♦  The Birth of Blitzkrieg 

Part Two: Development in Britain 1919-40

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By the late 1930s tank battalions of the British Army were either former horse cavalry regiments or belonged to the Royal Tank Regiment (RTR). The cavalry retained their traditional titles, e.g. King’s Dragoon Guards, 1st Northamptonshire Yeomanry. They also retained the designation regiment even though they were battalion-sized units. Tank battalions belonging to the RTR were numbered, e.g. 1st Battalion, Royal Tank Regiment, usually abbreviated to 1st RTR.

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At the end of the Great War, conventional military opinion held that the tank, though it had proved useful, would nevertheless remain an adjunct to the infantry. Existing tanks were slow, unmaneuverable and mechanically unreliable. Only a small minority of imaginative military thinkers  envisioned the tank as the decisive weapon on future battlefields and they were mostly disregarded—the more so as the conflict just concluded was widely thought to have been “the war to end war.”

Only in Britain, the birthplace of the tank, did there exist an institutional framework for the development of armored warfare concepts: the Royal Tank Corps (RTC; later the Royal Tank Regiment) of the British Army. In the beginning, not all of the “tank prophets” were in agreement as to the tank’s proper role in a future war. Some, like Colonel J.F.C Fuller, thought that the tank could function independently as a “land ironclad”; others believed that the tank should form part of a mechanized all-arms battle group including infantry, artillery, engineers, etc. equipped with specialized armored vehicles of their own. Prominent among the latter faction was Captain B.H. Liddell Hart, a former Army officer, invalidated out of the service after being severely wounded on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. As a military commentator and journalist with many contacts in the Army, he was well placed to spread the gospel of the tank and became its foremost proponent, far better known than serving RTC officers such as Fuller, Hobart and Martel, who worked within the system.

Prophet of armored warfare: Sir Basil Henry Liddell Hart (National Portrait Gallery)

Parsimonious peacetime military budgets and the skepticism of orthodox soldiers limited the RTC’s ability to try out its ideas, but in 1927 an Experimental Mechanized Force (EMF) was formed for that purpose. The EMF was a brigade-sized unit combining light and medium tanks, armored cars, motorized infantry and engineers, and motor-towed field artillery. Colonel Fuller was offered the command, but as the War Office refused to meet his requirements for an expanded staff, he resigned and went into retirement. The command was given instead to Brigadier R. J. Collins, an infantry officer, and in the 1928 Eastland/Westland war game, the EMF proved its worth. Eastland/Westland and subsequent field exercises enabled tank tactics to be refined, and drew attention to many practical requirements of mechanized warfare: reconnaissance, communications, supply, maintenance. It was particularly noted that tanks should be equipped with radios to facilitate tactical control.

A Mark II Medium Tank of the EMF in 1927 (Imperial War Museum)

In 1928 the EMF was renamed the Armoured Force (AF) and in 1933 a permanent armored brigade was established. This led to the formation of the Mobile Division (later the 1st Armoured Division) in the UK (1937) and the Mobile Force (later the 7th Armoured Division) in Egypt (1938). The commander of the Mobile Force was Major-General Sir Percy Hobart, the British Army's leading tank expert, who had previously commanded the 1st Armoured Brigade and served as Inspector of the RTC. But by this time the British Army, which pioneered armored warfare concepts in the 1920s and early 1930s, had surrendered its lead to Germany. This was due partly to insufficient funding and partly to the innate conservatism of the British Army.

Major-General Sir Percy Hobart during World War II (Imperial War Museum)

It was not that senior officers refused to accept the necessity of mechanization. They admitted that the Army’s prestigious cavalry regiments must replace their horses with tanks and armored cars. What did not change, however, was the cavalry mind-set. If tanks must replace horses, nevertheless they would be employed in the traditional cavalry manner: operating en masse to fight opposing armored formations, exploit breakthroughs, and pursue retreating enemy forces. But the infantry support mission was seen in quite a different light: tanks operating in small groups, moving at the pace of the infantry, much as tanks had operated during the Great War. Thanks to this division of roles and missions, neither the RTC nor the Royal Armoured Corps, set up in 1939 to administer all armored units, ever succeeded in evolving a unified mechanized warfare doctrine.

