This another one of these pieces from my undergraduate days. An interesting piece which shows the need that Second World War historiography needs to start examinining the operational and tactical level of operation more closely. This has started for the First World War but now needs to begin for the second. I found it on an old post on the World War II forum. It is interesting to view work from this period of my studies and how it compares to today.
The limitation of doctrine and their operational solutions: Anglo-Canadian armoured divisions in Normandy. A case study: 11th Armoured Division
‘…by 1944 the Tanks had made themselves the prisoners of their own orthodoxy, keener to adhere to the letter of their cherished doctrine than to win the rewards a violation of it might bring’[i]
John Keegan’s statement is representative of the orthodox view of the British during the Normandy campaign. For many years, the British 2nd Army in Normandy has come in for criticism as being tactically inept when compared to the Germans, and even their American allies. The armoured element has come in for even more criticism, simply stating that the Anglo-Canadians were unable to overcome doctrine and adopt a fluid method of organisation and co-operation in battle as exemplified by the German Kampfgruppe or the American Combat Command. This essay will seek to show that while the Anglo-Canadians’ had failures, which hampered their efforts early in the campaign, by the end in Normandy the Anglo-Canadian armoured forces[ii] were adopting combined arms teams and co-operating with other elements of the army successfully. It will do this by looking at the Anglo-Canadians’ pre-eminent division in Normandy, the 11th Armoured which, Russell Hart has called one of the, ‘…few well-trained and well-led divisions… [of the campaign]’[iii] It will look at firstly, the training and doctrinal methods pre-Overlord and then secondly, the solutions found in the field to operational problems.
Organisation and Equipment
Britain’s armoured forces at the time of the Normandy campaign were in the main equipped with the US produced M4 Sherman in various guises. There were several exceptions to this; firstly, the 7th Armoured Division and the divisional reconnaissance regiments were equipped with the A27M Cromwell, a British cruiser tank. Secondly, the Army Tank Brigades were equipped with the A22/42 Churchill infantry tank, this tank was heavily armoured and ideally suited to its role. The armoured regiments used the final vehicle, the M3 Stuart, as a light tank. The artillery elements of the armoured divisions were equipped initially with one regiment of the M7 Priest self-propelled gun, though this was replaced with the Sexton SPG, which mounted a 25pdr. The other regiment was equipped with towed 25pdr guns. The divisional anti tank regiments were equipped with the M10 tank destroyer, which was built on the Sherman chassis; this got rearmed with the 17pdr gun, the most effective tank gun in the British and US armies, and made it a very effective anti-tank weapon.This organisation was based on several years of experiments[iv] both in Britain and in operational circumstances and represented the best compromise based upon Britain’s regimental traditions and the needs of modern armoured warfare. The changes were the realisation of the need for more infantry within the divisions.The Sherman has come in for bad press in regards of its capabilities especially those that equipped the British forces as they have often been considered those, ‘…rejected for overseas combat duty by the U.S. Army.’[v] However, as John Keegan has commented it was, ‘…a magnificent expression of American mass-production…’[vi] While it was not as formidable as its contemporary German tanks the Sherman was easily massed produced, 49,000 were produced during the war. However, it did have its defects. They were extremely inflammable, this was due to the dry storage of ammunition, though this was changed to wet storage during the campaign, and gained the nickname ‘Ronson’ by the British after the lighter which always lit first time and ‘Tommy cooker’ from the Germans and it had a high profile making it an easy target for German tanks. Bill Close, a squadron Commander in the 3rd Royal Tank Regiment comments that in the main the Sherman could not deal with German tanks at ranges over 500 yards, ‘Our ordinary 75mm gun could not knock out either a Tiger or a Panther except at 500 yards range, and in the rear with a bit of luck in the flank!’[vii]However, by the summer of 1944 there was one version, the ‘Firefly’ that was armed with a high velocity 17pdr gun that could compete with the latest German tanks. This became the main tank killer of the tank troops and was preciously guarded by the troops. It was initially issued based on one per troop. Though, the Firefly did still have some shortcomings, most notably it’s high velocity Armour Piercing round kicked up a lot of dust causing problems with aiming and that the new gun made the turret very cramped. The vast number of Sherman’s produced led them to be easily replaced. For example, in Operation Goodwood, the British lost 36 per cent of their tank strength and as Max Hastings comments that, the vast reserve of tanks meant, ‘…that replacements reached almost every armoured division within 36 hours.’[viii] These vast reserves even led to the planning of an operation, Goodwood, which relied heavily on the utilisation of these reserves in order to lower infantry casualties. As Lieutenant General Sir Miles Dempsey commented, ‘…tank reinforcements were pouring into Normandy faster than the rate of tank casualties. So we could afford…to plan an operation in which we could utilise …tanks and economise on infantry.’[ix]
