 built – 305001 and 305002 as being a Porsche and Henschel running gear respectively, then says; “An additional ten Jagdtigers were assembled with the Porsche suspension before series production was converted to the Henschel suspension in September 1944.” One (305005) had defective armour and was never issued or photographed.
Henschel and Porsche Jagdtiger differences
The Henschel tanks had standard King Tiger wheels and tracks, but the Porsche tanks had wheel units somewhat like the Elefant. Porsche’s tracks were not narrow, but were different than the Henschel tank and were more complicated. Tracks were not interchangeable.
Some Henschel tanks had an MG-42 fitted to the engine deck on a pedestal mount
Porsche tanks could have large, curved metal covers on the exhaust similar to the Tiger I or King Tiger Porsche turret prototypes.
Most importantly, nearly all Porsche Jagdtigers had zimmeritt while none of the Henschel ones seem to have had it.
Only the Porsche suspension carrying Jagdtigers had Zimmerit: at first it was only applied about half-way up the vehicle side. Later, starting with Fgst.Nr.305006 the Zimmerit was applied to a height of what a soldier could reach. Lastly, Zimmerit was dropped on Jagdtiger production starting with Fgst Nr.305011. So the last 2 (Porsche) Jagdtigers had no Zimmerit. Starting with Fgst.Nr.305013 to the end of production, all Jagdtigers had the Henschel style suspension. Just a note, Fgst.Nr 305002 was also a Henschel vehicle but it too, didn’t have any Zimmerit. All of the Porsche suspension carrying Jagdtigers that made it to the field were issued to the sHPzJgAbt 653. 7 of the 11 completed ‘Porsche’ Jagdtigers were issued to the sHPzJgAbt. Fgst.Nr 305001 was at Kummersdorf, Nr 305003 stayed at Niebelungenwerke Nr 305004 was sent to Sennelager, 305005 was sent to Putlos, then later back to the factory. Fgst.Nr 305006-12 were all issued to sHPzJgAbt 653.
As for combat on the East Front: there was one reported in the inventory of the Wa.Pruf. facility in Kummersdorf, but it is unknown if it was actually became part of Pz.Abt.Kummersdorf. It is not listed in their inventory reports. Further use of the Kummersdorf Jagdtiger is unknown. A small group of 4 Jagdtigers were picked up in early May 1945 by members of the sHPzJgAbt 653 and the sSSPzAbt 501 in a mixed group. The engaged the Soviets near Amstetten, Austria, and high tailed it for the US demarcation lines, and surrender in Amstetten.
Jagdtiger 8.8 vs 12.8cm guns
Perhaps Otto Carius, a Jagdtiger company commander, said it best in his description of his vehicles. “Despite its 82 tons, our Hunting Tiger didn’t want to act like we wanted it to. Only its armor was satisfactory, its manoeuvrability left a lot to be desired. In addition, it was an assault gun. There was no traversing turret, just an enclosed armored housing. Any large traversing of the main gun had to be done by moving the entire vehicle. Because of that, transmission and steering differentials soon broke down. That such a monstrosity had to be constructed in the final phase of the war made no sense at all.”
In the final analysis, the roughly 70 Jagdtigers that were constructed were design failures in a number of areas and successful in only a few. The AFV was too heavy and cumbersome on the battlefield and proved not only difficult to get to the fighting, but almost impossible to recover afterward. Although when the weapon system could be brought to bear on an opponent the results were often devastating, out-manoeuvring the Jagdtiger was a relatively easy task for Allied AFVs, as long as they could stay out of its sights.
Frank De Sisto reports:
The 8.8cm Jagdtiger was discussed briefly by Tom Jentz at this year’s  AMPS convention, during his seminar.
According to documents he uncovered, it was not a shortage of 12.8cm guns, but the MOUNTS.
Some minutes from wartime meetings were discussed by Tom and I believe he said 4 vehicles were fitted or considered for fitting with 8.8cm guns, and if memory serves, they may even have been issued.
Jentz says 4 were built in April with 17 more planned for April, but whether they made it into the field or not before being blown up at the factory as most accounts describe is the sore point.
There were supposedly a couple of independent SS led kampfgruppes outside the two main Bttns. of 512 and 653, running small numbers of Jagdtigers in the closing weeks also – eg. sSS.Pz.Abt.511 (formerly 501 – 1st SS LAH) ran 6 JTs in the last month in Austria etc. See p.267 “TIC 2” by Schneider and p.565-6 “Michael Wittmann and the Tiger Commanders of the LAH” by Agte. Plus I’ve heard unconfirmed claims from others that 17.SS “Gotz von Berlichingen” also had a KG with small numbers plus others with the odd vehicle attached. So who knows what was actually fielded and who had what at the end?
Jagdtiger was built in the Nibelungenwerke in late April/early May 1945 and they were commandeered by Waffen SS units hell-bent on continuing the fight. The Jagdtigers operational on April 30th 1945 went with the LAH battlegroup to St. Pälten with 4 vehicles, two crewed by members of sPzJgAbt 653, two crewed by the “unknown unit”, which was probably from sPzJgAbt 512. The remaining functional vehicles were commandeered by another SS-battle group, perhaps of 2nd SS Panzer-Division, on May 4th 1945 and moved north in time to be put in the line during the final Russian offensive in Poland starting on May 6th, forcing Army Group Mitte out of Poland between May 8th and May 9th. The 8 unfinished Jagdtigers remaining in St. Valentin was blown up on May 4th 1945 as described in ‘The Combat History of German Heavy Anti-tank Unit 653 in World War II’ By Karlheinz Münch’s book.
So I’d say without further info, it’s not beyond the realms of “possibility” that a few 88mm versions “could have” trickled out right at the end especially if they jumped ahead in the run eg. the Fgst. no. on the 88mm one yet the No. on Kubinka’s late 128mm version is 305083?
According to Wolfgang Schneider’s “Elefant-Jagdtiger-Sturmtiger: Rarities of the Tiger Family”, the 88mm gun was modified to fit the Jagdtiger (this modification being known as the PAK43/3, Version D), the gun being so modified by Hallesche Maschinenfabrik of Lippstadt. They delivered the weapons to the Nibelungen Works where the vehicle was being built beginning in 1944. Of the 74 Jagdtigers built, Schneider says there is no record of how many of them left the factories armed with the 88mm gun.
Given that the 88mm was merely a stop-gap measure to arm the Jagdtiger until 128mm guns were forthcoming, such a low number would seem to justify your reasoning and debunk the idea that 20 such vehicles rolled off the lines. One would wager that as soon as 128mm guns were to be had, they took precedence over the 88s.
I’m assuming something however, in that you are referring to the gun mount itself and not the gun. If the mount for the 88 read 7 of 20, then two things could be considered. First, that, yes, 20 mountings for the 88mm were produced (as a lot I’m sure). The other issue would be the mounting was a lot of 20 for the 128mm. The test would be to compare the gun mount of your machine with the 88 to one which mounted the 128mm. Schneider’s text makes no mention of just what the modifications to the 88mm were…was it a modification of the gun or to the mount. I’m inclined to say the 88mm was modified to fit the gun mount meant for the 128mm. This would have prevented the factory from having to make a mount just for the 88mm and waste precious materials in doing so. With the 88mm suited to fit the 128mm mount, the factory can continue to build the one type of vehicle and use whatever gun happened to be available to them. Again, the acid test would be to compare the mountings of the two variants.
One would be hard pressed to locate a photograph of a Jagdtiger with the 88. The length of the gun tube for the 88 is about two inches shorter than the 128mm and if it shared the same mantlet as the 128 armed variant, without being able to see the breech, you’d be hard pressed to tell them apart. I checked my sources and examined the photographs and came up dry. Most of the photos I have show spiked Jagdtigers which, of course, ruins the weapon and with ammunition cook-offs, pretty much obliterates the superstructure and everything within it. All the others show the 128mm armed vehicle that I am able to discern.
The soft metal plate you found on the vehicle:
SonderKraftFahrZueg 185s 04/45 Nummer 05 F??Gb
This is indeed the Sd Kfz 185, the 88mm armed Jagdtiger according to the listing of Sd Kfz numbers I have from Peter Chamberlain’s “Encyclopaedia of German Tanks of World War II”. The “s” is a mystery though as I can find no data on that particular letter as it related to Sd Kfz nomenclature. Chamberlain does point out that Sd Kfz numbering was far from perfect and sometimes were not consistent. Of note, Chamberlain says that no 88mm armed Jagdtiger went into production (keep in mind his book came out in 1978).
