Han Dynasty Frontier Armies



One of the key transformations of Chinese society during the Han was the abolition of universal military service, an institution that had underpinned the Warring States and the Qin.22 With the Han’s defeat of the feudatory kingdoms in 154 B.C., the possibility of large-scale warfare in the interior of China vanished, leaving only the threat of the Xiongnu on the northern border. The inability of peasants serving one-year terms to master horsemanship and the crossbow left them ill-equipped for expeditionary forces. Their relatively short terms also made them unsuitable for long-term garrison duty. Emperor Wu allowed some peasants to pay a tax in lieu of military service and used this money to recruit professionals. Nomadic enemies of the Xiongnu and dissident elements of the Xiongnu themselves were also recruited to provide skilled cavalry. In some cases convicts were sent to the frontiers to man garrisons. Thus, during the last century B.C. the Chinese army began to shift away from peasant levies to an army based on professionals, nomads, and criminals.

The rebellion against Wang Mang turned this gradual and informal process into official policy. The rebellion had demonstrated that peasant conscripts could be turned against the state, especially during the autumn training session, when adult males of a commandery gathered for inspection. It also showed that peasants would follow locally powerful families to whom they were bound rather than officials. Training peasants to fight thus simply provided potential rebels with a superior quality of soldier. Furthermore, in the course of the rebellions, much of the population had been displaced, and loss of registered population meant a drastic decrease in tax income for the court. Motivated by the need to decrease expenditures and reduce internal threats, and by the uselessness of conscripts on the frontier, the newly established Eastern Han regime abolished both the annual training sessions and the local military officials. This did away with a formal peasant army, and left only a small, professional army stationed around the capital.

Following the split of the Xiongnu into southern and northern confederacies in 48 A.D., nomads were internally resettled on a large scale. To supervise these new inhabitants, the Eastern Han government set up standing army commands in camps at the frontier, one command for each major nomadic group resettled in China. These standing armies were manned by professional Han soldiers. The total number of troops in the camps is not recorded, but scattered citations indicate that they were in the tens of thousands. These camps remained a permanent feature of the Han army, and their troops took part in most of the major campaigns of the second century A.D.

Expeditionary armies were distinct from the standing armies, and drew their forces primarily from resettled barbarians. Most of the cavalry in the campaigns of the first century A.D. that destroyed the Xiongnu confederacy consisted of nomad soldiers. The Han founder had already employed tribal soldiers during the civil war. After the reign of Emperor Wu, these tribes were usually classified as “dependent states” and allowed to keep their own leaders and customs, under the supervision of a commandant. But the Eastern Han went beyond the policy of “using barbarians to control barbarians.” Non-Han soldiers also quelled internal rebellions, much as foreign mercenaries did for monarchs in early modern Europe. The histories record more than fifty cases of the participation of non-Han soldiers in Chinese armies. Twenty-seven of these list no Han troops in the forces involved, and six were under the command of tribal chieftains.

From this evidence it is clear that after the middle of the first century A.D. the primary source of mounted warriors was non-Han soldiers. State-controlled grasslands and stables for rearing military horses, which the Western Han had maintained since the reign of Emperor Jing in the second century B.C., were largely abandoned. The warlords of the Three Kingdoms period (220-280 A.D.) continued to rely on non-Han peoples to provide their cavalry.

In addition to using non-Han troops in their army, the Han also paid bounties for the heads of slain enemies. Xianbei chieftains, before submitting to the Han, received payments for the heads of Xiongnu. In 58 A.D. they again received payments for crushing a force of invading Wuhuan, and at that time they formally submitted. They received annual payments of 270,000,000 cash, and in return they controlled the Wuhuan and killed Xiongnu. Thus the most common military man in the Eastern Han was the nomad warrior serving the empire under the command of his tribal chieftain.


In contrast with the Warring States period, when regional cultures constituted the primary divisions in the Chinese sphere, the imagining of a world divided between nomads and Chinese marked a major step. It posited the fundamental unity of a single Chinese civilization defined by what was not nomadic, and it reduced regional divisions to secondary status. China first emerged as a unity through the invention of a Chinese/ nomad dichotomy, and this bipolar concept remained central to Chinese civilization in later periods.

It is ironic, then, that the political partition of the world into two spheres lasted only a few decades. In spite of increasing payments, Xiongnu incursions did not cease. Each agreement lasted a few years, only to be broken by a new invasion, which was followed in turn by demands for a resumption of peaceful relations based on an increase in payments. The Chinese attributed this to barbarian perfidy, but it reflected the nature of the Xiongnu state. While the Chinese emperor was unchallenged as chief lawgiver, judge, and administrator, power within the Xiongnu state was constrained and divided by kin bonds, customary practice, and horizontal segmentation between clans or tribes. The chanyu maintained control over his subordinate chiefs only by constant negotiations in which he was first among equals rather than an absolute authority. Consensus on his power hinged on his success in battle and distribution of booty.

In such a system, the chanyu could not refrain from military action indefinitely. Nor could he stop his subordinates from attacking on their own, for the power and prestige of chiefs likewise depended on their success in battle and distribution of booty. Sometimes they invaded because of tensions with local Chinese officials, sometimes because of resentment of the chanyu. The he qin policy failed because it relied on a structure of authority that did not exist among the Xiongnu.19

As treaty after treaty was violated, debates at the Chinese court were increasingly dominated by calls for war. Decades of peace had given the Chinese time to develop a new style of army based on cavalry and crossbows that could successfully engage the Xiongnu in the field. In 134 B.C. Emperor Wu finally undertook to destroy the Xiongnu through military action. Although his attempted ambush of the chanyu failed, in the decades that followed, Chinese armies pushed deep into Central Asia and inflicted substantial losses of both men and flocks on the Xiongnu.

However, Han losses were also considerable, and repeated campaigns drained the treasury without achieving any decisive result. Difficulties in transporting supplies and harsh weather meant that no army could spend even as much as one hundred days in the field, so victories could not be translated into an enduring occupation. Emperor Wu’s successors consequently abandoned his policy of launching expeditions and instead retired behind a defensive line, while refusing to pay tribute. This policy was successful, for it deprived the chanyu of Han tribute and also reduced his role as defender against Han invasions. The position of the chanyu deteriorated, and in 120 B.C. a dissident Xiongnu king surrendered to the Han with 40,000 men. In subsequent decades other chiefs refused to attend the chanyu’s court.20 Between 115 and 60 B.C. the Han also secured control of the former Xiongnu sphere of influence in eastern Central Asia (modern Xinjiang).

A battle over succession split the Xiongnu empire in 57 B.C., with no fewer than five kings claiming the title of chanyu. After several years one king acknowledged Han suzerainty, visited the Han court, and resettled inside China. This proved to be highly advantageous, for in exchange for obeisance he received generous gifts from the Han. He repeated his visit to the court in 49 and 33 B.C. and sent a son there as a hostage, whose well-being depended on his father’s good conduct and who learned Han culture. The wealth that the vassal chieftain gained allowed him to build up his following and defeat his rivals. Eventually, he grew powerful enough to return to the north and resume the old pattern of demanding tribute, until a second succession struggle renewed the civil war in 48 A.D. This led to a permanent split between the southern Xiongnu, who dwelt in China and submitted to the emperor, and the northern Xiongnu, who resided beyond the boundaries of the Han empire.

