The Mons Myth

Evaluation of British Effectiveness

Armies fight the way they have trained to fight. For a century, the British army trained for colonial war. The short duration of the Haldane reforms was not adequate to prepare the British army for continental warfare. Therefore, at Mons and Le Cateau II Corps attempted to fight colonial-warfare battles.

Due to lack of preparation, the BEF made grave errors at both the operational (army and corps) and tactical levels, the worst of which was ignorance of the enemy. The British were to engage the premier military force of the twentieth century, and should have been much more circumspect. By rights, the BEF should not have lived to tell the tale.

The BEF had to avoid casualties and fight only for a very good reason. Mons performed no useful operational purpose; it gave the Germans a day to close the distance with the BEF, and could have led to a disaster. During the retreat to Le Cateau the BEF failed to delay the Germans with rearguards. Combined with deficiencies in British staff work and traffic control, which by the morning of 26 August caused command and control to collapse, the German IV AK and HKK 2 were allowed to catch II Corps and force it to fight under extremely unfavourable circumstances. Motivated by the pounding it took at Le Cateau, II Corps finally got serious about retreating on the night of 26–27 August, and in two days of continuous movement broke contact.

BEF troop-leading was poor. The army and corps commanders did not issue clear, timely orders. Subordinate commanders did not understand the commander’s intent. Confused and uninformed battalion commanders failed to exercise their initiative.

There was no rhyme or reason to the distribution of forces for the defence at Mons and Le Cateau. The most exposed and most important sectors were weakly held. The salient north of Mons and the 5th Division right flank at Le Cateau were indefensible. The positions at Le Cateau offered the enemy covered and concealed avenues of approach and close-range firing positions. Most seriously, while the commander’s intent at Le Cateau was clearly to withdraw, most of the positions were on the forward slope, where withdrawal would lead to a massacre.

The British Cavalry Division was an operational liability. Before Mons it failed to perform its reconnaissance and counter-reconnaissance missions. On 24 August it left the II Corps left flank floating in the air. In the retreat to Le Cateau it failed to delay HKK 2 and IV AK; indeed, the cavalry division could provide no useful information concerning enemy strengths or locations. At Le Cateau, citing exhaustion, it did nothing.

The artillery failed to effectively support the infantry. At Mons it was unable to provide fire support at all. During the withdrawal there were no artillery rearguards. At Le Cateau the British artillery was completely dominated by equal or inferior numbers of German guns and was generally unable to put fire on the German infantry. Indeed, it drew German fire onto its own infantry by setting up in their immediate vicinity.

Individual physical fitness was inadequate: many of the troops, particularly the reservists, were not marching fit. From 24 August on, British commanders began ordering their men to abandon equipment in order to ‘march light’. On 25 August the British infantry was outmarched and overtaken by infantry of IV AK and the Jäger of HKK 2.

‘Rapid rifle fire’ was not the battle-winning wonder weapon that British historians have made it out to be. Repeatedly German infantry, supported by artillery and MG fire, was able to cross hundreds of metres of open ground in the face of ‘rapid rifle fire’, close with the British infantry and throw it out of its position or destroy it in place. The idea that ‘rapid rifle fire’ was so effective that the Germans took it for MG fire finds no support in German sources.

German Military Effectiveness

German tactical doctrine and troop training proved themselves unequivocally in combat. The BEF escaped destruction at Mons and Le Cateau solely due to egregious errors by the 1st Army commander and his chief of staff.

The organisation of HKK 2, combining cavalry, large numbers of machine guns, artillery and high-quality infantry, was a resounding success and HKK 2 performed superbly, in spite of Marwitz’s command failures at Haelen. It screened the strength and movements of the 1st and 2nd Armies so effectively that they gained operational surprise over the BEF and the French 5th Army. The operational mobility HKK 2 displayed on 24 and 25 August is nothing short of astounding. At Le Cateau HKK 2, though heavily outnumbered, delivered a stinging defeat to the British 4th Division and the 7th Brigade of the 3rd Division.

The Germans fought as a combined-arms team, which allowed them repeatedly to successfully execute one of the most difficult missions in modern warfare: hasty attack over open terrain against a deployed enemy. At Mons the German artillery provided effective fire support, often moving to within a few hundred metres of the British positions to do so. At Le Cateau the German artillery engaged, suppressed or destroyed the British artillery, which was generally unable to fire effectively on the German infantry. The massing of six MGs under a company commander allowed a concentration of fire at the decisive place and time. Artillery and MG fire support gave the German infantry fire superiority and allowed it to move across large stretches of exposed ground to close with the enemy. German engineers brought the infantry and artillery across obstacles and assisted the infantry in street fighting.

Day after day the German infantry marched hard. This operational mobility allowed it to appear where the enemy did not expect, and in force. German marches were well-organised: the troops always got some rest at night, even if it was a wet bivouac, and the field kitchens ensured that they got a hot meal.

At Mons the IV AK commander concentrated his Schwerpunkt, his main point of effort, against the weakest point in the British line, as did the 7th Division commander at Le Cateau. Tactical leaders of all grades were aggressive and exercised their initiative to utilise covered and concealed avenues of approach and firepower to close with the enemy.

Taken together, these factors produced superior combat power. At Mons all three engaged German corps were able to establish bridgeheads over the Canal du Centre at the cost of casualties that were little higher than those of the defenders. In two days of pursuit III AK caught up with I Corps and forced it to retreat away from II Corps, splitting the BEF in half, while IV AK and HKK 2 were able to overhaul II Corps and force it to fight. At Le Cateau the German troops, although significantly outnumbered, inflicted disproportional casualties on the British and drove them from their position.

Superior German operational mobility and tactical combat power was negated by unforced errors made by the 1st Army commander and his chief of staff. The real culprit was Hermann von Kuhl, the chief of staff; for the army commander, Kluck, was not a General Staff officer and operational decisions were clearly Kuhl’s responsibility. All Kuhl had to do was make the obvious staff-school solution to the operational problems at hand and the BEF would have been destroyed. Instead, Kuhl was too clever by half.

Cavalry reconnaissance reports made it clear on 22 August that a large British force was west of Mons. Nevertheless, Kuhl retained the notion that the British would concentrate at Lille for so long that the 1st Army missed its chance to inflict a truly serious defeat on II Corps on 23 August.

The BEF was now in range, only a day’s march ahead of the 1st Army or even less. The only correct solution to the operational problem facing the 1st Army on 24–25 August was to continue the march south-west. With HKK 2 coming up on the right, there was every prospect of turning the BEF left flank and forcing the British to fight. Instead, Kuhl decided that on 25 August the British were withdrawing to Maubeuge and turned the entire 1st Army and HKK 2 south-east. This was the wrong solution. Even if the British were moving to Maubeuge, the correct solution would be to continue the march south-west to allow the 1st Army to conduct a deep envelopment of the Anglo-French left.

Kuhl had been one of Schlieffen’s star pupils, one of the officers closest to the old master strategist. Schlieffen had continually warned against shallow envelopments, which the enemy could avoid. Kuhl was breaking Schlieffen’s cardinal rule.

Throughout the campaign, Kuhl would display a consistent inability to make operationally sound decisions. His mistakes from 5–9 September would be the reason for the failure of the German campaign and the loss of the Battle of the Marne. He would offer the French the 1st Army’s unprotected right flank. He then disregarded orders to fall back and defend the German flank in favour of a pointless offensive which allowed the French to pry open the German front.

Had the 1st Army merely continued the march south-west on 25 August, it would not have required Hindenburg and Ludendorff to produce a western Tannenburg on 26 August. Three brigades of IV AK alone had inflicted a severe defeat on II Corps. Had III AK been attacking the II Corps right and IV AK the left, the British would have been facing eight brigades and the result would have been a British disaster. The British left was guarded only by Sordet’s cavalry and French Territorials: HKK 2 had already convincingly demonstrated an ability to summarily deal with these and advance rapidly into the British rear, turning disaster into catastrophe.

The destruction of II Corps would not have ended the war, as Tannenberg did not end the war with Russia. The German advance into France was going to run out of momentum and come to a halt on 5 September in any case. But the removal of three divisions would have been a serious blow to the British army.

The Significance of Mons and Le Cateau

The Mons Myth encourages soldiers, policymakers and citizens to believe that doctrine and years of tactical training are unimportant: war is simple and all that an army needs is patriotism, ‘field sports’, personal heroism and rifle marksmanship. Such a belief, widespread in the British army and British society before the First World War, resulted in the death or maiming of an entire generation of young Britons.

This is what happens when an army that has neglected doctrine and tactical training meets up with an army that made a religion of both. The denouement came at Le Cateau, where the German army showed that it knew how to attack a numerically superior enemy force and win.

Reaching such a pinnacle is complex and difficult. Most armies never do. It requires realistic doctrine, combined-arms cooperation, mobility, security and intelligence, troop-leading procedures, and individual initiative, all perfected in long, hard training. There must be an institutional commitment to tactical excellence. These qualities, developed in forty years of peacetime work, were the reasons for German success at Mons and Le Cateau.


Gustavus Adolphus’ Reforms

Swedish Infantry

Gustavus Adolphus, a key reformer of armed forces in the 17th century, was crowned king of Sweden at age 17. His country was poor and sparsely populated, but already the ambitious young “Lion of Midnight” (that is, of the North) intended to enrich it with new lands and looted wealth. The only way to do that was by war, so he set out to reform the army. He soon proved to be a superb reformer and administrator within Sweden, and later emerged as an even more able strategist and general in Germany. Over his first decade as king, he transformed the army into a national force and built up the navy to protect his supply route to Poland and Germany. As Gustavus modernized the weapons, drill and fighting techniques of the Swedish army, he also professionalized it, by shifting recruitment away from a traditional levy of ill-trained peasants raised locally to create a national army of well-trained regulars secured for long-term service by conscription. He took the best Dutch innovations out of the waterlogged, compact and canalized environment of the Netherlands to maximize their revolutionary potential on the broad battle plains of Poland and Germany, where a war of maneuver was more likely to lead to field battles and more able to achieve success. Like Maurits and other Dutch reformers, he newly emphasized drill and infantry discipline, centered on learning volley and double-volley fire. In disposition for battle he deployed by brigades, freeing his troops from the old infantry blocks, reorganizing into flexible and more linear formations. Thinning was achieved at some defensive cost, as lines exposed flanks when moving in ways that a pike square of 50 × 50 or so ranks and files did not. The trade-off was worth it: all this cleared the way for Sweden’s ascent into the ranks of the Great Powers, to intervention in the Thirty Years’ War for Swedish gain and the Protestant cause.

