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I am searching for a tactic that would be in service in the British and/or French army during WW2. It would consist in placing the tank on forward position of other elements, especially in front of artillery position and fixed anti-tank position.

I know there was at the time the idea, in Allied forces, to use tanks as small groups alongside infantry. Still, this did not oblige them to put them so close to the ennemy: they could be there to help infantry in its counterattack (like during WW1).

Two examples for this tactic:

  • During the battle of Hattun, the French tank division was in front of Belgian's antitank position (mainly guns and mines). The fight with German panzerdivision resulted in heavy losses on both sides, but apparently French had the possibility at the end of the fight to fall back behind Belgian positions. Not sure if it was an advantage or not.
  • During operation "Battleaxe", British tanks always acted as spearheads, during assault as well as during the night: they were guarding the line. This resulted in heavy losses at the beginnin of the operation, and later British infantry and artillery were pushed back by German weapon cooperation.
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    A tank unit being in front of another unit does not imply that tanks advance alone - tank units include non-tank sub-units. Even soviet tank divisions had a mechanized infantry brigade. And various tank units are cited as 'the first to enter place X'. A Sherman unit was among the first soviets in Berlin; or, the famous jumbo 'cobra king' painted with 'first in Bastogne'. Moreover, heavy tanks (e.g. jumbo) went first in their column - presumably to absorb fire from ambushing enemies. But a tank being 'the first' is not incompatible with being closely accompanied by infantry. – Luiz Mar 16 '20 at 15:45
  • How about WWII cavalry/ cruiser tanks from UK? – Greg Mar 18 '20 at 5:19
  • I always put a heavy tank battalion in my infantry divisions in HOI4. – Rohit Mar 18 '20 at 13:45
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An American WWII field manual, FM 17, explained the options of attacking with leading tanks, attacking with leading infantry, or attacking with a mix. An attack with leading tanks would e.g. be made when enemy tanks are encountered.

In the defense, infantry would typically be forward along with recon, with tanks for the counterattack force. However, tanks would be used to attack enemy recon elements.

Finally, the recon battalion had a tank company.

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    Could you give maybe an extract of this field manual, or provide a link? Maybe there are french or british similar manuals? – totalMongot Mar 18 '20 at 9:33
  • @totalMongot, I have a PDF of a scanned document. Link added. My French is rudimentary and for the Brits I've read only older stuff. – o.m. Mar 18 '20 at 11:22
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A search of the Internet Digital Archive with "*Field Manual FM 17", then filtered for only publications prior to the mid 1950's, turns up a wealth of good information on the organization and deployment of US Armored Divisions from 1942. (Plus this unrelated 363 page Staff Officers' Field Manual (FM101-10) of Organization, Technical, and Logistical Data (1941)). Some of the most interesting in terms of this question are listed below.

Yes, U.S. tactical doctrine definitely promoted a tanks first attack philosophy, with repeated emphasis on speedy conversion from march order into combat order. Of the five example organizations for march and combat order, two specifically outline rapid deployment into a tanks first attack across a two Combat Command (~brigade) front. My reading of specifically FM 17-10 #48.g is that rapid swarming of the defense by light tanks, either with or without heavier support, was intended with the triple purpose of:

  • ascertaining opportunities for a coup du main;

  • locating and maneuvering towards the defenders flanks, simultaneously interfering with defenders' ability to ready; and

  • directing, and supporting, advance of the main striking echelon to the most advantageous point of attack.

Armored Force Field Manuals

Chapter 4 - Marches
16. General ... b. The Armored Division marches in one or more columns organized into combat commands. ....
...
20. Formations.- a. ... For each of these formations, three tactical groupings have been made within the division. Two of these groupings in each formation are combat commands. The third grouping remains under the direct orders of the division commander and may be regarded as a division reserve. ...
c. ... The essential purpose of the groupings is to form teams which habitually operate together, thus making possible intimate and uniform team training. This tactical grouping also simplifies orders and control. The tactical organizations as set up are suitable for and easily deployed into attack formations (A1-A2-A3-A4 and A7) which are show and explained later in the text. ...
f. Depending upon the formation adopted the infantry regiments may move in rear of the tank elements in advance of such elements or with these elements. ...
g. Normally, infantry and engineers will be attached to combat commands in order to render prompt assistance in crossing obstacles and in demolitions.

Of the five example attack formations described only one (A3) has infantry leading the assault unsupported by armour. Two formations (A1 and A2) appear to be designed for a meeting engagement, with infantry only in the third echelon and reserve, leading with the light tanks. The final two (A4 and A7) are light and heavy assaults with infantry in the lead echelon directly supported by various combinations of light and heavy tanks, artillery, and engineers.
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The Combat Command organization of all five example attack formations exactly mirror a corresponding example march formation, and is intended to be deployed into, without undue delay, from that march organization.

19. Engineers.-a. The role of the engineers with armored force units, its characteristics, and tactical and technical employment are given in FM 5-5 and 100-5. ...
20. Infantry.-a. The role of the infantry with armored force units, its characteristics, and tactical and technical employment are given in FM 100-5. ...
48. General.-...g. Tactical groupings. In attack the combat command groups generally are disposed into four parts: a reconnaissance force (consisting of organic reconnaissance units and attack units), a striking force (the striking echelon consisting of tanks with engineers attached), a supporting force (consisting of the support echelon, i. e. the infantry, artillery, and tank destroyer units), and a reserve. Whether the striking force makes the initial attack or main attack will depend on the terrain and the extent and dispositions of the hostile antitank defenses.

Evolution of U.S. Armored Doctrine - Operations

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  • Thank you for this detailed answer, does this Field Manual was inspired by english or french experience during early years of the war? – totalMongot Dec 13 '20 at 17:37
  • @totalMongot: I have added a new section addressing evolution of the tactical doctrine at a very high level. – Pieter Geerkens Dec 13 '20 at 19:26

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