The southern Xiongnu became dependent on Han assistance, as indicated in 88 A.D. in a memorial from the southern chanyu: “Your servant humbly thinks back on how since his ancestor submitted to the Han we have been blessed with your support, keeping a sharp watch on the passes and providing strong armies for more than forty years. Your subjects have been born and reared in Han territory and have depended entirely on the Han for food. Each year we received gifts counted in the hundreds of millions [of cash].”21 This policy of resettling nomads still grouped in their tribes inside the Chinese empire would have disastrous long-term consequences, as we will see, leading to a breakdown in civil order in the northwest and the southward flight of large numbers of Han Chinese.

Although the northern Xiongnu continued to defy the Han, they were defeated on several occasions by allied armies of the Han and the southern Xiongnu. Moreover, other tribal peoples such as the Wuhuan and Xianbei broke away from the Xiongnu and received large bounties from the Han for killing Xiongnu. In 87 A.D. a Xianbei army defeated the Xiongnu, killed the northern chanyu, and flayed his body. More than 200,000 Xiongnu tribesmen surrendered after this defeat, and a great Han victory in 89 A.D. completed the destruction of the Xiongnu state.




A wire screen protects this M113. The crew can take cover in their bunker. (111-CC-64235)

Each infantry division had an Armored Cavalry Squadron responsible for reconnaissance, intelligence gathering and security missions. (Note: The cavalry squadron was the equivalent of an infantry battalion, while the cavalry troop equated to an infantry company; both arms used the term platoon.)


DIVISION SQUADRON: 1st Infantry 1/4th Cavalry, 23d Infantry 1/1st Cavalry, 4th Infantry 1/10th Cavalry, 25th Infantry 3/4th Cavalry, 9th Infantry 3/5th Cavalry, 101st Airborne 2/17th Cavalry, 1/1st Cavalry served with Task Force Oregon before joining 23d Division


The squadron had twenty-one officers, two warrant officers and 240 enlisted men organized into a headquarters troop and three armored cavalry troops, A, B and C. The troops were equipped with M113A1 armored personnel carriers (APCs) for reconnaissance and M48A3 tanks (replaced by the M551 Sheridan) for firepower. Troop D was an Air Cavalry Squadron armed with observation, transport and helicopter gunships for aerial reconnaissance.

The headquarters troop rode in six M577 command carriers and ten M113 personnel carriers; four M132 flamethrower carriers dealt with bunkers. Ten 6-ton cargo carriers distributed ammunition while two M88 recovery vehicles and three 5-ton wrecker trucks recovered disabled vehicles. Ten 5-ton, fifteen 2½-ton, seven ¾-ton trucks and eighteen ¼-ton utility trucks provided transport.


The Troop was organized into a headquarters and three platoons and although organization often varied, it had around five officers and 192 enlisted men. Twenty-two M113s acted as command vehicles and personnel carriers. Nine M48 tanks gave direct close support while three M125 81mm mortar carriers gave indirect support. Transport was provided by one 2½-ton, one ¾-ton and three ¼-ton utility trucks; an M88 recovery vehicle recovered damaged vehicles.

The troop headquarters had four M113s. A captain ran his troop from the headquarters (APC) while the forward artillery observer, a lieutenant, kept in contact with the divisional artillery through the radio operator. The crew of the communications APC controlled the radio net while two radar APCs could set up ground surveillance radar to cover the troop’s perimeter.

Each platoon was led by a lieutenant and he led six M113s, one mortar carrier and three tanks. The scout section had four APCs organized into two squads to locate targets, so the tank section and the infantry APC could move in to engage it, while the mortar APC gave indirect fire support or fired smoke.

In action the driver continued to operate the M113 while the vehicle commander fired the .50-cal M2 and the two observers fired the M-60 machine guns (one acted as loader if he had no targets on his side). Each crew member had an M16 rifle and the vehicle carried an M79 grenade launcher. The platoon usually rode on and fought from their vehicles, however, the infantry APC carried a squad to search inaccessible areas. The M125A1 81mm Mortar Carrier provided indirect fire support for the platoon.

The tank section had three M48A3s and it was led by the lead tank’s commander; his two tanks were controlled by tank commanders. All three tanks had a driver, a gunner and a loader. The M48s were replaced by the lighter and faster M551 Sheridan, starting in 1969.

Mines were a constant worry for the cavalry troop and the APC crews often reinforced the floor of their vehicles with sandbags. Four-man engineer teams were often assigned to each troop to sweep for mines.

Each troop had a medic team when it was on operations and they either rode with the radar M113s or the squadron loaned them an M113 as an armored ambulance. A casualty clearing station would usually be set up next to the communications M113 so the medics could call in helicopters to retrieve the wounded.


The commander of an M113 receives new orders as it breaks through the undergrowth during one of 4th Division’s operations in the Central Highlands. (111-CC-59146)

The M113, and its variants, was a lightweight aluminum armored personnel carrier and its low ground pressure allowed the carrier to operate in many areas of South Vietnam, even during the monsoon season. It was able to cross paddy dikes and small streams, while crews were trained to recover their vehicles with winches, cables and beams. The M113s gave squads greater mobility while the armor protected anyone inside from small arms fire and shell fragments. However, the carriers were vulnerable to mines and men often preferred to sit on top of their vehicle rather than sweat it out inside. Some squads stacked sandbags inside to absorb an explosion but the added weight reduced speed and range.

The standard M113 was armed with a 12.7mm [50 Caliber M2] machine gun and a 7.62mm [M60] machine gun and it could carry up to 2,000 rounds of ammunition. It was 4.46m long, 2.33m wide, 2.16m high and weighed nearly 11.5 tons. The gas (petrol) engine in the A1 version had a maximum speed of 40mph but they were vulnerable to enemy fire and most M113s in Vietnam were the A2 variant fitted with a diesel engine.

Several M113 variants were deployed and the body of the M577 command variant was higher to allow the staff inside to work at map tables and operate their communications equipment while the M114A1 reconnaissance version was smaller and only weighed 7.5 tons; the unarmed M548 cargo carrier could carry up to 6 tons of equipment or ammunition for the rest of the platoon. Two variants carried mortars for providing indirect support. The M125A1 variant was armed with a 81mm mortar and it had an effective range of 3,650m. The M106A1 was armed with the heavier 107mm (4.2in) mortar with an effective range of 5,500m. A variety of field modifications were made to the M113 to suit the conditions in Vietnam, including a portable scissor bridge and fire-fighting equipment.


Once it became clear that the M113 was as effective fighting vehicles, upgrade kits were deployed to armored cavalry units. Gun shields, pintle mounts and hatch armor gave the crew extra protection. Kit A allowed a .50in machine gun to be fitted to the commander’s cupola and two 7.62mm [M60] machine guns either side of the troop compartment. Modified versions allowed miniguns, recoilless rifles or grenade launchers to be fitted above the commander’s cupola. Kit B fitted a .50mm [50 Caliber M2] machine gun mounting to the mortar variants.



The M551 was a high-speed, yet heavily armed, armored reconnaissance vehicle capable of operating in swampy areas. It was developed to replace the heavy M48 tanks operating with the divisional and regimental cavalry squadrons (11th Armored Cavalry continued to use their M48). The main weapon, a 152mm M81 gun/missile launcher, was equipped with advanced night-vision equipment; the tank also had a .50in [50 Caliber M2] machine gun and a 7.62mm [M60] machine gun. The tank had a four-man crew and the diesel engine had a maximum speed of 43mph. It was 6.30m long, 2.79m wide, 2.95m high and weighed 16.7 tons.

The first Sheridans were delivered to 3rd Squadron, 4th Cavalry and the 1st Squadron, 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment in 1969 but confidence in the new tank was undermined when a mine ruptured the hull and detonated the ammunition inside one. There were reliability issues with the missile electronics and the caseless ammunition but the combination of the night sight and the 152mm canister round proved to be effective. Over 200 Sheridans were in action by the end of 1970.

