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COMBINED ARMS, 1919-1945




Upon completion of this lesson, you will be able to describe the evolution of combined arms warfare between the World Wars. This will include the factors which retarded development and important innovations for each of the major armies. You will also be able to describe the evolution of combined arms warfare during World War II.

TASKS: Demonstrate an understanding of the evolution of combined arms warfare from 1918 through 1945.
CONDITIONS: You are given information on the technology, practice and doctrine of combined arms from 1918-1945.

Demonstrate understanding of the task by correctly answering 70% of the questions in a multiple-choice test.


House, Captain Jonathan M., Toward Combined Arms Warfare: A Survey of 20th-Century Tactics, Doctrine, and Organizational, Combat Studies Institute, Research Study No. 2, US Government Printing Office, Washington D.C., August 1984.



COMBINED ARMS, 1919-1945


In order to understand the progress of combined arms warfare between world wars, information on factors which retarded military developments will be presented in Learning Event 1. Descriptions of the most important innovations in combined arms doctrine of the interwar period will follow. In Learning Event 2, the major trends and innovations in combined arms warfare during World War II will be discussed.



No major army entered World War II with the same doctrine and weapons that it had used 20 years before. During the interwar period, most professional soldiers realized that some change was necessary if they wanted to perform better on the battlefield. Particularly changes in the penetration and exploitation operations that had proven so difficult during World War I. The armies differed markedly in their solution to those problems. Instead of a simple choice between trench warfare and blitzkrieg, each army was faced with a variety of possible changes. This reflected a series of degrees of modernization between the two extremes. In many cases, the choice was determined by social, economic, and political factors more than by the tactical concepts of senior officers.

Factors Which Retarded Military Change

Because of this tactical variety between world wars, we must examine the doctrine and organization of each of the major powers prior to entering World War II. First, we need to examine some common factors that hampered military change in most nations. They are:

  • Anti-military feelings.

  • Tight defense budgets.

  • Technology.

  • Confusion in terminology.

  • Advocates of change who did not always speak persuasively.

  • Opposition of the more traditional combat arms.

Each of these factors will be discussed in detail.

Anti-Military Feelings. The first of the factors which retarded military change was a general revulsion against warfare and all things military. After decades of peacetime preparation and years of bloodshed, few people in Europe or America were interested in further military expenditures or experiments with new weapons and tactics. Even after most armies concluded that trench warfare was a special kind of combat that would not necessarily recur, the general public and political leadership were unwilling to risk another war. In 1928, 15 nations signed the Kellogg-Briand Pact, renouncing the use of war except in national self-defense. During the '20s and '30s, a series of international conferences attempted to limit military and naval arms and equipment. These conferences ultimately failed. However, professional soldiers still felt it was fruitless to justify new tanks and aircraft in a social and political environment that might outlaw such weapons at any time.

Tight Defense Budgets. During the first fifteen years of peace, extremely tight defense budgets reflected the public distaste for warfare. The victorious armies had huge stockpiles of 1918-model equipment and ammunition. These stockpiles had to be used up at peacetime rates before major new expenditures could be justified. Thus, during the early 1930s the US Army spent more money researching means to preserve ammunition than to develop new weapons. However, just as the stockpiles were consumed, the Great Depression caused even tighter defense budgets. This hampered development of tanks, aircraft, and other new weapons. The Germans had been deprived of their weapons by the Versailles Peace Treaty of 1919 and could therefore start fresh. To some extent, the German tactical successes of 1939-'42 were due to the fact that the German tanks and other vehicles were produced early enough to allow extensive experimentation and training before the war. In contrast, the British and French had few modern weapons with which to train until the eve of World War II. Nations with a smaller industrial base, such as Japan and Italy, could not fully compete in the arms race.

Technology. A third factor which affected military change was technology. It did so in two ways. First, rapid changes in technology made government even more reluctant to invest in existing designs that would soon be outmoded. Second, it was often difficult to determine exactly how this new technology affected the tactics of 1918. Equipment designed to fulfill these tactics might be unsuitable for different functions and concepts. New designs appeared without appropriate tactical concepts to accompany them.

Confusion Terminology. There was also considerable confusion in terminology. Both advocates and opponents of mechanization often used the term "tank" loosely. It could mean not only an armored, tracked, turreted, gun-carrying fighting vehicle, but also any form of armored vehicle or mechanized unit. Such usage confused historians, making it difficult to determine whether a particular speaker was discussing pure tank forces, mechanized combined arms forces, or mechanization of infantry forces. Another term often confused was "mechanization". Any use of the gasoline engine for warfare could be termed mechanization. However, this term usually describes the use of armored tracked combat vehicles. By contrast, "motorization" describes the use of motor vehicles not intended for combat, but which may improve logistics and mobility of the battlefield. Prior to World War I, all nations relied on a pool of civilian horses as transportation in case of war. With the rise of motor vehicles during the 1920s, this supply of civilian animals declined to the point where armies had to base their transportation planning on motor vehicles. Thus, motorization was often seen as an easier, cheaper, less revolutionary change than mechanization.

Advocates of Change - Little Persuasion. The fifth factor which affected military change was the fact that advocates did not always speak persuasively or with one voice, even when their terms were understood. Even those reformers with a clear vision of mechanized, combined arms war were often so extreme in their statements that they alienated commanders and politicians who set military policy. In the French and Soviet cases, political issues retarded the development of new mechanized formations. Proponents of strategic airpower, such as Emilio Douhet and William Mitchell made exaggerated claims that retarded the development of the tactical combined arms team. Intent on achieving independence from army control, the airpower advocates vigorously opposed tactical air support and air-ground cooperation. They considered the targets involved to be too minor to justify risking aircraft. These air enthusiasts had limited success as publicists, influencing politicians with an apparently cheap, efficient solution to defense needs. As a result, funds were diverted from valuable training or ground-weapons development to building air forces that were not in proportion to their respective armies. This led to the sixth and final factor that affected military change - the opposition of the more traditional combat arms.

