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Old 07-02-2009, 09:08 AM
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Default U.S. Tank operations in WW1

On April 2, 1917, the United States of America entered the Great War. Up to this date tanks had not accomplished much. British machines had taken part in the battles of the Somme and Ancre, and the first French ones had made their appearance on the training ground in October 1916.

In June 1917, Lieutenant-Colonel H. Parker was detailed to inquire into the military value of tanks, and in the follow­ing month he forwarded his report on this subject to the Operation Section of the Infantry Committee of Colonel C. B. Baker's Commission.

Lieutenant-Colonel Parker's report makes good reading; not only is it virile but sound. It was indeed a great pity that it was not more completely acted on. The following is an extract from it:

" 1. A hole 30 k. wide punched through the whole German formation deep enough to uncover a line of communication to a flank attack. This hole must be wide enough to assure the passage of lighter equipment - the divisional machine-gun companies can follow the tanks because the tanks will make a road for them. The wave of machine guns - divisional companies - must turn out to right and left, supported by a second line of tanks, to widen the breach. The wave of machine guns must be followed by cavalry - 'hell for leather' - if the hole is once punched through, and this cavalry must strike lines of communication at all hazards. Possibly motor-cycle machine guns may be better adapted to this use than cavalry, but I am a believer in the cavalry. Support it with Jitney-carried infantry and machine guns as quickly as possible.

"2. The problem is that of passing a defile. Nothing more. It is like trying to force a mountain pass, where the sides are occupied by enemy who can fire down into the pass. The 'pass' is some 30 k. in length, and we must have some­thing that can drive through. Then turn to the sides and widen the breach. Assail 100 k. to cover assault. It is the old 'flying wedge' of football, with interference coming through the hole in the line. The 'tanks' take the place of the 'line buckers ' who open the hole; the 'Divi­sional Jitney machine guns' are the 'interference,' the 'cavalry' will carry the ball as soon as the hole is opened, i.e. ride through and hit the line of communication.

" 3. The operation works out this way:
(a) A cloud of fighting avions at high altitude, to clear the air.
(b) A cloud of observation avions at low altitude, just in front of the line of tanks, dropping bombs and using machine guns on the trenches.
(c) Our long-range artillery blocking the German artillery.
(d) Our lighter artillery barraging the front to prevent escape of the Germans in their front lines.
(e) Our mobile machine guns following up the tanks at about 500 yards, covering them with canopy fire, step by step.
(f) Our Divisional Jitney companies of machine guns driving in 'hell-bent' after the tanks and widen­ing the breach.
(g) Our cavalry riding through this breach as soon as it is opened for them and swinging out à laJeb. Stuart around McClellan's Army. Sacrificed? of course, but winning results worth the sacrifice.
(h) Jitney or truck-transported infantry following as fast as gasoline can carry it to support the success and make our foothold sure.
(i) Truck-transported - or tank-transported - artillery following as fast as possible.
"I BELIEVE SUCH A PLAN WILL WIN. FRITZ HAS NOT THE RESOURCES TO ADOPT SUCH A PLAN. WE HAVE. WE SHOULD DO IT AND DO IT Now as far as preparation goes in material. It will take time to get ready."

Shortly before this report was written, Colonel Rocken­bach, the commander designate of the American Tank Corps, landed in France and proceeded with General Pershing to Chaumont, the U.S.A, General Headquarters.

On September 23, 1917, a project for a Tank Corps was approved. The Corps was to consist of 5 heavy and 20 light battalions, together with headquarter units, depots and workshops, while in the United States a training centre comprising 2 heavy and 5 light battalions was to be main­tained. In May 1918 the establishment of the Corps was expanded to 15 brigades, each brigade to consist of 1 heavy and 2 light battalions, the former to be armed with the Mark VIII and the latter with the Renault tank.

Meanwhile an immense constructional programme was developed for both Mark VIII:s and Renaults, yet, in spite of this, by November 11, 1918, one year and seven months after America entered the war, only some twenty odd American-built Renault tanks had been landed in France. The slowness in American construction is very apparent when it is remembered that a similar period only elapsed between the first sketch drawing of the British Mark I tank, in February 1915, and the landing of this machine in France in August 1916.

The lack of machines in the American Tank Corps rendered the training of its personnel impossible, consequently at the beginning of 1918 two training camps were started, one at Bovington - the British Tank Training Centre - and the other at Bourg in the Haute-Marne, where training was carried out under French supervision. The history of the units trained at these two centres will be dealt with separ­ately as follows:

By February 1918, 500 volunteers from various branches of the American Army were assembled at Bourg for instruction. On March 27, 10 Renault machines were taken over from the French, another 15 being sent to Bourg in June. In August, 144 Renault tanks arrived, and 2 light battalions were at once mobilised under the command of Colonel G. S. Patton and were railed to the St. Mihiel area, where they operated with the First American Army, which attacked the famous salient on September 12.

