A DIFFERENT KIND OF WAR
What it was really like.
MUSCLE TO MOTOR
Mechanisation of the British regular army was complete by 1939, with the remaining horsed cavalry converting to armour and being combined with the Royal Tank Regiment in the Royal Armoured Corps, but 8 yeomanry regiments were sent with their own riding horses to Palestine and fought against theu Vichy French in Syria in 1941 before converting to tanks. One major motive for abolishing horse draught was that civilian agriculture and transport had changed to a point where the army could not buy suitable horses in the numbers required. The ex-cavalry tank regiments were accused of “galloping at everything”, but it was also said that most generals (who had been junior infantry officers in WW1) were “3 mph thinkers, not 30mph thinkers”; and I found when I took up cross country riding that the view from a horse’s back was very similar to that I had had from a tank hatch and the speed and obstacle crossing much the same.. The US army had also been motorised and their cavalry division converted to infantry. In other armies, motorisation was restricted to armoured divisions during the whole of the period, with horse draft and foot marching elsewhere. Most also retained some horsed cavalry fighting mainly on foot; and the Russians used complete cavalry divisions to advantage in forested and swampy areas. Even in British armoured divisions, only the single motor battalion had its own ¾ ton trucks, the battalions of the division’s infantry brigade using externally provided 3-tonners. US armoured divisions were organised into 3 combat commands, each of a tank battalion, an infantry battalion in armoured ½ track Armoured Personnel Carriers (APC) and an artillery battalion.
This became unofficially imitated by some British armoured divisions during the Normandy campaign, with the 3 tank regiments and the armoured recce regiment (actually in fast Cromwell medium tanks) each pairing with the motor battalion or 1 of the 3 lorried infantry battalions, with 1 company of the motor battalion in ½ track APC. German panzer divisions usually had only 1 of their panzer grenadier infantry battalions carried in ½ track APC, the rest in unarmoured wheeled vehicles, Russian tank formations had no APC, but had “tank rider battalions” of infantry progressively re-armed with SMG who rode on top of the tanks. In late 1944 and 1945, this was copied in the west, with American and British paras riding on British Churchills.
Except for the ¾ man Bren/ Universal carriers (the only tracked vehicle that could do a stomach-crunching 90 degree pivot turn at 30mph) used by the carrier platoon of each British infantry battalion and its support company, the only full-track APC used before the introduction of the US M.75 in 1953 was the Canadian (and later) British Kangaroo, converted first from US M.7 SP and then from Canadian Ram tanks with turret removed. These were a Corps reserve asset allocated to infantry divisions for specific operations.
Even at the end of WW2, tanks were very different from modern vehicles. Only the mighty King Tiger was the same size as a current main battle tank (MBT) and it had a much smaller gun. The fastest tanks (such as Cromwell, Comet, Chafee and Panther) had about the same power/weight ratio, speed and acceleration as a modern MBT, moving tactically at about 12 mph and could do 30mph on a road on the rare occasions this was safe and desirable.
There was no composite or reactive armour and what spaced armour existed was mainly useful only against infantry shaped-charge weapons. Steel armour was sometimes face-hardened, but the introduction of capped shot cancelled this out. The effect of sloping armour is often exaggerated by commentators. A 45 degree sloped plate weighs the same as vertical and horizontal plates protecting the same area. Slope offers real advantages only if 60 degrees or more. Shot rarely hits at 0 degrees and all but American ballistic tests assumed a strike at 30 degrees. Small differences in vehicle heading, terrain inclines, weapon barrel wear and external attachments or weak spots produced a chance factor. A knocked-out tank lost 1 1/2 crewmen on average; and about half the tanks that did not catch fire were repaired. I trained on Churchill AVRE with patches welded over holes… Petrol-fuelled tanks were no more likely to catch fire than diesels, but American use of hydraulics instead of electrics was less blameless. Shermans had a bad reputation, but their fires were usually due to excess ammunition being kept in the crew compartment.
There were no practical gun-stabilisers (that in the Sherman was useless) so shooting on the move or from short halt was useful only to spray with machine guns. There were no range finders or modern high velocity shot, greatly reducing practical maximum range. Only the British 6pdr (from June 1944) and 17pdr (from August 1944) had APDS and this was too unstable and inaccurate to be used at beyond 800 yards. Only Centurion 3 from 1950 had modern stable APDS for its 20pdr. The hard core APCR shot used by some other nations was even more range limited.
