WWII US Army and its Tactics I

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WWII US Army and its Tactics II

A typical sequence of events for the US rifle platoon as part of a battalion attack from the approach march. The platoon deploys from the road it has been using and advances in lose columns to the battalion assembly area. In co-ordination with the remainder of the battalion and the covering fire of artillery and other units it crosses the ‘line of departure’, arriving at the firefight with two of its three sections deployed in rough skirmish lines and the third in support. Taking advantage of cover, the enemy is now brought under effective fire until opportunity for close assault. From The Rifle Platoon and Squad in Offensive Combat, 1943.

The development of the foxhole, from squatting, to kneeling, and finally standing cover for the rifleman, as described in FM 21-45 Protective Measures, Individuals and Small Units, 1942.

The infantry was charged with ‘the principal mission in combat’ and decisive results were usually to be obtained by ‘offensive action’, though numbers, materiel, and other factors would often mean that defensive missions also had to be tackled. It was assumed that infantry units could overcome ‘improvised’ resistance, or ‘isolated hostile elements’ unaided, but that ‘co-ordinated continuing resistance’ would be likely to require the assistance of ‘powerful supporting weapons’ for successful outcome. Whilst the three-battalion regiment was the ‘complete tactical and administrative unit’, the rifle battalion was regarded as the ‘complete tactical unit’. It was capable of ‘assignment to a mission requiring the application of all the usual foot Infantry means of action’. All the weapons of the rifle battalion could be ‘manhandled over a distance of several hundred yards’.

The ‘approach march’ was defined as commencing once a battalion came within medium artillery range, or about 10 miles, of the enemy. In daylight it was then assumed that the advancing force would have to abandon ‘the route of march’ and adopt other formations, such as platoon single files or ‘column of twos’, going forward by ‘long bounds’ from one objective to the next. Dispersion did not need to be great where there was cover from fire or observation, and friendly formations in front, but units could cross dangerous areas ‘by infiltration’, gathering together again once an open space was crossed. Within the rifle platoons commanders nominated a ‘base squad’ to which the tactical deployments of the others conformed. By giving personal direction to the base squad the platoon commander could thereby effectively regulate the movement of the whole. Within companies it was usual for the rifle platoons to go first, followed by the weapons platoon. Commanders had to be suspicious of previously shelled areas or isolated features as these were likely to be pre-registered by the enemy and decide whether these should be skirted round or simply moved through as rapidly as possible. The ultimate objective of the approach march was to get the troops close to the enemy ready for action, but with minimum loss. The approach march was at an end as soon as the zone of effective small-arms fire was entered. For an attack of any scale, or had benefit of thorough preplanning, initial advances could be to designated ‘assembly areas’ in relatively safe spots that allowed units to reform before the assault.

When in proximity to the enemy leading rifle units progressed in extended order ‘reconnoitring so as to prevent elements other than patrols being taken by surprise fire by infantry weapons’. Designated reconnaissance teams were allowed freedom of movement, and encouraged maximum use of cover – as for example in crawling carefully to breaks in a skyline rather than wandering over a crest, remaining still to observe and check that no enemy overlooked the path, climbing trees, and keeping back from doors and windows of buildings. Wide detours were fully acceptable in avoiding open spaces or too close a proximity to an enemy post. For the close security of platoons two men per squad were also designated as ‘scouts’. These were more limited in that they were to move ‘boldly’ from cover to cover, usually within 500yd of their parent body. Often they were close enough to give visual signals, perhaps with one a little in front of the other so that the signal from the point could be relayed via his comrade back to the squad. Unlike reconnaissance teams, the main job of which was to collect information on the enemy and details of topography and equipment, platoon scouts performed their task more than adequately if they gave advance warning and prevented ambushes. In doing so they might well trigger enemy fire. As jaundiced squad scout Henri Atkins put it,

A point man needs a willingness to die. He is nothing more than a decoy. When he is shot, the enemy position is revealed. Don’t confuse this willingness with ‘bravery’. A point man is just doing his job, what he has been trained to do. Usually a scout is way out ahead of the attacking forces, ready to signal back enemy contact. He has a chance of survival, but not much of one.

According to Rifle Battalion, weapons were the ‘means of combat’, and the building block of all higher infantry formations was the squad – ‘the elementary combat unit’ – with a rifle squad being defined as a leader, second in command, and a minimum of five riflemen, ten at full strength. Three such squads, plus an automatic rifle squad of leader, second in command, six men, and two or three automatic rifles, made up the platoon. Three rifle platoons and a weapons platoon made up the rifle company. For general purposes, ‘short range’ was defined as anything up to 200yd; ‘close’ up to 400yd; ‘middle’ to 600yd; ‘long’ to 1,500yd; and ‘distant’ anything greater. Ideally, the frontage of a battalion was not more than 1,000yd; a company 500yd; a platoon 200yd; and the squad 75yd. Where wider frontages were required the practice was not to increase the distance between individual troops, but to leave gaps between the elements. An uneven distribution was perfectly acceptable, and could be turned to advantage by using such gaps for the flanking fire of machine guns. The preparation of the battalion-level attack was estimated to take a minimum of 1½ hours, commencing with the commander’s personal reconnaissance, followed by issuance of oral orders to a brief officer-group meeting, transmission of orders to all parts of the unit, and finally the advance.

In developing the attack it was expected that the commander would issue tasks to sub-units in terms of initial positions, directions of attack, zones of action, and objectives, but the smaller the unit the less detailed the instructions would be. A commander ‘prescribes a detailed tactical plan only so far as he can reasonably estimate the hostile resistance to be expected’. However, in attacks against co-ordinated resistance fire plans for support weapons were prepared,

When practicable, fires to dominate located resistance and neutralise areas from which hostile fire would be most dangerous are prearranged. Provision is made for engaging targets revealed during the course of the attack. Each unit seeks necessary augmentation of its own fire support by requesting that higher headquarters provide support from means under its control . . . In the absence of tanks, the fire of divisional artillery constitutes the basis of the fire plan of infantry regiments and battalions. The artillery neutralizes target areas in successive concentrations; it shells the nearer targets until the progress of the attack makes it necessary to transfer fire to a more distant zone. Fires are arranged in consultation with the commander of the supporting artillery.

It was a company commander’s job to ensure that supporting fires co-ordinated with the actions of the platoons ‘in place and in time’, perhaps by designating successive objectives and pushing in his light machine guns close behind the platoons. He was also to look for the ideal places to launch assaults, checking where resistance might be weakening. The infantry support weapons concentrated on targets too close for the artillery to hit safely, point targets revealed during the action, and ‘opportunity’ targets, though heavy machine guns could also be used to reinforce artillery by long-range fire. Mortars were placed as far forward as cover and ammunition supply permitted, with the 60mm type ‘within 400 yards of the front line’. In using them effectively observation was crucial. Light machine guns were used to fire through gaps in depth across the front of their own companies, or to flanks. Frontal fire was regarded as reserved for emergencies. Some weapons were held ready for rapid advance to positions for flanking fire. Others displaced forward as necessary.

The key offensive technique was ‘fire and movement’, and the closest possible co-ordination of the two was required so the infantry ‘may close with the enemy and break his resistance’. Indeed, as was explained in a passage that was but modest rephrasing of a passage from the book Infantry in Battle a few years previously, ‘Fire destroys or neutralizes the enemy and must be used to protect all movement in the presence of the enemy not masked by cover, darkness, fog or smoke. Through movement infantry places itself in positions which increase its destructive powers by decrease of range, by the development of convergent fires, and by flanking action’. Commonly, supporting weapons were well forward, allowing visual observation from emplacements: the infantrymen themselves were assumed to have highly destructive fire potential against ‘unsheltered personnel’ but against those under cover flat trajectory weapons were only of a neutralising effect. In moving sub-units were to take full advantage of broken or rolling terrain, avoiding whenever possible conspicuous or isolated features upon which the enemy might easily focus his fire. The very fact that progress against enemy concentrations was likely to be uneven could be used to advantage by taking flanks as they appeared, as for example by moving machine guns into new positions. As one terrain feature was occupied the advance to the next was organised – ‘fire bases’ being prepared for the next move. In close assaulting the enemy the best technique was to advance to the nearest available cover, then,

The assault of rifle units is usually initiated by units whose close approach has been favoured by the terrain or those which have encountered weak enemy resistance. A heavy burst of fire is delivered by all available weapons, following which the troops rush the hostile position. The assault of a unit is supported by every element in position to render resistance.

On arrival troops securing a lodgement in the enemy position were to turn their automatic weapons onto the flanks of any adjacent resistance, or upon retreating enemy. As far as possible, successful attacks were pushed right through the enemy lines, and the most advanced detachments ‘pushed forward without regard to the progress of units on their flanks’.

Details on tactical movement were filled in by the 1941 Soldier’s Handbook. Some of the advice was fairly obvious, as for example in lying flat and moving extremely cautiously when there was danger of being observed, or taking advantage of hedges, walls, and folds in the ground. However, a number of patrol formations and drills were also included, dependent on mission. ‘Security patrols’ for example might be used as advanced guards, rear guards, or flank patrols. Advanced and rear guards were likely to be disposed on both sides of a track or road, and ‘so arranged as best to let the leader control it, to make a poor target for enemy fire, and to permit all members to fire quickly to the front or either flank’. Such patrols were usually under standing orders to engage any enemy within effective fire range, and to send report of anything seen if they could not. Flank patrols could move alongside the route way at a given distance, or be concealed static protection. Extensive use of patrols was to be made in any direction where a flank might be exposed to the enemy. When in danger areas and until actually engaged, stealthy patrol movement was assumed, with for example streams being crossed one man at a time whilst others covered the ground. Reconnaissance patrols taken by surprise used a drill in which the first man to apprehend the threat called out the direction of the enemy. His comrades could then come to his aid on either side, and by doing so any small or isolated group of the enemy could be flanked. Wherever possible, patrol-squad leaders were encouraged to rush unprepared enemy individuals or small bodies. Night patrols required particular planning, and for these prearranged recognition signals were particularly vital.

Defensive infantry combat might take the form of ‘sustained defence’ or ‘delaying actions’ – these might be adopted deliberately, or be forced by the enemy. In sustained defence the usual infantry mission was to ‘stop the enemy by fire in front of the battle position, to repel his assault by close combat if he reaches it, and to eject him by counter attack in case he enters it’. As defending forces were likely to be weaker than attacking ones that had been concentrated for the purpose, defenders made maximum use of screening and concealment. Protection was not to be sought at the expense of disclosing dispositions as, ‘unmasked defensive positions will be promptly neutralised, if not destroyed, by superior hostile means of action’. Accordingly, the defence acted ‘by surprise’, varying its procedure and making every effort to keep the enemy in doubt about the main line of resistance and its principle elements. The enemy might be misled by camouflage, dummy works, screening by security detachments, and activity ahead of the main position. Whilst defenders relied heavily on fire, they were to remain ‘mobile and aggressive. Weak ‘holding elements’ at the front took advantage of the power of modern weapons to cover large areas and were reinforced by reserves shifted to meet the attacker with maximum strength and counter attacks.

Though main lines of resistance were often selected by higher authority, battalion and company commanders were to pick ‘detailed locations’ for smaller units taking particular account of observation and natural obstacles. Troops were to see, but not be seen, denying the enemy ability to view approaches to the position from the rear. Good communications in the rear were desirable to allow flow of men and materials to vital points. Sometimes reverse slopes would be adopted, with just small posts and machine guns on crests. Salients and re-entrants in the defensive position allowed for flanking fire from machine guns. Defenders were not to be distributed evenly, but to take maximum advantage of terrain and depth of positions and concentrate on key locations. Defending units might usefully be divided into three: the ‘security’ echelon; ‘combat’ echelon; and reserve.

‘Combat outposts’ on the German model formed the main element of security detachments beyond the main ‘battle position’. In larger defensive zones complete battalions could be given over to outpost duty together with artillery and anti-tank weapons. One outpost battalion might be given 2,000 to 2,500yd frontage to cover. Within the battle position itself were concentrated and co-ordinated all the resources required for ‘decisive action’, including a network of ‘fortified supporting points’ prepared for all-round defence. ‘Lines’ were to be avoided unless a defence was regarded as a ‘delaying action’ as a system based on holding successive lines was likely to result in dispersion of force. The ‘holding garrisons’ of points would consist of small groups usually built up around automatic weapons, positioned in depth and in ‘such a manner that the fires of each cross the front or flank of adjacent or advanced elements’. Unoccupied areas were covered by fire and counter attack. Frontages, though based on the ‘general’ figures already given, were varied according to terrain and situation, with narrower unit frontages and greater firepower devoted to vulnerable places where the enemy had benefit of covered approaches allowing them to get closer to the defenders. Conversely, obstacles allowed fewer troops to cover greater distances, and hence wider frontages for given units. Boundaries between units were not, however, to be on critical localities, as this would tend to divided responsibilities and confusion in event of attack.

Defensive fire was crucial,

The skeleton of the main line of resistance is constituted by machine guns and anti-tank weapons. Close defence of the position is largely based upon reciprocal flanking action of machine guns. The direction of fire of flanking defences often permits their concealment from direct observation of the enemy and their protection from frontal fire. They therefore have the advantage of being able to act with surprise effect in addition to that of protection and concealment. Frontal and flanking defences mutually supplement one another and subject the attacker to convergent fires. Gaps in the fire bands of machine guns are covered by artillery, mortars, automatic rifles and rifles. Riflemen and automatic riflemen furnish enough close protection for automatic weapons executing flanking fires and cover frontal sectors of fire. Premature fires from positions in the main line of resistance disclose the main defensive dispositions to the annihilating fire of the hostile artillery.

The best antidote to defending weapons being knocked out by enemy artillery was for them to wait until the enemy infantry got close enough that their supporting guns had to cease fire. At that point defenders could open fire on the attacking infantry, gaining surprise, and without fear that they would be hit in return.

The effectiveness of defensive fire positions could be much improved by the use of obstacles, such as wire, but they were not to be positioned in such a way as to telegraph the location of the main line of resistance. Wire could be disguised by being discontinuous, laid in vegetation, or put in stream beds. Where time allowed the protection of a position was progressively improved, not only by building up physical defences and digging trenches and bunkers, but by improving communications, stockpiling munitions, and protecting defenders against weather. Shell-proof shelters for reserves were regarded as a priority. Trenches were not, however, to be allowed to become conspicuous. Within battle position fire zones were adjusted so as to leave no gaps.

Though Rifle Battalion, 1940 was actually quite a good grounding for action at the time it was introduced, it was largely based on second-hand experience, and produced at a time of great change. As a ‘battalion’ instruction it was also not highly detailed on matters pertaining to squads. All these factors set limitations on its effective shelf life and scope. A number of other manuals and documents were, therefore, used as supplements or updates, especially where new weapons were introduced or new factors encountered. One of the most important of these was FM 21-45 Protective Measures, Individuals and Small Units, signed off by the Secretary of War at the end of 1941, and published in March 1942. This filled in many gaps, notably detail of concealment and cover, camouflage, digging of foxholes and trenches, awareness of booby traps, communications and information security, and protection against aircraft, chemical weapons, and tanks. It was intended to supersede the single chapter devoted to some of these aspects in the 1938 ‘Basic Field Manual’, which was by now pretty much out of date.

Significantly, Protective Measures acknowledged that modern war put a higher premium than ever upon ‘individual initiative’ and stressed both the role of the soldier and the ‘small group’, on whom rested ‘more and more’ the course of battle. It mattered little whether the task was bringing up a truck load of ammunition, preparing a meal, or outflanking a machine gun: if all these could be accomplished intelligently and unseen by the enemy every one of them would contribute to the probability of success and the ‘destruction of the enemy’. As if to emphasise how personal war could be, and the importance to the individual, Protective Measures and the latest soldier’s handbooks now spoke to the US private soldier in person. ‘You’ were told how to protect yourself and handle your weapons – – this was not some exercise in describing someone else in the third person, this was very much as though Uncle Sam was speaking direct to the citizen about his own responsibilities and the best way to stay alive whilst fulfilling them. Of course these manuals could be, and often were, used as teaching materials by others – and it is a fair guess that even the most conscientious and literate only dipped into them in places, but the message was clearer and more a matter of the individual knowing his job than ever before.

Interestingly, some of the material from Protective Measures did also appear in FM 21-100 Soldier’s Handbook of 1941, republished in a revised edition in March 1942. The information on camouflage and concealment was significant, but in many respects repeated that already found in German and British publications. The new material on ‘hasty entrenchments’ was arguably of greater interest, but was not the easiest to impart to reluctant soldiery for whom digging large holes was often not thought to be part of the job description,

In order to provide natural protection against hostile fire by hasty construction you must have a knowledge of the tools available, their use, and the types of hasty entrenchment which will afford cover. Permanent or semi permanent cover requires a long time and many men to construct, and will normally be done under the supervision of an officer. When your mission permits, you should provide or improve your cover by digging. You must know the various types of cover which you can provide and learn how best to construct them by digging them. These types have been developed by survivors of hostile attacks and tested under fire. It is hard work, and requires practice to dig them quickly and properly. Learn how before hostile action forces you to.

Many who did not learn how to dig quickly had indeed very short military careers: but some lazier GIs also found short cuts, for if the enemy had not thoughtfully ploughed up the ground with his weapons of war a small block of TNT purloined from the engineers might be made to fulfil the same function with gratifyingly little spadework.