Opposition of Traditional Combat Arms. Many commentators have blamed such opposition for thwarting or retarding the development of mechanized warfare. The tank and aircraft were not the only weapons systems that developed between the world wars. The older branches had genuine needs that competed with new weapons for funding and for roles in the combined arms team. The infantry had legitimate requirements for increased organic firepower and for antitank and antiaircraft defenses. They also had legitimate requirements for some form of armored support to assist it in the deliberate attack. The artillery needed the same mobility as the armored forces in order to support those forces in the breakthrough. Fast moving mechanized formations required more flexible communications and fire support. Combat engineers had become preoccupied with maintaining lines of communication during the positional warfare of 1914-'18. These men were more important than ever when mechanized units increased the problems of mobility and countermobility on the battlefield. The rest of this learning event will focus on the development of mechanized formations and tactics. Such developments must be viewed within the context of a more traditional mass army.

Combined Arms Innovations

Next, we will examine combined arms innovations and doctrine for each of the major armies. We will consider Great Britain, Germany, France, the Soviet Union, and the United States.

Great Britain. In 1918, Great Britain led the world in both armored equipment and armored doctrine. However, the British Army gradually lost its lead, not only in armor, but in most areas of tactical progress. In addition to the six common factors previously discussed, there were other special obstacles that prevented British innovation. The most commonly cited obstacle was traditionalism within the British Army, The strong unit identity of the British regimental system discouraged radical changes within the traditional arms and services. Another problem that limited change was that of worldwide imperial defense.

Britain drifted in the area of mechanization. Developments in the more traditional arms were equally mixed. Cavalry merged into the mechanization process, although too late to learn all the mechanical and tactical differences between horses and light armor. Infantry was saddled with inappropriate weapons throughout the 1920s. Between 1936 and 1939, new equipment and organization finally restored the firepower and mobility of British infantry, but at a price. By 1939, the British Army had lost much of its pioneering advantage in both equipment and technology. Outside of the infantry battalion, cooperation between different weapons systems and arms was little better than it had been in


Germany. France, Britain, and the United States, the victors of 1918, had a natural tendency to employ at least some of the materiel and doctrine of 1918 during the immediate postwar years. A defeated Germany, by contrast, had every reason to embrace new tactics and weapons.

Even if it wished to, Germany could not reproduce the mass armies and static defenses of 1914-'18. The Treaty of Versailles limited the German Army to 100,000 long-tour professional soldiers. The same treaty forbade Germany to possess tanks, poison gas, combat aircraft, and heavy artillery. German doctrine led technological development, in contrast to the situation in other armies.

The German Military Tradition. Since the 1860s, the German tradition of tactics and operations favored outflanking and encircling the enemy. If that failed, the army would breakthrough and disrupt the enemy's organization. This German tradition meant two things:

  • First, the Germans believed in concentrating all their resources on a relatively narrow front for breakthrough.

  • Second, this concentration of forces required the careful integration of all weapons and arms at battalion level or below to overcome the enemy's defenses.

Another part of the German military tradition was decentralized execution. German commanders moved forward to observe and make tactical decisions for themselves. This enabled them to communicate their decisions to subordinates much more rapidly than was possible from a command post in the rear. This decentralization was facilitated by a mutual understanding among German leaders. It was an understanding based on common doctrine such as the Command and Combat of the Combined Arms. Aware of both a commander's intention and the common doctrine, subordinate leaders could execute that intention in accordance with that doctrine. Thus reducing the need for detailed instructions from higher echelons. This decentralization and rapidity of decision making were ideally suited to any form of fluid combat, including mechanized operations.

Mechanization. Among the German proponents of mechanization, Gen. Heinz Guderian was probably the most influential. Guderian proposed that it was useless to develop just tanks, or even to mechanize parts of the traditional arms. What was needed was an entirely new mechanized formation of all arms that would maximize the effects of the tank. In 1931, Guderian became the commander of the 3rd Motor Transport Battalion. Using dummy equipment (because of the limitations of the Versailles Treaty), this battalion was an experimental "mechanized" force. It consisted of one company each of the following:

  • Motorcycles.

  • Armored cars.

  • Tanks.

  • Antitank guns.

It was a similar, small-scale demonstration using some of the first light tanks produced in Germany that impressed Hitler in 1934. This eventually led to the development of the Panzer division.

Panzer Division. In 1934, experimental maneuvers for a full panzer division took place. In 1935, Hitler formed the first three such divisions on a permanent basis. The German panzer division of 1935, is shown in Figure 4. As in other armies, Germany's first effort at armored organization included a tremendous number of tanks (561 per division). Otherwise, this organization showed considerable balance in numbers and types of weapons. The brigade and regimental headquarters were trained to control cross-attached units and weapons systems. Such a system required considerable training and put great stress on the maintenance and logistical support of the cross-attached elements. However, this system enabled the panzer division to combine different weapons systems as needed. The true value of the panzer division lay not so much in their armor and armament, but in the fact that they were available early, in considerable numbers, and with radio communication.

Close Air Support. Another German advantage was in the field of close air support of ground operations. In 1939, on-call air support against targets of opportunity was well advanced for most of the German Army.

The tradition of combined arms integration was continued and updated in the German Army between world wars. In 1939, 24 out of 33 tank battalions and 1,944 out of 3,195 tanks were concentrated in the six panzer divisions. The contrast with other countries, where large numbers of tanks were dedicated to infantry support and cavalry roles, is striking.

France. The existence of a 100,000-man professional German Army forced the French to develop plans to counter a sudden invasion by that army. The postwar French Army was large, but ill prepared to stop a surprise attack by even the small German force.

To protect itself from a sudden attack by the small German Army, France constructed the Maginot Line. The Maginot Line was a string of self-contained concrete forts with gun turrets. It was built between 1930 and 1936 in Northeastern France. Its function was to protect the land regained in 1918 and to force any German invasion to pass through Belgian territory before reaching France. This extra distance would give France time to mobilize. In reality, the Maginot Line did not prove beneficial to the French Army.

In general, the French doctrine viewed combined arms as a process by which all other weapons systems assisted the infantry in its forward progress. Tanks were considered to be "a sort of armored infantry," subordinated to the infantry branch. The subordination of tanks to infantry impeded the development of roles for armor other than close infantry support. However, Chief of Staff Maxime Weygand took significant steps toward motorization and mechanization during the early 1930s. Five, ultimately seven, infantry divisions became motorized. One brigade in each of four light cavalry divisions was equipped with half-tracks and armored cars. In 1934, Weygand continued the trend towards armored cavalry by forming the first "light mechanized division". This division, with its combination of reconnaissance, light tanks, trucked infantry, and towed artillery, was remarkably similar to the German Panzer division being developed at the same time. However, in 1934, the developments of the French Army in the area of mechanization was nearly aborted by the writings of Charles de Gaulle. De Gaulle's book (Towards the Professional Army) jeopardized the efforts of Weygand and set extremely high standards for the armored division.

