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Artillery in the Desert, Military Intelligence Service, Special Series No. 6, November 1942
[DISCLAIMER: The following text is taken from the wartime U.S. War Department publication. As with all wartime intelligence information, data may be incomplete or inaccurate. No attempt has been made to update or correct the text. Any views or opinions expressed do not necessarily represent those of the website.]


a. Organization

Since the number of guns in use in Cyrenaica has been inadequate, all available are used or emplaced before the close of each operation. The antitank weapons, which are considered artillery by the British, are under the command of the division artillery commander in the British forces, and he is responsible for so placing his artillery and antitank guns that they will be mutually supporting. For any action the artillery commander issues the necessary orders allotting the antitank weapons to both artillery and infantry units.

Antitank artillery regiments of 2-pounders consist of 3 battalions of 2 batteries of 8 guns each, totaling 48 guns. They are organized exactly in the same manner as the artillery units except for the number of personnel assigned. A few 6-pounder13 and 18-pounder14 batteries are being used. The 6-pounder guns are mounted portee, and the 18-pounders are truck-drawn. These units are also organized in the same fashion as the artillery batteries. The trucks used for the 2-pounders and 6-pounders portee are in general of the 1 1/2-ton type.

The minimum amount of antitank guns required with units necessarily depends on the type of country; the more open the country, the larger the number of guns needed. In the desert where there are no natural tank obstacles an attack may come from any direction. Headquarters and rear echelons must be protected. The large frontages covered and the wide dispersion necessary to minimize the effects of air attack make this problem of protecting rear elements a difficult one.

In the western desert there have been in use no antitank warning systems, but the British make use of armored car patrols to prevent any surprises, and, as a rule, when one weapon fires, all prepare for action. OP's to the front and flank warn by visual signals of the approach of enemy armor.

b. Positions

In some cases one battery of twelve 2-pounder antitank guns is detailed to protect each infantry regiment. Each attached supporting battery of artillery is often given one troop of four antitank 2-pounder guns. Organic artillery has the support of one antitank troop per artillery battery. These 2-pounder antitank units are not usually grouped or held in reserve at any point but are actually placed in positions from 100 to 300 yards from the unit protected.

British artillery regiments are armed with 25-pounders which, although not so designed, have formed the basis of the antitank defense. This has been necessary, because the 2-pounder antitank gun has not proved effective. The 25-pounders are sited to give protection in depth, and, where the terrain permits, to give all-around protection to the position.

Antitank guns are placed to cover the 25-pounders in front, in intervals, and on the flanks. A proportion of them may have to be kept on wheels to counter a threat from an unexpected direction. The fewer the total number of antitank guns, the larger will be the proportion kept in mobile reserve. But positions which guns may have to occupy will in most cases be reconnoitered and prepared beforehand.

Despite the fact that the British have usually operated with one and sometimes two 48-gun antitank regiments to the division, they have still found the number to be too small, and consequently have had their choice of positions affected by the necessity of choosing terrain which could allow them the maximum use of their inadequate number of antitank guns. Unless otherwise dictated by the terrain, it is considered better to place the few antitank guns in comparatively small localities for all-around defense rather than to attempt a complete defense in depth over a wide area. The batteries of 25-pounders are used to provide depth to the defense. Antitank weapons are often placed from 100 to 300 yards on the flank of a battalion in action. For all-around defense of an organization, they are placed from 500 to 1,000 yards in front or on the flank of a battalion with instructions to move close to the battalion position when tanks approach within 1,000 yards of their positions.

c. Principles of Employment--German Tank Tactics

Since the antitank gunners have a formidable and important job to perform, knowledge of the enemy's capabilities makes it easier to accomplish. German tank crews are trained to try to gain the opportunity to register hits at 90° impact (i.e., get the target head-on or broadside). They attempt to put their own tank in such a position that it presents both front and side at an angle to opposing guns. Stationary firing is preferred, although they have fired on the move to force opposing tanks to close down, or to intimidate outposts and hostile gun crews. Artillery and antitank weapon crews have suffered many casualties from German machine-gun fire delivered from moving tanks. When antitank guns have held their fire until German tanks approached to within 600 yards, the crews have frequently been knocked out by machine-gun fire which penetrated their shields. If the ground permits, the German tanks move rapidly by bounds, firing between bounds when halted in hull-down positions.