Doctrine and Training
11th Armoured Division was formed in the fall of 1941 and was one of a series of armoured divisions ordered formed by the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, in response to Germanys Panzer divisions, which had rampaged through France the previous summer. Its first commander was the tank pioneer Major General Sir Percy Hobart[x]; the division’s insignia is taken from Hobart’s family crest. The doctrine that was used to train the officers and men of 11th Armoured Division came in several different forms. Firstly, the bulk of information came from the War Offices’ Military Training Pamphlet (MTP) series; these covered the majority of trades in the army and every aspect of fighting from minor tactics to the handling of large formations. The second method for the dissemination of doctrine was the Army Training Memorandum (ATM) series. This series was an inter-war series, which meant to keep troops up to date with recent innovations. In the war years, it was regularly published with notes from the theatres of operations, most notably North Africa. Thirdly, there was the Army Training Instructions (ATI). This was used to fill the gap while MTP’s were published. ATI’s could be published quickly, for example, ATI No. 3 Handling of an Armoured Division, was published two months after a cloth exercise occurred, which attempted to solve the problems relating to the handling of an armoured division.
The final two methods are the most relevant to armoured warfare as it was considered impossible to keep printed doctrine up to date with the most recent developments. This led to the publication of two battle experience publications. Firstly, Notes form Theatres of War (NTW), this was first publicised at the time of the CRUSADER offensive. Secondly, there was Current Reports from Overseas (CRO). This provided a vehicle for the dissemination of ideas down to brigade level, which did not yet have endorsement from the War Office but did not have the same weight as NTW’s. Therefore, it is from these sources that doctrine for 11th Armoured Division was based and that training from their formation to their landing in Normandy stemmed. As Timothy Harrison Place comments, ‘Between them, Military Training Pamphlets, Army Training Memoranda, Army Training Instructions, Notes from Theatres of War, Current Reports from Overseas…represent the main sources…on doctrine and its evolution up to D-Day.’[xi]
The initial conception of armoured doctrine for the home-based armoured divisions came from ATI No.3 Handling of an Armoured Division.[xii] This publication gave primacy to the tank in operations and that the support group of the division should be used to occupy ground and provide a pivot from whence the tanks could operate. Armour was considered the main striking force and all else was to support this. Co-operation between armour and infantry was considered simply the one handing over to the other. While 1942 saw a significant change in the armoured division structure, one armoured brigade was replaced with an infantry one, at a tactical level little change in the way of co-operation. While a new doctrine was published in 1943, it ascribed much the same role for the infantry brigade as the infantry of the old support group. In actual fact some commanders still saw the role of tanks as that of cavalry as shown when 9th Armoured Brigade charged diagonally across the gun line of the 2nd Irish Guards during exercises SARUM.[xiii] This tactic would again come back to haunt tank crews during Operation GOODWOOD.
Slowly, news from the North African theatre filtered back to the units via the NTW’s and CRO’s and belatedly doctrine was changed to include at least the motor battalions in action, though the infantry brigade remained firmly in the support role. By the time Hobart relinquished command there had been a realisation that there was a greater need of inter-arm co-operation. However, problems remained. The main problem was how to transport the infantry. It was found early on that transporting them on tanks caused discomfort for the infantry. It was not until the introduction of the White half-track in early 1944 that the situation was resolved. Therefore, the main problem of co-operation that existed was how to keep the infantry up with the tanks. Another problem was what role the infantry should play in supporting the armour. The re-equipping of the divisions with the Sherman in late 1943 led to infantry being reverted to a support role once again. This was due to the Sherman having a good HE[xiv] rounds with which to deal with ‘soft’ targets.
The period of 1942-43 saw the increase in the attempt to co-ordinate armour and infantry. This was intensified when Major-General Roberts[xv] took over the division in early 1944. Roberts with his experience in the desert saw the need to improve co-operation between armour and infantry. Roberts also saw the need to change the tactics used when launching an attack. Prior to his arrival there had been an attempt to use set piece tactics to assault a position, he change this by ordering that upon closing with the enemy the armoured brigade commander send his regiments around the flanks of the enemy. He ordered that regiments keep on the move and that deliberate reconnaissance be abolished. These were some of the advantages conferred on the division with the arrival of a commander with battlefield experience.