Protective Measures divided up small-scale field works under the heads of skirmisher’s trench; foxholes; shell holes; slit trenches; shallow connecting trenches and squad positions. The skirmisher’s trench, which had in fact been taught during the First World War, was dug with the soldier prone, head towards the enemy. Naturally, it was best executed with proper digging implements, but under fire anything would suffice, as for example ‘your bayonet, mess kit cover, sticks or any other available object’. Lying on his left, the soldier first scraped a hole for head and body, then rolled into it. Then, lying on his right, excavated to his left enlarging the hole enough to get his head, shoulders and hips well down. Earth was thrown to the front so improving cover for the head and shoulders as quickly as possible. This accomplished the soldier then extended his scrape backwards enough to get his legs under cover.

In average soil you can get fair protection in about 10 minutes and finish the trench in less than an hour. The finished trench will give you protection against flat trajectory small arms fire but only partial protection against high explosive shell or bomb fragments. You should enlarge the forward portion into a foxhole as soon as enemy fire permits.

The foxhole was described as the ‘more usual form of hasty entrenchment’ and gave fair protection against bombs and shells as well as direct small-arms fire. It could be dug prone or crouching but was better made from standing when not under fire. It was dug progressively allowing squatting, kneeling, and finally standing fire positions as time allowed. With full-sized dedicated tools a standing foxhole could be completed in less than an hour, but with infantry implements in cramped conditions an hour and a half was considered more normal. In firm soil the lower portion of the hole could be enlarged to allow the occupant to curl up at the bottom, and so secure the best possible protection, even against tanks driving over. The last refinement was a sump at the bottom, ‘larger than a canteen cup’, to allow for bailing when the hole got wet. Shell holes were a good starting point for battlefield cover as much of the hard work was already done, and the enemy might not be able to distinguish which were being used as infantry cover.

Where a shell hole was purposely converted to best effect it was recommended that the soldier dig ‘2 or 3 feet into the forward slope to get a good firing position and lateral protection from shell fragments and enfilade fire’. Similar improvements could be speedily made to roadside ditches, banks, or other ready made features. In practice and with time it was found that two-man positions were often best, as a buddy allowed one soldier to rest and act as lookout during construction, or both worked together for maximum speed and encouragement. With the double foxhole, pair of holes, or converted shell hole complete it was now possible for one man to sleep whilst the other acted as sentry. In any event, morale was better and nasty surprises fewer with a second man in the hole. As the 1944 Infantry Anti Tank Company manual later explained, the two-man hole gave only slightly less protection, but was used when men needed to work in pairs, or ‘for psychological reasons, battlefield comradeship is desirable’. Once everyone in a unit had cover it was sometimes useful to link the individual positions using the ‘shallow connecting trench’. For creeping, crawling, and occasional use a depth of about 2ft was deemed adequate, though such slender cover was not ideal to fire from or occupy for protracted periods.

The slit trenches also had uses.

It gives excellent protection against all types of fire, air attack, and in firm soil, or when revetted in soft, provides protection against tanks passing overhead. It is excellent type of cover for the immediate protection of gun and vehicle crews and for anti tank lookouts. A slit trench is less visible to ground observation if it is dug parallel to the front and the spoil (dug out earth) scattered and concealed rather than used as a parapet. The cut sod should be saved and used for camouflage. Such a trench can be concealed by methods similar to those used in camouflage of a foxhole. A slit trench should be as narrow as possible and still admit you, and deep enough to permit you to get below the surface of the ground. A standing slit trench may be caved in by concentrated artillery fire. For this reason one dug in soft ground should be well braced and revetted. A single such trench should not be required to hold more than two individuals. When more are to be protected, dig more trenches. Slit trenches in the shape of a chevron or cross, about six feet on a side, will ensure enfilade protection against fire from tanks.

The basics of ‘squad positions’ were not hugely changed, but Protective Measures was far more detailed in its advice, perhaps more so than might be practical under many battle conditions. Ideally, the squad leader deployed each man personally with an eye to ‘all-round defence’. Every soldier was also allotted primary and secondary ‘sectors of fire’ – primary sectors usually being those areas fronting the squad in the direction of the enemy, whilst secondary sectors covered across the flanks to the frontages of adjacent squads at maximum distances of perhaps 200 to 400yd. Supplementary positions were also prepared to allow riflemen to shift to cover the flanks and rear of the squad position.

Fox holes for each primary and supplementary position are started as soon as possible after you deploy your squad and more fully developed as time and situation permit. Individual fox holes should be about five yards apart or they may be placed in pairs. If the position is to be held for some time, have the fox holes connected where necessary by shallow connecting trenches. If your men are to occupy the holes overnight, have them extend the fox holes on each side or deepen the connecting trenches so they can lie prone while sleeping . . . If an automatic weapon, automatic rifle, machine gun or submachine gun is available you should site it in an advanced position near the centre of your group of fox holes so that its fire can cover the entire sector of your squad and adjacent squads. Select an alternative position nearby to which it can move, if necessary, and deliver the same fire. Select a secondary position to permit its fire to cover to the rear.

WWII US Army and its Tactics III

Initial dispositions of platoons for a ‘strong attack’, with the majority of the company forward. This could be developed into an enveloping attack if circumstances allowed. From FM 7-10 Rifle Company, Infantry Regiment, 1944.

Possible arrangements of squads during the approach march from FM 7-10 Rifle Company, Infantry Regiment, 1944.

From mid-1942 the US infantry manuals were comprehensively updated with the appearance of FM 7-10 Rifle Company, Rifle Regiment in June, and a new Rifle Battalion that September. Arguably, the new company manual was significant in that it appeared to suggest greater responsibility at lower levels of command, and that companies might themselves have greater combat significance than had been imagined before December 1941. For whilst the company acted in accordance with the battalion commander’s plan and mission, and was likely to be assigned either to the battalion ‘forward echelon’ or the ‘battalion reserve’, many of the smaller decisions could fall to the company commander. This was especially true when the company was detached,

When the company is acting alone, it is employed as directed by the commander who assigned the company its mission. The company commander will, of necessity, have to make more decisions on his own initiative than he will when operating with his battalion. His major decisions, as well as frequent reports of location and progress, are submitted promptly to the higher commander.

As a matter of course the company commander was responsible for administration, discipline, supply, training and control of his company: but Rifle Company also made it clear that he had an important tactical role. He was to anticipate and plan for prospective missions, supervise his subordinates, and decide on a course of action ‘in conformity with orders from higher authority’. This required a good ‘estimate of situation’ before the issuing of clear orders,

Having decided upon a detailed plan of action to carry out an assigned mission, the company commander must assign specific missions to his subordinate units. Company orders are usually issued orally to the leaders concerned or as oral or written messages. Sketches are furnished when practicable. Prior to combat, subordinates frequently can be assembled to receive the order. This facilitates orientation prior to the issuance of orders and enables the company commander to ensure that orders are understood…. Whenever practicable, the order is issued at a point from which terrain features of importance to subordinates can be pointed out. In attack, this often will be impracticable because of hostile observation and fires. If time is limited and leaders are separated, the company commander will issue his orders in fragmentary form. Leaders of units which are engaged with the enemy will not be called away from their units for the purpose of receiving orders.

Once combat was joined the company commander’s job became complex indeed. He was expected to know where the enemy was, and was capable of doing; keep track of both front and flanks, ensuring ‘all-round protection’; anticipate the needs of his platoons for supporting fire, and ensure that the sub-units supported one another; and check that his orders were carried out, whilst controlling company transportation and ammunition resupply. Nevertheless, he was still expected to find time to make ‘frequent reports’ to the battalion commander. Crucial to the performance of these tasks was the ‘Command Group’, comprising a second in command, first sergeant, communications sergeant, bugler, messengers, and orderly. The second in command, usually a first lieutenant, was expected to keep abreast,

of the tactical situation as it affects the company, replaces the company commander should the latter become a casualty, and performs any other duty assigned him by the company commander. During combat, he is in charge of the command post until he assumes command of the company, or of a platoon. He maintains communication with the company and battalion commanders. He notifies the battalion commander of changes in location of the command post.

The first sergeant usually assisted the second in command, and in combat might take responsibility for aspects of administration and supply, though in extremis he was used as a platoon commander, or as a substitute taking charge of the command post in case of casualties.

The communications sergeant naturally took charge of all aspects of communications, as well as assisting in preparation of sketches. Though often unsung, the duties of the communication sergeants were crucial, and when well performed could give the US infantry an advantage over both friend and foe as US units were usually better equipped in this department. The SCR 300 (‘Signal Corps Radio’) was a conventional-looking 32lb backpack model, giving a range of about 5 miles and was used between company and battalion. It could be operated by one man, but also be carried by one person whilst a handset was used by another. The little SCR 536 ‘handy talkie’ eventually issued down to platoon level was a genuine innovation. First produced in 1941, it weighed only 5lb, had an integral antenna, and a battery life of about a day in normal use. The whole set was held up to the ear and the operator depressed a switch to talk and released it whilst receiving. Though the range of the SCR 536 was less than a mile over some types of terrain, this was often adequate to bridge the gaps between company and platoons. Often at lower tactical levels voice-to-voice communications were used ‘in the clear’ and with no scrambling and only modest use of codes. It was reasoned, probably correctly, that in fast-moving situations swift delivery of accurate information was more important than a high level of security. In any event, when sets were first captured by the Germans in Sicily they were very impressed with them. Taking no chances, Rifle Company, 1942 also prescribes that as soon as a company is deployed each platoon should have a messenger report to company HQ.

In offensive situations it was expected that until the company left the route of march many decisions would be taken at higher levels, but as soon as deployment took place, or the unit was endangered, or under fire, the company commander would have responsibility. His orders, often issued in ‘fragmentary’ form due to pressures of time, would inform the platoons of known dispositions of both enemy and friendly troops; mission, objectives, and directions of march, including landmarks; frontage and reconnaissance requirements, and what actions to take in the event of being attacked. Where his company acted as part of a larger movement his ‘base’ platoon would act in conformity with that of the company designated as ‘base’ company within the battalion. Usually the company commander’s position would be at the front, and he was encouraged to make ‘personal reconnaissance’, but not attempt to tell his platoon commanders what precise formations and dispositions to adopt, unless what they were already doing disagreed with overall objectives and mission. In open terrain it was perfectly acceptable for platoons to be anything up to about 300yd apart so as to make best use of any cover or vantage points, but in close terrain, and especially woods, the platoons were to close up sufficiently that they were in visual contact.

The drill on contact was that only the element under fire would engage where they were – other platoons, and any squads not engaged, attempted to continue toward the objective, taking ‘every advantage of concealment and cover and assuring security of their flanks’ as they did so. By this method and ‘fire and movement’ they worked round the enemy and thereby assisted those held up. Where attacks on specific points were pre-planned the platoon commander had several options; perhaps holding back a part as a ‘manoeuvring element’, or sending forward a few riflemen aided by a BAR able to creep forward under cover and engage the enemy by surprise in a manner impossible for the whole platoon.

In any event, the platoon commander followed his attacking echelon closely, so as to be able to observe and direct his men.

When the platoon comes under effective small arms fire, further advance is usually by fire and movement. The enemy is pinned to the ground by frontal (and flanking) fire, under which other elements of the platoon manoeuvre forward, using all available cover to protect themselves against hostile fire. In turn, the original manoeuvring elements may occupy firing positions and cover the advance of the elements initially firing. The platoon leader hits the weak spot in the enemy position by having his support attack against the point of least resistance, or by manoeuvring his support around a flank to strike the enemy with surprise fire on his flank or rear . . . When fire from other hostile positions situated to the flank or rear makes it impossible to launch a flanking attack against a particular area, an assaulting force is built up by infiltration close to the hostile resistance. This force is protected by the fire of the rest of the platoon and of supporting weapons. One or more automatic rifles may be employed to neutralize the fires of the hostile flank or rear elements.

Having achieved a final jumping off point close to the enemy, this being defined as being as close as the troops were able to get without masking their supporting fire, the assault could begin. Though this might be a ‘general assault’ ordered by a company or battalion commander, it was equally likely to be started ‘in the heat of battle’ on the initiative of a squad, or even ‘a few individuals’. Any such attack warranted the immediate co-operation of every individual or unit within sight. Whilst platoon commanders would give the signal to stop supporting fire as his men crossed the last few yards, the attackers were to ‘assault fire’ during their final progress, bayonets fixed. At this crucial moment they would take ‘full advantage of existing cover such as tanks, boulders, trees, walls and mounds, advance rapidly toward the enemy and fire as they advance at areas known or believed to be occupied’.

Gung-ho as this may sound, the battle of what one Free French commentator in Italy called the ‘last hundred metres’ was often illusive, a fugitive beast, rarely seen, and less often caught on camera. Not infrequently men were nerved for final assault only to find that the enemy had already fled, or were, more or less successfully, attempting to surrender. The empty battlefield was so for a reason, as to linger was to invite death. As a US observer, also in Italy, described,

One never saw masses of men assaulting the enemy. What one observed, in apparently unrelated patches, was small, loose bodies of men moving down narrow defiles or over steep inclines, going methodically from position to position between long halts and the only continuous factor was the roaring and crackling of the big guns. One felt baffled at the unreality of it all. Unseen groups of men were fighting other men that they rarely saw.

What actually happened at such decisive moments in the infantry battle was analysed by Major GS Johns of US 29th Division in Normandy. First a machine gun might be knocked out. A man or two was killed or wounded, then:

Eventually the leader of the stronger force, usually the attackers, may decide that he has weakened his opponents enough to warrant a large concerted assault, preceded by a concentration of all the mortar and artillery support he can get. Or the leader of the weaker force may see that he will be overwhelmed by such an attack and pull back to another position in his rear. Thus goes the battle – a rush, a pause, some creeping, a few isolated shots here and there, some artillery fire, some mortars, some smoke, more creeping, another pause, dead silence, more firing, a great concentration of fire followed by a concerted rush. Then the whole process starts all over again.

Useful as it was, the advice of the 1942 manual was not given in isolation, nor was it regarded as the final word. In addition to two formal amendments, Infantry School offered a series of pictorial supplements, intended not only to keep the subject fresh and up to date but to present what might otherwise be dry and dense material in a fashion accessible to the NCO. Training Bulletin GT-20 of March 1943 for example expanded specifically on the subject of the approach march. By means of cartoon-style sketches, a simplified text, and tactical diagrams it showed exactly how the squad and platoon were expected to look, lined up for inspection, and in a series of tactical situations. Pictures showed how useful the informal platoon column was in moving through woods, fog, smoke or darkness, narrow spaces, and artillery fire, but also how dangerous it could prove if exposed to fire from the front. Also explained were the ideas of the ‘base squad’, tactical movement, and scouting. Platoon formations such as line of squads, and dispositions with one squad forward and two back – or vice versa – were similarly illustrated. As the Training Bulletin was issued on a scale of one per platoon it would appear to have been intended to reach platoon commanders and sergeants, and through them – probably verbally, their men.

The final US statement on small-unit infantry tactics prior to D-Day was the deservedly well renowned March 1944 edition of Rifle Company, Infantry Regiment. A solid 300 pages, this managed to incorporate the minutiae of several previous field manuals with some of the handy pictorial references of Training Bulletin. It encapsulated, so far as they were required for infantry, diagrams of the field works pioneered by the Protective Measures and Field Engineering manuals. Updated information was also given on the role and issue of individual weapons within platoons. Rifle grenade launchers were now widely distributed, ideally three per squad, plus one each to communication sergeants, platoon guides, squad and section leaders in light machine-gun squads, and even to truck drivers. Carbine launchers were also on hand, with one specifically allotted to the company bugler. Launchers were used for both the anti-tank grenade and, by means of an adaptor, the anti-personnel Mark II type. Hand grenades were described as being ‘especially useful’ against weapon crews or other small groups where they were located in places inaccessible to rifle fire, but inside the minimum range of high-angle rifle grenade fire.

For basic fire and movement the squad was regarded as three teams ‘Able’ which was the two scouts; ‘Baker’ comprising four men with the BAR; and the ‘Charlie’ five-man manoeuvre and assault team. The leader initially attached himself to the scouts. Where casualties intervened it was actually often the practice to make do with two teams, the smaller having the BAR. When one team was moving another was the ‘foot on the ground’, much as on the British model. Yet fire was also seen as antidote to many an adverse situation. As George S Patton put it,

The proper way to advance, particularly for troops armed with that magnificent weapon the M-1 rifle, is to utilise marching fire and keep moving. This fire can be delivered from the shoulder, but it can be just as effective if delivered with the butt of the rifle half way between belt and the armpit. One round should be fired every two or three paces. The whistle of the bullets, the scream of the ricochet, and the dust, twigs and branches which are knocked from the ground and the trees have such an effect on the enemy that his small arms fire becomes negligible.

Raids received more detailed treatment than before. Rifle companies were most likely to be committed, day or night, in ‘supported raids’. Ordered by battalion commanders who set the mission, time, and objective, these depended on both the element of surprise and the fire of supporting weapons. Details, however, were left to the company commander, who was usually given discretion regarding training, equipment, and conduct of the raid. His course of action would be informed by a preliminary reconnaissance. Important decisions included the designation of leaders and objectives for each party, and how to deploy the weapons platoon. Given that raids would not generally require heavy weapons to displace forwards, possible options included using its elements to protect flanks, assist in covering the withdrawal, reinforcing support fires, or provide men to carry captured materials or guard prisoners.

Company commanders were also well advised to keep in hand a support party, including rocket launchers, to use against unexpected enemy resistance or counter attack. This was particularly necessary since positions left vacant during the day might well be occupied by enemy reserves at night. Indeed, US instructions on night deployment specifically recommended that platoons close up tighter to each other at night, as this enabled them to keep in touch and reduced the possibility for infiltration under darkness. If a raid proceeded without preparatory fire by support weapons, the company commander had to be particularly careful to plan the timing of ‘protective fires’ by means of which objectives could be ‘boxed in’. Premature shooting roused the enemy, late firing might mean enemy units adjacent joining in the fray. Daylight raids were almost always ‘supported’.

