A Sherman DD amphibious tank of 13th/18th Royal Hussars in action against German troops using crashed Airspeed Horsa gliders as cover near Ranville, Operation Overlord Normandy, 10 June 1944
Sgt. Christie, No 5 Army Film & Photographic Unit, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

My military experience is limited to playing tabletop wargames in my youth.  I played American Civil War with 1/72nd scale Airfix figures, moulded in blue or grey plastic.  Some of my figures even got painted…  And then I assembled a World War Two army, also 1/72nd scale.  I did paint these.  It always used to irritate me that my troops had puny Shermans while my opponent had Panthers and Tigers.  In the end I stuck an unfeasibly long gun barrel on my Shermans and told my opponent they were now Sherman Fireflys.  At least they had a gun that could compete with the Panthers, even though the armour was still weaker.

I think that the Allies had much superior numbers and logistics than the Germans, if tank versus tank they were inferior.  In ‘By Tank into Normandy’ Stuart Hills recounts how his Sherman DD sank before getting to the shore on D-Day, and he and his crew landed on the beach with what they were wearing, only to be handed a brand new replacement Sherman.[1]

I know as much of tactics as a novice in a nunnery, as the song goes, but why should limited knowledge stop me wading into a subject?

Here we go:

Weaponry has evolved over the years, from clubs and swords for close-quarter combat, to ranged weapons like spears, bows, crossbows, muskets, rifles, the GPMG, and so on.  Tactics have evolved as well.  In the Napoleonic period the effective range of a musket was less than the distance between the two ends of an infantry battalion drawn up in line, so close order formations were used and ‘column v line’ battles took place.

The American Civil War was the first to use modern methods, such as the telegraph and the railway.  Richard Gatling invented his gun in 1861, and some Union commanders bought them for use in battle.

The First World War saw the supremacy of the machine gun and the folly of advancing towards one in a line at walking pace.

In parallel with handheld weapons, artillery developed from Napoleon’s batteries which were direct fire, rather than the plunging shot of a howitzer.  If Napoleon had had howitzers at Waterloo, Wellington would have had cold comfort from the ridge on which he drew up his army.

By World War One, artillery had become very powerful, and the traditional start to an attack was an artillery barrage that was supposed to advance – ‘creep’ forward – just in advance of your own troops.

And in World War two, artillery was mounted on tracked carriages for increased mobility.  Firing for too long from a static position was to invite counterbattery fire.

In 1916 came the tank, a track-laying armoured fighting vehicle steered by its tracks.  Cumbersome and primitive if you go to a tank museum today, but a big step in breaking the trench warfare deadlock.  A tank could advance against machine-gun fire, sheltering following infantry with its bulk, and carry bundles – ‘fascines’ to drop into trenches to make crossing them easier.  Early improvised defences involved artillery firing over open sights at short range.

Tanks and tank tactics developed during the interwar period, as outlined in Heinz Guderian’s book ‘Achtung Panzer’ published in 1937.[2]  Germany’s successes in early World War Two were examples of the new tactic of BlitzKrieg – literally ‘lightening war’.  Armour and close air support (Stuka divebombers) attacked in cooperation, with mechanised infantry (ie in trucks and half-tracks, not on Shank’s pony) following up swiftly.  Pockets of resistance were bypassed for the infantry to isolate while the mobile elements pressed on.

Anti-tank weapons developed too.  Britain had the PIAT (Projectile, Infantry, Anti-Tank), Americans had the Bazooka, and the Germans had the Panzershreck and Panzerfaust.  Ground attack aircraft came along such as the rocket-firing Typhoon, and during the breakout from Normandy the cab-rank system was used.  Planes would take off and loiter near the battle area, to be called in at short notice by troops on the ground.

The tank has strengths and weaknesses.  It’s big and heavy and armoured, can move reasonably fast across rough terrain and has a big gun to deal with anyone it meets.  Modern gunlaying systems even let you fire on the move.

On the minus side, it’s big and heavy and needs a powerful engine and this gives off heat that can be detected.  Today’s anti-tank weapons are missiles that are ‘fire and forget’ and which rear up on arrival so as to send a jet of molten metal into the thinner armour on the topside of the tank.

