Many wargames like Squad Leader, ASL, Squad Battles, etc. are games predominately about infantry warfare. However, tanks play a very important role during combat actions within these systems. Because the slow, methodical movement of infantry contradicts the fast, shocking, blitz associated with tanks, we must dig deep into armored warfare to understand how it can support the infantry, as well as operate on its own. This chapter will cover the Tank Platoon, Section, individual tank and Tank Company in combat.
The tank was invented in WWI. While some visionary men, like Lidell Hart, could see the tank’s potential, it was the German and Russian armies that wholly embraced the tank. For the duration of the Spanish Civil War, both countries sent many tanks and ‘tankettes’ to their respective sides with the hope of seeing first hand how this new weapon could reshape warfare. Many lessons were learned, such as the benefits of massed armored assaults, and the devastating power of the German 88mm AA gun against tanks in a direct fire role. During WWII, armored tactics were developed and refined, and many a great leader – Rommel, Patton, Montgomery, Zukhov – earned their notoriety as excellent Generals mainly because of their ability to properly employ tanks. As WWII progressed, most main battle tanks (MBTs) became heavier, the guns they carried became bigger, and the overall armor became thicker, all in an attempt to maintain an edge over the enemy in armored combat.
The basic unit for a tank formation is the platoon. A German or American full strength platoon typically consisted of 5 tanks; for British platoons there were 4 tanks, and for Russian platoons there were 3 tanks. While tanks can operate in sections of two or three, it is preferred to keep the integrity of the platoon together if at all possible. This is extremely important in early war tanks that did not have radios – they basically became ‘dumb’ once separated, and so always tried to stay together as a group. If split into sections, typically one half is controlled by the platoon leader (the PL), while the other is controlled by the platoon sergeant (the PSG). Both the platoon leader and platoon sergeant, then, have at least one tank assigned as their ‘wingman’ that follows their orders and instructions, as well as protects the PL or PSG.
A company of tanks usually had 3 tank platoons led by a Company HQ section consisting of 2 tanks – the Company Commander’s tank (CO) and his Executive Officer (XO; or Adjutant, depending on the army). The CO and XO always place themselves were they can best control the battle (for example, the CO behind one platoon and the XO behind another). The exception to this style was the Russians, who only had one tank at the Company HQ level (the CO’s tank). He usually took up position either between two platoons in a linear attack, or right behind his lead tank platoon in a frontal attack. Regardless of doctrine, a prudent player should always place his leadership tank where he can best control the battle.
12-3.1 PLATOON FORMATIONS & TACTICS Using a 5 tank platoon in these diagrams, B0 represents the PL, with B1 and B2 his ‘wingmen’; the B4 tank is the PSG with the B3 tank his ‘wingman’. Wingmen always mimic their lead tank in their actions; for example when the PL moves, the wingman maintains space and speed to stay in formation with the PL. Distance between tanks varies depending on terrain, but in open ground anywhere from 50 to 200+ meters distance between vehicles is not uncommon. The density of the terrain dictates the distance you space your vehicles.
Figure 1: Various platoon formations (Note: up is direction of travel)
One can see that some formations are easier to control and maintain than others, especially in dense terrain. As a rule of thumb, the ‘column’ is used when contact is unlikely, the ‘line’ or ‘wedge’ when contact is possible, and the ‘V’ or ‘echelon’ depending on how you want to attack the enemy (V’s and echelons allow the maximum amount of guns to fire on the enemy). Finally, the ‘coil’ is used when contact is not expected, like for long halts, re-supply missions and overnight laagers.
12-3.2 INDIVIDUAL TANK TACTICS Each tank fights as a part of the platoon; however, each also fights as an individual platform. Tankers usually try to get into “defilade or hull-down” meaning they hide the lower body of the tank itself. This adds protection by keeping the lower body hidden from enemy direct fire. Folds in the ground, earthen-berms, hills, walls, etc. provide excellent cover from which a tank can emerge, fire, and retreat back in to cover. Most wargames have many of these types of terrain available and it is up to the prudent player to find them.
