[Lone Sentry: Artillery in the Desert]
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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

Both large and small units operate over wide desert expanses. The lack of cover necessitates great dispersion, which in turn requires each unit to provide its own close-in defense--a situation emphasizing the need of reconnaissance.

Constant use is made of both ground and air reconnaissance units. Even the side which is weaker in air strength carries on air reconnaissance. Forward ground reconnaissance is usually executed by armored cars. Frequently German armored car patrols are supported by tanks, in a ratio of one tank to two armored cars, to provide sufficient fire power to overcome hostile patrols and outposts and thus extend the depth of observation. Once contact is gained by the Germans with an armored force, it is kept under observation even though the German armored units may have withdrawn. As a result, German armored units have been able to avoid battle when conditions were not favorable, to make night attacks against bivouacs, and even to surround hostile bivouacs during the night with antitank weapons and destroy the armored vehicles from close range in the morning.

b. Methods of Observation

Although the desert is not completely flat, suitable vantage points for observation posts are never very high. This lack of height, together with the heat waves rising from the hot sand and rocks, sometimes reduces visibility in the desert. Mid-day is the least satisfactory period for observing fire.

Both sides endeavor to gain what high ground does exist in the desert. It has been noted that the German infantry in Libya, as elsewhere, have launched attacks for the purpose of obtaining observation posts for their artillery. In one instance such an attack was made to gain ground only 3 feet higher than the surrounding terrain.1 Similarly, German artillery officers have been known to ride on top of tanks in order to gain height for observation.

In both German and British armored divisions the artillery has its own armored vehicles for observation posts. However, even artillery with unarmored troops utilizes methods similar to those of the armored divisions. Forward observers are well out in front with those covering forces, armored cars, or carriers which are deployed for reconnaissance and outpost duty. Often these mobile OP's must be with the armored-car screen, and they are then in an armored car or scout car. Many British officers have spoken highly of the U.S. M-3 Scout Car for this work. Its chief advantage is that it accommodates the entire OP party, whereas the armored car has room for only three persons. Armored cars or scout cars are assigned to and maintained by artillery units. Enough cars must be provided so that all radio sets allotted to a battalion can be mounted in such vehicles; these can then be used by forward observers. The advisability of providing more than a few such cars has been quickly realized, because they wear out soon and have a high casualty rate. Unless the OP is the same type of vehicle as that used by the supported troops, the enemy will concentrate its fire power on the OP vehicle.

The British have found it to be impossible to assign tanks to artillery for OP purposes. But they do have arrangements whereby each regiment of tanks modifies and, on occasion, reserves for artillery observers a certain number of tanks.

A problem of observation was revealed in one fast-moving situation which occurred during the winter of 1941-1942. The battery commander was traveling with the tank regimental commander. Two observers, one per troop,2 were directing fire while traveling with the forward elements of the regiment. When contact was actually made, the observers had their tanks stay on the flanks and drop back slightly from the front in order to avoid becoming directly engaged. All control was by radio and the observer had his own radio operating in the artillery net, separate from the tank radio which operated in the tank net. Because of the limited number of frequencies available, it was necessary for all artillery units in a battery to be on the same frequency. The effect of this single frequency was unfortunate, for only one troop could be fired by one observer at a time, and a great deal of confusion occurred. When all control by observers breaks down, artillery support deteriorates into direct laying by individual pieces.

In addition to the armored OP's, gun towers have been used to gain height for observing fire. These OP ladders are used both as dummies to draw fire and for observation. They are mounted on trucks or may be removed quickly and set up at an OP. The British observing towers are generally about 25 feet high. The Germans have a two-piece telescoping tube mounted on the side of their armored OP, which can be cranked up into observing position. To employ these gun towers effectively there must be a number of them--at least one to each four guns. These, like the tanks and the slight rises in the ground, aid in overcoming the flatness of the desert.

Other difficulties arise in the desert which only keen eyes and training can surmount. There is the real problem which a forward artillery observer has in identifying his own bursts among the dust and heat waves when other units are also firing. Judging distance in the desert is as difficult as on the ocean. Lack of familiarity with the size and appearance of armored vehicles at various ranges is a frequent cause for misjudging distance. The fact that the enemy opens fire does not inevitably mean that the enemy is within range, for he can misjudge distance also. But it is even more important to remember that all tanks are not equipped with the same type of gun. German tanks armed with 75-mm guns can open effective firing at a range of 2,000 yards. Antitank guns with a smaller range waste ammunition by returning fire and, what is worse, give away their own positions.

1 This conforms with modern German tactical doctrine. In "Tactical Handbook for the Troop Commander" by General Friedrich von Cochenhausen, the general doctrine on artillery and infantry cooperation is stated: "The infantry must seize and hold the terrain most suitable for artillery observation posts. The movable artillery observation posts accompanying foremost infantry units are the only guarantee for intimate cooperation."
2 British troop is equivalent to U.S. battery.

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