The Third Service II


On 3 January 1917 a new committee, the Second Air Board, was set up under the presidency of Lord Cowdray, a Yorkshireman who had built his fortune constructing railways, docks, dams and harbours around the world. The board took on responsibility for designing aircraft and engines (actually making them was now the province of the Munitions Ministry) and for allocating them to the army and navy. Representatives of all the departments concerned, including the naval and military air executives, were gathered under one roof in offices at the Cecil Hotel in the Strand, London. Production was overseen by another powerful figure from the industrial world, a Scotsman, Sir William Weir. By the end of the year production of new types (which, on the whole, had the advantage over their German opponents) was in full swing and there was no shortage of pilots to fly them.

By then the move to create a single, independent air force was building up powerful momentum. It was the air war over Britain – rather than events in France or at sea – that made it unstoppable. Compared with the bloodletting in other theatres, the casualties caused by the German air raids of 1915–17 were miniscule. Nor was the material damage great – about £3 million worth of property was destroyed. The moral effect, however, was huge. The panic that gripped the streets of London when the Germans appeared overhead was not confined to the masses. The alarm felt by their masters was just as intense, as was demonstrated on the day of the great Gotha raid of 7 July 1917, when three tons of explosives dropped on the capital killed fifty-seven people. It was a Saturday and as ministers made their way to Downing Street for an emergency cabinet session, they witnessed the alarm of citizens in the streets. The mood was catching. The demeanour of the politicians was noted disapprovingly by the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, Sir William Robertson, who was at the meeting and wrote in a letter to Haig that ‘one would have thought the whole world was coming to an end . . . I could not get a word in edgeways.’

The raid crystallized the feeling that arrangements were hopelessly inadequate to fight the air war. There was no doubt in the public mind as to where the responsibility for protecting civilians lay. Ira Jones had finished his flying training at Northolt, Middlesex, and had just returned to the Regent Palace Hotel in London after a night out when he ‘heard the air raid buzzers for the first time . . . I have never seen the mood of a happy throng change so quickly,’ he recorded afterwards. ‘One moment, all was gaiety, the next there was a stampede of shrieking creatures who had been transformed from apparent fairies into wild women. I followed the mob from the grill room into the foyer, where most of the hotel’s customers had assembled. One “lady”, pointing at me, angrily screeched: “You’re in the Flying Corps! Why aren’t you up there, chasing those devils away?”’

Something had to be done. Four days after the July raid General Smuts was instructed by the Cabinet to examine ‘the air organization generally and the direction of aerial operations’. Jan Christian Smuts was a brilliant all-rounder who had succeeded at everything he had tried. He had turned from the law to politics and then to warfare, fighting the British in the Boer War, then negotiating a peace that unified South Africa and established Boer dominance. His former enemies became his friends and supporters. He led the British military campaign against the Germans in East Africa before being sent to London. There, in the summer of 1917, the Prime Minister David Lloyd George invited him to join the War Policy Committee.

Smuts took less than a month to produce his first report. It ran to only a few thousand words and its recommendations were straightforward and commonsensical, restricted to the sphere of improving London’s dismal anti-aircraft defences. There were to be more guns and searchlights, and three new RFC fighter squadrons, controlled by a central organization, the London Area Defence.

His second report, which came out in August, was a far more significant document. Smuts employed an apocalyptic tone, which echoed the panicky mood of July. For him, the crucial factor was how to prepare for a dreadful new era of warfare, of which the Gotha raids had provided only a glimpse.

‘As far as can be foreseen,’ he wrote, ‘there is absolutely no limit to the scale of its future independent war use, and the day may not be far off when aerial operations with their devastation of enemy lands and destruction of industrial and populous centres on a vast scale may become the principal operations of war, to which the older forms of military and naval operations may become secondary and subordinate.’

Like his predecessors, Smuts came to the conclusion that to produce an air force capable of meeting the challenge, the RFC and the RNAS would have to amalgamate. The efficiencies created and the extra aircraft production generated by the reforms of Cowdray and Weir would allow the establishment of a bombing force that was capable of reaching out to German cities and factories.

Thus, the principal rationale for an independent air force was to produce a bombing fleet that could punish Germany for attacking the British homeland and deter it from doing so in the future. As it was, the Independent Force that resulted was stillborn and its ‘strategic’ bombing campaign against the war economy of the enemy never amounted to more than a series of incoherent and patchy raids. In the judgement of Arthur Harris, a young RFC pilot at the time, who would go on to preside over the effort to reduce German cities to rubble a generation later, ‘the bomber was in no way an important weapon of the 1914–18 war’.

At the core of the report was Smuts’s recommendation that the separate existences of the RFC and the RNAS should cease and that they should be reborn as a single entity: the Royal Air Force (RAF). As was appropriate for what was the world’s first independent air service, it would have its own government department: the Air Ministry. However, this amalgamation was no more popular at the top of the army and navy now than it had been when it was first mooted. The man who might be expected to give it a warm welcome – Hugh Trenchard – was initially opposed to it, believing that the structural, buttressing relationship that had grown up between the RFC and the ground forces would be weakened if the air force stood alone. He would nonetheless agree to be the RAF’s first Chief of the Air Staff, a post he held for only a few months before falling out with scheming air minister Lord Rothermere.

In peacetime it is unlikely that such an institutional evolution would have taken place at such speed – or indeed at all, given the strength and vehemence of opposing institutional interests. But the decision had been taken at a time of emergency in the middle of a war that seemed likely to continue for years. The likelihood of – and domestic terror of – air attack was almost certain to grow. In the eyes of politicians and the public, a joint air force seemed to offer a rational response to the threat. Wrested from Admiralty control, the navy’s aircraft would now be free for land operations. The new bombing force offered the illusion of retaliation against the Germans for their air assault on the homeland, as well as the possibility that the Germans might be deterred from continuing with it. The process had gone too far to be deflected by sophisticated military arguments. The decision was made, the official birthday set, and, on 1 April 1918, the Royal Air Force came into the world.

This historic moment was barely noticed by those it most affected. In France the Germans were about to launch the second phase of their Spring Offensive and the airmen were locked in an exhausting series of mass battles over the Somme plains. However, one event seemed to offer hope that events were going the Allies’ way. On the morning of 21 April Manfred von Richtofen was on the ground at Cappy airfield, about ten miles south-east of Albert on the banks of the Somme, waiting for the ground mist to lift. At 10.20 a.m. it began to clear and, in his Fokker triplane, he led a flight off to intercept some British aircraft reported to be well over the German lines and heading their way.

He was in a sombre mood. A few days before he had been reflecting on the tone of his boastful autobiography. ‘When I read [my] book I smile at my own insolence,’ he wrote. ‘I am no longer so insolent in spirit.’ Flying alongside him was Leutnant Hans Joachim Wolff who recorded that they saw seven Sopwith Camels flying in their direction, and above them, seven more. Battle was joined. There was the initial, inevitable confusion, then Wolff looked over at Richtofen and saw that he was ‘at extremely low altitude, over the Somme near Corbie, right behind an Englishman’.

The intended victim was in fact a Canadian, twenty-three-year-old Second Lieutenant Wilfred ‘Wop’ May, who was on his first mission and had been told to stay out of the fighting, watch carefully and try and learn something. When a German fighter approached, the temptation was too great and he had gone for him, only for his guns to jam. As he headed for home he looked round to see a blood-red triplane on his tail. He ‘kept on dodging and spinning . . . until I ran out of sky and had to hedge-hop over the ground. Richtofen was firing at me continually.’