Before he left for Germany, Gustavus also experimented with shortening and thinning the extremely heavy barrels of his cumbersome Murbräcker (“wall-breaker”) large-caliber siege guns. Murbräcker barrels were often inscribed with boasts of their special prowess in knocking down fortifications, praise for their royal owners or religious pieties that dominated Swedish (and German) service. Gustavus was not impressed. He trimmed barrel length to reduce haul-weight, as well as the number of horses or oxen and wagons of fodder needed to move his siege guns. He also cast innovative small-caliber cannon called “leather guns.” These were cast from iron, but lined with brass or copper and reinforced with alloy. Barrels were bound with wire and rope splints, then wrapped in canvas secured by wooden rings. Hard leather was nailed to the exterior. They weighed about 600 pounds, making them highly mobile as well as cheap. They became famous, but were not a true success. All-iron casting proved superior in the end, leading even Gustavus to prefer small regementsstycke (“regimental guns”) that then became standard. By around 1640, leather guns were retired by Sweden in favor of all-iron cannon, and only used after that by mercenaries returning to fight in the Wars of the Three Kingdoms (or English Civil Wars) in Scotland and Ireland. His less famous but more successful regimental guns were standardized one-and-a-half- and three-pounders. Although cast all in iron, they were light enough to be pulled by one or two horses, using a two-wheeled carriage that allowed off-road maneuvers before battle and repositioning of the artillery during battle, something no other army could then achieve. These excellent small cannon also had rates of fire exceeding the top rates of good musketeers. They gave Swedish armies more maneuverable firepower in battle than any other army of the time.

Gustavus understood the role of shock in combat, of delivering a stunning, smashing attack directly and bluntly into an enemy with the weight and force of a whole military unit. He maximized it by double-volley fire by infantry, hard charges by cavalry, and a range of big guns as well as small leather guns and regimental pieces. His light guns were supported by less mobile heavies standardized at 6-, 12- and 24-pound calibers. He also standardized charges and shot for each caliber. Powder was bagged in measured sacks, improving reload times, rate of fire and repeat-fire accuracy. Cannon traveled with the siege train hauled by large teams of draught animals, or moved by barge, the army marching down a river’s shore alongside the floating guns just as Maurits of Nassau had moved his big guns in Flanders. Other generals left their largest guns to follow their armies in cumbersome land-bound siege trains, intending to use them to batter forts or city walls. Their oversized and immobile cannon could be positioned just once in a field fight, at the start of a battle. Most enemy cannon were too big to reposition as the Swedes shifted out of the line of fire, leaving the big enemy guns uselessly misplaced while repositioning their own lighter field pieces. Gustavus made sure his light guns moved with his infantry and cavalry, always ready for deployment. In battle, he positioned the small-caliber regimental guns ahead of the infantry, moving them as his foot soldiers moved, uniquely able to shift position to cover a suddenly exposed flank, or sometimes to spring a trap with a battery deliberately hidden by a cavalry or infantry screen.

Gustavus adopted wheel-lock muskets that were much smaller and lighter than the heavy-caliber Spanish musket, a matchlock that required two men or a forked rest to fire. He greatly increased the proportion of musketeers to pikers in the ranks, enhancing infantry punching power. He even shortened pikes to 11 feet from the more common 18 to 21 feet, making his last pikers as light and maneuverable as the musketeers they protected from enemy horse. Three or four brigades formed a flexible, articulated, extended battle line. Each brigade subdivided into three squadrons of about 500 each, providing even more flexibility and chance to maneuver. Whenever flanked, Swedish infantry quickly articulated to bring musket volleys to bear from a newly right-angled line, along with easily repositioned one-and-a-half- or three-pounder guns. Reducing firing ranks to six and using double-volleys meant that all interior and back ranks had clear fields of fire, while each brigade was confident that half its number always stood ready with muskets loaded. Putting the regimental guns forward added killing range and firepower in mobile attack and defense.

Gustavus modeled his cavalry on superb Polish horse units, characteristic of Eastern European warfare but largely unknown in Western Europe. He stripped armor from men and mounts alike, fielding lighter horses and hussar-like cavalrymen dressed in hard leather and simple cloth. He replaced with sabers and lances the wheel-lock pistols used to such little effect in the tactic called caracole. That was a wheel-lock pistol-and-cavalry tactic prevalent in Western Europe in the 16th century, especially among German cavalry (Ritter). It had some use against units of pikers alone, but almost none against musketeers protected by pikers. The caracole abandoned the physical and psychological shock effect of the horse charge with lance or saber in favor of riding in short columns at a trot, one by one or two by two, up to a pike-and-musket hedge, discharging pistols (each rider carried a brace), then whirling away to reload at a safe distance before returning to fire weapons a second or third time. Since pistols had a range barely past ten feet, if that, and the average pike was 18–24 feet before Gustavus’ reforms, human nature encouraged shooting from outside effective range. The caracole thus presented great danger to attacking cavalry but offered little offensive punch against musket infantry. Trouble mounted, or rather dismounted rather violently, when aggressive infantry with hooked pikes or halberds attacked, or a musket volley hurtled lead at too carefully approaching horsemen.

Gustavus wanted shock restored, so horses in the Swedish cavalry were retrained to canter and gallop rather than caracole trot toward the enemy, while their riders were told to pull sabers and use lances, to reinstate the fearful cavalry charge of old. He thereby returned to the horse arm its ancient role in providing shock, but did it by favoring light cavalry speed over heavy cavalry mass. This reform took advantage of the widely noted Swedish martial ferocity and his cavalry’s desire to pursue a defeated enemy. The advantage was immense as long as other cavalry still deployed in overly dainty and ineffectual long columns to perform the caracole, only to be easily dispersed. In battle, his horse always deployed on the wings, where its first obligation was to block enemy cavalry from taking offensive action. Only secondly was it to exploit gaps or exposed flanks and any opportunity to attack created by the superior firepower of his hard-punching infantry, firing double volleys, and his mobile artillery occupying the flexible center of his line of battle.

Gustavus stressed pre-battle preparation and deliberation, but also an eager offensive spirit that sought to carry war to the enemy. He was among the first to employ recognizably modern techniques of combined arms by coordinating attacks by mutually supporting infantry, artillery and cavalry units. Similarly, he pioneered fire-and-movement tactics, while reviving the ancient principle of concentration of force at a chosen point of local superiority. The weight (and shock) of a Swedish attack came from the infantry and field artillery. Batteries of little guns peppered an enemy square or line with canister at intimate ranges, punching bloody gaps in opposing ranks. Then infantry closed to maximize the effect of their double musket volleys. After firing two or three salvoes at most, front ranks charged with short pikes level and muskets reversed and used as clubs. Through all this, three back ranks (countermarched into place) always stood ready to exploit a breakthrough or pivot to defend their brigade’s flanks, or to counterattack if arrayed for defense. Always the cavalry hovered, light and able and lethal. Skilled Swedish armies could do terrible violence to more staid and conservative enemies. It was awful and brilliant all at once.

When Gustavus was done remaking and reforming the Swedish army, it was one of the finest and most deadly of the era: well-drilled and disciplined, infused with a conjoined spirit of martial patriotism and fervent Protestantism, and uniquely able to shift from offense to defense with a battle speed and efficiency unmatched by any other force in Europe. He tested its mettle, and his generalship, in Poland. In 1627, he attacked Danzig. At Dirschau (August 17–18), then in Pomerania but today called Tczew and in Poland, he was seriously wounded in the neck and arm but won the field. This was one of several times where the young king led from the front. He was nearly killed, and was defeated as well, at Stuhm (Sztum) on June 27, 1629, in what is today northern Poland. Gustavus withdrew to recover from his wounds, prepare fixed defenses and reconsider the campaign. The wily éminence rouge in Paris, Cardinal Richelieu, took advantage of the lull to arrange the Truce of Altmark with Poland’s Sigismund III, who agreed to renounce his claim to the Swedish throne. It was 1630, and Gustavus was at last ready to enter the war in Germany, which was going badly for the Protestant princes. His alliance with France gave him yet more incentive: a subsidy of 400,000 thalers annually and a powerful ally on the other side of the Holy Roman Empire. Protestants across Germany and Europe begged him to be their champion. As did Cardinal Richelieu, although he was pursuing secular and monarchical raison d’état for France in open opposition to Catholic Habsburg power in Vienna and Madrid.

Gustavus appeared to be a sincere Lutheran, leading troops in singing hymns as they marched into battle and ordering prayers said twice daily by the whole army under the supervision of pastors he assigned to each brigade. Accepting Richelieu’s mediation of his old dispute with Poland so that he could move into Germany instead, Gustavus took his Swedish version of a 17th-century new model army into the Thirty Years’ War, singing Lutheran hymns along the way. His Nordic blend of piety, drill and black-powder aggression would give his armies unusual discipline and cohesion in combat. Napoleon later compared him to Alexander the Great, naming Gustavus as one of the first of the modern great captains. The comparison seems exaggerated, even if, like Alexander, he would be cut off in the flower of his military prowess, killed leading a wild battle charge in Germany in 1632.

He landed at Peenemünde in July 1630, with just 14,000 men. He had 80 field guns to go along with larger siege cannon. The ratio of nearly 10 artillery pieces per 1,000 men in his army compared to just one cannon per 1,000 men for the Imperials. Despite his reforms, he could only rely on about 10,000 fresh Swedish recruits each year, so around the hard national army core of well-trained Swedes he wrapped mercenaries as he proceeded into Germany. With a smaller war chest than his Imperial foes, he needed even more to make war pay for itself by battening and billeting his army on other people’s estates and cities. He moved deliberately, gathering intelligence, conserving combat power, growing his forces, knowing he did not have strength enough to force the issue all at once. All the same, as the inherently weaker side, Gustavus kept the option of an aggressive battle in his pocket, ready to take it out if opportunity presented.

So began the Swedish intervention in the Thirty Years’ War that was to change its course, turning it away from the Catholic-Habsburg victory that loomed in 1630 toward the confessional stalemate and negotiated secular peace of 1648. Gustavus’ spectacular success in the two years that followed, lasting until his death at Lützen in 1632, arose less from any battlefield tactical genius than from intense advance preparation of the army and from his acute sense of weaknesses in the enemy’s psychology and politics. He exploited flaws he saw in his enemies positions, but not always or even mainly by hard action driven by a coup d’oeil, that quality some great generals have of seeing immediately to the essence of a how a fight will develop, based perhaps on an innate ability to read terrain and position and the balance of available forces. He had that natural commander’s gift, but he waged campaigns more by way of threat and daring maneuvers and long marches. He repeatedly got his army behind the main enemy force, causing Habsburg generals to rush back to defend some important holding or damp down the emperor’s fright in Vienna. It was a variation of old-style war by maneuver by the mercenaries, but always with a sting of battle at the ready should the enemy flag or challenge. Like all superior generals he was flexible in tactics and operations rather than committed to a system, with an eye always on the strategic goal. He would fight battles if needed, but preferred to achieve gains by marching against the enemy’s supplies whenever possible. He used armies to threaten Habsburg political and prestige interests as much as he threatened their hired soldiers and stiff artillery fortresses. He saw battle and maneuver as closely related, not as opposing strategic choices, all one or all the other.

