EXAMPLES OF EMPLOYMENT OF TANKS IN NIGHT FIGHTING ON THE EUROPEAN LAND MASS DURING WORLD WAR II
[Note: This manuscript was prepared on 2 June 1966 by Martin Blumenson, a historian assigned to the Office of the Chief of Military History (now US Army Center of Military History) for reference use by members of the Office of the Chief of Staff, Army. It is typical of the kinds of "staff support" projects routinely carried out by the Center. The original is on file in the Historical Manuscripts Collection (HMC) under file number 2-3.7 AC.Y, which should be cited in footnotes, along with the title. It is reproduced here with only those limited modifications required to adapt to the World Wide Web; spelling, punctuation, and slang usage have not been altered from the original. Where modern explanatory notes were required, they have been inserted as italicized text in square brackets.]
EXAMPLES OF EMPLOYMENT OF TANKS IN NIGHT FIGHTING ON THE EUROPEAN LAND MASS DURING WORLD WAR II
1. In order to assure agreement on the definition and the parameters of the problem, certain types of action have been eliminated. They are:
a. Tanks in an artillery role.
b. Tanks in tactical marches.
c. Tanks in meeting engagements.
d. Attack movements starting during the night but designed to get armor to the LD or to the enemy MLR by dawn, the actual battle to be fought during the day.
e. Daylight attacks turning into exploitation or pursuit and pressed beyond dusk and into the hours of darkness to complete the successful action.
2. Bona fide and documented tank attacks made during the hours of darkness in World War II are few in number. Some examples are presented here in brief form.
a. Full-scale attack:
(1) Operation TOTALIZE, a night attack launched by the First Canadian Army form positions south of Caen toward Falaise. The attack started at 2300, 7 August 1944, when more than 1,000 RAF planes, including heavy bombers, dropped more than 5,000 tons of bombs in front of the ground troops. As 720 artillery pieces shelled the enemy and lighted the battlefield with flares, as Bofors guns fired tracer bullets to mark the direction of the attack, and as searchlights provided artificial sunlight, two divisions moved out around midnight. Preceded by
tanks with flailing mechanisms to detonate enemy mines and by engineers who cleared routes through German mine fields, eight columns of armor, each with four vehicles abreast, advanced. Infantrymen followed in armored personnel carriers with the mission of detrucking at appropriate places to mop up bypassed strongpoints. Despite dense clouds of dust mixed with ground mist, despite vehicular collisions, despite inevitable losses in direction, the Canadians broke through substantial German defenses for a distance of three miles by dawn. Source: Martin Blumenson, Breakout and Pursuit, pp. 479-80.
b. Surprise raid.
(1) German 3d Panzer Division. 25 October 1941. Attacking out of a bridgehead on the Susha River to gain access to the Mzensk-Tula road, a brigade commander decided to make a night raid with the 18th Panzer Regiment. He started moving with one battalion at 1800, advanced slowly in pitch-black darkness, and, just before reaching the road objective, ran into enemy trucks, which turned out to belong to a Russian tank-repair depot. In a sharp exchange of fire, several Russian trucks were destroyed; the others escaped in the darkness. The German tank battalion moved to the road, established blocking positions, and enabled the entire XXIV Panzer Corps to advance along the road in the morning. Source: Oskar Munzel, Panzer-Taktik (Neckargemuend, Germany, 1959) p. 108.
(2) 83d Division and part of the attached 736th Tank Battalion. 1 March 1945. A regimental task force attempted to seize by stealth a bridge over the Rhine at Oberkassel, moving during the night, trying to deceive the Germans on the identity of the column.
The task force reached the outskirts of Oberkassel, but was discovered at dawn. The alarm was given, and the Germans destroyed the bridge as the task force was rushing forward to seize it. Source: Charles B. MacDonald, The Last Offensive, (unpublished manuscript) Chapter IX, p. 22.
(3) Task Force Baum: CCB, 4th Armored Division. 26-27 March 1945. A tank company, joined with an infantry company and supporting elements, struck out from friendly lines to go approximately 50 miles into enemy-held territory and liberate a German camp confining American officer prisoners of war. Streaking through the enemy rear during the hours of darkness, the task force was detected shortly after daylight by the enemy. The task force reached its objective but was destroyed as it was trying to return to friendly lines. Source: John Toland, The Last 100 Days, pp. 287-99.
