Monday, August 20, 2018
The Lost Tank Battalions
On 4 December 1942 Adolf Hitler ordered that all Tiger tanks that had been shipped to Italy and were earmarked for fighting Montgomery´s Eighth Army instead be sent to the newly formed 5th Panzer Army in Tunisia. To quote Harry Yeide: "American tankers were [thus] destined to find out that there was a top league of tank design that their own side had not even considered when designing their machines."
That is a quote from the surprising opening chapter of The Infantry´s Armor by military historian Harry Yeide. Yes, I have to admit that I was very surprised by it, because I was totally unaware of the prequel to the first US tank battles in North Africa - that took place on the other side of the world. US tankers were in fact in combat within twenty-four hours of the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor. Where? In the Philippines. But perhaps due to the fact that these tankers were not part of any tank division, but instead one of numerous separate tank battalions assigned to infantry formations, their bloody experiences are not that well known.
Well, thanks to The Infantry´s Armor I am now a great deal more aware of the very varied combat that the US Army´s separate tank battalions saw, starting in the Pacific and then in Africa, Italy, France, Belgium and Germany.
Returning to how everything started, here is a small but telling remark from the Bataan Death March orchestrated by the Japanese Army:
"Some 600 Americans and 5,000 to 10,000 Filipinos died during the march. According to a veteran of the 192nd Tank Battalion, tankers removed their Armored Force insignia once they saw that the Japanese were picking tankers out and taking them away, never to be seen again. The tankers had done the Japanese a great deal of damage."
In Africa and Europe it was initially harder for the US Army´s separate tank battalions to make that kind of impact on their enemies. One reason was, I learnt from The Infantry´s Armor, the uncertainty about how to employ tanks in support of infantry. The way that the US Army gradually learnt how to use them is a story told by the often ignored separate tank battalions. It is a story that still today is valuable for serving tankers, especially tank officers. But, make no mistake, this book also tells the rough and bloody stories of individual tankers. You get a sense of the conditions inside the tanks, both in the Pacific jungles and in Europe. The life of the tanker was often chaotic, hot and filled with nauseating gasses from heavy firing.
Normandy buffs get the best account I have ever read about how the countless hedgerows affected the fighting after D-Day, both through words and maps. Speaking of illustrations, this book contains some really great photos of US tanks in action. The number of photographs is not immense, totally 33 photos, but of these I had only come across one or two before. Several of them could be made into dioramas.
The Infantry´s Armor is very valuable for relatives of WWII tankers and other researchers looking for solid and reliable information about the US Army´s separate tank battalions, but it should also be read by currently serving tankers.