In search of food and fodder Gustavus moved beyond Pomerania, which was already eaten out. He followed the rivers of northern Germany, subjugating and garrisoning towns, securing rearward lines of supply and contributions and putting a territorial buffer between Sweden and its enemies. Then he settled in for the winter, recruiting and training tens of thousands of German (and Scots and Irish and other) mercenaries in his reformed—rather than Reformation—way of war. Winter increased his strength but exacerbated logistics, forcing him onto the road with the spring thaw of 1631. He marched into Brandenburg to feed his army and force its elector to join the war. He ambled south, taking the fortress of Cüstrin (Kostrzyn nad Odrą), then westward to Berlin to reduce the fortress at Spandau. That secured the confluences of the major navigable rivers of north Germany, which he needed in order to shift guns and supplies by barge toward the southern Habsburg heartlands. On April 13, he stormed Frankfurt an der Oder, smashing eight Imperial regiments and slaughtering a third of its 6,400-man garrison in reprisal for earlier Catholic atrocities. With his army shrunken by wounds and illness and the needs of spread-out occupation and resupply, he could not reach or relieve Magdeburg, a major Protestant center under siege by a large Catholic-Habsburg army. Without Gustavus to protect it, Magdeburg’s walls were breached and its population put to the sword, starting on May 20, 1631. Some 20,000 died in a guerre mortelle revenge for resistance, killed by Imperial troops and the allied Army of the Catholic League, led by General Johann Tserclaes, Count von Tilly.

Magdeburg was the worst atrocity of the Thirty Years’ War and became the benchmark for all later 17th-century atrocities, echoing across Europe for decades; the city remained largely a ruin until 1720. At the time, the sack of Magdeburg strengthened Gustavus by raising levels of fear and resolve among Protestants everywhere: pamphleteers kept printing presses rolling with lurid tales and fine etchings of horror. Meanwhile, Gustavus cleared Pomerania of Imperial armies and garrisons, then marched into Saxony, forcing it into the war. Now he was ready to meet Tilly and the Army of the Catholic League in battle. Between July 22 and 28, 1631, he waited for the Catholic League army, blocking the road north at Werben with 16,000 entrenched Swedes. Tilly blundered into the position and attacked with his heavy tercios, twice in six days. Repulsed by firepower from double volleys and regimental guns, Tilly left over 6,000 dead in front of the fieldworks at Werben. He withdrew into Saxony on the twin mission of eating out Gustavus’ new but always reluctant ally and to bind his own army’s wounds while feeding his men with Protestant grain, sheep and wine.


Moreover, U.S. armor specialists found that in war game activities and rehearsals, 12 mph was an optimal speed for an M1A1 Abrams MBT to advance in terms of maximizing both accuracy and in keeping the armored “battle box” formation composed of various field equipment together and synchronized. More specifically, the 12-mph speed for the Abrams tank was one of several smoothly riding interfaces between gear ratios, which provided for optimal firing stability. While there were additional smooth riding points at faster speeds, the 12-mph interface was preferable for linear formations of unlike vehicles in a brigade or a battalion in order to facilitate movement cohesion during an advance. Moreover, controlled speed maximized the opportunity to exploit the superior range of the Abrams, as one preferred to fire when an enemy T-72 was in range (3,000 meters); yet, with the Abrams out of range of the enemy’s gun (1,500 meters). Moving too fast in an Abrams with enemy armor buried in the sand to offset thermo imagery advantages by the American crew, one could happen upon a T-72 at 1,200 meters before actually sighting the tank. Thus, speed had to be carefully calibrated in order not to forfeit the competitive advantage in range, accuracy, and lethality.

Because the M1A1 rode smoothly at that speed [12 mph] its gyro-stabilization was optimized and the tank could fire accurately while moving—this yielded yet another operational capability unheard of in earlier wars: the uninterrupted advance of a great mass of armor firing accurately on the move into a defender who could not hope to achieve the same range or accuracy even from fixed or surveyed positions.

For the first time in history, massed forces were able to coordinate movement through Middle Eastern deserts, to include night maneuver and converge on targets in achieving tactical surprise. The Global Positioning System made possible by U.S. satellites operating in space created a military capability that was unknown to Iraqi commanders during Desert Sabre. This advantage was apparent during the Battle of 73 Easting on February 26, when nine M1A1 Abrams and 12 Bradley fighting vehicles of the U.S. 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment were tasked with scouting and establishing contact with the main Republican Guard defenses in order to provide battlefield intelligence to headquarters.

The three squadrons of the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment came across forward elements of the Tawakalna Infantry (Mechanized) Division of the Republican Guard Forces Command (RGFC) not by road but by crossing the desert. The commander of the Republican Guard units, not knowing the Americans could navigate the desert using satellite signals, and at night, had expected the United States to utilize the roads in their advance. As such, he positioned his forces to defend against an approach via the only road available.

The Iraqi commander thought it ideal ground from which to defend. Unaware that the American units had received global positioning systems, he assumed they would move along roads to avoid becoming lost in the featureless desert, thus he organized his defense along the road by fortifying the village with anti-aircraft guns (used in ground-mode), machine guns, and infantry. The defense was fundamentally sound. He took advantage of an imperceptible rise in the terrain that ran perpendicular to the road and directly through the village to organize a “reverse slope” defense on the east side of that ridge. He built two engagement areas, or kill sacks, on the east side of the ridge, north and south of the village, emplaced minefields to disrupt forward movement and dug in approximately 40 tanks and 16 BMPs (infantry fighting vehicles) about 1,000 yards from the ridge, and destroy U.S. forces piecemeal as they moved across the crest.

Coming out of the desert from a direction the Iraqi commander did not think possible, U.S. forces caught the Republican Guard units (Tawakalna Division) by surprise. “In just 23 minutes E Troop destroyed approximately 50 T-72s, 25 armored personnel carriers, 40 trucks and numerous other vehicles, without suffering any casualties.”

In addition to the other technological advantages offered by the American Abrams MBT (Chobham armor, low profile, speed, range, and accuracy) was the depleted uranium high-performance M829A1 Service Sabot tank shell. U.S. crews used only training rounds in war games and rehearsals. Operation Desert Sabre was the first time they were allowed to utilize the Sabot tank shell. Any trajectory expectations for ranging the round that occurred during training fell by the wayside, as U.S. crews found the Sabot to be straight and flat as it was fired at their targets. Given that U.S. tanks could acquire and hit their opponents operating Soviet-supplied T-72s at 2,500 to 3,000 meters while the T-72s’ maximum range was 1,500 meters, Iraqi tank crews opted to strategically position their tanks in ambush, burying much of the tank in earth with only the turret visible to reduce the thermo-imaging capability of the American tanks.


The preferred option for Republican Guard tank crews was to position their tanks on the downward rise of terrain, which blocked the Americans’ ability to optically range (see and target) forward. Thus, the U.S. tanks would move forward, climbing the slight rise without being able to detect the Iraqi tanks, which for a critical few minutes would be below the Americans’ line of sight yet targetable by the Iraqi armor laying in ambush. Once the United States arrived at the crest of the rise and was prepared to descend along the downward slope, the Iraqis who had previously positioned their tanks between 500 and 1,500 meters from the crest would have the opportunity of firing first—prior to the Abrams range finder acquiring the now firing T-72. The sand surrounding the T-72, essentially burying the tank in sand except for the turret and gun, served to mask the thermal signature being emitted by the tank and its crew.

This tactic used quick speeds being generated by the Abrams to the advantage for the Iraqis, as U.S. armor moved swiftly forward on a rise without first detecting the presence of buried tanks. As the United States moved across the crest, the Iraqi gunners opened up. Thus, since the Iraqis intended to exploit the Americans’ penchant for speed, U.S. armor commanders found that a useful remedy to these traps was to proceed with caution while seeking to establish, in advance, the Iraqi ambush positions. This often required working jointly with Apache gunships and USAF A-10 close air support jets (Warthogs) as well as with surveillance aircraft and other equipment providing overhead imagery. When in doubt, a default position was relying on the established optimum speed for large formation advances and firing: 12 mph, which allowed the United States and their allies to carefully scout forward. Conversely to what armor units had learned in training and rehearsals, Schwarzkopf and his staff’s operational design was less concerned about losing a limited number of tanks than about losing the Republican Guard as a whole if the left hook did not trap them in the KTO. And to trap the Guard in the KTO would require speeds faster than 12 mph, particularly since CENTCOM planning assumptions included the need to keep armor operations under 100 hours.

Thus, at the strategic level, U.S. policymakers did not wish to allow Saddam to escape with his fangs intact (the Guard’s armor). This would only invite further strategic and operational problems in the not too distant future enabling Saddam to survive in a post–Desert Storm Iraq as well as keeping within his tool kit the military capacity for future operations against Saudi Arabia. For Franks, in command of the VII Corps, an additional operational planning assumption was important as well—the need to keep American casualties to a minimum. Franks’s assumption was not only tactically and morally sound but also that, at the strategic level, limited U.S. casualties would limit Saddam’s ability to use the casualties to discourage the American public. Schwarzkopf and his Jedi Knights obviously sought to keep U.S. and coalition casualties to a minimum as well.

Within the different levels of the continuum of war (strategy, operations, tactics), ideally one seeks to maximize unity of effort. In reality, as was the case with Desert Storm, there is a propensity for friction and significant disagreement regarding assumptions, methods, and how to arrive at the initially agreed-upon aims.

At the operational level, one seeks to organize, maintain, and execute with the commander’s intent (Schwarzkopf) as laid out in the operational design or campaign plan. As combat intensifies, previously constructed plans in some briefing room away from the battlefield seem less relevant to the troops and their commanders now under fire. However difficult, tactical execution (Franks) must align with the theater or operational goals, which in turn are aligned with strategic intent and aims. While it may seem at times illogical to follow strategically derived objectives usually generated by civilian political leaders, one needs to keep in mind that even Carl von Clausewitz recognized this main operative principle regarding the conduct of war: “War is a continuation of policy by other means.” Those policies, theoretically, have been rationally derived, and thus, the conduct of war must adhere to rationally designed state policy. If it does not, it has the tendency to devolve into unrelated chaotic violence unaccountable and unhinged from its original rational purpose.

In short, there is, or ought to be, a strong preference for tactical leaders in following the operational plan or design as laid out by the operational or theater commander. It becomes incumbent on tactical commanders subordinate to the theater commander to closely adhere to the plan. However, in the Western tradition, and adding to the difficulties, there is also a preference for instilling in tactical commanders an ability for independent decision making on the dispersed battlefield, which in turn generates swiftness of decisive action by allowing flexibility and adaptability contributing to commanders and troops’ ability to operate inside an opponent’s OODA-Loop. While the Western tactical commander, trained for adaptability, flexibility, and the ability to execute effectively (Auftragstaktik), within the fog and friction of war, is positioned to outperform his or her opponent(s), such independent mindedness can also move beyond the parameters of the operational plan. This is why the communication of the operational commander’s original intent is critical in achieving unity of effort and unity of command while allowing tactical subordinates needed flexibility.


