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The New Tank Tactics
Report of the Commanding General of the 17th Armored Division, 24 April, 1943
The following report, though obviously written in haste with little regard for elegance of expression, gives a good view of the changes in tank tactics which took place on the Eastern Front. This translation was made from a typed copy of the original and thus bears no signature. Nonetheless, there is good reason to believe that the author was the famous Fridolin von Senger und Etterlin, who commanded the 17th Armored Division at this time.
1. The tank tactics which led to the great successes of the years 1939, 1940, and 1941 must now be considered obsolete. Even if it were possible today to breakthrough an antitank front by means of the massive employment of concentrated waves of tanks, we would not be able to make use of these methods, which would once more lead to considerable losses, because of our [tank] production situation. These methods, often employed in rapid succession, would lead to such a quick reduction in tank strength that the character of an armored division would be fundamentally altered. This would lead to difficulties for the higher leadership.
The change in tank tactics is logical. The beginning successes of the weapon, the shock effect of which rested upon the technical achievement and overwhelming invincibility of the attacker, found at last its end in the development of appropriate defenses. From the point of view of production, the building of tanks could not keep pace with the building of antitank weapons. Apparently, a thousand antitank rifles, or dozens of antitank guns, can roll off the production lines for every tank.
The following are drawn from these insights.
2. The new tank tactics, which have already gained inevitable acceptance in the divisions, are outlined below.
The tank group no longer forms the nucleus of the armored division, about which other weapons are grouped as auxiliaries. The tank is a new arm acting in concert with and equal to the old arms. In cooperation with other weapons, it retains its power, even though its numbers are far below those called for by tables of organization.
Its meaning as a new arm is a function of the fact that it combines in itself a goodly portion of the two elements important to the attack: fire and maneuver. It derives these qualities from the fact that it is invulnerable, or less vulnerable, because of its armor.
Because the tank arm combines in itself firepower and mobility to a greater degree than other arms, it is the appropriate weapon for forming the main effort [Schwerpunkt].
The combat of the armored division is characterized by the fact that it is a mobile unit in all its parts and, as a result, the division commander is in a position, in the course of a battle, to chose and form a main effort [Schwerpunkt]. This principle excludes an irrevocable commitment of the tank group before an attack. Rigid employment within the framework of an already established battle plan is replaced by division commander himself holding [the tank group] in readiness and the flexibly employing it in the course of fighting against the required, or known to be appropriate, position.
The battle will begin with the infantry attack. The infantry attack provides the required foundation for the strength of the antitank front, for its length and depth. If the antitank front is known, then the tank attack can be ordered according to the classical principles for leading mobile units against the flanks or, if possible the rear, of an enemy defensive position. This attack should only be carried out exclusively by tanks when they can gain complete surprise. If surprise cannot be gained, then in this flank attack fire superiority must be fought for through the employment of artillery and, for the time being and to a certain extent the fire of the tanks themselves, until the enemy antitank front can be shaken or at least split up. If surprise can be gained, then a break-in against the flank of an antitank front can succeed without preparatory fire.
The attack against an enemy antitank front by means of a successful move against its flanks and rear cannot be carried out by tanks alone. It requires the support of artillery. In our experience, however, tank attacks carried out against the flanks and rear have outrun the artillery groups in direct support. Shifting fires by means of forward observers alone is not enough to ensure the shooting up of defensive fronts. What is needed here is thus the self-propelled batteries, which in the same manner as tanks themselves can quickly change their firing positions and thus attain the same mobility as the tank groups.
3. Now that these principles of the new tactics have been laid out, their use in practice will be explained.
a. The use of tanks as the first attack wave against a strongly fortified, deeply organized defensive position leads always to great losses and is thus false.
b. The use of tanks against deeply organized antitank positions is possible with the stipulation that it be commanded by an all-arms leader in close cooperation with other weapons after the formation of a main effort on the spot and that the further prosecution of the battle be steered by the same all-arms leader.
c. The employment of tanks leads to the greatest success when, sent into action and controlled by the all-arms leader, when they are used to strike the enemy in the flank, soon after the latter has begun an attack and before his antitank weapons have established firm antitank positions. Also in this last case, the attack must, with a view to direction and timing, be ordered by the all-arms leader on the spot. (With this last method the weak forces of the worn out 17th Armored Division annihilated one enemy division at Kuteinikowskaja on the 5th of January 1943 and another at Talowaja on the 27th of January, 1943.)
4. These new tactics are based upon the cooperation of the three main arms (infantry, tanks, and artillery) during the entire course of a battle. This cooperation can only be assured when the leader, that is to say, in all cases where the mass of the division is employed, the division commander himself, controls the cooperation of the arms on the spot throughout the entire battle. If, under the press of circumstance, as generally was the case during the battles between the Don and the Volga, widely separated battle groups [Kampfgruppen] of infantry, tanks and artillery had to be formed, it is essential that each of these battle groups be commanded by an all-arms leader, who is neither the commander of the tank element nor the infantry element of the battlegroup.
The all-arms leader’s means of command is the 10-watt radio built into a tank. With this equipment the leader is connected with the tank leaders as well as the leader of the infantry group, who, in case the proper radios are lacking, is provided with a tank. The all-arms commander is also in contact, by means of his armored personnel carrier, with battlegroups not forming part of the main effort and with his first general staff officer (Ia) working far to the rear.