The exact number of Jagdtigers produced may never be known. Sources differ from one another in production numbers, Chamberlain having 61 produced in 1944 and a mere 16 produced in 1945. Of course, Schneider claims 74 produced. I would hazard to guess that some of the other numbers may include those still on the factory floor by wars end.
Keep in mind though, that by the closing weeks of the war, record keeping went out the window or went up in smoke to prevent the information from falling into the enemy’s hands. Schneider has the Nibelungen Works and the Steyr-Daimler-Puch facility at St. Valentin (unless the two are one and the same…Schneider makes no differentiation). If Steyr-Daimler-Puch could be contacted, perhaps they have records in their archives (since this company is still around today)…in much the same way that Dornier still has the plans and data on their WWII aircraft (which allowed them to rebuild Do335 “Pfiel” Wk.Num. 102). It’s a long-shot…but it might pay off.
It’s interesting that it appears that the vehicle left the factory in April of 1945, going by the Sd Kfz plate. Given the end of the war was weeks away, perhaps it seems that, in an effort to put out vehicles (which in turn might account for the poor welds), 88s were used from those sent to the factory in 1944. It was Hitler’s desire that the 128mm gun be used, the 88 only being used until 128mm guns could be had. Since Krupp was building the 128mm PaK44 L/55 (which was later called the 128mm PaK80 ) at their Breslau facility…Allied bombing and Allied ground action would surely have influenced delivery of the weapon to the Jagdtiger plant, especially at this late stage of the game. If spare 88mm guns were lying about the factory floor, you can make a safe bet that they would be installed. While your source quoting that four 88 armed Jagdtigers rolled off the lines in 1944, which would make sense given the lack of 128mm guns and the need to put the vehicle into the field…there is certainly an argument for vehicles coming off the line at the close of the war when, most likely, delivery of 128mm guns was sketchy at best and orders or no orders, guns on-hand were to be put to use.
One interesting identifier of late model Jagdtigers is the drive sprocket. To allow the new tracks to be fitted, every other sprocket tooth was removed by torch.
The BTR-70 first appeared during the November 1980 military parade in Moscow. The hull was of all-welded steel armour with improved protection over its front arc compared to the BTR-60. In addition the nose was wider and the front gave added protection to the front wheels. While the BTR-70 was fitted with the same turret as its predecessor, some were fitted with the BTR-80 turret. Initial models of the BTR-70 were fitted with the same wheels and tyres as the BTR-60.
The two GAZ-49B engines were replaced by two ZMZ-4905 petrol engines, which developed 120hp each compared to just 90hp each in the BTR-60. Both engines had their own transmission with the right engine supplying power to the first and third axles, while the left powered the second and fourth axles. This meant if one engine was out of action the vehicle could still move, albeit at a slower speed. The exhausts were less boxy than on the BTR-60. Whereas the BTR-60 could carry up to sixteen men, the BTR-70’s capacity was two crew and nine passengers. Again Romania produced its own version, dubbed the TAB-77.
Although the BTR-70 was an improvement over the earlier BTR-60, it still had its problems, not least the inadequate means of entry and exit for the troops and the two petrol engines which were inefficient and could catch fire. The Soviet Army first took delivery of the improved BTR-80 in 1984.
BTR-70: Basic APC version, as described.
BTR-70 obr. 1978: Initial version, publicly displayed in 1980.
BTR-70 obr. 1982: Improved model with 120 hp ZMZ-49-05 V-8 engines, instead of the original GAZ-49B 115 hp 6-cylinder engines.
BTR-70 obr. 1984: Slightly modified model with an additional TNPT-1 periscope on the turret roof.
BTR-70 obr. 1986: Improved version with a periscope on the left side of the turret and four firing ports in the hull roof.
BTR-70V: Late-production model fitted with the BPU-1 turret of the BTR-80, with an 1PZ-2 sight, but without the “Tucha” smoke grenade launchers.
BTR-70M: Modernized version with turret, diesel engine and rear hull section of the BTR-80. Users include Nicaragua, Kyrgyz Republic, Mongolia and Syria.
BTR-70D: Diesel version, developed by Muromteplovoz and powered by a YaMZ-236D 180 hp diesel engine. Prototype only.
SPR-2 “Rtut-B” (stantsiya pomekh radiovzryvatelyam): Electronic warfare variant, designed to detonate artillery shells with proximity fuze detonators.
SPR-2M: Modified version with more compact equipment.
BTR-70K (komandnyj): Command vehicle with additional radios, several whip antennas, navigation device and a portable generator. BTR-70KShM (komandno-shtabnaya mashina): Command and control variant, designed to be used as a mobile command post. 2S14 Zhalo-S: tank hunter, armed with a 2A62 85 mm gun. Prototype only. SA-22 (spetsapparatnaya mashina): command vehicle. 15Ya56M MBP (mashina boyevogo posta): base security vehicle for Strategic Rocket units. The original turret has been replaced by a new type with an 1PN22M1 improved sight, loudspeakers, OU-3GA-2 IR search lights, additional TNPO-170 periscopes and an NSVT 12.7 mm machine gun.
Cold War BMP or BTR equipped Soviet Battalions
In 1970’s Soviets started to mount BTRs and BMPs in large numbers. Original TOE for both unit types was roughly same:
*AT Platoon has been mentioned as part of both BTR and BMP Battalion type but in most cases it has been mentioned as part of ONLY in BTR Battalion.
Each MR Company had 10 BMP/BTR. Each squad had one APC with three men in Company trained as Close-Range SAM gunners (and thus company had 3 SA-7 systems).
The AGS-17 grenade machinegun came into service in 1970’s and BTR equipped company should thus have two such systems carried amongst other men of company. Number of APCs is still supposedly ten although it should be VERY tight fit and thus I’d suggest changing it to 11 BTRs like in Early 1980’s TOEs. and/or playing it this way to depict life in Soviet army right when AGS-17 was introduced (and supposedly new vehicles had not yet been introduced).
The AT Platoon should have: -1 ATGW Squad (with 2 AT-3 systems).* -1 RCL Squad (with 2 SPG-9 systems).** *This could be replaced with AT-4 system when it becomes available. **Although it has not been mentioned, I personally believe that this can be replaced with 57mm AT Gun to depict very old equipment.
Mortar Battery has six 120mm Mortars that are towed with Gaz-66. Some sources say that in some Battalions (supposedly in BMP equipped Bns -while BTR battalions keep their Gaz-66- these are replaced with MT-LB. however, 1980’s TOEs I’ve seen do not support this change. Thus you should probably keep Gaz-66 truck as transport system and forget MT-LB.
In early 1980’s following changes were made: Number of soldiers in dismounted Squad dropped from 8 to 7.
BTR Battalion TOE was slightly tweaked into following: -Bn HQ -3 MR Companies -Mortar Battery -AT Platoon
BMP Battalion had now following TOE: -Bn HQ -3 MR Companies -Mortar Battery -AA Platoon -AGL Platoon
The differences are due following: BTR Company had 11 vehicles (with 1 new vehicle carrying two AGS-17 system). Company also kept the Close range SAM systems (3 SAM systems in company).
AT Platoon of BTR Battalion was reinforced as following: -2 ATGW Squad (each with 2 ATGW systems)* -1 RCL Squad (with 2 SPG-9 system) *ATGW was either AT-3 or AT-4. Platoon had 4 APCs to carry troops.
BMP Company kept 10 BMP structure and moved (or added?) SAM systems to AA Platoon and AGLs to AGL Platoon. Their organization was following:
AA Platoon 3xBMP 9xClose Range SAM System
AGL Platoon 3xBMP 6xAGS-17 AGL system.
Sources state that Mortar battery in both Battalions had 120mm Mortar (either old or the new one) and used Gaz-66 to move them. Thus I am rather skeptical of using MT-LB to move these mortars around.
Late 1980’s saw reorganization of BTR Battalions to roughly similar as BMP Battalions and some firepower increases in BMP Battalions:
BMP Battalion was similar but it had no AT Platoon.
AT platoons retained fairly similar organization as their early 1980’s brethren with the difference that some high readiness units had now increased strength: AT Platoon: -2 ATGW Squads (each with 2 ATGW systems) -1 RCL Squad (with 2 SPG-9 system) Platoon had supposedly now 5 BTRs. Some high readiness units could have 6 AT-4 ATGW systems and three SPG-9 systems.
Mortar Battery for both battalion types had now 8 mortars. This could be either 120mm mortar or 82mm 2B9 automatic mortar.