Another failure in training was the inability of the division exercises to be realistic. They suffered from being under the guidance of umpires who sought their regiment to be victorious rather than a fair comprehension of the battlefield environment. As Harrison-Place comments about 11th Armoured’s exercise EAGLE that was, ‘…partial umpiring by umpires whose first loyalty was not to realism but to the interests of their own units.’[xvi]
As has be seen the implementation of these publications and their associated doctrine was patchy and led to mistakes both in training and in operations. While attempts were made, belatedly, to correct the failings in training and doctrine, most notably with the arrival of Roberts from the Mediterranean, the problems encountered in training would come back to haunt the British in the early operations of the Normandy campaign. Had the lesson of North Africa been more forcefully implemented at both division and regimental lesson many mistake could have been avoided.
Operations EPSOM, GOODWOOD, and the failure of doctrine
Operation EPSOM was launched on the 26th of June under a massive bombardment of 700 guns. The objective of the operation was to gain the high ground of Hill 112 and then breakout into the Odon valley below. The operation was to be carried out by Lieutenant General O’Connor’s[xvii] VIII Corps, which was newly arrived from England. This corps included Robert’s 11th Armoured Division.[xviii]
The initial attack by the 15th (Scottish) Infantry Division went well and in the first few hours of the division made an inroad of several miles on a front of three miles. Suddenly German resistance began to stiffen and the failure of the supporting operation of I and XXX Corps meant that VIII Corp was prone to a counter-attack on three sides. This occurred on the 27th. It was at this point that O’Connor decided to commit the 11th Armoured to the battle. Eventually the tanks of 29th Armoured Brigade reached Hill 112 but without an infantry, support they were forced to relinquish the position on the 30th after II SS Panzer Corps launched a counter attack. The previous day Montgomery had ordered a halt to EPSOM realising, it was going to go no further.
During the operation, 11th Armoured operated in virtually 2 distinct formation, 29th Armoured and 159th Infantry brigades, and conducted operations independent of each other. Initially in the operation, the 159th took Baron sur Odon and encountered heavy fighting there and from there subsequently served under various formations. When this occurred 29th was ordered to try to fight a way through to achieve a breakthrough from Cheux. This was the first mistake. Instead of using the tanks once a breakthrough had been achieved, O’Connor attempted to use the tanks to achieve the breakthrough. This meant that by the time any sort of gap had been created the armoured unit were too tired and exhausted to exploit it. The other major failure for the division during EPSOM was it lack of co-ordination between infantry and armour. Harrison-Place comments that, ‘…Roberts reached the…conclusion…concerning the need for tank-infantry co-operation within the armoured division.’[xix] Though he was frustrated in his wish for greater co-operation as during the EPSOM operation his infantry brigade served under three commands, 11th Armoured, 15th (Scottish) and 53rd (Welsh) Infantry divisions, which meant that he could not develop co-ordination between his units. Therefore, the only infantry that was supporting the tanks was the mechanised infantry of the 8th Rifle Brigade, and while they did sterling service, they were too few in number to be of effect. EPSOM, therefore, shows the first major blooding for the division and started to show up the failing in their training especially, as commented above, the lack of effective inter arm co-operation.
11th Armoured’s next operation was GOODWOOD. This operation was launched on the 18th July as a precursor to the launch of the Americans operation COBRA. It had many conflicting aims. Montgomery had to up the objectives of the operation in order to gain the support he wanted from the strategic air forces, though he never fully believed the plan could be a breakout. Whereas, the commander of the 2nd Army, Lieutenant General Dempsey, believed it could achieve a breakout on the eastern flank. The operation has often been compared to the charge of the light brigade as it saw the use of an all armoured corps, VIII Corps[xx], and had very little infantry support.
