Early Tank Warfare: Armies fight for allocation not Victory

World War One is frequently seen as a watershed time in warfare. We had seen modern war start to develop as far back as the Crimean War, really develop a brutalist, Total War aspect during the Civil War, and come into it’s own during WWI. One of the themes we hear all the time is the “outdated tactics and strategy” or the stunning new technologies that baffled military leaders during the war. However, old divisions within command structures made it difficult for commanders to focus on victory. This can be illustrated in the debate between whether tanks belonged to the infantry, artillery or cavalry corps.

At the time of its introduction, the tank was not the groundbreaking, blitzkrieg machine of WWII or the behemoth of firepower, mobility and armor we know it as today. Instead, the tank was a lumbering, under powered experimental vehicle, prone to breakdowns. British tanks were successful at the tactical and operational level during the end of WWI, but weren’t the game changers we know them as until WWII rolled around. During the inter-war period, Germany embraced mobile, armored warfare as part of a larger combined arms doctrine developed by Field Marshal “Fast” Heinz Guderian and others. The results of this doctrine, despite many of their artillery, infantry and support pieces still being mule driven, was the ferocious take overs of Poland and France.’

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A Combined Arms force is essentially the different folks on the battlefield working together. Tanks, infantry, artillery, and airpower are all on the same page pursuing the same, if not similar objectives. They can mutually support each other instead of having split forces and doctrines.

France and Britain, and even to some extent, the USA had different doctrine though. There was petty squabbling over whether tanks should belong to the infantry, artillery or cavalry. They supported the infantry, moved like the cavalry and had big guns and support systems like the artillery, so what were they? Even though they were something entirely new, it didn’t stop Generals and ordinance departments from internecine feuds. Looking to appease the different factions, Cavalry, Infantry and Heavy tanks were all developed with different tactics, support groups and roles for each.

In France, highly effective tanks were developed, but doctrine failed to find a way to incorporate tanks onto the battlefield. Tanks were a company or higher level asset and radios were not included in their standard outfitting. This made communication with their fellow infantry forces almost impossible and meant that actually getting the tanks into action was a slow, lumbering process requiring multiple levels of command.

In Britain, the Experimental Mechanised Force was a groundbreaking Brigade sized element that started to form the core of a combined arms force, with accompanying doctrine to boot. Unlike the French, the British equipped their tanks with radios and at least had the beginnings of effective doctrine for how to incorporate tanks onto the battlefield. The British had three categories of tanks, Light, Cruiser and Infantry. All had different roles to fulfill, but the idea that tank warfare should incorporate the infantry and artillery roles, along with enough firepower to damage enemy tanks and fortifications was firmly entrenched in the British military mind. An Army of tradition though, the British military still had a focus on infantry tactics and was resistant to change. This can be seen in the way towed anti-tank guns were relied on to battle Rommel and his forces in North Africa.

The United States, with a vast manufacturing capability had a bit more lee-way in their doctrine than some of their allies. While Britain worked with careful resources, the US had the ability to use quantity even if they were ironing out their doctrine and tactics, which were still quite effective. More importantly, the US always encouraged firepower and independent thinking, with flexible doctrine that employed tanks and tank destroyer in their most effective battlefield roles. US troops worked their tanks in platoon and company level elements, incorporated with the Infantry because the tank corps had been disbanded in the 1920’s. While the US did not begin wholesale development of tanks until the eve of WWII, there was constant progress made in individual tank components like suspensions, tracks and transmissions.

There are many more examples, and honestly, a single article does not do this topic justice. But the Germans were one of the most effective in developing new doctrine and tank designs that focused around winning a quick, decisive victory and not ensuring tanks were allocated to a specific branch. While the French were producing some of the best tanks in the inter-war period, and the British were working toward an idea of combined arms warfare, the Germans already had firm doctrine and tank designs that supported their idea of a conquest of Europe.

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The focus should be on ensuring that a new technology is lethal, deployable and useful and not on who is in charge.

Doctrine goes hand in hand with battlefield success, though it is not an end all. The Germans eventually lost out to the armored might supplied by the US and USSR, but France and Britain also learned plenty of hard fought lessons that could have been hashed out beforehand if they were not too busy quarreling over where tanks belonged and who they belonged to on the battlefield.

 

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