Army Ground Forces, Study No. 1
GHQ AND TANK DESTROYER ELEMENTS
The Tank Menace, 1940
The tank menace presented a most urgent problem in the summer of 1940. The shockingly sudden collapse of France had been brought about by fast-moving German armored divisions used in conjunction with dive bombers and infantry. Even in some military circles the air-tank team was considered invincible, and many Army officers, working independently, turned their attention to the problem of stopping the armored force attack. Consideration had been given before 1940 to antitank tactics and equipment, but after the disaster in Europe this field of military study became widely active. In the development of initial doctrine, organization, and training of tank destroyer elements GHQ was to play an important part.
The subject bristled with disputed questions. Could tanks best be stopped by guns or by other tanks? Assuming that antitank guns were extensively developed, how much of the strength of the Army should be used for this purpose? How heavy a caliber should be adopted in view of the concurrent need of mobility? Should mobile antitank guns be towed or self-propelled? Should they be regarded as weapons to be used by the several arms, or organized and administered as if constituting a new arm? In battle, should they await the appearance of enemy tanks or aggressively search out and locate enemy tanks? Should they maneuver freely during the fire-fight or should they fire only from previously selected concealed positions?
Combat experience of United States forces in later years helped to clarify some of these questions, but preparedness required that decisions be made before combat. On all questions concerning antitank artillery many shades of opinion could be found at all times. In general there were two schools: those who believed in intensive tank destroyer development and those who were skeptical of such development. Both schools could eventually point to ways in which their anticipations had proved correct and those of their opponents mistaken. In such an atmosphere of controversy there was a tendency for all concerned to think that they had been right all the time—to feel that what they believed in 1943 or 1945 was what they had believed in 1940 or 1941.
Views at GHQ on Antitank Measures
General McNair was one of the most aggressive advocates of the movement to develop tank destroyers. Though the tank destroyers developed did not turn out as at first expected, the primary contention of their proponents, that tanks could be stopped by guns, was fully confirmed by experience. The tank terror of 1940 was overcome. Some of the views which General McNair held in 1940, 1941, and 1942 required modification when the destroyers had been used in battle. Through 1942 he urged an expansion of the tank destroyer program which by 1943 was generally regarded as excessive. In his desire to overcome a defensive psychology he stated his beliefs in unqualified terms which may have contributed, during the period extending through 1942, to an employment of tank destroyers which he himself believed to require correction in 1943, when the doctrine was promulgated that, while tank destroyers must be aggressive in reconnaissance and selection of concealed positions, they must not "chase" tanks or maneuver aggressively within range of enemy armor.1
General McNair came to GHQ in August 1940 with his views on antitank measures well developed. He had experimented with antitank organization in 1937 in San Antonio. He had studied the problem in 1940 while Commandant of the Command and General Staff
School. He refused to believe that tanks could be beaten only by other tanks. He had faith in the antitank mine and the antitank gun. He declared in a visit to the War Department General Staff on 29 June 1940 that the big problem before the War Department was to find means of stopping armored divisions and that for this purpose flat trajectory guns with a range of at least 1,500 yards and of heavier caliber than either the 37-mm or the 75-mm then in use would be required.2
General McNair continued to make these views known after arriving at GHQ. Called upon in August 1940 to comment on a list of subjects proposed for staff study in the War Department, he recommended the further development of antitank guns. He declined to concur in a subsequent War Department study of antitank measures on the ground that it was grossly inadequate. In remarks on a third War Department proposal he protested that only passive antitank defense was provided, except in the armored divisions, and expressed his preference for antitank "groups" of three battalions, rather than single antitank battalions, "in order to afford a better control of large numbers of guns concentrated at a threatened point." The same ideas were repeated in his comments on the maneuvers of August 1940. "There were few if any instances of the employment of antitank guns other than passively. Such methods are effective only against mechanized reconnaissance vehicles. A mechanized attack invariably will be concentrated, calling for a concentration of antitank weapons. The smaller the number of antitank guns the greater is the need of holding them as a mobile reserve, ready instantly to rush to the point of mechanized attack."
On 23 September the War Department in Training Circular No. 3, superseding instructions dating from March 1938, directed that a minimum of antitank guns should be placed in fixed positions and a maximum held as a mobile reserve.3 This was the first break in a doctrine of passive defense but was still defensive in character and scope.
Delay in Preparing Antitank Measures
The effort to incorporate the new doctrine in training was attended with difficulties. When in the alarm over events in Europe antiaircraft artillery regiments were directed on 16 August 1940 to practice antitank fire,4 few antitank guns existed in divisional artillery. Most antitank weapons were at this time organized in antitank companies in infantry regiments. Such decentralization ran contrary to the principles favored by GHQ.
