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By "Pacific" war, I am specifically excluding the use of tanks by the Russians (or Japanese) in Manchuria, in 1945, or earlier "border clashes" along the Mongolian border in the late 1930s.

My understanding is that on most Pacific islands, tanks were useful for overcoming strongpoints, demolishing bunkers, etc. but not for the breakthrough and encirclement movements that characterized the European "blitzkrieg." Therefore, tanks tended to be deployed in multiples of ten at a time, not hundreds at a time. Put another way, tanks were used in "French" style, that is on a small scale for infantry support, rather than in "German" style for large scale encirclement movements.

I didn't see evidence of large scale tank deployments by the Allies even in relatively large areas, such as the Philippines or Burma (Myanmar), probably because of the weather, rough terrain and generally bad topography.

So was the above, in fact, generally true in the "south Pacific?

And was the (occasional) Japanese use of tanks also limited to infantry support (outside of China, Manchuria, Mongolia) or were there instances of Japanese large scale encirclement movements in the tropical regions?

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  • So was the above, in fact, generally true in the "south Pacific? Yes.
    – RonJohn
    Sep 25 '17 at 4:10
  • I believe the USA only used flamethrower tanks in the pacific and not in Europe (though the allies, British, did have a flame thrower tank in Europe, the crocodile, and a few upgraded m4s.)
    – ed.hank
    May 30 at 12:28
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It's important to consider that the Japanese like pretty much everyone else apart from a few German generals and Fuller considered the tank to be an infantry support weapon.

Tanks weren't really deployed en masse primarily due to the difficulties of terrain. The tropical rainforests didn't really lend itself to large scale wars of movement.

However that's not to say that the Pacific theatre was entirely absent of large scale tank deployments and a war of movement. For example in the Malayan campaign, the Japanese deployed around 200 tanks against the Allies. This campaign displayed a lot of operational emphasis on speed. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Malayan_Campaign

What's also interesting to note is that the Japanese were able to conduct encircling movements not by land but by sea. In the initial invasion the Japanese did focus on small scale envelopments and combined arms tactics:

The Japanese were initially resisted by III Corps of the Indian Army and several British Army battalions. The Japanese quickly isolated individual Indian units defending the coastline, before concentrating their forces to surround the defenders and force their surrender.[15] The Japanese forces held a slight advantage in numbers on the ground in northern Malaya, and were significantly superior in close air support, armour, co-ordination, tactics and experience, with the Japanese units having fought in China. The Allies had no tanks, which had put them at a severe disadvantage. The Japanese also used bicycle infantry and light tanks, which allowed swift movement of their forces overland through terrain covered with thick tropical rainforest, albeit criss-crossed by native paths. Although the Japanese had not brought bicycles with them (in order to speed the disembarkation process), they knew from their intelligence that suitable machines were plentiful in Malaya and quickly confiscated what they needed from civilians and retailers.[15]

So whilst there may not have been large scale tank battles, there was a lot about the conduct of the campaign that was "blitzkrieg with Pacific characteristics". Certainly there was use of armour facilitated envelopments during the campaign.

However, the terrain simply did not suit the use of massed armour for large scale operational or strategic envelopments of France 1940, or Western Russia in 1941. Those battlefields were comparatively wide open compared to the terrain of Indonesia, Malaya, Burma, the Solomon Islands or New Guinea, which was densely forested and often mountainous.

Indeed if you read Panzer Operations: The Eastern Front Memoir of General Raus, 1941-1945 you'll the Germans ran into problems in this kind of terrain during their drive to Leningrad in 1941. Likewise, the Italian campaign demonstrates the difficulties inherent in large scale armoured movement in mountainous country flanked by sea.

The other thing previously mentioned is that in the Malayan campaign for example the Japanese were able to facilitate strategic surprise/operational encirclement by landing from the sea. We see this similarly in the Philippines campaign. It was easier for the Japanese to open new fronts by conducting amphibious landings on a different part of the island or archipelago.

There are also logistical and economic factors to consider. By 1942 Japane had prioritised producing naval and aircraft assets. The effects of the oil embargo would have likely constrained protracted large scale armour campaigns. It's also pertinent to note that moving large numbers of tanks across an ocean requires enormous amounts of shipping.

It's important to remember that 1940/1941 campaigns of maneuver were devised as expedients to strategic problems faced by the German Army: achieving a fast victory over the French, after they were cornered by the British-French declaration of War in '39 that would've ultimately resulted in German economic defeat (much like in World War 1) unless the French were defeated in a decisive contest.

The Japanese didn't face the same strategic or tactical challenges. The conflict was ultimately decided by air and naval power on the battlefield, and by the economic weight of the United States.

So on the face of it I would say

  • Yes there were operational maneuver campaigns in the Pacific ("blitzkrieg"), for example in Malaysia
  • However, the terrain severely limited the efficacy of armour
  • Control of the seas and air permitted strategic and operational mobility.
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There had been similarities and differences in the use of tanks in Pacific versus Europe.

First, let's address differences:

1/ There was no use of massive tank formation (more than one hundred tank on a given battleground). This includes movement of tanks as well as battle of tanks. There was no sort of massive tank formations.

2/ There was little tank fighting. AFAIK, there was only one event in the Pacific of tank to tank fighting during WW2: this opposed American and Japanese tanks in the most important island of the Philippines archipelago, namely Luzon, in 1945 where some Japanese tanks were defeated by American tanks during the march on Manilla.

3/ Strategically, no armoured unit (no division nor brigade) went ahead of the initial front to make its own move, as some German Panzerdivision did.

4/ Looking at the hardware, the heavier tank used was the M4 Sherman. In Europe of course, there were heavier tanks involved and a lot of tank destroyers that were nearly not used in Pacific (except a few 75 mm guns mounted on half-track on the American side)

Then, similarities:

But there were events that could be linked to events found in the European theater (please not that I consider also here the North African theater):

They were platoon-sized or batallion-sized units of tanks that went ahead on their own to attack ennemy positions. Similar to European theater, those attacks were often fails. Only times they succeded in the Pacific happened when tank units initally break through supported by infantry, and then went alone in front. This lasted only a 30 to 40 kilometers, but it is still a lot compared to infantry forces. An example of such event is the battle of the Slim River in Malaysia, 1942.

This leads us to the second point: most of the use of tanks was made in a mor or less successful tank-infantry-artillery cooperation. Two forms of cooperation actually:

  • Tanks supported by other weapons: usually because "good" troops were performing the attack. Slim River is an example again, as well as the counter-attack of Allied forces at oil fields in the Northwest of Burma.
  • Infantry supported by tanks: this happened quite a lot, often because the ground was initially better for infantry, but infantry faced hard resistance: bunkers or pillboxes. In that case, British at Kohima, Americans in islands, at Okinawa, Australians in New Guinea used tanks

Eventually, let's have a short look at why there were such differences:

Main reasons for this situation are:

  • The ground: no big movements on small islands so no big formations
  • Topography: jungle, rocks..... where tanks are slow and vulnerable
  • Little Japanese tank forces were used, and the Allies had few tank formation (for example none in Malaysia) at the beginning of the war
  • Old hardware: The Commonwealth especially had its best tanks on the European front
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