Biggest change in BTR Battalion was introduction of two new support unit types: AA Platoon and AGL Platoon. These were created by removing these systems from companies. Following TOEs were in use:
AA Platoon -3 BTRs -9 Close range SAM systems
AGL Platoon -3 BTRs -6 AGS-17 AGL systems
MR Companies lost these assets that were replaced with more anti tank firepower and infantry support. Number of BTRs was increased to 12 (from 11) and new platoon (1+16) was built as Machinegun/AT Platoon. It had three ATGW teams (that used new AT-7 ATGW system) and three GPMG teams (that used the old PKM system). Russians do not seem to have issued tripods to these GPMG weapons and they appear to be employed in bipod role or as attached to APCs for added firepower on them.
BMP equipped MR companies had similar addition of infantry firepower. Machinegun Platoon (1+16) was added to TOE rising company’s MICV strength from 10 to 12. MG Platoon had 6 PKM GPMG teams to bolster firepower of company. They had no ATGWs added.
Both units started to field variety of LADs to individual soldiers during 1980’s. These are issued as rounds of ammo and do not appear on TOEs.
One interesting development in the Soviet units is that there does not appear to be single source of how they issued their small arms. Generally it appears that infantry squad had always one RPG as light AT weapon and either one or two light SAWs or one GPMG or one LMG. I have seen source touting PK as squad level support weapon and replacing old RPD in this role but this does not appear to be the final truth when considering popularity of SAWs like AKM-47 and AKM-74 too. 1970’s TOEs indicate they used PK as squad level support weapon replacing old RPD but 1980’s TOEs suggest they used either 1 or 2 of AKM series SAWs and delegated PKM to support role or kept on vehicle. I’d avoid using PKM as squad level weapon and keep RPD as squad weapon until replaced by AKM-47 and AKM-74 (in late 1970’s.
Regarding the BTRs:
In the late 1970s, the Soviet Ground Forces issued the BMP to the motorized rifle regiment of the tank divisions and to one motorized rifle regiment of the motorized rifle divisions. The other 2 motor rifle regiments in these divisions had BTRs. Here are the proportions of APCs/IFVs in European Russia in 1990 (earlier totals not available):
MTLB — 1300
BTR-50 — 7
BTR-60 — 4191
BTR-70 — 3936
BTR-80 — 1130
Total — 10,564
BMP-1 — 8146
BMP-2 — 5996
BMP-3 — 33
BRM-1K* — 1363
Total — 15,538
*Recon variant of BMP-1 with no missile.
In the mid-1980s, I think a reasonable interpolation of this data would mean that 60% of APCs were BTR-60s; 40% were BTR-70s. And perhaps 80% BMP-1 and 20% BMP-2 (I’d guess that these would be in tank divisions).
‘The tanks advance by bounds from cover to cover, reconnoitering the terrain ahead and providing protective fire for the dismounted Panzergrenadiers’
– Handbook on German Military Forces
A highly distinctive, even unique, passage in the evolution of tactics during the Second World War was the development of special techniques for armoured and motorised infantry. Arguably Britain was world leader in this process, for as early as the 1920s it was decided that total army mechanisation should be a long-term goal. Actually to achieve something so ambitious would require overcoming not only the lobby in favour of the retention of the horse, but the financial constraints of a world in which military cutbacks were followed by depression. Nevertheless, and despite complaints of conservatism and short-sightedness, voices in favour of mechanisation gradually gained ground in the aftermath of the First World War.
Two key figures amongst these advocates were Major General ‘Boney’ Fuller, guru of the tank – described by one of his peers as not merely ‘unconventional’, but ‘prolific in ideas, fluent in expression’, and totally at odds with tradition and received opinion – and later Basil Liddell Hart. Fuller was lyrical, if not mystical, in his praise of tanks, at one time seeing them as replacing virtually everything else, becoming quite literally the ‘fleets’ of the land, made up of ‘landships’. Yet, by no means all of what Fuller preached was new: there were other tank advocates, the first British tanks had been dubbed ‘landships’, and as long ago as 1903 HG Wells had written a story containing ‘land ironclads’. In 1918, relatively swift ‘Whippets’ operated alongside larger numbers of slower infantry supporting tanks. The USA had embraced the tank idea first by using French machines, then taking part with Britain in the planning of the ‘Liberty’ tanks designed to have war-winning impact in 1919 – had the war in fact continued so long. Hart later said his conversion to the cause came in 1921, but his vision was more measured in that it included ‘land marines’ – or mechanised infantry – from an early stage. It also went with the flow to some degree, working as he did at various times in concert with Major Giffard Martel, Charles Broad, Colonel George Lindsay, and others. There were also some curious false starts, as for example when Martel proposed that entire units could drive into action in one-man tracked vehicles, somehow steering, shooting, communicating, and navigating entirely solo.
Though few of the pundits or visionaries would have liked the idea, eventual official acceptance of a good part of the mechanisation agenda probably did not stem from the supposed battle-winning potential of ‘tankettes’ or land armadas. Rather it was from a cooler realisation that the British Empire was enormous and that the nation would always be denied a large and expensive regular army, or rail transport that could be made to access every country village in India or Africa and at the same time remain invulnerable to sabotage. Another advantage appealing to those of a historical bent was that mechanising infantry and logistics might just allow campaigns to remain fluid long enough to avoid the perceived evil of trench warfare. So it was that the Mechanical Warfare Establishment was established in 1926, being re-christened as the Mechanisation Experimental Establishment (or ‘MEE’) in 1934. An ‘Experimental Mechanised’ force was started in 1927 at the instigation of the Chief Imperial General Staff, George Milne, machine-gun vehicles were tested with 2nd Battalion the King’s Royal Rifle Corps in 1928, and a tank brigade set up in 1931, becoming a permanent feature a couple of years later. The tanks and infantry were not usually operated as one formation, but as two elements – and in retrospect it may be perceived that this separation did not bode well for the future. Whilst progress was slow, and mass road transport capable of bussing entire armies would not materialise for a long time, significant steps were made. The MEE tested all sorts of military vehicles and devised specifications. Governments dreamed up measures for the encouragement of the motor industry and methods to commandeer their wares in time of war. Perhaps most importantly, gun tractors and crew carriers for the artillery, and motorised platoon trucks and little carriers became standard issues for the infantry battalions. With relatively few and trivial exceptions the British Expeditionary Force of 1939 would be free of reliance on the horse, and perhaps even more significantly could usefully employ the oil found in her colonies rather than have to reap and carry mountains of horse fodder. Fuel for motor vehicles could be moved long distance by rail and ship, in concentrated form.
Having been on the receiving end of the tank from 1916 – and massed armoured attacks from 1917 onward – Germany was by no means ignorant of the advantages of engines. She was, however, at first constrained by the Treaty of Versailles that demanded the handover of 5,000 motor lorries, and later completely banned German use of tanks as well as imposing severe financial penalties. This, together with problems internally and on the Polish border and Baltic, put severe obstacles in the path of development. Even so, there were manoeuvres in the Harz mountains using requisitioned civilian lorries in 1921, and soon Germany joined together with fellow pariah state Bolshevik Russia to examine and test tanks away from German soil. Dummy tanks later stood in on home exercises. One of those really convinced that mechanisation was the thing of the future was Heinz Guderian, who was at the ‘Inspectorate of Motorised Troops’ from 1931. The Kommando der Panzertruppen was established under General Lutz in 1934, and following exercises at Munsterlager the following year the first three Panzer Divisions were formed. As distinct to the arguably more ambitious British plan to motorise the entire army and give it teeth of special brigades and divisions composed mainly of tanks – still not achieved in the run up to war, the German scheme left large portions of the infantry with nothing but the ‘horse murderers’, animal-drawn heavy equipment wagons. A minority of the divisions would, however, be Panzer divisions, capable of autonomous action because they contained enough supporting arms, artillery, and motorised infantry to undertake pretty well any task.
Guderian’s book Achtung Panzer!, of 1937, showed that he had studied both French and British developments: it also gave a key vision of what motorised infantry were supposed to do,
The truck-borne infantry are protected against the elements, and in addition to the men and their equipment the vehicles carry extra loads such as ammunition, entrenching tools and requisites, together with rations for several days . . . the main tasks of motorised supporting infantry are to follow up at speed behind tank attacks, and complete and exploit their successes without delay. They need to put down a heavy volume of fire, and require a correspondingly large complement of machine guns and ammunition. It is debatable whether the striking power of the infantry really resides in the bayonet, and more questionable still in the case of motorised troops, since the shock power of tank formations is invested in tanks and their fire power. The French have drawn the appropriate conclusion and have equipped all their infantry companies with 16 light machine guns each, as opposed to nine of their German counterparts. Combat is not a question of storming ahead with the bayonet, but of engaging the enemy with our fire power and concentrating it on the decisive point . . . What we desire is a modern and fast moving force of infantry, possessing strong fire power, and specially equipped, organised and trained in co-operation with tanks.