Only the platoon commander was issued with binoculars for use head out; though other tank commanders often acquired them through unofficial means, German x10 Zeiss being highly prized. There were no night vision devices other than drivers’ visible light headlamp until 1950, when commander-controlled searchlights started to be fitted. Gunner’s sights were low magnification (about 1/5 of today’s) telescopes and other crew members when closed-down had only a single unity power periscope of vision block 9 or sometimes in later models a ring of them if the commander.
When not head-out, tank crew were largely blind and deaf, with a large dead zone close to the tank, headphones and engine noise. The only practical way for infantry to communicate with a tank commander was to climb on top and hammer on the hatch. Tank and infantry radios were never on the same net and external telephones and buzzers usually did not work.
Not all tanks had a modern turret crew of commander, gunner and loader/radioman. Having the commander also act as loader (as in Valentine, French tanks and early T.34 distracted him from his vital task of watching out. I have a vivid memory from 1952 of a WW2 veteran sergeant who equated paranoia with survival pointing out to me on our route across the tank training area all the innocent bits of cover where an ATG or bazooka team COULD be; and his satisfaction on spotting the faint cloud of blue exhaust smoke over the bushes where a 3DG M.10 seeking to ambush us was hiding.
An infantry platoon consisted of an HQ group headed by a junior officer and 3 sections (or American “squads”), usually divided into an MG group of 2 or 3 and a “rifle” group of 4 to 7.
Only the officer had access to a radio, which was carried and operated for him by a specialist who was rarely well-trained. The first light weight radio was the short-range and often eccentric“walky-talky” or 88 set Body armour other than a steel helmet was not worn. Thick serge uniforms were water absorbent, not resistant.
Weapons included a machine gun firing bursts of full-power rifle ammunition on a bipod mount, carried and fired by 1 man with another assisting him and carrying extra ammunition. It could be a magazine-fed LMG like the Bren, BAR, Nambu or DP; or a belt-fed GPMG such as the MG.34 or MG.42 firing faster and with a larger ammunition supply.
Most men were armed with a rifle firing single shots of full-power ammunition held in a small 8-10 round magazine. These were usually bolt-operated, but a few such as the M1 Garand were self-loading. This offered no substantial advantages until larger 20 round magazines were introduced after the end of this period.
Some men instead carried an SMG firing bursts of lower- power pistol ammunition. The German MP.43/44 introduced in 1943 used a shorter range intermediate power cartridge and could fire controlled bursts impractical with full-power ammunition, so was the first Assault Rifle (AR) of the class forming today’s standard infantry personal weapons. The US M.1/2 carbine introduced in 1944 also used an intermediate power cartridge and some variants could fire bursts. It was replaced after ammunition wastage problems in Korea by the older M.1 rifle firing full-power ammunition.
All sights were iron peep or vee sights, no optical sights being available for any weapon except telescopic sighted sniper rifles used by specialists.
Only officers were issued with binoculars. There was no night vision equipment.
All rifles carried bayonets, often now shorter, the most important function of which was signalling the intention to close.
Hand grenades were very important in close combat and in Korea some Chinese had nothing else. German stick grenades could be thrown further but were less powerful. Rifle grenades had fallen out of favour, but were to be reintroduced later.
Sniper were feared and detested, regarded by other infantry as assassins rather than soldiers; and a prisoner with a black ring around his eye left by the eyepiece of a telescopic sight was very lucky to survive unless an officer was present.
They were especially dangerous to head-out tank commanders. Most of the German “snipers” encountered in Normandy were not specialists but single ordinary riflemen with standard rifles, but being missed by one of these was just as alarming.
INFANTRY ANTI-TANK WEAPONS
Conventional Anti-Tank Guns on wheeled mounts (ATG) were not sited to shoot at maximum visible range like a modern Anti-Tank Guided Missile (ATGM), but from concealment at a range at which a miss was unlikely and into the tank’s thinner flank armour.
The 75mm and larger guns introduced from late 1942 were more difficult to dig-in or conceal, so tended to be kept for specialist anti-tank units. Infantry platoon Anti-Tank Rifles (ATR) were discredited in most armies after 1940, but the Russians kept their 14.5mm ATR until the end and used them to shoot at the optics of heavy tanks, the sides of lighter tanks and at observation aircraft. The British Boyes ATR ‘s reputation suffered from its name and the unfortunate fact that when the Germans swept into France in 1940 most units only had practise ammunition instead of hard core. The weapon type has recently resurfaced in the form of Anti-Material Rifles (AMR) such as the Barrett.