d. Principles of Employment--British Tactics

All British antitank guns except 18-pounders (75-mm guns) are mounted portee on vehicles and equipped with ramps for unloading. These weapons have on occasion been fired from their vehicles.15

(1) Guns mounted on vehicles.--In using these weapons mounted portee, the gun is usually dismounted during firing, and the vehicles are removed under cover. The firing of guns mounted portee is unpopular, but when it is done, the vehicle is backed up to a point just below the reverse slope of a hill and the gun pushed up sufficiently to clear the crest. The driver of the truck must manipulate his truck on orders from the gunner in order to point the gun or place it in proper firing position.

Although firing guns mounted portee is frowned upon, reports indicate that some officers consider firing from portees to be necessary under the following conditions: (1) when on patrol with armored cars; (2) when on escort or convoy duty with supply echelons, headquarters, or brigade columns advancing across the desert to the attack. In such circumstances the object is to keep the enemy as far as possible from his prey and so enable the convoy to proceed without loss. Full use is made of the mobility of the portees, the opening range varying according to the thickness of the armor carried by the enemy raiding columns. Firing while the portee is in motion and opening fire on a moving target at over 1,500 yards or a standing target at over 2,000 yards are considered a waste of 2-pounder ammunition. Bren guns mounted on the portees are used to force the enemy to close down his hatches and so reduce his visibility.

Although the use of the antitank guns on portees is an improvisation, it has had some success. During the Italian retreat from Bengasi to Tripoli on February 6/7, 1941 the British sent three columns a distance of 150 miles in 30 hours to cut off the retreat. In the battle which resulted the antitank guns on improvised mounts encountered the Italian tanks, and 100 out of a total of 130 brand new M 13 Italian tanks were destroyed. One 1 1/2-ton truck carrying an antitank gun pointed to the rear went up and down the Italian column and claimed to have destroyed 25 tanks.

[Figure 21: British 2-pounder antitank gun photographed in April, 1940, during exercises in the Libyan theater]
Figure 21.--British 2-pounder antitank gun photographed in April, 1940, during exercises in the Libyan theater. (The picture shows the gun on its special desert carrier.)

(2) Direct laying at short range.--Usually 2-pounder antitank batteries are directed not to use direct laying on tanks until the tanks are within 800 yards of their positions. For 25-pounders, direct fire is held until the enemy vehicles are within 1,000 yards. Opening fire at 600 yards has been found to be too short, because the enemy machine guns are then within effective range. At 800 yards the antitank gun is still comparatively as accurate as at 600 yards, whereas the machine gun has lost considerable accuracy and is likely to penetrate the gun shields. In one case near Sidi Omar in Libya, a battalion commander of 25-pounder guns, seeing a tank attack coming issued instructions for withholding fire until he gave the order. When the Axis tanks had approached to within 800 yards, commands for direct laying were given. The result was a bag of 10 tanks.

[Figure 22: British 2-pounder antitank gun being camouflaged in its gun pit]
Figure 22.--British 2-pounder antitank gun being camouflaged in its gun pit. (The portee may be seen in the background.)

(3) Guns placed well forward.--All artillery and antitank weapons are placed well forward in either defensive or offensive situations. This permits the guns not only to support the infantry but to break up the leading wave of German medium (Mark III) tanks. In battle, 18-pounders go into action on the flanks of the battle position and well forward. These 18-pounder antitank guns are truck-drawn and are of course kept mobile during an advance. All are fully manned and placed in position ready to fire when a halt is made.

The antitank guns are employed more often in pairs or bunches than as battalions or batteries. They are scattered about--often in pairs, and staggered, an effort being made to prevent a single strong sortie of enemy tanks knocking out all the guns. Positions taken are usually those which command a field of fire covering known danger areas. Wadis, large and small, are usually avenues of approach for hostile troops and are therefore given particular attention when siting guns.

