US Army Independent Tank Battalion Combat Operations I


Organizational change and doctrinal definition did not adequately prepare independent tank battalions for actual combat conditions. The first encounter with German forces occurred in December 1942 during combat in Tunisia. A company of the 70th Tank Battalion was roughly handled and suffered extensive losses. The effectiveness of independent tank battalions tended to improve over time, but they could not always secure their own materiel and personnel requirements. Replacements and parts proved difficult to obtain since the independent tank battalions belonged to no division. As attachments, their needs often received a low priority from senior commanders more concerned with permanently assigned organizations.

The independent tank battalions also gained a reputation for ineffectiveness. Consequently, infantry divisions preferred to seek armored support from armored divisions whose tank battalions they considered better led and combat worthy. In some instances, infantry commanders requested armored division support, deliberately ignoring the presence of separate tank units already assigned. Avoidance of the independent tank battalions reflected the higher profile of the armored divisions and the attention given these formations. The second-string status afforded the independent tank battalions by the Armored Force did little to ensure they received the best personnel.

In North Africa and Italy, the 1st Armored Division tried to improve the leadership and effectiveness of several independent tank battalions. It did so by replacing the battalion commanders with officers from its own ranks. Later, preparing to breakout from the Anzio beachhead, the 1st Armored Division grouped all independent tank battalions under its supervision. The formation then assumed responsibility for meeting all training, supply, and maintenance requirements.

Despite these improvements, combat operations in 1944 continued to reflect difficulties in tank-infantry coordination. Combined operations by tanks and dismounted forces received insufficient emphasis in stateside training programs. Proposed solutions included pairing a tank battalion and an infantry division for combined training and employing them in combat as a team. Field commanders recommended a more permanent alignment of tank units and infantry formations, stimulated by their own combat experience and the German Army’s embodiment of this concept in its panzer grenadier divisions.

Tank battalions were intended for temporary attachment to infantry divisions. The effectiveness of their support increased with the length of attachment. Longer assignments improved teamwork and cohesion. Hence, where possible, corps and army headquarters in the European Theater of Operations sought to keep the same tank battalions and infantry divisions together. Regular attachment to the same infantry formation helped eliminate the perception among infantry commanders that the tank battalions were not part of the division team.

Routine attachments between specific tank battalions and infantry divisions never became universal. While semipermanent attachments predominated in Third Army, some tank units experienced nearly continuous reattachment, which precluded the establishment of tactical cohesion. In Italy, for example, one tank battalion underwent eleven different reattachments in a thirty-one-day period. An additional four reassignments were planned but subsequently aborted. The same unit had already logged six hundred miles during the months of May and June 1944 alone. This mileage reflected continuous operations that generated vehicle maintenance and crew fatigue problems. Unfortunately, the actual combat status of the vehicles remained largely invisible. Designated a corps asset, the unit remained on standby status until a subordinate division requested tank support. The tank battalion was dispatched, the operation conducted, and the battalion made available for a new assignment. Each new division assumed the tank unit was fresh and employed it accordingly. Consequently, the unit drifted from one mission to the next until its combat effectiveness evaporated.

Poor planning and coordination only compounded the problem of continuous reattachment. Each support assignment necessitated shifting armored liaison teams, obtaining new information on friendly force plans, and developing a fresh situational analysis to guide the manner in which tanks would enter combat. These actions required time that often was not available, and they simply were not conducted. Tank battalion commanders in Italy often entered combat with little situational awareness other than what they could observe themselves. To overcome this problem, they created their own liaison officers to coordinate operations with infantry divisions, regwiments, and battalions. Even this solution was nullified by the all-too-often receipt of vague, last-minute orders. Liaison aircraft, when available, offered better results. They were employed to identify friendly force dispositions, targets, and potential ambush locations.

Even stabilized attachments did not ensure harmony between the tank battalion and supported infantry. Because infantry units did not routinely train with tanks, infantry officers often had little knowledge of tank capabilities or requirements. Consequently, they employed tank support without respect to their special needs and planning requirements.

Infantry officers at the battalion, regiment, and division staff levels all required better education in tank operations. Tank battalion commanders sought to improvise their own solutions. The 743d Tank Battalion, for example, divided its staff into three sections and assigned each to an infantry regiment in the division supported. These sections provided information and advice concerning armored operations. Still better results were obtained when an infantry formation undertook training with tank units. Some formations established their own training lanes and worked through tactical exercises with attached tank units. In this manner the 29th Infantry Division achieved considerable cohesion with the 747th Tank Battalion.

Similarly, tank-infantry teams in the Asiatic-Pacific Theater of Operations did not always work well together, resulting in separation and combat losses. Sixth Army had several instances of tank units advancing and seizing an objective only to retreat because of the absence of supporting infantry to secure the position. Ineffective engineer support resulted in significant numbers of tanks becoming immobilized during stream crossings or destroyed by mines. Too often tanks found themselves isolated without any dismounted support. They quickly became the targets of Japanese close-assault tactics.

Although tanks and tank destroyers proved effective in reducing strong points and fortified positions, infantry commanders either distrusted the weapon, as in the case of the tank destroyer, or did not understand how best to employ it. On Okinawa, the lack of confidence expressed by infantry commanders toward supporting armor undermined effective cooperation. Efforts to micromanage tank usage without regard to the recommendations of armored personnel generated friction and reduced combat effectiveness. As the island battle continued, greater cohesion began to emerge and more latitude was granted to tank commanders in the conduct of their assigned operations. Teamwork began to characterize tank-infantry action. Tanks blasted caves and ridgelines immediately before the advance of riflemen. Flamethrower tanks then followed to eliminate all vestiges of resistance.

Regardless of the level of teamwork, tank-infantry teams suffered from poor communications on the battlefield. This problem became particularly acute during operations in the Normandy bocage in June and July 1944. For six weeks Allied forces struggled through several hundred square miles of fields bordered by thick hedges sunk into high embankments. These hedgerows impeded both infantry and vehicular movement, requiring ground forces to develop ad hoc techniques to breach them. The Germans became adept at organizing integrated defenses in these hedgerows that transformed the enclosed farmlands into killing fields for Allied forces.

The Normandy hedgerows limited tank employment to platoon and section elements. Tanks provided close fire support to advancing infantry, but the tank radios did not work on the same frequency as the handsets used by the infantry. Too often planned attacks disintegrated under enemy fire. The infantry became pinned while the tanks drove off unaware of the plight of the riflemen. The inability of the infantry to communicate with the armor via radio resulted in desperate attempts to recall the tanks. Infantry climbed on the tanks and banged on the hatches, threw rocks at the vehicles, and even fired short machine-gun bursts at the turrets. None of these measures produced the desired result, particularly in the close, complex terrain of the hedgerows, where the wary tankers were more likely to consider all such activity hostile.

Issuing infantry handsets to tank commanders proved more effective, but the riflemen possessed only limited numbers of such radios. Those ones lent to the tankers tended to suffer high loss rates. Some units therefore mounted on the back of the tanks field phones that linked into the vehicles’ intercom systems. This setup permitted the infantry company or platoon commander to talk directly to the armored leader. The simple solution worked in combat, and it became a trademark of American tanks in the postwar years. Although common in the First and Ninth Armies, this solution to battlefield communications never became universal and problems of tank-infantry coordination plagued the Army to the war’s end. Even where the field phones were available, infantry personnel were not always trained in their use. Tank crews also found that field-phone use increased the rate of radiotube burnout and drained the vehicle’s batteries. It also lowered the volume of the tank’s internal communication system-a potentially serious problem in combat. In the Pacific Theater, soldiers using the field phone became sniper targets.


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