On the matter of antitank mines delays were also inevitable. In February 1941 the War Department initiated a study looking toward modifications in published doctrine. GHQ was requested to assemble data from experience in the field and to prepare a report, which, however, was not completed until January 1942, when evidence was at hand from the large fall maneuvers.5
Meanwhile, little progress was made. In April 1941, so far as was known at GHQ, of all the armies and corps only the VI Corps and the Armored Force had issued any instructions on antitank defense.6 "It is beyond belief," wrote General McNair on 12 April 1941, "that so little could be done on the question, in view of all that has happened and is happening abroad. I for one have missed no opportunity to hammer for something real in the way of antitank defense, but so far have gotten nowhere. I have no reason now to feel encouraged, but can only hope this apathy will not continue indefinitely."7
Discussions on this problem were in fact taking place at this time in the War Department General Staff, both in G-2 and in G-3. General Miles, G-2, produced a memorandum on 1 March 1941 entitled "Evaluation of Modern Battle Forces," based upon military experience in France and Libya. He affirmed that the air-tank combination
would become the nucleus of the army of the future or the infantry division must develop means to repel tank assaults.8
General McNair, asked for his comments found General Miles’ position extreme. He preferred a middle-of-the-road interpretation of European events. This same tendency had been apparent in his directive of 4 January on "Combined Training," in which he prescribed that the full strength of aviation and, armored elements should be carefully simulated in all combined exercises, but that exaggeration of the menace should be avoided and the troops not left with a sense that effective defense was impossible. Commenting on General Miles' study, he observed that the Germans had used twenty infantry divisions in France. Rather than revolutionize the infantry division, he proposed the formation of strong air and tank units and the creation of mobile masses of antiaircraft and antitank guns to cope with the air-tank menace. "The need of a greatly expanded mobile force of suitable antitank guns has been pointed out repeatedly, but is not being procured." In further memoranda of 9 May and 1 July 1941 General McNair reiterated his faith in the standard infantry division, once an adequate antitank force distinct from the infantry, had been created.9
The action initiated by G-3 of the War Department led to a series of conferences on the antitank question. In the first, occurring on 15 April 1941, the War Plans Divisions of the War Department General Staff, GHQ, and the Chiefs of Infantry, Cavalry, Field Artillery, Coast Artillery, and the Armored Force were represented.10 No general conclusions on antitank doctrine could be reached, though all present expressed approval of offensive tactics. Disagreement appeared over the organization and command of antitank units. In general, the chief of each arm favored the placing of antitank means in units of his arm. It was finally decided to retain the antitank companies in infantry regiments—GHQ alone not concurring. Divisional antitank battalions were to be created and antitank 37’s to be transferred from the Field Artillery—the Chief of Field Artillery disapproving. A central reserve of GHQ antitank battalions was formed, though in smaller numbers than desired by GHQ. The Chiefs of Infantry and of Cavalry each offered reasons why the responsibility for developing antitank defense should be entrusted to his branch. On branch responsibility no conclusion was reached, nor was provision made for establishing an antitank force distinct from the older branches. The GHQ representative at the conference concluded his report to General McNair in these words: "It is therefore recommended that GHQ attempt to get the War Department promptly to place the development of antitank defense under the commander of a tentative Antitank Force set up at a center reasonably close to the station of the First or Second Armored Division."11
A second antitank conference on 10 May was attached only by representatives of the War Department General Staff and by Lieutenant Colonel Kingman of GHQ. The discussion turned chiefly on materiel, G-3 favoring self-propelled mounts for antitank guns against the fears of GHQ that guns so mounted might prove inaccurate in fire. General McNair’s representative reported that he had brought up the question of organization and continued:12
On the basis of the agreement arrived at in the meeting of April 15 that antitank weapons should be withdrawn from the Field Artillery and placed in divisions and higher antitank units, I suggested that this be done at once and that provisional antitank organizations be formed, including division battalions as well as units of higher echelons, so as actually to test your scheme of mobile antitank defense in the coming maneuvers. I pointed out that despite their summary dismissal of GHQ’s recommendations for the setting up of an antitank center and the centralization under one headquarters of antitank development, and their favoring of tank-chaser units, that there are no such units in existence and that the coming maneuvers afford an opportunity to test GHQ’s recommendations. This suggestion apparently fell on fertile ground...
