Between The Wars
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After the Great War, General Erich von Ludendorff of the German High Command praised the Allied tanks as being a principal factor in Germany's defeat. The Germans had been too late in recognizing their value to consider them in their own plans. Even if their already hard-pressed industry could have produced them in quantity, fuel was in very short supply. Of the total of 90 tanks fielded by the Germans during 1918, 75 had been captured from the Allies.
At the war's end, the main role of the tank was considered to be that of close support for the infantry. The U.S. tank units fought so briefly and were so fragmented during the war, and the number of tanks available to them was so limited, that there was practically no opportunity to develop tactics for their large-scale employment. Nonetheless, their work was sufficiently impressive to imbue at least a few military leaders with the idea that the use of tanks in mass was the most likely principal role of armour in the future.
Highlights of U.S. Army appraisal for the development and use of tanks, developed from combat experience, were: (1) the need for a tank with more power, fewer mechanical failures, heavier armour, longer operating range, and better ventilation; (2) the need for combined training of tanks with other combat arms, especially the infantry; (3) the need for improved means of communication and of methods for determining and maintaining directions; and (4) the need for an improved supply system, especially for petrol and ammunition.
Although the tank of World War I was slow, clumsy, unwieldy, difficult to control, and mechanically unreliable, its value as a combat weapon had been clearly proven. But, despite the lessons of World War I, the combat arms were most reluctant to accept a separate and independent role for armor and continued to struggle among themselves over the proper use of tanks. At the outset, thought of the tank as an auxiliary to and a part of the infantry was the predominant opinion, although a few leaders contended that an independent tank arm should be retained.
In addition to the light and heavy categories of American-produced tanks of World War I, a third classification, the medium, began receiving attention in 1919. It was hoped that this in-between type would incorporate the best features of the 6½-ton light and the Mark VIII heavy and would replace both. The meaning of the terms light, medium, and heavy tanks changed between the wars. During World War I and immediately thereafter, the light tank was considered to be up to 10 tons, the medium (produced by the British) was roughly between 10 and 25 tons, and the heavy was over 25 tons. For World War II, increased weights resulted in the light tank being over 20 tons, the medium over 30, and the heavy, developed toward the end of the war, over 60 tons. During the period between the world wars, the weights of the classifications varied generally within these extremes.
The U.S. National Defense Act of 1920 placed the Tank Corps under the Infantry. The Act's stipulation that "hereafter all tank units shall form a part of the Infantry" left little doubt as to the tank role for the immediate future. George Patton had argued for an independent Tank Corps. But if, in the interest of economy, the tanks had to go under one of the traditional arms, he preferred the cavalry, for Patton intuitively understood that tanks operating with cavalry would stress mobility, while tanks tied to the infantry would emphasize firepower. Tanks in peacetime, he feared, as he said, "would be very much like coast artillery with a lot of machinery which never works."
At a time when most soldiers regarded the tank as a specialized infantry-support weapon for crossing trenches, a significant number of officers in the Royal Tank Corps had gone on to envision much broader roles for mechanized organizations. In May 1918, Col. J.F.C. Fuller, the acknowledged father of tank doctrine, had used the example of German infiltration tactics to refine what he called "Plan 1919". This was an elaborate concept for a large-scale armoured offensive in 1919.
The Royal Tank Corps had to make do with the same basic tanks from 1922 until 1938. British armoured theorists did not always agree with each other. B. H. Liddell Hart, a noted publicist of armoured warfare, wanted a true combined arms force with a major role for mechanized infantry. Fuller, Broad, and other officers were more interested in a pure-tank role. The Experimental Mechanized Force formed by the British demonstrated a mobile force with its own self-propelled guns.
Both advocates and opponents of mechanization often used the term "tank" loosely to mean not only an armored, tracked, turreted, gun-carrying fighting vehicle, but also any form of armored vehicle or mechanized unit. Such usage made it difficult for contemporaries or historians to determine whether a particular speaker was discussing pure tank forces, mechanized combined arms forces, or mechanization of infantry forces.
British armoured vehicles tended to maximize either mobility or protection. Both the cavalry and the Royal Tank Corps wanted fast, lightly armoured, mobile vehicles for reconnaissance and raiding—the light and medium (or "cruiser") tanks. In practice the "light tanks" were often small armoured personnel carriers (the parallel with more recent American Armored Cavalry should be obvious). On the other hand, the "army tank battalions" performing the traditional infantry-support role required extremely heavy armoured protection. As a consequence of these two doctrinal roles, firepower was neglected in tank design.
Among the German proponents of mechanization, Gen. Heinz Guderian was probably the most influential. Guderian's 1914 service with radiotelegraphs in support of cavalry units led him to insist on a radio in every armoured vehicle. By 1929, when many British students of armour were tending towards a pure armour formation, Guderian had become convinced that it was useless to develop just tanks, or even to mechanize parts of the traditional arms. What was needed was an entirely new mechanized formation of all arms that would maximize the effects of the tank.