(4) Emplacements.--Certain antitank guns have a very strong muzzle blast. In the desert terrain of the Middle East the force of this blast throws up a cloud of dust and sand that quickly reveals the position to enemy observers and often completely obscures the field of fire. Consequently, it is necessary to provide such guns with a blast screen. To eliminate this difficulty, the device shown in figure 21 has been used. It consists simply of a net of fine wire mesh, supported on pegs extending about 1 inch above the surface of the ground. The wire mesh should be so painted as to blend into the surrounding terrain. Other provisions for eliminating the dust include covering the critical areas with concrete or cement, paving the areas with stone, or treating them with oil. These areas are camouflaged whenever the guns are not firing. Precautions are also taken to make the inside of the emplacements as dustproof as possible in order to prevent dust from being sucked up in the rush of air following the discharge.

[Figure 23: Antitank gun emplacement]
Figure 23.--Antitank gun emplacement

Alternate positions are provided and all emplacements are constructed to permit easy removal of the guns. These provisions have been found indispensable, for the fire of the weapon will inevitably betray even a well constructed position.

When the terrain permits, the gun is defiladed from the enemy by emplacement on a reverse slope, or, if the country is flat, behind a natural or artificial mound. If an artificial mound is constructed, it should be as low as possible. The arc of fire is usually large; 180° is normal. The guns are given overhead camouflage where possible, but the coverings are constructed so that they can be easily removed when there is need to close station rapidly. Basically it is considered that the emplacement should be an open pit of minimum dimensions.

e. The Main Role: To Form a Secure Base

Every force, of whatever size, requires a secure base from which to attack if its intentions are offensive, or within which to maneuver for a counterstroke if its intentions are defensive. This problem is important in the desert where attacks can come from any direction.

On a large scale this secure base is called a "defensive position" by the British; on a small scale they termed it a "pivot of maneuver." The terms are really similar, the only difference being that the "defensive position" is made up of a number of "pivots of maneuvers."

The framework of the pivot of maneuver consists of the antitank gun positions, and the formation of this framework is the chief role of the artillery whether in attack or in defense. Every gun, field or antitank, is included in the framework. The framework also is strengthened temporarily by the inclusion of tanks in hull-down positions particularly in the case of a pivot of maneuver formed by an armored brigade. The field artillery performs a secondary role as well--that of producing bombarding or harassing or covering fire. The more exposed sites are allotted to the antitank guns. Every gun section has nearby infantry protection, the two forming together a definite defense area. The escort is armed with machine guns whenever possible.

(1) The Framework.--The actual form of framework, of course, varies with the ground. The main position is formed around the field artillery. Regiments are placed with their batteries in depth so that attacks from any direction will meet with an equal reception. A diamond formation often is considered the best solution. The positions of the guns are laid out so that the zones of fire interlock and at the same time so that the whole gun area can be covered with fire. Dead ground within the position is covered by antitank guns, normally drawn from those included in the composition of the field artillery regiments.

An outpost position in front of the main position toward the enemy is often required to prevent observation of the main positions. These outposts are formed of antitank guns, normally drawn from the infantry antitank companies, with the close escort of infantry, as mentioned above. The outpost dispositions are in depth, the front edge being placed on or just over the crest in front of the main position; and the antitank dispositions are coordinated with those of the main positions so that the whole area forms one complete net. The field artillery may be unable to carry out its secondary role (covering fire) if this outpost position is not provided.

A reserve of mobile antitank guns is held within the position. From this reserve, guns can be sent to give close support to batteries attacking from the "pivot," to extend the flanks of the outpost position if an enemy threat develops from an unexpected direction, or to strengthen the outpost line or the main position if the force is thrown temporarily on the defensive.

(2) In the attack.--The British consider that there are only two legitimate tasks for antitank guns in the attack; (a) to form the framework after a successful attack, and (b) to protect the flanks of attacking infantry tanks.

The antitank gun mounted on its portee is not a tank, and any attempt to use it as such by requiring it to accompany the leading waves of a tank or infantry attack inevitably results in severe losses. Every effort is made to place antitank guns in position at the objective as soon as it is captured.

