The (intended) use of postwar heavy tanks

While many designs and prototypes of larger-than-normal tanks were made, the only American heavy tank to reach a degree of production was the M103. Even then, the Marines were more enthusiastic about it than the Army.

But the army had worked heavy tanks into their doctrine. And they were primarily tank destroyers. Not completely, like the purpose-built TDs of WWII, but organized very similarly.

According to the 1949/1951 edition of FM 17-33, when heavy tanks were “brewing”:

“The missions of the heavy tank battalion are:
a. To provide antitank protection, in both offense and defense, against enemy tanks.
b. To support the advance of the medium tank and armored infantry battalions.
c. To perform, in addition, the missions normally assigned to the medium tank battalion.”

Note the prioritization. Paragraph 254 is even more explict and similar to the initial wartime tank destroyer doctrine.

“The heavy tank battalion of the armored division normally will be given an antitank mission in both the mobile and sustained defense. When attached to the combat commands or the reserve command, the battalion, or its companies, usually will be held in reserve, ready to move out to meet any enemy threat, especially by tanks superior in capabilities to the medium tank.”

Now, other roles for the heavy tank, including the breakthrough/support role its eastern counterparts were primarily envisioned for (and which it was designed to stop) were mentioned, this was not inflexible. But the focus was on the anti-tank role.

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How I became a German Army Skeptic

There are a handful of books and sites that kept me from ever experiencing the kind of feeling of excessively hyping the World War II German military.

The first was Christoper Wilbeck’s Sledgehammers. Now, granted, that book has a massive flaw in that its author takes “questionable” claimed kill ratios at face value far too much, but it nonetheless sincerely tried to find the flaws in the Tiger and did not hesitate to point out lost battles. It got me on the right foot.

The second was Spacebattles and the very informed, very unbiased members of its “War Room” subforum. This was where I learned, among other things, about one of the biggest weaknesses of the German military-strategic intelligence. (Normandy is the most famous example, but I cannot emphasize enough how their blunders there were in the tide-turning 1942-3 period on the Eastern Front).

The third was simply the context that I grew up in. I was free of the “baggage” that dominated the debate and discussion of past decades. I was born long after the period where everyone from scholars like van Creveld and Dupuy to popular historians like Max Hastings put forth a near-consensus that the Wehrmacht was an absolute master of war that lost only due to superior Allied resources and Hitler’s antics. There are also some minor things-I didn’t play that many, if any, WWII video games, be they poppish or wargames. I was too busy in Advance Wars and the postwar Steel Panthers. (So I didn’t see that many of the low-end “why no my krupstall block the sherman shell” ‘Wehraboos’ that fill every WWII game forum with complaints that their wunderpanzers lost)

Then there’s more modern historians like Sovietologist David Glantz and Robert Citino, the latter of whom has specialized in the study of the German military in ways that contradict a lot of the 70s-80s theorizing. I proudly have books by both of them on my shelf.

Building and Destroying Tank Formations

A division-sized mechanized formation tends to have (as a rough rule of thumb that assumes a big Cold War sized division as the base), around 500-600 armored vehicles in it, with the ratio of tanks to APCs/IFVs depending on the exact type of unit, whether it’s a tank/armored or motor rifle/mechanized infantry unit.

So, as a very rough artificial measurement for an artificial country in an artificial setting, I can tend to just plop down a number of overall tanks and divvy them up.

The next part is figuring out how quickly those formations of tanks would get destroyed in actual fighting. It depends on the kind of fighting and opponent, and ranges from “a year” to “less than a day”.

Another Issue of Scale

It’s very easy to be “spoiled” by World War II sizes, where even second-stringers could handily field large formations (by the standards of later armies), and where the 90 division US Army was not unreasonably criticized as being too small.

Even Cold War armies appear small compared to those[1], something that I need to keep in mind when making my guilty pleasure OOB lists.

[1]In terms of number of divisions, of course. In capability, they’re far superior.

The TO&E Paradox

Here’s one of the most interesting paradoxes.

-The TO&E of a unit tells a lot about what the unit is, what it’s capable of, and what it does.

