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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. General

No-strict pattern is apparent in German operations. The Germans have in most instances employed a balanced and highly coordinated team of all arms and services, whatever the size of the force. Although their procedure has thus been elastic to suit the tactical situation, they have been found to proceed in general along the following lines.

b. Effect of Terrain

The Germans make full use of the freedom of maneuver which desert terrain affords and generally have not accepted battle under unfavorable conditions. Maximum use is made of the artillery and all auxiliary arms, both ground and air.

The lack of terrain obstacles and the supply difficulties have resulted in a modification of the German use of armored units in the desert as compared with their previous use in Poland and in Western Europe. In Libya, with the exception of isolated fortified localities such as Tobruk and Halfaya, no long defensive lines exist which can be probed to find a weak spot for penetration and exploitation. Nevertheless the cardinal principle of concentrating tank strength has been followed. On those occasions when the German forces advanced in several columns, the tanks were usually concentrated in one column. The object of the tank column is to destroy the enemy force, using maneuver to defeat him in detail whenever possible.

c. Formations

Various methods of advance have been used by German armored units. Usually the formation is in considerable depth. A battalion (65 to 80 tanks) frequently uses a "V" formation with two companies leading and one in reserve, or an inverted "V" with one company leading and two in reserve. Companies are usually in line, with tanks in column of threes at about 50-yard intervals and three to five tank lengths in depth.

A German tank battalion in tactical formation moves in short rushes, taking advantage of the terrain. Frequently the whole regiment advances in mass formation with lines of tanks at regular intervals of about 50 yards, advancing in waves. The relatively close formation is more readily controlled than a widely dispersed one. Field artillery and antitank weapons are kept up close, although their location is not apparent until they go into action, usually on the flanks of the tank column. The Germans have in the past been able to bring effective artillery and antitank fire to bear on the British before the British could effectively fire upon them. In addition, RAF planes, because of the pilots' inability to distinguish between their own and German tanks, have not attacked German tank formations in the forward areas.

d. Offensive Tactics

In the desert frontal attacks have not often been used, an effort being made more often to attack from one or both flanks. German tanks usually open fire at 1,500 to 2,000 yards, which is beyond the effective range of the hostile weapons that they have thus far encountered. When contact is made, the speed of advance is slowed down unless the movement is a quick thrust to force the withdrawal of weaker hostile forces. The 75-mm and 50-mm guns are used to keep hostile tanks out of range.

(1) Usual German objectives.--The object of the Germans is to knock out quickly as many of the antitank guns and foremost field guns as may be visible. When the German tank commander has decided to attack a position, his first objective has often been the British 25-pounders. By reconnaissance in tanks he first locates the British battery positions and makes his plans. This plan in principle always appears to be the same. He decides which battery to attack and he arranges to attack it from enfilade. His attack is made with 105-mm guns, the 88-mm dual-purpose guns, and both Mark III and IV tanks. The 105-mm guns fire from covered positions; their observation posts are in tanks. The 88-mm dual-purpose guns are towed. These guns use direct fire from their trailers after attaining defiladed positions at ranges varying from 2,000 to 2,500 yards. The Mark IV tanks assume positions in defilade and fire over open sights at ranges varying from 2,000 to 2,500 yards. The high velocity 75-mm gun in the Mark IV tank and the 88-mm dual-purpose gun have far higher muzzle velocities than any artillery that the British have had in the desert.

(2) German Mark III tanks.--The Mark III tank is used as the main striking force in attack. It has the dominant role in tank-versus-tank combat. Its heavy armor and powerful 50-mm gun give it a decided advantage over all types of tanks which it has thus far encountered in the desert. The 75-mm gun in the Mark IV tank is not an antitank gun but a close-support weapon. Its maximum range is 7,000 yards. Frequently these tanks use direct laying from a defiladed position in which, owing to the location of the gun in the turret, they offer a very small target. At other times the fire is massed, with indirect laying, and is adjusted by forward or flank observers in tanks. Tanks rarely fire while moving, although in at least one instance they were used to fire a rolling barrage at from 3,000 to 4,000 yards while advancing slowly. This forced the opposing tanks to close up doors and turrets.

The first wave of Mark III tanks overrun the gun positions. The second wave of Mark III tanks is closely followed by the motorized infantry, which detrucks only when forced to and cleans up the position with small-arms fire, assisted by tanks which accompany it. After the artillery has neutralized the tanks, the support infantry is attacked. Such attacks have nearly always neutralized the artillery, either by destroying it when the attack was driven home, or by forcing it to withdraw before the tank attack was launched. A successful defense against such attacks has been made only when a tank force was available to launch a counterattack from concealed positions against the flank of the German tank attack.

(3) The German Mark IV tanks used as artillery.--In the attack the Germans maneuver to some position where their Mark IV tanks5 can take up a position in defilade. The Germans meanwhile make a reconnaissance, probing the enemy from all directions to test his strength, and to induce the defenders to disclose their positions by opening fire. During this period, observation posts keep close watch, and any guns which disclose their positions are marked down for destruction when the main attack begins. Then, from their defiladed positions, the Mark IV's attack by fire all antitank guns or light artillery which are visible and within range. Light artillery, antitank guns, and machine guns with the same mission are pushed forward among and to the flanks of the tanks. Observers and occasionally infantry are pushed further forward.