‘Infiltration’, already mentioned in earlier manuals, was further elaborated in Rifle Company, 1944. Not an easy technique to achieve successfully it was defined as, ‘a method of advancing unobserved into areas which are under hostile control or observation. It requires decentralization of control; it means giving a unit, small group, or even an individual soldier a mission to accomplish, unaided. Upon the success of this mission often depends the success of larger actions.’ Infiltrations might be accomplished under any condition of ‘limited visibility’, as for example darkness, fog, heavy rain, very rugged terrain, or undergrowth. How many troops were committed to infiltration depended on the mission: small patrols of two or three might be all that was required for information gathering, anything up to an entire company might make an attempt if the objective was to launch an attack against the rear of a hostile position. In any case, secrecy was crucial, both to success of the mission, and the extraction of any who objectives required that they be returned unseen. In many instances security was better maintained under cover of distractions or ruses such as firing, racing engines, pyrotechnics, or movement of other units.

Extremely useful were infiltrations in conjunction with a co-ordinated attack, and in such tactics the infiltrating unit might be tasked to launch an assault against the enemy rear, single out command, communication, or supply facilities. Ideally, if the main attack was by daylight the infiltrators should complete their movement under darkness at least half an hour before dawn. Infiltrating bodies and those working with them needed careful preparation, as for example an initial assembly area within friendly lines, instructions on passing through friendly outposts, gaps in fronts and information drawn from prior reconnaissance. Standard practice was to have guides leading the infiltrating body to their departure point, and where possible guides into and through the enemy position chosen from previous patrols. Scouts and patrols could usefully screen and protect movement. The main body of an infiltration team moved in column, dispersed as the unit commander saw fit, but with any heavy weapons having to be carried by hand, preferably toward the centre of the column. Speed of movement would necessarily depend on circumstances such as visibility, terrain, and enemy activity, but with infiltration secrecy was more important than haste and allowances had to be made that enemy patrols might appear and cause delays. With this in mind, radios and pyrotechnics were not to be used during an infiltration but men were to have silent weapons to hand such as trench knives, small axes, ‘blackjacks’, and clubs.

Small groups could also perform useful infiltrations during larger attacks or in defence,

When the attack is slowed down or stopped, or when the attack is endangered, infiltrating elements may be able to work their way into enemy controlled terrain to cause confusion, give the impression of an attack from a different direction, disrupt communications or supply, or in other ways confuse or harass the enemy. They may move around organised localities and threaten them from the rear. These elements may consist of two or three individuals, or of entire squads.

It followed that units also had to be vigilant against the possibility of enemy infiltration, with observers covering open ground, and ‘roving combat patrols’ in places that could not be overlooked. Night patrols and ‘listening posts’ might substitute for conventional techniques after dark.

As before, the lighter weight Infantry School illustrated Training Bulletins supplemented the main manual. That of 30 June 1944 dealt with ‘security missions’, and was, in effect, a punchy aide-memoir against being taken unawares, it being ‘inexcusable for a commander to be surprised by the enemy’. The Training Bulletin therefore included not only pictorial refreshers on outposts, advanced, flank and rear guards, and the duties of the ‘point’ during the advance, but handy tips on civilians and sentries. The possibility that civilians might be something other than refugees or innocents was addressed by injunctions on preventing them preceding an advanced guard and prohibiting them from passing through outposts. In the event of encountering large numbers of refugees it was expected that ‘higher authority’ would issue orders on ‘collection and subsequent disposal’.

Given the special conditions encountered in the close bocage of Normandy such reminders were timely indeed. As Lawrence Nickell of 5th US Division recorded, the countryside here was cut into tiny parcels by old walls and hedges,

They were stone walls erected hundreds of years ago as the rocky fields of Normandy were cleared for cultivation. Over the years they had become overgrown with vines, trees had grown up on them and they were often three or more feet in thickness and six feet or more high. The Germans dug deep, standing depth foxholes behind the hedgerows and punched holes in the base of the hedgerows to permit a good field of fire for the machine guns they relied on so heavily.

Multiplied hundreds of times this became a whole new system of defence requiring new methods of attack, as was made clear by a 1st Army report,

In effect, hedgerows subdivide the terrain into small rectangular compartments which favour the defense. With careful organisation each compartment can be developed into a formidable obstacle to the advance of attacking infantry. By tying in adjacent compartments to provide mutual support a more or less continuous band of strongpoints may be developed across the front. Handicapped by lack of observation, difficulty in maintaining direction, and inability to use all supporting weapons to their maximum advantage the attacker is forced to adopt a form of jungle or Indian fighting in which the individual soldier plays a dominant part. The most effective attack proved to be by the combined action of infantry, artillery and tanks with some of the tanks equipped with dozer blades or large steel teeth in front to punch holes through the hedgerows. It was found necessary to assign frontages according to specific fields and hedgerows instead of by yardage and to reduce the distances and intervals between tactical formations. Normal rifle company formation was a box formation with two assault platoons in the lead followed by the support platoon and the weapons platoon.

Often the link between arms of service had to be closer still. Reports of the US 90th Infantry Division for example mention the motto ‘one field, one squad, one tank’. On approaching the enclosure the tank broke through into the field first, under cover of the infantry weapons. Inside it took position to cover the foot soldiers who advanced along the field edges. After initial heavy going the 29th under Major General Gerhardt adopted, and may even have initiated, much the same tactic, going so far as to practise and demonstrate the method at the divisional training centre at Couvains. On occasion the relationship of armour and infantry was reversed so that an infantry battalion was attached to a tank battalion for local security and ground holding. For bigger attacks the new Infantry Battalion manual of 1944 prescribed careful thought as to whether one arm should precede the other into action, or whether in the face of a well-prepared enemy ‘composite waves’ of tanks and infantry, following hard on indirect artillery and direct support fire, was the most flexible option.

Though Normandy was rightly regarded with huge mistrust as a hotbed of enemy snipers, and frequently trees and hedges were riddled by BAR men on the least suspicion of enemy activity, 1944 also saw the ultimate fruition of US techniques with the publication of FM 21-75 Scouting, Patrolling, and Sniping. As this appeared as early as February there was certainly opportunity for it to be seen, if not exhaustively practised, by the time of Overlord. As in earlier British summaries, the link between intelligence gathering, and the arts of stealthy movement, patrols, and sniping was seen as crucial. It brought together many of the earlier summaries of fieldcraft, stressing individual concealment, the need to remain motionless, and the value of observing and shooting through, rather than over cover. ‘Cover’ itself was now differentiated as a matter of course from ‘concealment’: the former protected against hostile weapons, the latter only against observation.

Whilst various forms of diamond arrangement for patrols of 8, 9, 12 or larger numbers were outlined, US patrolling formations were now regarded as ‘fluid and flexible’ with individuals taking their cue from the patrol leader and having regard to their ability to see each other whilst making ‘full use of cover and concealment’. Patrols could indeed change shape as they proceeded, and there was a general intention that should a patrol be fired upon the minimum number would be ‘pinned down’ by the enemy intervention:

Within a designated formation, points and flank groups move in and out as required in order to observe any cover for an enemy up to 100 yards, provided the inside man of the group can maintain visual contact with the patrol leader. Individual patrol members automatically move closer together in thick cover, fog, and at night; and farther apart in open terrain, clear weather, and in daylight. In general however, the lateral movement of flank groups is limited to 100 yards from the axis of advance.

Patrols were divided broadly into reconnaissance and combat missions. As in the British model, the former were the minimum size to achieve the objective, two or three men often being sufficient unless the excursion was expected to be protracted, or spares were needed as messengers. Reconnaissance patrols were not to indulge in combat unless for self protection or out of vital need to complete a mission, but specialists such as radio operators, mine technicians, or pioneers might be included as required. Examples requiring such special skills might include reconnaissance of mine fields, checking of friendly or enemy wire, or missions requiring rapid transmission of information to other units or HQs. Combat patrols could be both offensive and defensive. They might for example be required to screen a position, maintain a presence during darkness, or protect outposts, flanks, or important features and supply routes. Offensively they could be tasked for missions such as the capturing of prisoners or materiel, infiltration, destruction, or the interception of enemy patrols. Specific patrols were also mounted for sniper clearance.

US snipers were now defined as, ‘expert riflemen, well qualified in scouting, whose duty is to pick off key enemy personnel who expose themselves’. Eliminating enemy leaders and harassing the enemy by sniping softened enemy resistance and weakened morale. Snipers could be operated singly, in pairs, or small groups, and might be mobile or operate from stationary ‘observer-sniper posts’.

The mobile sniper acts alone, moves about frequently, and covers a large but not necessarily fixed area. He may be used to infiltrate enemy lines and seek out and destroy appropriate targets along enemy routes of supply and communication. It is essential that the mobile sniper hit his target with the first round fired. If the sniper is forced to fire several times, he discloses his position and also gives the enemy opportunity to escape. Therefore, although the mobile sniper must be an expert shot at all ranges he must be trained to stalk his target until he is close enough to insure that it will be eliminated with his first shot. Stationary observer-snipers: teams of two snipers may work together, operating sniping posts assigned definite sectors of fire. Each sniper is equipped with field glasses. His rifle has telescopic sights. One man acts as observer, designating the targets discovered to the firer and observing the results of fire. Using field glasses, the observer maintains a constant watch. Because this duty is tiring, it is necessary that the observer and sniper change duties every 15 to 20 minutes.

Sniper posts were chosen as good for concealment but offering excellent fields of fire. The exits from the post to the rear were to be well concealed, though covered approaches from flanks were avoided as far as possible. Actual firing points were not to be on skylines or against contrasting backgrounds, and so arranged that the muzzle of the rifle did not project obviously or dust was kicked up when a weapon fired. Snipers could not smoke in the post, and alternative posts were provided so that locations could be changed frequently. Individual snipers were usually armed with the sniper rifle, but for close country carbines might be chosen, and for missions behind enemy lines might carry other weapons such as a pistol or sub-machine gun. British sniper officer Clifford Shore considered the M1 Carbine the ideal mate to a telescoped rifle, with the second man firing the semi-automatic, as ‘for handiness mobility and ease of shooting this little carbine was certainly the finest weapon I ever handled’.

‘Several men’ per platoon were to be trained in the sniper role, though only one or two might actually be needed at any given time. The ideal candidates were already good shots with a sense of fieldcraft, and these were further trained in camouflage, navigation, silent movement, and made ‘physically agile and hardened, and able to sustain themselves for long periods of detachment from their units’. Contrary to popular belief, US snipers were not usually employed at very long ranges, nor did they constantly reset their telescopic sights to various ranges. Normally, sights were left set at 400yd and the sniper adjusted his own aim and sight picture automatically to compensate for distance, movement, and other factors. When the target was at 400yd and stationary the sniper aimed directly at the centre of mass, dropping his aim a foot for closer targets. For further objects he aimed higher, as for example at the top of an enemy’s head at 500yd. At 600yd the point of aim was 52in above the point to be hit, and much more than this was deemed impractical under normal battle conditions where targets were small or fleeting.

The Transformation of Military Society in the Italian Wars

The military society of Italy had been transformed by the wars. The careers open to those who made war their profession were greatly changed, and a much higher proportion of Italian men would be expected to spend some time undergoing formal military training in militia companies.

In the fifteenth century, Italian professional soldiers had predominantly been cavalrymen, although maintaining their companies was a problem for condottieri when they were between contracts. Infantry constables might be given retainers in peacetime by condottieri or by states, but only limited numbers of their men would be kept on. After the early years of the wars, the French and Spanish kings did not want to hire  condottieri and their companies in the manner usual in Italy; if they were to hire Italian troops they preferred to have them fit into the existing structure of their own armies. Individuals given commands might be able to recruit at least some of their men themselves, or they might be given charge of an existing unit.

These changes applied to Italian condottieri princes as well as other captains. They might still be given military commands, but the system by which the maintenance of a military company was part of the patronage network binding subjects to their prince, and condotte were an integral element in the structure of relations between the Italian powers, weakened and lost much of its significance. Princes such as the d’Este of Ferrara or the Gonzaga of Mantua might be given commands or alliances in time of war, and might hope these would become permanent, but they could also find themselves expected to provide additional troops, artillery and munitions, food supplies and financial loans, as a gesture of loyalty to their patron or ally. Foreign monarchs were generally disappointed by the results in arrangements made with Italian princes. Often they did not get the commitment of the prince and the resources of his territory to the war that they expected. Italian princes, accustomed to regarding the primary purpose of troops paid for by condotte as the defence of their own states, could be reluctant to move far from home. In the later stages of the wars, Henry II, looking for friends and allies to help him keep a foothold in central Italy, placed great reliance on subsidies to Italian princes. The king could have all of Italy, if he would pay a million écus a year, his paymaster there, Dominique du Gabre, warned in 1556, but the trouble was that once such payments began they could not be stopped and seemed `an hereditary contribution’.

Italians looking for a military career would have found fewer opportunities to serve in units of men-at-arms, as these were no longer the dominant element in armies. (At the beginning of the wars, the strength of armies tended to be defined in terms of the numbers of men-at-arms; by the end, principally in terms of the number of infantry.) Those who did become men-at-arms would find themselves last in line for pay, with their French and Spanish counterparts. The expectation was that men-at-arms would have means of their own, and could support themselves unsubsidized for long periods. Many nobles still preferred to serve as men-at-arms, because of the social prestige attached to it – serving as infantry commanders was one thing, serving as rank and file infantrymen quite another – and their employment was to some degree a political as much as a military choice. By the mid-sixteenth century, the Venetians, for example, had `accepted the fact that the retention of heavy cavalry was primarily an exercise in maintaining good relations with powerful Terraferma families and a diversion of their chivalrous pretensions into a form of public service’. Italians did make a reputation for themselves during the war as light cavalrymen. But units of light horse tended to be hired or raised for specific campaigns, so many would be dismissed in peacetime. Mercenary infantry companies of the size and professionalism of the landsknechts and the Swiss pike companies did not develop in Italy. The arquebus rather than the pike became the weapon of Italian specialist infantry. Companies of Italian infantry could be raised for a campaign, but were generally less valued than other infantry units in field armies. Usually paid less, they were the first to be turned off when funds ran down. They were more valued as garrison troops, and it was acknowledged they could perform better under siege than the Swiss or Spanish.

As elsewhere in Europe, by the second half of the sixteenth century, some kind of military service in a militia was becoming a much more common experience for Italian men. It has been estimated that in the early seventeenth century one in fifteen Italian men was enrolled in a militia. In Venice in the mid-sixteenth century, of the 200,000 men on the Terraferma believed to be fit for active service, one in seven was a militiaman. Militias had fought in some of the campaigns of the Italian Wars – the Venetian militia in the War of the League of Cambrai, for example, and the Florentine during the last stages of the Pisan War, the siege of Florence and the War of Siena. Cosimo de’ Medici was proud of his Florentine forces, 23,000 strong, `a very fine band, all armed, some with corselets and pikes’, he told the Venetian ambassador around 1560; another 7,000 were raised in his new Sienese lands: `Sienese territory always produces good soldiers’. For him, as for Emanuele Filiberto, whose military reforms in Savoy and Piedmont in the 1560s attracted the interest of other rulers, a strong militia, well trained and well-armed, was an important element in the image of the strong and independent prince that they wished to project.

All the militias, theirs included, were intended to be primarily defence forces. For those in states with coastlines exposed to attacks from the Turks and Barbary corsairs, defence against raiders from the sea was their primary role. Venice had a separate galley militia, distinct from the forces in the Terraferma. The need to defend a long coastline was the primary reason for the formation of the militia in the kingdom of Naples in the 1560s; no permanent militia forces were raised in landlocked Lombardy until the seventeenth century. Service in the militia gave many civilians training in the use of military weapons, generally the arquebus and the pike. Permission to keep and carry arms was one of its main attractions. The cavalry unit formed in Naples in 1577 – initially 1,200, increased to 3,000 in 1520, alongside the 20,000-24,000 foot – seems to have been an exception to the general rule that militias tended to be infantry. Those selected for cavalry service were to serve at their own cost, and were to be expert horsemen already. The many barons of the kingdom provided an ample pool from which they could be recruited. The cavalry units Emanuele Filiberto aimed to raise alongside his infantry militia were to be provided by fief-holders, in accordance with longstanding obligations of the landed nobility of Savoy and Piedmont.

Mastering the skills of horsemanship necessary to fight on horseback was becoming part of a fashionable education for members of the urban nobilities who had no intention of ever going to fight in a war. Learning the art of handling a sword and a rapier was also an essential skill for those who affected a sense of personal honour to be defended and maintained by duelling, if need be, following a formal code of practice that developed among the military nobility and professional soldiers. Such social trends were evident in other parts of Europe too, but the adoption by many members of the civic nobilities of Italy of the ethos of the military nobility was a notable development. Although the military nobility had often had close ties to towns and close association with members of civic elites, there had been acute awareness of a social and cultural distinction between them, on both sides, and sometimes a measure of mutual disdain. Contact with the nobles and soldiers of other nations during and after the wars spurred on members of the civic elites to assert their right not only to be considered as nobles, but as gentlemen with personal honour to be respected and defended. For a member of a civic nobility, becoming a professional soldier – serving in the cavalry or as an infantry commander – could be seen as conferring or confirming aristocratic status. The old landed nobility, on the other hand, became less military in character. Their ability to raise large numbers of fighting men among their tenants and partisans and their possession of fortresses, which had been the foundation of their political power before and during the wars, counted for much less in the new, more pacific political system.