As they crossed the German front line, ground troops opened up and the firing continued as they flew over the British trenches. When he reached the Somme, May flattened down close to the water, but as he rounded a bend in the river Richtofen ‘came over the hill. At that point I was a sitting duck. I felt he had me cold.’ Then, seemingly miraculously, Richtofen stopped firing. He too was under attack, from another Canadian, Captain Roy Brown of 209 Squadron, whose report later stated that he ‘dived on a pure red triplane . . . got a long burst into him and he went down vertical.’ Australian machine gunners on the ground also claimed the credit. Either way, Richtofen was dead. His body was retrieved from the wreckage and taken to Poulainville airfield ten miles away. Richtofen was laid out in a hangar on a strip of corrugated metal, staring upwards, in unconscious imitation of the knights that he and his fellow aces were said to resemble.

The following day – ten days before his twenty-sixth birthday – Richtofen was buried with full military honours. Among the mourners was Major Sholto Douglas, who would rise high in the new RAF. He recorded that ‘it was impossible not to feel a little emotional about it’. He nonetheless repeated the general view that the Red Baron was a calculating sort of warrior who used ‘the utmost caution’ and ‘never hesitated to avoid a fight or pull out of one if he thought the odds against him were too great’.

Mick Mannock, who employed the same scientific approach, shed no tears for his rival. ‘I hope he roasted all the way down,’ he was reported to have said on learning of his death. It would soon be his turn. On 26 July Mannock had been out with a novice pilot, showing him the ropes, and had just attacked an enemy two-seater, leaving his pupil to finish it off. Mannock was flying low, breaking one of his own cardinal rules, when a German machine-gun post got his range. The flames he so dreaded sprang from the engine and he spiralled down to his death. Mannock’s demise had a profound effect on his comrades. Ira Jones, by now a veteran pilot and a devoted admirer of ‘the greatest air fighter of all time’, usually recorded the deaths of colleagues with a resigned ‘poor old so-and-so bought it today’, but this was different. ‘Mick is dead,’ he wrote. ‘Everyone is stunned. No one can believe it . . . I have a deep aching void in my breast. I keep on repeating to myself: “It can’t be true. Mick cannot be dead.”’

Of the great aces of the war, very few on any side survived. The British stars, Hawker, Ball, Mannock and McCudden had all gone. The Germans had lost Boelcke, Immelmann and Richtofen, and the French Georges Guynemer and Roland Garros. Aces would reappear in the next war, but they were fewer and their celebrity was more artificial as their personalities were moulded by the official publicity machines to fit the demands of propaganda. The heroic age of air fighting was at an end. From its amateur, makeshift origins military aviation had, in the space of a decade, come to rival the existing services in size and importance. The numbers involved would have seemed incredible to the pilots of the first handful of squadrons as they prepared for that first hair-raising hop across the Channel.

By November 1918 the RAF had swollen to a force of nearly a million. Its 280 squadrons roamed the skies not only of France but of Macedonia, Mesopotamia, Palestine and East Africa. In the course of the First World War they had destroyed 7,054 German aircraft and lost 9,378 aircrew. The airmen’s exploits had won eleven VCs. Soon the life of this vast organization was to be imperilled, however, not by any foreign enemy, but by the politicians who had built it up and by its brothers-in-arms.




The Romans’ success in conquering and maintaining their enormous empire lay partly in their military culture, their weapons and their training. Rome’s ability to provision large armies at long distances was, however, equally as, or more important to its success. The military history of Rome is not one of continuous victory: indeed the Romans often won wars because, after losing battles—and sometimes entire armies and fleets—they could keep replacing them until the enemy was defeated. Polybius, a keen observer of the Roman military at its height, remarked that “the advantages of the Romans lay in inexhaustible supplies of provisions and men.”

A sophisticated logistical system allowed the Romans to exploit their military resources effectively. The Romans recognized the importance of supply and used it both as a strategic and a tactical weapon and the necessities of military supply influenced and often determined the decisions of the Roman commanders at war. Plutarch even mentions the military slang term for such tactics: “kicking in the stomach” (eis tên gastera enallonomenos). Frontinus cites Caesar, certainly Rome’s greatest general, on the use of logistics in military strategy:

I follow the same policy toward the enemy as did many doctors when dealing with physical ailments, namely, that of conquering the foe by hunger rather than by steel. Logistics in Campaign Planning Traditionally, Roman campaigns began on March 1st: in part to ensure the availability of fodder.

The Romans paid close attention both to raising armies and to the preparations for supplying them. Their habitually careful arrangements made a strong impression, and, given the general neglect of logistics in military history, our sources mention such planning remarkably often. For example, Polybius describes the large-scale Roman preparations for a Gallic invasion as early as 225 B. C.:

[The consuls] enroll[ed] their legions and ordered those of their allies to be in readiness. . . . Of grain, missiles and other war materiel, they laid in such a supply as no one could remember had been collected on any previous occasion.

There are many other examples both in the Republican and the Imperial periods.

Commanders naturally wanted to complete their logistical preparations before operations began. When Quinctius Flamininus was preparing his campaign against Nabis, the tyrant of Sparta, in 195 B. C., the arrival of allied troops, including Macedonians, completed his authorized force. Nevertheless, he still waited until the arrival of the supplies (commeatus) requisitioned from the neighboring Greek states before beginning his offensive. At times, troops were moved first and supplies sent after them. When Sulla had obtained the command of the First Mithridatic War, he marched his army over to Greece and then summoned money, auxiliary troops and supplies from Aetolia and Thessaly.

Some wars broke out unexpectedly and preparations had to be made in haste. Sallust notes that when the consul Spurius Postumius Albinus determined to reopen hostilities with Jugurtha, he “hastened to transport to Africa provisions (commeatus), money for paying the soldiers, and other apparatus of war.” The frequency of Roman conflict, and the experience of Roman officials with warfare, made such impromptu preparations much easier. Other times, military campaigns were planned years in advance.

The Security of Supply Lines

Ensuring that the army continued to receive supplies, despite an enemy’s attempts to interrupt them, remained an important priority in Roman warfare in every period. Provisions reached the army in a variety of ways: by sea and river, overland and through foraging and requisition. In each of these circumstances, enemy action was a threat, and the Romans had to deploy military forces, as well as the application of strategy and tactics, to meet this threat. Rome often found it necessary to prevent the enemy plundering Roman or allied territory: it is noteworthy that the fleet of Gaius Duilius, which won the first major Roman victory of the First Punic War at Mylae (260 B. C.), was sent out to prevent the Carthaginians from plundering the territory of a Roman ally.

Security of Waterborne Transport

Protecting sea-borne transport was vitally important in wartime: enemy action could seriously threaten the army’s supply shipments. There are many instances of such threats. In 217 B. C., for example, the Roman grain fleet supplying the army in Spain was captured by the Punic fleet. A Roman task force was immediately mobilized to set out in pursuit, but the damage had already been done. Plutarch notes that the Macedonian king Perseus during his war against the Romans (172–167 B. C.):

. . . made an unexpected attack upon the Roman fleet which was lying at anchor near Oreus, seized twenty ships of burden with their car- goes, and sank the rest together with the grain that filled them. . . .