These dynamics were clearly on display in the run-up to and action in the Battle of al-Busayyah (Iraq) on February 26, 1991. The operational plan for VII Corps in Desert Sabre called for bypassing pockets of resistance in the timely pursuit, entrapment, and destruction of the Republican Guard. The VII Corps, as planned, would push north 100 miles to the town of al-Busayyah then pivot eastward and seek out and destroy the Guard. However, upon approaching al-Busayyah, the commander of the U.S. 1st Armored Division (subordinate command of Franks’s VII Corps), Major General Robert Griffith, realized his line of march, as he approached al-Busayyah in the afternoon of February 25, and took his command directly through the town.

While the town had been strafed and rocketed previously by Apache gunships, al-Busayyah remained actively defended by Iraqi infantry supported by tanks and mechanized armor (Soviet BMPs) still in defensive positions and with orders to protect the town as it served as the headquarters of the Iraqi 26th Infantry Division. Realizing the operational plan was to bypass such an obstacle, Griffith consulted with his superior, General Franks, and requested time to reduce the town in order to enable the 1st Armored to proceed without leaving a force (however small) in its rear to potentially disrupt supply and lines of communication back to bases in Saudi Arabia. Franks concurred with Griffith’s decision. On the morning of February 26, the 1st Armored fired 1,500 artillery shells and 350 rockets at the Iraqi positions. The surviving Iraqi soldiers obstinately refused to surrender. At the core of the defenders was an Iraqi Special Forces battalion that, in coordination with a regular Iraqi infantry battalion, two armored brigades, and one company of T-55 tanks, remained ensconced in their positions although in a somewhat reduced state following the 1st Armored artillery and rocket barrage.

Schwarzkopf, famous throughout the U.S. Army for a temper that brought him the moniker “Stormin Norman,” was none too pleased. Griffith, now under orders from Franks, who had received pointed directions from Schwarzkopf to move forward, left a small tank force to deal with the obstinate Iraqi defenders, as U.S. airpower was brought to bear on an approaching Iraqi relief column aiming to reinforce the defenders at al-Busayyah. The Iraqi relief column never made it.

The tension and friction between the three levels of war are present even among the most competent of political leaders, strategic-level military commanders, and their operational and tactical commanders. An advantage for the coalition during Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm/Desert Sabre was the level of experience and competence of the political leadership of the United States coupled with the unparalleled military proficiency of the officers and men (and women) who served in the coalition. The level of competence and experience was mirrored by the British, French, and within the ranks of many of the Arab coalition partners.

Franks and Schwarzkopf remained at odds and offered dueling accounts in the years that preceded Desert Storm/Desert Sabre. The U.S. system with the expectation of the primacy of the operational plan and commander’s intent juxtaposed with a strong preference for flexible, independent decision making among both senior and junior officers was the main cause of the friction rather than either of the two outstanding U.S. commanders, who, in pursuing their duty as they had been trained, brought about one of the most remarkable ground campaigns in either American or world history.

In the end, over a period of 43 days of offensive operations, Desert Storm/Desert Sabre rained destruction upon Saddam’s armed forces. Forty-two Iraqi Divisions were either destroyed or degraded to the point of being unable to conduct combat operations. Additionally, the entire Iraqi navy was sunk, and 50 percent of Iraqi combat aircraft were destroyed or forced into Iran, while 82,000 Iraqi troops were taken prisoners.

When the air operations started I had 39 tanks. After 38 days of the air battle I had 32 tanks. After 20 minutes against the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment, I had zero tanks.

The success of allied forces in Operation Desert Storm convinced the Soviets that integration of control, communications, electronic combat and delivery of conventional fires had been realized for the first time.

Arab forces, in an apparent nod by the Americans toward public diplomacy, were the first to enter a liberated Kuwait City, as thousands of Iraqi forces attempted to escape north along Highway 8 only to be met by strafing and bombing runs conducted by coalition aircraft. As the images of the carnage made it into the international media with the headlines of “the highway of death,” President Bush called a halt to combat operations. The coalition ground campaign, Operation Desert Sabre, lasted from February 24 to February 28, when a cessation of hostilities was declared by coalition forces, for a total of 114 hours.

It never appeared in the press or in public discussions, but the Israeli finding in the 1967 Six-Day War—that armor combat operations have about 100 hours’ window of opportunity before maintenance issues and expected breakdowns begin to interfere perceptibly with operations—was part of the planning assumptions. This is not to say that this dynamic was solely responsible for constraining U.S. armor to 100 hours of combat drive time. With the escape north of the Hammurabi Republican Guard Division and the open media coverage of the carnage along the “highway of death,” as conscripted Iraqi young men facing strafing runs by coalition aircraft tried to escape from the KTO, U.S. NCA believed the time was right to end the bloodshed.

Moreover, there was concern within the coalition that operations that extended beyond the original UN mandate of removing Iraqi occupation troops from Kuwait would lead to a fracturing of the unity that had thus far been achieved. The remarkable unity of the vast coalition of nations in support of Desert Shield and Desert Storm was a fundamental strength for combat operations, and many considered it a center of gravity for both campaigns. The Iraqi leadership rightly sought to degrade and neutralize this center of gravity. Additionally, while the coalition enjoyed world-class harbor facilities and a massive logistical effort to maintain a coalition that numbered in the hundreds of thousands, the fact remained that by chasing the fleeing Iraqi army north into Iraq itself would have reduced supply capabilities and opened up vulnerabilities, as combat forces became extended and quite possibly fractured the coalition.

Logistic units were hard pressed to keep up with the rapid pace of maneuver units. Both logistics structure and doctrine were found wanting in the high temp offensive operation. HET and off-road truck mobility were limited, and MSRs into Iraq few and constricted. Had the operation lasted longer, maneuver forces would have out run their fuel and other support.

On a daily basis the supply and logistical requirements of Desert Storm/Desert Sabre were 62,500 cases of Meals-Ready-To-Eat (MREs), 9 million gallons of water, 4,800 fuel tankers with 5,000 gallon capacities, and 450 tractor trailer loads of other supplies. By the end of Desert Storm/Desert Sabre, U.S. forces alone (532,000 personnel) consumed 95,000 tons of ammunition and 1.7 billion gallons of fuel.

A Glimpse into the Future

Salamander prototype at Brooklands

Having blunted Germany’s last drives for victory, Foch was anxious to get the Allied armies moving forwards. Haig was anxious to give his forces defending Amiens a little more room for manoeuvre and his plan to push German forces back became the first instalment of Foch’s grand counteroffensive. The attack was set for 8 August. Tanks were to play a key role in helping the infantry smash the German forward defences, but to get maximum benefit from them, a way had to be found of dealing with the improvised anti-tank artillery the Germans had used with increasing success during the Cambrai operation.

Anti-tank guns were difficult to spot, and to see if the air force could help in any way, No. 8 Army Corps Squadron, commanded by Major Trafford Leigh-Mallory, who commanded Allied air units in the 1944 Normandy landings, was attached to the Tank Corps. Aircrews demonstrated they could spot anti-tank guns, but passing the information on to the tanks by wireless proved impractical, while calling in artillery proved impossible as the guns only engaged the tanks at short range. Trials in March, however, demonstrated that there was no reason why Leigh-Mallory’s machines should not eliminate as well as locate the guns. During a small-scale action at Hamel, his squadron accompanied the tanks and successfully identified and eliminated at least one enemy battery and helped beat off several infantry counterattacks. Leigh-Mallory’s squadron became a permanent attachment to the Tank Corps.

The Amiens attack was spearheaded by over 500 tanks, supporting seven British, Australian and Canadian divisions of the 4th Army, with French forces covering their right flank and 800 RAF and 1,100 French planes providing air support. In the air, the German air force had less than 400 planes, but they included the new Fokker D.VII. Initially, the light bombers were to strike at enemy airfields and fighter-bombers would support the infantry and tanks. In line with Foch’s preference for fighters to be employed for ground attack wherever possible, all eight fighter squadrons attached to the 4th Army were to be used in this role while the five day fighter squadrons of the HQ 9th Brigade provided cover. Four fighter squadrons of the 3rd Brigade to the north were ready to assist if required. The assault would begin with the now standard short, sharp artillery barrage. It was anticipated that the movement of German reserves would be in full swing towards the end of the first day; to disrupt these efforts, bomber and fighter-bomber squadrons would switch their attention from the battlefield to the key railway stations at Péronne and Chaulnes.

The attack began at 4.20 a.m. on 8 August. The artillery barrage did not begin until the infantry and tanks had started moving forwards, and complete surprise was achieved. Early morning mists prevented any of the planned close air support taking place and severely disrupted attacks on German airfields, but for the infantry it was once again priceless protection. The defenders immediately started reeling back and when the mists lifted at 9.00 a.m., Allied troops had already advanced up to three miles and the German defences were in considerable disarray. Setting off in pairs at regular intervals, fighter-bomber pilots found a host of targets among the retreating German forces. Losses were heavy: No. 201 Squadron alone lost no less than seven Camels in the morning’s fighting, but the tactics appeared to have worked. As at Cambrai, the sudden appearance of so many tanks and the continuous low-level strafing and bombing proved too much for the front line German units. By early afternoon, marauding armoured cars were shooting up a German headquarters at Framerville, seven miles behind the front line. The German forces were in retreat, but this was no orderly withdrawal. German commanders were hearing stories of troops laying down their weapons and fleeing, openly expressing the pointlessness of continuing the war. By the end of the day, the advance stretched up to eight miles and an unprecedented 16,000 prisoners of war had been taken. The German Army appeared to be on the point of disintegrating—for Ludendorff, it was a ‘black day’ in the history of the German Army. The Allies seemed to be on the verge of achieving a breakthrough as dramatic as the Germans had achieved in their spring offensive. Instead, the attack stalled and the opportunity disappeared, which some would later argue was the result of a crucial change of plan on the opening day.

At midday on 8 August, with the Germans in full retreat, instead of targeting Péronne and Chaulnes stations to prevent the arrival of reinforcements, it was decided to destroy the bridges over the Somme, some fifteen to twenty miles behind the front. This would cut off the line of retreat, trapping German forces on the west bank of the river where they would be destroyed. It was a bold plan. From early afternoon, all fighter-bombers supporting the advance and the bomber squadrons that were going to attack the railway stations were thrown against the bridges.