The German tanks were not up to the standards of Guderian's concept. The Panzer I was really a machine-gun-armed tankette, derived from the British Carden-Loyd personnel carrier. The Panzer II did have a 20-mm cannon, but little armour protection. These two vehicles made up the bulk of panzer units until 1940.
In the twenties France was the only country in the world with a large armour force. French doctrine viewed combined arms as a process by which all other weapons systems assisted the infantry in its forward progress. Tanks were considered to be "a sort of armoured infantry", by law subordinated to the infantry branch. This at least had the advantage that armour was not restricted purely to tanks; the French army would be among the most mechanised. Tanks proper were however first of all seen as specialised breakthrough systems, to be concentrated for an offensive: light tanks had to limit their speed to that of the foot soldier; heavy tanks were intended to form a forward "shock front" to dislodge defensive lines. The doctrine was much preoccupied with the strength of the defender: artillery and air bombardments had to destroy machine guns and anti-tank guns. The envelopment phase was neglected. Though part of the Infantry branch, tanks were in fact concentrated in almost pure tank units and rarely trained together with foot soldiers.
In 1931, France decided to produce armour and other equipment in larger quantities, including the Char B1 bis. The B1 bis, developed by Estienne in the early 1920s, was still one of the most powerful tank designs in the world fifteen years later. In 1934 the French cavalry also began a process of mechanisation; tanks were to be used for exploitation also.
As the French Army was moving forward in the area of mechanization, doctrinal strife began to develop. In 1934, Lieutenant Colonel Charles de Gaulle published Towards the Professional Army. De Gaulle favoured a professional mechanised force, capable of executing both the breakthrough and the exploitation phase. He envisioned a pure armour brigade operating in linear formation, followed by a motorized infantry force for mopping-up. His ideas were not adopted, as being too expensive.
From 1936 French tank production accelerated, but the doctrinal problems remained, resulting in 1940 in an inflexible structure, with the Infantry and Cavalry fielding separate types of armoured division.
During the course of the 1920s and early 1930s, a group of Soviet officers led by Marshal Mikhail Tukhachevsky developed a concept of "Deep Battle" to employ conventional infantry and cavalry divisions, mechanized formations, and aviation in concert. Using the expanded production facilities of the Soviet government's first Five Year Plan with design features taken in part from the American inventor J. Walter Christie, the Soviets produced 5,000 armoured vehicles by 1934. This wealth of equipment enabled the Red Army to create tank organizations for both infantry support and combined arms, mechanized operations.
On 12 June 1937, the Soviet government executed Tukhachevsky and eight of his high-ranking officers, as Stalin shifted his purge of Soviet society against the last power group that had the potential to threaten him, the Red Army. At the same time, the Soviet experience in the Spanish Civil War caused the Red Army to reassess mechanization. The Soviet tanks were too lightly armoured, their Russian crews could not communicate with the Spanish troops, and in combat the tanks tended to outpace the supporting infantry and artillery.
The United States was not nearly so advanced in the development of armoured and mechanized forces. As in France, the supply of slow World War I tanks and the subordination of tanks to the infantry branch impeded the development of any role other than direct infantry support. The US War Department policy statement, which finally came in April 1922, was a serious blow to tank development. Reflecting prevailing opinion, it stated that the tank's primary mission was "to facilitate the uninterrupted advance of the riflemen in the attack." The War Department considered that two types of tanks, the light and the medium, should fulfill all missions. The light tank was to be truck transportable and not exceed 5 tons gross weight. For the medium, restrictions were even more stringent; its weight was not to exceed 15 tons, so as to bring it within the weight capacity of railroad flatcars, the average existing highway bridge, and, most significantly, available Engineer Corps pontoon bridges.
Although an experimental 15-ton tank, the M1924, reached the mock-up stage, this and other attempts to satisfy War Department and infantry specifications proved to be unsatisfactory. In reality it was simply impossible to build a 15-ton vehicle meeting both War Department and infantry requirements.
In 1926 the General Staff reluctantly consented to the development of a 23-ton tank, although it made clear that efforts were to continue toward the production of a satisfactory 15-ton vehicle. The infantry—its new branch chief overriding the protests of some of his tankmen who wanted a more heavily armed and armored medium—decided, too, that a light tank, transportable by truck, best met infantry requirements. The net effect of the infantry's preoccupation with light tanks and the limited funds available for tank development in general was to slow the development of heavier vehicles and, ultimately, to contribute to the serious shortage of mediums at the outbreak of World War II.
J. Walter Christie was an innovative designer of tanks, engines and propulsion systems. Although his designs did not meet US Army specifications, other countries used his chassis patents. Despite inadequate funding, the Ordnance Department managed to develop several experimental light and medium tanks and tested one of Walter Christie's models by 1929. None of these tanks was accepted, usually because each of them exceeded standards set by other Army branches. For instance, several light tank models were rejected because they exceeded the 5-ton cargo capacity of the Transportation Corps trucks, and several medium tank designs were rejected because they exceeded the 15-ton bridge weight limit set by the engineers. Christie simply would not work with users to fulfill the military requirements but, instead, wanted the Army to fund the tanks that he wanted to build. Patton later worked closely with J. Walter Christie to improve the silhouette, suspension, power, and weapons of tanks.