From a tank point of view this attack was a disappointing one. From railhead both battalions moved 20 kilometres to their positions of assembly, but on the first day of the attack, owing to the difficulties of ground in a well-established defence area, they never succeeded in catching up with the infantry. These troops moved forward rapidly, for it must be remembered that the enemy's resistance was very feeble, the salient having already been partially evacuated by the enemy. Owing to lack of petrol the tanks did not participate in the second day's fighting, and on the third they appear only on one occasion to have come into contact with the enemy and to have collected a number of prisoners. The following day these two battalions were withdrawn practically intact, only three machines being left behind damaged or broken down.

The American tanks next appear fighting side by side with French tank units in the Argonne operations. Pro­fiting by their previous experience, although infantry and tanks had never met on the training ground, the two American tank battalions materially assisted their infantry.
On the first day of the Argonne attack, September 26, it had been intended to keep a reserve of tanks in hand for the second day's operations, but owing to the infantry being held up these went into the attack about noon.

From this date until October 13 these battalions were continually placed at the disposal of the infantry commanders, but were not often called upon to take an active part in operations. Frequently they were moved many miles, to the detriment of their tracks and engines and without achieving any great result; they were also used independently for reconnaissance work and for unsupported attacks delivered against positions the infantry had failed to capture.

On October 13 the remains of these two battalions were withdrawn and a provisional company was formed which accompanied the advance of the American forces until the cessation of hostilities on November 11, 1918.

The 301st U.S.A. Heavy Tank Battalion arrived at Wool on April 10, and continued training under British instruction until August 24, when it embarked for France. Soon after its arrival in this country it was attached to the ist British Tank Brigade.

On September 29 the 301st American Tank Battalion took part in the important attack carried out by the 27th and 30th American Divisions against the Hindenburg Line run­ning east of the Bellicourt tunnel. The attack started at 5.50 a.m. in a thick mist, and though the 30th American Division reached the Bellicourt tunnel to time, the 27th on its left was held up. On the front of the last-named Division only one tank succeeded in crossing the tunnel, the others running foul of an old British minefield as described in Chapter XXXV. Of the thirty-four tanks which took part in this attack only ten rallied.

On October 8, when the Fourth Army resumed the offen­sive, the 301st Battalion was allotted to the IInd American Corps, which was attacking a position some 3,000 yards north-west of Brancourt with the IXth British Corps on its right and the XIIIth on its left. This attack was a com­plete success ; the 301st Battalion fought right through to its final objective, rendering the greatest assistance to the infantry, who worked in close co-operation with the tanks. One tank in particular did great execution: it advanced, firing both its 6-pounders, at the railway cutting between Beaurevoir and Montbrehain, the ground being littered with German dead.

Nine days later, on the 17th, the attack was continued, the 301st Battalion again being attached to the IInd American Corps, the objective of which was a line running west of Busigny - eastern edge of La Sablière wood (south of Busigny) - west of Bohain. In this operation the crossing of the river Selle, south of St. Souplet, was a most difficult problem, as the river ran through "No Man's Land"; nevertheless, by means of low-flying aeroplanes reconnaissance and night-patrol work was carried out, crossings were selected, and on the actual day of the attack no fewer than nineteen tanks out of the twenty operating successfully crossed the stream.

The next and last attack carried out by the 301st Bat­talion during the war took place on October 23, when nine tanks of this unit assisted the 6th and Ist British Divisions in an attack in the neighbourhood of Bazuel, south-east of Le Cateau. This operation was part of the Fourth Army's attack, the objectives of which were the high ground over­looking the canal de la Sambre et Oise, between Catillon, and Bois l'Eveque and the villages of Fontaine-au-Bois, Robersart, and Bousies.

All nine tanks moved forward at zero hour behind the barrage, and from the report of an observer who saw these machines in action it appears that they cleared up the whole of the ground as far as the Bazuel-Catillon road. Very little opposition was met with, but in spite of this, owing to the poor visibility and the enclosed nature of the country, the infantry were slow in following the tanks and great difficulty was experienced in maintaining touch with them. Nevertheless all infantry commanders expressed themselves well pleased with the work the tanks had accomplished, which had chiefly consisted in reducing strong points and breaking paths through the hedges. Of the nine tanks which took the field all rallied; no casualties other than five men, slightly gassed, were suffered. The attack on this day was altogether a fitting conclusion to the brief but conspicuously gallant career of the 301st American Tank Battalion.
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