For the next two days, the RFC flew repeated missions against the dozen or so bridges from Péronne to Ham. Attacking fixed and well-defined targets in the enemy rear would prove to be a very different proposition to harrying retreating and disorganised forces on the battlefield. Once the bridges became the target, German fighter squadrons knew exactly where to find the enemy. To have any chance of hitting such small targets, the bombers had to fly low; Fokker D.VIIs tore into the hapless D.H.4 and D.H.9 formations. Those that managed to get their bombs on target found that the bridges made particularly unrewarding targets. To cause any damage, direct hits were required, which even from low-altitude were rare, and the largest bomb available (the 112-lb bomb) was not powerful enough to have much of an impact. As bomber losses rose, fighter-bombers were switched from attacking the bridges to escort duties. Eventually, nearly 500 fighters, about 70 per cent of RAF fighter strength, were operating in the area, but the British fighters were completely outclassed by the Fokker D.VII and bomber losses continued to mount. No bridges were destroyed; instead, they were used by reinforcements arriving to stabilise the front rather than by a fleeing German Army. Meanwhile at the front, the advance was slowing. Less progress was made on 9 August and by 10 August the advance had ground to a halt. While the RAF was focusing on the bridges, the German air force was controlling the skies over the battlefield and Allied troops were now the victims of low-flying aircraft. On the ground, German reinforcements were arriving in strength, Allied casualties were rising, and Haig felt he had to suspend the advance until more artillery could be brought up.

In the years to come, critics would claim that if the railway stations had remained the target, these reinforcements would not have arrived and a glorious breakthrough would have been achieved. Cleary, the destruction of either the stations or the bridges would have been very useful, even decisive. Railway stations are easier targets to hit than bridges, but previous experience provided little evidence that attacks on these would be any more successful. The truth was that the RAF did not have the means to destroy bridges or stations. Arguably, it was not the switching of the bombers to the bridges that was most significant; it was the parallel decision to remove close support from the advancing tanks and infantry. The support the RAF was providing on the battlefield was one of the reasons for the initial collapse of German morale; it was withdrawn just as the tanks and infantry were beginning to move beyond effective artillery range and needed it even more. The advance was slowing even before the first German reinforcements arrived.

There were many reasons apart from the lack of air support for the slowing of the advance. Tank losses were very heavy. On the morning of 9 August, only 145 tanks remained serviceable. The German anti-tank guns were taking their toll and Leigh-Mallory’s No. 8 Squadron was clearly not sufficient to deal with the threat. Charlton, the commander of the RAF 5th Brigade, believed it was the inability to eliminate the German guns that prevented an ‘irresistible’ advance, which was perhaps rather overstating the case. In reality, the mechanical unreliability of the tanks was at least as significant a factor as their vulnerability to enemy fire. However, if the advancing troops and tanks had continued to get more substantial close support on the battlefield, the advance might have maintained enough momentum to ensure the arriving reinforcements did not have time to establish a defensive foothold.

In truth, the offensive was probably doomed to achieve little more than an initial success. The Army had no clear strategic objective beyond the limited tactical aim of pushing the enemy back. By attacking the bridges, the RAF was trying to do what the Army should have done—to sweep round the enemy rear and block the line of retreat. In its search for a grander and more significant role, the air force was making the mistake of drifting beyond the immediate battlefield and attempting tasks that were beyond its capabilities. In the end, all it proved was that air power tends to be less effective when trying to achieve results on its own. It was on the battlefield, in concert with other arms, that the Allied air forces had their best chance of making a difference. Airpower could have supported an Army drive to cut off the enemy retreat, but it could not substitute for one. It was the Army that needed to be more imaginative.

Following the Amiens assault, Haig seemed prepared to be more imaginative. He urged his commanders to be bolder in future offensives and strike deeper into the enemy rear—no longer was it necessary to advance on a continuous front. Commanders should reinforce success rather than units that were being held up, and advances should not be slowed for fear of counterattacks on exposed flanks. It was a bold vision, one in which air power was capable of providing the mobile firepower such adventure would require, but after four years of heavy losses, it was a brave general who would risk throwing caution to the wind. It had backfired far too often in the past and it is perhaps not surprising that Foch settled for a more cautious approach. Instead of bold strikes in the enemy rear, offensives with limited objectives would follow each other at different points on the front. Once one had stated to lose momentum, another would be launched. The aim was to continue pushing the enemy back rather than destroy him.

If close air support was to continue to play an important role in these offensives, a way had to be found of reducing losses to ground fire. Armour was one solution and in the wake of the Amiens offensive, the more heavily armoured Salamander, rather than the lightly armed Camel TF1, found itself back in favour. The prototype Salamander had flown in April and in May was sent to France for trials. Pilots were generally favourable, and considering its weight, they felt the plane handled fairly well. It was as manoeuvrable as the Bristol Fighter and below 10,000 feet ‘could almost be used for fighting an Albatros Scout’, which was perhaps a little optimistic. The first Salamander squadron was due to arrive in France by mid-September.

Armour, however, was not the only way of reducing losses. The commander of the 22nd Wing saw a tactical rather than a technical solution. He noted that in the early stages of an attack, when the enemy might be expected to be confused, losses tended to be light; in these circumstances, widespread and indiscriminate air support seemed justified. Losses only rose as the defences became more organised, and in these circumstances it was better to use air support in a more focused way, meeting specific requests to eliminate particular strongpoints holding up an advance, or help beat off counterattacks, rather than roaming the battlefield looking for targets. During the Amiens attack, there had been many examples of planes spotting targets for fighter-bombers, but no procedure equivalent to the artillery call system existed to direct aircraft to these targets. Information could only be passed on after the corps plane had finished its mission and landed, by which time it was usually too late. There was a clear case for bringing air support in line with artillery support, and to do this a Central Information Bureau (CIB) was set up to collate requests for support and pass on suitable targets to the artillery or fighter-bomber squadrons, whichever was more appropriate. New instructions stated that in future ‘…wireless calls will largely control the action of low-flying scouts subsequent to zero hour. This system marks a large stride in the direction of close co-operation in battle.’ Indeed it did. To produce an even faster response, it was suggested the reporting corps plane could fire a flare of predetermined colour in the direction of the target on the off chance there were fighter-bombers in the vicinity. It was in essence the cab-rank system developed in the Second World War, lacking only the lightweight wireless equipment that forward troops and fighters might be able to carry into action to provide a more efficient way of passing on target information.

It was the air/tank combination that was generating most excitement. The tank was the only means of carrying wireless equipment on to the battlefield, but communicating with aircraft overhead was proving difficult. However, once these problems were overcome, Leigh-Mallory envisaged huge possibilities for air supported armoured warfare. To increase the strike capability available to the tanks, the Camel fighter-bombers of No. 71 Squadron joined No. 8 Squadron on attachment to the Tank Corps.

There would be plenty of opportunities to develop these ideas in the coming months. With increasing numbers of American troops arriving, the Allies had the resources to maintain the offensive and stretch the German Army. The advance would be remorseless and steady rather than dramatic and decisive. It was still very much a war of attrition, but at least one where Allied soldiers were constantly moving forwards, and it was a war that the Franco-British-American alliance knew they would inevitably win.

The different approaches to providing close air support for the various British contributions to Foch’s offensive would demonstrate how thinking was still very much in a state of flux. Significantly, the level of support tended to be on a lower scale than had been possible during the Amiens attack, mainly because an increasingly higher proportion of the available fighter strength had to be used to counter the growing threat of the Fokker D.VII. For the 3rd Army’s assault on 21 August, each of the three attacking corps would be supported by just one fighter-bomber squadron with a fourth attached to the Tanks Corps; the rest of the fighter force would provide air cover. The support for the infantry was indirect with each squadron sending off pairs of fighters at half-hourly intervals throughout the day to patrol the roads that local reinforcements were likely to take. The Camels supporting the Tank Corps provided much closer battlefield support, engaging enemy anti-tank guns holding up the advance.

Twenty-Fourth Tank Corps of 1st Guards Army in the Tatsinskaya Raid, December 1942




Red Christmas
The Tatsinskaya Airfield Raid 1942

On 19 November 1942 Soviet forces launched their carefully prepared counter-offensive against the over-extended German, Rumanian, and Italian forces which had pushed to the frontiers of Asia. By 24 November the Red Army had encircled the German 6th Army, elements of the 4th Panzer Army in Stalingrad itself and to the west, destroyed the 4th Rumanian Army, pushed back the 3rd Rumanian Army to the River Chir and created a gap between the Germany Army Group B in the north and Army Group A in the Caucasus. On the same day Hitler declared that Stalingrad was to be a `fortress’, to maintain its position relying on air resupply which Goering had promised with colossal over-optimism.

This air resupply line presented a clear parallel with the railway lines of former wars. The German forces in the pocket required 600 tonnes of resupply for normal existence with 300 tonnes as the bare minimum. Bad weather, Soviet anti-aircraft guns, and fighters combined to prevent even this being attained, the average daily delivery being just over 100 tonnes. From the relative safety of the Germany Army Group, or so the Germans thought, `Don’ aircraft would leave Tatsinskaya airfield, with about 40 kilometres to the next field south of Morozovsk, then another 40 to one south of Chernishkovskiy, and then 150 kilometres over Soviet-held territory to the beleaguered pocket itself.

During the course of the November counter-offensive the Soviet Supreme High Command had initiated plans for a more wide-ranging operation by forces of the South-West Front and the left wing of the Voronezh Front to destroy the enemy on the middle Don and to pursue the offensive towards Kamensk and Rostov. This operation was to be called `Saturn’, and involved the destruction of the 8th Italian Army, the operational group `Hollidt’ and the remnants of the 3rd Rumanian Army. However, the offensive by the Germany Army Group `Don’ with the aim of relieving Stalingrad, which began on 12 December forced the Soviet High Command to revise its plan. Instead of a deep strike against Rostov, the Soviets now planned to send their main forces south east to destroy Army Group `Don’. This was called `Little Saturn’. First and Third Guards Armies of the South-West Front would form two encircling pincers, one striking from south of Verkhny Mamon and the other from Bokovskiy, and converging on Tatsinskaya and Morozovsk. Sixth Army of the Voronezh Front (transferred to the SouthWest Front on 19 December) would support the main attack from the west. Tatsinskaya was a target both because of its nature as an air and rail communications centre and because of its position in relation to the forces engaged.

The Middle Don operation began on 16 December. The objective was to destroy the encircled enemy groupings on the southern bank of the Don by day four. The tank and mechanized corps would take the lead in particular 1st Guards Army’s 24th Tank Corps which was given Tatsinskaya as its objective to be taken by 24 December and 25th Tank Corps, targeted on Morozovsk, the other key airfield on the Stalingrad route. These objectives were clearly defined before the offensive, as was that of 6th Army’s 17th Tank Corps, which was to cover the right flank and drive for Kantemirovka. Seventeenth Tank Corps would then continue to the airfield at Millerovo, which it would attack in concert with 18th Tank Corps by 24 December.

Meanwhile, from 12 December, prior to the operation, Soviet Front aviation (17th Air Army) launched attacks on Millerovo and Tatsinskaya airfields and the railroad junction at Likhaya. Immediately before the operation they attacked Tatsinskaya, Morozovsk and the railroad between the latter and Likhaya. Night bombers attacked enemy headquarters and reserves.