Tanks are expensive and anti-tank missiles are relatively cheap.  A similar situation is found in the Red Sea today, with an anti-ship drone fired by the Houthis allegedly costing around £20k.  The Sea Viper missile used to shoot it down costs around £2million.  This is breaking windows with guineas and is unsustainable, especially if it’s true that the missile destroyer has a magazine capacity of 48 missiles and cannot be reloaded at sea.  Bit of a design flaw.

Back to tanks.  By themselves, tanks are vulnerable to determined infantry.  Towards the end of Saving Private Ryan there is a scene where the German tank has its tracks blown off by an improvised charge and when the tank commander opens his hatch to see what’s what another soldier drops a grenade down the hatch.

Another tactic, I believe used in the Gulf, involved pouring lit petrol onto the tank.  Crew then needed to evacuate before the ammunition cooked off, and they became unarmed infantry who were swarmed by the mob.

So to operate effectively, tanks need close infantry support.  Now add in  aerial reconnaissance, whether by satellite, a high-altitude plane, or a drone.  Combine this with long-range mobile artillery such as the HIMARS systems and computer-aided targeting, and a ton of explosive can be delivered with hitherto unrivalled accuracy.  The key to staying alive appears to be partly staying hidden and partly having effective defences against incoming fire.

You can’t do a lot about incoming HIMARS – except keep moving, maybe – but drones can be countered.  Trouble is, their rate of approach is too fast for a human reaction, so anti-air defences have to go on automatic.  A tank equipped with anti-air defences will scan the environment and fire multiple rounds – or maybe the laser being talked up by Grant Schapps – at the incoming drone or missile.  This makes it pretty unsafe for friendly infantry to be nearby, thus separating the tank from its support troops.

We have had the ‘missile is the end of the tank’ debate since the end of World War Two, and it’s an arms race.  Tanks have often had netting or fake armour attached that is supposed to have the incoming charge detonate on the fake armour, so at a distance from the real armour.  And anti-tank rounds contain shaped charges that are more effective than solid shot.

The big new development is drones.  They are cheap (relatively), can loiter for long periods at high altitude, and they can send back pictures of the target area.  With pinpoint info available in real time, an army can stand off and destroy the enemy with artillery or more drones.  If the artillery fire control is connected to the intelligence from the drones, the interval from detecting an enemy to the arrival of shells could be down to minutes.

In World War Two attacks involved massing forces behind your lines, moving them to their start lines, and (you hoped) sending them against the enemy with overwhelming local superiority.  Today the battlefield is permanently illuminated with the intel from drones and satellites, so massed forces will attract massed incoming.  If the enemy is alert, your attack force will not make it to the start line, with troop concentrations shelled on the way in.

Combined arms tactics have evolved since the days of Blitzkrieg.  Today the keys appear to be small group mobility and close support from artillery as soon as you detect an enemy concentration.

One limiting factor might be logistics.  To keep moving, armour needs fuel, repairs, and ammunition replacement.  The further and faster you advance, the longer and more stretched is your supply chain.  This is not a new challenge.  What is new, I think, is the appearance of drones and their ability to deliver attacks with pinpoint accuracy.  For the time being the balance of power on the battlefield appears to have swung against the tank.

This is all pretty depressing, and I prefer to go back to battles with model soldiers.  H G Wells played wargames against his friends Jerome K Jerome and Robert Louis Stevenson, and he wrote about it in his book Little Wars[3].

His remedy was to:

Put this prancing monarch and that silly scaremonger, and these excitable ‘patriots’, and those adventurers, and all the practitioners of Welt Politik, into one vast Temple of War, with cork carpets everywhere, and plenty of little trees and little houses to knock down, and cities and fortresses, and unlimited soldiers – tons, cellars-full – and let them lead their own lives there away from us.

You only have to play at Little Wars to realise what a blundering thing Great War must be.

Great War is a game out of all proportion.  Not only are the masses of men and material and suffering and inconvenience too monstrously big for reason, but – the available heads we have for it, are too small.  That, I think, is the most pacific realisation conceivable, and Little War brings you to it as nothing else but Great War can do.

Wells wrote this in 1913 and it would have been good if his view had prevailed.  Unfortunately Gavrilo Princep put paid to all that when he shot the Archduke Ferdinand and the War to End All Wars began.

© Jim Walshe 2024

[1] Stuart Hills – By Tank into Normandy
[2] Heinz Guderian – Achtung Panzer!
[3] H. G. Wells – Little Wars