(4) Task Force Hollingsworth: CCB, 2d Armored Division. 11 April 1945. A column of tanks struck out from Magdeburg after darkness to capture a bridge across the Elbe at Schoenebeck. The tanks came within a few feet of the bridge but were unable to take it in the face of determined German fire. By the time a new attack with infantry could be mounted, the Germans had demolished the structure. Source: Charles B. MacDonald, The Last Offensive, (unpublished manuscript) Chapter XVII, pp. 22-23; Cornelius Ryan, The Last Battle, pp. 305-10.
(1) German 5th Parachute Regiment. 29 November 1944. Two companies of the 26th Infantry attacked at noon and took the village of Merode by darkness. The Germans counterattacked during the night, using
at least one tank, probably more. They retook the village before the Americans, beset with confusion, could get supporting tanks into the village to bolster the infantry. Charles B. MacDonald, The Siegfried Line Campaign, pp. 490-91.
d. Breakout from encirclement.
(1) Parts of the 2d SS Panzer Division, the 17th SS Engineer Battalion, the 6th Parachute Regiment, and the 17th SS Panzer Grenadier Division were trapped near the village of Roncey in the Cotentin of Normandy late in July 1944. They tried to break through a series of roadblocks established by the 2d Armored Division to ring the encircled Germans. Shortly before dawn, 29 July, about thirty enemy tanks and other vehicles, led by an 88-mm. Self-propelled gun, approached a cross-roads defended by a company of American armored infantry and a company of tanks. German infantrymen crawled along the ditches beside the road and half a dozen German tanks and armored vehicles assaulted frontally to force open an escape route. The self-propelled gun in the lead overran the American defensive line and was about to make a breakthrough wen rifle shots killed the driver and gunner. As the gun carriage blocked the road, Germans and Americans battled for the crossroads until daybreak, when the Germans withdrew, leaving 17 dead and 150 wounded. American losses were less than 50 casualties, one tank, and one halftrack.
About the same time, several miles away, about 15 German tanks and several hundred troops overran an outpost manned by an infantry company. The company commander was killed at once, and the troops fell back half a mile into the positions of an armored field artillery battalion,
which fired for thirty minutes and held off further German attack until nearby armored infantrymen arrived and re-established the outpost. They found 7 destroyed Mark IV tanks and counted 125 German dead. Some Germans had escaped.
German groups struck the armored defensive line again during the following night of 29 July. One of the largest was a group of about 1,000 troops and nearly 100 armored vehicles, which struck at the cross-roads of St. Denis le Gast in two columns. A shot by a Mark V, which poked its gun through a hedgerow, destroyed the command halftrack of the American tank battalion, and the tank continued to fire and set vehicles at the command post ablaze. The Americans became disorganized and fell back, relinquishing the crossroads. As the Germans poured through the opening, the Americans rallied and returned to fight an intense close-range battle. By morning, American troops again held firm hold on St. Denis le Gast; against losses of 100 men and 12 vehicles, they had killed 130 enemy, wounded 124, captured 500, and destroyed at least 25 vehicles, of which 7 were tanks.
At Cambry, shortly after midnight of 29 July, about 2,500 Germans made an organized break. The point of the attack overran a tank roadblock and threatened to crush the defenses held by a company each of tanks and infantry. American tankfire at very short range destroyed the momentum of the German attack, which fell apart as panic-stricken troops tried to flee. At the end of a six-hour engagement, 450 Germans were killed, 1,000 were prisoners, and about 100 vehicles of all types were destroyed; the American losses were about 50 killed and 60 wounded. Source: Martin Blumenson, Breakout and Pursuit, pp. 277-81.