First Guards Army was deployed in two echelons for the attack, the three Tank corps (18th, 24th, 25th) forming the second `breakthrough exploitation echelon’. The Tank Corps themselves were also deployed in two echelons before their insertion. Eighteenth and 25th Corps were committed to battle on 17 December and 24th Corps on 18 December. The latter coincided with the collapse of 8th Italian Army two days after the beginning of the Soviet offensive. Twenty-fourth Tank Corps under Major-General Badanov tore into the gap created by the Italian collapse and on towards its distant objective. By 19 December, 17th, 18th, 24th and 25th Tank and 1st Mechanized Corps were cutting through German support elements and driving south-east in order to cut off the enemy’s withdrawal routes to the south-west.

German air made strenuous efforts to check the swift advance of 24th and 25th Tank Corps. On 24 December alone the Luftwaffe launched 500 sorties against 25th Tank Corps. By this time, the mobile groups were over 100 kilometres ahead of their supporting infantry, and had covered a total distance of up to 240 kilometres.

Supplies for the Stalingrad pocket were brought into Tatsinskaya by both air and rail. They were stockpiled on the airfield and at the train station. Defending this key point were some 120 men of 62nd infantry division. The Germans had, apparently, realized that Soviet mobile forces might interrupt operations, but requests to move the airlift further west were refused. There were 180 Ju-52 transport planes on the field which, together with the He-111 bombers at the Morozovsk airfield, comprised the entire airflift capability for the Stalingrad pocket. At 0530 on Christmas Eve the tank corps’ artillery opened up with a brief barrage, after which Soviet tanks rushed the airfield.

Twenty-fourth Tank Corps launched a concentric attack, – indeed, Marshal Rokossovskiy later commented on the corps’ widespread use of enveloping movements. Fourth Guards and 130 Tank brigades attacked Tatsinskaya from the line of march simultaneously from the north-west, east and south. A tank battalion from 130 brigade attacked the station and destroyed 50 German aircraft with all their fuel. Immediately afterwards, tanks overran the airfield proper from north and south, shooting up aircraft or driving over them. Fifty-fourth Brigade attacked the outskirts of Tatsinskaya town from the west and by the evening of 24 December the German forces surrounded in the area had been destroyed. However, some 124 aircraft managed to take off and a proportion of the Germans got away. Nevertheless, the effect on the already inadequate Stalingrad airlift was noticeable.

The Germans reacted swiftly. On 24 December, even before the airfield and surrounding area was completely in Soviet hands, an advance detachment of 6th Panzer division recaptured the area north of Tatsinskaya. Sixth Panzer closed in, with 11th Panzer and 306 Infantry Division moving in from the east. By 27 December 24th Tank Corps had been encircled, and frantic radio messages in clear calling for 1st Guards Army to come to the rescue of the corps were to no avail. The corps had been refuelled from motor fuel and lubricants captured at the airfield but was dreadfully short of ammunition. An urgent radio message from Badanov on 27 December, and by 2300 hours on the same day Soviet aircraft had dropped 450 artillery shells, 4,500 rounds of rifle and 6,000 of submachine gun ammunition. The official restricted Soviet General Staff deductions from the operation considered that it had only been possible to drop such limited quantities of ammunition because no provision had been made in advance for the resupply of a corps engaged in exploitation of a breakthrough, although `the possibility of fighting in an encirclement had to be expected’.The General Staff went so far as to assert that `had it been possible for the Corps to receive larger quantities of ammunition it would have been quite able to bring into action its 39 T-34 and 19 T-70 tanks and hold out until the arrival of 25th Tank and 1st Guards Mechanized Corps which, by 29 December, had moved into the areas of Kachalin and Lesnoy. 140 By the night of 28 December 24th Tank Corps had no working tanks left and was running out of ammunition. The final hours were savage, the wounded on both sides freezing to death where they fell. Some of the Soviet troops, including general Badanov himself, managed to escape and rejoin their own forces; the rest perished.

Vatutin, commanding the South-West Front, ordered 25th Tank and 1st Guards Mechanized Corps to relieve Badanov, but it was too late. However, 24th Tank Corps’ achievement was undeniable. According to Soviet sources, in the ten days (18-27 December) of the operation the Corps killed over 11,000 enemy troops, destroyed 84 tanks and 431 aircraft. It also took 4,800 prisoners although it is not known what the Russians did with them and how, or whether, they were evacuated from the battle zone. The corps was renamed 2nd Guards Tank Corps during the final desperate hours of the fight at Tatsinskaya and on 27 January 1943 received the honorific title `Tatsinskiy’. Its destruction was a tactical reverse for the Russians but the corps was not such a large element of its parent army that its loss was unbearable. `The vacuum created by the loss of Italian 8th Army still existed and the destruction of 24th Tank Corps only eliminated the vanguard of one of the South-Western Front’s advancing armies.’ The corps had been the spearhead of a thrust which, if successful, could have isolated Army Group A which was actually of greater military importance than the Stalingrad airlift. The Germans were also trying to relieve the Stalingrad pocket simultaneously and diverting 48th Panzer Corps against Tatsinskaya left only 57th Panzer to attempt to break the Stalingrad encirclement. The Russians were therefore able to use all their available reserves in the immediate Stalingrad area against the relief attempt. The synergic effect of a Mobile Group penetration and main forces operations is thus emphasized.

On the other hand, the way the Germans dealt with 24th Tank Corps’ penetration is exemplary with a view to countering such deep attack formations in future. First, the Tank Corps (Mobile Group) was isolated from its parent forces (1st Guards Army) and, indeed, from any other OMG-type formations operating in the enemy depth (25th Tank Corps, for example). Next, it was fixed in place while information was obtained about its composition and nature, and simultaneously encircled. Finally, it was eliminated by a series of `well planned, simultaneous and co-ordinated combined arms attacks’. This denied the Soviet commander the opportunity to shift forces to deal with a succession of attacks. These attacks, by their violence and speed, also capitalized on the psychological vulnerability of a force surrounded and cut off in the enemy rear. On the other hand, the fact that they were `deep in a hostile land’ and had `no alternative’, as Sun Tzu realized, almost certainly made the Russians fight harder – until they ran out of ammunition, at any rate.

Twenty-fourth Tank Corps was not strongly reinforced with other arms of service: only an extra Anti-aircraft Artillery Regiment and Rocket Launcher battalion were attached. Had it been more strongly reinforced with infantry, artillery, engineer, or other specialist units, its ability to fight in the enemy depth would have been enhanced significantly. Substantial, dedicated air support would also have increased its resilience. The need to reinforce deep-penetration formations and increase self reliance was reorganized and acknowledged in the official General Staff deductions from the experience, published in autumn 1943. As well as acknowledging the potential value of air resupply organized in advance, the General Staff noted that most of the corps experienced shortages of motor fuel because the distance between supply bases and advanced mobile formations reached unexpected lengths although the most advanced of all, 24th was able to top up its reserves from the airfield it captured. The General Staff also noted that the Corps’ organic equipment was insufficient for salvaging brokendown transport or fighting vehicles. The experience suggested `the necessity for reinforcing Corps operating far away from and without direct contact with the main forces with salvage companies equipped with powerful tractors’.

The General Staff also drew lessons for the handling in battle and overall composition of mobile groups. In most cases, they had been inserted while the enemy was still holding out and this led to unacceptable casualties: 25th Tank Corps, for example, lost 27 tanks on unreconnoitred minefields. The corps had not been supported by aircraft in the breakthrough phrase: in future, such co-operation should be planned on an army or front scale. When mobile forces were acting in the operational depth, fighter and ground-attack aircraft should be controlled by the Tank or Mechanized Corps commander. The experience also taught that the Tank or Mechanized Corps’ action was bound to achieve more success if their initial successes were exploited and consolidated by infantry. Motorized infantry or cavalry should therefore be organized for this purpose. In order to insure the continuous effectiveness of a thrust throughout the entire depth of the operation, Tank and Mechanized Corps should be merged into one mobile group comprising several corps (not less than two, at least one mechanized and the rest tank) and this group should be committed by echelons – two or even three. It would be more difficult to form and weld together an improvised Headquarters than in the case of infantry, and this suggested that Tank Corps Headquarters should be configured and receive their battle training as component parts of mobile groups. The train of thought leading to larger mobile groups and Tank Armies is clear:

The operation carried out by the South West Front in the Middle Don area serves as an example of such employment of Mobile Groups. The experience has shown that an operation o f this kind can be accomplished only by a group o f Corps placed under a unified command or merged into one Tank Army.

British Armour – Lessons to be Learned I



Following victory in Tunisia there was a pause in British ground operations for two months until the invasion of Sicily on 10 July. This gave the opportunity for re-organization of formations and units, for training and for re-equipment where necessary. It also allowed for rest and recuperation as well as reflection on how the campaign in North Africa had been handled, and how its lessons might be applied to future campaigns in Europe. Of course there had been a steady flow of information back to the UK on the campaign as it progressed, on the quality – or otherwise – of equipment, on tactical thinking and co-operation between arms. All this was shaping the doctrine that would be applied by the Army, including its armoured divisions, in the remainder of the war.

Allied grand strategy was also being discussed, with the Americans eager to invade north-west Europe as soon as possible and the Soviets calling for the western Allies to open a second front. British thinking was that the forces in North Africa should be committed to further operations in the Mediterranean to knock Italy out of the war and ‘tighten the ring’ on Germany. It had already been agreed that British and American forces would invade Sicily, but the Americans had yet to agree that this should be followed up with landings on mainland Italy. As a result, preparations were under way for operations in both the Mediterranean and north-west Europe. Many formations that had taken part in operations in North Africa were designated for the invasion of France and would be shipped back to the UK as soon as possible, although some would fight in Sicily and the early phase of the Italian campaign. These included 7th Armoured Division and 4 and 8 Armoured Brigades.

This pause in armoured operations permits an opportunity to look at how British armour had developed, in terms of doctrine, operations and equipment, since 1939. The crucible of operational experience had led to the distilling to its essence of all the doctrinal theory that abounded in military circles, as may be seen in the July to December 1942 progress report of the RAC, which noted that:

The tactical distinction between the employment of Armoured Brigades and Tank Brigades is becoming increasingly nebulous … This trend is naturally reflected in the … American Sherman tank – accepted by the troops as the best tank they have yet been given … the concept of the heavy slow powerful ‘Infantry’ or ‘Assault’ tank has definitely receded.

The basic divisional order of battle had had a major change in May 1942 with the second armoured brigade replaced by an infantry brigade, as had happened in the Middle East at the end of February. Further modifications in August 1942, April 1943, March 1944 and May 1945 retained that combination of one armoured and one infantry brigade. The Middle East orbat of February 1942 made the brigade group the basic battle formation with the support groups being broken up and their artillery units added to the brigade groups. While the May 1942 orbat for a division in the UK reflected this basic outline artillery units remained under divisional command. With Montgomery’s arrival in Eighth Army the division again became the basic battle formation, with artillery returning to divisional command. In the April 1943 re-organization the divisional reconnaissance regiment, until then an armoured car regiment, became an armoured regiment; and there were various other modifications. Military Training Pamphlet No. 41 of July 1943 (MTP 41/1943) included the ‘Normal organization of an armoured division’ which it noted ‘may alter as a result of evolution’. On a working basis the document noted that the division included:

An armoured divisional headquarters.