The navy of Antiochus III, operating from the Hellespont and Abydos during the war of 192–189 B. C., made frequent raids (excursiones) against Roman cargo ships (onerariae) supplying their army in Greece. Later, Mithridates used his naval superiority in the eastern Mediterranean to cut off supplies to Sulla’s forces in Greece in 87–85 B. C. Attacks on sea-borne supply were important elements in the Civil Wars of the Late Republic. In 42 B. C., a Republican fleet under Statius defeated Dolabella’s fleet at Laodicea, cutting him off from supplies. When Octavian sent a large force by sea to reinforce and resupply the Caesarean army at Philippi, it was attacked and destroyed by the Republican navy.

The Romans routinely used their fleet to protect supply transports in wartime. As early as the First Punic War, the Romans assigned a fleet of 120 warships to provide a convoy for merchant ships bringing supplies for the siege of Lilybaeum (249 B. C.). When the commander of the fleet in 209 B. C., Marcus Valerius Laevinus turned some ships over to the consul Quintus Fabius Maximus for use in the assault on Tarentum, they are called by Livy “the ships which Laevinius had for protecting the supply lines (tutandis commeatibus).” Such protection continued in the late Republic: Sallust, in a speech attributed to the consul Gaius Cotta, and set in 75 B. C., refers to the fleet which “guarded our supplies (commeatus tuebatur).”

Such naval escorts were not always successful. The convoy protecting supplies going to Lilybaeum in 249 B. C., mentioned above, did not prevent the Carthaginians from attacking and seizing several of the merchant vessels. The threat of attack was sometimes more destructive than the attack itself: trying to avoid attack by Carthaginian warships, a Roman supply fleet placed its ships in a dangerous anchorage where a storm destroyed the entire fleet including all the army’s supplies. Whenever possible, a fleet put supplies put ashore before a battle. To prevent them from falling into enemy hands commanders of escorts might scuttle conveyed merchant ships, as the Pompeian admirals Lucretius and Minucius did during the Dyrrachium campaign of 48 B. C. 26 Despite the dangers of attack, supplies transported by sea were generally safer from attack than those sent overland, a point made by Tacitus.

Security of Overland Supply

The army provided escorts for supply convoys bringing provisions to troops in garrison even during peacetime, albeit on a limited scale. An incident from the anti-Roman uprising of Athrongaeus in Palestine around 4 B. C. illustrates the small size of such peace- time escorts. Josephus reports that a single century (80 men at full strength) was escorting a convoy of grain and arms to a legion stationed in Jerusalem, when the rebels ambushed the column near Emmaus. The Romans lost half the century and only the intervention of King Herod’s army saved the rest.

Obviously, moving provisions from the operational base to the army over supply lines provided ample opportunities for attack. Due to the increased danger in war, convoy escorts were, of course, considerably larger than in peacetime. A tribune commanded the forces that escorted a supply convoy bringing provisions to the army of Pompeius Aulus in Spain in 141 B. C. Appian does not give the size of the escort, but a tribune would have commanded at least several centuries and possibly a cohort or more.

An escort’s size was not the only factor in successful defense of a convoy. While accompanying a supply convoy to Lucullus’s army from Cappadocia in 71 B. C., a Roman force defeated an attack by Mithridates’s cavalry: the Pontic force had attacked the convoy in a defile, a more easily defensible position, instead of waiting until it reached open country. An escort also had to maintain a disciplined defense cordon, even if the column was proceeding to pick up sup- plies. Tacitus notes the lack of security in an unloaded supply column going to Novaesium from the Roman forces at Gelduba in 69 A. D., during the revolt of Julius Civilis. The troops assigned to defend it moved as if there were no danger:

. . . the cohorts escorting [the convoy] were proceeding as if in time of peace, that there were few soldiers with the standards, that their arms were being carried in carts (vehicula) while they all strolled along at will, he drew up his forces and attacked them, sending first some troops to occupy the bridges and narrow parts of roads.

The column was unable to make it to Novaesium and had to fight its way back to Gelduba without fulfilling its mission. In order to secure its supply lines, an army had to pacify the area between the operational base and the tactical base. This is why Vespasian did not immediately attack Jerusalem when he arrived on the scene in 67 A. D.: if he left hostile forces behind him, in Galilee and Samaria, the rebels would have been in a position to cut off his supply lines. Therefore, he spent an entire campaigning season taking important fortresses in the north of Palestine.

Providing a series of depots between the operational and tactical base was not only a question of “leap-frogging” supplies forward. Depots were generally placed within fortifications, as at Rödgen and South Shields and they served to secure provisions from enemy attack. Therefore, the sources often refer to them as “forts” (castella or phrouria). Vegetius describes this practice:

Among the things particularly incumbent upon a general . . . is to see that the transportation of grain and other provisions . . . is rendered secure from hostile attack. The only way to achieve this is to plant garrisons at suitable points through which our supply-trains pass. These may be cities or walled forts. If no old fortifications are available, temporary forts (castella) are established in favorable positions [and] a number of infantry and cavalry stationed in them on outpost duty provide a safe passage for supplies.

Brutus used fortified lines to protect his supply lines at Philippi (42 B. C.).

The use of fortified depots considerably reduced the risk of attack to supply lines. Once a rear area had been pacified, though, the danger of convoyed supplies, which at first glance seem very vulnerable, was actually rather small. Lacking firearms or explosives, the ambushing party in antiquity usually had to rely on superior numbers to overwhelm a convoy. Even if the enemy knew the likely route of a convoy, the exact time of its movement would not be predictable, so a large ambushing force would have had to wait in enemy territory, itself vulnerable to surprise attack.

Naturally, armies have a tendency to use their worst troops to garrison depots and operational bases, not to mention escort duty, leaving the best soldiers for combat. Livy explicitly states that after the consuls filled their legions with the best troops, they assigned the “surplus” (ceteri ) to garrison duty. In the Republican period, the Romans sometimes used their least reliable Italian allies to defend supply lines, sometimes with unfortunate results. In 218 B. C., Dasius of Brundisium commanded the garrison of Clastidium, in which a great quantity of grain had been stored for the Roman army. He betrayed the city to Hannibal for 400 gold pieces. The city’s capture not only hurt the Romans, but relieved the Carthaginians of considerable supply difficulties. When Manlius Vulso set up an operational base on the Lake of Timavus in his Istrian campaign of 178 B. C., he garrisoned it with a single reserve cohort (repentina cohors) and a few legionary centuries. The Istrians, seeing the weakness of the Roman defense, attacked the base and captured it. Only the barbarian drunkenness that followed, and the timely arrival of Gallic auxiliaries and of part of another legion (which had been foraging nearby) restored the situation, and the base, to the Romans.

Since Roman marching camps also functioned as supply bases, camp security was especially important. The Romans were justifiably famous for their security measures while encamping. Such measures involved both fortification and maintaining the discipline necessary to proper security. This system sometimes broke down, as it did in Albinus’s army in Numidia. Sallust notes that in this case:

. . . [his] camps were not fortified, nor was watch kept in a military fashion, men absented themselves from duty whenever they pleased.

It was no doubt at least partly for logistical reasons that the consul Caecilius Metellus reestablished security in his famous reform of the army in 109 B. C.

Military Strength and Weakness of the Imperial Roman Army




The gradual changes in the nature of the Roman army between the time of Tiberius and 235 certainly affected both Roman society and the empire’s internal power-struggles. Did they also affect Rome’s strength at the periphery? The really big changes were three, though they had all started well before Tiberius’ accession. The first was the regular organization of ‘auxiliary’ troops into quasi-permanent units in which they would normally serve for twenty-five years before being made Roman citizens on discharge, a system set up by Augustus and refined by his successors. As in centuries past, such troops often outnumbered the legionaries, and their effectiveness was of profound importance.

