Discover more from The Tactical Notebook
Tanks in an Artillery War
In keeping with the “everything old is new again” philosophy of Tactical Notebook, I often find myself speculating about the possible use of old techniques in present day conflicts. Thus, when I added the 75mm guns of sixty Sherman tanks to the list of artillery pieces that took part in the massive Anglo-Canadian bombardment at the start of Operation Veritable, I found myself wondering about the role that tanks might play in the great artillery battles presently taking place in Ukraine.
During the last two years of the Second World War, the Western Allies, who enjoyed enormous advantages in the realm of field artillery, often used tanks (and tank destroyers) to supplement the fire of guns and gun-howitzers. In particular, these used the main armament of armored fighting vehicles for those tasks, such as harassing fires or the creation of barrages, that required neither a high degree of precision nor particularly heavy shells.
It is easy to imagine the Russians, who are much better supplied with both tubes and shells than the Ukrainians, doing much the same thing. A twenty-three kilogram shell fired from a 125mm tank gun is much larger than the (not quite) seven kilogram projectiles delivered by the 75mm tank guns of 1945. Nonetheless, as the most common field artillery projectile used in the war in Ukraine weighs in at forty kilograms, the relationship between the weight of a tank gun shell and that of a projectile fired by a gun-howitzer is much the same.
At the same time, the tubes of modern tank guns are much more susceptible to barrel wear than those of present-day field artillery pieces. Thus, the use of tank guns to economize on field artillery is, from the point of view of economics, a bad bargain.
The 75mm tank guns used as bombardment weapons in Veritable were already obsolete and already in theater. Thus, neither they nor the the rounds they fired had much in the way of opportunity cost. The put things another way, when viewed through the lens of economics, the 75mm tank guns and their associated ammunition have more in common with the many older field artillery pieces used by Russian forces in Ukraine than with the tank guns or tank gun ammunition of today.
At this point in the war, moreover, it is likely that the Russians have, thanks to the dense rail network that connects the Donbas to factories in Russia, something resembling “just-in-time” logistics where artillery ammunition is concerned. As a result, they are, in all likelihood, in a position to give due weight to considerations of efficiency. The same, alas, is not true for the Ukrainians, who must often make immediate use of whatever ordnance happens to be at hand. Thus, we should not be surprised to see Ukrainian tanks doing things normally done by field pieces.
Indeed, given the Russian advantages in both tubes and projectiles, we should expect to see Ukrainian tanks employed in much the same way as the “shoot and scoot” “guerrilla gunners” of the German Army did towards the end of World War II. In other words, we should not be surprised by the sort of methods recently described in January of 2023 by a reporter for the BBC.