The commander of the antitank guns detailed for consolidating the objective when captured is therefore given a free hand to move his guns as he thinks fit. Often it proves best to move the guns in bounds as the attack progresses. The antitank commander himself accompanies the commander of the unit that he is supporting, and on arrival at the objective makes a plan of the framework of the consolidation defense. If an enemy tank counterattack is launched before the consolidation framework is made, the antitank commander places his guns on or near the objective as soon as possible, and then uses them from the portees, taking advantage of any cover that can be found. Speed is essential, and it is for that reason only that he uses his guns as if they were tanks. If the consolidation framework has time to get into position, its object is to destroy counterattacking tanks. In this case, therefore, the antitank guns are used on the ground, concealed to the utmost, and dug in as thoroughly as time will permit. They are taught not to reveal their positions prematurely by opening fire at long range. Their fire is held until the enemy tanks are within the range16 at which their armor will be pierced by the 2-pounder. Nearby infantry protection is provided with the guns, and snipers are placed to pick off enemy forward artillery observers who push in close with the object of spotting the antitank guns.

In protecting the flanks of attacking tanks or infantry, the object of the antitank artillery is to keep the enemy at a distance. Then the gun is used from its portee and opens fire at longer ranges. But since it is seldom possible to forecast the direction of an enemy attack, the guns are not normally committed to any positions at the outset. The antitank commander therefore keeps his guns mobile, and, together with representatives of his sub-units, carries out continuous reconnaissance of the area for which he is responsible, noting especially any ground in which hull-down positions are available: If an enemy flank attack develops, he moves his guns to meet it, either dropping into position on the ground to lie in wait when the enemy has to pass a defile, or fighting portee and using his mobility to prevent the enemy from closing the range.

(3) In the defense.--In the defense, the antitank gun has one object--to kill tanks. The enemy will, of course, do all that he can to spot and knock out the guns of a defense before he launches his tanks. Every effort is made, therefore, to prevent the positions from being disclosed until the enemy tanks advance to the attack and are within range of the antitank guns. The range must be short enough to enable the shell to pierce the armor. Harassing and bombardment tasks are carried out by the 25-pounder guns that are situated in covered positions.

The efforts to avoid observation are directed toward concealment and protection. Scrub ground, or other rough ground, is chosen wherever possible, and digging is done with great care. Movement of all personnel is rigidly controlled.

Guns are placed so as to give effect to the principle of concentration of fire. This is necessary, as the German tanks usually attack in a mass, which cannot be engaged effectively by single guns.

Guns are, therefore, normally sited by troops. The four guns of the 2-pounder troop are spread over an area of about 400 yards square, and they must, of course, be mutually supporting. The four guns of the 25-pounder troops also adopt this formation if employed in a purely antitank role; but if the troop has a secondary role (covering fire) as well, it adopts a more concentrated formation in order to obtain fire control. For this purpose an arrangement roughly the shape of a half-moon, with intervals of about 70 yards between guns, has been found satisfactory. Depth within the field artillery regiment is obtained by siting the troops in diamond formation, 800 yards between troops, all troops being mutually supporting.

f. Effect of Artillery on Tanks

The following is the German teaching on the effect of field artillery on the tanks which they have encountered in the desert:

Armor of 60-mm or less is penetrated at ranges up to 600 meters by the 105-mm gun-howitzer 18 with angle of impact from normal to 30° using charge 5 or 6. The 105-mm gun, model 18, penetrates all thicknesses of armor encountered at ranges up to 1,500 meters with medium charge and armor-piercing shell. Direct hits from the 150-mm howitzer, model 18, with HE percussion fuze (instantaneous) projectiles have set enemy tanks on fire, or put them out of action by destruction of the drive mechanism. Thus, when engaging tanks with the heavy field howitzer, the bursts should not be largely over as when firing armor-piercing shells, but should be evenly distributed, some over, some short. Concentrations of artillery fire have been very effective against tank assembly points.

13 The 6-pounder is a new 57-mm. gun which is scheduled to replace the 2-pounder because of the latter's inadequate range.
14 The 18-pounder is an old type gun.
15 One observer reported that not a single case was known of dismounting an antitank gun during the period November 17 to 30, 1941, which was the intensive opening phase of the British 2d offensive. Firing portee has become increasing unpopular, however, and is no longer recommended.
16 800 yards against Mark III, 500 yards against Mark IV.

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