(2) The German breakout from the Argentan-Falaise pocket was so large in scope, so disjointed in sequence, and so poor in documentation that only a fragmentary record survives. The overall operation consisted of two parts, first, a withdrawal, which started on the night of 16 August 1944 after the failure of the Mortain counterattack, and second, a breakout, which started on the night of 19 August 1944 after Allied troops closed the pocket. During the first phase, the withdrawals made during the hours of darkness on three successive nights were accomplished for the most part without intense combat. During the second phase, the breakout operations conducted during the hours of darkness on two successive nights were the result for the most part of individual, fragmented efforts. Commanders tried to employ their armor, when tanks were available to them, at the point of each column, in the rear guard, and to a certain extent as covering forces on the flanks. Success in escaping the closing Allied ring depended on individual initiative of small unit commanders, on unit morale and will to fight, and on pure chance—the good fortune, for example, of finding an intact bridge or shallow ford. An account of the second phase of the breakout, which is more relevant to the problem, may be found in Martin Blumenson, Breakout and Pursuit, pp. 542 ff.
3. There was much night fighting by tanks of both sides during the battle of the Bulge, not all of it documented. The following examples, taken from Hugh M. Cole, The Ardennes: The Battle of the Bulge (page numbers are cited after each example) have been divided into successful and unsuccessful actions from the point of view of the attacking armor. An
example fitting neither category is added. A summary statement is appended on the night-fighting experience of the 4th Armored Division during its drive to Bastogne.
a. Successful actions.
(1) During the exceptionally dark night of 16 December 1944, a regimental armored task force from the 1st SS Panzer Division overran and engulfed two platoons of American infantry at Bucholz. Moving into Honsfeld while American troops were pulling out, the leading German tanks simply joined the American traffic and, led by a man signaling with a flashlight, rolled down the village streets. American troops scrambled out of town as Germans poured in from all sides. Pp. 90-91.
(2) Mark IV and Panther tanks of the 3d Panzer Regiment reached a roadblock protecting Bastogne and defended by an understrength tank battalion of CCR, 9th Armored Division after darkness on 17 December 1944. Sweeping the area with machine gun fire to clear any infantry who might be protecting the American tanks, the panzers overran and destroyed two tank platoons, set other vehicles ablaze with tracer bullets, and knocked out the roadblock. Pp. 295-296.
(3) An hour before midnight, 20 December, the 1st Battalion, 119th Infantry (30th Division)_ and a tank company holding a sanatorium building on a hill on the edge of Stoumont came under attack. German tanks inched forward to positions from which they fired directly into the sanatorium. American tanks brought up were unable to negotiate the steep banks of the hill, and one was set afire by a German bazooka, two others were knocked out by German tank fire. These burning tanks and some outbuildings set afire lighted the approaches to the main building
and prevented further American tank maneuver. German tanks then ran in close enough to fire through the windows of the sanatorium. After furious close-in fighting, the Germans took possession of the large building and drove the Americans off the hill. Pp. 349-51.
(4) The 18th Volks Grenadier Division attacking along the Schoenberg road toward St. Vith mounted what turned out to be the final assault at 2000, 21 December, against a 106th Division roadblock incorporating three Sherman tanks into the defenses. A German infantry regiment, supported by one or two platoons of Tiger tanks, quickly knocked out the Shermans and broke through the line of foxholes held by exhausted men who had battled for several days against overwhelming odds. Pp. 404-05.
(5) The 1st Battalion, 319th Infantry (80th Division) waited until after dark on 23 December—when ten tanks formerly attached to the 28th Division arrived—to attack Kehman. The task force destroyed three German tanks and freed the village. Pp. 518-19.
(6) The 2d Battalion, 104th Infantry (26th Division) and a few tanks attacked at 0045, 25 December to take Eschdorf. When German fire turned back the infantry, three tanks churned to the fore through the snow until checked by a small creek, extended by an antitank ditch. A second effort launched at 0400 succeeded only in getting as far as the first effort. But because the tanks in the center pinned down the German defenders, the American companies on the flanks broke through and moved into the town. Pp. 542-43.
(7) At 2100, 24 December, the 2d SS Panzer Division attacked toward Manhay, where elements of the 3d, 7th, and 9th Armored
Divisions were located, some withdrawing from defensive positions previously held in the general area. On that beautifully clear and moonlit night, the glistening and hard-packed snow gave goo surface for tank movement. A captured Sherman tank led the German tank column and deceived the American defenders at a roadblock in front of Manhay. Four American Shermans fell to enemy bazookas and two were crippled. A thousand yards or so beyond, where another roadblock was defended by an understrength rifle company and ten medium tanks dug into hull defilade, the German column, still led by the captured Sherman, got close to the defenders, let loose flares that blinded the dug-in Shermans and knocked them out. Around 2230, the Germans were entering Manhay, where they knocked out five more American tanks. Pp. 587-89.
b. Unsuccessful actions.