Guderian’s work bore both tactical and personal fruit. About the time that he was writing his famous book it was decided that German motorised infantry should be given Gepanzerter Mannschafts Transportwagen – or armoured personnel carriers. Fully wheeled designs were rejected on grounds of insufficient cross-country performance; fully tracked designs were turned aside due to expense, complexity, and lack of production capacity. Development, therefore, focused on half-tracked vehicles, and in particular on the artillery tractors made by Hanomag, as these were the right size to carry a squad. In 1938 motorised infantry and cavalry were all designated Schnelletruppen, or ‘fast troops’, and put under Guderian’s command. Four separate motorised divisions were added to the German mobile infantry arm the following year, though only a few armoured carriers were available for the Polish campaign. Success of the tanks and the conversion of existing divisions made available ten Panzer Divisions for the French campaign of 1940. Paradoxically, British tactical analysts managed to get hold of good intelligence on the new formations some time after the fall of Poland and just before the battle for France. Its translation, digestion, and printing for general circulation occurred sometime after 1 May 1940, this being the period of the latest information contained in volume 18 of Periodical Notes on the German Army. So it was that just as the Schnelletruppen were driving over France and Belgium, British officers got a belated opportunity to know what had hit them.
The key German tactical document Provisional Instructions for the Employment and Tactics of the Motorised Infantry Regiment and Battalion of March 1941 was translated the following year in the USA as The German Motorised Infantry Regiment. This document recognised that not all ‘motorised’ infantry could operate the latest fully ‘armoured’ tactics as there were not enough armoured carriers for all units. Usually, half-tracks were limited to the first battalion of each regiment, the remainder having to make do with ordinary trucks. Whilst carrier production, mainly of the Sdkfz 251 types, continued apace, this deficiency was never fully rectified. Even as late as 1944 only a minority of Panzergrenadier units, such as the Grossdeutschland corps, were fully equipped with armoured transport. Though troops in ‘soft-skinned’ wheeled transport might move quicker on roads, they were very much limited as to how far into the action they could remain in their vehicles, and for the most part dismounted before encountering any hostile fire.
Interestingly, German instructions of the early war period recommended a maximum speed of about 15mph for the leading carrier of a formation, with no more than 20mph for wheeled transport. Faster movement in motorised infantry action was sometimes demanded, but instructions warned unit leaders that this opened up possibility of vehicle ‘strain’ and increased incidence of breakdown. Much the same considerations applied to the British in general, whose explicit policy regarding motorised troops was that they should leave their vehicles before making an attack, transport being parked out of sight until needed later. Indeed, under British organisation there were not only permanent motorised battalions, but armies and corps troop-carrying companies of the Royal Army Service Corps, the job of which was to ferry any chosen infantry brigade from one point to another, but had no combat function. As of 1939 maximum British convoy speed was set at 20mph, though such a velocity demanded regular stops every 3 hours. Suitable lorries and trucks were often dubbed ‘TCVs’, ‘Troop Carrying Vehicles’. Only in the last two years of the war were US armoured M3 half-tracks supplied to Britain.
The German 1941 instructions outlined an aggressive role for troops with armoured transport, ‘The possession of armoured personnel carriers enables motorised infantry units to overcome comparatively weak opposition without dismounting. They can follow up tank attacks on the field of battle without dismounting . . . Motorised infantry is characterised by ability to alternate rapidly between fighting from carriers and fighting on foot, and also to combine these two methods of combat.
It was assumed that on firm and level ground armoured carriers would be able to move at much the same speed as on roads and tracks, with the armour giving protection against ‘small arms fire, light infantry weapons and shell splinters’. Vehicles could, therefore, be ‘brought up to the battle area and moved about under fire from enemy infantry’. The main purpose of the armoured infantry was close co-operation with tanks, for which they cleared a path through any difficult country, as for example in securing river crossings, villages, and woods. They also undertook the detailed work of assault on fixed positions, as well as racing ahead of the tanks to seize strategic positions, pursuing, or carrying out ‘wide and sweeping envelopments’.
As of the 1941 provisional organisation the German armoured infantry regiment comprised just over 2,500 all ranks arranged in two battalions, and a gun company, plus attached engineers and signals. Altogether it deployed 153 machine guns, 36 mortars, and 16 assorted artillery pieces and anti-tank guns. The battalions contained three rifle companies, a machine-gun company and a heavy weapons company. When a whole battalion had sufficient space to deploy the normal formation was a massive arrowhead about 300m wide and 1300m deep with the three rifle companies, also in arrowheads, arranged one forward and two back. The MG company and heavy weapons took up the rear, whilst the whole was preceded by patrols to reconnoitre and seek out the route. Within each armoured carrier was a self-contained squad, essentially similar to those of the ordinary infantry, but with the important difference that each had at least two machine guns. On the march these were mounted on swinging pintles fore and aft, both capable of air and ground fire, though later models of carrier had various arrangements. The initial seating arrangement was two seats with folding backs for the driver and co-driver, and bench seats down either side at the back, lifting to reveal ammunition stowage beneath.
The 1941 instructions were fully aware that terrain and weather had crucial impacts upon tactics, and motorised infantry commanders were to take these into account in the planning of movement and operations. Snow, mud, marsh, thick woods, and steep slopes were all serious impediments: gently rolling country was best as this afforded cover on reverse slopes, and opportunities for observation. In attacks against a demoralised enemy, river crossings, withdrawals, and advances through wooded or mountainous country small ‘task-force’ actions were possible, though such Kampfgruppe, or battle-group formations, were to be a minimum of company strength and reinforced with heavier arms, engineers, and probably tanks to suit the job to hand. Reconnaissance was to be made at the first opportunity with leaders ‘determined to push forward at all costs’. Action was to be ‘bold and resolute’, any undue risks being mitigated by the use of adequate patrols. At the same time, commanders issuing orders were to be realistic about the time these would need to reach widely spaced sub-units.
In making their approach carriers could take advantage of their armour and cross-country mobility to attack from effective angles and concentrate fire. Moreover, the degree of splinter protection was sufficient for armoured carrier units to follow closer to barrages than dismounted infantry. Commanders were encouraged to think with ‘speed and agility’, view ground personally, being daring and not obsessed with their own flanks, taking their own position in the ‘centre of battle’. Rapidity, concentration of force, and concealment of movement were key tactical themes likely to lend an element of surprise. Where limited numbers of carriers were available these were to be used en masse and fully utilised as fighting vehicles. Whilst using roads and tracks as far forward as possible allowed maximum speed and decreased wear and tear on both men and transport, timely deployment into broader cross-country formations was best for maximum advantage of terrain and use of weapons. Yet there was no hard and fast rule, the moment for deployment had to be left to the commander on the ground, who might choose to use speed and surprise to make an attack direct ‘from the column of march’.
This was the ‘attack without deployment’ – made in vehicles, with dismounting only occurring when no further forward progress was possible in the carriers. Where such an attack passed over difficult ground it might be useful to halt briefly in the closest possible cover to allow ‘battle formation’ and concentration of the carriers to be regained before the final assault. In other circumstances a ‘prepared attack’ might be the preferred option. In this instance carriers halted at a distance in a safe ‘assembly position’ or were given a line at which they were to halt and troops dismounted to deliver the attack on foot. Even so, it was wise to keep back a mobile reserve that could be directed to wherever needed, or used for rapid exploitation. If possible, assembly positions were gained in the dark or at dusk, leaving maximum doubt in the enemy’s mind about intentions. In clearing the way for the tanks it was also usual for some or all of the motorised troops to dismount and take the ‘tank-proof’ obstacle or objective on foot, their advance being covered by the fire of the armour and heavy weapons. When upon the enemy destruction or capture of anti-tank weapons became top priority to assist the advance of the armour. Sometimes the order of attack was reversed:
If the ground favours an attack by tanks and if no tank obstacles have been detected inside the main line of resistance, the task of the motorised infantry units will usually be to follow the tank attack. They will remain on vehicles behind the tanks so that they can quickly exploit the success of the tanks. Narrow and deep formations will be the rule, in order to avoid as far as possible the effects of enemy artillery fire and retain a mobile reserve in the rear . . . Pockets of resistance and defence areas which the tanks have not reduced will be dealt with as encountered. For this dismounting may be necessary. The remaining infantry will continue to follow up the tank attack in their vehicles. Contact with the tanks must never be lost.
