Preparing for tank warfare

Tanks had been designed to overcome the stalemate of trench warfare and their initial deployment in Flanders had created profound shock and panic – but not victory, and the casualty rates amongst the tank-men had been high. With the end of the war, it was time to reflect on their future role.

First world war tank

First world war tank

There were those who believed that tanks could constitute a new independent strike force that would dominate combat in the future, replacing the central role of infantry and cavalry. J. F. C. Fuller, former staff officer involved in the planning of tank operations in Flanders, imagined an army corps made up entirely of tank divisions acting alone. His junior, Liddell-Hart, military correspondent for the Daily Telegraph, argued that tanks could bring back into play the rapid manoeuvres, surprise and genius of the greatest generals of the past, Belisarius and Napoleon.

Grant tanks

Grant tanks

Others thought they were dreaming.

Field Marshal Earl Haig insisted that cavalry units were essential to any future combat force since the petrol engine wasn’t reliable and horses were far superior to tanks in cross country mobility. In Palestine, Allenby had shown how the cavalry could be used in a decisive role.

As the troops were demobilised and the army reduced to its pre-war strength, regiments returned to policing the empire and took up their old, traditional ways. No-one expected to fight another European war.

Scots Greys in Palestine

Scots Greys in Palestine

Nevertheless, a new army corps had appeared, the Tank Corps (renamed the Royal Tank Regiment in 1939), members of which were distinguished from other corps by their black beret. They weren’t dominated by the public school ethos of the cavalry and ignored the proscription on talking shop in the mess, arguing late into the night about carburettors and magnetos, 6-pounders and the relative merits of the Hotchkiss and Lewis machine-guns, happier with grease and oil than grooms and hay.

RTR and Sherman tank

RTR tank crew in front of Sherman tank

The potential of the new corps was put to the test on Salisbury Plain in 1927 and 1928 by setting up a joint task force of tanks, motorised infantry and artillery, known as the Experimental Mechanical Force, and pitting it in exercises against traditional forces of infantry and cavalry. J. F. C. Fuller was offered the command, but he declined – thereby losing the opportunity to become the Guderian of England.

Despite proving its worth in all the tests, the joint motorised force fell victim to the scepticism of the entrenched military lobbies and the sweeping cuts in military spending imposed after the recession of 1929.

Any new doctrine on the use of tanks was therefore to be framed according to the perspectives of the traditionalists which resulted in the development of two kinds of tank: one in a support role for the infantry; the other in the traditional role of the cavalry.

The infantry tank was designed to support those on the ground by knocking out enemy gun installations, battering down defences and tackling opposing enemy tanks. Since they needed to move at the pace of the infantry, they were vulnerable to counter fire and therefore thickly armoured, which meant they were heavy and couldn’t move any faster. Engaged in close combat with the enemy, a range of 500 yards for their guns was thought adequate and they weren’t effective at greater distances. The tanks were given to regiments of the RTR – so instead of becoming the assault forces of a New Model Army, they were simply integrated into traditional infantry divisions as support units.

Matilda tanks with infantry

Infantry with Matilda support tank

The cavalry were to receive armoured cars or Cruiser tanks which were more lightly armoured and therefore of higher speed, designed to exploit any breakthrough achieved by the infantry and to cut lines of supply and communications behind the enemy lines, doing what the cavalry had always done.

The junior cavalry regiment, the 11th Hussars, was the first to be mechanized when it received armoured reconnaissance cars in 1928.

11th Hussars and Morris armoured car

11th Hussars and Morris armoured car

The last was the Scots Greys, which was still lobbying to keep its horses as late as 1938, and when sent to Palestine shortly after, they took their horses with them. It wasn’t until September 1941 that they received their first tanks, two years after the beginning of the war and just nine months before the regiment first deployed them at the battle of Alam Halfa.

Crusaders in action

Crusaders moving into action

In contrast to the inertia and short sightedness of the British, the Germans were gearing up for war before the ink was dry on the armistice agreement. Although the protocols of the Versailles Treaty stripped down the army to 100,000 men, it was turned into an elite force by its commander, Hans von Seekt, who weeded out anyone who didn’t meet his high standards, irrespective of social status or connections. With such a small force, technological superiority in all arms was essential to deliver the punch it needed. By the early 1920’s, the German government had struck a deal with the Soviet Union to allow it to train and develop its illegal Panzer units and fledgling Luftwaffe on Russian territory, beyond the gaze of the International Allied Control Commission. It was near Kazan that the first prototypes of the Panzers were tested and new strategic thinking developed.

Panzer I

Panzer 1

The leading German theoretician on the use of armoured vehicles, Guderian, had assimilated the ideas of Fullers and Liddell-Hart but rejected their more whimsical conclusions in which tank forces alone could replace the infantry. He realized that they needed the infantry and artillery, but instead of doing as the British had done in bringing the tanks down to the speed of the infantry, he brought the infantry up to the speed of the tanks by employing half-track troop carriers to bring them to the front. This allowed him to fully coordinate mixed arms divisions under a single command. When employed in coordination with Luftwaffe ground attacks, all the elements of Blitzkrieg were in place.

Half track troop carriers

Half track troop carriers

Panzer III

Panzer III and its crew

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