ARMORED FORCE (SEPARATE TANK BATTALIONS)

 

ORGANIZATION

 

The tank battalion organized under TO & E 17-25, consisted of a battalion Headquarters and Headquarters Company, three (3) lettered medium tank companies ( A, B, C ) and a light tank company ( D ). The tank battalion included 39 officers, 709 enlisted men, 53 medium tanks (M4), 6 assault guns ( medium tank with 105mm howitzer ), 17 light tanks ( M5A1 ), 15 halftracks ( M3 ) plus its unarmored vehicles.

 

The only two light tank battalions in the European Theater of Operations the 744th Light Tank Battalion and the 759th Light Tank Battalion ( both organized under TO & E 17-15 ) were smaller than the normal (medium) tank battalions and had only three (3) lettered tank companies ( A, B, C ) instead of four. The light tank battalion included 34 officers, 513 enlisted men, 59 light tanks (M5A1), 3 assault guns ( M8, with 75mm howitzer ), 3 mortar 81mm halftracks ( M21 ), 13 halftracks ( M3 ) plus its unarmored vehicles.

 

OPERATIONS

 
GENERAL MISSION

The separate tank battalions were organized as GHQ Reserve Battalions, and were assigned to armies. However, in actual practice and operation, a tank battalion was attached to an infantry division and usually operated with it throughout the European campaign. But, because there were only 28 medium and two light separate tank battalions for 42 infantry divisions in the Theater, there were few, for short periods, did not operate with two or more different divisions. So close was the tank battalion integrated with the combat echelons of the division to which it was attached, the narrative of operations of them is usually that of the division to which it was attached.

 
TRENDS

Employment.  The need for attaching  a tank battalion to an infantry division became apparent in Normandy and policy to that effect was established. There were, however, no instances of the attachment of a separate tank battalion to an Armored Division. The medium companies were usually attached, one to each regiment. After the first few weeks, it became an accepted practice in all armies to attach the same company whenever possible to the same regiment for all operations, offensive or defensive. This permitted some badly needed maintenance of vehicles and rehabilitation of crews whenever the regiment was out of the line.

 

The light companies were not employed in a uniform manner. Some divisions, particularly the Ninth , attached the light company to the division reconnaissance troop. These companies were in generally in mobile reserve, and at times used to reinforce medium companies. However, the lack of fire power, particularly with the 37mm gun, and the very light armor made them generally incapable of accomplishing the desired missions.

 

The functioning of the battalion as a fighting unit was exceptional. In the latter part of the war the battalion tended to become an administrative unit and advisory staff section only. As an advisory section, it was not uniformly successful. Most commanders agreed that had the battalion been an organic unit and trained with the division prior to combat, a better mutual understanding and spirit of cooperation would have always prevailed.

 

Use of Support Weapons. The mortars were used so little that they must be regarded as having been unnecessary. They were seldom employed to influence a tank action, and were often attached to infantry mortar units to reinforce their fire.

 

The assault guns were habitually used by some units as reinforcing artillery. Some battalions grouped all six (6) guns into a platoon of three (3) sections, a section then attached to each company to reinforce it during operations. Its larger caliber gun and HEAT (High Explosive Anti-Tank) ammunition would have made it desirable as a tank if it had had a power turret. As a smoke weapon it is excellent, and its retention in the battalion is indicated.

 

COORDINATION OF TANK - INFANTRY - ARTILLERY - ENGINEER UNITS

 
COMBAT TEAMS

At the time the combat teams became the keystone of all successful operations. The complexity of new weapons and the limitations of each gives a complete interdependence of them on others to attain efficiency. Nothing is more helpless than a lone tank without artillery or infantry support. Its inherent blindness, its weight and size make it the natural target of all enemy fires. If friendly artillery is not coordinated, a hidden group of anti-tank guns will soon get it, or if there is no infantry near, as soon as the tank slows down it becomes easy prey to an enemy infantryman with an anti-tank weapon.

 

On the other hand in the planned operation where the tank-infantry-artillery and engineers are given their proper mission, one for which they have trained together as a team, the strength of each will complement the weakness of the others, thus making the strong concerted effort necessary for success.

 
COMMUNICATION

The biggest factor in teamplay, or the combat team, is easy and complete communication, that each arm may have workable means at hand of knowing what progress, or what difficulty, the others are encountering. The most feasible medium, during combined operations, was radio. This has been hampered during the operations in western Europe due to the lack of a proper radio to achieve this coordination. The frequency modulated SCR 528 of the tank and the SCR 300 of the infantry and engineers did not net, and the 600 series of the artillery overlapped only at the end of the band. By December 1944 this difficulty was partially met by installation of 300 sets inside the tank. In this way, relatively efficient radio contact between tank and infantry elements was, at last, achieved. But two radios proved too much to be efficiently manned in a tank and, since all messages had to be relayed, communication was slowed and inadequate. All tank commanders felt a great need for a radio that could net with the infantry, tanks and artillery, but it never appeared. 