France entered World War II with a mass army that would require months to organize and train. Their new mechanized formations and modern equipment had been fielded too late for proper testing, evaluation, and training. Like those of the British, French armored units were specialized either for cavalry missions or deliberate breakthrough attacks. They were not balanced for all types of mobile operations. Given these limitations, the French doctrine of slow, methodical offensive action appeared as the only course that would allow them to attack at all. Unfortunately, the Germans did not wait for the French to plan and execute such attacks.

The Soviet Union. The Soviet Union's mass development after World War I differed from that of the rest of Europe for two reasons.

  • First, the Red Army was created in 1918 after the Bolshevik revolution and lacked the traditions and training of other major armies.

  • Second, the Russian Civil War of 1918-'21 was markedly different from most of the European campaigns of World War I. Because of the vast distances and weak armies involved in the Civil War, penetration and encirclement were no longer difficult, and field maneuver was the rule.

Like Hitler's Germany, but unlike France and Britain, the Soviet Union was openly interested in offensive warfare as a means of spreading its political doctrines.

Deep Battle - Tukhachevsky's Doctrine. During the 1920s and early 1930s, a group of Soviet officers led by Mikhail Tukhachevsky developed a concept of "Deep Battle." It employed conventional infantry and cavalry divisions, mechanized formations, and aviation in concert. These efforts culminated in the Field Regulations of 1936. Instead of regarding the infantry as the premier combat arm, Tukhachevsky envisioned all available arms and weapons systems working together in a two-part battle. First, a massed, echeloned attack on a narrow front would rupture the defender's conventional infantry-artillery-antitank defense. The attacker's artillery and mortars would suppress defending artillery and especially defending antitank guns. Moving behind the artillery barrage and a few meters in front of the infantry, the tanks could safely crush wire, overrun machinegun posts, and reduce other centers of enemy resistance. Once the enemy's forward defenses were disrupted, accompanying tanks would not be tied strictly to the infantry rate of advance. They could take advantage of local opportunities to penetrate and attack enemy reserves, artillery, headquarters, and supply dumps. This action would duplicate on a smaller scale the second part of the battle, which was to disrupt and destroy the enemy by deep attacks. "Mobile groups," composed of cavalry, mechanized formations, or both, would exploit their mobility advantage to outflank the enemy or develop a penetration in order to reach the enemy rear areas. The object of a deep attack was to attack the entire depth of the enemy defenses simultaneously. The following was to be employed:

  • Long range artillery fires.

  • Deep penetrations by mobile forces.

  • Bombing and parachute attacks of key points.

In addition, smoke and deception operations would distract the enemy from the attacker's real intentions.

This Soviet force structure had its problems. First, the planned armored force was so ambitious that not all units could be fully equipped. The average Soviet citizen had little experience with motor vehicles, thus maintenance was a problem. Soviet radios were notoriously unreliable, which made command and control difficult. The Soviet armored force needed several more years of experimentation and training before it could realize its full potential. In the meantime, the government executed Tukhachevsky and his officer corps. Thus, very few advocates for large mechanized formations existed.

Zhukov's Khalkin-Gol Campaign. The battlefield failures in Poland and Finland in 1939-40 promoted a series of reforms in organization, leadership, and tactics that slowly began to improve Soviet military ability. The only successful Soviet campaign of this period was in the undeclared war against Japan. Stalin was concerned about Japanese expansion in Asia. He placed Gen. Georgi Zhukov in total command of the forces there. Hostilities with the Japanese Army erupted in the summer of 1939 on the Khalkin-Gol River of Manchuria (see Figure 5).

The Japanese decided to fight the Soviets in this remote area on the border between Japanese-occupied Manchuria and Soviet-dominated Outer Mongolia. They believed that the Soviets would be unable to concentrate and supply a major force there. To the surprise of the Japanese, the Soviets massed 469 light tanks, 426 other armored vehicles, 679 guns and mortars, and over 500 aircraft, all supplied by thousands of trucks. Zhukov organized a classic double envelopment between 20 and 31 August 1939. First, a series of Soviet probing attacks in the center fixed the Japanese defenders. The Soviet artillery concentrated against strongpoints found by these probes. Then, the two Soviet flanks pressed forward, encircling the Japanese 23rd Infantry Division and part of the 7th Infantry Division. The Soviet attacks used tank and machinegun direct fire. They coordinated artillery fire to protect their advancing infantry. In some cases, the infantry rode on the outside of armored cars, reducing the time needed to close with the enemy, but exposing both vehicles and riders to concentrated enemy fire. On the other hand, some Soviet commanders were unimaginative in executing Zhukov's plan, making repeated frontal attacks instead of bypassing Japanese resistance. Still, Khalkin-Gol provided an excellent trial of Soviet doctrine on the very eve of World War II. Zhukov and his subordinates naturally rose to prominence during that war.

The United States. Despite its unique division structure, in 1918 the US Army was heavily under the influence of French tactical and staff doctrine. Therefore, the immediate postwar doctrine of the US Army paralleled that of the French Army. For example, the United States subordinated tanks to the infantry branch. Their view of combined arms was also very similar to that of the French Army. However, this rigid view of combined arms did not last for long. In 1920, Brig. Gen. Fox Conner decided that French warfare was inappropriate for operations on the American continent, the expected arena of future American wars. Conner requested Gen. John J. Pershing, the US wartime commander in France, to discard the square division structure. Pershing recommended that the infantry division be reorganized along the lines of European triangular divisions. He recommended that units needed only for specialized operations be pooled at the level of corps and field army. These principles eventually produced a comprehensive review of the fundamental relationships between the different arms and services. The triangular division was not adopted until 1939-1942.

Weapons Pooling. The principle of weapons pooling was continued throughout the triangular division. Light antitank guns, heavy mortars, and machineguns were relegated to the heavy weapons company of each battalion. Specialized arms such as tanks, antiaircraft, and most antitank weapons were not authorized within the division. The division received only one reconnaissance troop, with long-range reconnaissance being assigned to higher headquarters. The result was an infantry force that was more mobile and more heavily armed than its predecessors, yet deficient compared to foreign armies. Its primary drawbacks, in addition to automatic weapons, was its limited capacity for antiaircraft and antitank defense and its lack of armor.