That leads, secondly, to the matter of recruitment. In the era of the civil wars of 49 to 31 bc, and under Augustus, provincials had entered the legions in large numbers. Recruits came from Roman-colonial or Romanized communities, but also from others: thus an inscription of the early Principate (ILS 2483) shows that almost all the soldiers in the two legions stationed in Egypt had been recruited in non-citizen communities in the eastern provinces (their lingua franca was Greek). All over the empire, the more Romanized provinces provided more and more of the legionaries, while Italians – who made up the bulk of the better-paid praetorian guard – provided fewer and fewer. The authorities were now quite willing in practice to recruit non-citizens, giving them citizenship when they were sworn in. This ‘provincialization’ probably reflected some Roman/Italian reluctance to serve (Italy was too prosperous) but also some intention on the emperors’ part to bring provincials into the mainstream. From Hadrian’s reign on, the normal pattern (though not in Britain) was to recruit legionaries in the provinces where they were needed, but from relatively Romanized/Hellenized elements (and legionaries were more likely than ‘auxiliaries’ to be literate). This was by and large a well-organized and disciplined force; and fighting spirit was probably not lacking either, at least down to Trajan’s time – when battle-commanders chose to entrust the initial impact of the fighting to ‘auxiliary’ units and keep the legionaries in reserve, a procedure that is first attested in a major battle at Idastaviso in Germany in AD 16 (Tacitus, Annals 2.16.3), there could be a variety of tactical reasons.

‘Auxiliary’ recruitment was quite different: the government concentrated on fringe areas such as Iberian Galicia and Thrace, simply supplying officers from the core area of the empire; such units were commonly posted away from their home areas, Britons for example in Upper Germany, while the auxilia in Britain itself might, for example, be Batavian or Syrian. Eventually, but unfortunately we do not know when, Rome also began to employ soldiers who are unlikely to have felt themselves to be Roman subjects: Marcus sent 5,500 cavalry of the Transdanubian Iazyges, whom he had just subdued, to serve in Britain (Dio 71.16). There were Goths garrisoning Arabia in 208, and Goths later took part in Valerian’s war against the Persians. This was probably an increasing trend, but it is hard to tell how much the armies of, say, Constantine and Licinius were really dependent on Goths or Arabs, whom they are known to have made use of.

The other military change of potentially great importance in the period prior to 235 was not so much that many units in the Roman army became ‘sedentary’ from generation to generation, becoming deeply involved in essentially administrative duties, but that many Roman soldiers never experienced battle. This army had never been invincible, but its deplorable failure to protect the Danube frontier in 170–1 suggests significant changes for the worse. Enemy forces reached northern Italy for the first time in some 270 years, while others, as already mentioned, raided as far south as Attica. Our sources on all this are poor, but it may be conjectured that a shortage of officers and soldiers seasoned by warfare had a great deal to do with Rome’s failure, and this in turn was the indirect result of conscious policy. In other respects, the Romans were normally at an advantage: throughout this period they were superior to their opponents in important areas such as artillery and engineering (‘the soldiers are always practising bridge-building’, Dio 71.3).

Temporary causes admittedly contributed, and the Danube line still had a long future. Marcus Aurelius, as we have seen, had had to raise two new legions about 165 to replace the three which his co-ruler Verus had taken from the Rhine and Danube to the east in order to fight the Parthians. Shortly thereafter, the Roman military in the north suffered seriously from the Great Pestilence, as recent studies have demonstrated. Marcus himself had had no military or even provincial experience before 168 – and it showed. Imperial coin-types furthermore had often exaggerated the emperors’ military achievements, and there was a risky deception involved when coin-types absurdly declared in 172–4 ‘Germania subacta’ – ‘Germany has been vanquished’.

Few historians have really tried to evaluate the Severan army, and the evidence is slippery. Even republican armies sometimes mutinied, and there were whole rhetorical topoi about undisciplined soldiery. But an army stationed in Mesopotamia that was mutinous enough to assassinate the provincial governor (about 227, Dio 80.4.2) was a very negative symptom (and see below on the year 235).

We have quite a lot of information about how the Roman army changed between Severan times and Constantine, but assessing its ability to do its job is nonetheless difficult. On the one hand it never, unlike the republican army, won battles it might well have lost, on the other it never, unlike the late-antique Roman army, lost battles that it ought to have won. We have little option but to judge it by its results, though these may be mainly attributable not to its own qualities but to those of its generals, or its logistics, or its enemies, or to any combination of these factors. Recent accounts of Rome’s military performance in this 100-year period are unsatisfactory, but our sources are admittedly tenuous to a degree, whether it is for the defeat at Abrittus in 251 or the battle nine years later in which, or after which, the Persians captured the emperor Valerian (some Roman sources naturally preferred to claim that he was captured by trickery).

Tiberius already knew that it was worth keeping two legions in Dalmatia partly in order to back up the legions on the Danube (Tacitus, Annals 4.5). Later Roman emperors eventually concluded that the long-standing dispositions of the Roman army, with the great majority of the soldiers stationed on or near the frontiers, were ill adapted to resisting major invasions that might come from different directions. It had always been necessary to balance the needs of the Danube frontier and the Euphrates frontier, but both became more dangerous in late-Severan times. Once Rome surrendered the initiative, the distances involved presented an almost insoluble problem: it took something over two months, for example, for troops to travel from Rome to Cologne. The best that could be done was to create a reserve army that could be sent wherever it was needed without weakening some vital garrison. It appears to have been Gallienus who created a central cavalry force (cf. Zosimus, New History 1.40, Cedrenus, i, p. 454 Bekker). The development of these comitatenses, as they came to be called, is impossible to follow in any detail, but Constantine apparently expanded their role (Zosimus 2.21.1 may refer to such troops), while also centralizing the command structure of the army by means of an overall infantry commander (the magister peditum) and a parallel cavalry commander (the magister equitum). Nonetheless it remained difficult to counter any large invasion once it had passed the northern or eastern frontiers. An enterprising governor might raise a local militia (populares: AÉ 1993 no. 1231b shows us a governor of Raetia doing this in 260), but they would be largely untrained and untried.

The reliefs on the Arch of Constantine distinguish between his Roman and his ‘barbarian’ troops, which raises again the complex question of whether Rome was now relying too much on troops who were merely mercenaries. According to the emperor Julian (Caesars 329a), Constantine ‘practically paid tribute’ to the barbarians, and modern accounts suppose that he and his rival Licinius made Rome significantly more reliant on German and other non-Roman troops than any previous ruler; but the ill effects do not yet seem to be visible.

The strength of the Roman Empire’s numerous and various neighbours to the north, east, and south can only be judged, once again, by the results, their aims likewise. From Tiberius’ time to Trajan’s, those who kept their freedom from Rome and their territorial integrity were doing well; this applies mainly to the Romans’ failure to advance far beyond the Rhine and to hold on to Mesopotamia. The incursions of the 160s–70s and of the 240s–60s showed a great deal of vigour. The invaders’ goal was often plunder, including human beings, which the Roman Empire offered in abundance. Dio (71.16) asserts that the Iazyges had taken far more than ‘ten myriads’ of prisoners in Roman territory – a five- rather than a six-digit number, one might think. (Some of the third-century booty has been recovered from the bed of the Rhine, rafts having apparently sunk). Not even Sasanian Persia, the most powerful external enemy Rome faced in this period, showed any determination to hold on to any Roman province, and in fact it had no reliable means of protecting its own core area against Roman forces that were always relatively near. But northern peoples had already in the second century extracted territorial concessions of a sort, obtaining lands within the Roman frontier. This practice went back to Julio-Claudian times. Initially the advantages to Rome probably outweighed the disadvantages; whether that continued to hold true in and after Marcus Aurelius’ time we shall consider in a moment. It certainly looks like a major surrender to strong outside pres- sure. Purchasing the docility of outside enemies by means of payments, unless it was a short-lived tactical expedient, was likewise a recognition of real enemy strength: this started with Domitian, but involved Trajan, Hadrian, and many later emperors. Yet from a Roman point of view, this was by no means an irrational policy, within limits.

