Sunday, April 15, 2012

Combat Mission Battles for Normandy Commonwealth Forces - What's a Good Infantry Tank Anyway? - Downtown

The game: as per the title of the entry
The scenario: Buron - The Main Event
The question: Infantry Tank? What for?

Continued from the previous entry. Spoiler alert: you may want to skip this entry if you are going to play this scenario.

The infantry tank, a concept of the UK and French during the interwar years, was intended to be a dedicated force multiplier for infantry formations. As such, it was to be heavily armored (at the expense of speed) to survive the hazards of close combat and armed with enough punch to effectively support the infantry. In the UK, such line of thought gave birth to the Matilda, the Valentine and the Churchill. 

Unabated doctrinal sways on the employment of tanks (with or without infantry) was the trademark of the Commonwealth high command during the year that preceded the landings in Normandy. More or less, the common theme among all the field manuals, pamphlets and notes were:
  • Infantry tanks formations (so called "army tanks") had different training and doctrine than other all-tank formations
  • An almost obsessive emphasis on narrow sector widths and tank to infantry ratios (one battalion of tanks per battalion of infantry)
  • The use of three echelons during the offensive: assault, support and reserve
  • Tanks have to support the infantry in close combat if needed (i.e. tanks should not bypass an enemy-occupied village if the the latter is holding up friendly infantry). Sorta, please see below.
All was very nice and dandy when the infantry tank was a tank as defined two paragraphs above and when the objectives were fortified camps defended by Italians (ask the lads of the 7th Royal Tank Regiment, they had a blast). Now enter now these two factors:
  • An enemy with a lot of skill and resources for anti-tank warfare (mines, obstacles and AT guns)
  • A massive switch to the venerable Sherman tank, with far less thick armor than the so-called infantry tanks
Wanna know more about the Sherman tank variants? I recommend a compact and comprehensive article in the second issue of the Tactical Wargamer Journal. The article is in page 115.

Yeah, the Commonwealth forces were not in Kansas anymore during the summer of 1944. The Germans had backed up a bit from their defensive tactical tradition of extensive and deep defensive belts (outposts and main lines of resistance) and bunkered themselves into a thin layer of tank-proof villages with tank trenches, minefields, AT guns ... The works! The Germans kept true to their doctrine in destroying the enemy by fire from their positions shallow but well concealed positions and in counterattacking with armor that was held back as a reserve. 

Boy, what a nasty tactical sludge to throw your infantry and thinly armored Sherman tanks into! Accordingly, the last pamphlet before the Canadian forces were ordered to start Operation Charnwood suggested that the tanks should stay back and support the infantry by fire.

And so we go into Buron in Combat Mission ... 

I already explained the plan: punch a tiny hole in the perimeter of Buron, gain a foothold, expand it towards the depth of the town and roll in fresh troops for clearing the objective. The first encounter of my troops was a German tank destroyer that the Sherman Vs couldn't take out. It was only after my only Sherman Firefly rolled into a hull down position that the German armor was destroyed.

Infantry leading, tanks supporting by fire. The town of Buron is in the background. An artillery barrage is falling on the left side of the town (I didn't want smoke and debris to obscure the line of sight to the place where I plan to breach into the town).

A German soldier in the edge of the town (own troops in the background). The outer edge of Buron offered almost no resistance.
The fight thickens. This screenshot is taken from the German side. A Canadian section just reached the edge of the town and got under fire from a MG hidden in a house. The tanks in the background offered immediate fire support.
As soon as my troops and tanks roll into the streets of Buron, casualties start to climb and the tactical tempo drops to a snail pace. The paved road that goes into the background was observed by the infantry before the Sherman rolled in. Observed is not the same as cleared ... Hopefully there is not an AT gun hiding back there.
Close support. The Canadian soldiers wait for their chance to move on. One thing I always forget is to plan the avenues of approach during the assault of built up areas. My forces now have a foothold in the town, but the mobility of my tanks is limited (note the tank bumper to bumper situation here) because I didn't anticipate the the town of Buron would be so cramped.

Clearing houses is off course an infantry task.