The leader of the artillery group locates himself, according to the ordinary rules of command and control, with the all-arms leader. He is able, as was explained above, to give effective support only as the leader of an artillery group made up of self-propelled batteries. If he does not have access to some of these, there is always the danger the leader of the tank group would find his mobility limited by being bound to the less mobile towed artillery supporting him.
The place of the leader in combat is far forward, so that he can easily see the tank combat and, on the basis of these observations, can steer the course of the battle. He is sufficiently separated from the forward wave of tanks that he does not get involved in the tank-versus-tank and tank-versus-antitank battles, for this combat will focus his attention on the tanks fighting in the forward lines, to the point where tactical decisions which derive from the cooperation of all arms, can no longer be made.
The place of the leader can, however, rarely be chosen outside of the zone of enemy artillery fire. He can nevertheless remain mobile, thanks to the peculiar virtues of his means of command, namely voice radio. In the course of an attack in progress, he should be far enough forward to allow contact with the infantry group. Through it he can exert the leadership of a combined arms combat.
From his location the leader should be in a position to himself assemble, according to the development of the situation and the requirements of the cooperation of arms, discrete tank groups.
Cooperation between discrete tank groups and infantry groups is possible if the all-arms leader remains in voice radio contact with the tank group in question. The attachment of tank groups to infantry groups is, as a matter of principle, always to be avoided. The infantry is not in a position to ensure the cooperation of infantry, heavy infantry weapons, and artillery as well as tanks because it is fully occupied with the conduct of the combat of other weapons. On this basis, the attachment of tanks to infantry divisions, which cannot be trained in the cooperation of the three arms, is, as a matter of principle, to be avoided.
The requirement to achieve success by the cooperation of all three arms does not exclude the concentration of all tanks in a single attack. This is still to be striven for. The concentration of tank power in the main effort [Schwerpunkt] will, however, not to striven for through systematic employment on the basis of an established plan, but rather in the course of the battle through the assembling of certain tank groups, in short, through the flexible combat leadership and formation of the main effort [Schwerpunkt] in the course of the battle through the all-arms leader himself.
This battle method, which aims at the close cooperation of the three main arms, cannot function without the formation of a special infantry group mounted in armored personnel carriers. Because it is essentially different, this group does not belong with the wheeled-vehicle mounted infantry of the division. They form, rather, an integrated part of the tank group. They can be attached to the later or will be employed according to the decision of the all-arms leader in accordance with the same principles that apply to the employment of tank waves.
The armored personnel carrier group of the infantry which is attached to the tank group corresponds closely to the self-propelled artillery. Both are special branches of their main arm, which work within the tank group itself and without which the cooperation of the tank group with the mass of the truck-mounted infantry and the towed artillery would not be possible.
5. The following deductions for the construction of tanks can be drawn from the aforementioned portrayal of the tactics and command techniques of the armored division. Because the race between tanks and anti-tank defenses can only be won by even heavier types and thus can not be guaranteed, the focus of effort [Schwerpunkt] in construction must be towards mobility and firepower.
The cooperation of arms can never be so close that artillery-infantry attacks alone can prepare an antitank front so that the tank attack can break through it in a rapid rollover. Instead, tanks must be an a position to use long-range fire to put anti-tank fronts out of action or at least so suppress them so as to make possible the further prosecution of the attack. They are only in a position to do this when they possess weapons of such a caliber that they can win superiority over immobile antitank weapons by means of fire and mobility.
According to this line of reasoning, great things can be expected from the creation of self-propelled artillery batteries. As unarmored fire units with greater range than tanks themselves they are in a position to attain that fire superiority which is necessary to gain the upper hand against the antitank defense.
During this winter’s fighting the best results were gained from assault gun battalions which, because of their great mobility and firepower, were employed and led in the same way as tanks. From the point of view of mobility, they outdid the tanks. Self- propelled guns were likewise successfully employed according to the same principles, to augment tank and assault gun groups, particularly by fire.
In contrast, the Tiger tanks, which were supposed to have fulfilled all three requirements, namely firepower, mobility, and heavy armor, were less successful, for their mobility was not sufficient for the elastic battle leadership outlined above. (In this experience it is important to take into account that the units sent fresh into battle were not at the height of their powers, especially where the use of radio was concerned. The impression of their lack of mobility, especially in rolling country with hard-frozen ground, however, would have been the same, even if the training of the personnel had been completed.)
These lessons of the more and more similar tactics of tanks, assault guns, and self-propelled artillery, which in more or less ad hoc arrangements establish the principle of fast-moving heavy firepower, causes one to wish that these weapons could be organized under a single leader with the goal of combining under him standardized training and well-schooled cooperation. This commander is the commander of the division’s tank group, that is to say, all more or less armored weapons mounted on tracked vehicles that are used for the fire battle. He must also have attached as an essential part an infantry group mounted in armored personnel carriers which should be made available according to a ratio of at least one infantry company for each three tank companies of whatever type.
The self-propelled artillery battalion should not be made an organic part of the tank group because of artillery training and the proposed design that will allow the guns to be dismounted. It should remain an organic part of the artillery regiment and be as- signed, on a case by case basis, to the commander of the tank group.
Source: 17th Armored Division, Ia Nr. 412/43 g. K. dated 24 April 1943, U. S. National Archives, Microfilm Series T-78, Roll 620. (A copy of the German-language original can be found here, on the Military Learning Library.)