June 30, 2015

How Should Tanks Attack a Bridge?

German tanks cross a bridge

An interesting question indeed. Issue No. 36 of “Tactical and Technical Trends” provides a translated German article on the subject. Two examples from the Eastern Front are discussed. 

First Example

(1) Situation

The Russians were withdrawing toward the north. On the previous day they had been thrown out of an improvised fortified position. A German tank battalion with attached units was ordered to pursue the enemy.

(2) Mission

The battalion was ordered to occupy the stream sector with the bridge in a village and overtake and destroy the retreating enemy.

(3) Friendly Troops

The battalion had 23 tanks -- the 1st Company, 18 -- all PzKpfw IIIs, of which 10 were taken over from another battalion on the morning of the day of attack. They were manned by crews which had not been trained to work as a team, and the drivers did not know their tanks. The 2nd Company had only three tanks, also PzKpfw IIIs. In addition, Battalion Headquarters had two command tanks. There was no third company. One very weak company of motorcyclists was attached, as well as two guns from an infantry cannon company.

(4) Course of Action

The battalion marched in the following order:
  • 1st Company,
  • Battalion Headquarters,
  • 2nd Company,
  • Infantry cannons,
  • Motorcyclists.
Some of the motorcyclists were mounted on the tanks of the 1st Company. At 10:00, after taking over the new tanks, the 1st Company moved out without sending forward an advance platoon. The march was rather quiet. After moving about three miles, the head of the 1st Company reached the crest overlooking the river and saw the village with the bridge, lying in the valley below.

The leading vehicles drove straight toward the bridge at high speed, without halting to observe the terrain to their front and without giving an order or receiving one. The following tanks did the same, so that the company advanced at top speed along the road and over the crest with its entire flank exposed to the enemy. When the leading tanks, company commander, and platoon leader of the 1st Platoon were about 50 yards away, the bridge blew up. Entrenched on the opposite slope, the enemy opened fire with antitank and antiaircraft guns and artillery upon the village and the road where the company had halted. The company took cover behind the houses, each tank for itself.

By this time the rest of the battalion had reached the crest overlooking the valley and halted. The 2nd Company and the infantry guns deployed to fire on the enemy entrenched on the hill across the river, while the motorcyclists dismounted from the tanks and took cover. The commander of the motorcyclists was with the battalion commander. Because the new tank crews did not know how to operate their radios, it was impossible for the battalion commander to regain control of the 1st Company and fight it as a unit. Proper coordination was absent; the new crew members did not know where they belonged. Thus the tanks of the 1st Company fought independently of each other.

Since a crossing was not possible without the bridge, the commander managed to recall the 1st Company. Under the protection of several rear tanks which opened fire one by one, each of the advanced tanks broke off separately. Three tanks of the 1st Company were knocked out in the action -- two entirely and one which could be towed away. When the Russians saw that we had given up the attempt to cross, they contented themselves with harassing fire so that their own losses were fairly small.

The following mistakes were made in the first example:

(1) An advance should not be made until signal communications have been established, particularly where a unit receives replacements the same day it goes into action.
(2) On the march, security must be maintained, which was not done in this case.
(3) In open terrain, motorcyclists or armored infantry should not ride the leading tanks. In the case described, the motorcycle unit was scattered when the leading tanks ran into opposition; control of the unit was lost. In wooded country, where tanks are tied to the roads and trails through the woods, infantry may ride the leading tanks. When the leading tanks encounter the enemy, the tank "grenadiers" get off at once and fight on foot.

The situation in the first example should have been handled as follows:

(1) Before the attack, the 1st Company should have placed a platoon in a position from which it could fire on the bridge; then a second platoon should have rushed the bridge as was done in the second example.
(2) In any event, the enemy undoubtedly would have succeeded in blowing the bridge in time. The battalion commander would then have had to use his entire force for a coordinated attack. This means that the infantry guns would have had to take up firing positions, as well as most of the tanks.
(3) The next step would have been an assault by the motorcycle company.
(4) The destruction of the bridge would not necessarily have prevented the accomplishment of the mission if there had been another intact crossing in the neighborhood. Then the battalion commander would have attempted a crossing at the latter place. If no crossing were available, a bridgehead would have had to be established. The armored division would then send up engineer and infantry reinforcements to enlarge this bridgehead.

The second example comes from the Caucasus campaign.

Second Example

The Kuban river with its tributaries
2. The Kuban river with its tributaries.
The Laba river is in the center, west of Armavir.

(1) Situation

With a strong combat group the enemy had taken up a position astride the two roads leading to Armavir in the region of Dondu Kowskaja on the Laba River and had cut off and encircled a German infantry battalion. 

(2) Mission

The 9th Panzer-Company was assigned the mission of rescuing the infantry battalion, and capturing the bridge across the Laba.

(3) Development of Action

(a) Taking the Bridge

The 9th Company advanced on Dondu Kowskaja from the direction of Maikop. Shortly before reaching the bridge leaning over the Laba, it was learned that it had already been occupied by enemy antitank guns and riflemen. The 2d Platoon was immediately ordered to go into position to the right of the road in the wooded sector and to bring the bridge under fire. After the 2d Platoon had taken position, the rest of the company advanced toward the bridge at full speed and took possession of it. The 2d Platoon was then ordered forward with one tank left at the bridge for security. 

The attack of the 9th Panzer-Company

(b) Taking the Village

Communications were established with the commander of the friendly infantry battalion that was surrounded. Some of the German infantry had managed to extricate itself, and it was attached to the tank company. The tank company commander divided his force into two groups and ordered them to advance through the village in two wedge formations; the two wedges were to close in a pincers movement upon reaching the northern edge of the village. The attached infantry advanced to the right and left of the tanks with the mission of protecting the flanks and of reporting any antitank guns or rifles. The attack was successful.

(4) Lessons Learned

(a) In attacks on bridge crossings fire support should be provided and the bridge crossed at high speed to form a bridgehead.

(b) In local fighting the cooperation between tanks and riflemen must be very close. The riflemen must immediately call out to the tank crews any target and enemy movements that they see, or they must destroy them with their own weapons.

The Caucasus area
4. A view of the wider area.

Military Intelligence Division, War Department. Tactical and Technical Trends No. 36. Washington, D.C.: October 21, 1943.

Photos attribution
1. Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-049-0008-33/CC BY-SA 3.0 de, via Wikimedia Commons
2. Poux, CC BY-SA 3.0,via Wikimedia Commons
3., 4. http://www.openstreetmap.org/copyright, operational details: author