November 02, 2015

LESSONS IN TANK TACTICS - Anecdotes for Discussion

Originally posted on the Battlefront forums I wanted to re-post this as it contains some interesting information. The examples shown are from the East Front but I believe are relevant to any theater.

I have always contended that the Soviet army was not the mindless mass that some contend. The following two anecdotes illustrate that the Russian army could be quick on its feet and could indeed utilize its forces with synchronization, intelligence, and effectiveness.

The following report on the tactics of tanks, in cooperation with infantry and artillery, was published in Tactical and Technical Trends, No. 41, December 30, 1943.
Two examples of the use of tanks in conjunction with infantry and artillery were analyzed in an article which was published recently in Red Star. In one example the reasons for heavy casualties are indicated while the other example illustrates how a mission may be accomplished with minimum losses. A translation of the Red Star article follows:
The speed of forward movement of tanks on the battlefield is one of the basic questions of tank tactics. It is the tendency of the commander who has tanks at his disposal to make use of their mobility to increase the general speed of the unit. This policy conforms completely with modern tactics and should be followed as often as possible. However it is necessary to take into consideration all the conditions under which the tanks will have to operate. A tank maneuver must be well-prepared and it must receive all-around support. A few examples from actual combat experience may help to make this point clear.
This first example illustrates a failure, the lessons learned and identification of errors made after the anecdote are spot on.
A detachment composed of tanks, artillery and motorized infantry was ordered to exploit the success of troops who had thrown the enemy back from his main defense line. Specifically, the detachment's mission was to attack and advance 12 to 15 miles to the enemy's rear and capture a village, thereby cutting the route of the enemy's retreat.
The detachment started on its mission at dawn. The tank regiment, in march column formation, was in front. The commander of the regiment was told that security and reconnaissance units would operate along his route. Information concerning the enemy was very meager. All that was known was that our [the Russian] units, having driven the enemy back from a certain line of defense, were pursuing them in a south-westerly direction.
The tank regiment moved at high speed, preceded at a distance of approximately a mile by an advance group of four tanks. When these tanks reached Hill 212.8 they were fired on from the left flank and were forced to withdraw behind the hill.
The commander of the regiment believed that a reconnaissance detachment was operating somewhere in advance of the regiment, but he did not meet it. Later it became known that the reconnaissance and security parties had not been sent out; they had been forgotten in the general rush.
The commander of the regiment then decided to leave most of the tanks concealed north of Hill 212.8 and reconnoiter the enemy positions in combat. This was done with the help of one tank company.* As soon as the attacking forces passed by the hill, they were met with flank and cross fire; also they were bombed heavily from the air. Some tanks reached Hill 221.3 but the company was soon compelled to withdraw. However reconnaissance data which was obtained made it possible not only to determine the general character of the enemy's defense but also the location of his artillery.
In the vicinity of Hill 221.3, in different places, there were 13 guns and 7 self-propelled mounts which kept Hill 212.8 and the whole field south of it under fire. In addition, five German tanks were located.
Without the support of artillery it would be difficult to break through such a barrier by a frontal tank attack. About half an hour would be needed to bring the artillery and infantry up to Hill 212.8 and to open fire against the enemy. Since the enemy defense to the right was not so strong, our tanks could pass around Hill 212.8 and by following the ravine could gain Hill 221.3 without much interference and then be in the rear of the enemy's artillery positions.
 However, the commander of the main Russian detachment did not consider it necessary to spend time in coordinating his forces. Without waiting for the artillery and the mortars (only one battery arrived at the position in time) the commander ordered all the tanks to attack. The tanks moved forward, deployed in a line. As soon as they came up over the hill, the Germans opened intensive fire. To pass through the fire zone the Russian tanks moved forward at full speed and reached Hill 221.3 in a comparatively short time. The enemy wavered and then began to withdraw. A certain tactical advantage had been gained, but at the cost of unnecessary losses. Several of the Russian tanks had been disabled thereby restricting the possibilities of exploiting the advantage.
It may be said that this battle was characteristic in the sense of providing for a given high speed in the forward movement of tanks. The commander was right in trying to keep up the high speed of forward movement of the tanks, for the situation demanded it: but he made a mistake in hurriedly throwing his tanks against a strongly fortified antitank position. In such situations it is necessary to provide for the constant forward movement of tanks, not only to demand it.
The mistakes of the commander of the main detachment were as follows:
(1) He did not provide for proper reconnaissance during the offensive, with the result that the encounter with the enemy was unexpected.
(2) When the enemy's defense system and fire power had been determined, the commander hurried unnecessarily to attack with his tanks without the support of the artillery, of which there was sufficient quantity, but which had not been drawn up in time.
(3) The commander paid too much attention to the fast forward movement of the tanks and forgot about the organization of the battle.
So basically 1. conduct a thorough reconnaissance, 2. gain as much information as possible before committing, and 3. coordinate your forces. 