Creation of the Planning Branch, G-3, WDGS
At this point, in mid-May 1941, the influence of General Marshall made itself felt. In a talk at GHQ on 13 May he observed that there had been much opposition in the War Department to the establishment of GHQ in the preceding summer and that there had been practically a solid front against the adoption of new ideas. He went on to say that GHQ should “retain an open mind with reference to innovations.” On the next day, 14 May, he directed G-3 of the War Department to take immediate action on antitank measures and to create a Planning Branch whose sole function would be to devise new methods of warfare. On 15 May such a Planning Branch was established under Lt. Col. A. D. Bruce, an active sponsor of antitank development and soon to be the first commander of a new Tank Destroyer Center.13
Creation of the Provisional Antitank Battalions
A third conference, held in Colonel Bruce’s office on 26 May with GHQ represented, adopted conclusions generally in accord with the stand taken by GHQ. To win concurrence from the Chief of Infantry, antitank companies were left with the infantry regiments, against the policy preferred both by GHQ and by Colonel Bruce, but in each divisional and higher headquarters an antitank officer was to be appointed. The new provisional antitank battalions were to be organized at once, those for divisions taking their weapons from divisional artillery, those for GHQ reserve and for some divisions obtaining theirs from corps and GHQ field artillery brigades. To facilitate this decision, a recommendation on the subject from the Chief of Field Artillery was held up by order from the Chief of Staff of the War Department. It was decided also to establish before the end of 1941 a “large antitank unit” on the lines of the antitank force long recommended by GHQ.14
Though the provisional antitank battalions were activated by War Department letter on 24 June 1941, they were not tested until the maneuvers in September. The antitank assistant G-3’s were appointed.15 The Tank Destroyer Center was not set up until 1 December.
Sources of Encouragement: The Antitank Conference of July 1941
In June 1941 advocates of a strong and rapid development of antitank units found encouragement in two events which made that month a turning point in the development of antitank preparations. The vulnerability of tanks was demonstrated by the Germans, who managed to destroy over 200 British tanks on the Egyptian-Libyan frontier. G-2 of the War Department found this to be "one of the first cases in this war when a tank attack has been definitely stopped." Antiaircraft and other artillery had been used by the Germans most effectively against tanks and orders went out immediately to units of this type in the United States Army to intensify their antitank training. General McNair, agreeing that all possible types of cannon should be employed against tanks, warned that their use should not delay the development of a series of special antitank guns.16
The second source of encouragement was found in the June maneuvers of the Second Army in Tennessee. General McNair found the antitank action here still too passive, but more effectively handled than he had anticipated and confirmatory of his own views on antitank organization and tactics. From the maneuvers, he wrote, “it can be expected that the location of hostile armored elements will be known practically constantly, thus permitting antitank opposition to be moved correspondingly, and massed at the proper point. This is the question which has raised doubt in the minds of those
who incline toward dissipating our antitank means by organic assignment to units all over the Army.17
To prepare for the fall maneuvers and to promote education in antitank measures, officers of divisions and higher units were assembled in a great antitank conference called by G-3 of the War Department and held at the Army War College from 14 to 17 July 1941. A feeling of confidence and enthusiasm prevailed. Colonel Bruce and others active in antitank planning explained the current program. General Twaddle, G-3, who opened the meeting, and General McNair, who made the closing remarks, agreed that smashing the tank was the most urgent problem before the Army, that progress toward its solution was being made, and that the main task of the antitank officers on returning to their units must be to overcome the excessive fear of armored attack felt by the troops since the fall of France.18
Testing of Antitank Weapons in GHQ-Directed Maneuvers
It was the intention of GHQ to test out, in the GHQ-directed fall maneuvers, its policies of aggressive use and centralized control of antitank guns. The umpire manual had been carefully revised to give an accurate picture. New rules were prescribed for the laying of dummy mine fields.19 The antitank officers of field units were informed of developments in the conference just past. The provisional antitank battalions were available. They were to be attached to the Third Army in the September maneuvers for use against the armored elements of the Second. On 8 August 1941 GHQ issued a directive to the Commanding General of the Third Army on the tactical employment of antitank battalions.20 He was instructed to organize nine battalions into three “groups” of three battalions each and to have in addition a headquarters company, ground and air reconnaissance elements, and intelligence, signal, engineer, and infantry units, all fully motorized. Both offensive and defensive tactics were outlined, with preference expressed for a speedy and aggressive action to search out and attack opposing tanks before they had assumed formation. The ideas championed by General McNair were finally to be tried, though the War Department Training Directive for 1941-42 issued at this time still reflected a defensive conception of antitank operations.21
After the September maneuvers General McNair expressed satisfaction with the way in which the antitank units had been handled, pointing only to a persisting tendency to commit them to positions prematurely and to dissipate them. The provisional battalions with their group organization were continued in being and used in the Carolina maneuvers in November.22 On this occasion, as noted above, 983, tanks were ruled put out of action—91 percent by guns—and the 1st Armored Division was ruled by the umpire to have been destroyed.