 

The use of the telephone on the back end of the tank was quite widespread particularly in the First and Ninth Armies. This too was a battle expedient and was to quick communication between the individual infantryman and tank commander. It was connected to the interphone system and proved to be a drain on the battery.

 
ARTILLERY FIRE CONTROL

The use of bone battalion forward observer for artillery fire control probed inadequate in the separate tank battalions, since they normally operated by companies. An observer was needed with each tank company, to properly control supporting artillery fire. Where the tanks were working in close support of the infantry over a limited objective, fire direction from the platoon commanders was often relayed through the infantry regiment, to the supporting artillery. The tank officers, unfortunately, had not sufficient previous training to do this efficiently; and the artillery observers, not familiar with a tank, were often reluctant to ride in a tank for their observation. Many commanders felt that more training of artillery and tank officers, in the opposite arm, would have been very beneficial. Better results would have been obtained if all tank officers had been well trained as forward observes for artillery.

 

The employment of the liaison plane for work with the tanks of the battalion was used extensively by the 743d  Tank Battalion during February, March and April 1945. This plane had a principal mission of spotting enemy armor, giving that information to both the leading tank elements and the artillery, and directing the fire of both on it. The success attained was noteworthy.

 
DEMOLITION

Some of the best examples of tank and engineer cooperation occurred on the Siegfried Line. Tanks moved up on pillboxes, sealed the apertures with fire, and allowed the engineers to move forward and place pole charges against the doors or down air vents. In operations of the 741st Tank Battalion in September 1944 against the Siegfried Line, with engineers of the 28th Division, small teams were organized for reducing pillboxes. These teams were composed of a platoon of infantry, a section of tanks and a squad of engineers. The  tanks approached and fired into the embrasures of the pillbox at close range while the engineers, with the infantry platoon, moved to the pillbox, placed charges and the infantry closed in to capture those who came out after the smoke cleared. this proved to be a very successful operation, and such teams were often employed to reduce pillboxes in braking through the Siegfried defenses. 

 
BRIDGEHEADS

In establishment of a bridgehead, over a river, the standard type tank cannot cross initially. A heavy pontoon or steel treadway must be erected in the initial crossing. During the building of the bridges, direct HE and machine gun fire, from the tanks can materially aid in keeping down enemy small arms fire from the bridge site.

 

In the crossing of the Roer on 23 February 1945, this type of support was carried out with good results by tanks of the 747th Tank Battalion, in support of the 29th Infantry Division.

 

The use of the Bailey rafts, to ferry tanks for support of a bridgehead, was accomplished with success by the 30th Infantry Division in ferrying tanks of the 743rd Tank Battalion across the Rhine River 24 March 1945. The Bailey raft, powered by a sea mule, is a cumbersome article of equipment. In a fast moving operation such a plan is impractical. The Rhine had been a major barrier that held up the advance for some time, allowing special equipment to be brought forward.

 

In defense of a bridgehead, tanks can be used to cover friendly mine fields and road blocks established at critical avenues of approach to the bridgehead. However, the major proportion of the tanks should be used as a reserve, with an infantry unit, to meet any enemy attack on the bridgehead itself.

 

TANK - INFANTRY - ARTILLERY - ENGINEER UNITS SUPPORTED BY AIR FORCE ELEMENTS

 

The use of close support of air to the Tank - Infantry - Artillery and Engineers teams requires coordination of a high order. In this, visual signals play a large role. Identification of friendly and enemy units must be quick and unmistakable. the fluorescent panel AP50A proved to be excellent. By variation of the red and orange panels on successive days, compromise by the enemy was lessened.

 

Lack of a common radio between tank and air was a serious shortcoming. The VHF set 522 was installed in the tanks of some battalions to give direct contact between tank and air. Excellent results were obtained by the 2nd Armored Division with this means of direct contact. Request for one VHW set per medium company were made by the Armored Section, Ninth Army for separate tank battalions, and one per battalion was installed. There is no report of operation in combat of these radios. 

 

In mounting an operation, the bringing of pilots to the division which will make the attack, has proved very valuable in preparing signals and allowing the ground and air officers to get the closest possible cooperation. This worked with marked success during the operation COBRA that made and exploited the breakthrough west of St. Lo. Direct radio contact between air and lead tanks accounted for destroying much enemy armor, while saving American tanks from being destroyed by running into it head-on.

 
 

 

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