After the wars ended, there was much less scope in Italy for those who wanted to have a military career, or to spend some time soldiering to enhance their credentials as a gentleman. There was ample scope for military service elsewhere in Europe, in the Netherlands, for example, or in campaigns against the Ottomans on land and sea, and many Italians went to serve abroad. Most spent some time in the service of Spain. For many Roman barons, serving the king of Spain or France was preferable to service in the papal army – just as serving the pope had often not been the first choice of earlier generations of the military nobility of the Papal States. Neapolitan and Lombard nobles, who sought to win the favour of the king by military service, had to leave Italy to do so, even though Naples and Lombardy had a significant military function within the Spanish empire as bases and training-grounds for troops. Three of the tercios, the permanent infantry corps who formed the backbone of the Spanish army were based in Italy, in Naples, Lombardy and Sicily. Charles V had ordered that each tercio should be formed of men from one nation only, to pro- mote cohesion, but they were recruited in Spain, not Italy. Neapolitans could serve only in the militia, or abroad. In Lombardy, Italians were not supposed to serve even as garrison troops; fortresses were supposed to be manned by Spanish soldiers. In practice, some Italians could be found among the garrisons, if they pretended to be Spanish.

As the presence of foreign soldiers became a permanent fact of life for the people of Lombardy and Naples, and as a greater proportion of Italian men had undergone some form of military training as militiamen or as part of the education of gentlemen, so in many areas fortifications became a more dominant element of the landscapes and townscapes of Italy. Castles and fortified villages, walled towns and cities had been iconic elements of the medieval Italian landscapes portrayed in countless works of art, but the new principles of military engineering demanded radical changes to the appearance of the towns and cities provided with modern fortifications. These demanded broad swathes of cleared ground around fortifications and outside the lower, thicker city walls to provide clear sight and firing lines, and clear access to the walls inside the city, and the facility for defenders to move rapidly from one point to another. Older town walls were often integrated into the urban fabric, with buildings right up against them on the inside, and busy suburbs on the outside; often certain trades and industrial activities had become concentrated in the suburbs, where there was more space and less potential for annoying the neighbours. Building new fortifications could result in the levelling of many homes, business premises and religious buildings, and thriving communities would be swept away. It was easier for people to understand and tolerate such destruction in time of war; it was much more difficult to accept when there was no immediate threat.

Extensive programmes of fortifications, designed to be a coherent defensive system, were undertaken in several states. Some, like the fortresses and watchtowers built to defend the coasts of the kingdom of Naples, might well have been built even if the Italian Wars had never happened. But many were designed to strengthen defences whose weaknesses had been revealed during the course of the wars. In the duchy of Milan, the cities on the western frontier received particular attention, but other places such as Cremona and Milan itself, where Ferrante Gonzaga began the construction of new city walls when he was governor, were also given new defences. The Genoese initiated the building of a new circuit of walls and defences around their city after they came under threat from the French in 1536. In the city of Naples, the construction of a new fortress, Sant’ Elmo, in the form of a six-pointed star, on the hill of San Martino was intended by the viceroy Pedro de Toledo to dominate the city as well as strengthen its defences (and an entire quarter of the city was given over to be lodgings for Spanish troops). A new fortress at L’Aquila was intended to assert control over an area of rooted Angevin sympathies.

The Venetians had begun modernizing their fortifications in the Terraferma in the late fifteenth century, but the programme was extended and accelerated after the shock of the defeat at Agnadello in 1509. Two of their commanders, Bartolomeo d’Alviano and Francesco Maria della Rovere, had great influence over the planning and design of these works. As well as providing protection for the population and Venetian armies, the fortifications were intended to discourage invasion. `Fortifications and their garrisons provided the essential base from which to carry out Venice’s on-the-whole successful policy of armed neutrality’ – the policy adopted by Venice from the 1530s. A programme of fortifications was an integral part of Cosimo de’ Medici’s presentation of his new duchy as a strong state. Apart from the fortress in Florence itself, his major works were the fortified naval base he created on the island of Elba at Portoferraio, which he named Cosmopolis, and fortresses constructed to control routes through the Sienese, as at Grosseto, and the city of Siena itself, where near the ruins of the fortress begun by the Spanish, a huge quadrilateral fortress, with great angle bastions at each corner, was begun in 1560.

The famous city walls and ramparts of Lucca, begun in the 1540s and finally completed a century later, still convey an idea of how impressive and striking the appearance of cities enclosed by the new style of fortifications could be. Even with the ramparts planted with trees, and turned into a park running the length of the walls, they still sharply divide the city from its environs, and magnificent as they are, can still give an impression of constraining the city, although Lucca has now expanded beyond the walls, albeit at a respectful distance from them. When the new fortifications first went up around the towns and cities of Italy during and after the wars, their impact on the lives of the population was considerable. Apart from the destruction they entailed, these projects typically took decades to complete, with hundreds, even thousands, of (often conscripted) labourers toiling away. Often there would be fewer gates through the new walls, familiar routes would be cut, the sense of difference between the world inside and outside the walls greater than before. Many of these elaborate fortifications were never tested in war, and people must often have become more aware of how they inhibited urban expansion, rather than of their defensive purpose. For many Italians, the new fortifications remained the most tangible legacy of the Italian Wars.

Origins of the Wolf Pack

Hitler seized upon the Anglo-French guarantees to Poland as a pretext for abrogating the Anglo-German Naval Treaty. He did so publicly, in a sarcastic speech to the Reichstag on April 28 1939. Soon thereafter the Kriegsmarine laid the keels for the two super-battleships, Bismarck and Tirpitz. Despite these provocations and the public indignation and the stepped-up military preparations in Great Britain, Hitler continued to assert to his Nazi cohorts that neither Great Britain nor France would fight for Poland. Believing Hitler would pull another political rabbit out of his hat, Raeder naively—and irresponsibly—assured the Kriegsmarine that there would be no war with Great Britain.

Karl Dönitz was more convinced than ever that the opposite was the case. He believed that the “high state of tension” which Hitler had created between Great Britain and Germany could explode “into actual hostilities at any moment.” He therefore pleaded with Raeder and the OKM to approve a rapid increase in U-boat orders, with a major emphasis on Type VIIs, and to authorize theretofore prohibited U-boat exercises in the Atlantic Ocean. He got nowhere with his pleas for an increase in U-boat orders—the available shipyards were already jammed—but Raeder did permit the Atlantic exercises.

These exercises culminated in May 1939 with group or “wolf pack” attacks against a simulated convoy, composed of some Kriegsmarine vessels assigned to the annual fleet cruise to Lisbon and the western Mediterranean. A total of fifteen VIIs and IXs from the Salzwedel, Wegener, and Hundius flotillas participated. The “convoy” consisted of four German surface ships: a tanker, a freighter, Dönitz’s “command ship,” Erwin Wassner, and the Flotilla Salzwedel tender, Saar—the latter two vessels alternating as targets and defending escorts.

The fifteen U-boats deployed in five packs of three boats along a patrol line several hundred miles long. One pack quickly “found” the “convoy” and radioed a contact report to the other boats. In spite of clever evasive and defensive measures by the convoy—and extremely foul weather—the other boats converged on the target and attacked it relentlessly for over forty-eight hours, May 12 to 14. At the end of the exercise, thirteen of the fifteen boats converged for the final “kill.”

The exercise was wholly artificial and weighted to favor the U-boats. There were serious lapses in communications and tracking and gross errors in position reporting. Nonetheless, Dönitz could not have been more pleased. In a lengthy after-action critique, he concluded that the “principle of fighting a convoy of several steamers with several U-boats” was “correct” and that “the convoy would have been destroyed.” His group or “wolf pack” concept was therefore a sound one for defeating Great Britain; he renewed his pleas to Raeder for a step-up in the construction of Type VIIs.

Absorbed in the grandiose Z Plan, the OKM emphatically disagreed with Dönitz. The senior submarine planner at the OKM, Werner Fürbringer, a rear admiral and an assistant to Raeder’s chief of staff, Otto Schniewind, framed the response. “At the present moment,” Fürbringer wrote, “U-boat blockade of England has very little prospect of success for Germany. Any contradictory opinion, which takes comfort in the large number of our U-boats or in the idea that the English U-boat defense will not be effective far out in the Atlantic, can be dismissed as misleading” and, furthermore, it would be “irresponsible to commit the valuable U-boat crews” to such a war. “It can be taken as proven,” Fürbringer went on, “that every English convoy, no matter whether it operates along the coast or on the high seas, will be secured by defensive forces, fully capable of destroying with certainty any attacking U-boat, even under the surface.” In support of has argument, Fürbringer stressed the effectiveness of British sonar and predicted that the British would again resort to defensive minefields, which had been so deadly effective against U-boats in World War I. Until U-boats could be made “sonar-immune,” it was pointless to even consider starting a U-boat campaign against British commerce.

The Fürbringer paper dismayed and enraged Dönitz. In response he drafted a reply for Fürbringer’s superior, Otto Schniewind, vigorously rebutting Fürbringer’s arguments point by point. Going a step beyond—a large and career-risking step—he communicated his arguments directly and emphatically to Raeder, and asked that Raeder in turn place his views “before Hitler.” Hitler’s response, relayed to Dönitz through Raeder, was, as Dönitz remembered it, that “he would ensure that in no circumstances would war with Great Britain come about. For that would mean finis Germaniae. The officers of the U-boat arm had no cause to worry.”

THE FIRST WOLF PACK

By the time Dönitz was ready to launch the second wave of U-boats to the Atlantic in early October, the Allies had organized most merchant shipping into convoys. Composed of thirty to forty ships, the majority of the convoys arrived and departed the British Isles through the Western Approaches. The heaviest convoy traffic ran across the North Atlantic between the British Isles and the strategically situated British colony of Newfoundland and its neighbor, the Canadian maritime province of Nova Scotia.

By October 1939, the North Atlantic convoy system was fully in place. On the western end, the port of Halifax, Nova Scotia, was the gathering place. All ships bound for the British Isles that cruised between 9 and 15 knots had to join convoys. There were two types of convoys: Halifax Fast (designated HX-F), composed of ships that cruised at 12 to 15 knots; and Halifax Slow (HX), composed of ships that cruised at 9 to 12 knots. Ships that cruised at speeds over 15 knots (considered too fast to be vulnerable to U-boats) were allowed to proceed alone, as were ships that cruised at less than 9 knots (considered too slow and not valuable enough to warrant the holdup of faster ships).

On the eastern end, the British Isles, departing convoys were categorized as Outbound. Those convoys bound for Halifax or elsewhere in the western hemisphere (the reverse of the Halifax convoys), composed mostly of ships in ballast, were designated Outbound B or OB. Some ships in OB convoys peeled away after some days of travel and went due south down the mid-Atlantic to ports in West Africa. Ships outbound from the British Isles that cruised faster than 15 knots or slower than 9 knots were also exempt from convoys.* Most North Atlantic convoys were escorted only during part of the voyage. The inexperienced and small Royal Canadian Navy (six destroyers) and the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) provided escort on the western end, going east several hundred miles with eastbound convoys and returning with westbound convoys. British and French surface ships and aircraft provided escort on the eastern end for Outbound convoys in a similar manner for a like distance. The important Halifax Fast convoys were escorted all the way across to the British Isles by Royal Navy capital ships (battleships, carriers) and their destroyer screens, or by cruisers. But only reluctantly. The long transatlantic voyage was very hard on these warships. The old destroyers assigned to this task (V and W class) could not cross the Atlantic without refueling, and the Royal Navy had not fully mastered ocean refueling. The modern destroyers could just barely make it across in heavy weather, which was the usual condition. Convoy escort was “defensive,” tedious, and boring for sailors trained to attack big German ships in complex fleet actions.

The Germans possessed a fairly accurate picture of Allied maritime traffic. During the 1935 crisis in the Mediterranean, when Italy invaded Abyssinia (Ethiopia), the Kriegsmarine codebreaking unit B-dienst (later directed by Heinz Bonatz) had broken the Royal Navy’s old-fashioned (nonmachine) operational codes and, later, the nonsecure British merchant marine code. From the outset of the war, B-dienst codebreakers had supplied the OKM with current information on the movements of most British capital ships and other naval formations as well as convoy routing and rendezvous points for the convoy escorts.

In the initial U-boat offensive the OKM had deployed the Atlantic boats to individual patrol zones before the convoys had formed. Almost all of the merchant ships they sank had been sailing alone. Now that convoying was in full swing, Dönitz believed the time was ripe to initiate his group (or “wolf pack”) tactics. The packs were to capitalize on convoy information provided by the codebreakers in B-dienst.

Dönitz planned to deploy two packs in October, composed of the ten boats he had recalled earlier: five Type VIIBs of the Wegener Flotilla and five Type IXs of the Hundius Flotilla. But that plan went awry. Five of the ten boats were unavailable: U-47 (assigned to the Scapa Flow mission) and U-52 (undergoing major repairs), U-38 (assigned to a special mission to Murmansk), U-39 (lost), and U-41 (undergoing major repairs).

The upshot was that Dönitz could mount only one pack, composed of six boats of an unwieldy mixture of types, from two different flotillas, which had not before exercised as a group: three VIIBs, U-45, U-47, U-48, and three IXs, U-37, U-40, and the U-42, the latter brand-new and rushed into service before completing a full workup. The senior officer, Hundius Flotilla commander Werner Hartmann, age thirty-seven, who had taken command of U-37, was to tactically direct the pack at sea.

Five of the six boats sailed independently into stormy, cold North Sea weather in the first week of October, going northabout the British Isles. Wrongly believing the Allies had not yet mined the English Channel, Dönitz ordered the last boat, U-40, a Type IX making its second patrol, with a new skipper, Wolfgang Barten, age thirty, to go by way of the channel to save time and catch up with the others.

While these boats were en route to the Atlantic, Hitler, poised to attack France (or so he thought), removed another important restriction on the U-boats. Commencing October 4, U-boats were permitted to sink on sight and without warning any blacked-out ship (including a neutral ship) sailing close to the British Isles in the Atlantic or North Sea and the French Atlantic coast. Dönitz and his skippers cheered this news, but to minimize charges of barbarism and inhumanity, Hitler had added a caveat: U-boats were still required to “save the crew” of any ship they sank if that could be done “without endangering” the U-boat.

Rushing to catch up with the other boats, U-40 ran at full speed through the English Channel on the surface. In the early hours of October 13, she hit a mine in the Dover-Cape Gris-Nez field. The boat blew up and sank immediately in 115 feet of water. Presumably, all hands on the bridge and in the forward compartments were killed instantly. But the watertight door in the stern room had been closed and as a result, nine enlisted men in that compartment survived the explosion and sinking. When they recovered from shock and ascertained what had occurred, the senior man, Otto Winkler, age twenty-one, organized an escape through the after deck hatch, which had a skirt for that purpose. After eating some biscuits, the men strapped on oxygen apparatus and flooded the compartment. When the water pressure in the compartment equalized with outside sea pressure, the hatch opened freely and the nine men—the first to escape a sunken U-boat—ascended.

Winkler was the last to leave the compartment. When he reached the surface he saw the eight other men swimming around in a cluster. It was dark—a new moon—and the channel water was frigid. Winkler thought he saw a lighthouse and began swimming toward it. Along the way he became nauseous and then he passed out. The next morning, two British destroyers (Brazen and Boreas) fished Winkler and two other survivors and five bodies from the water. All were wearing escape apparatus, labeled “U-40.” No trace was ever found of the remaining forty-six crew. Rushed to a hospital, Winkler and the other two lived to become prisoners. The next day, October 14, Boreas found an emergency telephone-equipped buoy, which had torn loose from U-40 in the explosion. Inscribed on a brass plate were these instructions: “U-boat 40 is sunk here. Do not raise buoy. Telegraph the situation to the nearest German naval command.”

Unaware of this loss, the other five boats of the “pack” headed for the Western Approaches one by one. First to arrive was the new, undertrained Type IX, U-42, commanded by Rolf Dau, age thirty-three. On the same day U-40 was lost, Dau found a 5,000-ton British freighter, Stonepool, which had separated from a convoy. Husbanding his torpedoes for pack operations, Dau attacked Stonepool with his 4.1” deck gun, but the freighter was armed, shot back, and radioed the SSS alarm. Two British destroyers, Imogen and Ilex, responding to the alarm, rushed up and attacked U-42 with guns, driving the boat under.

Attempting to evade, Dau took U-42 to 361 feet. But the destroyers fixed the boat on sonar and delivered an accurate and brutal depth-charge attack. One charge that exploded close over U-42’s stern ruptured the after-ballast tanks and lifted the bow to a 45-degree angle. In a desperate attempt to avoid sliding to crush depth stern first, Dau blew all ballast tanks. The U-42 shot to the surface like a giant cork, into the waiting arms of the destroyers, which instantly opened fire, scoring hits in the bow room. Holed fore and aft, U-42 began to sink. Ilex ran in at full speed to ram, but seeing that U-42 was doomed and sinking, she backed full astern to avoid damage to herself, and merely grazed the boat abaft the conning tower. Dau and sixteen men got out of the sinking boat through the conning tower hatch; the other thirty-two men were lost. Imogen fished the dazed German survivors from the sea.