Progressive Acceptance of Principles Favored at GHQ
The elaboration of long-range plans on the organization of antitank units progressed simultaneously with these tests in the field, and the principles favored by GHQ found progressive acceptance. In answer to General Marshall’s request of 14 May, G-3 of the War Department produced a detailed memorandum on 18 August 1941. It was designed for an army of 55 divisions, now envisaged by the War Department, and proposed a ratio of four antitank battalions per division: 55, or 1 each, for the divisions, 55 for armies and corps, and 110 for GHQ. General Marshall had stipulated in May that the question of a new branch or arm should not be raised. The old arms, Infantry, Field Artillery, etc., were therefore given by G-3 responsibility for creating the new antitank battalions, and the antitank center, on whose establishment all were agreed, was to be put under the authority of the Chief of the Armored Force.23
On 2 September General McNair, praising the boldness of the proposals, found them in keeping with the urgency of the situation but withheld his concurrence. He preferred a separate antitank force to include all antitank guns except those in infantry regiments. He objected to the subordination of the Antitank Force to the Armored Force, believing the two should be rivals. He objected to the organic inclusion of antitank battalions in divisions, corps, and armies, believing that they should be massed for attachment when and where needed. He considered 220 antitank battalions to be more than necessary for an Army of 55 divisions, and on the question of self-propelled versus towed guns he called for further investigation, recommending that whichever type was found to be better should be adopted for all antitank battalions. G-1 and G4 of the War Department Staff concurred in his comments.24
General McNair’s recommendations were embodied, step by step, in the decisions reached by the War Department, except for his view on the total number of battalions. This exception, however, was not of immediate practical importance, since the production rate of equipment made possible the training of only 63 battalions in the near future.
The Office of the Chief of Staff acted on the C-3 memorandum on 8 October. The provisions for dividing antitank responsibility among chiefs of branches were rescinded. The antitank center, made independent of the Armored Force, was to be established under War Department control. This much was consistent with the recommendations of GHQ. But the action of 8 October provided also for organic antitank battalions in divisions, corps, and armies and for the continued association of the battalions already provisionally organized with the Infantry, Field Artillery, or other arm in which they had originated.25
The Tank Destroyer Center and the Tank Destroyer Battalions
A War Department letter of 27 November 1941 officially ordered the activation on or about 1 December of a Tank Destroyer Tactical and Firing Center at Ft. Meade, Md. It was to include a Tank Destroyer Board. Col. Andrew D. Bruce of the Planning Branch of G-3 was to command the new center. The letter of 27 November made no provision for antitank battalions in divisions, corps, or armies. The 53 antitank battalions whose immediate activation was ordered were all to be under GHQ, but might be attached to lower echelons for training.26
A further War Department order of 3 December reduced the connections still existing between antitank battalions and the several arms. “Antitank battalions” were redesignated “tank destroyer battalions,” the old term savoring too much of defensive tactics. All tank destroyer battalions, it was repeated, were allotted to GHQ. Antitank units in cavalry divisions and in field artillery battalions and regiments in the continental United States were to be inactivated. Infantry antitank battalions were to lose the name “Infantry,” be renumbered, and redesignated as “tank destroyer battalions.” The net effect was to create a new homogeneous tank destroyer force, composed of battalions only nominally connected with the older arms. Of these battalions only the 893d was complete from the first with full reconnaissance and other supporting elements. It was assigned on 30 January as a school unit to the Tank Destroyer Tactical and Firing Center.27
The higher organization of the tank destroyer battalions remained to be settled. As early as August 1940 General McNair had wished the combination of battalions into groups, which had been provisionally organized for the fall maneuvers of 1941. By the end of 1941, however, the component battalions, not the groups, had been shifted from a provisional to a permanent basis. On 24 January 1942 the Commanding General of the Western Defense Command again raised the question by pointing out that all tank
destroyer battalions at the moment were separate GHQ units. He recommended that one light battalion be organically included in each infantry division and that a tank destroyer group headquarters be assigned to each army corps to which two or more heavy battalions were attached. The reply of the War Department followed the recommendations of GHQ. No tank destroyer battalions were to be organically included in divisions. Group headquarters were to be organized, but on the insistence of Brig. Gen. Mark W. Clark they were to remain directly under GHQ, not assigned to army corps.28
Thus antitank policies favored at GHQ at the time of its establishment were, on the eve of its dissolution, the accepted policies of the War Department. These policies called for a separate antitank force, distinct from the several arms, with tank destroyers removed from organic assignment to divisions, corps, and armies and concentrated under the commanding general of the field forces in order to allow quick massing of mobile antitank power, preferably for offensive action. In 1942 the tank destroyer establishment underwent a tremendous expansion under the guidance of the Army Ground Forces.29 Some of the principles agreed upon in March 1942 had to be revised in the light of combat experience, but the insistence of GHQ upon a strong antitank force had helped to bring into existence an organization well fitted to meet future demands.
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Last updated 18 February 2005