(1) About 1930, 16 December, three German tanks and a platoon or so of infantry simply rolled through the line of the 1st Battalion, 9th Infantry (2d Division) and proceeded toward Rocherath. Half an hour later, when more German tanks came along the same road, they struck mines and were stopped. American fires then turned them back. After an hour of reorganization, the Germans attacked again. Five or six German tanks rolled to within a few hundred yards of the foxhole line. Joined by infantry, the German tanks broke through. But the Americans refused to panic and checked the attack by midnight. Pp. 109-10.
(2) The 1st Battalion, 38th Infantry (2d Division) had set up defensive positions at Krinkelt which were struck at 2130, 16 December by German tanks and infantry. The defenders let the tanks roll past, then
took on the infantry. Three German tanks with infantry clinging to their decks got into the streets of the village, but by midnight the enemy tanks were knocked out and the infantry killed or captured. Pp. 110-11.
(3) During the night of 18 December, the 12th SS Panzer Division dispatched a battalion of infantry, plus a few tanks, from Bullingen toward Burgenbach. The tanks had a hard time on the road, which was a river of mud. About 0225, 19 December, about 20 truckloads of German infantry dismounted, deployed behind a dozen tanks, and moved against the 2d Battalion, 26th Infantry (1st Division). American artillery opened up. Some German tanks mired down before they could reach the American line. Others were discouraged by bazooka and antitank fires. Three tanks were on the point of breaking through the defenses when they were knocked out by American 155-mm. howitzer fires. Pp. 129-30.
(4) Defending Neville during the night of 19 December, the 1st Battalion, 506th Parachute Infantry (101st Airborne Division) met an assault launched by the 2d Panzer Division. Throughout the night panzers prowled about the edge of the village, while eight Shermans inside the village engaged in a "blindfold duel" to keep the German tanks from entering. Pp. 453-54.
(5) At 1845, 23 December, a regiment of Panzer Lehr, employing at least two tank companies, began a co-ordinated attack against Marvile, held by the 2d Battalion, 327th Glider Infantry (101st Airborne Division) and a tank battalion of CCB, 10th Armored Division. The German tankers overran defenses on the edge of Marvie but were unable to enter the village. They launched a second attack at midnight, but were stopped
again by American tank and tank destroyer fires against the panzers silhouetted by the glare of burning buildings. The battle ended just before dawn with both opponents holding part of Marvie. Pp. 471-72.
(6) A tank battalion of CCA, 4th Armored Division was driving to reach Bastogne on 22 December. Approaching Warnach as night was falling, a tank company at the head of the column entered the village and ran into German fire. While tank destroyers shelled the houses, a light tank platoon and a rifle platoon advanced into the village to clear it. These elements were ambushed, and one tank and most of the foot troops, got out. Antitank fires were effective. Not until after daylight did the Americans take the village. Pp. 529-30.
c. Tanks defending a village.
The 1st SS Panzer Division sent a column composed of infantry and assault guns toward Recht. About 0200, the advance guard hit the village defended by a tank battalion operating under the headquarters of CCR, 7th Armored Division. Unwilling to risk his tanks without infantry protection in a night fight through narrow streets and uncertain of the German strength, the American commander ordered a withdrawal after a sharp 450-minute engagement. P. 280.
d. The following summary statement is appended to indicate the impracticability of continuous armored action: "Attack around the Clock, enjoined by General Patton, had not been notably successful so far as the tank arm was concerned. From commander down, the 4th Armored [Division] was opposed to further use of the weakened tank battalions in hours of darkness." P. 531.
4. The following is a paraphrased excerpt of a German observation of the use of tanks in night operations on the Russian front.