Triangular Infantry Division, June 1941. The 1935 division proposal had envisioned a division artillery consisting of three combined 75-mm gun/81-mm mortar battalions for direct support. A four-105-mm-howitzer battalion was for general support. In actual testing, the artillery found that the 81-mm mortar was essentially an infantry weapon. Later, the decision was made to have three battalions of 75-mm guns replaced by 105-mm howitzers, plus 155-mm general support artillery. The June 1941 organization represented the final step prior to American entry into the war (see Figure 6).

Air Support. Close air support was also lacking in the American combat team. The US Army Air Corps was preoccupied with strategic bombing to the neglect of close air support. As in France and Britain, American aviators argued that airpower was best used in areas beyond the range of ground artillery. This apparently logical division of labor overlooked three aspects of ground combat:

  • The psychological impact of close-air attack.

  • The necessity of massing all combat power to overcome the inherent advantages of the defender.

  • The need to achieve this mass rapidly in order to sustain mobile operations and deny the defender time to organize.

Such techniques were to be used to avoid the delays and logistical build-up necessary for a deliberate, breakthrough attack. All three aspects argued in favor of close air support at the critical point. In 1939-40 only the German Luftwaffe had made even limited preparation to provide such support.


The preceding discussion of the five different armies appears to go in five different directions. However, certain common threads are evident. First, it was evident that common elements hampered the development of new weapons and doctrine in every army except the pre-1937 Red Army. Those elements that hampered development were anti-war sentiment and limited defense budgets. As a result, no nation was fully equipped with modern weapons when it entered World War II. However, the Germans were several years ahead of their opponents and had more experience and training with such weapons.

Second, the World War I traditions of infantry-artillery dominance delayed new developments designed to broaden the nature of the combined arms. The Red Army was again the exception until 1937. In the British, French, and American armies, mechanization developed in two divergent directions. Heavy formations supported conventional infantry attacks. Highly mobile but poorly armed and protected light forces performed cavalry functions. For the British, the demands of imperial policing further restricted any move towards development of large mechanized units. Still, even the Germans and Soviets diverted some armor to specialized cavalry and infantry-support roles. During the 1930s, professional soldiers gradually broke free of traditional, 1918 views of the role of various arms. The Germans had the advantage in these new developments. The Germans funneled more of their assets into fewer panzer units than did their opponents. German opponents tended to modernize a much larger part of their armies.

Finally, the air power advocates of all nations retarded the development of close air support for ground operations. Even the Germans had only the embryo of an air-ground command and control system when the war began.

Had World War II come in 1936 or 1937, Tukhachevsky's developments in the Red Army probably would have triumphed despite problems with materiel and training. Had the war begun in 1942 or later, the British, French, and Americans would all have had time to experiment with, and adjust, their mechanized organizations and doctrine. Germany's military success in 1939-41 was therefore the product of a very transitory set of advantages. The Germans had produced equipment and fielded mechanized units in the mid-1930s. This equipment was still usable and the units were well organized and trained when the war began in 1939. In addition, Germany had two advantages that the other powers lacked:

  • A primitive but developing close air-support system.

  • A command and control network that allowed for much more rapid maneuver than any opponent could achieve.


Learning Event 1 Practical Exercise




Major Trends

World War II did more than force armies to integrate all the available arms at every level into a mobile, flexible team. It forced those armies to adjust to a variety of threats and terrain. Despite the vast scope of the struggle, some major trends are evident.

First, the mechanized combined arms force came of age in this war. In 1939, most armies still thought of an armored division as a mass of tanks with relatively limited support from the other arms. By 1943, the same armies had evolved armored divisions that were a balance of different arms and services. Each arm had to be as mobile and almost as protected as the tanks they accompanied. The Soviet, German, and American armies cannibalized infantry-support tank units to form more armored divisions.

Second, this concentration of mechanized forces in a small number of mobile divisions left the ordinary infantry unit deficient in two areas. Those areas included antitank weapons for the defense, and armor to accompany the deliberate attack. The German, Soviet, and American armies therefore developed a number of tank surrogates such as tank destroyers and assault guns to perform these functions in cooperation with infantry.

Third, one of the driving forces in both of the previous trends was the gradual development of the means to counter and control the blitzkrieg. Between 1939 and 1941, conventional infantry units were unprepared psychologically and technologically to defeat a rapidly moving armored foe who broke into the rear areas to disrupt communications and organization. By 1943, those same infantry units had lost their paralyzing fear of armored penetration and had acquired a much greater antitank capability. Successful armored penetrations were still possible, but they were increasingly difficult.

Finally, World War II represented the end of pure ground operations.

  • Mechanized attack required air superiority and close-air support.

  • Airborne landings required close coordination between air transport and ground forces.

  • Amphibious landings developed as the most sophisticated and complicated form of combined arms and joint operations.

Such joint service interaction was not achieved without operational errors and doctrinal arguments. By the end of the war, ground commanders had reached a temporary working compromise with other services on most questions.

Next, we will examine these developments and the movement toward combined arms doctrine. The best method is to consider the actions and reactions of the opposing armies during the course of the war.

1939, The Situation in Poland

During early September 1939, Germany overwhelmed Poland and occupied more than half of its territory. The speed of the conquest concealed a number of problems that the Germans encountered. As a result, the Germans widened the gap of experience and experimentation that separated them from their future opponents, Great Britain and France. Some of the problems that existed within the German Army include the following:

  • German higher commanders had not accepted Guderian's theories and did not employ their mobile divisions in mass for deep exploitation.

  • German tanks and motorized infantry had not developed close interaction with fire support.

  • Many German tactical commanders were too cautious, allowing themselves to be halted even by minor Polish resistance.

  • Significant problems of supply and maintenance developed.

  • The general unsuitability of German equipment also constituted a problem.

Evolution of the Panzer Division. Beyond some of the organizational changes, German tactical concepts and structures seemed essentially sound. Through the Polish campaign, the Germans learned that armored forces were at a disadvantage when fighting on urban terrain. Fifty-seven tanks were lost in a single day while attempting to seize Warsaw. This experience reinforced the need for a higher proportion of infantry to tanks, in order to provide close-in security for the tanks on urban terrain. In urban terrain, the tanks were vulnerable to short-range antitank attacks from nearby buildings.