Each German tank battalion has one company of 10 Mark IV tanks, which are employed in 2 principal roles: as highly mobile artillery, and as a component of a fast-moving column. Often field artillery cannot be immediately available in armored engagements; the Mark IV tank with its 75-mm gun together with the artillery of the armored division provides German armored formations with the necessary heavy fire power for a breakthrough.

The maximum range of the 75-mm gun is reported to be 9,000 yards. This relatively long range dictates to troops equipped with light antitank guns the time and place of a battle. In addition, the speed of the Mark IV tank is sufficient to enable it to take part in a rapid advance with the Mark III tanks. The Germans have used these tanks as sniper guns, as artillery against forward British columns, and as heavy concealed weapons in the ambushes into which German armored cars have tried to draw the British cars. In a defensive situation the Mark IV is able to engage British troops from outside the range of the antitank guns, avoiding at the same time, by their mobility, the British artillery fire.

(4) Field artillery support.--The 105-mm mobile batteries and the 75-mm guns of the Mark IV tank furnish the principal artillery support for the German Mark III tank, which is the main attacking tank. Sometimes the 88-mm dual-purpose gun is used in conjunction with the Mark III tank.

Some reports indicate that the direction of this supporting fire is carried out by a system of air bursts, since air bursts have been immediately followed by HE concentrations. The fire of 75-mm and 105-mm guns using HE shells has not been reported to be extremely effective. Casualties caused to personnel and tanks by these weapons have been reported to be the result of a new flare--a 75-mm shell which envelopes the tank in flames regardless of what portion of the tank is hit. One whole tank regiment was reported destroyed by this type of projectile. Although the casualties caused from these weapons may be slight, all reports agree that they have a high nuisance value to tanks because of the blinding effect of the smoke and dust. The 88-mm is effective; tanks hit squarely by this gun are destroyed.

The Germans stress the use of ricochet artillery fire against personnel as follows:

The much greater effect of ricocheting projectiles as compared with those bursting on impact has been confirmed by the testimony of numerous prisoners.6 Against all living targets not covered from above, more ricochet fire than hitherto will be employed therefore. Ricochet fire may also be employed against concealed targets if it can be observed from the burst, the noise of the explosion, or the flash of the exploding shell that a sufficient number (40 to 50 percent) of ricochets, are occurring. Ricochets can be distinguished from projectiles which enter the ground by their sharper detonation sound, and by the brighter flash, visible even in daytime. This is particularly the case with shallow ricochets, which are easily mistaken for impact detonations. Projectiles which penetrate the ground make no, or very little, report and flash on exploding.

e. German Method of Forcing Gaps through Mine Fields

A heavy artillery concentration is placed on the point to be forced and upon the defending troops in the vicinity. After the defenders' resistance is lowered by the concentration, a comparatively small number of foot troops advance to the gap under cover of smoke or of dust raised by the concentration; they locate the mines by prodding the ground with bayonets or with mine detectors; the mines are then removed. Casualties are replaced from a reserve unit that is held immediately in rear. This method was used in forcing a gap through the mine field that was part of the defenses of Tobruk; the preliminary concentration lasted for two hours. After a gap is forced and marked, infantry followed by tanks or tanks followed by infantry attack through the gap. Infantry preceded the tanks in the battle of Tobruk.

f. Defensive Tactics

When an armored force is encountered, all tanks may take up a firing position in defilade, immediately reinforced by towed and self-propelled antitank guns and artillery. If the tanks are forced to retire, they withdraw under cover of antitank weapons and artillery. Usually the Mark III tanks withdraw first, the Mark IV assisting in covering the withdrawal with high explosive and smoke. When such withdrawals have been followed by the enemy, the well-concealed German antitank guns and artillery have caused such serious damage to the pursuing tanks that the pursuit has generally been stopped. Sometimes the tanks will withdraw through the antitank and artillery positions and then maneuver to strike the hostile armored force on its flank.

5 The German Mark IV tank weighs 22 tons and carries 5 men. It has a maximum speed of 31 mph and is armed with one 75-mm gun and two light machine guns. Recent reports indicate that the Germans are modifying the design of this tank by fitting it with an improved 75-mm (2.95-inch) gun known as the "Kw. 40" and by adding hollow frontal armor. The Mark IV has hitherto been equipped with a low velocity 75-mm gun, and the tendency has therefore been to employ this tank as a close-support weapon. As a consequence of the mounting of an antitank gun--and the possible fitting of hollow frontal armor--it is to be expected that the Mark IV will in the future be, and may already have been, more boldly employed as a striking force in tank-versus-tank engagements. The German designation of this new equipment is Sturmgeschütz lange 7.5-cm Kanone (Stu. G. lg. 7.5-cm K).
6 The use of slit trenches is universal among all forces in the desert.

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