In other circumstances the mechanised infantry was used with considerable versatility. In pursuit speed made it possible to catch up with the enemy or prevent him from taking up or improving new positions. In doing so commanders were encouraged to move forward as far as possible by road, and at night assume an all-round defensive posture. In defence mobile troops could screen broad frontages, take suitable vantage points, and redeploy quickly. Such aptitudes allowed the frontage of a motorised battalion to extend to ‘twice that of an infantry battalion’, typically from ‘1,600 to 4,000 metres and even more depending on situation and terrain’. Mobility also aided the often tricky tactic of breaking contact, where motorised troops might not only use their speed to escape, but to gain prepared defence lines further back. In disengaging it was recommended that small ‘fighting patrols’ and smoke be used even after the heavier weapons had departed, thus making the job of an enemy attempting to follow up all the more difficult. Engineer platoons also contributed by bridge breaking and mine laying.
Further detail on small-unit tactics was added by the manual for the Schnelletruppen of May 1942, reprinted with corrections in January 1943 – the year in which mechanised infantry were renamed Panzergrenadiere. Particularly crucial was the role of the driver who was taught to drive tactically, taking advantage of terrain to keep the carrier out of enemy fire. Rapid reversing and driving with the gas mask on and hatches shut were parts of the repertoire. Ideally, three men of each squad received full driver training, the driver, co-driver, and a reserve. Within the vehicle the team travelled in a state of ‘combat readiness’, weapons loaded, safety catches applied, and particular vigilance used against any enemy close by attempting to lob in grenades or Molotovs. Lookouts were detailed for all-round observation and in the event of a contact or change of orders the squad leader used a clock-face system to communicate direction – 12 Uhr being dead ahead and 6 Uhr to the rear.
The full-strength carrier squad was twelve, being the Gruppenführer, or squad leader, his deputy, or Truppführer, four machine gunners, four riflemen, the driver and his Beifahrer, or co-driver. The squad leader retained overall responsibility leading ‘by personal example’, maintaining contact with the platoon commander, and checking combat readiness of weapons. He might also man one of the machine guns during fighting from the vehicle. His deputy stepped in when the squad leader was absent, and also took charge of part of the squad when it was sub-divided. The driver and his assistant would usually remain with the vehicle, the driver having first responsibility for readiness, care, and camouflage of the transport, whilst the assistant manned the radio. The machine gunners usually operated as two teams of two, the first man being the firer, the second carrying ammunition and spare barrel. The four riflemen were regarded as the force of close combat and the manpower for reconnaissance and observation duties. The standard complement of light machine guns was three, two of which were intended for dismounting and one usually remaining on the vehicle. Interestingly, the MGs were each identified individually so that a member of the team had primary responsibility for its care. During motorised movement basic deployment of the MGs was one each mounted fore and aft, with the spare in the main compartment for use at will. There were two machine pistols, one to carry with the team, the other intended to stay with the vehicle. Additionally, there were five rifles and four pistols.
On the command ‘Aufstizen!’ the carrier was mounted in an orderly manner via the rear door, with the squad leader assuming his normal position directly behind the driver, and his second getting in last and taking post at the rear shutting the door. If carrying gas masks, the team unfastened them from their normal low position and reattached them to the front upper body, so as to make sitting more comfortable and the mask accessible. The order for a quick tactical exit from the carrier was ‘Abspringen!’. On hearing this everybody jumped out by the nearest means, over the sides as well as through the door. The squad then took immediate cover near to the leader. The rapid remount was the ‘Aufspringen!’ with everybody jumping in over sides as well as through the door. These manoeuvres were practised both at the halt, and with the carrier moving at up to 10kmph.
Combat was both from the vehicle, and dismounted. Dismounted the squad acted very much as normal infantry, but with the significant difference that the additional machine guns made fighting as two elements easier and gave greater flexibility. With the driver and his assistant still on the vehicle this also opened up possibilities of a third base of fire. On the vehicle a basic level of all-round watchfulness – particularly against air attack – was maintained at all times, but if combat was perceived to be imminent the squad leader gave the order for ‘Gefechtsbereitschaft’, or ‘combat readiness’. On this direction the team checked their weapons and radio readiness, and riflemen also ensured there were grenades to hand. The squad leader secured smoke grenades ready to produce screening. With hatches secured the vehicle could be driven at normal speeds through infantry fire, taking evasive action in the event of incoming artillery or mortar fire.
The squad fought from the carrier as long as enemy fire, mission, and terrain allowed:
The main weapon of the squad fighting from the vehicle is the onboard MG. The MG in the anti aircraft mount besides being used for AA defence can be used against hostile ground targets for example adversaries in the rear and flank of the squad. As a rule it will have to fire while the carrier is moving. The riflemen participate in the fire fight at the first breakthrough of the enemy. Hand grenades with simultaneous machine gun and machine pistol fire, as well as running over enemy soldiers are the most effective means to destroy the enemy in close combat from the vehicle.
Short bursts of fire from the moving carrier were intended to force the enemy into cover and prevent return fire, but in case of sudden encounters might actually destroy targets such as moving convoys or retreating adversaries. Even so, halted fire was more effective, and when stopping the carrier positions that left the vehicle ‘mostly hidden from view’ were best. When halting to fire a steady machine-gun burst the vehicle was not to remain stationary for more than 15 to 25 seconds, and the squad leader observed fire, his task being made easier by tracer rounds at intervals in the ammunition belts.
Usually, the Panzergrenadiere fought as platoons of four vehicles, three platoons carrying rifle squads, the fourth the headquarters. In the HQ carrier with the commander travelled an NCO, two messengers, a medic, the driver, and two soldiers manning an anti-tank weapon. Other arms carried in the vehicle of the Zugtruppführer were six rifles and a sub-machine gun. A motorcycle messenger might also be attached to the platoon, or several pooled together within the company. What main armament the HQ vehicle had, if any, changed over time. In early type SdKfz 251/10 platoon commanders’ vehicles a 37mm gun was mounted, but establishments of late 1943 show a 20mm flak gun with the commander, plus a Panzerschrek in each of the squad vehicles. The vehicles of the platoon might travel in closer order columns or lines but typical combat formations included the Zugkeil with the squad vehicles in a triangle and the platoon leader’s carrier out to the front, and the loose line or Zugbreite. A minimum dispersion of about 50m between carriers was aimed at in action. Armoured carriers and tanks could operate fire and movement in co-operation with each other, as for example with tanks halted and firing whilst carriers advanced, or with a portion of a carrier unit halted to offer support to other carriers.
An increasingly popular form of armour and infantry co-operation in German forces was the deployment of self-propelled guns and tank destroyers with infantry. Indeed, it could be said that these required each others assistance even more than did tanks. The Sturmgeschütz, literally ‘assault gun’, was perhaps a cheaper form of tank in that it required no turret or full traverse mechanism for its gun. Nevertheless, the ‘Stug’ also scored in other ways because larger weapons could be mounted on a given platform, and it was possible to recycle otherwise obsolete tank chassis in very productive ways, or to continue to make a tried and trusted basic design rather than convert entire production facilities. Building guns into, rather than simply on top of, tank bodies also increased the degree of protection whilst reducing overall silhouette. Standard Sturmgeschütz tactics saw them deployed in the maximum strength available, with, or immediately behind, attacking infantry. They were not to give away their presence prematurely, but used ‘to neutralise enemy support weapons at close ranges over open sights’. Close proximity to friendly infantry minimised their exposure to anti-tank weapons, and helped to make up for lack of a traversing turret. Similar considerations applied where small numbers of turretless ‘tank-hunting’ or ‘tank-destroying’ weapons were deployed. The fact that German forces were frequently on the defensive later in the war made them all the more profitable since they did not have to drive out exposing themselves to effective fire, but could remain and often manoeuvre within the zones occupied by defensive infantry.
By the end of 1944 the basis of tank and infantry co-operation tactics showed distinct similarities whether German, US, or British. Whether well or indifferently performed in practice, the result of six years of war was convergence of theory. According to Handbook on German Military Forces,
When the enemy has well prepared positions with natural or constructed tank obstacles, the German infantry attacks before tanks and clears the way. The objective of the infantry is to penetrate into the enemy position and destroy enemy anti tank weapons to the limit of its strength and the firepower of its own support weapons, augmented by additional support and covering fire from the tanks and self propelled guns sited in the rear . . . When the tank obstacles in front of the enemy position already are destroyed, and no additional tank obstacles are expected in the depth of the enemy’s main defensive position, the infantry breaks through simultaneously with the tank unit…. In most cases, the infantry follows the tanks closely, taking advantage of the firepower and paralysing effect of the tanks upon the enemy’s defense. The Germans normally transport the infantry to the line of departure on tanks or troop carrying vehicles in order to protect the infantry.
