Armoured Infantry became a feature of warfare during WW2 so I thought I’d write up some notes about they fought.
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The British motto was “If in doubt, dismount” (Bull, 2005, p. 54).
For most of the war the British had only the Universal and Bren carriers as armoured personnel carriers (Bull, 2005). The 13 carriers of a Carrier Platoon were used to protect flanks, reconnaissance, intercommunication, raids, and just as transport for personnel, stories or weapons. They weren’t used as infantry fighting vehicles. The carriers had little trench crossing ability, were stopped by any tank obstacle, and many other obstacles besides. Nor did they offer much protection to fire. That meant when the carriers got near the enemy, the Bren teams got out.
In 1944 the British began to convert tanks and self-propelled guns into “Kangaroos”, i.e. turretless fully tracked vehicles used as armoured personnel carriers (Bull, 2005; White, 2002). Their attack capability comprised a machinegun and the option to attack the enemy trenches with their tracks – which in White’s opinion made them “fairly helpless” (p. 61). The idea was for the Kangaroos to drive into the enemy positions, halt, using the machine gun to provide covering fire as the infantry to dismount, the wait for the infantry to get clear (so the vehicle didn’t detonate mines and endanger their colleagues). Given their vulnerability the Kangaroos were then expected to clear out as fast as possible. During Operation Blackcock 155 Brigade including the 4th Battalion of the King’s Own Scottish Borderers were transported in Canadian Kangaroos converted from Shermans and Grants. As it happened White and his platoon were dismounted as soon as there was a chance they would face German anti-tank guns, and so walked the last several kilometres. Other units of the battalion, however, continued in their vehicles and as a result lost several tanks and kangaroos to enemy tank fire.
In 1944 American made M3/5 Half Tracks were issued to some units (Bull, 2005). Each rifle platoon was allocated four half-tracks.
American Armoured infantry had the M3/5 Half Track (Bull, 2005). They were intended to advanced mounted as far as possible until either enemy fire or difficult terrain forced them to debus.
In 1944 some American infantry supporting tanks were carried on the tanks themselves (Bull, 2005). Six men could ride on a medium tank (such as a Sherman) and four on a light tank. The infantry got off before combat started.
Although some half tracks and bren/universal carriers were supplied to the Russians via the Lend Lease programme, the majority of Russian armoured infantry were tank riders.
The number of tank riders assigned to vehicles and to units as a whole seemed to vary a lot. At one point Loza’s (1996) tank brigade shared only a company and a half of tank riders.
From both Loza (1996) and Bessonov (2003) it seems the tank riders almost always got off to fight.
Tank riders also got off if they were likely to have to fight. For example, Loza (1996) describes a tank getting bogged down in mud. The tank riders dismounted and took up a defensive position to cover the tank crews as they tried to extricate the bogged vehicle with the help of a second tank. In the same incident, under pressure from immensely superior numbers some of the tank riders from the bogged vehicle actually climbed inside the tanks before they were buttoned up.
On occasion tank riders did remain mounted during combat. Loza (1996) describes a surprise night time attack on a dug in German outpost (two squads plus machine guns). The seven Russian Shermans charged through, crushing the enemy trenches, but without firing. In contrast, the sub-machine gunners, still clinging to their tanks, blaze away at the defenders. Once, however, this force was in position to attack the main German positions the tank riders dismounted and accompanied the vehicles on foot.
Although the classic image of the Panzergrenadier is intimately associated with the SdKfz 251 half-tracked armoured personnel carrier, there were never enough of these vehicles to equip panzergrenadier formations to full strength. The concept of a carrier-borne attack into the heart of the enemy’s defences accompanying the tanks was the ideal, but the reality was somewhat more mundane. Most Panzergrenadiers were transported in soft-skinned vehicles like trucks and motorcycles
Therefore instead of driving into the midst of the enemy position, the Panzergrenadiers. normally debussed at a forming-up point or start line away from the enemy’s line of sight. They then attacked in the conventional manner of infantry supporting tanks. The key tactical advantage was that because of their motorisation, they could be brought into battle as soon as they were needed.
It was only at the time of Barbarossa in 1941 that large numbers of SdKfz 251s became widely available and enough to equip full battallions of Panzergrenadiers within a Panzer division. Now, the Germans could experiment with fighting directly from their half-tracks. Although the SdKfz 251 provided decent protection against small arms fire, they only had 13mm of armoured plate. Thus they became vulnerable to even the smallest calibre anti-tank weapon and suffered accordingly. Due to heavy losses suffered amongst half-tracks when accompanying Tanks into the heart of a battle, the Germans fairly quickly resorted to debussing at least 400m or so in front of enemy positions, when using the SD KFZ 251. Nonetheless, under certain tactical conditions, the half-track could provide a useful firing position.
The SdKfz 251, drivers were prepared to simply ignore or drive through small arms fire, but the presence of enemy artillery or anti-tank guns usually saw them seek cover. The squad’s machine-gunners might well engage targets on the move, as could the rest of the squad if necessary from the sides. Often when advancing, the SdKfz 251s, could utilise a motorised version of fire and movement, advancing, stopping and firing to cover other half-tracks. A halted half-track provided a good firing position but was vulnerable. As a result, it was not recommended to stop for more than 15-20seconds in hostile terrain. The normal dismounting procedure was via the rear of the vehicle. However, in emergencies, the squad might well jump over the side as well as out of the back. This was often performed on the move at slow speeds. Once dismounted, the Panzergrenadiers fought as normal infantry. Improvements in Soviet anti-tank defences as the war advanced meant that the Panzergrenadiers often had to precede the tanks, or a mixed force of tanks and soldiers might move forward to clear enemy defences.
Bessonov, E. (2003). Tank Rider: Into the Reich with the Red Army. London: Greenhill.
Bull, S. (2005). World War II Infantry Tactics: Company and Battalion [Elite 122]. Osprey.
Loza, D. (1996). Commanding the Red Army’s Sherman Tanks: The World War II memoirs of Hero of the Soviet Union Dmitriy Loza. University of Nebraska Press.
White, P. (2002). With the Jocks: A soldier’s struggle for Europe 1944-45. Sutton.
Williamson, M. (2015, 22 March). Panzergrenadier Tactics. Axis Tanks and Combat Vehicles of World War II.