British tank design thus proceeded on two tracks. The cavalry would be equipped with light tanks and “cruiser” tanks, both fast and lightly armored, the former armed with machine guns, the latter armed with a 2-pounder (40mm) antitank gun (ATG) plus machine guns. Tanks for infantry support—“I” tanks as they were designated—would be relatively slow and well armored, armed with a 2-pounder ATG plus a machine gun. Organizationally, the light tank and cruiser tank battalions would be used to form armored divisions, while the infantry tank battalions would be used to form tank brigades. Light tanks would also equip the armored reconnaissance battalions of infantry divisions and the corps armored reconnaissance brigades. With a few exceptions, light and cruiser tank battalions were cavalry units while infantry tank battalions were part of the Royal Tank Regiment—as the RTC was retitled in early 1939.

The Mk I (A9) Light Cruiser Tank (Tank Encyclopedia)

The British Army’s failure to group all armored units in a single arm of service, as happened in Germany, had unfortunate effects on both tank design and tactical doctrine. The Mk I (A9) cruiser tank, which entered service in 1939, was certainly fast and its 2-pounder ATG was an effective weapon, but its armor was altogether inadequate. The Mk I was followed into service by the Mk II (A10), originally intended to serve as an infantry tank. Judged unsuitable for that role, it was reclassified as a “heavy cruiser tank”—this reflecting its thicker armor and lower speed compared with the Mk I, now classified as a “light cruiser tank.” There were close support (CS) versions of both tanks, armed with a 3.7-inch howitzer in place of the 2-pounder ATG. The CS tank was intended to support other tanks in action, primary by firing smoke shell to shield their movements. The light tank was the Mk VI, armed with one caliber .50 and one caliber .303 machine gun.

The Mk VI Light Tank (Tank Encyclopedia)

None of these tanks met the criteria for what nowadays would be called a main battle tank, i.e. a tank whose firepower, armor protection and mobility enable it to perform any mission. But the deficiencies of British tanks were less important than the faulty tactical doctrine governing their employment on the battlefield.

Organizationally, the first British armored divisions had too many tanks and too little infantry. On the eve of war in 1939, the 1st Armoured Division had some 275 light, cruiser and CS tanks in two light and one heavy armored brigades, each with three battalions. A support group embodied two motorized infantry battalions, two field artillery battalions (motor towed), a motorized engineer battalion and a battery of 2-pounder ATG (motor towed). The Armoured Division (Egypt) was incomplete, with only one light and one heavy armored brigade, a reconnaissance battalion with wheeled armored cars, a single motorized infantry battalion and one battery each of field artillery and ATG, both motor towed. Thus the tanks could count on very little by way of infantry and artillery support, and combined arms tactics, integrating the action of tanks, infantry and artillery, were largely disregarded. But these disadvantages were not recognized, for it was thought that tanks, massed in large formations, could fight on their own in the old cavalry style. War experience, particularly in North Africa, was to show just how wrong that idea was.

Mk II (A12) Matilda Infantry Tanks (Imperial War Museum)

As for the infantry tanks, by 1939 they were grouped in brigades, each with three battalions, for a total of 151 “I” tanks and 21 light tanks. The first “I” tank was the Mk I (A11) Matilda, armed with a machine gun only. Its replacement, the Mk II (A12) Matilda, armed with the 2-pounder ATG and a machine gun, was just beginning to enter service—only two had been delivered by September 1939. Though slow, the Mk II Matilda was the best tank in the British Army’s inventory at the beginning of World War II. Its armor was impervious to any antitank gun in service and its gun could penetrate the armor of any German or Italian tank.

A shortcoming common to both cruiser tanks and the Mk II Matilda was that their main armament, the 2-pounder ATG, was not provided with high-explosive ammunition. If could fire only solid AT shot, which was useless for any other purpose. Though perhaps understandable in the case of the cruiser tanks, this was a strange oversight indeed in a tank designed to support the infantry.

That Britain, the birthplace of the tank, failed to capitalize on the pioneering work of the tank prophets and the EMF is a sad irony of military history. But the mechanization of the cavalry, necessary though it was, effectively dissipated the authority of the RTR, where the tank prophets and their successors had found their natural home. And the parochialism inherent in the British Army’s regimental system compounded the problem. Though the cavalry horse was retired, the cavalry regiments and the cavalry tradition survived. Gallantry and dash were honored above close study and application of tank tactics; the more professional outlook of the RTR was disregarded if not scorned. But the maintenance of those cherished cavalry traditions proved costly, and the bill was to come due in North Africa. Against the Italians British tanks prevailed, but the advent of Rommel and his Afrika Korps exposed the deficiencies of the British Army’s armored forces in a most painful manner.

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