As an example, in Squad Battles or Steel Panthers, the next time you go racing across open ground with a tank, stop from time to time and use the ‘view’ function to look for those folds in the flat terrain that exist across the battlefield; those folds might be the perfect place to pull into while you move forward, providing cover from enemy guns. In fact, most armies’ tank drivers are specifically trained to look ahead and determine the best place to fight from that provides such defilade cover for their tank. After all, a totally exposed tank is a very large target.
Another individual tank tactic to use is the ‘up and back’ firing technique, where-in the tank starts completely hidden behind a hill or berm from enemy view. During your turn, bring your tank up out of defilade (on top of the hill), and fire on a target. After your first shot or two, go back into defilade, bring up a different tank and fire again. If you still have shots available, then later bring back up the first tank that fired and put some more rounds into the enemy. By alternating like this, you give the enemy little chance to ‘acquire’ your tanks with his shots, thus dramatically increasing your survival rate. The sole drawback to the ‘up and back’ technique is that you will also have a low acquisition percentage. However, if you are fighting a massed tank attack, this is an excellent way to even the odds. Experiment with it – but remember, don’t end your turn with your tank perched atop the hill or the enemy will quickly zero in on it.
12-3.3 FIRE CONTROL AND DISTRIBUTION OF FIRES OF THE PLATOON It is not widely known that tank crews spend many, many long hours learning to fight as a cohesive vehicle. A lot of time is also spent working together as a platoon. Much time is spent pouring over sand tables and hypothetical battlefields learning how to divide up the battle area into sectors and ‘engagement zones’. Fire Control and Distribution of Fires are critical techniques learned by the crews. The entire platoon must thoroughly understand the three basic fire control patterns: frontal, crossing, and depth.
12-3.3.1 Frontal fires – are simply each tank takes a sector to its front (say a five hex wide block, readily divided by prominent features, like houses, trees, etc.) and each kills what is in its assigned sector.
12-3.3.2 Crossing fires – are more complex; the two tanks on the left fire across the front of the platoon and engage enemy units in front of the tanks on the right and vice versa. The cross-pattern is used when obstructions prevent some or all tanks within the platoon from firing straight to the front or when the enemy’s frontal armor protection requires use of flank shots to achieve kills. Crews work so that outside enemy vehicles are engaged by outside friendly vehicles, who are working their way into the center of the enemy formation as they fire. The two ‘inside tanks’ start from the center and work outward. This way multiple hits on the same targets are lessened and precious ammo is saved.
12-3.3.3 Depth fire – is the most complex of all. The depth fire pattern is used when targets are exposed in depth (like waves of enemy coming at you). Employment of depth fire is dependent on the position and formation of both the engaging platoon and the target. The platoon’s outside tanks fire at long targets and work their way to the center from the flanks as well as inward; the inside tanks start killing close targets and work their way out from the center as well as outward. Again, this lessens the chances of wasting ammo by hitting enemy tanks with more than one round.
Why such complex fire techniques? In most situations, these allow the platoon leader to distribute platoon fires rapidly and effectively. It also prevents two tanks from firing on the same target, wasting ammo. Regardless of the fire pattern used, the goal is to engage the more dangerous near and flank targets first, then shift to far and center targets. Tanks should engage most dangerous to least dangerous in their sector. A “most dangerous” threat is any enemy tank or antitank system preparing to engage the platoon.
12-4 THE TANK PLATOON IN THE OFFENSE
During attacks, the platoon moves in a formation described previously above that best fits the tactical situation. Like infantry, tank platoons also employ movement techniques such as Traveling, Traveling Overwatch and Bounding Overwatch to get to the objective. The only major difference between infantry movement and tank movement (other than speed) is that during the attack, tank platoons tend to maneuver by sections, with one section covering the other as they move (See below). If the attack is by a company, the platoons maneuver as a complete unit, with one platoon providing overwatching cover fire for another platoon.
Overwatching section Bounding Section.
Tanks are primarily offensive weapons. They are at their best when driving deep into the enemies’ rear and wreaking havoc with support units and supply columns. However, on occasion tanks must conduct defensive operations. We previously discussed how tanks control their fires with fire control measures and distribution of fires.
In the defense, these measures are critical to conserve ammo and defeat a numerically superior enemy.