Interestingly, US experiments with motorised infantry were underway as early as 1929 when a company of 34th Infantry was mounted in six-wheeler trucks as part of a ‘Mechanised Force’. This did not last long, however, and rival claims were staked by the infantry and cavalry – with the former wanting ‘infantry tanks’ attached, the latter seeking to become the umbrella to all mobile troops. Only in 1940 was an integrated force formed with the foundation of 1st and 2nd Armoured Divisions, and in 1941 five truck-transported infantry motorised divisions were planned. In the event only one motorised division was completed, and this was never used in its intended role. Efforts, therefore, focused on the creation of more all-arms armoured divisions. Initially, armoured divisions were mainly tanks with few infantry, but observation of European experience, combined with massive infantry manpower increases, made progressive revisions possible. By March 1942 the armoured divisional establishment wedded together two armoured regiments with a three-battalion armoured infantry regiment. In 1943 ‘light’ armoured divisions were also introduced with a better balance of three battalions of tanks with three of infantry.
The US armoured infantry platoon now numbered five squads, three rifle, one mortar and one light machine gun, each squad travelling in an M3 half-track. Capable of seating up to 13, the M3 was bigger than the M2 (that carried only 10), and was arranged with 3 seats across the front and 5 down each side. In the ordinary squad vehicle the leader usually sat front right, ready to handle the vehicle mounted .30 cal machine gun. As in the German arrangement, his assistant squad leader rode at the back next to the rear door, and more than one man was trained to drive, one of these being designated the assistant driver. The M3 armour was just adequate for protection against small arms and fragments, but would not stop much else, and there was no overhead protection on the driving compartment. Some dubbed the M3 the ‘Purple Heart Box’ on account of those injured in it.
Initial US theory paid relatively little heed to the notion of close integration of tanks and infantry, and early armoured establishments ensured that the latter were insufficient where they were needed. Gradually, and arguably from mid-1942, this began to change. Manuals made it very clear that the raison d’être of tanks, and by extension all their appendages within the armoured division, was the offensive. Within the tactical detail it was tanks that formed the cutting edge ‘striking force’, infantry that followed up. Yet there were exceptions. As the 1942 instructions FM 17-10 Armored Force Field Manual: Tactics and Technique, explained,
In attack the combat command groups are generally disposed into four parts: a reconnaissance force (consisting of organic reconnaissance units and attacking units), a striking force (the striking echelon consisting of tanks with engineers attached), a supporting force (consisting of the support echelon, i.e. the infantry, artillery and tank destroyer units), and a reserve. Whether the striking force makes the initial attack or main attack will depend on the terrain and the extent and dispositions of the hostile anti tank defences. . . . When the striking force makes the initial attack, the support echelon follows to seize and hold objectives taken by the striking echelon. When terrain is unsuitable for tank operation or anti tank defences are strong, the support echelon, supported by medium tank units, may lead the attack to secure ground from which the striking echelon may attack. The support echelon usually leads the attack in a penetration. The support echelon may be used to make an attack initially to serve as a base of fire for the striking force in an envelopment. The attack serves to fix the enemy and attract his reserves. In this manner it assists the advance of the enveloping or striking force.
Additionally, armoured infantry had roles in both pursuit and ‘encircling forces’. During an encirclement, for example, they might follow the tanks and take over and hold ‘critical terrain’ gained by the armour. North Africa and Italy would make it very clear that tanks without any attached infantry were at a serious disadvantage; whilst tanks, even in small numbers, lent vital fire support and morale advantages to their infantry compatriots.
Armored Force Drill, of January 1943, gave a range of formations for use by armoured infantry on the move. Whilst they could take up ‘wedges’ – inverted or otherwise, move in columns or stepped ‘echelons’, or any other form of deployment also used by tanks, the ‘diamond’ was described as ‘the basic formation for the infantry platoon’. In the diamond,
the platoon leader’s rifle squad and the two other rifle squads form a wedge, with the platoon leader at the apex. The 60mm mortar squad and the light machine gun squad are on a line in rear of the wedge formed by the rifle squads. The company may be formed in line, column, echelon, wedge, or inverted wedge, in each formation with the platoons in diamond formation.
As may be imagined, the larger company formations described needed much open space for full deployment, so in practice, and particularly in the closed country of Normandy or Italian mountains and hills, short lines, platoon wedges, or columns of various depths and dispersions were much more commonly seen. Experience also taught that fuller integration of tanks and half-tracks was often the best option. So it was that armoured infantry platoons were paired with tank platoons, the latter giving good long-range firepower and a measure of anti-armour protection, the latter ability to counter enemy anti-tank units and infantry, or hold a terrain feature.
Though fire from the vehicle was used in emergency, and a parked half-track formed a useful base of fire – particularly if concealed and mounted with the powerful .50 calibre machine gun, US tactical theory did not regard the M3 as a ‘fighting’ or assault vehicle, but more as a sophisticated, and partly protected, form of cross-country transport. In any case, as the Crew Drill manual explained, small-arms fire was much more accurate if the vehicle stopped. Standard procedure, therefore, was that in combat the main portion of the squads alighted before meeting effective fire, leaving one, or preferably two, men with the vehicle. Those left behind could move the half-track and fire its machine gun, perhaps in support, as an anti-aircraft defence, or to protect a given locality. If not needed immediately, the M3 retired to a given rendezvous or acted as battlefield taxi for supplies and wounded. As the squad dismounted its leader gave consideration to mission and tactical requirements, for if all weapons including the main machine gun were taken off the squad had fearsome firepower but limited mobility. Conversely, if the bazooka and machine gun were left behind the team could move with great agility but little power to confront vehicles or large numbers of the enemy. As a shorthand order the word ‘rockets’ was recommended: on hearing this the squad debused with the bazooka using two of the riflemen as anti-tank team, but left the machine gun behind. ‘No rockets’ meant that riflemen went lightly equipped.
In a well co-ordinated armoured infantry attack a combined formation went to ground near the target, and whilst infantry dismounted, tanks took up covered positions from which to put the enemy under fire. Depending on the results of reconnaissance or intelligence, the action might also be supported by artillery, mortars, machine guns, and the three useful M8 self-propelled howitzers that also formed part of the armoured infantry battalion. Taking advantage of covering fire, the armoured infantry advanced in dispersed formation, using their own fire and movement as required. If all went well, the infantry took up the ground, making sure that no anti-armour weapons were still lurking before the tanks came close in: if the infantry were held up tanks might be required to neutralise machine-gun nests or other centres of resistance. Whilst tank destroyers had the main task of dealing with enemy armour, tanks would also make engaging enemy vehicles a priority. Progressively, US armoured units adopted what became known as the ‘combat command’ approach, bringing together units or sub-units as required for task. Though arguably less dynamic than the German Kampfgruppe idea, and generally enacted later, the basic notion was very similar. As the manual 17-33 Tank Battalion, of December 1944, explained:
success in battle can be assured only by complete co-operation of all arms. No one arm wins battles. Success is attained when each arm, weapon and individual is employed to afford the maximum mutual support . . . tanks usually operate in close co-ordination with other arms, particularly infantry and artillery. The tank battalion may be part of a combat command; it may reinforce an infantry combat team. When operated alone, it is normally reinforced by infantry, engineers and other units.
So it was now, even when US armour was ‘alone’ infantry was still not far away. For defensive operations it was recommended that infantry, reinforced by other arms, should hold the ‘main line of resistance’, tank battalions being held as a ‘local reserve’ for the front-line infantry. The standard arrangement for an armoured infantry company in a defensive posture was with two platoons forward, and one back, giving support and depth to the position. Tanks could attack through infantry, though this required careful co-ordination, or support the infantry forward, and this applied to ordinary infantry as well as the armoured variety. As the new 1944 general-infantry manual FM 7-20 Infantry Battalion, explained,
In infantry-tank action, there are three initial attack dispositions: infantry leading, tanks leading, and infantry-tanks together. Infantry leads initially when reconnaissance has revealed hostile anti-tank strength or when the terrain in the direction of desired use is unsuitable for tanks; in this case the tanks support the attack by fire, generally from hull defilade positions. Tanks lead initially, when suitable terrain is available, in launching an attack against a hostile position having little anti-tank strength in terms of anti-tank guns, tank destroyers, antitank mines and other obstacles, or when these have been neutralised; in this case, elements of the infantry battalion follow within supporting distance and aid the tanks by fire and manoeuvre.
Where neither situation applied, or was unclear, attacks were launched with both armour and infantry in the leading wave so as to promote flexibility. Such was the ideal, but as can be imagined, commanding a ‘composite wave’ in action was no easy task, and not always successfully accomplished.