The operation began under a massive preparatory bombardment by RAF Bomber Command and then the divisions jumped off from their position by the Orne River. 11th Armoured’s objectives were Bras, Hubert Folie, Verrieres and Fontenay. Moving off without support from the infantry, who were fighting a parallel action, the tanks encountered their first problems, an anti-aircraft battery of 88mm anti-aircraft/tank guns, at Cagny[xxi], which knocked out 16 tanks. The division had only just started to move out. Worse was to come, the only Forward Air Controller was killed and the units behind 11th Armoured were caught in huge traffic jams. Roberts then ordered Cagny to be masked by the 8th RB and 23rd Hussars. This was a mistake because once they moved into position they were in full view of German tanks and the 23rd Hussars took heavy casualties. For most of the day, units received flank attacks to their exposed positions. As Bill Close comments on the losses received by the 3rd Royal Tank Regiment, ‘We had received a considerable number of casualties with seven tanks knocked out from my squadron and a similar number from B and C squadron.’[xxii]
The 19th would see much the same problems as the previous day. 3rd RTR attempted to take Bras. The major problem in attacking Bras and Hubert Folie was the 3000 yards of open country between them and the divisions start line. In this area were many dug 88’s and infantry armed with Panzerfausts who took a great heavy toll on the tank units, who had limited infantry support to deal with the positions. Though by the end of the day their was an attempt at forming battle groups, for example, one was made up of the 4th KSLI, 3rd Mons and 23rd Hussars while they attempted to hold onto Hubert Folie.
Operation GOODWOOD has attracted much criticism, some quite rightly so. It was ill conceived to send in an all armoured attack into country that was perfect for German anti-tank guns that had the range to knock out all Allied tanks with ease. There is also a sense of bad luck for the forward units of 11th Armoured to of had their FAC knocked out so early on in the operation. The biggest failure in doctrine though was the distinct lack of co-operation between the armour and infantry. Once again, O’Connor forced 11th Armoured to fight as two separate entities. Roberts to his credit was dismayed by this fact, after seeing its effect in EPSOM, but when he attempted to change it, he was threatened with his division loosing the lead in the operation. Therefore, despite attempts pre-invasion to train the divisions to operate with infantry in GOODWOOD they were denied that opportunity and as Harrison Place comments, ‘Their deployment disregarded the doctrine in which they had been trained. No wonder that few successes came their way.’[xxiii] Bill Close also comments that, ‘Goodwood was a shambles, but only because our method of advance was forced upon us without infantry…’[xxiv]
Both EPSOM and GOODWOOD had shown failings in the British armoured division not just at tactical level but also their employment at a higher level. They had shown failings and proven once and for all that tanks could not, and should not operate without infantry and also that they were a fine instrument for exploitation not a blunt one with which to take and hold ground. Thankfully, the armoured units’ reputation would be regained in their final operation, BLUECOAT, where 11th Armoured would lead the way.
Operation BLUECOAT and success
BLUECOAT was to see the coming of age for Britain’s armoured divisions. In the operation they would use combined armour-infantry teams to deal with the problems the bocage country gave them. This was especially apparent in 11th Armoured who led the way with the tactics and they were finally being run along the lines suggested in the training documents of 1942-44.Even the planning of the operation was done in a new fashion; it was left to the divisional commander to formulate the orders and movements of his units. For Roberts this meant complete freedom to organise his units into combined armour-infantry groups. For the operation, he formed four battle groups from his division. By this time the armoured reconnaissance regiment was being used as a fourth armoured regiment as the division had the 2nd Household Cavalry attached. This use of battle group was the first success for the doctrine, which had been attempted to be laid down in Britain in the years 1942-44.The operation opened on the 30th July with VIII Corps heading for Vire and XXX Corps launching an assault against Mont Pincon. The division was ordered to march for Le Beny Bocage. Before it could do this, it had to take St Martin-des-Besaces. Initial movement on the first day was slow but by the second, the German front began to crumble in front of VIII Corps. On the morning of 31st St Martin was attacked by the battle group of the 2nd Fife and Forfarshire Yeomanry and 4th KSLI. It was during this attack that a gap in the lines was found by the 2nd Household Cavalry, who were attached to 11th Armoured, at what is now known as Bull Bridge over the Souleuvre River. This was an opportunity for the division to shift its weight of advance and gain an advantage, which it duly did by the end of the second day. The cause of this gap was uncertainty of the two German divisions in the area over who was to blow the bridge. By realising, there was a gap the battle group of the 3rd Mons and 23rd Hussars were ordered to concentrate there and strike out. As Major J J How comments, ‘…Roberts saw his chance and seized it.’[xxv] This small action early on in the operation shows the flexibility that could occur when an armoured division and its commander were given the opportunity. By controlling the battle himself and not always checking with his Corps commander Roberts was able to take the opportunity and seize a vital crossing over the river that would help speed up his advance.By being given, the freedom to plan his own operations and fully direct his division’s operations Roberts was able to advance quickly and eventually seized Perriers ridge. This created a salient in the front as Guards and the Americans on either side were advancing much slower. This led to a halt in operations and to hold the ground that had already been seized. The 6th August the division, two brigade boxes on the ridge came under a counter attack by the 10th SS Panzer Division. The division by utilizing combined operation from all elements were able to hold their position but it was close run thing as the historian of the 23rd Hussars confidently comments, ‘General Eberbach had reported to von Kluge that 10th SS Panzer had captured Hill 224 – not true!’[xxvi]Operation BLUECOAT shows several elements of how to make the best use of an armoured division. Initially by allowing Roberts to plan his own operations he could tailor his division to the mission it was given. Secondly, the operations that occurred around St Martin and Bull Bridge show is a good example of what should happen when an opportunity arises and how to exploit it. By being able, to exploit the situation at hand Roberts managed to get a head start on his advance and was eventually ahead of XXX Corps who were supposed to be leading BLUECOAT but whose attacks had become bogged down. The final example of the actions on Hill 224 show that when used to good effect and supported by infantry, armour could hold a static position against determined counterattack.