By that time Dönitz had good information from the codebreakers of B-dienst on a special French-British convoy, KJF 3, inbound directly from Kingston, Jamaica, escorted by the monster French submarine Surcouf (two 8” deck guns). Assuming all six boats had reached positions in the Western Approaches, Dönitz ordered Hartmann to lead the pack in the attack. But two of the six boats had been lost and Hartmann, having sunk two neutral ships (a Swede and a Greek) en route, was behind schedule and too far away to take tactical command of the other boats.

Two VIIBs of the pack, operating independently, found the convoy and attacked. Herbert Schultze in U-48 sank two French ships from the convoy: the 14,000-ton tanker Emile-Miguet and the 7,000-ton freighter Louisiane, plus two British freighters, apparently stragglers from other convoys. Alexander Gelhaar in U-45 also sank two ships from the convoy: the 9,200-ton British freighter Lochavon and a prohibited vessel, the 10,000-ton French passenger liner Bretagne, which was running blacked out and therefore inviting trouble. While she slowly sank, British ships rescued 300 passengers.

Gelhaar in U-45 did not have to answer for this mistake. While he was pursuing another ship of the now-dispersing convoy, four British destroyers, Icarus, Inglefield, Intrepid, and Ivanhoe, which had responded to the SSS alarms, found U-45 and attacked. Nothing more was ever heard from U-45. She was the first VIIB and the first Atlantic boat to disappear without survivors.

The other two boats of the pack, U-37 and U-46, arrived too late to engage in a coordinated attack. However, on the morning of October 15, Hartmann in U-37 lucked into a straggler of the convoy, the 5,200-ton French freighter Vermont, and sank her with demolitions. But Herbert Sohler in U-46 never found the convoy at all. His sole contribution to the action was the interception of U-45’s last radio transmission (not received in Germany), which helped sort out Gelhaar’s first—and last—sinkings.

After the convoy dispersed, Dönitz, who was following the action by radio and by reports of distress calls and British movements provided by B-dienst, ordered the six boats (or so he thought) to move south to attack another convoy, HG 3, inbound from Gibraltar to the British Isles and to report results to date. Schultze in U-48 radioed four ships sunk for 29,000 tons; Hartmann in U-37, three ships sunk for 11,000 tons; Sohler in U-46, none. Wrongly believing Schultze and Hartmann had sunk a total of seven ships from the Caribbean convoy, Dönitz added all those to Gelhaar’s two and concluded that the first pack to attack an Allied convoy had sunk nine ships, an outstanding “success” that absolutely validated his pack doctrine. In reality, the first pack was so far a disaster: three of its six U-boats sunk; only four ships of the Caribbean convoy positively sunk, one of them a prohibited passenger liner!

While the boats were southbound on October 17, Hitler, still poised to attack France (as he thought), authorized a further relaxation in the rules. Henceforth U-boats could attack any “enemy” merchant ship (i.e., British or French) except big passenger liners, anywhere, without observance of the Submarine Protocol. In other words, U-boats were excused or exempted from the requirement to insure the safety of merchant-ship crews. This important relaxation allowed U-boats to wage unrestricted submarine warfare on all British and French shipping, except big passenger liners.

The luckless Sohler in U-46 was first to find convoy Homebound Gibraltar 3, which was heavily escorted by British destroyers transferring from the Mediterranean to home waters. He tracked the ships through the night, radioed a contact report, then submerged for a daylight attack. One of his first electric torpedoes pre-matured. In all, Sohler experienced seven torpedo malfunctions, but even so, he sank the 7,200-ton British freighter City of Mandalay. Brought into contact by Sohler’s report, Hartmann in U-37 sank the 10,000-ton British freighter Yorkshire and Schultze in U-48 got his fifth ship in as many days, the 7,250-ton British freighter Clan Chisholm.

Following this attack, Sohler broke radio silence to report the premature torpedo detonation and other torpedo problems. Shocked—and angry—Dönitz declared that the magnetic pistol was “not safe” under any circumstances and without consulting the OKM or the Torpedo Directorate, he ordered all boats to use only contact (or impact) pistols. Hence the more powerful effect of the magnetic pistol—exploding the torpedo beneath the ship—was lost. “We’re back to where we were in 1914-1918,” Dönitz noted bitterly in his war diary.

Upon learning that Dönitz had prohibited any and all use of the magnetic pistol, two days later, October 20, the Torpedo Directorate confessed to another defect. The torpedoes were indeed running deeper than set—6½ feet deeper. The Directorate technicians had known this all along, but did not report it to Dönitz because they did not believe it made that much difference when using magnetic pistols. But it did make a difference when using contact pistols. Dönitz hastened to relay this new discovery to his skippers, advising them to deduct 6½ feet from the usual depth settings for impact firing. The order introduced yet another complication. Since a depth setting of less than 13 feet was impractical when shooting in heavy seas, skippers were not to fire at any targets drawing less than 13 feet, such as destroyers.

Operations of the first wolf pack were terminated after the attack on the Gibraltar convoy. The two surviving VIIBs, U-46 and U-48, low on fuel and low on, or out of, torpedoes, returned to Germany, Herbert Schultze to rave reviews. In two patrols Schultze had sunk eight ships for 52,000 tons, elevating him to first place in total tonnage sunk. Extending his patrol to the approaches of Gibraltar, Hartmann in U-37 sank three more ships by gun and torpedo, establishing a new sinking record for a single patrol: eight ships sunk for 35,300 tons.

A careful after-action analysis of the first wolf pack deflated the earlier euphoria. In reality the attack on the Caribbean convoy was an uncoordinated free-for-all. Thanks to Sohler’s contact report, the attack on the Gibraltar convoy was slightly better coordinated. However, the boats had sunk only four ships from the Caribbean convoy and three from the Gibraltar convoy. Half the pack (three of six boats) had been lost to the enemy, two boats to convoy escorts. In a significant and far-reaching report, Hartmann, who had sunk only one ship from each convoy and who had found it impossible to “tactically coordinate” the other boats of the pack, recommended that the concept of flotillas and “local pack control” (at sea) be abandoned, and that all boats should be controlled individually from Dönitz’s headquarters.

Dönitz had three reasons for the failure to destroy the Caribbean convoy. First, the attack had been mounted too late—after the convoy was well into the Western Approaches and had been reinforced by local ASW vessels and had only a relatively short run to reach the safety of land. Second, in the confusion of combat, the boats making contact, U-45 and U-48, had not been able to transmit accurate data on the position, course, and speed of the convoy; hence help from U-46 had been lost. Third, there were too few boats in the initial attack—only two, actually—hence the escorts were able to concentrate on those two, sinking one, U-45.

The analysis led to three conclusions. First, convoys inbound to the British Isles from any direction had to be attacked as far out as possible in order to give the boats sufficient sea room for repeated attacks over several days and before the enemy added local ASW measures. Second, the boat first making contact with a convoy should not immediately attack, but instead should “shadow” it, transmitting “beacon” signals to “home” in other boats of the pack. Third, after the other boats arrived, all were to attack simultaneously in a single massive blow, which would scatter the convoy and overwhelm the escorts, maximizing opportunities for repeated attacks and minimizing counterattacks.

These tactics could be tested in Baltic training exercises, but not in Atlantic combat. There were not to be enough oceangoing boats to mount another full-scale wolf pack for months to come.

The Build-Up of the Luftwaffe I

More than the rearmament of the army and the navy, the spectacular development of the Luftwaffe in the six years from 1933 until the outbreak of the war aroused the boundless admiration as well as the dark forebodings of contemporaries. Even today the inventions and brilliant technical achievements of those years in the area of aircraft and rocket construction are still surrounded by myths which lend the brief history of the Luftwaffe a special glory, in spite of its ultimate failure. The change from the biplane to the first jet fighter in the world, from the three ‘aerial advertising squadrons’ of 1933 to the 4,093 front-line aircraft at the beginning of the war was indeed without parallel in the short history of military aviation. It inevitably reminds one of the German fleet programme under William II and Admiral von Tirpitz between 1897 and 1914, but not of the work of Tirpitz’s epigone Raeder. Above all, the immediate secondary effects of the fleet and the Luftwaffe, both of them eminently the products of modern industrial technology, were very similar. In both cases fascination with new possibilities opened up by a new weapon combined with a nationalistic claim to great-power status to produce an awareness of power that led to quite similar consequences in foreign policy. The diplomatic, political, and military reaction of Britain to the perceived threat of the German naval and later the Luftwaffe build-up demonstrates this fact with startling clarity. But this similarity probably did not extend to the political and military motives behind the Luftwaffe build-up. Moreover, it must be asked whether this build-up did not differ fundamentally from the imperial fleet construction programme of the turn of the century, because of its greater dependence on technology and the resulting planning and economic problems. Nevertheless, the similarity, which was also noticed by contemporaries, may provide better insights into the political and military problems involved in the Luftwaffe build-up.

The ‘Risk Luftwaffe’ 1933-1936

The ideas developed within the framework of general Reichswehr planning concerning the future creation of an air arm have already been mentioned. Essentially they envisaged the use of air power to support the army and navy. Specific organizational and technical as well as personnel and material measures, some of which were very significant, had already been taken in accordance with this objective. The appointment of Göring as Reich commissioner for aviation on 30 January 1933 and of Erhard Milch as state secretary in Göring’s Reichskommissariat seemed to mark a basic change in this area. Immediately after his appointment Milch indicated that the Reichskommissariat should be considered only an interim stage on the way to a Reich aviation ministry, which would be responsible for all areas of civil and military aviation. When this ministry was created by a decision of the president and a decree of Defence Minister von Blomberg on 10 May 1933, it represented more than a centralization of all branches of aviation. Göring’s influence within the Party and his many positions and tasks in the government meant that the status of the Luftwaffe as an independent service within the Wehrmacht was secured once and for all without the loss of time and energy connected with similar developments in other countries. The army and especially the navy did not accept this drastic limitation of their authority over air units without resistance. They attempted to regain the lost ground, but all their efforts failed because the most important man in the Nazi movement after Hitler had set himself the task of creating an independent Luftwaffe as an appropriate expression of Germany’s claim to be a great power. Of course the status of an independent service also offered new possibilities in setting and planning armament targets.

Milch, who was the driving force behind the planning and realization of the Luftwaffe armament programme until the end of 1936, concerned himself after April 1933 at the latest with drafting a new arms plan for the service. In May he received a memorandum from the Lufthansa director Dr Robert Knauss on ‘The German Air Fleet’, containing ideas with which he declared his ‘complete’ agreement. As this memorandum received Milch’s approval, it can be considered the earliest authoritative statement reflecting the views of the air ministry chiefs on the basic principles of air warfare.

Knauss’s basic assumption was that the goal of the ‘national government’ was to ‘re-establish Germany’s position as a great power in Europe’, and that this goal could only be reached by a rearmament that would at least permit Germany to fight a ‘two-front war against France and Poland with prospects of success’. In Knauss’s opinion, there was no more effective means than the creation of a strong air force to shorten the ‘critical period’ required for the realization of this aim. For him ‘the most important feature of the Luftwaffe as an independent service was the ‘long- range, operationally mobile striking power of its bombers’. This ‘would greatly increase the risk for any conceivable enemy in a war’ and would reduce the danger of a preventive attack against a Germany that was regaining its strength. The striking feature of this plan for a ‘risk Luftwaffe’ was not only its revival of Tirpitz’s military theory, but primarily that it closely followed Hitler’s views in his talk to the Reichswehr leaders on 3 February 1933.

The most important factor in determining the effect of the memorandum was probably that Knauss was not content to present his suggestion for a ‘risk Luftwaffe’ and embellish it with ideas of the Italian aerial warfare theoretician Douhet. He described in detail the operational possibilities as well as the tactical and organizational principles and requirements for the aeroplanes to be produced, and argued that they were quite achievable. This gave his programme clarity, coherence, and persuasiveness.

Specifically, Knauss proposed the rapid, secret creation of a force of about 390 four-engine bombers supported by ten air reconnaissance squadrons. He believed it would be possible ‘to prepare the necessary personnel and material measures by using the army aviation units and the Lufthansa organization in such a way that they could be combined to form an air force in a surprisingly short time’. He was convinced that such a highly mobile, operational military instrument would give Germany decisive advantages in a possible conflict with France and Poland, but more important in his view was the expected deterrent effect of the ‘risk Luftwaffe’. To achieve his military objectives, Knauss argued forcefully for an armament policy with clear priorities. ‘Equal rearmament in all areas’ would lead to a ‘waste of energy’ and increase the danger of a preventive attack. In the risk phase of German rearmament, the rapid creation of five army divisions or the construction of two pocket battleships would only slightly change the balance of military power in Europe. This argument was directed primarily against the known construction plans of the navy. Knauss explicitly rejected the Tirpitz policy and, in the interest of national defence, assigned the navy only a defensive function in the North Sea and the Baltic. He explained that the funds required for the construction of two pocket battleships would be sufficient to build an air fleet of 400 large bombers, which would ‘secure Germany’s air superiority in central Europe within a few years’. But within the air programme too Knauss demanded clear priorities. Especially striking was his rejection of any operational function for fighter aircraft and his description of them as only support weapons for the army and the navy. For him the only important goal was the creation of a bomber fleet and the attached reconnaissance squadrons. He concluded his arguments for a ‘risk Luftwaffe’ and its great importance for the success of general rearmament by pointing out that in Italy and France the idea of independent, operational air warfare had many supporters, and that especially the new French minister of aviation, Pierre Cot, had already taken the first steps in this direction. Any delay would therefore reduce the ‘lead Germany can gain today, perhaps for a decade, by creating an air fleet’, and ‘precisely that decade would be decisive’. Knauss professed himself optimistic, for the ‘enormous dynamism of the national government’ and the ‘leadership qualities of the first German minister of aviation’ were the best guarantee that the ‘life-or- death decision’ regarding the Luftwaffe build-up would be made quickly and that all resistance to carrying it out would be overcome.

In spite of Milch’s agreement, the effect of Knauss’s memorandum on the armament planning of the Luftwaffe cannot be precisely determined. On Milch’s orders the responsible departments of the newly founded ministry of aviation had been studying the possibilities of a first, large-scale aircraft procurement programme since the beginning of May. His suggested objective of 1,000 aeroplanes for the first build-up phase in 1933-4 proved to be somewhat unrealistic at first because of the small capacity of the German aircraft industry. As early as June 1933 preparations had reached a point at which Milch and the head of the Ministeramt in the defence ministry, Colonel von Reichenau, were able to agree on a provisional armament programme, which was approved by Göring and Blomberg around the end of the month. This envisaged the creation of an air fleet of about 600 aeroplanes in fifty-one squadrons by the autumn of 1935. lB1 In contrast to all previous air armament programmes, this one was characterized by a strong emphasis on bomber squadrons. The backbone of the air fleet was to be twenty- seven bomber squadrons in nine groups. This programme, which was changed slightly in August and September, was only partially compatible with Knauss’s ideas, for neither did the air fleet consist of the uniform type of heavily armed bomber he wanted, nor was it to be as large as he had recommended. Nevertheless, about 250 bombers were to be available for combat by the autumn of 1935. Without setting a date for achieving his target, Knauss had demanded a fleet of about 400. On the other hand, the basic features of the programme clearly reflected the idea of the ‘risk Luftwaffe’. The bomber groups were to form the core of the future Luftwaffe and assume the political and military deterrence functions Knauss had assigned to them.

And although the Luftwaffe created on the basis of this programme was indeed inadequate, it fulfilled its political tasks from the very beginning far better than Knauss had demanded. His air fleet had been conceived primarily as a weapon against Germany’s continental neighbours, especially France and Poland. Paradoxically, however, it produced the strongest political reaction in Britain, a country Knauss had not mentioned at all in his memorandum and which could not be seriously threatened by the aircraft of the first German armament programme. The first signs of public concern in Britain about the Luftwaffe build-up could be observed as early as the summer of 1933. This concern was intensified by developments in Germany and by the German withdrawal from the League of Nations and the disarmament conference. The threat from the air and the graphic description of all its possible aspects soon became a constant subject in the British media. Baldwin’s statement in the House of Commons on 30 July 1934 that, in view of the developments in military aviation, Britain’s line of defence was no longer the cliffs of Dover but the Rhine marked the first high point of this general anxiety. Compared with other European air forces, the German Luftwaffe was still weak at the end of 1934; its number of usable, front-line aeroplanes is estimated at about 600. This modest force had, however, created a situation which permitted Hitler to negotiate with Britain about an air pact. In the first phase of its build-up, which at least bore some similarity to Knauss’s principles, the Luftwaffe had fulfilled its intended purpose. There is no evidence of how the air force leaders reacted to this overestimation of their capabilities or what conclusions they drew. But it is improbable that they were completely unaffected by the public debate. It is rather more likely that, in contrast to the starting situation Knauss had described, Britain began to assume an increasingly important role in the thinking of the Luftwaffe leaders. At first it was not, of course, included in their operational planning, but it was regarded more and more as a competitor and a standard by which the Germans measured their own accomplishments. Thus, the political effects of the ‘risk Luftwaffe’ were much more far-reaching than originally intended and opened up possibilities beyond the first, limited objectives.

Knauss had written his memorandum at a time when the first organizational decisions for the build-up of an independent service had been taken, but the personnel and material decisions were still open. The ministry of aviation created by Blomberg’s decree of 10 May 1933 was composed of Göring’s Reichskommissariat and the recently organized Luftschutzamt (air-defence office) of the defence ministry, with responsibility for ‘aviation and air defence of the· army and navy’. The scale of German efforts in this initial phase can be judged by the fact that at the beginning of June 1933 the staff of the ministry consisted of only seventy- six active and retired officers. Moreover, as a result of the long years of intensive preparation by the army and navy, the state secretary in the air ministry was also in charge of the first flying units camouflaged as ‘aerial advertising squadrons’: i.e. the flying school command organized in February 1933, which was responsible for the military departments of the civilian schools in Brunswick, Jüterborg, Schleißheim, Warnemiinde, and Würzburg, as well as the German military aviation centre at Lipetsk in the Soviet Union. These institutions formed the essential organizational foundation for the Luftwaffe build-up. On the whole, probably only a relatively small number of people were involved in German military aviation in the summer of 1933. Under the provisions of the treaty of Versailles, which were still in force, an expansion of the Luftwaffe seemed possible only if all executive organs of the state, especially the Reichswehr and the transportation ministry, actively supported the new service.

