Tank Destroyer Command:
Part One, The Inception
By Peter Lloyd
Seek, Strike, Destroy! The motto of United States Army Tank Destroyer Command. Aggressive, confident, and filled with purpose, this moniker, and the command it represented, grew out of a series of meetings that more resembled Chicken Little turning into the Little Red Hen. Imagine near the end of May 1940, the American command structure gathers:
“The sky is falling! The sky is falling!”
No, that’s France.
France is falling! France is falling! A piece came off and hit me on my sensibilities!
Ok, so what shall we do about it?
“We can solve it!” said the infantry.
“We can solve it!” said the artillery.
“We can solve it!” said the cavalry.
“We can solve it!” said the armor.
How do you intend to solve it?
“We don’t know.” said the infantry.
“We don’t know.” said the artillery.
“We don’t know.” said the cavalry.
“We don’t know.” said the armor.
Maybe we should try some things.
And that is what they went out to do.
The American panic was not entirely unfounded. Firstly, the United States military viewed the French army as the best of the age. In large part, the American army was modeled after that of the French. The second problem was the confused, and rather faulty, intelligence data reaching the United States. Estimates of German tank strength sometimes exceeded 6,000. Couple that with reports of hundreds of tanks per mile of front, and one might imagine what was going on with the Army’s psyche.
There were of course, genuine practical problems. The U.S. Army had very minimal antitank capability. At this time there was only one antitank company per division. Furthermore that company was equipped with 37mm antitank guns. The M6 antitank gun was a good gun, based on the German Pak 36, but it was still only a 37mm gun. To top off the inadequate numbers and caliber of the guns, American gunners had almost no training, let alone experience, shooting at a moving target. So perhaps in some ways, the sky was falling.
The first expedient was to increase the antitank guns authorized for a division. Each regiment received an antitank company, plus an antitank battalion was authorized under the division’s artillery regiment. Redrawing the TO&E did not increase the number of guns in the American arsenal. When the army began its wargames in 1941, broom handles were used for mock machine-guns and antitank guns, trucks were painted with the word “TANK” in large white letters; those expedients would re-appear in propaganda later on.
General Leslie McNair (above right), of the U.S. Army Planning Department, is considered the father of the Tank Destroyer Command. He was one of those people who believed heavily in pooling resources for decisive employment. In preparation for the September 1941 Louisiana maneuvers, he ordered the Third Army to create three antitank groups of regimental size. These groups were to have a battalion of 37mm guns, two battalions of 75mm guns, a scout car platoon, three rifle platoons and three engineer platoons. They were to be used to aggressively “locate, engage, and destroy” the enemy armor formations. The Third Army was able to largely fulfill General McNair’s wishes. In September Gen. McNair noted that the Third Army continually blocked the Second Army’s armored thrusts during the wargames. He went on:
An outstanding feature of the maneuver was the success attained in antitank defense, due primarily to guns. While terrain hampered armored operations, it seems clear that the mobile antitank gun defense now being developed gives promise of marked success.
In reality, General McNair was the only one to see things that way. Firstly, only one battalion from General McNair’s experimental force was seriously engaged in antitank combat. The statistical facts were that most tanks “destroyed” in the maneuvers were casualties of the organic antitank guns, and even machine guns, of the infantry divisions. Furthermore, antitank guns could only be destroyed when overrun. Given the tremendous advantage allowed to antitank guns and machine guns, the failure of the armored formations in the Louisiana maneuvers should come as no surprise.
Organization of the first antitank groups. They were almost like this.
General McNair’s antitank formations got a second chance in North Carolina. During the November maneuvers, a Red Army tank regiment, along with the 1st Armored Division’s headquarters, became isolated from the rest of its army. Without infantry support, the Red tanks were left only with the option of charging the guns. The Red tanks were “slaughtered.” At every turn, they were met by an antitank group. The rules had not changed much since September. With “real” guns now engaging the tanks, the antitank groups looked much better. A mobile battalion of 75mm guns in one of the groups appeared to be particularly effective.
The rest of the Army had not been idle. An estimate on August 18th from the Army Planning Branch called for 220 antitank battalions for service in a 55-division army, half of those battalions to be held at the General Headquarters level. General Marshall called for the immediate activation of 63 antitank battalions on October 7th and the Army structure calling for four antitank battalions per division was approved. The battalions would now be called “Tank Destroyer” battalions.
Directives on November 27th and December 3rd established 53 Tank Destroyer battalions under the Army GHQ, and pulled in the antitank units from their parent arms, placing them under GHQ control. Battalions drawn from infantry divisions were given 600 numeric designations, those from armor were 700, and if from field artillery 800. Lt Colonel Andrew Bruce was given the task of developing tactics and training procedures for the new command.
December 7th and 11th accelerated the urgency in all arms. Tank Destroyer Command would need to grow-up fast, some might say too fast. Many expediencies would be taken to support a questionable response to flawed intelligence.
Remember the videos I mentioned before? After the Japanese surrender (capitulation if you ask them), U.S. Naval Intelligence carefully asked around as to why the Japanese thought they could win. The primary response was they did not think the United States would really fight. Part of the reason for that, and widely distributed in Japan at the onset of the war, was the sight of American troops training with wooden guns and pretending that trucks were tanks. Those videos may have had something to do with Joachim von Ribbentrop saying that the best America could do against German panzers was to make “razor-blades”. Purportedly a year later Erwin Rommel asked Ribbentrop if he could have some razor-blades too.
Send your tank destroyers into battle! Order An Army at Dawn right now!