The organisation of the US armoured infantry battalion, c.1944. The three rifle companies are each divided into three platoons. Each platoon in its turn comprised three rifle squads, plus a mortar and a light machine gun squad. Platoons were thus 5 half-tracks and 49 all ranks at full strength. The battalion also included reconnaissance, assault gun, and mortars and machine guns arranged as HQ assets, as well as the ‘service’ company for maintenance and admin.
Twelve key tasks for armoured infantry were foreseen under 1944 instructions:
Follow a tank attack to wipe out enemy resistance.
Seize and hold terrain gained by the tanks.
Attack to seize terrain favourable for a tank attack.
Form, in conjunction with artillery and tank destroyers, a base of fire for a tank attack.
Attack in conjunction with tanks.
Clear lanes through minefields in conjunction with engineers.
Protect tanks in bivouac, on the march, in assembly areas, and at rallying points.
Force a river crossing.
Seize a bridgehead.
Establish and reduce obstacles.
Occupy a defensive position.
Perform reconnaissance and counter reconnaissance.
The armoured infantry arm was described as being characteristically ‘powerful, mobile and lightly armored’, and in battle armoured infantry were expected to advance in vehicles until forced ‘by enemy fire, or unfavourable terrain to dismount’. Generally, the ‘one to one’ balanced relationship of tank battalions to armoured infantry battalions held good for the remainder of the war. Post-war analysis suggested that possibly even a three armoured infantry to two tank units ratio was even better. Practical experience also suggested that the closer that infantry, any infantry, and tanks started out the more effective their collaboration was likely to be. ‘Tank riding’ – frowned upon early in the war – but widely seen on the Eastern Front, was formally adopted US policy by the campaigns of 1944. Where it was necessary for infantry to travel on tanks it was suggested that a tank company could carry from 75 to 100 infantry with 6 on the rear deck of a medium tank, 4 on the back of a light tank. ‘In rear areas more men can ride, when rope handles are provided. The infantry dismount prior to the launching of the tank attack.’
It has been said that compared to German armoured infantry tactics those of the Americans were poorly developed and unadventurous. This is not the full story. For crucially it has to be remembered that the tactical situation pertaining in 1940 was by no means the same as that in 1944. Early in the war German methods were novel, taking opponents largely by surprise: moreover, with the exception of relatively small numbers of anti-tank artillery pieces, and somewhat ineffective anti-tank rifles, Allied infantry had little with which to counter armoured carriers effectively. German mechanised troop theory called for close integration with tanks, and also accepted casualties as a given in terms of achieving a success as part of a bigger picture. The net result was that, in both Poland and the West, German ‘fast’ troops scored remarkable victories in concert with armour.
Until 1940 there were no US armoured divisions, and until North Africa no practical experience of armoured combat. Thereafter, major elements of German tactics were progressively taken up, and earlier British experience studied. Later in the war, however, when the USA managed to field armoured infantry in numbers, much had changed. The basic tactics were no longer new, the enemy was already thoroughly familiar with them, and worse was already deploying hand-held anti-tank weapons down to platoon and even squad level. Usually, German forces were on the defensive, and encounters between mobile forces rarer. The result was that when an M3 confronted even a small group of German infantry there was every possibility that one of them would be equipped with a weapon capable of completely destroying the carrier with a single round. In the face of this reality fighting from the vehicle was not merely dangerous, as it had always been, but obviously suicidal. So it was, that by comparison, it was almost inevitable US techniques should appear hesitant. Conversely, it was also the case that the Germans, particularly in the West after July 1944, became progressively weaker in tanks. With fewer Allied tanks required for large armour to armour engagements this meant that tanks could be used more widely in close infantry support operations.
As we have seen, the British approach was to mechanise infantry transport as widely as possible, but following early experimental work on attacks by fully tracked, but very small, carriers, the notion of full-blown ‘armoured infantry’ assault in vehicles was generally abandoned. So it was that in 1939 platoon trucks were motorised, and lorry companies also existed for the transport of nominated battalions from place to place on an ad hoc basis. Within the armoured division there was provision for two motorised battalions in establishments of 1939 to 1941, and this was later raised to three in May 1942, and, by April 1943, to four battalions per armoured division. One of these was the ‘motor battalion’ that formed an integral part of the division’s armoured brigade. The US summary TM 30-410 Handbook on the British Army, published in 1943 – but already slightly out of date, distinguished three types of British mobile battalion:
The machine gun battalion, which is at present assigned to corps troops, is based on the caliber .303 Vickers machine gun. It consists of a headquarters, a headquarters company, and four machine gun companies of 12 guns each. Each company is composed of a headquarters and three platoons. The battalion is completely motorised and all personnel are carried in motor transport. It has a strength of 29 officers and 711 enlisted men . . . The motor battalion assigned to each armoured brigade, consists of a headquarters company and four motor companies. Each company consists of three motor platoons and one scout platoon (11 Bren carriers). Each motor platoon consists of three sections, each self contained, operationally and administratively, in one vehicle. This battalion, with a strength of 26 officers and 774 enlisted men, has much greater fire power than any other in the British army…. the motorised battalion, formerly assigned to the support group of the armoured division, now forms the infantry component of the infantry brigade in the armoured division. Its organisation is exactly the same as that of the rifle battalion, but it is carried in motor transport.
Additionally, divisional reconnaissance regiments were also composed of infantry riding in various forms of transport, but later these were converted into the Reconnaissance Corps. As the 1941 Infantry Division manual made clear, standard drill for any motorised infantry was for the transport to bring them as far forward as possible without danger, then ‘debus’ them to operate much as any others. Whilst not attacking in ‘soft-skinned’ vehicles made perfect sense, lack of suitable armoured carriers made close co-operation between infantry and all but the slowest moving tanks problematic – and was arguably a significant tactical failing – particularly in circumstances that called for swift offensive action. Moreover, early in the war there were few signs of close co-operation between ordinary infantry, operating on foot, and the tank arm. Official doctrine of 1941, as spelt out in The Employment of Army Tanks in Co-Operation with Infantry, was that in the attack tanks would precede the infantry, with which there would be little direct interaction. During 1942, however, individual units began to practice closer co-operation in training. This was encouraged both by the increased numbers of infantry in armoured divisions, and by the fact that a number of new tank units were created from infantry battalions – and to these working with other infantry may well have appeared far more natural.
As of October 1943 British infantry divisions in Italy disposed of no less than 3,745 motor vehicles each, including over 900 motorcycles. This gave them a degree of tactical and strategic mobility not enjoyed by the enemy, but also meant that considerable effort, logistic and otherwise, had to be expended in maintaining these fleets. By the spring of 1944 Britain had obtained enough M3 half-tracks from the USA to mount the integral battalion of armoured brigades with tracked carriers. These were again operated much on existing principles, being used essentially as a ‘hardened’ transport to take forward infantry and their equipment, which then alighted to fight on foot. As in the US instance it would have been highly unrealistic to expect full ‘armoured infantry’ tactics at this date, given that enemy infantry could now destroy carriers with considerable ease.
Issued in May 1944, the key document governing British tank and infantry collaborations was The Co-Operation of Tanks with Infantry Divisions. As in US doctrine, it was envisaged that attacks be made in waves of varying compositions, and in British theory the waves were built of three main parts: the ‘assault’, ‘support’, and ‘reserve’ echelons. Each echelon was itself likely to comprise two or more individual sub-ports. An echelon could contain tanks, or infantry, or a mixture of both, but commonly there was some infantry with every one, and tanks normally formed at least a part of the ‘support’ echelon. It was the job of the assault echelon to attack ‘as closely as possible behind the artillery support’ and disrupt and dominate the objective. The support echelon provided immediate covering fire then itself moved forward to take up ground to ‘completely subdue the objective’ and oppose any counter attack. The reserve was kept in hand by the commander, and deployed as necessary according to events. In these essentials British and US techniques were fairly similar, albeit the nomenclature was different. What was rather different was that under British organisation dedicated ‘infantry tanks’ – slow, tough, and heavy beasts like the Churchill – were allotted to infantry divisions for ‘close co-operation, especially in beaching the enemy defences’. This broad concept went back all the way to the First World War, and had been reconfirmed when, at the beginning of the Second World War, a need was foreseen for well-protected armour to operate in the ‘shelled area’ helping the ‘break in’ of infantry into main defensive positions. Whilst many things had changed, and effective infantry tanks took years in development, it could be argued that in some senses things had come full circle, and the Atlantic Wall, Siegfried Line, other Axis defensive lines, and built-up areas did indeed require the attentions of heavily armoured tanks. Churchills, for example, did especially valuable service when converted for specialist roles in support of other arms; as a variety of ‘funnies’ on D-Day, or as ‘engineer’ tanks with heavy charge throwers blowing in enemy bunkers and strongpoints to allow the infantry to go forward. Conversely, the heavy infantry tanks were not of much use for rapid actions or sweeping manoeuvres.
