Thursday, June 11, 2015

Tank Shock - 1916

September 15, 1916, began as a routine day for the German infantrymen in the forward trenches around Flers on the Somme—as routine as any day was likely to be after two and a half months of vicious, close-gripped fighting that bled divisions white and reduced battalions to the strength of companies. True, an occasional rumble of engines had been audible across the line. But the British had more trucks than the Kaiser’s army, and were more willing to risk them to bring up ammunition and carry back wounded. True, there had been occasional gossip of something new up Tommy’s sleeve: of armored “land cruisers” impervious to anything less than a six-inch shell. But rumors—Scheisshausparolen in Landser speak—were endemic on the Western Front. Then “a forest of guns opened up in a ceaseless, rolling thunder, the few remaining survivors . . . fight on until the British flood overwhelms them, consumes them, and passes on. . . . An extraordinary number of men. And there, between them, spewing death, unearthly monsters: the first British tanks.”

Improvised and poorly coordinated, the British attack soon collapsed in the usual welter of blood and confusion. But for the first time on the Western Front, certainly the first time on the Somme, the heaviest losses  were suffered by the defenders. Reactions varied widely. Some men panicked; others fought to a finish. But the 14th Bavarian Infantry, for example, tallied more than 1,600 casualties. Almost half were “missing,” and most of them were prisoners. That was an unheard-of ratio in an army that still prided itself on its fighting spirit. But the 14th was one of the regiments hit on the head by the tanks.

Shock rolled uphill. “The enemy,” one staff officer recorded, “employed new engines of war, as cruel as effective. . . . It is necessary to take whatever methods are possible to counteract them.” From the Allied perspective, the impact of tanks on the Great War is generally recognized. The cottage industry among scholars of the British learning curve, with descriptions of proto-mechanized war pitted against accounts of a semi-mobile final offensive based on combined arms and improved communications, recognizes the centrality of armor for both interpretations. French accounts are structured by Marshal Philippe Petain’s judgment that, in the wake of the frontline mutinies of 1917, it was necessary to wait for “the Americans and the tanks.” Certainly it was the tanks, the light Renault FT-17s, that carried the exhausted French infantry forward in the months before the armistice. Erich Ludendorff, a general in a position to know, declared after the war that Germany had been defeated not by Marshal Foch but by “General Tank.”

In those contexts it is easy to overlook the salient fact that the German army was quick and effective in developing antitank techniques. This was facilitated by the moonscape terrain of the Western Front, the mechanical unreliability of early armored vehicles, and such technical grotesqueries as the French seeking to increase the range of their early tanks by installing extra fuel tanks on their roofs, which virtually guaranteed the prompt incineration of the crew unless they were quick to abandon the vehicle. Even at Flers the Germans had taken on tanks like any other targets: aiming for openings in the armor, throwing grenades, using field guns over open sights. German intelligence thoroughly interrogated one captured tanker and translated a diary lost by another. Inside of a week, Berlin had a general description of the new weapons, accompanied by a rough but reasonably accurate sketch.

One of the most effective antitank measures was natural. Tanks drew fire from everywhere, fire sufficiently intense to strip away any infantry in their vicinity. A tank by itself was vulnerable. Therefore, the German tactic was to throw everything available at the tanks and keep calm if they kept coming. Proactive countermeasures began with inoculating the infantry against “tank fright” by using knocked-out vehicles to demonstrate their various vulnerabilities. An early frontline improvisation was the geballte Ladung: the heads of a half dozen stick grenades tied around a complete “potato-masher” and thrown into one of a tank’s many openings—or, more basic, the same half dozen grenades shoved into a sandbag and the fuse of one of them pulled. More effective and less immediately risky was the K-round. This was simply a bullet with a tungsten carbide core instead of the soft alloys commonly used in small arms rounds. Originally developed to punch holes in metal plates protecting enemy machine-gun and sniper positions, it was employed to even better effect by the ubiquitous German machine guns against the armor of the early tanks. K-rounds were less likely to disable the vehicle, mostly causing casualties and confusion among the crew, but the end effect was similar.

As improved armor limited the K-round’s effect, German designers came up with a 13mm version. Initially it was used in a specially designed single-shot rifle, the remote ancestor of today’s big-caliber sniper rifles but without any of their recoil-absorbing features. The weapon’s fierce recoil made it inaccurate and unpopular; even a strong user risked a broken collarbone or worse. More promising was the TuF (tank and antiaircraft) machine gun using the same round. None of the ten thousand TuFs originally projected were ready for service by November 11—but the concept and the bullet became the basis for John Browning’s .50-caliber machine gun, whose near-century of service makes it among the most long-lived modern weapons.

When something heavier was desirable, the German counterpart of the Stokes mortar was a much larger piece, mounted on wheels, capable of modification for direct fire and, with a ten-pound shell, lethal against any tank. The German army had also begun forming batteries of “infantry guns” even before the tanks appeared. These were usually mountain guns or modified field pieces of around three-inch caliber. Intended to support infantry attacks by direct fire, they could stop tank attacks just as well. From the beginning, ordinary field pieces with ordinary shells also proved able to knock out tanks at a range of two miles.

In an emergency the large number of 77mm field pieces mounted on trucks for antiaircraft work could become improvised antitank guns. These proved particularly useful at Cambrai in November 1917, when more than a hundred tanks were part of the spoils of the counterattack that wiped out most of the initial British gains. They did so well, indeed, that the crews had to be officially reminded that their primary duty was shooting down airplanes. As supplements, a number of ordinary field guns were mounted on trucks in the fashion of the portees used in a later war by the British in North Africa.

If survival was not sufficient incentive, rewards and honor were invoked. One Bavarian battery was awarded 500 marks for knocking out a tank near Flers. British reports and gossip praised an officer who, working a lone gun at Flesquieres during the Cambrai battle, either by himself or with a scratch crew, was supposed to have disabled anywhere from five to sixteen tanks before he was killed. The Nazis transformed the hero into a noncommissioned officer, and gave him a name and at least one statue. The legend’s less Homeric roots seem to have involved a half dozen tanks following each other over the crest of a small hill and being taken out one at a time by a German field battery. The story of “the gunner of Flesquieres” nevertheless indicates the enduring strength of the tank mystique in German military lore.

Other purpose-designed antitank weapons were ready to come on line when the war ended: short-barreled, low-velocity 37mm guns, an automatic 20mm cannon that the Swiss developed into the World War II Oerlikon. The effect of this new hardware on the projected large-scale use of a new generation of tanks in the various Allied plans for 1919 must remain speculative. What it highlights is the continued German commitment to tank defense even in the war’s final months.

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