Combat at Night. "Battles which extend into darkness or sudden encounters during the night generally lead quickly to a static firefight or to an immediate breaking off of the engagement." "The scope of a night attack must generally be restricted and the objective limited." These quotations from the German manual on troop leadership were regarded in peacetime training as accepted doctrine. The campaign in the East produced a decisive change. The increased number and effectiveness of modern weapons forced a shift to purely night operations of ever increasing scope. The growing importance of air power also contributed to the practice of assembling, deploying, and readying forces in darkness. Not only the scope and importance of night operations, but the manner of their execution changed significantly. Before the war and at the outset, night operations were normally carried out in stealth. During the course of the war, in addition to surreptitious attacks by limited numbers of infantry, powerful attacks were made with concentrated forces employing superior mobility and heavy firepower. In these, tanks and/or armored personnel carriers played a decisive role, particularly when enemy firepower was limited. Tanks in combination with 1) halftracks, 2) closely following infantry, or 3) self-propelled assault guns carrying infantry, and firing as they moved almost always had success if they attained surprise. The approach of tanks at night gave the defender a feeling of helplessness.
Combat in darkness or fog requires an especially high state of training, hardened and determined troops, special equipment, including devices for night vision, whether infra-red or radar, and maximum mental,
physical, and moral exertion. Night operations, particularly large attacks, must be thoroughly prepared. More time than normal is necessary not only for reconnaissance on foot during the day but also for executing the operation on the battlefield. A failure in a night operation generally has a greater moral effect on the executing troops than a similar failure in the daytime.
In summary, night operations give certain advantages: reduce the effectiveness of enemy ground weapons and air power; heighten the moral factors on the side of the attacker' conceal movements behind the front and on the battlefield; as well as certain disadvantages: provoke greater difficulty in command, ground orientation, reconnaissance, security, and maintenance of contact among friendly forces; reduce weapons support; reduce co-ordination with artillery.
The German practice of depending on the initiative of the small-unit leaders suffers in night operations because of the difficulty of co-ordinating the combat arms. Further, breaking enemy resistance by means of concentrated fires at certain times and places is often impossible at night.
Finally, in night combat, the stronger will and the better nerves are decisive. These are generally the decisive factors in day operations.
Night Attack and Night Pursuit. The Russians constantly improved and refined their night attack methods during the war. In 1941-42, local successes were insufficiently exploited. In 1942-43, large-scale attacks were pressed well after dark, though toward relatively shallow objectives, often simply to take the forward line of the German positions.
Usually, these attacks failed despite heavy expenditures of men and materiel, because of poorly organized artillery support and the inability of Russian small-unit leaders to deal with German counterattacks launched even by relatively small forces. From the end of 1943, the Russians normally executed night attacks toward deep objectives and used numerous tanks; they were frequently successful. Particularly good examples are: the big Russian tank breakthrough on the night of the second day of battle in the Baranov bridgehead in January, 1945; and the night attack on Berlin against a fluid German front in April, 1945. In the Baranov bridgehead, Russian infantry followed a heavy artillery preparation and, with tank support, broke big gaps which were exploited during the hours of darkness by tanks heading for deep objectives.
The main characteristics of Russian night attacks were: deception as to place of attack and method of execution; heavy concentration at the point of breakthrough; and mass infiltration. In pursuit the Russians often used night attacks or night marches. Particularly impressive in this respect was the advance of Russian tank forces at the end of January 1945 out of the Posen area via Landsberg an dem Warthe toward Stettin, which was carried out in a single night through the large and difficult forested area of the Landsberger Heide (heath) despite a heavy snowstorm. Source: Eike Middleldorf, Taktik im Russlandfeldzug (Darmstadt, Germany, 1956), pp. 196 ff.
5. A research report entitled "Armor in Night Attack," prepared at The Armored School, Fort Knox, in 1949-1950:
a. recognized the very few references dealing with the employment of armor in night attacks;
b. stated that night operations give the benefit of secrecy and surprise to the attacker;
c. reminded of the psychological advantage accruing tot he attacker because of his knowledge of when, where, and how the attack is to be conducted;
d. repeated the necessity for thorough planning and detailed reconnaissance;
e. warned of the extreme difficulty of maintaining control;
f. concluded that "Any unit with proper training and equipment is capable of conducting night operations as a routine form of combat."