An armoured brigade.

An infantry brigade.

Divisional troops:

One armoured reconnaissance regiment.

Two field artillery regiments, one of which will normally be self-propelled.

One anti-tank regiment RA, of which one battery will be self-propelled.

One light anti-aircraft regiment RA.

Two field squadrons and one field park squadron RE.

Armoured divisional signals.


The pamphlet noted that an armoured division was organized for employment as a single fighting entity, was well balanced for that purpose, and would normally fight as a whole under command of its own GOC. It went on to point out that:

It is a mounted, hard-hitting formation primarily constituted for use against hastily prepared enemy defences, for exploitation of initial success gained by other formations and for pursuit.

It is designed for use in rapid thrusts against the enemy’s vitals, rather than in hammer blows against his organized defences. It is the rapier in the hands of the higher commander, rather than the bludgeon.

Its full power will only be exerted by the employment of its armour concentrated, and supported by all the other components of the division.

And that its normal roles were:

Co-operation with the main army and the Air Forces in effecting the complete destruction of the enemy, usually by envelopment, or by deep penetration through his defences after a gap has been made in his main position by other formations.


Co-operation with other arms in the defence, usually by counter-attack.

To threaten the enemy and so force him to alter or disclose his dispositions.

With the armoured division operating as intended:

the enemy will be forced to react, and his armour will normally be constantly encountered. Only when the bulk of the hostile tanks have been destroyed will armoured formations attain such a measure of freedom and mobility as will enable them to exploit to the full their ability to inflict a decisive blow against the enemy’s main forces.

The division’s armoured brigade was intended to strike the decisive blow, with the remainder of the division’s resources, ‘together with all available aircraft’, deploying to:

  • fight any preliminary action necessary to enable the armoured brigade to be launched against a vital objective over suitable country.
  • support the attack of the armoured brigade.
  • consolidate and mop up after such an attack.

MTP 41/1943 compared the operation of an armoured division to the work of a rugby scrum with the armoured brigade as the wing forward. ‘The vast majority of the players at first employ all their strength and energy to hold and push back their opponents’ but when this is done the wing forward may ‘break away … to penetrate the defence, and the remainder of the forwards will back up his attempt to score’. The success of the armoured brigade depended on the initial efforts of the remainder of the division, or other formations, and their continuing support when the breakaway had been made.

By the time MTP 41/1943 was issued the armoured brigade included a brigade HQ, three armoured regiments and a motor battalion. Each regiment deployed sixty-nine tanks (fifty-five gun tanks, six close support – CS – and eight anti-aircraft – AA – tanks) while the armoured reconnaissance regiment had fifty-one tanks (thirty-one gun tanks, twelve CS and eight AA tanks), the armoured brigade HQ had a further ten gun tanks and divisional HQ employed eight gun and two AA tanks, giving the division an overall total of 278 tanks. (The term ‘cruiser’ was still being used to describe the Grant and the Sherman although ‘gun tank’ or ‘battle tank’ are more appropriate.) In addition to this substantial armoured force, there were armoured cars, scout cars, carriers, two field artillery regiments – a total of forty-eight weapons – an anti-tank regiment with both 6- and 17-pounders, and a light AA regiment with Bofors 40mm guns, as well as the lorries to carry the armoured brigade’s motor battalion and the three infantry battalions of the lorried infantry brigade. In all the division had over 3,000 vehicles, including its tanks, and almost 15,000 personnel.

The infantry brigade in an armoured division included a brigade HQ, three battalions and a support group. Unlike other infantry, those attached to an armoured division were usually carried in lorries and were therefore mounted infantry, with tactics resembling ‘those of mounted infantry in the past’, trained especially for their role. ‘When mounted their speed on roads is greater than that of the armoured brigade. When dismounted it is essential that they should be trained to move for considerable periods at a really rapid pace.’

How did the lorried infantry differ from the motor battalion of the armoured brigade? The principal difference was that the motor battalion was tactically mounted, i.e. carried as far forward as possible (the provision of half-tracks was to assist in this). Other differences included the fact that the motor battalion had greater firepower, although weaker in manpower, and had many more vehicles, including carriers and scout cars, and also  possessed anti-tank guns. Each motor battalion company had integral reconnaissance and administrative elements, making it flexible enough to operate as a self-contained sub-unit. By contrast the infantry brigade units had greater manpower but less firepower. Their role was described thus:

If the ‘rugger’ analogy is maintained, infantry brigades may be considered as the ‘front row forwards’ since their first object is to get the better of their opponents in the ‘tight’ and to push them so as to produce an opportunity for penetration, and then to back up the battle.

Since tanks by themselves cannot win battles, it is the function of the infantry brigade, as of the remainder of the division, firstly to enable the armoured brigade to come into action on favourable ground, secondly to support its attack, and thirdly to mop up and consolidate the ground it has gained.

The artillery element of the armoured division was now stabilized at two regiments, one of towed 25-pounders and one of self-propelled 25-pounders, or M7 Priests with 105mm howitzers, with the SP regiment normally with the armoured brigade. However, both regiments came under command of the divisional Commander Royal Artillery (CRA), a centralized command which meant that the fire of both could be concentrated ‘for the achievement of the divisional commander’s object’. Although not intended to fire in the anti-tank role, the 25-pounders were to be sited ‘with adequate anti-tank fields of fire’. However, it was also emphasized that the SP guns were artillery ‘and that any attempt to employ them improperly as tanks will result in most serious casualties, without the attainment of any compensating advantage’.

Defence against enemy armour was the role of the divisional anti-tank regiment, now evolving into a four-battery unit, deploying forty-eight guns, of which two were towed batteries each with twelve 6-pounders and the other two were self-propelled with American M10 tank destroyers, armed with 3-inch guns (later replaced by 17-pounders in M10s and Achilles). This regiment was usually used ‘with a view to furthering the achievement of the general plan of the divisional commander’; it also provided protection during long halts while the division was on the move, replenishing, recovering or in harbour. It was emphasized that:

The skill, determination, and resource of every member of an anti-tank regiment must, therefore, be of the very highest order, especially in the armoured division where, because of the circumstances of its employment, the anti-tank personnel will be confronted with situations demanding the highest qualities of courage, self-reliance, and initiative.

As with the SP field guns, there was an injunction against becoming engaged in an armoured mêlée, although the SPGs’ light armour and good performance across country made them ‘suitable for employment in support of the attacking brigade, especially for consolidation, and as a mobile reserve’. It may be noted that US Army doctrine saw the tank as the main weapon of exploitation but envisaged SP anti-tank guns dealing with enemy tanks; those SP weapons were dubbed tank destroyers, a doctrine found to be flawed deeply.

Diminishing enemy air strength in the Mediterranean meant that the divisional light AA regiment may not have been as important as before but continued to be included in the orbat to protect the field artillery positions, defiles, and troops and transport while forming up. It also had a secondary role against enemy tanks although this was considered ‘exceptional’ by July 1943.

The overall number of armoured formations in the Army had reduced from its peak in 1942. Two of the three youngest armoured divisions – 42nd and 79th – were to be disbanded although the latter was reprieved by being chosen in early 1943 as the parent formation for all British specialized armour; 42nd ceased to exist in October 1943. A month after the invasion of Europe 9th Armoured Division was also disbanded in the UK; neither 9th nor 42nd Divisions ever saw action. As we have already noted 8th Armoured Division was broken up shortly after landing in Egypt and disbanded on 1 January 1943; although 23 Armoured Brigade survived as an independent brigade, 24 Armoured Brigade was also disbanded, its only action having been at El Alamein. Tenth Armoured Division saw no further action after El Alamein and deployed to Palestine and Syria, eventually being disbanded in Egypt in June 1944.

Concerns felt by crewmen about the reliability of the Crusader had also been reported back to Whitehall where the Director of Armoured Fighting Vehicles (DAFV) expressed serious concern at the poor state of reliability, as did the Deputy Chief of the Imperial General Staff, Lieutenant General Ronnie Weeks. In Weeks’ view ‘reliability must be considered more important than numbers’, a theme that now permeated official thinking in Whitehall where an emphasis was placed on producing better tanks. Six design requirements were set: reliability; gun; speed; endurance; armour; fighting compartment. The Sherman, then being delivered in increasing numbers, was reliable with a satisfactory gun, but was outgunned by the latest German tanks. In fact, it was felt by the General Staff that the American 75mm, as fitted in the Sherman, was ‘the best dual-purpose tank weapon yet produced’ and, at the earliest opportunity, should be adopted as the standard gun in British tanks. In a sense this was a return to the mistake made, for different reasons, with the 2-pounder. Fortunately, there was another view. ‘A first-class anti-tank weapon of the six-pounder or heavier type modernized to its highest performance’ had been called for. Work was in hand to lengthen the 6-pounder and provide it with armourpiercing Capped Ballistic Capped Ammunition (APCBC) with greater penetrative power. This was overtaken by a War Office request that a quarter of tanks in British service should be fitted with the 17-pounder to engage more heavily-armoured tanks. As a result it was decided to adapt Cromwell, then under development, to mount the 17-pounder. However, the changes to the basic design, involving a lengthened hull, stronger suspension and a very high turret, led to another tank, A30 or Challenger, which proved a disappointment and certainly did not live up to its name.

Nonetheless, the idea of mounting the 17-pounder in a quarter of British tanks did come to fruition with the adaptation of the Sherman to carry the new weapon. This British version, dubbed Firefly, was issued on a one-in-four basis to all British armoured units in the armoured divisions, including those later equipped with Cromwells; the Firefly in a Cromwell troop was even more obvious than its counterpart in a Sherman troop. (The arrival of Firefly brought about a troop- and squadron-level re-organization, with a Firefly added to the existing three tanks of a troop but the number of troops in a squadron reduced from five to four.)

Cromwell had begun life in 1941 as a requirement for a heavy cruiser, weighing about 25 tons, with a 6-pounder gun and 75mm frontal armour. The General Staff, realizing that the earlier concept of light cruisers ‘swirling around the battlefield like a naval fleet’ did not match the reality of warfare, wrote this requirement. The resultant tank, Cavalier, was not a success but Leyland Motors suggested modifying the design using a de-rated Rolls Royce Merlin aero-engine with mechanical reliability of a level not yet seen with British tanks. With insufficient Merlins available, Leyland had to make do with the Nuffield Liberty engine and the result was given the name Centaur. As an interim design it saw limited service. Leyland continued pursuing the Merlin alternative and when de-rated Merlins, re-named Meteors, became available the design was changed once more. The end result was Cromwell, a 25-ton tank capable of 40mph and carrying a 6-pounder in its turret with a 7.92mm Besa co-axial machine gun. Cromwell’s distinctive large, flat-sided turret was spacious enough for its armament to be improved to a 75mm while a support version mounted a 95mm howitzer. Cromwell also met the reliability criterion, although there were early worries on that point. Its performance and cross-country agility were welcomed by crews.