Fundamental changes had taken place by the time the conglomeration of Germans known as the Alamanni (‘All Men’), who are first attested in a Roman source in 213, inflicted quite serious harm in 232–3. This was nothing less perhaps than the birth of a new national formation. What made a difference here was probably in the end quite simple: such a new grouping, like the Franks from about 260, could put larger forces into the field than any single German people. But the tetrarchs and Constantine could always, it seems, defeat the northern peoples on the battlefield.

US Army Independent Tank Battalion Combat Operations I


Organizational change and doctrinal definition did not adequately prepare independent tank battalions for actual combat conditions. The first encounter with German forces occurred in December 1942 during combat in Tunisia. A company of the 70th Tank Battalion was roughly handled and suffered extensive losses. The effectiveness of independent tank battalions tended to improve over time, but they could not always secure their own materiel and personnel requirements. Replacements and parts proved difficult to obtain since the independent tank battalions belonged to no division. As attachments, their needs often received a low priority from senior commanders more concerned with permanently assigned organizations.

The independent tank battalions also gained a reputation for ineffectiveness. Consequently, infantry divisions preferred to seek armored support from armored divisions whose tank battalions they considered better led and combat worthy. In some instances, infantry commanders requested armored division support, deliberately ignoring the presence of separate tank units already assigned. Avoidance of the independent tank battalions reflected the higher profile of the armored divisions and the attention given these formations. The second-string status afforded the independent tank battalions by the Armored Force did little to ensure they received the best personnel.

In North Africa and Italy, the 1st Armored Division tried to improve the leadership and effectiveness of several independent tank battalions. It did so by replacing the battalion commanders with officers from its own ranks. Later, preparing to breakout from the Anzio beachhead, the 1st Armored Division grouped all independent tank battalions under its supervision. The formation then assumed responsibility for meeting all training, supply, and maintenance requirements.

Despite these improvements, combat operations in 1944 continued to reflect difficulties in tank-infantry coordination. Combined operations by tanks and dismounted forces received insufficient emphasis in stateside training programs. Proposed solutions included pairing a tank battalion and an infantry division for combined training and employing them in combat as a team. Field commanders recommended a more permanent alignment of tank units and infantry formations, stimulated by their own combat experience and the German Army’s embodiment of this concept in its panzer grenadier divisions.

Tank battalions were intended for temporary attachment to infantry divisions. The effectiveness of their support increased with the length of attachment. Longer assignments improved teamwork and cohesion. Hence, where possible, corps and army headquarters in the European Theater of Operations sought to keep the same tank battalions and infantry divisions together. Regular attachment to the same infantry formation helped eliminate the perception among infantry commanders that the tank battalions were not part of the division team.

Routine attachments between specific tank battalions and infantry divisions never became universal. While semipermanent attachments predominated in Third Army, some tank units experienced nearly continuous reattachment, which precluded the establishment of tactical cohesion. In Italy, for example, one tank battalion underwent eleven different reattachments in a thirty-one-day period. An additional four reassignments were planned but subsequently aborted. The same unit had already logged six hundred miles during the months of May and June 1944 alone. This mileage reflected continuous operations that generated vehicle maintenance and crew fatigue problems. Unfortunately, the actual combat status of the vehicles remained largely invisible. Designated a corps asset, the unit remained on standby status until a subordinate division requested tank support. The tank battalion was dispatched, the operation conducted, and the battalion made available for a new assignment. Each new division assumed the tank unit was fresh and employed it accordingly. Consequently, the unit drifted from one mission to the next until its combat effectiveness evaporated.

Poor planning and coordination only compounded the problem of continuous reattachment. Each support assignment necessitated shifting armored liaison teams, obtaining new information on friendly force plans, and developing a fresh situational analysis to guide the manner in which tanks would enter combat. These actions required time that often was not available, and they simply were not conducted. Tank battalion commanders in Italy often entered combat with little situational awareness other than what they could observe themselves. To overcome this problem, they created their own liaison officers to coordinate operations with infantry divisions, regwiments, and battalions. Even this solution was nullified by the all-too-often receipt of vague, last-minute orders. Liaison aircraft, when available, offered better results. They were employed to identify friendly force dispositions, targets, and potential ambush locations.

Even stabilized attachments did not ensure harmony between the tank battalion and supported infantry. Because infantry units did not routinely train with tanks, infantry officers often had little knowledge of tank capabilities or requirements. Consequently, they employed tank support without respect to their special needs and planning requirements.

Infantry officers at the battalion, regiment, and division staff levels all required better education in tank operations. Tank battalion commanders sought to improvise their own solutions. The 743d Tank Battalion, for example, divided its staff into three sections and assigned each to an infantry regiment in the division supported. These sections provided information and advice concerning armored operations. Still better results were obtained when an infantry formation undertook training with tank units. Some formations established their own training lanes and worked through tactical exercises with attached tank units. In this manner the 29th Infantry Division achieved considerable cohesion with the 747th Tank Battalion.

Similarly, tank-infantry teams in the Asiatic-Pacific Theater of Operations did not always work well together, resulting in separation and combat losses. Sixth Army had several instances of tank units advancing and seizing an objective only to retreat because of the absence of supporting infantry to secure the position. Ineffective engineer support resulted in significant numbers of tanks becoming immobilized during stream crossings or destroyed by mines. Too often tanks found themselves isolated without any dismounted support. They quickly became the targets of Japanese close-assault tactics.

Although tanks and tank destroyers proved effective in reducing strong points and fortified positions, infantry commanders either distrusted the weapon, as in the case of the tank destroyer, or did not understand how best to employ it. On Okinawa, the lack of confidence expressed by infantry commanders toward supporting armor undermined effective cooperation. Efforts to micromanage tank usage without regard to the recommendations of armored personnel generated friction and reduced combat effectiveness. As the island battle continued, greater cohesion began to emerge and more latitude was granted to tank commanders in the conduct of their assigned operations. Teamwork began to characterize tank-infantry action. Tanks blasted caves and ridgelines immediately before the advance of riflemen. Flamethrower tanks then followed to eliminate all vestiges of resistance.

Regardless of the level of teamwork, tank-infantry teams suffered from poor communications on the battlefield. This problem became particularly acute during operations in the Normandy bocage in June and July 1944. For six weeks Allied forces struggled through several hundred square miles of fields bordered by thick hedges sunk into high embankments. These hedgerows impeded both infantry and vehicular movement, requiring ground forces to develop ad hoc techniques to breach them. The Germans became adept at organizing integrated defenses in these hedgerows that transformed the enclosed farmlands into killing fields for Allied forces.

The Normandy hedgerows limited tank employment to platoon and section elements. Tanks provided close fire support to advancing infantry, but the tank radios did not work on the same frequency as the handsets used by the infantry. Too often planned attacks disintegrated under enemy fire. The infantry became pinned while the tanks drove off unaware of the plight of the riflemen. The inability of the infantry to communicate with the armor via radio resulted in desperate attempts to recall the tanks. Infantry climbed on the tanks and banged on the hatches, threw rocks at the vehicles, and even fired short machine-gun bursts at the turrets. None of these measures produced the desired result, particularly in the close, complex terrain of the hedgerows, where the wary tankers were more likely to consider all such activity hostile.