A basic result of the German invasion of Poland was to begin the slow evolution of the German panzer division structure towards greater balance among the arms. The new 10th Panzer Division, along with other formations, shared this movement toward more balanced organization. This trend toward a more balanced division would continue throughout the war .

1940, The German Advance

Between the fall of Poland in 1939 and the beginning of the Belgian-French campaign in May 1940, another German operation unsettled Allied morale and foreshadowed the future complexity of joint operations. On 9 April 1940, an improvised German force used motor movements, small-scale airborne drops, and seaborne landings to occupy Denmark and Norway by surprise. The combined "warfare in three dimensions (land, air, sea) caused a shift of Allied resources. The shift meant further confusion and delays in the process of mobilizing and training British and French troops. Another surprise attack occurred on 10 May 1940, when the main battle in France and Belgium was joined. A small party of German glider troops landed on top of Eben Emael, the key to the Belgian defensive system. By this surprise attack, the Germans eliminated one of Belgium's main defenses. These surprise attacks caused many Allied military and civilian leaders to become excessively concerned about the rear area threat posed by airborne and unconventional warfare forces. Such concern was the first step in creating the psychological uncertainty that was so critical to the success of the blitzkrieg.

Mechanized forces - German Advance. In their advance through the Ardennes forest, the Germans concentrated their mechanized forces into a few large masses at critical points. Seven out of ten panzer divisions advanced through the Ardennes forest on a seventy-kilometer front. Five motorized divisions followed close behind to mop up and protect the flanks. Conversely, the western Allies had organized themselves for a linear defense. They spread their forces thinly across a wide front. The main German attack shattered this linear defense and continued with deep exploitation into the enemy rear. German commanders did not always lead with tanks. This illustrates the use of a combined arms doctrine. The armored reconnaissance battalions led the advance by up to a day's march. Engineers were used to clear obstacles when needed. Commanders used armored vehicles or light aircraft for control during the pursuit.

German training in combined arms was especially evident during the penetration of the Ardennes. The rapid German advance over a poor road network was made possible only by road repairs conducted by combat engineers. Antiaircraft guns in the German columns decimated Allied air attacks. At the critical crossing of the Meuse river on 13 May, the German infantry (plus engineers) crossed the river under the covering fire of tanks, artillery, and tactical aircraft.

The fall of France demonstrated the importance of combined arms mechanized formations and blitzkrieg penetrations. It also demonstrated the German advantage over the British and French in combined arms training and procedures.

1940-42, Great Britain.

Due to the sudden collapse of France in 1940, many professional soldiers in a number of armies began to reassess their organizations as well as their offensive and defensive doctrine. Great Britain had the most urgent need to reorganize its forces and reassess its doctrine.

Lt. Gen. Montgomery. The most unusual feature of the period 1940-42, was the conduct of large-unit-command-post exercises and field maneuvers. These exercises required detailed study before, and critiques after, each step. Lt. Gen. Bernard J. Montgomery had used such exercises as a division commander in France during 1939-40. This technique allowed his division to move more rapidly and flexibly than most other British units. Again, Montgomery applied the same training techniques as commander of two different corps and finally of an army-level force.

Integration and Centralized Control. Montgomery argued that few British officers had experience maneuvering any unit larger than a brigade. Certainly, his exercises helped to produce commanders, staffs, and units that were capable of much more rapid changes in deployment and mission than those of World War I. More importantly, Montgomery and others developed the concept of integrating different arms. They also envisioned how to commit divisions and larger units to battle. Montgomery argued that the decentralized nature of mechanized pursuit and exploitation had caused many British commanders to lose sight of the concept of centralized control. He contended that reconnaissance, artillery, tanks, infantry, engineers, and air power had to be "stage managed" at the highest levels. This had to be done to concentrate combat power at any point where the enemy presented an organized defense or attack. Only in a fluid situation could commanders decentralize these arms and push them forward. Then, subordinate leaders would have the different weapons readily available. Defense meant not a series of fixed lines on the battlefield. Rather, defense meant blocking positions in depth plus massive counterattacks. All arms needed to employ night attacks to reduce the lethal effects of aimed enemy fire.

Montgomery opposed the traditional British concept that tank units should maneuver like cavalry. Instead, he saw the armored division as a combined arms force. This combined arms force would seize key terrain in order to use the advantages of tactical defense when enemy armor counterattacked. Infantry and antitank forces would follow the initial armored assault to mop up and hold terrain, releasing the armor to refit or attack again.

1941, The German Advance in Russia

During 1940-'41, the Soviet government undertook massive reforms in military organization, equipment, command structure, and deployment. None of these changes were complete when Germany attacked in June 1941. The Germans caught the Red Army in transition and ripped it apart. The German Army was at the top of its form. Hitler's desire for more panzer divisions had improved the balance of arms within those divisions. In order to assemble the tanks necessary for the additional divisions, all panzer divisions were reduced to only two or three tank battalions of three companies each. This made a total of 150-202 tanks per division. Infantry totaled four trucked and one motorcycle battalion. Each division had six to nine tank companies and fifteen motorized infantry companies. This ratio was probably the most effective foe all forms of mechanized combat.

Encirclement and Deep Exploitation. Operationally, the 1941 campaign was the high point of German blitzkrieg and especially of the encirclement battle. An analysis and description of these encirclements offers the best summary. Refer to Figure 7 as you read the analysis of blitzkrieg encirclement.

Phase I: Penetration. First, the attacker had to penetrate or outflank the enemy's defenses. This was relatively easy in 1941 when the Germans caught the Soviets in their peacetime garrisons, unorganized for any coherent defense. Under these circumstances, the attacker could exploit immediately with armored units. If a deliberate attack proved unavoidable, the Germans preferred to conduct the penetration with a conventional infantry force. The infantry force was supported by engineers to clear obstacles, and with artillery and preplanned air strikes to suppress enemy defensive fires. As the war lengthened, such penetrations became increasingly difficult for all armies.

