US Army Independent Tank Battalion Combat Operations II


Tank battalion combat effectiveness also depended on vehicle maintenance. These units included only limited maintenance assets. Generally, maintenance suffered from deficiencies in spare parts and tank transporters and many personnel lacked training in tank maintenance skills. The transient status of the tank battalions often resulted in minimal support from the heavy ordnance companies assigned to parent corps and division formations. Continuous reattachment precluded the establishment of a steady source of parts and maintenance support. Consequently, the tank battalions faced a burgeoning maintenance problem during the course of sustained combat activity.

The 746th Tank Battalion remained in continuous operations from June through November 1944, during a period when no extensive maintenance occurred. The state of the vehicles suffered accordingly. Even when sufficient spare parts were obtained, the battalion had insufficient transport for them. In combat, its recovery vehicles proved less than useful. When advanced to extract knocked-out or disabled tanks, their unique look quickly drew enemy fire. Consequently, the battalion resorted to using tanks to tow tanks. This practice saved recovery vehicles but increased the automotive wear on the combat vehicles.

Many of these maintenance problems could and were overcome when a division or corps headquarters deliberately sought to alleviate them. In the XX Corps, an ordnance company was designated to serve all attached tank battalions. This arrangement resulted in excellent maintenance support. Indeed, the level of support was considered the best in the European Theater. In Italy, the 1st Armored Division made similar provisions to sustain separate tank battalions with equally positive results. Some commanders sought a simpler solution by trying to obtain tanks with Ford engines, which were believed to require less maintenance.

The problems associated with the separate tank battalions led to recommendations for their elimination in the postwar era. In lieu of a pool of battalions for attachment, the wartime experience encouraged a desire to make tank battalions organic to the infantry division. Infantry and armored leaders believed that such an arrangement would eliminate the cohesion, coordination, and attachment problems experienced during combat operations. Other recommendations included the removal of the light-tank and mortar companies and the addition of a properly equipped and trained ordnance company.

These proposals aimed at improving tank-infantry coordination within the infantry division rather than the elimination of the tank support. By war’s end the independent tank battalions had evolved into important assets. They had demonstrated their worth in hedgerow, wooded, and urban terrain-areas previously considered off-limits to tanks. The principal wartime difficulties included lack of combined-arms training, ineffective communications, and a doctrine that reflected prewar notions of tank massing rather than the actual needs of infantry formations. Once independent tank battalions overcame these difficulties, their effectiveness increased.

Rejection of Independent Tank Battalion Doctrine

Imbued with the doctrine of mass, the independent tank battalions deployed to theaters of operation. The notion of employing tanks in battalion or multibattalion concentrations, however, did not survive contact with infantry division commanders. Once attached to a division, the medium tanks were broken into company and platoon increments and given support missions with different infantry battalions. The most common distribution was one medium tank platoon per infantry battalion, but no universal standard applied. Within the 12th Army Group, for example, tanks were sometimes assigned to support infantry on the basis of one company per regiment. However allocated, the mission of the tanks remained the same: support the main effort as indicated by the infantry division, regiment, or battalion commander.

The de facto breakup of the tank battalions into platoon parcels nullified the rationale behind the battalion’s self-contained organization. The medium tank companies constituted the principal combat power of the battalion. Scattered among different infantry regiments and battalions, the tank battalion remnant possessed little intrinsic value as a combat unit. It too was split among different functions. The light tank company found employment conducting special operations for the supported division or providing an additional reconnaissance asset. Alternatively, some divisions used light-tank platoons to reinforce the medium-tank companies. However, the weak armor and armament of the light tanks limited their use in this capacity. The battalion’s mortar platoon was either not employed, or it reinforced the infantry division’s mortars. The reconnaissance platoon performed route and bivouac reconnaissance or liaison functions. The assault gun platoon often was organized into three sections, each assigned to a medium tank company for additional firepower.

Without a unit to command, the battalion headquarters lost much of its purpose. The battalion commander served as an armored adviser to the division commander, whereas the battalion’s staff continued to provide administrative support to the scattered tank units. Maintenance and supply functions became problematical, because no direct conduit existed between the battalion headquarters and the tanks. Arguably, the most effective use of the battalion staff lay in the role of liaison officers. In this capacity, they could at least participate-albeit indirectly-in the combat employment of the tank companies and platoons.

Assignment of the battalion’s single artillery forward observer constituted another problem. Most tank companies had no designated forward observer. Instead they relied on tank platoon leaders to call for fire missions. However, these commanders lacked training in this task, and their effectiveness varied. Recommendations to cross-train tank and field artillery officers soon resulted. In any event, the availability of artillery support could not be guaranteed, even when a trained observer was present. In the Ninth Army, for example, artillery support became a rarity after an attached observer was nearly killed on two different occasions.

The dispersal of tank assets reduced the level of armored support from an entire battalion to companies and platoons. Against fortified positions, in urban settings, and in the Normandy hedgerows, tank sections constituted the principal form of tank support. Leading assaults, providing support by fire and bunker busting, and sometimes acting as reinforcing artillery were all common missions. The tanks generally moved with the infantry and engaged targets that threatened or obstructed the latter. Against fortifications they provided suppressive fire that permitted engineers to close with and destroy the defensive works. On the defensive, tanks were often assigned a sector to support and tank platoon leaders prepared contingency plans for a counterattack. Foreshadowing the Korean War experience, tanks sometimes were used as static pillboxes.

In the Asiatic-Pacific Theater of Operations, tank battalions faced a different type of threat. The Japanese Army did not possess a strong tank force; its tanks were usually used in small numbers to support infantry actions. However, Japanese infantry employed a variety of techniques to destroy or immobilize American tanks. Mines were used extensively along trails used by tanks; infantry frequently attacked tanks, using surrounding jungle terrain to get close to the vehicles; ambushes staged near knocked-out vehicles targeted recovery teams. In defensive engagements with American forces, Japanese soldiers employed extensive fortifications and natural terrain obstacles, forcing attackers to expend time and casualties to remove them.

American tank battalions thus found themselves employed in companies and platoons against local objectives not unlike their counterparts in Europe. They spearheaded infantry attacks, provided fire support, and used their weapons to suppress or eliminate specific positions. They also served in an artillery role, providing fire support directed by a spotter. To thwart Japanese night attacks, tank spotlights were used to highlight targets for supporting infantry to engage. Tank mobility proved sufficient to keep pace with the infantry, but the rugged terrain in the jungles and on some of the Pacific islands often resulted in mired tanks.

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