Issuing infantry handsets to tank commanders proved more effective, but the riflemen possessed only limited numbers of such radios. Those ones lent to the tankers tended to suffer high loss rates. Some units therefore mounted on the back of the tanks field phones that linked into the vehicles’ intercom systems. This setup permitted the infantry company or platoon commander to talk directly to the armored leader. The simple solution worked in combat, and it became a trademark of American tanks in the postwar years. Although common in the First and Ninth Armies, this solution to battlefield communications never became universal and problems of tank-infantry coordination plagued the Army to the war’s end. Even where the field phones were available, infantry personnel were not always trained in their use. Tank crews also found that field-phone use increased the rate of radiotube burnout and drained the vehicle’s batteries. It also lowered the volume of the tank’s internal communication system-a potentially serious problem in combat. In the Pacific Theater, soldiers using the field phone became sniper targets.


US Army Independent Tank Battalion Combat Operations II


Tank battalion combat effectiveness also depended on vehicle maintenance. These units included only limited maintenance assets. Generally, maintenance suffered from deficiencies in spare parts and tank transporters and many personnel lacked training in tank maintenance skills. The transient status of the tank battalions often resulted in minimal support from the heavy ordnance companies assigned to parent corps and division formations. Continuous reattachment precluded the establishment of a steady source of parts and maintenance support. Consequently, the tank battalions faced a burgeoning maintenance problem during the course of sustained combat activity.

The 746th Tank Battalion remained in continuous operations from June through November 1944, during a period when no extensive maintenance occurred. The state of the vehicles suffered accordingly. Even when sufficient spare parts were obtained, the battalion had insufficient transport for them. In combat, its recovery vehicles proved less than useful. When advanced to extract knocked-out or disabled tanks, their unique look quickly drew enemy fire. Consequently, the battalion resorted to using tanks to tow tanks. This practice saved recovery vehicles but increased the automotive wear on the combat vehicles.

Many of these maintenance problems could and were overcome when a division or corps headquarters deliberately sought to alleviate them. In the XX Corps, an ordnance company was designated to serve all attached tank battalions. This arrangement resulted in excellent maintenance support. Indeed, the level of support was considered the best in the European Theater. In Italy, the 1st Armored Division made similar provisions to sustain separate tank battalions with equally positive results. Some commanders sought a simpler solution by trying to obtain tanks with Ford engines, which were believed to require less maintenance.

The problems associated with the separate tank battalions led to recommendations for their elimination in the postwar era. In lieu of a pool of battalions for attachment, the wartime experience encouraged a desire to make tank battalions organic to the infantry division. Infantry and armored leaders believed that such an arrangement would eliminate the cohesion, coordination, and attachment problems experienced during combat operations. Other recommendations included the removal of the light-tank and mortar companies and the addition of a properly equipped and trained ordnance company.

These proposals aimed at improving tank-infantry coordination within the infantry division rather than the elimination of the tank support. By war’s end the independent tank battalions had evolved into important assets. They had demonstrated their worth in hedgerow, wooded, and urban terrain-areas previously considered off-limits to tanks. The principal wartime difficulties included lack of combined-arms training, ineffective communications, and a doctrine that reflected prewar notions of tank massing rather than the actual needs of infantry formations. Once independent tank battalions overcame these difficulties, their effectiveness increased.

Rejection of Independent Tank Battalion Doctrine

Imbued with the doctrine of mass, the independent tank battalions deployed to theaters of operation. The notion of employing tanks in battalion or multibattalion concentrations, however, did not survive contact with infantry division commanders. Once attached to a division, the medium tanks were broken into company and platoon increments and given support missions with different infantry battalions. The most common distribution was one medium tank platoon per infantry battalion, but no universal standard applied. Within the 12th Army Group, for example, tanks were sometimes assigned to support infantry on the basis of one company per regiment. However allocated, the mission of the tanks remained the same: support the main effort as indicated by the infantry division, regiment, or battalion commander.

The de facto breakup of the tank battalions into platoon parcels nullified the rationale behind the battalion’s self-contained organization. The medium tank companies constituted the principal combat power of the battalion. Scattered among different infantry regiments and battalions, the tank battalion remnant possessed little intrinsic value as a combat unit. It too was split among different functions. The light tank company found employment conducting special operations for the supported division or providing an additional reconnaissance asset. Alternatively, some divisions used light-tank platoons to reinforce the medium-tank companies. However, the weak armor and armament of the light tanks limited their use in this capacity. The battalion’s mortar platoon was either not employed, or it reinforced the infantry division’s mortars. The reconnaissance platoon performed route and bivouac reconnaissance or liaison functions. The assault gun platoon often was organized into three sections, each assigned to a medium tank company for additional firepower.

Without a unit to command, the battalion headquarters lost much of its purpose. The battalion commander served as an armored adviser to the division commander, whereas the battalion’s staff continued to provide administrative support to the scattered tank units. Maintenance and supply functions became problematical, because no direct conduit existed between the battalion headquarters and the tanks. Arguably, the most effective use of the battalion staff lay in the role of liaison officers. In this capacity, they could at least participate-albeit indirectly-in the combat employment of the tank companies and platoons.

Assignment of the battalion’s single artillery forward observer constituted another problem. Most tank companies had no designated forward observer. Instead they relied on tank platoon leaders to call for fire missions. However, these commanders lacked training in this task, and their effectiveness varied. Recommendations to cross-train tank and field artillery officers soon resulted. In any event, the availability of artillery support could not be guaranteed, even when a trained observer was present. In the Ninth Army, for example, artillery support became a rarity after an attached observer was nearly killed on two different occasions.

The dispersal of tank assets reduced the level of armored support from an entire battalion to companies and platoons. Against fortified positions, in urban settings, and in the Normandy hedgerows, tank sections constituted the principal form of tank support. Leading assaults, providing support by fire and bunker busting, and sometimes acting as reinforcing artillery were all common missions. The tanks generally moved with the infantry and engaged targets that threatened or obstructed the latter. Against fortifications they provided suppressive fire that permitted engineers to close with and destroy the defensive works. On the defensive, tanks were often assigned a sector to support and tank platoon leaders prepared contingency plans for a counterattack. Foreshadowing the Korean War experience, tanks sometimes were used as static pillboxes.

In the Asiatic-Pacific Theater of Operations, tank battalions faced a different type of threat. The Japanese Army did not possess a strong tank force; its tanks were usually used in small numbers to support infantry actions. However, Japanese infantry employed a variety of techniques to destroy or immobilize American tanks. Mines were used extensively along trails used by tanks; infantry frequently attacked tanks, using surrounding jungle terrain to get close to the vehicles; ambushes staged near knocked-out vehicles targeted recovery teams. In defensive engagements with American forces, Japanese soldiers employed extensive fortifications and natural terrain obstacles, forcing attackers to expend time and casualties to remove them.

American tank battalions thus found themselves employed in companies and platoons against local objectives not unlike their counterparts in Europe. They spearheaded infantry attacks, provided fire support, and used their weapons to suppress or eliminate specific positions. They also served in an artillery role, providing fire support directed by a spotter. To thwart Japanese night attacks, tank spotlights were used to highlight targets for supporting infantry to engage. Tank mobility proved sufficient to keep pace with the infantry, but the rugged terrain in the jungles and on some of the Pacific islands often resulted in mired tanks.