Phase II: Encirclement; Phase III: Continued Exploitation. Next, once penetrations or flanking maneuvers had succeeded, the German armored forces sought to encircle the enemy in pincers. A combined arms battlegroup of battalion or regimental size usually led each pincer. After the jaws of the pincers closed, the attacker had to create two encirclements. Once facing inward, to hold the surrounded force and gradually reduce it. The second facing outward, to ward off any efforts to relieve the encircled units. In order to establish these encirclements, the Germans tried to give each panzer corps one or more motorized infantry divisions to follow and support the two panzer divisions. In practice, the Germans never had enough force in a panzer corps to seal off the encirclements. Thus, the process of holding and reducing encirclements had to wait upon the arrival of the foot-mobile infantry divisions. During the interim, surrounded Soviet soldiers were able to infiltrate or break out of the loosely cordoned encirclement. They escaped to join local partisans or to return to their own lines and fight again. This lag time also immobilized the panzer units. It prevented exploitation and gave the defender time to reorganize his forces farther to the rear. Only when the infantry and logistics had caught up with the panzer units could the latter resume Phase III - the exploitation and pursuit.

1941-'42, Soviet Recovery

As the Germans advanced into European Russia, the Soviet military took desperate measures to overcome their weaknesses. Two problems were immediately apparent.

  • First, the average Soviet commander or staff officer lacked the skills necessary to coordinate the different arms and weapons for an effective defense or counter attack.

  • Second, the Red Army was seriously short of the specialized units and weapons that its commanders found so difficult to employ. This included engineers, tanks, antitank guns, and artillery.

Centralized Control. The solution to both of these questions seemed obvious. Stavka (Supreme Headquarters) Circular 1, dated 15 July 1941, ordered the simplification of the commander's span of control by centralizing specialized units into pools at higher levels. This allowed more experienced commanders to mass them at the critical points. In December 1941, the Soviet commanders began to revive their organization and doctrine. Not until January 1943 did the Soviets finally produce a coherent tank army. The six tank armies formed in 1943 were the spearheads of all Soviet offensives for the remainder of World War II. Thus, the Red Army had discovered the need for effective and mobile logistical support to make the mechanized offensives possible.

1943-'45, Russian Innovations

Many of the foregoing technological considerations became evident on the Eastern Front, beginning with the Battle of Kursk in July 1943. The last great German offensive in the east ran directly into an elaborately prepared Soviet defense organized around antitank strongpoints established by units of company size or larger. The German blitzkrieg stalled because it was unable to achieve the initial penetration of the enemy's defenses. Thus, after Kursk, the Soviet Union held the initiative.

In the course of the war, improvements in Soviet logistics led to steady increases in the depth of exploitation. The Red Army developed a variety of techniques for both penetration and exploitation against the German defenders. Those techniques include the following:

  • Reconnaissance echelons.

  • Deception measures.

  • Assault groups.

  • Forward detachment.

Reconnaissance Echelons. One significant development during 1944 was the change in Soviet reconnaissance techniques before a deliberate attack. Prior to that year, the Red Army conducted small, time-consuming long-range reconnaissance patrols. Early in 1944, the Soviets sought to shorten the time required to prepare for a new offensive. By late 1944, the Soviets had transformed their reconnaissance units into the first wave of the deliberate attack. Company and larger units on reconnaissance missions attacked within a few hours of the main offensive, seizing German outposts and thereby unmasking the main German defenses. The main attack focused on those principal defenses.

Deception Measures. Although Soviet commanders massed their forces on relatively narrow breakthrough fronts, their successes were due to more than just numerical superiority. The Soviets used a variety of procedures to overcome German defenses. Artillery units fired their preparatory salvos under centralized control. More importantly, they used a variety of deception measures. One such measure consisted of sending the assault infantry forward during a lull in the firing. This was done to lure the Germans out of their bunkers so that renewed Soviet artillery fire could destroy them. Heavy tanks were used to support the infantry and eliminate strong points. Medium tanks were used to penetrate rapidly and suppress enemy infantry fires. Assault guns were used for direct-fire support against antitank guns and strongpoints. Combat engineers or specially trained infantrymen frequently rode on each tank. Their mission was to eliminate obstacles and provide close-in protection for the tank from German short-range antitank weapons.

Assault Groups. The above technique produced a high number of Soviet casualties. The Soviets reluctantly accepted the high casualties in an effort to accelerate their rate of penetration. However, the 1944 casualties were a subject of great concern to the Soviets. The best means to reduce casualties were:

  • Concentration

  • Speed of penetration.

  • Careful task organization of the attacking forces.

This led to the organization of assault groups. Instead of advancing on-line and en masse, the Soviet attackers operated in tailored assault groups of platoon to battalion size. A Soviet assault group is shown in Figure 8. When time allowed, each assault group trained to eliminate a specific German strongpoint. Assault groups normally consisted of the following four subgroups:

  • A reconnaissance subgroup to clear an approach route to the objective.

  • A blocking subgroup to engage and pin down the defenders.

  • A fire subgroup to isolate the strongpoint from reinforcement.

  • An attack subgroup-including engineers and heavy tanks or assault guns.

All of the above subgroups were organized to eliminate the objective from the flanks or rear.

Beginning in 1943, a combination of factors allowed the Soviets to defeat most German counterattacks and continue their mission. Those factors included:

  • Declining German combat effectiveness.

  • Growing Soviet tactical experience.

  • Better close air support of the exploitation forces.

Forward Detachment. The most common formation for Soviet exploitation was the "forward detachment." This was a combined arms organization of great mobility and firepower that was sent ahead of the main unit to seize key objectives and disrupt enemy efforts to reorganize the defense. During the war, the size of the typical forward detachment and the distance it operated ahead of the main body increased steadily. In the last two years of the war, a forward detachment consisted of a tank brigade reinforced by the following:

  • Batteries or battalions of field and antiaircraft artillery.

  • Heavy tanks.

  • Assault guns.

  • Engineers.

  • When available, an air controller accompanied the detachment to direct close air support.

This reinforced brigade operated as much as 90 kilometers ahead of the rest of its parent tank corps. A forward detachment did not necessarily follow the same route as the main body of troops and was not responsible for advance guard security of that main body. When logistics and lack of combat power finally halted a forward detachment, the detachment commander attempted to seize a bridgehead over the next river obstacle. That would serve as a starting point for a renewed offensive at a later date. The forward detachment led the mobile group envisioned in prewar Soviet doctrine and greatly increased the tempo of exploitation and pursuit.