-Any unit that has been in the field for even a slight amount of time will NOT be matching its on-paper TO&E. So, if a unit’s paper strength is 51 tanks and 173 APCs, even a bit of experience in the “rough” will reduce that, if only to mechanical breakdowns. So it’s one of those “use a bit of common sense” deals.

The Tank Army Out Of Nowhere

It may be implausible, but I love the concept of the tank army out of nowhere. I’ve seen it in a few cheap thrillers of dubious quality, and if the context allows it, I love it. It’s just a sign that the author simply does not care about those silly things like “logistics”, or “direct plausibility”.

Where I think I love the tank army out of nowhere (again, assuming the right context, which boils down to not taking things too seriously) has to do with my own hang-ups, where I’ve been too focused on “plausibility”. As a literary tool, seeing the tank army out of nowhere without any explanation save for a lame excuse (and sometimes not even that) makes me think “Ok, here’s tanks-this is going to be ridiculous, whether the author intends it or not.”

And I like ridiculousness in my fiction.

No Appeal: Special Forces

Ok, some topics don’t appeal to me. This is a matter of personal taste, but still. I might as well give my opinion. I’ll start with the first, and one of the largest. Special Forces.

There’s multiple reasons why I dislike (and wouldn’t routinely use, at least for a main character) the trope of “special forces” or “elite warriors”. One of the biggest is a knowledge of the very real limitations of real special forces, the very different roles employed from the fantasy, the very different basic definitions of the term across different countries and times, and how all of them (in a setting with some degree of realism, at least), differ dramatically from the common fantasy. So that’s one piece of the pie.

But the second has nothing to do with practicality. It just feels off to have someone start the story at the top of the heap. It takes away from the sense of development and heroism, and (especially if used in a fictional fantastical role rather than a more plausibly limited one) smacks of wish fulfillment. It just seems better to have someone ordinary doing something extraordinary than someone extraordinary doing something ordinary-for them.

The Magnificent Forward Observers

Poor me.

I know too much for a Seven Samuraiinspired battle to be both realistic and dramatic. At least against an army, which is what I was going for when I thought of the concept. Because against a larger and at least somewhat disciplined force willing to take any sort of loss, seven people are going to get crushed effortlessly. The best they could do, and this assumes they have the support in the first place, is hide and call in reports and fire support similar to the Marines at Khafji.

Now, against er, “irregulars”, as was the case in the original inspirations, it’s a different story. Still implausible, but they’d likely be far less skilled, and more crucially, have a far more timid risk calculus. Which is to say, there’d be more pressure to just “give up” and loot an easier target rather than take huge losses for the sake of a victory. The historical record of militia shows that, in general, they’re much worse at attacking than they are defending.

But could one still make a good story out of either a semi-plausible or outright implausible version, against either type of opposition? Of course! As long as it was well-written and fit the tone of the overall work, any sort of setup can work very well.

Naming an Army

This is another piece of mine on military unit names. It kind of follows along with the last one I did.

This is on naming the army. Not the overall title for the army as an overall organization, but naming the exact equivalent for “Field army“, or even “army group“.

For the etymology, I thought back to the overall theme, of a [villainous] group with a kind of bizarre obsession with the ancient and traditional. The name of an army/army group equivalent would be from a (likely ancient) language, the word taken directly as a loan rather than adapted. And it would not be any directly military-related one there, but something like “assembly” or “federation”.

The image invoked is images of ancient peoples, on the steppes or in the forests, the kind unfairly referred to as “barbarians” by outsiders, forming a coalition of their warriors to campaign. And the reason I got there, or how the name-developers got there in-universe, has to do with the nature of such ultra-large units.

Regardless of national culture or doctrine, extremely large units like army groups and/or field armies are always considerably more ad hoc than the smaller ones in the same country. They’re determined by resources and location. So if it’s ad-hoc, a little like an ancient coalition, that opens the door for it to receive the name of one.

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

Of course, the question is how much an author should use a possibly confusing author-coined name rather than a familiar one. It’s tough to answer, but is easier in that the names this term would be replacing are themselves looser and to many people more unfamiliar than clearer small units.