The Christie tank embodied the ability to operate both on tracks and on large, solid-rubber-tired bogie wheels. The tracks were removable to permit operation on wheels over moderate terrain. Also featured was a suspension system of independently sprung wheels. The Christie had many advantages, including the amazing ability, by 1929, to attain speeds of 69 miles per hour on wheels and 42 miles per hour on tracks, although at these speeds the tank could not carry full equipment. To the infantry and cavalry the Christie was the best answer to their need for a fast, lightweight tank, and they were enthusiastic about its convertibility. On the other hand, the Ordnance Department, while recognizing the usefulness of the Christie, was of the opinion that it was mechanically unreliable and that such dual-purpose equipment generally violated good engineering practice. The controversy over the advantages and drawbacks of Christie tanks raged for more than twenty years, with the convertible principle being abandoned in 1938. But the Christie ideas had great impact upon tank tactics and unit organization in many countries and, finally, upon the US Army as well.
In the United States the real beginning of the Armored Force was in 1928, twelve years before it was officially established, when Secretary of War Dwight F. Davis directed that a tank force be developed in the Army. Earlier that year he had been much impressed, as an observer of maneuvers in England, by a British experimental armoured Force. Actually the idea was not new. A small group of dedicated officers in the cavalry and the infantry had been hard at work since World War I on theories for such a force. The continued progress in the design of armour, armament, engines, and vehicles was gradually swinging the trend toward more mechanization, and the military value of the horse declined. Proponents of mechanization and motorization pointed to advances in the motor vehicle industry and to the corresponding decrease in the use of horses and mules. Furthermore, abundant oil resources gave the United States an enviable position of independence in fuel requirements for the machines.
Secretary Davis' 1928 directive for the development of a tank force resulted in the assembly and encampment of an experimental mechanized force at Camp Meade, Maryland, from 1 July to 20 September 1928. The combined arms team consisted of elements furnished by Infantry (including tanks), Cavalry, Field Artillery, the Air Corps, Engineer Corps, Ordnance Department, Chemical Warfare Service, and Medical Corps. An effort to continue the experiment in 1929 was defeated by insufficient funds and obsolete equipment, but the 1928 exercise did bear fruit, for the War Department Mechanization Board, appointed to study results of the experiment, recommended the permanent establishment of a mechanized force.
As Chief of Staff from 1930 to 1935, Douglas MacArthur wanted to advance motorization and mechanization throughout the army. In late 1931 all arms and services were directed to adopt mechanization and motorization, "as far as is practicable and desirable", and were permitted to conduct research and to experiment as necessary. Cavalry was given the task of developing combat vehicles that would "enhance its power in roles of reconnaissance, counterreconnaissance, flank action, pursuit, and similar operations." By law, "tanks" belonged to the infantry branch, so the cavalry gradually bought a group of "combat cars", lightly armoured and armed tanks that were often indistinguishable from the newer infantry "tanks."
In 1933 MacArthur set the stage for the coming complete mechanization of the cavalry, declaring, "The horse has no higher degree of mobility today than he had a thousand years ago. The time has therefore arrived when the Cavalry arm must either replace or assist the horse as a means of transportation, or else pass into the limbo of discarded military formations." Although the horse was not yet claimed to be obsolete, his competition was gaining rapidly, and realistic cavalrymen, sensing possible extinction, looked to at least partial substitution of the faster machines for horses in cavalry units.
The War Department in 1938 modified its 1931 directive for all arms and services to adopt mechanization and motorization. Thereafter, development of mechanization was to be accomplished by two of the combat arms only—the cavalry and the infantry. As late as 1938, on the other hand, the Chief of Cavalry, Maj. Gen. John K. Herr, proclaimed, "We must not be misled to our own detriment to assume that the untried machine can displace the proved and tried horse." He favored a balanced force made up of both horse and mechanized cavalry. In testimony before a Congressional committee in 1939, Maj. Gen. John K. Herr maintained that horse cavalry had "stood the acid test of war", whereas the motor elements advocated by some to replace it had not.
Actually, between the world wars there was much theoretical but little tangible progress in tank production and tank tactics in the United States. Production was limited to a few hand-tooled test models, only thirty-five of which were built between 1920 and 1935. Regarding the use of tanks with infantry, the official doctrine of 1939 largely reiterated that of 1923. It maintained that "As a rule, tanks are employed to assist the advance of infantry foot troops, either preceding or accompanying the infantry assault echelon."
In the 1930s the American Army began to seriously discuss the integration of the tank and the airplane into existing doctrine, but the US Army remained an infantry-centered Army, even though sufficient changes had occurred to warrant serious study. In the spring of 1940, maneuvers in Georgia and Louisiana, where Patton was an umpire, showed how far Chaffee had brought the development of American armoured doctrine.
Read more about this topic: History Of The Tank
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“Probably the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing-fields of Eton, but the opening battles of all subsequent wars have been lost there.”
—George Orwell (19031950)