1943-'45, Organization and Status of the German Army

The German Army on the Decline. During the period 1943-'45, the German Army declined not only in numbers, but in overall training and tactical ability. When faced with local Soviet superiority, German defenders naturally ascribed all Soviet success to overwhelming numerical advantage. In reality, the quality of German armed forces declined as a result of their declining quantity. The following illustrates Germany's declining army:

  • German divisions that were not involved in the second German offensive in the east were deliberately filled to only 55% of authorized personnel.

  • Spearhead units received only 85% of their authorized equipment.

  • German leaders progressively reduced the amount of training given to replacements and used training units in combat. Poorly trained German soldiers survived for only short periods at the front and had to be replaced rapidly.

This decline in infantry quality prompted German commanders to seek more firepower in the form of assault guns, antitank rockets, automatic weapons and artillery.

The Call for Reorganization. Because of personnel shortages, many German infantry divisions operated with only six instead of nine infantry battalions. In 1944, the German General Staff formally changed the division structure to reflect this reality. Thus, an infantry division consisted of three infantry regiments of two battalions each. In practice, some divisions organized themselves into two regiments of three battalions each. In either case, the 1944 German infantry division retained all four artillery battalions of the previous structure. Thus, the declining ability of the infantry was offset by a larger proportion of fire support. The 1944 divisional organization also included a battery of self-propelled anti-aircraft guns.

The Effect on the Panzer Division. While the infantry divisions gradually wore down, the Germans made a belated effort to rebuild their panzer forces. Heinz Guderian dedicated himself to this task. Guderian still insisted that the panzer arm should be a force separate from the rest of the German Army. However, this was no longer appropriate. Panzer divisions were the principal German instrument for counterattacking enemy penetrations and encirclements. However, these divisions were few in number compared to the great distances on the Russian front. They often counterattacked singly or in pairs, wearing themselves down as fast as Guderian could rebuild them. Guderian only increased the estrangement between the panzer and infantry forces and made training between the arms more difficult.

Despite these problems, the balanced panzer division remained an extremely effective force at the tactical level. Production requirements for tanks, assault guns, and other tracked vehicles meant that the panzer grenadiers remained largely motorized, rather than mechanized. In the fall of 1943, the German panzer force had only 11% mounted in armor half-tracks. Thus, no more than one of the four to five infantry battalions in a panzer division was actually mechanized. Generally, one or two companies of such a mechanized battalion accompanied each panzer battalion in advance. The motorized infantry followed later to consolidate and defend the areas seized by the first attacks. Artillery forward observers in tanks or half-tracks accompanied the first wave. To protect the attacking panzer force from enemy armored counterattack, antitank guns leapfrogged into a series of overwatching positions on the flanks of the advance. Assault guns remained with the motorized infantry reserves to consolidate gains or to engage an enemy counterattack that penetrated into the division mass. During 1944-'45, German armored forces needed much greater air defense protection. Therefore, truck-mounted panzer grenadier battalions included 20-mm anti-aircraft guns. Tank and half-track mounted infantry received self-propelled antiaircraft guns. Such was the theory of panzer organization and tactics. In practice, however, the declining strength of such units produced a variety of improvised battlegroups.

Next, we will consider the organization and tactics of the American forces.

1941-'45, Organization and Status of the American Army

Most of the US Army did not become involved in major ground operations until the end of 1942 or even later. During 1941-'42, however, the US drew certain conclusions about weapons, organization, and tactics. They implemented those conclusions by continuing the evolution of the triangular infantry division and the 1940 armored division. However, certain mid-war changes in American doctrine and organization occurred. The resulting tactical system dominated American military thought into the 1950s.

McNair, Head of Army Ground Forces. In March 1942, Lt. Gen. Lesley McNair became head of Army Ground Forces. Thus, he was in charge of all unit training and organization. McNair continued to follow the basic organization of the triangular division. McNair's Army was recognizable by the following features:

  • Each unit had only the minimum essential forces. Thus, the standard base of the division included:

    • three infantry regiments.

    • four artillery battalions.

    • a reconnaissance troop.

    • an engineer battalion (developed in 1937-'41).

  • Specialized units were streamlined out of the infantry division. They became a pool of specialized nondivisional companies and battalions. Thus, each unit could be attached to a division for a particular mission.

  • Staff and support elements were as small as possible. This was done to maximize the proportion of forces actually available for combat.

  • The amount of motor transportation in a unit was restricted as much as possible. This was done to facilitate strategic development. With fewer vehicles organic to a division, the less shipping space that division would need when sent overseas.

1943 Reorganization of the Armored Division. However, when the US employed McNair's concepts overseas, they proved only partially successful. The triangular division in combat was much larger, more rigid, and more motorized than McNair had envisioned. Many of the attached forces were subdivided and further attached to infantry regiments. The division's organic assets such as engineers and medical support were also subdivided and attached to infantry regiments. During the same period, the armored division underwent more changes than the infantry division. By early 1943, intelligence studies had reinforced General McNair's desires for a less cumbersome division structure. In September 1943, the War Department announced a new, smaller armored division structure. The 1943 structure had three battalions each of tanks, armored infantry, and armored field artillery. They were task organized under two headquarters, Combat Command A and B. In practice, there were twelve tank companies to only nine infantry (see Figure 9). A third, smaller combat command headquarters, designated reserve or R, was added to control units not subordinated to the other two combat commands. Some division commanders used this "CCR" as a tactical control element like CCA and CCB.

Organizational Problems. Prior to 1943, the US Army faced a variety of problems. Inexperience and organizational difficulty was evident. During the 1942-'43 invasion of North Africa, American commanders scattered their forces in regimental or smaller units. This deprived them of the advantages of the American centralized control system. In training, US armored divisions stressed decentralized mobile combat utilizing direct fire. Thus, their self-propelled artillery battalions had neglected the study of indirect fire techniques. Inadequate logistics forced the Americans to leave their corps artillery far behind the front in Tunisia. This further reduced available fire support when the Germans counterattacked in February 1943.

The Need to Coordinate Combined Arms Actions. Similar problems arose in the Southwest Pacific. In 1942, General Douglas MacArthur committed the 32nd Infantry Division to battle in Papua with no artillery and only a few mortars. The 32nd Division commander protested. However, Mac Arthur's staff mistakenly thought that artillery would be ineffective in the jungles. Moreover, the local air commander failed to provide effective air support throughout the long campaign. Weather and terrain often prevented such air support. There was so little communication between air and ground that the local air commander's pilots attacked Americans by mistake. The 32nd division learned at great cost the need to coordinate artillery and air support with the infantry.