Narrow streets, treacherous terrain for both the dismounts and the armor.
Where the town was a bit more open, the infantry and the tanks moved at the same pace.
The amount of suppressive fire a single tank can offer is staggering. These soldiers are moving thanks to the fire of the 
This other German tank destroyer, spotted by my infantry and promptly dispatched by my armor.
Ran out of time to complete the mission.

  1. I thought one company of infantry was enough to make a deep dent into victory. Not so. The right side of the town remained controlled by the enemy. Clearing built up areas sucks up a lot of troops.
  2. A tad more planning is needed to move through a town if armor is involved. Even when my tanks were just four, I had some backups which could have ended in a disaster.
As for the original topic of this two entries (infantry tanks and tank-infantry cooperation):
  • This scenario didn't feature a German opponent with enough AT assets to repel my forces. A couple of tank destroyers but no AT guns, no ditches, no minefields (at least in the sector I attacked).As for infantry-borne AT weapons, maybe I just destroyed them by fire with the tanks (I made liberal use of suppressive fire all over the town). 
  • Once my forces gained a foothold in Buron, the tactical pace of attack was entirely determined by the infantry
  • Despite some miscarriages of route-planning, the Shermans provided a mobile and overwhelming source of suppressive fire. By the time the tanks were halfway through the town, my heave MG crews were still chugging their butts towards the town.

Unfortunately, it looks like this topic of the infantry tank role will take other scenario to play ...



Desdinova said...

In defense of the Italians, for a large conscript force drawn from a suppressed populace with a 10% literacy rate, they fought pretty well. If you want an interesting look at an effective AT action, look at the Folgore Division. They repulsed the enemy in their sector with gas bombs, molotovs, and underpowered AT guns.

In the meantime, it looks like the guys at Battlefront did a good job putting in realistic German positions. They didn't man the outer line of houses in a town, though it seems that one MG position was an exception to the rule. What were your overall casualties? It seems like your liberal fires (Not a bad thing, mind you) seemed to silence most of the guys brave enough to come out to play.

Lieste said...

I don't really understand the too frequent comments disparaging the M4 medium and it's armour - frontally it was one of the better protected tanks of the mid war period, and better than the T34 or Tiger IE.

The side hull is weak, but that is a fault shared with lots of other 'excellent' vehicles. What lets it down is the low velocity 75mm gun in the standard infantry support versions - this lacks the ability to kill equivalent tanks at extended range, but has excellent fragmentation - better than the 105mm Howitzer shell for anti-personnel work.

JC said...

Hello, folks.

Casualties were around 13 men. No tank losses. The enemy lost around 38 men.

Lieste: do you know how thick the frontal armor of the M4 was?

Lieste said...

Depends on the model.
Basic design, cast was glacis 51@55 degrees, but with numerous weaker areas - 51 degree rounded nose, driver's hoods etc - this, particularly with the bolted cast nose was justifiably considered not that strong... but compares to ~30mm bolted armour on British Cruisers that it replaced...
With the sharper nose the weak points were eliminated, and the welded hulls were better protected - weak points such as driver's hoods had applique brining them to the basic protection level, and the nose was 108mm rounded.
The later welded glacis was 64mm at 47 degrees ~ the combination being a bit tougher than the earlier armour when hit by mid-late war shell.

The protection given by the hull on average falls a bit short of the T34 until the 47 degree welded examples, but the turret of all but the earliest with the narrow mantlet offered better protection... early T34 had only ~45mm armour on the turret, and mid war examples no more than ~72mm, while the M4 turret had 76mm@30 with 91mm mantlet, or 64mm@58degrees (combined) and 90-100mm mantlet on the 76mm gun armed tanks.

Jumbo of course was much heavier on the front: the upper parts had 102mm@47 (38mm(side armour) welded onto the 64mm Glacis), and the turret had 152mm (though the mantlet remained ~90mm)

Of course, all this was penetrable by the 8.8cm and 7.5cm guns, but the L48 was the most common gun, and the effective range was fairly short ~500m or so against the late standards.

Side armour is thin: 38mm overall, with some applique covering limited areas near the ready rack still being inadequate against anything bigger than 37mm at close range, or 50mm at extended range. This is what I think complaints about 'weak' armour are really talking about.