There are two types of defensive operations employed by the armored platoon: the Mobile Defense, a fluid situation in which the tanks allow the enemy to advance into a position that exposes the enemy to counterattack by a mobile reserve – or the Area Defense. The focus of the static Area Defenses is on retention of terrain; defending units are incorporated into a defensive position (probably along with infantry and other assorted weapons systems) and engage the enemy from an interlocking series of positions to destroy him, largely by direct fires. Properly employed, tanks can reach out past the range that infantry weapons can fire and wreak havoc with an attacking force. Tanks can also cover infantry if the grunts have to pull out due to overwhelming odds. Usually, however, the combined firepower of a platoon of tanks supporting a platoon of infantry is devastating and will carry the day.
Once the enemy has been sufficiently defeated, those same tanks must be prepared to change over to offensive operations to retain the initiative and complete the destruction of the enemy. The prudent player will ‘flex’ his tanks out of his defense once he senses victory, and ensure the enemy is destroyed by running down his stragglers and broken forces with his heavy tanks. Likewise, a tank counter-attack may be able to drive deep enough into the enemy’s lines to disrupt and destroy the enemy artillery as well, since it most probably will have been deployed forward to participate in the assault. Such lucrative targets are excellent for exploiting tanks to engage, and prevent those enemy assets from being used another day.
The tank is truly a flexible weapon that can transition from defense to offense in a short timeframe. Be sure and plan for such contingencies.
12-7 THE TANK COMPANY
The tank company usually consists of 3 tank platoons. The formations used by the company are very basic.
12-7.1 The Company Wedge
PLATOON 2 PLATOON 3
12-7.2 The Company Vee
PLATOON 2 PLATOON 3
During WWII, most armies subscribed to a 4 company tank battalion (the Russians used 3 companies). As we pointed out earlier, companies usually consisted of 3 platoons each. However, at the start of the war, none of the belligerents had in their arsenals the numbers or types of tanks as laid out by their TO&E’s and so many stop gap measures were implemented.
12-8.1 The Battalion Wedge
In 1939 – 40 the Germans organized their battalions into 3 companies of light tanks (Mk I or Mk II training tanks, pressed into frontline service due to a severe shortage of MkIII’s) which formed the forward wedge of their attack, followed by 1 company of the heavier PzKfw IVe short barrel tanks (see illustration below).
LIGHT COMPANY LIGHT COMPANY
While the Mk I and Mk II machine gun tanks could easily take on enemy infantry and to a lesser degree even enemy tanks, it was the big 75mm MKIVe that blasted enemy AT Guns and fortified positions very well. Behind the MkIV’s came the Panzer Grenadiers, in trucks or in halftracks, to provide infantry support.
The lessons learned in France and the Low Countries resulted in a radical change in German armored doctrine for Operation Barbarossa – as the Mk III’s came into the line, the German Panzer Battalions were cut to 3 companies and took on the shape of a ‘Vee’; two light Mk III companies on each forward wing with the MkIV company at the apex of the V. (see below)
LIGHT COMPANY LIGHT COMPANY
PZ GRENADIER CO.
While the panzer battalions were indeed smaller than before, what they lacked in numbers they made up for in punch; the Mk III’s carried the 50mm long gun sufficient for most tank battles, while the Mk IV’s still carried the 75mm short gun to deal with stubborn enemy resistance. One must realize that the MkIV’s 75mm gun was of sufficient firepower to sit out of range of enemy AT Guns and blast them with impunity. Once these AT Guns were dealt with, the lighter tanks would charge forward and rip through the flimsy enemy infantry defenses, pressing deep in to the rear areas unmolested.
When the Germans ran up against the T-34 and other more modern series of tanks, they changed their company and battalion formations yet again. The Panzer Bell consisted of 3 medium companies of MkIV long gun or Panther tanks, arrayed in a wedge again, with the Panzergrenadiers in the center and a heavy company of Tigers to the rear to provide a counter-punch, should Russian armor be encountered. Momentum was maintained by swinging the heavy tank company out around and into the flank of the opposing force.
FM 17-15 The Tank Platoon, US Army, 1996
TM-E 30-451 The German Armed Forces, US Army, 1945
FM 71-1 The Tank & Mechanized Infantry Combat Team, US Army, 1988
US Army Infantry School CATD training supplements, US Army, 1995