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The tactics pioneered during the Great War called for tanks to lead the assault over no man’s land and rake the enemy positions with shell and machine gun fire, pinning the defenders in their trenches. Part of the tank force would then break through to the supporting trenches, while the remainder kept the firing line immobilised, and repeat the process. During this the accompanying infantry would follow up to begin the gruelling work of actually clearing the enemy trenches before consolidating the newly won positions.
The interwar years saw prolonged and often heated debate on the role the tank would play in the next major conflict. This largely centred on the schism between those who saw the tank as the new arm of decision on the battlefield and those who believed its mechanical limitations would restrict it to nothing more than the infantry support role. The former argued that tanks should not be tied down to the walking pace of the infantryman, but let loose to exploit through the gaps they created and pour into the enemy’s lines of communication, assembly areas and supply depots. Even among the latter, little thought was given to refining and improving the tactics of twenty years earlier, especially given the appearance of the anti-tank gun in many infantry units.
Early war doctrine largely called for tanks to lead the assault wave, with the objective of destroying enemy strongpoints and machine gun nests that would target the following infantry. They would then breach the defensive line and begin to engage deeper lying positions. The infantry would follow in their wake, sometimes with further detachments of tanks ready to deal with any threats bypassed during the initial assault. They would in turn use the gaps created by the tanks to exploit through into the rear of the enemy lines and overwhelm the defenders.
This seemingly simple concept helped foster the belief that on the battlefield tanks and infantry would occupy the same space, but would act independently of one another. This sense of separation would have damaging consequences for both arms well into the war. The idea that tanks would lead, infantry would follow, ignored the fact that tanks were acutely vulnerable in close country, unable to breach minefields unaided, and were subject to the attentions of an ever-growing arsenal of anti-tank weapons. In certain situations, infantry would need to take the leading role, not tanks, something that seemed to fly in the face of logic as far as the average rifleman was concerned.
For the infantryman the presence of tanks could provide a steel curtain between his flesh and blood and the machine gun fire directed his way. The suggestion then that they should take the van was understandably not greeted with much enthusiasm. The reality was though that the most effective way to defeat a combined infantry and tank assault was to separate the two, allowing concealed anti-tank guns and latterly handheld launchers to pick off the tanks, clawing holes in the protective screen they provided through which previously dormant machine guns could target the infantry. Some of the tactics taught by the allied armies even into 1944 practically guaranteed this division between infantry and tanks would occur during assaults, requiring precious little intervention from the Germans to achieve it.
Recognising when to switch from tanks to infantry in the lead was perhaps the key to successful tank-infantry cooperation, which required both good communications and familiarity between the two. Here again though, there were hurdles to overcome.
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