An additional problem that added to communication short-comings was the inadequacy of radio communications. Radios issued to infantry, tank, and fighter aircraft units had incompatible frequencies. That fact made communication among the arms impossible.

The Move Toward Combined Arms. The US Army gradually corrected the problems mentioned above. They were able to develop more effective combined arms teams in the 1944 breakout from Normandy. The need for close tank-infantry cooperation reinforced the association of the same tank battalion and infantry division. Signalmen installed improvised external telephones on tanks, enabling accompanying infantry to enter the tank intercommunications network. The development of close air support for US forces took a major step forward in July 1944. VHF aircraft radios were installed in the leading tanks of each armored task force and tanks could communicate with fighter bombers. While close air support could be wasteful of air resources, the high tempo of exploitation these tank-aircraft teams could maintain justified the expenditure.

Air-Ground Cooperation

Air support of ground operations, and especially close air support, was the subject of intense controversy between ground and air services during World War II. The importance of air superiority was not an item of debate. However, ground attack was a cause for dispute. That controversy was perhaps most acute in the United States. Questions involved found echoes in other nations as well.

Throughout the war, the US Army Air Forces (AAF) operated almost independently from the other elements of the Army. Soon after Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt gave the AAF a tremendous mission. Its mission was precision strategic bombing of Germany and eventually Japan. This mission strained the limited US air resources for most of the war. AAF leaders believed strongly in the value of strategic bombing. This belief only increased their tendency to distance themselves from the ground arms. The result was near disaster on the battlefield.

Problems with Air-Ground Cooperation. One of the elements that magnified the air-ground cooperation problem was the lack of joint air-ground training. Close air support missions were the exception rather than the rule. General McNair tried to reverse this problem. McNair argued that this exception should be stressed in training because it was the most difficult form of ground attack mission. The AAF was unwilling to cooperate. To magnify the problem, the AAF arbitrarily changed radios in fighter-bombers to a type that was incompatible with ground radios. Air and ground units had little understanding of the tactics and capabilities of their counterparts. Ground forces received little air support. Ground commanders with no experience in the employment of tactical air support misused the little that was available. The result was US ground troops firing on their own aircraft. Gradually, both sides learned to recognize and cooperate with each other. However, the process was painful.

The Move Toward Successful Cooperation. Late in the war the United States developed a formal doctrine and training procedure for air-ground cooperation. The following resulted:

  • The XII Air Support Command collocated its headquarters with the fifth US Army in Italy. They met each evening to plan strikes for the next day and improvised a common network of liaison officers and radios.

  • The 9th US Tactical Air Force and some of the US field armies in France and Germany established priorities to be followed by the ground operations officer and the air operations officer.

By 1945, most armed forces had developed techniques for effective air-ground cooperation in the field. However, such techniques did not resolve the basic doctrinal differences between air and ground components. These disputes persisted in peacetime long after the procedures for close air support were forgotten.


The major trends of World War II include the following:

  • The mechanized combined arms force came of age in this war.

  • The concentration of mechanized forces in a small number of mobile divisions left the ordinary infantry unit deficient in two areas. Those areas included antitank weapons for the defense, and armor to accompany the deliberate attack.

  • The gradual development of the means to counter and control the blitzkrieg.

  • World War II represented the end of pure ground operations.

The development and organization of combined arms is evident throughout World War II. The evolution of the German panzer division came about during the German invasion of Poland in 1939. This structure reflected a greater balance among the arms. In 1940, the Germans used "combined warfare in three dimensions" to occupy Denmark and Norway by surprise. This combination of motorized units, airborne drops, and seaborne landings illustrated the future complexity of joint operations. The fall of France in 1940 demonstrated the importance of combined arms, mechanized formations and blitzkrieg penetrations. It also demonstrated the German advantage over the British and French in combined arms training and procedures.

During the period 1940-1942, Lt. Gen. Bernard L. Montgomery of the British Army developed the concept of integrating different arms and centralized control. Montgomery also envisioned the armored division as a combined arms force. This view opposed the traditional concept that tank units should maneuver like cavalry.

During 1941, the German Army "fine tuned" its panzer divisions, thus, improving the balance of arms within those divisions. The German advancement in Russia was the apex of the German blitzkrieg encirclement battle and deep exploitation. The three phases of the blitzkrieg encirclement include:

  • Phase I, penetration.

  • Phase II, encirclement.

  • Phase III, continued exploitation.

During the period 1941-'42, the Soviet military took desperate measures to overcome their weaknesses. Their organization leaned toward centralized control. By 1943, the Soviets produced a coherent tank army. The six tank armies formed in 1943 were the spearheads of all Soviet offensives for the remainder of World War II. In the course of the war, improvements in Soviet logistics led to steady increases in the depth of exploitation. During 1943-'45, the techniques developed by the Red Army for penetration and exploitation against German defenders included the following:

  • Reconnaissance echelons.

  • Deception measures.

  • Assault groups.

  • Forward detachment.

The above techniques represent the move toward combined arms organization. While the Soviet Army was improving, the German Army was on the decline. The German Army declined in number, as well as in overall training and tactical ability. Thus, the German Army needed to reorganize.

Most of the US Army did not become involved in major ground operations until the end of 1942 or even later. However, during 1941-'42 the US drew certain conclusions about weapons, organization, and tactics.

The US Army was organized around a triangular division. In March 1942, Lt. Gen. Lesley McNair became head of Army Ground Forces. Thus, he was in charge of all unit training and organization. In September 1943, a new smaller armored division structure that was more suitable to armored operations was announced. By the end of World War II, most organizational problems had bean ironed-out, and most arms actions had been successfully combined.

By 1945, the Soviet, British, and American armed forces gained skill in combining arms. These armies had developed true combat effectiveness at the small unit level. The problem of combined arms integration shifted, at least temporarily, to a higher level of organization. The lingering problems of combining the arms in 1945 were not so much at battalion or division levels as they were between the army and the other services. Air support in particular was a critical link in the success of most offensives in World War II. Yet, the US Army had only achieved a temporary truce on this issue with the AAF. Once the war was over, the practical lessons of small unit integration and air-ground cooperation were frequently forgotten.


Learning Event 2 Practical Exercise


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