At the commanders’ conference following the inauguration of the ministry of aviation, Blomberg took the opportunity to emphasize that the ‘flying officer corps’ should be an ‘elite corps’ imbued with ‘an intensely aggressive spirit’; its ‘preferential treatment in all areas’ was necessary and should be accepted by the other services. After they had been prepared for the new situation in this way and concrete planning had begun in the ministry of aviation, Blomberg informed his commanders at the beginning of October 1933 how far the army and navy were expected to contribute to the personnel build-up of the Luftwaffe. According to his figures 228 officers up to the rank of colonel had already been transferred to the Luftwaffe; an additional seventy were to follow by January 1934. About 1,600 non-commissioned officers and men had also been transferred. For reasons of secrecy the Luftwaffe continued to be dependent on the support of the army and navy in the following years. After 1934 it took over its own recruiting, but its personnel were still trained in units and schools of the other two services until 1935. According to Blomberg an additional 450 officers were to be transferred to the Luftwaffe by 1 April 1934; in the following years the Luftwaffe would itself have to recruit 700 officer cadets each year. Blomberg stressed that nothing would be more short-sighted than the transfer of poorly qualified personnel to the Luftwaffe; it needed rather ‘the best of the best’. At subsequent commanders’ conferences Blomberg continued to support energetically the wishes of the Luftwaffe in personnel questions and did not exclude compulsory transfers. The transfers to the Luftwaffe from the army and navy continued in the following years; in a survey of personnel requirements in December 1938, a result of Hitler’s armament demands, the transfer of army officers was taken for granted. A large number of young civilian pilots also joined the Luftwaffe officer corps at the beginning of 1934; so, after 1 April 1935, did officers of the flak artillery, the air signals corps, and the local defence units, the later supplementary reserve officers.

This incomplete survey clearly shows the difficult problems facing the Luftwaffe personnel office created on 1 October 1933, which had the task of forming a uniform officer corps under difficult conditions on the model of the other two services in the first phase of the secret build-up. From 1 June 1933 onwards the personnel system of the Luftwaffe was under the direction of Colonel Stumpff of the old army (Reichsheer), who became chief of the Luftwaffe general staff in June 1937. The difficult problems he faced can be better understood if one remembers the emphatic, gloomy warnings of the chief of the army personnel office in the summer and winter of 1935 against a new, accelerated expansion of the army. In addition to the necessity if forming the very difficult groups from varied professional backgrounds and experience in the other services and branches of the Luftwaffe into a uniform officer corps, Stumpff was confronted with the problem of familiarizing the new officers with the complex technology of their weapons, as competent leadership at all levels was impossible without such knowledge. Both these tasks, the formation of the officer corps and familiarization with the new technology, could be fulfilled, if at all, only in a lengthy process. The rapid, even over-hasty build-up between 1933 and 1939 created the worst possible conditions for such a development. The figures on the growth of the officer corps and personnel strength provide an impressive picture of the difficulties to be overcome. When camouflage measures were abandoned in the spring of 1935, the officer corps consisted of 900 flying and 200 flak officers commanding about 17,000 non-commissioned officers and men. Two and a half years later, at the end of 1937, the size of the officer corps had increased fivefold: in the three branches of the Luftwaffe there were slightly more than 6,000 officers. By August 1939 the corps had grown to more than 15,000 officers; the number of NCOs and men had risen to 370,000. Thus, after March 1935 the officer corps grew thirteen-fold in barely four and a half years. In view of the fact that, unlike the army, the Luftwaffe officer corps did not have a relatively broad, homogeneous base, it was probably lacking in the coherence necessary for the performance of its military functions. A particularly serious shortcoming was the fact that the entire senior officer corps of the Luftwaffe consisted of former army officers, who at first viewed the far-reaching possibilities of independent air warfare with skepticism and, above all, possessed no experience in commanding large air units. This problem was caused by the nature of the Luftwaffe build-up and could not be overcome before the outbreak of war. It is interesting that Dr Knauss, a director of Lufthansa, did not mention the personnel problems connected with the ‘risk Luftwaffe’ at all in his memorandum.

In addition to these weaknesses in personnel, which were in the final analysis unavoidable, the material build-up also led to enormous problems. As a result of discussions in the ministry of aviation and with the other two Wehrmacht services, Milch’s initial ideas of May 1933 assumed a form sufficiently concrete to make it possible to lay down the programme for the first organization period, 1934, in a directive of 12 July 1933. According to this programme a total of twenty-six squadrons were to be created as unit formations after 1 July 1934, but they were to be aligned with institutions of civil aviation ‘to preserve secrecy as far as possible’. The ten planned bomber squadrons, which were to be supported by seven reconnaissance and seven fighter squadrons, were the centre of the programme. Six weeks later, on 28 August, Milch signed the programme for the second build-up period, 1935. This programme envisaged the creation by 1 October 1935 of an additional twenty-nine squadrons as combat formations, of which seventeen were described as bomber squadrons, with only eight reconnaissance and four fighter squadrons. The number of aircraft delivered by the end of 1934 shows that the industry fulfilled its obligations according to the programme. At the end of 1934 the air units disposed of 270 bombers, ninety-nine single-seat fighters, and 303 reconnaissance aircraft; a much larger number, about 1,300 aircraft, were used for training and other purposes.

Schnelltruppen and Tank Co-operation I

‘The tanks advance by bounds from cover to cover, reconnoitering the terrain ahead and providing protective fire for the dismounted Panzergrenadiers’

– Handbook on German Military Forces

A highly distinctive, even unique, passage in the evolution of tactics during the Second World War was the development of special techniques for armoured and motorised infantry. Arguably Britain was world leader in this process, for as early as the 1920s it was decided that total army mechanisation should be a long-term goal. Actually to achieve something so ambitious would require overcoming not only the lobby in favour of the retention of the horse, but the financial constraints of a world in which military cutbacks were followed by depression. Nevertheless, and despite complaints of conservatism and short-sightedness, voices in favour of mechanisation gradually gained ground in the aftermath of the First World War.

Two key figures amongst these advocates were Major General ‘Boney’ Fuller, guru of the tank – described by one of his peers as not merely ‘unconventional’, but ‘prolific in ideas, fluent in expression’, and totally at odds with tradition and received opinion – and later Basil Liddell Hart. Fuller was lyrical, if not mystical, in his praise of tanks, at one time seeing them as replacing virtually everything else, becoming quite literally the ‘fleets’ of the land, made up of ‘landships’. Yet, by no means all of what Fuller preached was new: there were other tank advocates, the first British tanks had been dubbed ‘landships’, and as long ago as 1903 HG Wells had written a story containing ‘land ironclads’. In 1918, relatively swift ‘Whippets’ operated alongside larger numbers of slower infantry supporting tanks. The USA had embraced the tank idea first by using French machines, then taking part with Britain in the planning of the ‘Liberty’ tanks designed to have war-winning impact in 1919 – had the war in fact continued so long. Hart later said his conversion to the cause came in 1921, but his vision was more measured in that it included ‘land marines’ – or mechanised infantry – from an early stage. It also went with the flow to some degree, working as he did at various times in concert with Major Giffard Martel, Charles Broad, Colonel George Lindsay, and others. There were also some curious false starts, as for example when Martel proposed that entire units could drive into action in one-man tracked vehicles, somehow steering, shooting, communicating, and navigating entirely solo.

Though few of the pundits or visionaries would have liked the idea, eventual official acceptance of a good part of the mechanisation agenda probably did not stem from the supposed battle-winning potential of ‘tankettes’ or land armadas. Rather it was from a cooler realisation that the British Empire was enormous and that the nation would always be denied a large and expensive regular army, or rail transport that could be made to access every country village in India or Africa and at the same time remain invulnerable to sabotage. Another advantage appealing to those of a historical bent was that mechanising infantry and logistics might just allow campaigns to remain fluid long enough to avoid the perceived evil of trench warfare. So it was that the Mechanical Warfare Establishment was established in 1926, being re-christened as the Mechanisation Experimental Establishment (or ‘MEE’) in 1934. An ‘Experimental Mechanised’ force was started in 1927 at the instigation of the Chief Imperial General Staff, George Milne, machine-gun vehicles were tested with 2nd Battalion the King’s Royal Rifle Corps in 1928, and a tank brigade set up in 1931, becoming a permanent feature a couple of years later. The tanks and infantry were not usually operated as one formation, but as two elements – and in retrospect it may be perceived that this separation did not bode well for the future. Whilst progress was slow, and mass road transport capable of bussing entire armies would not materialise for a long time, significant steps were made. The MEE tested all sorts of military vehicles and devised specifications. Governments dreamed up measures for the encouragement of the motor industry and methods to commandeer their wares in time of war. Perhaps most importantly, gun tractors and crew carriers for the artillery, and motorised platoon trucks and little carriers became standard issues for the infantry battalions. With relatively few and trivial exceptions the British Expeditionary Force of 1939 would be free of reliance on the horse, and perhaps even more significantly could usefully employ the oil found in her colonies rather than have to reap and carry mountains of horse fodder. Fuel for motor vehicles could be moved long distance by rail and ship, in concentrated form.

Having been on the receiving end of the tank from 1916 – and massed armoured attacks from 1917 onward – Germany was by no means ignorant of the advantages of engines. She was, however, at first constrained by the Treaty of Versailles that demanded the handover of 5,000 motor lorries, and later completely banned German use of tanks as well as imposing severe financial penalties. This, together with problems internally and on the Polish border and Baltic, put severe obstacles in the path of development. Even so, there were manoeuvres in the Harz mountains using requisitioned civilian lorries in 1921, and soon Germany joined together with fellow pariah state Bolshevik Russia to examine and test tanks away from German soil. Dummy tanks later stood in on home exercises. One of those really convinced that mechanisation was the thing of the future was Heinz Guderian, who was at the ‘Inspectorate of Motorised Troops’ from 1931. The Kommando der Panzertruppen was established under General Lutz in 1934, and following exercises at Munsterlager the following year the first three Panzer Divisions were formed. As distinct to the arguably more ambitious British plan to motorise the entire army and give it teeth of special brigades and divisions composed mainly of tanks – still not achieved in the run up to war, the German scheme left large portions of the infantry with nothing but the ‘horse murderers’, animal-drawn heavy equipment wagons. A minority of the divisions would, however, be Panzer divisions, capable of autonomous action because they contained enough supporting arms, artillery, and motorised infantry to undertake pretty well any task.

Guderian’s book Achtung Panzer!, of 1937, showed that he had studied both French and British developments: it also gave a key vision of what motorised infantry were supposed to do,

The truck-borne infantry are protected against the elements, and in addition to the men and their equipment the vehicles carry extra loads such as ammunition, entrenching tools and requisites, together with rations for several days . . . the main tasks of motorised supporting infantry are to follow up at speed behind tank attacks, and complete and exploit their successes without delay. They need to put down a heavy volume of fire, and require a correspondingly large complement of machine guns and ammunition. It is debatable whether the striking power of the infantry really resides in the bayonet, and more questionable still in the case of motorised troops, since the shock power of tank formations is invested in tanks and their fire power. The French have drawn the appropriate conclusion and have equipped all their infantry companies with 16 light machine guns each, as opposed to nine of their German counterparts. Combat is not a question of storming ahead with the bayonet, but of engaging the enemy with our fire power and concentrating it on the decisive point . . . What we desire is a modern and fast moving force of infantry, possessing strong fire power, and specially equipped, organised and trained in co-operation with tanks.

Guderian’s work bore both tactical and personal fruit. About the time that he was writing his famous book it was decided that German motorised infantry should be given Gepanzerter Mannschafts Transportwagen – or armoured personnel carriers. Fully wheeled designs were rejected on grounds of insufficient cross-country performance; fully tracked designs were turned aside due to expense, complexity, and lack of production capacity. Development, therefore, focused on half-tracked vehicles, and in particular on the artillery tractors made by Hanomag, as these were the right size to carry a squad. In 1938 motorised infantry and cavalry were all designated Schnelletruppen, or ‘fast troops’, and put under Guderian’s command. Four separate motorised divisions were added to the German mobile infantry arm the following year, though only a few armoured carriers were available for the Polish campaign. Success of the tanks and the conversion of existing divisions made available ten Panzer Divisions for the French campaign of 1940. Paradoxically, British tactical analysts managed to get hold of good intelligence on the new formations some time after the fall of Poland and just before the battle for France. Its translation, digestion, and printing for general circulation occurred sometime after 1 May 1940, this being the period of the latest information contained in volume 18 of Periodical Notes on the German Army. So it was that just as the Schnelletruppen were driving over France and Belgium, British officers got a belated opportunity to know what had hit them.

The key German tactical document Provisional Instructions for the Employment and Tactics of the Motorised Infantry Regiment and Battalion of March 1941 was translated the following year in the USA as The German Motorised Infantry Regiment. This document recognised that not all ‘motorised’ infantry could operate the latest fully ‘armoured’ tactics as there were not enough armoured carriers for all units. Usually, half-tracks were limited to the first battalion of each regiment, the remainder having to make do with ordinary trucks. Whilst carrier production, mainly of the Sdkfz 251 types, continued apace, this deficiency was never fully rectified. Even as late as 1944 only a minority of Panzergrenadier units, such as the Grossdeutschland corps, were fully equipped with armoured transport. Though troops in ‘soft-skinned’ wheeled transport might move quicker on roads, they were very much limited as to how far into the action they could remain in their vehicles, and for the most part dismounted before encountering any hostile fire.

Interestingly, German instructions of the early war period recommended a maximum speed of about 15mph for the leading carrier of a formation, with no more than 20mph for wheeled transport. Faster movement in motorised infantry action was sometimes demanded, but instructions warned unit leaders that this opened up possibility of vehicle ‘strain’ and increased incidence of breakdown. Much the same considerations applied to the British in general, whose explicit policy regarding motorised troops was that they should leave their vehicles before making an attack, transport being parked out of sight until needed later. Indeed, under British organisation there were not only permanent motorised battalions, but armies and corps troop-carrying companies of the Royal Army Service Corps, the job of which was to ferry any chosen infantry brigade from one point to another, but had no combat function. As of 1939 maximum British convoy speed was set at 20mph, though such a velocity demanded regular stops every 3 hours. Suitable lorries and trucks were often dubbed ‘TCVs’, ‘Troop Carrying Vehicles’. Only in the last two years of the war were US armoured M3 half-tracks supplied to Britain.

The German 1941 instructions outlined an aggressive role for troops with armoured transport, ‘The possession of armoured personnel carriers enables motorised infantry units to overcome comparatively weak opposition without dismounting. They can follow up tank attacks on the field of battle without dismounting . . . Motorised infantry is characterised by ability to alternate rapidly between fighting from carriers and fighting on foot, and also to combine these two methods of combat.

It was assumed that on firm and level ground armoured carriers would be able to move at much the same speed as on roads and tracks, with the armour giving protection against ‘small arms fire, light infantry weapons and shell splinters’. Vehicles could, therefore, be ‘brought up to the battle area and moved about under fire from enemy infantry’. The main purpose of the armoured infantry was close co-operation with tanks, for which they cleared a path through any difficult country, as for example in securing river crossings, villages, and woods. They also undertook the detailed work of assault on fixed positions, as well as racing ahead of the tanks to seize strategic positions, pursuing, or carrying out ‘wide and sweeping envelopments’.

As of the 1941 provisional organisation the German armoured infantry regiment comprised just over 2,500 all ranks arranged in two battalions, and a gun company, plus attached engineers and signals. Altogether it deployed 153 machine guns, 36 mortars, and 16 assorted artillery pieces and anti-tank guns. The battalions contained three rifle companies, a machine-gun company and a heavy weapons company. When a whole battalion had sufficient space to deploy the normal formation was a massive arrowhead about 300m wide and 1300m deep with the three rifle companies, also in arrowheads, arranged one forward and two back. The MG company and heavy weapons took up the rear, whilst the whole was preceded by patrols to reconnoitre and seek out the route. Within each armoured carrier was a self-contained squad, essentially similar to those of the ordinary infantry, but with the important difference that each had at least two machine guns. On the march these were mounted on swinging pintles fore and aft, both capable of air and ground fire, though later models of carrier had various arrangements. The initial seating arrangement was two seats with folding backs for the driver and co-driver, and bench seats down either side at the back, lifting to reveal ammunition stowage beneath.

The 1941 instructions were fully aware that terrain and weather had crucial impacts upon tactics, and motorised infantry commanders were to take these into account in the planning of movement and operations. Snow, mud, marsh, thick woods, and steep slopes were all serious impediments: gently rolling country was best as this afforded cover on reverse slopes, and opportunities for observation. In attacks against a demoralised enemy, river crossings, withdrawals, and advances through wooded or mountainous country small ‘task-force’ actions were possible, though such Kampfgruppe, or battle-group formations, were to be a minimum of company strength and reinforced with heavier arms, engineers, and probably tanks to suit the job to hand. Reconnaissance was to be made at the first opportunity with leaders ‘determined to push forward at all costs’. Action was to be ‘bold and resolute’, any undue risks being mitigated by the use of adequate patrols. At the same time, commanders issuing orders were to be realistic about the time these would need to reach widely spaced sub-units.