ATR were replaced by anti-tank hand grenades and contact charges such as the British sticky bomb and Gammon bomb, German hand-placed Teller mines and Japanese satchel and pole charges; and then by shaped-charge projectors such as the weak US 2.36” bazooka from 1942 and 57mm Recoilless Rifle (RR) from 1945, the more powerful (but heavy and under-appreciated) British PIAT from 1943, the very short range German Panzerfaust and longer range Panzerschreck from 1943, the Russian RPG.2 from 1949 and the US 3.5” bazooka from 1950.
These made every hedgerow dangerous, were hated by tankers; and men who fired them were rarely allowed to surrender if caught.
Battalion-level medium mortars (of 3” to 82mm calibre) had much the same lethality as those of today (except for those of the Americans, who persisted in using steel bombs instead of cast iron with far better fragmentation) but much shorter range. Their bombs used only sensitive contact fuses which made them ineffective against solid top cover or armour but produced very dangerous overhead tree bursts in woods. They usually operated and fired in sections of 2, but sometimes as a whole platoon. A platoon of 4 or 6 mortars was commanded by an officer who could control them together, but a pair could be controlled from the fire position or by a single Mortar Fire Controller (MFC) team commanded by an NCO and positioned near the HQ being supported. Heavier mortars (such as British and US 4.2”, German 120mm and Russian 107mm mountain, 120mm infantry or 160mm artillery mortars) provided at higher level lacked modern rifled barrels and were not only shorter ranged but less accurate than today’s. German mortar men were very good, but Russian thought of as poor, even by Russian infantry.
ASSAULT GUNS AND TANK DESTROYERS
Field artillery guns and howitzers (typically French 75mm, Russian 76mm, British 25pdr and German and US 105mm) were much smaller calibre and shorter ranged than today’s 155mm pieces. They mainly used contact fused shells which could damage field works but had little effect on armoured vehicles. These were not detonated by overhead branches, but the radar proximity (or VT for “variable time”) fuses producing airbursts very effective against men in the open now standard today were sometimes used by the US from 1944.
Field artillery was supplemented by medium artillery (typically British 5.5”, Russian 122mm, German 150mm and US 155mm howitzers) of similar calibre to today’s field guns, able to affect enemy armoured units, but usually of shorter maximum range and in much smaller numbers. There were no guided artillery shells. In most armies, the commander of each battery acted as a Forward Artillery Observer (FAO), usually positioned near the HQ being supported, but with considerable autonomy. He could call through artillery communications on other batteries to reinforce the fires of his own, and this was particularly well practised in the British army from 1943. It was also possible in theory for any member of a supported unit in communication to request and direct artillery fire through his own higher headquarters and we were taught the procedures, but it was much less common and effective than Hollywood would have you suppose.
There was no formal equivalent to today’s Forward Air Control (FAC) teams in any army. Air support from ground attack aircraft had to be requested through a higher command level and was confined to requesting an attack on a designated place in clear weather in daylight. Pilots could not be coached on to an individual target by a ground observer. The weapons used were aircraft guns, large unguided bombs dropped from a shallow or steep dive and from 1944 salvos of unguided rockets, accurate only when fired from dangerously close range.
Another form of support from 1944 available to US and British was prearranged preparatory daylight bombing by sometimes very large formations of medium or heavy bombers. This was very effective at stunning and causing heavy casualties to a formal defence, but even if accurate could slow your attack by cratering ground and blocking streets of built-up areas with wreckage and rubble, often until surviving defenders had recovered from the shock and dug-out their vehicles and guns. This could be reduced by using medium bombers and instant fuses. Often the combing was not accurate and fell upon attackers in their forming up areas. This led to caution in planning the “no-bomb” line, increasing delay in closing with the enemy.
There were no attack helicopters (or until 1950, any helicopters) [It seems that the Germans were using helicopters for various purposes – editor].
Transport aircraft such as the Ju52 and Dakota had much smaller loads than today’s Hercules, barely an infantry section or 2, rather than 18 tons. Vehicles and guns had to be delivered by gliders that could carry up to 3 tons for the Horsa or 8 tons for the few giant Hamilcar. Helicopters were used after 1950, but only for casualty evacuation or carrying Very Important generals.