As has been seen the 11th Armoured in Normandy went through many problems that stemmed from areas of their training and doctrine and regimental system. During their training period, there was a distinct failure to disseminate the information coming back from the front. While these did come back in the form of NTW’s and CRO’s they were never fully formed into official doctrine and therefore, not fully disseminated. The other major problem facing the force in its early years was the problems of inter-arm service co-operation that was enshrined in regimental tradition, as Russell Hart comments, ‘…traditionalism enshrined in…regimental system…continued to retard development of the interarm and interservice co-ordination…’[xxvii] For example, officers of the RTR were adamant that the tank had primacy in warfare and sought to see the survival of their Corps. They also based much of their theories on the work of Basil Liddell Hart and Major General Fuller who also sought to protect the Corps and the role of the tank. This is most notable with Hobart, a disciple of the work of the former, who sought to use the tanks of 11th Armoured as the main weapon of the division, whereas, Roberts, with his experience, saw the importance of co-operation between the various services of the division. Both EPSOM and GOODWOOD showed the fatality of the use of the early theories of armoured warfare and the realisation that what was trying to be taught, greater inter-arm co-operation, was the way forward. This is something that Roberts knew. BLUECOAT showed that his efforts to improve inter-arm co-operation after taking command had not been in vain once he was given the opportunity to exercise command of his division fully.The divisions in Normandy initially threw away anything they had been taught from their experiences in the field. It took them making several mistakes early in the campaign to bring around a realisation that tanks could not operate effectively without some form of infantry support. This throwing away of the training book was in part to preserve infantry casualties, as by 1944 21st Army Group was a wasting asset. Therefore, there was an attempt to use what the army had a lot of and that was tanks. This was a costly error, which eventually led to the formation a battle groups and the realisation of the doctrine of 1942-44. As Russell hart comments, ‘…in Normandy British ground forces enhanced their capabilities in…combined arms co-operation.’[xxviii]While this essay has shown that 11th Armoured were able to realise the limitation in their training and the control from higher command most of the other Anglo-Canadian armoured divisions had a similar learning curve in the Normandy campaign. Another example of where the Anglo-Canadian forces managed to overcome the limitation in their doctrine was during operation TOTALISE/TRACTABLE. In the early stages Canadian II Corps failed to use, it has armoured forces effectively and use them to find weak points in the German defences and seek exploitation. Instead, they became bogged down in fighting. However, by the start of TRACTABLE the armoured division were, like 11th Armoured, operating in battle groups and seeking operational manoeuvre against the enemy. The 1st Polish Armoured Divisions action around Trun was very similar to those that happened to 11th Armoured around Hill 224, therefore, the Anglo Canadian armoured division were as flexible as their allies and enemies armoured formation by the end of the campaign.
Therefore, it can be said that the problems faced in Normandy were down to failure to disseminate doctrine properly and the limitation to implement at the right level and therefore, train the units effectively. As Harrison Place comments that, the problems faced could be, ‘…traced to doctrinal error, consequent training error and incompatibility…with official doctrine.’[xxix]
[xxix] Harrison Place T (2000) Op Cit, p. 167