In making their approach carriers could take advantage of their armour and cross-country mobility to attack from effective angles and concentrate fire. Moreover, the degree of splinter protection was sufficient for armoured carrier units to follow closer to barrages than dismounted infantry. Commanders were encouraged to think with ‘speed and agility’, view ground personally, being daring and not obsessed with their own flanks, taking their own position in the ‘centre of battle’. Rapidity, concentration of force, and concealment of movement were key tactical themes likely to lend an element of surprise. Where limited numbers of carriers were available these were to be used en masse and fully utilised as fighting vehicles. Whilst using roads and tracks as far forward as possible allowed maximum speed and decreased wear and tear on both men and transport, timely deployment into broader cross-country formations was best for maximum advantage of terrain and use of weapons. Yet there was no hard and fast rule, the moment for deployment had to be left to the commander on the ground, who might choose to use speed and surprise to make an attack direct ‘from the column of march’.

This was the ‘attack without deployment’ – made in vehicles, with dismounting only occurring when no further forward progress was possible in the carriers. Where such an attack passed over difficult ground it might be useful to halt briefly in the closest possible cover to allow ‘battle formation’ and concentration of the carriers to be regained before the final assault. In other circumstances a ‘prepared attack’ might be the preferred option. In this instance carriers halted at a distance in a safe ‘assembly position’ or were given a line at which they were to halt and troops dismounted to deliver the attack on foot. Even so, it was wise to keep back a mobile reserve that could be directed to wherever needed, or used for rapid exploitation. If possible, assembly positions were gained in the dark or at dusk, leaving maximum doubt in the enemy’s mind about intentions. In clearing the way for the tanks it was also usual for some or all of the motorised troops to dismount and take the ‘tank-proof’ obstacle or objective on foot, their advance being covered by the fire of the armour and heavy weapons. When upon the enemy destruction or capture of anti-tank weapons became top priority to assist the advance of the armour. Sometimes the order of attack was reversed:

If the ground favours an attack by tanks and if no tank obstacles have been detected inside the main line of resistance, the task of the motorised infantry units will usually be to follow the tank attack. They will remain on vehicles behind the tanks so that they can quickly exploit the success of the tanks. Narrow and deep formations will be the rule, in order to avoid as far as possible the effects of enemy artillery fire and retain a mobile reserve in the rear . . . Pockets of resistance and defence areas which the tanks have not reduced will be dealt with as encountered. For this dismounting may be necessary. The remaining infantry will continue to follow up the tank attack in their vehicles. Contact with the tanks must never be lost.

In other circumstances the mechanised infantry was used with considerable versatility. In pursuit speed made it possible to catch up with the enemy or prevent him from taking up or improving new positions. In doing so commanders were encouraged to move forward as far as possible by road, and at night assume an all-round defensive posture. In defence mobile troops could screen broad frontages, take suitable vantage points, and redeploy quickly. Such aptitudes allowed the frontage of a motorised battalion to extend to ‘twice that of an infantry battalion’, typically from ‘1,600 to 4,000 metres and even more depending on situation and terrain’. Mobility also aided the often tricky tactic of breaking contact, where motorised troops might not only use their speed to escape, but to gain prepared defence lines further back. In disengaging it was recommended that small ‘fighting patrols’ and smoke be used even after the heavier weapons had departed, thus making the job of an enemy attempting to follow up all the more difficult. Engineer platoons also contributed by bridge breaking and mine laying.

Further detail on small-unit tactics was added by the manual for the Schnelletruppen of May 1942, reprinted with corrections in January 1943 – the year in which mechanised infantry were renamed Panzergrenadiere. Particularly crucial was the role of the driver who was taught to drive tactically, taking advantage of terrain to keep the carrier out of enemy fire. Rapid reversing and driving with the gas mask on and hatches shut were parts of the repertoire. Ideally, three men of each squad received full driver training, the driver, co-driver, and a reserve. Within the vehicle the team travelled in a state of ‘combat readiness’, weapons loaded, safety catches applied, and particular vigilance used against any enemy close by attempting to lob in grenades or Molotovs. Lookouts were detailed for all-round observation and in the event of a contact or change of orders the squad leader used a clock-face system to communicate direction – 12 Uhr being dead ahead and 6 Uhr to the rear.

The full-strength carrier squad was twelve, being the Gruppenführer, or squad leader, his deputy, or Truppführer, four machine gunners, four riflemen, the driver and his Beifahrer, or co-driver. The squad leader retained overall responsibility leading ‘by personal example’, maintaining contact with the platoon commander, and checking combat readiness of weapons. He might also man one of the machine guns during fighting from the vehicle. His deputy stepped in when the squad leader was absent, and also took charge of part of the squad when it was sub-divided. The driver and his assistant would usually remain with the vehicle, the driver having first responsibility for readiness, care, and camouflage of the transport, whilst the assistant manned the radio. The machine gunners usually operated as two teams of two, the first man being the firer, the second carrying ammunition and spare barrel. The four riflemen were regarded as the force of close combat and the manpower for reconnaissance and observation duties. The standard complement of light machine guns was three, two of which were intended for dismounting and one usually remaining on the vehicle. Interestingly, the MGs were each identified individually so that a member of the team had primary responsibility for its care. During motorised movement basic deployment of the MGs was one each mounted fore and aft, with the spare in the main compartment for use at will. There were two machine pistols, one to carry with the team, the other intended to stay with the vehicle. Additionally, there were five rifles and four pistols.

On the command ‘Aufstizen!’ the carrier was mounted in an orderly manner via the rear door, with the squad leader assuming his normal position directly behind the driver, and his second getting in last and taking post at the rear shutting the door. If carrying gas masks, the team unfastened them from their normal low position and reattached them to the front upper body, so as to make sitting more comfortable and the mask accessible. The order for a quick tactical exit from the carrier was ‘Abspringen!’. On hearing this everybody jumped out by the nearest means, over the sides as well as through the door. The squad then took immediate cover near to the leader. The rapid remount was the ‘Aufspringen!’ with everybody jumping in over sides as well as through the door. These manoeuvres were practised both at the halt, and with the carrier moving at up to 10kmph.

Combat was both from the vehicle, and dismounted. Dismounted the squad acted very much as normal infantry, but with the significant difference that the additional machine guns made fighting as two elements easier and gave greater flexibility. With the driver and his assistant still on the vehicle this also opened up possibilities of a third base of fire. On the vehicle a basic level of all-round watchfulness – particularly against air attack – was maintained at all times, but if combat was perceived to be imminent the squad leader gave the order for ‘Gefechtsbereitschaft’, or ‘combat readiness’. On this direction the team checked their weapons and radio readiness, and riflemen also ensured there were grenades to hand. The squad leader secured smoke grenades ready to produce screening. With hatches secured the vehicle could be driven at normal speeds through infantry fire, taking evasive action in the event of incoming artillery or mortar fire.

The squad fought from the carrier as long as enemy fire, mission, and terrain allowed:

The main weapon of the squad fighting from the vehicle is the onboard MG. The MG in the anti aircraft mount besides being used for AA defence can be used against hostile ground targets for example adversaries in the rear and flank of the squad. As a rule it will have to fire while the carrier is moving. The riflemen participate in the fire fight at the first breakthrough of the enemy. Hand grenades with simultaneous machine gun and machine pistol fire, as well as running over enemy soldiers are the most effective means to destroy the enemy in close combat from the vehicle.

Short bursts of fire from the moving carrier were intended to force the enemy into cover and prevent return fire, but in case of sudden encounters might actually destroy targets such as moving convoys or retreating adversaries. Even so, halted fire was more effective, and when stopping the carrier positions that left the vehicle ‘mostly hidden from view’ were best. When halting to fire a steady machine-gun burst the vehicle was not to remain stationary for more than 15 to 25 seconds, and the squad leader observed fire, his task being made easier by tracer rounds at intervals in the ammunition belts.

Usually, the Panzergrenadiere fought as platoons of four vehicles, three platoons carrying rifle squads, the fourth the headquarters. In the HQ carrier with the commander travelled an NCO, two messengers, a medic, the driver, and two soldiers manning an anti-tank weapon. Other arms carried in the vehicle of the Zugtruppführer were six rifles and a sub-machine gun. A motorcycle messenger might also be attached to the platoon, or several pooled together within the company. What main armament the HQ vehicle had, if any, changed over time. In early type SdKfz 251/10 platoon commanders’ vehicles a 37mm gun was mounted, but establishments of late 1943 show a 20mm flak gun with the commander, plus a Panzerschrek in each of the squad vehicles. The vehicles of the platoon might travel in closer order columns or lines but typical combat formations included the Zugkeil with the squad vehicles in a triangle and the platoon leader’s carrier out to the front, and the loose line or Zugbreite. A minimum dispersion of about 50m between carriers was aimed at in action. Armoured carriers and tanks could operate fire and movement in co-operation with each other, as for example with tanks halted and firing whilst carriers advanced, or with a portion of a carrier unit halted to offer support to other carriers.

An increasingly popular form of armour and infantry co-operation in German forces was the deployment of self-propelled guns and tank destroyers with infantry. Indeed, it could be said that these required each others assistance even more than did tanks. The Sturmgeschütz, literally ‘assault gun’, was perhaps a cheaper form of tank in that it required no turret or full traverse mechanism for its gun. Nevertheless, the ‘Stug’ also scored in other ways because larger weapons could be mounted on a given platform, and it was possible to recycle otherwise obsolete tank chassis in very productive ways, or to continue to make a tried and trusted basic design rather than convert entire production facilities. Building guns into, rather than simply on top of, tank bodies also increased the degree of protection whilst reducing overall silhouette. Standard Sturmgeschütz tactics saw them deployed in the maximum strength available, with, or immediately behind, attacking infantry. They were not to give away their presence prematurely, but used ‘to neutralise enemy support weapons at close ranges over open sights’. Close proximity to friendly infantry minimised their exposure to anti-tank weapons, and helped to make up for lack of a traversing turret. Similar considerations applied where small numbers of turretless ‘tank-hunting’ or ‘tank-destroying’ weapons were deployed. The fact that German forces were frequently on the defensive later in the war made them all the more profitable since they did not have to drive out exposing themselves to effective fire, but could remain and often manoeuvre within the zones occupied by defensive infantry.

Schnelltruppen and Tank Co-operation II

By the end of 1944 the basis of tank and infantry co-operation tactics showed distinct similarities whether German, US, or British. Whether well or indifferently performed in practice, the result of six years of war was convergence of theory. According to Handbook on German Military Forces,

When the enemy has well prepared positions with natural or constructed tank obstacles, the German infantry attacks before tanks and clears the way. The objective of the infantry is to penetrate into the enemy position and destroy enemy anti tank weapons to the limit of its strength and the firepower of its own support weapons, augmented by additional support and covering fire from the tanks and self propelled guns sited in the rear . . . When the tank obstacles in front of the enemy position already are destroyed, and no additional tank obstacles are expected in the depth of the enemy’s main defensive position, the infantry breaks through simultaneously with the tank unit…. In most cases, the infantry follows the tanks closely, taking advantage of the firepower and paralysing effect of the tanks upon the enemy’s defense. The Germans normally transport the infantry to the line of departure on tanks or troop carrying vehicles in order to protect the infantry.

Interestingly, US experiments with motorised infantry were underway as early as 1929 when a company of 34th Infantry was mounted in six-wheeler trucks as part of a ‘Mechanised Force’. This did not last long, however, and rival claims were staked by the infantry and cavalry – with the former wanting ‘infantry tanks’ attached, the latter seeking to become the umbrella to all mobile troops. Only in 1940 was an integrated force formed with the foundation of 1st and 2nd Armoured Divisions, and in 1941 five truck-transported infantry motorised divisions were planned. In the event only one motorised division was completed, and this was never used in its intended role. Efforts, therefore, focused on the creation of more all-arms armoured divisions. Initially, armoured divisions were mainly tanks with few infantry, but observation of European experience, combined with massive infantry manpower increases, made progressive revisions possible. By March 1942 the armoured divisional establishment wedded together two armoured regiments with a three-battalion armoured infantry regiment. In 1943 ‘light’ armoured divisions were also introduced with a better balance of three battalions of tanks with three of infantry.

The US armoured infantry platoon now numbered five squads, three rifle, one mortar and one light machine gun, each squad travelling in an M3 half-track. Capable of seating up to 13, the M3 was bigger than the M2 (that carried only 10), and was arranged with 3 seats across the front and 5 down each side. In the ordinary squad vehicle the leader usually sat front right, ready to handle the vehicle mounted .30 cal machine gun. As in the German arrangement, his assistant squad leader rode at the back next to the rear door, and more than one man was trained to drive, one of these being designated the assistant driver. The M3 armour was just adequate for protection against small arms and fragments, but would not stop much else, and there was no overhead protection on the driving compartment. Some dubbed the M3 the ‘Purple Heart Box’ on account of those injured in it.

Initial US theory paid relatively little heed to the notion of close integration of tanks and infantry, and early armoured establishments ensured that the latter were insufficient where they were needed. Gradually, and arguably from mid-1942, this began to change. Manuals made it very clear that the raison d’être of tanks, and by extension all their appendages within the armoured division, was the offensive. Within the tactical detail it was tanks that formed the cutting edge ‘striking force’, infantry that followed up. Yet there were exceptions. As the 1942 instructions FM 17-10 Armored Force Field Manual: Tactics and Technique, explained,

In attack the combat command groups are generally disposed into four parts: a reconnaissance force (consisting of organic reconnaissance units and attacking units), a striking force (the striking echelon consisting of tanks with engineers attached), a supporting force (consisting of the support echelon, i.e. the infantry, artillery and tank destroyer units), and a reserve. Whether the striking force makes the initial attack or main attack will depend on the terrain and the extent and dispositions of the hostile anti tank defences. . . . When the striking force makes the initial attack, the support echelon follows to seize and hold objectives taken by the striking echelon. When terrain is unsuitable for tank operation or anti tank defences are strong, the support echelon, supported by medium tank units, may lead the attack to secure ground from which the striking echelon may attack. The support echelon usually leads the attack in a penetration. The support echelon may be used to make an attack initially to serve as a base of fire for the striking force in an envelopment. The attack serves to fix the enemy and attract his reserves. In this manner it assists the advance of the enveloping or striking force.

Additionally, armoured infantry had roles in both pursuit and ‘encircling forces’. During an encirclement, for example, they might follow the tanks and take over and hold ‘critical terrain’ gained by the armour. North Africa and Italy would make it very clear that tanks without any attached infantry were at a serious disadvantage; whilst tanks, even in small numbers, lent vital fire support and morale advantages to their infantry compatriots.

Armored Force Drill, of January 1943, gave a range of formations for use by armoured infantry on the move. Whilst they could take up ‘wedges’ – inverted or otherwise, move in columns or stepped ‘echelons’, or any other form of deployment also used by tanks, the ‘diamond’ was described as ‘the basic formation for the infantry platoon’. In the diamond,

the platoon leader’s rifle squad and the two other rifle squads form a wedge, with the platoon leader at the apex. The 60mm mortar squad and the light machine gun squad are on a line in rear of the wedge formed by the rifle squads. The company may be formed in line, column, echelon, wedge, or inverted wedge, in each formation with the platoons in diamond formation.

As may be imagined, the larger company formations described needed much open space for full deployment, so in practice, and particularly in the closed country of Normandy or Italian mountains and hills, short lines, platoon wedges, or columns of various depths and dispersions were much more commonly seen. Experience also taught that fuller integration of tanks and half-tracks was often the best option. So it was that armoured infantry platoons were paired with tank platoons, the latter giving good long-range firepower and a measure of anti-armour protection, the latter ability to counter enemy anti-tank units and infantry, or hold a terrain feature.

Though fire from the vehicle was used in emergency, and a parked half-track formed a useful base of fire – particularly if concealed and mounted with the powerful .50 calibre machine gun, US tactical theory did not regard the M3 as a ‘fighting’ or assault vehicle, but more as a sophisticated, and partly protected, form of cross-country transport. In any case, as the Crew Drill manual explained, small-arms fire was much more accurate if the vehicle stopped. Standard procedure, therefore, was that in combat the main portion of the squads alighted before meeting effective fire, leaving one, or preferably two, men with the vehicle. Those left behind could move the half-track and fire its machine gun, perhaps in support, as an anti-aircraft defence, or to protect a given locality. If not needed immediately, the M3 retired to a given rendezvous or acted as battlefield taxi for supplies and wounded. As the squad dismounted its leader gave consideration to mission and tactical requirements, for if all weapons including the main machine gun were taken off the squad had fearsome firepower but limited mobility. Conversely, if the bazooka and machine gun were left behind the team could move with great agility but little power to confront vehicles or large numbers of the enemy. As a shorthand order the word ‘rockets’ was recommended: on hearing this the squad debused with the bazooka using two of the riflemen as anti-tank team, but left the machine gun behind. ‘No rockets’ meant that riflemen went lightly equipped.