The faster tanks, still known by the archaic descriptions ‘Cruiser’ and ‘Light’, were assumed to have specific purposes in terms of armoured exploitation by armoured divisions and in reconnaissance. Nevertheless, by this date it was acknowledged that distinctions were breaking down, for though tanks were designed for specific roles, ‘there can be no hard and fast rule regarding their employment, beyond the obvious one that they must be used in the manner which most effectively carries out the intention of the higher commander. Cruiser tanks have, in recent operations, supported infantry divisions with marked success, and infantry tanks have, on at least one important occasion, carried out valuable work in a role usually allotted to cruisers.’ Whilst tanks were best used offensively in numbers on narrow frontages, they could also be used successfully in smaller groups ‘always accompanied by infantry’. This would be of ‘moral’ as well as ‘material’ value. They were not to be used on their own, ‘for patrols or for leading the way into very close country or villages’.
How close infantry should actually get to tanks was still seen as problematic, since tank and infantry co-operation had to be close to prevent enemy infantry using hand-held anti-tank weapons, and advancing behind a tank also lent considerable protection from small-arms fire. On the other hand, armour attracted fire of all sorts and infantry very close to tanks could easily find themselves ‘exposed to heavy artillery concentrations’. Several possible solutions were offered. In the best eventuality the tanks went first, ‘neutralising the objective’ and the infantry caught up as quickly as possible before the tanks took serious loss. However,
A decision must be reached by the commander of the operation – usually the infantry brigadier – as to how close the infantry can move behind the assaulting tanks. Tanks normally move faster than infantry and draw enemy fire. It may, therefore, often be desirable for both to start together, with the result that the tanks draw ahead, but that the infantry will arrive on the objective while the enemy is still suffering the shock of the tank attack. In this way the infantry will obtain maximum advantage of the [artillery] fire plan which is designed for the support of the leading troops.
For a ‘main attack’ Co-Operation of Tanks with Infantry Divisions envisaged a set piece, preparation of which might take a long time, or as little as ‘one to two days’ or in an emergency ‘hours’. Execution at night would be preferable from the point of view of the infantry, but tanks rendered their most effective assistance in daylight. In planning infantry and tank units were to co-operate closely, with as many as possible seeing the ground over which the operation was to take place in advance. For main attacks artillery was vital, and a fire plan had to be laid that ‘caters for success’. The attack would ideally unfold as preparation of gaps, followed by the assault and consolidation. Assaulting infantry were not to stop to mop up any posts that remained short of the objective but to push on to it and hold it. As a British 2nd Armoured Division history explained, German troops had become very adept in their use of both the new anti-tank weapons, and snipers, sometimes holding their fire,
until the leading troops were a mile or more beyond them. To overcome this it was necessary for the attacking troops to advance in great depth, so that when the infantry had reached their objective their rear had only recently crossed the start line. In this way the infantry and tanks were spread out all over the ground just won and in a position to help each other deal with the snipers. All round observation in each tank was vital, because the enemy were just as likely to fire from either flank, or from behind, as they were from the front.
‘Main attacks’ were, however, only likely to be part of the picture as many operations were ‘fluid warfare’. In conducting advances in fluid warfare there was no hard and fast rule as to whether infantry or tanks should lead the way: indeed, open situations might demand tanks in smaller or greater numbers to the fore, whilst close country required infantry to lead clearing the path for armour. In the latter instance tanks would still be hard on the heels of the infantry aiming to neutralise machine-gun and mortar positions with their supporting fire. ‘Tank riding’ by infantry was encouraged, but only ‘outside small arms and anti-tank gun range’, as direct fire on tanks carrying infantry would probably result in heavy casualties, loss of morale, and difficulties for the tanks in firing back.
When infantry are to be carried on tanks, definite organisation and practice are required. The number of sub units within the unit of both infantry and tanks is dissimilar. One tank can carry a full section of infantry with its weapons. The infantry must have a drill for mounting the tank, for dismounting, and for quick assembly. Riding on the outside of a tank, especially across rough country, requires a certain amount of practice, and, as far as possible, troops whom it is intended to carry in this manner should not have their first ride when moving up to their assembly area for action.
Whilst it may reasonably be argued that British infantry and tank co-operation, and particularly ‘armoured infantry’ methods, lagged sadly behind the German, and that even later in the war much depended on the availability of US-produced materiel, there were two remarkable bright spots in British performance. The first was the general level of mechanisation achieved at an early stage, the second was a belated revival of the fully tracked carrier concept that pointed the way to something of a revolution in battlefield troop mobility, still being played out decades after 1945. What had been wrong with the old Bren and Universal carriers was that essentially they were too small, and too lightly protected, to do the job of transporting a section on the battlefield. Though fine for a machine gun or a mortar, this essentially limited them to carrying support weapons and stores – useful, but no substitute for section half-tracks. A key spur came from the Canadians who pressed into action the hulls of US 105mm self-propelled ‘Priests’ in the breakout south of Caen in early August 1944. Soon more were being converted in Italy, as were turretless Shermans. At the end of 1944 the ‘Ram Kangeroo’ appeared based on a Canadian Ram tank chassis. Some British armoured cavalry units were now converted experimentally so that whilst two squadrons retained their gun tanks, the third drove infantry carriers. The whole regiment operated together so that when progress was halted by resistance the tanks took up positions to bring the enemy under fire. The carriers headed for any convenient cover and unloaded the infantry, who could now advance and attack under supporting fire disabling or capturing any antitank weapons. Once this was underway the troops of tanks came up, using their own fire and movement to support each other onto and through the position.
Provisional standard carrier drill was reported in Current Reports from Overseas of April 1945. This stressed that whilst the tanks, carriers, and their infantry passengers were to operate as a unit, the idea was not to drive the carriers into the teeth of the enemy. Individual Kangeroos drove into suitable positions and halted with one man on the Browning machine gun. The infantry spilled out as rapidly as possible from all sides of the vehicle, which remained stationary until they were clear. The stated logic to this was that if the Kangeroo moved prematurely it might detonate mines, injuring the now vulnerable troops. The troops manoeuvred or attacked on foot, carriers remaining out of the way of anti-tank weapons, but close enough to support or pick up their sections when recalled. Interestingly, these basic notes on the actions of fully tracked carriers would still form the basis of battlefield tactics more than half a century later.
Large items such as tanks, cannons or artillery pieces, equipment can be lost when they are immobilized through vehicle breakdowns or minor damages. In general, a retreating force tends to lose a lot of heavy equipment regardless of actual combat losses. The heavy maintenance demands of armored fighting vehicles are both a cause of loss and an obstacle to re-use. For example, after the Battle of Stalingrad in 1943, several hundred German Panzer III tanks and similar StuG III assault guns/tank destroyers were captured. So many were available that a significant effort was made to repair and re-use them. More than 201 were rebuilt as the SU-76i self-propelled gun, with some even serving as Soviet SG-122 self-propelled howitzer vehicle prototypes. Besides Panzer IIIs and StuG IIIs, the Soviets also used about a hundred ex-German Panzer IV medium tanks and (at least) some Panther tanks. Tiger I and II tanks seized by the Soviets were only largely used for testing rather than fighting on the frontline (no photographic evidence of any serving on the front). Artillery pieces can also be lost during retreats, when battery positions are overrun (often easily once the frontlines are punctured) or when they are immobilized during hindered road movements or maneuvers.
Use of captured equipment has obvious benefits and less-obvious drawbacks. When Axis tanks were captured and could be repaired for use, they were often used in deception operations. A common tactic was for a Soviet tank unit to approach a German position using one or two captured German tanks in the lead. The hope was that the German defenders, recognizing a “friendly” tank, would not fire, or would delay their fire long enough for the Soviet unit to make a close approach.
Axis tanks and other AFVs were also re-marked and sometimes re-armed with Soviet weapons. One such example is the SU-76i assault gun based on captured Panzer III. Evidence also exists of German Panzer I-based command vehicles re-armed with Soviet 20mm ShVAK cannons. Usually, however, the vehicles were neither modified nor re-marked.
The drawbacks to using enemy equipment are significant. First, the captured vehicles are very often mistaken as enemy and thus are subject to friendly fire. Second, it is difficult to repair or maintain them; the simple act of obtaining ammunition or minor engine parts can be insurmountable. Third, equipment such as radios may not be compatible with other friendly equipment. Fourth, troops may not understand the maintenance requirements of the unfamiliar enemy equipment.
With the exception of the Panzer III tank, most of the vehicles listed below were captured in very small numbers and never contributed significantly to Red Army strength in any operation.