British Armour – Lessons to be Learned II


The Cromwell tank, officially Tank, Cruiser, Mk VIII, Cromwell (A27M),

Tanks were growing bigger as demonstrated by the appearance of the Panzer Mk VI, or Tiger, in Russia and Tunisia. The United States had begun developing a 50-ton heavy tank, M6, armed with a 3-inch gun, but the US Army’s Armored Force decided that mobility came before either armour or gun power and cancelled the project. (In addition, as already noted, the Americans remained fixated on the tank-destroyer concept, a belief that self-propelled anti-tank guns on lightly-armoured hulls would fight other tanks, allowing US tanks to execute the exploitation role.) A British heavy tank, TOG, was also abandoned, but this had been a throwback to the Great War whereas the American M6, although beset by problems, had potential. Cancellation of M6 was followed by another programme, T20, which was also killed off by the Armored Force, which preferred to up-gun and up-armour Sherman; it had been expected that T20s would also enter British service. Eventually the US Army did get a heavier tank, the M26 Pershing with a 90mm gun, but only towards the end of the war. None were supplied to the British Army which was waiting for the A41 universal tank, which became Centurion, the finest tank of its generation. The mid-war period was one of flux in the development of armour with many new theories being promoted about weapon performance and armour protection. The American cancellation of M6 may be seen as short-sighted in light of the appearance of the Tiger but DAFV made a similar decision in Britain; the DRAC even described the 88mm-armed Tiger as ‘a clumsy fighting vehicle’. Macksey commented:

The evidence concerning anticipated enemy equipment and techniques was inevitably incomplete and therefore subject to a measure of guesswork. It was not entirely unreasonable that, at a moment when DAFV was rejecting heavy assault tanks, the defensive potential of the Tiger tank … was for some time underrated, although DAFV’s expectation that the Germans would mount heavy anti-tank guns on self-propelled mountings, in the same way as the British and Americans intended to do, was entirely justified.

The Defence Committee, prompted by the Ministry of Supply, made clear that it preferred not to rely on American production for Britain’s tank needs in the remainder of the war ‘on the grounds that it was undesirable to let it appear that the war had been won by American tanks. A preference to continue with Churchill and Cromwell was stated’.

As well as Tiger the Germans had developed another new tank, Panzer Mark V, or Panther. A medium tank weighing 45 tons – half as heavy again as demanded in the original specification – it carried a 75mm gun twice as long as that of the improved Panzer Mark IV. On Hitler’s orders the gun was made even longer. Having overcome teething problems, Panther proved an excellent tank; a powerful gun, thick armour and speed all contributed to it being the best German tank of the war. It was developed to combat the Russian T-34 and was superior to it in most respects, except that Germany could not match Soviet production levels: only 5,500 Panthers were built between 1942 and 1945 whereas 11,000 T-34s rolled off the production lines in 1944 alone. Although there are no doubts about the technical qualities of the Panther, it was over-engineered which meant longer time in production and more complicated maintenance in the field. Had the Germans been willing, a captured T-34, which provided the specification for Panther, could have been used to reverse engineer a German version, of which many more could have been built; but German engineering hubris ensured that this simpler Panzer Mark V did not develop beyond a thought.

It is worth considering the T-34 briefly. The best all-round tank of the war, it was also built in the greatest numbers, with over 57,000 produced by 1945 (the USA produced over 50,000 Shermans). Design work started in 1936, based on the BT-7. With a high-velocity 76.2mm gun, low turret, sloped armour, powerful engine and Christie suspension, T-34 was a shock to German panzer crews. It was later fitted with an enlarged turret and the 85mm anti-aircraft gun to become T-34/85. Wide tracks and excellent suspension allowed it to operate effectively, even on ground covered in snow or mud, giving it a tactical as well as numerical superiority over its adversaries. Not surprisingly, T-34 remained in service and production after the war and its production totals have been exceeded only by its successor, the T-54.

Also under discussion at this time were armoured warfare tactics since it was not clear whether those that had worked in the desert would translate to Europe. However, it was appreciated that the conditions experienced in Tunisia approximated more closely to those of Europe and that the armoured division as deployed in Tunisia, with its armoured brigade and lorried infantry brigade, was well balanced. Its only apparent defect lay in having only an armoured car regiment for reconnaissance and so it was decided to use an armoured regiment instead.

The revised organization was not viewed as definitive since emphasis was laid on the fact that the division had to be flexible with its organization adjustable to circumstances. In the next phase of the war, as British armoured divisions fought in Italy and north-west Europe, that flexibility was demonstrated by the adoption of the battlegroup within the divisions, and the addition of a second infantry brigade to cope with the problems created by Italy’s terrain.

By this stage of the war the British armoured division was a much more professional formation. Training of new soldiers, many posted as casualty replacements, had been improved so that new crews reporting to units for the first time were better prepared for combat. This contrasted sharply with the earlier days of the war when the arrival of inadequately trained replacements had added to the existing burden on fighting men. There had been a Royal Armoured Corps Depot in Egypt, at Abbassia, north-east of Cairo, since pre-war days that fed men into the armoured units in the Middle East. As the war progressed the lessons learned in action had been taught to new arrivals whilst specialist courses for all ranks in skills such as gunnery, signals and maintenance were also provided. By early 1943 the system of assimilating reinforcements and preparing them for their units had been refined to such an extent that an Armoured Replacement Group had been created, consisting of armoured delivery regiments and, closer to the fighting front, armoured delivery squadrons to feed both battle-ready men and machines to their new units. This scheme mirrored that established in the UK.

Among changes that began in the Middle East were some affecting gunnery. Initiated in the summer of 1942, these were soon being taught at the Gunnery School at Lulworth in England. Macksey notes that these changes inspired the commandant of the Gunnery School, Colonel R. A. H. Walker, to start ‘a crusade to develop long range fire (up to 2,000 yards) and indirect shooting’. At that time tank guns were generally free elevating and controlled by the gunner’s shoulder. Walker averred that the free elevating gun ‘had to be replaced by an elevating wheel; that elevating and traversing gears must be tightened up; and that telescopes with improved magnification must be introduced’. Walker’s comments were supported by Major General Raymond Briggs who became Director RAC in early August 1943. However, as Macksey states:

the indirect fire requirement was already shown to be less important than the enthusiasts believed. Rarely was it undertaken above troop level, but longer range shooting had already been demonstrated in action both in Tunisia and Sicily. Early in 1944 the new techniques were adopted and, as the seat of war moved to Europe, the centre of activity in the development of better gunnery shifted to the UK, at the AFV Schools and in the experimental establishments.

The AFV Schools were making a major contribution to the development of armour as the ‘whole of the British-orientated armoured forces, including elements from certain foreign nations, looked to Bovington and Lulworth’. Officers were being instructed at the Tactical School where lessons from the front were passed on but it also served as a ‘brains trust’ to discuss and argue over ideas. Elsewhere, the Military College of Science had a Fighting Vehicles Wing where suitably qualified officers could qualify as instructors in the more rarefied aspects of tank technology. This Wing developed, first, into the RAC School of Tank Technology and then the Armour School. By mid1943 new recruits for RAC units – and there were about 2,000 each month – were receiving training based on battlefield experience, as were new officers. Nor was there any shortage of AFVs for training. The days of scarcity had gone: at the end of 1943 the RAC had 15,732 AFVs across the world.

The experience of Operation JUBILEE, the Dieppe raid of 20 August 1942, knowledge of the German work on coast defences – the so-called Atlantic Wall – and the problems created by the enemy use of minefields in North Africa all led to the decision to employ specialized armour in the invasion of Europe. By July 1943 a range of specialized armour was being developed, including updated Sherman-based flail tanks to supersede the early rudimentary mine-clearing tanks. Assault engineer tanks, based on the Churchill, were also in development as was a range of other ‘Funnies’, as they were known. General Sir Alan Brooke, CIGS and a former GOC Mobile Division, believed that all such specialized armour should be grouped under a single commander. This decision led to the reprieve from disbandment for the most junior British armoured division, 79th, which was re-roled to assume the specialized armour task. Command was given to Major General Percy Hobart, who had already raised 11th Armoured Division.

As well as operating the specialized armour 79th Armoured Division was to train British, Canadian and American armoured units in the use of amphibious tanks, Shermans fitted with flotation screens and Duplex Drive (DD), allowing them to travel through water. The DD Shermans were intended to play a major role in the landings in Normandy, although sea conditions restricted their use. They were also used later in the campaign. The conversion and deployment of 79th Armoured Division illustrates the most enlightened and innovative use of armour by the British Army in the Second World War. It was unmatched by any other combatant, especially in the method of employment, with Hobart acting as specialized armour adviser to the commander 21 Army Group, General, later Field Marshal, Sir Bernard Montgomery, and with a similar command and oversight system at formation, unit and sub-unit levels so that the special skills and equipment of the division were not misused.

At much the same time each field army HQ received a new element of staff with the introduction of a Brigadier RAC (BRAC) and staff. Brigadier George Richards, who had commanded 4 and 23 Armoured Brigades, was appointed BRAC to HQ Eighth Army in time for the invasion of Italy while Brigadier Harry Watkins became BRAC at Allied Forces HQ with the special remit of protecting RAC interests there, as well as setting up the RAC structure in southern Europe. No BRAC was appointed to First Army which was allowed to fade away as preparations continued to invade Sicily.

There were other changes at higher levels that indicate maturing attitudes towards armour. In late 1941 three armoured groups had been created, commanded by Crocker, McCreery and Creagh, the most experienced armoured commanders. These had been intended as operational formations and to co-ordinate training at formation level but were short-lived; they were armoured corps in all but name. As well as the abolition of the armoured groups, the post of Commander RAC was replaced by a post of Major General RAC at Home Forces HQ while, in February 1943, DAFV had been retitled DRAC; the AFV branches in the War Office also became RAC branches.

Perhaps the most important change that had come about was not one that could be quantified. It was the recognition that armour was not something different but an integral and essential part of any field army. An armoured division was seen as a ‘formation consisting of all arms’ to work with all arms and the air forces to destroy the enemy’s forces. The ‘them and us’ attitude of the past was dying out and its disappearance ensured that much more effective use would be made of armoured divisions in the future and that those divisions would work more closely with other arms.

As training and preparations were being finalized for the invasion of Sicily, armoured divisions in the UK were training for another invasion that would take place in 1944 and put British troops back on French soil for the first time since 1940. However, only three of the five armoured divisions in Britain would fight in north-west Europe, where they would be joined by 7th Armoured, the Desert Rats. Those were Guards, 11th and 79th Armoured Divisions.