In a well co-ordinated armoured infantry attack a combined formation went to ground near the target, and whilst infantry dismounted, tanks took up covered positions from which to put the enemy under fire. Depending on the results of reconnaissance or intelligence, the action might also be supported by artillery, mortars, machine guns, and the three useful M8 self-propelled howitzers that also formed part of the armoured infantry battalion. Taking advantage of covering fire, the armoured infantry advanced in dispersed formation, using their own fire and movement as required. If all went well, the infantry took up the ground, making sure that no anti-armour weapons were still lurking before the tanks came close in: if the infantry were held up tanks might be required to neutralise machine-gun nests or other centres of resistance. Whilst tank destroyers had the main task of dealing with enemy armour, tanks would also make engaging enemy vehicles a priority. Progressively, US armoured units adopted what became known as the ‘combat command’ approach, bringing together units or sub-units as required for task. Though arguably less dynamic than the German Kampfgruppe idea, and generally enacted later, the basic notion was very similar. As the manual 17-33 Tank Battalion, of December 1944, explained:

success in battle can be assured only by complete co-operation of all arms. No one arm wins battles. Success is attained when each arm, weapon and individual is employed to afford the maximum mutual support . . . tanks usually operate in close co-ordination with other arms, particularly infantry and artillery. The tank battalion may be part of a combat command; it may reinforce an infantry combat team. When operated alone, it is normally reinforced by infantry, engineers and other units.

So it was now, even when US armour was ‘alone’ infantry was still not far away. For defensive operations it was recommended that infantry, reinforced by other arms, should hold the ‘main line of resistance’, tank battalions being held as a ‘local reserve’ for the front-line infantry. The standard arrangement for an armoured infantry company in a defensive posture was with two platoons forward, and one back, giving support and depth to the position. Tanks could attack through infantry, though this required careful co-ordination, or support the infantry forward, and this applied to ordinary infantry as well as the armoured variety. As the new 1944 general-infantry manual FM 7-20 Infantry Battalion, explained,

In infantry-tank action, there are three initial attack dispositions: infantry leading, tanks leading, and infantry-tanks together. Infantry leads initially when reconnaissance has revealed hostile anti-tank strength or when the terrain in the direction of desired use is unsuitable for tanks; in this case the tanks support the attack by fire, generally from hull defilade positions. Tanks lead initially, when suitable terrain is available, in launching an attack against a hostile position having little anti-tank strength in terms of anti-tank guns, tank destroyers, antitank mines and other obstacles, or when these have been neutralised; in this case, elements of the infantry battalion follow within supporting distance and aid the tanks by fire and manoeuvre.

Where neither situation applied, or was unclear, attacks were launched with both armour and infantry in the leading wave so as to promote flexibility. Such was the ideal, but as can be imagined, commanding a ‘composite wave’ in action was no easy task, and not always successfully accomplished.

The organisation of the US armoured infantry battalion, c.1944. The three rifle companies are each divided into three platoons. Each platoon in its turn comprised three rifle squads, plus a mortar and a light machine gun squad. Platoons were thus 5 half-tracks and 49 all ranks at full strength. The battalion also included reconnaissance, assault gun, and mortars and machine guns arranged as HQ assets, as well as the ‘service’ company for maintenance and admin.

Twelve key tasks for armoured infantry were foreseen under 1944 instructions:

  1. Follow a tank attack to wipe out enemy resistance.
  2. Seize and hold terrain gained by the tanks.
  3. Attack to seize terrain favourable for a tank attack.
  4. Form, in conjunction with artillery and tank destroyers, a base of fire for a tank attack.
  5. Attack in conjunction with tanks.
  6. Clear lanes through minefields in conjunction with engineers.
  7. Protect tanks in bivouac, on the march, in assembly areas, and at rallying points.
  8. Force a river crossing.
  9. Seize a bridgehead.
  10. Establish and reduce obstacles.
  11. Occupy a defensive position.
  12. Perform reconnaissance and counter reconnaissance.

The armoured infantry arm was described as being characteristically ‘powerful, mobile and lightly armored’, and in battle armoured infantry were expected to advance in vehicles until forced ‘by enemy fire, or unfavourable terrain to dismount’. Generally, the ‘one to one’ balanced relationship of tank battalions to armoured infantry battalions held good for the remainder of the war. Post-war analysis suggested that possibly even a three armoured infantry to two tank units ratio was even better. Practical experience also suggested that the closer that infantry, any infantry, and tanks started out the more effective their collaboration was likely to be. ‘Tank riding’ – frowned upon early in the war – but widely seen on the Eastern Front, was formally adopted US policy by the campaigns of 1944. Where it was necessary for infantry to travel on tanks it was suggested that a tank company could carry from 75 to 100 infantry with 6 on the rear deck of a medium tank, 4 on the back of a light tank. ‘In rear areas more men can ride, when rope handles are provided. The infantry dismount prior to the launching of the tank attack.’

It has been said that compared to German armoured infantry tactics those of the Americans were poorly developed and unadventurous. This is not the full story. For crucially it has to be remembered that the tactical situation pertaining in 1940 was by no means the same as that in 1944. Early in the war German methods were novel, taking opponents largely by surprise: moreover, with the exception of relatively small numbers of anti-tank artillery pieces, and somewhat ineffective anti-tank rifles, Allied infantry had little with which to counter armoured carriers effectively. German mechanised troop theory called for close integration with tanks, and also accepted casualties as a given in terms of achieving a success as part of a bigger picture. The net result was that, in both Poland and the West, German ‘fast’ troops scored remarkable victories in concert with armour.

Until 1940 there were no US armoured divisions, and until North Africa no practical experience of armoured combat. Thereafter, major elements of German tactics were progressively taken up, and earlier British experience studied. Later in the war, however, when the USA managed to field armoured infantry in numbers, much had changed. The basic tactics were no longer new, the enemy was already thoroughly familiar with them, and worse was already deploying hand-held anti-tank weapons down to platoon and even squad level. Usually, German forces were on the defensive, and encounters between mobile forces rarer. The result was that when an M3 confronted even a small group of German infantry there was every possibility that one of them would be equipped with a weapon capable of completely destroying the carrier with a single round. In the face of this reality fighting from the vehicle was not merely dangerous, as it had always been, but obviously suicidal. So it was, that by comparison, it was almost inevitable US techniques should appear hesitant. Conversely, it was also the case that the Germans, particularly in the West after July 1944, became progressively weaker in tanks. With fewer Allied tanks required for large armour to armour engagements this meant that tanks could be used more widely in close infantry support operations.

As we have seen, the British approach was to mechanise infantry transport as widely as possible, but following early experimental work on attacks by fully tracked, but very small, carriers, the notion of full-blown ‘armoured infantry’ assault in vehicles was generally abandoned. So it was that in 1939 platoon trucks were motorised, and lorry companies also existed for the transport of nominated battalions from place to place on an ad hoc basis. Within the armoured division there was provision for two motorised battalions in establishments of 1939 to 1941, and this was later raised to three in May 1942, and, by April 1943, to four battalions per armoured division. One of these was the ‘motor battalion’ that formed an integral part of the division’s armoured brigade. The US summary TM 30-410 Handbook on the British Army, published in 1943 – but already slightly out of date, distinguished three types of British mobile battalion:

The machine gun battalion, which is at present assigned to corps troops, is based on the caliber .303 Vickers machine gun. It consists of a headquarters, a headquarters company, and four machine gun companies of 12 guns each. Each company is composed of a headquarters and three platoons. The battalion is completely motorised and all personnel are carried in motor transport. It has a strength of 29 officers and 711 enlisted men . . . The motor battalion assigned to each armoured brigade, consists of a headquarters company and four motor companies. Each company consists of three motor platoons and one scout platoon (11 Bren carriers). Each motor platoon consists of three sections, each self contained, operationally and administratively, in one vehicle. This battalion, with a strength of 26 officers and 774 enlisted men, has much greater fire power than any other in the British army…. the motorised battalion, formerly assigned to the support group of the armoured division, now forms the infantry component of the infantry brigade in the armoured division. Its organisation is exactly the same as that of the rifle battalion, but it is carried in motor transport.

Additionally, divisional reconnaissance regiments were also composed of infantry riding in various forms of transport, but later these were converted into the Reconnaissance Corps. As the 1941 Infantry Division manual made clear, standard drill for any motorised infantry was for the transport to bring them as far forward as possible without danger, then ‘debus’ them to operate much as any others. Whilst not attacking in ‘soft-skinned’ vehicles made perfect sense, lack of suitable armoured carriers made close co-operation between infantry and all but the slowest moving tanks problematic – and was arguably a significant tactical failing – particularly in circumstances that called for swift offensive action. Moreover, early in the war there were few signs of close co-operation between ordinary infantry, operating on foot, and the tank arm. Official doctrine of 1941, as spelt out in The Employment of Army Tanks in Co-Operation with Infantry, was that in the attack tanks would precede the infantry, with which there would be little direct interaction. During 1942, however, individual units began to practice closer co-operation in training. This was encouraged both by the increased numbers of infantry in armoured divisions, and by the fact that a number of new tank units were created from infantry battalions – and to these working with other infantry may well have appeared far more natural.

As of October 1943 British infantry divisions in Italy disposed of no less than 3,745 motor vehicles each, including over 900 motorcycles. This gave them a degree of tactical and strategic mobility not enjoyed by the enemy, but also meant that considerable effort, logistic and otherwise, had to be expended in maintaining these fleets. By the spring of 1944 Britain had obtained enough M3 half-tracks from the USA to mount the integral battalion of armoured brigades with tracked carriers. These were again operated much on existing principles, being used essentially as a ‘hardened’ transport to take forward infantry and their equipment, which then alighted to fight on foot. As in the US instance it would have been highly unrealistic to expect full ‘armoured infantry’ tactics at this date, given that enemy infantry could now destroy carriers with considerable ease.

Issued in May 1944, the key document governing British tank and infantry collaborations was The Co-Operation of Tanks with Infantry Divisions. As in US doctrine, it was envisaged that attacks be made in waves of varying compositions, and in British theory the waves were built of three main parts: the ‘assault’, ‘support’, and ‘reserve’ echelons. Each echelon was itself likely to comprise two or more individual sub-ports. An echelon could contain tanks, or infantry, or a mixture of both, but commonly there was some infantry with every one, and tanks normally formed at least a part of the ‘support’ echelon. It was the job of the assault echelon to attack ‘as closely as possible behind the artillery support’ and disrupt and dominate the objective. The support echelon provided immediate covering fire then itself moved forward to take up ground to ‘completely subdue the objective’ and oppose any counter attack. The reserve was kept in hand by the commander, and deployed as necessary according to events. In these essentials British and US techniques were fairly similar, albeit the nomenclature was different. What was rather different was that under British organisation dedicated ‘infantry tanks’ – slow, tough, and heavy beasts like the Churchill – were allotted to infantry divisions for ‘close co-operation, especially in beaching the enemy defences’. This broad concept went back all the way to the First World War, and had been reconfirmed when, at the beginning of the Second World War, a need was foreseen for well-protected armour to operate in the ‘shelled area’ helping the ‘break in’ of infantry into main defensive positions. Whilst many things had changed, and effective infantry tanks took years in development, it could be argued that in some senses things had come full circle, and the Atlantic Wall, Siegfried Line, other Axis defensive lines, and built-up areas did indeed require the attentions of heavily armoured tanks. Churchills, for example, did especially valuable service when converted for specialist roles in support of other arms; as a variety of ‘funnies’ on D-Day, or as ‘engineer’ tanks with heavy charge throwers blowing in enemy bunkers and strongpoints to allow the infantry to go forward. Conversely, the heavy infantry tanks were not of much use for rapid actions or sweeping manoeuvres.

The faster tanks, still known by the archaic descriptions ‘Cruiser’ and ‘Light’, were assumed to have specific purposes in terms of armoured exploitation by armoured divisions and in reconnaissance. Nevertheless, by this date it was acknowledged that distinctions were breaking down, for though tanks were designed for specific roles, ‘there can be no hard and fast rule regarding their employment, beyond the obvious one that they must be used in the manner which most effectively carries out the intention of the higher commander. Cruiser tanks have, in recent operations, supported infantry divisions with marked success, and infantry tanks have, on at least one important occasion, carried out valuable work in a role usually allotted to cruisers.’ Whilst tanks were best used offensively in numbers on narrow frontages, they could also be used successfully in smaller groups ‘always accompanied by infantry’. This would be of ‘moral’ as well as ‘material’ value. They were not to be used on their own, ‘for patrols or for leading the way into very close country or villages’.

How close infantry should actually get to tanks was still seen as problematic, since tank and infantry co-operation had to be close to prevent enemy infantry using hand-held anti-tank weapons, and advancing behind a tank also lent considerable protection from small-arms fire. On the other hand, armour attracted fire of all sorts and infantry very close to tanks could easily find themselves ‘exposed to heavy artillery concentrations’. Several possible solutions were offered. In the best eventuality the tanks went first, ‘neutralising the objective’ and the infantry caught up as quickly as possible before the tanks took serious loss. However,

A decision must be reached by the commander of the operation – usually the infantry brigadier – as to how close the infantry can move behind the assaulting tanks. Tanks normally move faster than infantry and draw enemy fire. It may, therefore, often be desirable for both to start together, with the result that the tanks draw ahead, but that the infantry will arrive on the objective while the enemy is still suffering the shock of the tank attack. In this way the infantry will obtain maximum advantage of the [artillery] fire plan which is designed for the support of the leading troops.

For a ‘main attack’ Co-Operation of Tanks with Infantry Divisions envisaged a set piece, preparation of which might take a long time, or as little as ‘one to two days’ or in an emergency ‘hours’. Execution at night would be preferable from the point of view of the infantry, but tanks rendered their most effective assistance in daylight. In planning infantry and tank units were to co-operate closely, with as many as possible seeing the ground over which the operation was to take place in advance. For main attacks artillery was vital, and a fire plan had to be laid that ‘caters for success’. The attack would ideally unfold as preparation of gaps, followed by the assault and consolidation. Assaulting infantry were not to stop to mop up any posts that remained short of the objective but to push on to it and hold it. As a British 2nd Armoured Division history explained, German troops had become very adept in their use of both the new anti-tank weapons, and snipers, sometimes holding their fire,

until the leading troops were a mile or more beyond them. To overcome this it was necessary for the attacking troops to advance in great depth, so that when the infantry had reached their objective their rear had only recently crossed the start line. In this way the infantry and tanks were spread out all over the ground just won and in a position to help each other deal with the snipers. All round observation in each tank was vital, because the enemy were just as likely to fire from either flank, or from behind, as they were from the front.

‘Main attacks’ were, however, only likely to be part of the picture as many operations were ‘fluid warfare’. In conducting advances in fluid warfare there was no hard and fast rule as to whether infantry or tanks should lead the way: indeed, open situations might demand tanks in smaller or greater numbers to the fore, whilst close country required infantry to lead clearing the path for armour. In the latter instance tanks would still be hard on the heels of the infantry aiming to neutralise machine-gun and mortar positions with their supporting fire. ‘Tank riding’ by infantry was encouraged, but only ‘outside small arms and anti-tank gun range’, as direct fire on tanks carrying infantry would probably result in heavy casualties, loss of morale, and difficulties for the tanks in firing back.

When infantry are to be carried on tanks, definite organisation and practice are required. The number of sub units within the unit of both infantry and tanks is dissimilar. One tank can carry a full section of infantry with its weapons. The infantry must have a drill for mounting the tank, for dismounting, and for quick assembly. Riding on the outside of a tank, especially across rough country, requires a certain amount of practice, and, as far as possible, troops whom it is intended to carry in this manner should not have their first ride when moving up to their assembly area for action.

An example of a ‘Priest’ Kangaroo armoured personnel carrier.

Whilst it may reasonably be argued that British infantry and tank co-operation, and particularly ‘armoured infantry’ methods, lagged sadly behind the German, and that even later in the war much depended on the availability of US-produced materiel, there were two remarkable bright spots in British performance. The first was the general level of mechanisation achieved at an early stage, the second was a belated revival of the fully tracked carrier concept that pointed the way to something of a revolution in battlefield troop mobility, still being played out decades after 1945. What had been wrong with the old Bren and Universal carriers was that essentially they were too small, and too lightly protected, to do the job of transporting a section on the battlefield. Though fine for a machine gun or a mortar, this essentially limited them to carrying support weapons and stores – useful, but no substitute for section half-tracks. A key spur came from the Canadians who pressed into action the hulls of US 105mm self-propelled ‘Priests’ in the breakout south of Caen in early August 1944. Soon more were being converted in Italy, as were turretless Shermans. At the end of 1944 the ‘Ram Kangeroo’ appeared based on a Canadian Ram tank chassis. Some British armoured cavalry units were now converted experimentally so that whilst two squadrons retained their gun tanks, the third drove infantry carriers. The whole regiment operated together so that when progress was halted by resistance the tanks took up positions to bring the enemy under fire. The carriers headed for any convenient cover and unloaded the infantry, who could now advance and attack under supporting fire disabling or capturing any antitank weapons. Once this was underway the troops of tanks came up, using their own fire and movement to support each other onto and through the position.

An example of a ‘Ram’ Kangaroo armoured personnel carrier, based on the conversion of a Tank, Cruiser, Ram, Mark II, with the auxiliary turret.

Provisional standard carrier drill was reported in Current Reports from Overseas of April 1945. This stressed that whilst the tanks, carriers, and their infantry passengers were to operate as a unit, the idea was not to drive the carriers into the teeth of the enemy. Individual Kangeroos drove into suitable positions and halted with one man on the Browning machine gun. The infantry spilled out as rapidly as possible from all sides of the vehicle, which remained stationary until they were clear. The stated logic to this was that if the Kangeroo moved prematurely it might detonate mines, injuring the now vulnerable troops. The troops manoeuvred or attacked on foot, carriers remaining out of the way of anti-tank weapons, but close enough to support or pick up their sections when recalled. Interestingly, these basic notes on the actions of fully tracked carriers would still form the basis of battlefield tactics more than half a century later.