I have tried to instill these basic tenets in all of my AARs.
Unfortunately, situations like this one above may still be found. There still are commanders who continue to urge on the tanks, at the same time forgetting the elementary principles of combat organization and the fact that time spent preparation will always be compensated tenfold.
In reviewing the battle we see that it would have taken only a half hour to organize the cooperation of tanks, infantry and artillery. This would have helped not only to deliver a telling blow on the enemy; it would also have provided the conditions for a quick and deep movement toward the objective. There was unnecessary haste in throwing the tanks into the zone of the heaviest antitank fire. This restricted their maneuvers and caused unnecessary losses.
In combat there are times, of course, when it is necessary to rush forward without taking into consideration many circumstances. However, in ninety cases out of a hundred, it is possible to find the time and means to provide for a high rate of forward movement without unnecessary loss. The best method for saving time is thorough preparation of the operation and its quick execution. This method is more to the point than an undiscriminating push which is sure to end in a sudden halt. Some of the finest operations that have been carried out by our troops were characterized by thorough preparation and swift action.
Do not be in such a hurry that you lose the opportunity to most effectively utilize your force.  Many players rush any tank assets they have into action before gaining an understanding of the enemy positions and strength.  The wisdom of slowing down and gaining intelligence prior to deciding on a course of maneuver is a familiar one to the readers of this blog, at least it should be.

The second anecdote:
On another occasion this regiment succeeded in carrying out an attack at a relatively high rate of speed. Here is a brief description of this situation and the terrain.

In the direction of the enemy ran a railroad track, along which, according to the initial plan, the Russian tanks were to attack and move forward to a certain village. There was a highway at the left of the railroad track. In front of the village there were several small wooded areas. Still nearer was an elongated hill which cut the highway and extended as far as the railroad track.

Having concealed his tanks behind the hill, the commander learned by observation that the Germans had several antitank guns along the road. Also signs of the enemy were noted on the outskirts of the wooded area in front of the village which was to be attacked.
The commander of the regiment was convinced that the movement of tanks along the railroad line would be difficult since the banks of the railway-cut were very steep and there were deep, narrow channels on either side of the track. He decided to send the tanks along the highway, where the terrain was most favorable. The infantry was to follow the railroad line, maintaining fire liaison with the tanks. The plan was to neutralize the German antitank guns, which were placed along the highway, by a sudden attack.

Results were soon realized. The tanks rushed at full speed into the antitank gun positions and smashed the guns, the crews of which had scattered. Without lessening speed, the tanks broke into the woods and exterminated a number of Germans there. Most of those Germans were having their dinner when the tanks appeared and so the enemy troops were unable to reach their guns in time to fight a defensive action.

The tanks then passed around the right side of the woods and headed for the village but they were compelled to stop by swampy terrain (see fig. 2). This gave the enemy an opportunity to bring artillery into action and open fire on the approaches to the village. Instead of forcing his way forward, the commander withdrew his tanks to a shelter behind the woods and remained there, awaiting the arrival of his infantry. Then both infantry and tanks, in close cooperation, attacked the village and drove the Germans out. Thus the objective was achieved.
What amazes me in this anecdote is that the Russian commander performed a detailed terrain analyses, he used the information gained from reconnaissance in planning his attack, and then he coordinated his tanks and infantry when making the final attack. Pretty nice work, I don't care what the nationality of the force is.

It confirms a lot in my mind that these techniques are not new, they were not new even in WW2 and most Armies had similar techniques in approaching a situation.

The article finishes with:
In the first example presented in this article, the high rate of speed of the tanks did not reduce their losses, while in the second example the tanks not only succeeded in maintaining a high rate of speed but also they achieved success without loss. The reason for this was that in the first battle, suddenness of action was lacking, and also (because of the commander's haste) the tanks could not maneuver although the situation called for maneuvering. In the second battle the tank commander had ample time to prepare the attack well and to choose the most favorable direction. Although this took time, the results were excellent.

The commander estimated the situation correctly in general although it might have been practicable to have sought a different route when the tanks reached the swamp. The element of surprise had run its course; further movement had to be based on close cooperation with the infantry. This was skillfully achieved, and at the same time the general tempo of the attack was not lost. After taking the village, the tank unit pushed right on.

In conclusion it may be said that at all times the commander estimated the situation correctly, acting neither too slowly or too hastily. Well-thought-out organization during every phase of the attack produces high speed in the forward movement of tanks, no matter under what conditions they may be operating.


  1. Bill,

    Thanks for your efforts. The work you do is very helpful.

    On a side note: I thought you posted up a thread (or more) about defense. I either was mistaken or am unable to locate it now. I have found the material of Jan 2014 but thought there was something with a more extensive explanation.

    Can you help me?

    1. Hey Jim, no I have not really done a defense post... I do need to address the defense, it is way overdue. I never completed that defense in the bocage AAR and I lost the files in a computer crash, so it is lost unfortunately. I'll think about how to fix this oversight in the near future.