1. THE 88-MM. GUN
Field Marshal Erwin Rommel's use of the 88-mm. antiaircraft gun as an
offensive antitank weapon in Libya has caused so much discussion among
American soldiers everywhere that this seems a good time to describe
it. In plain English, there is nothing strange or unusual about the 88. To
the question "Is it vulnerable?" the answer is "Yes!"
Back in the 10-year period before Hitler came into power, the German 88-mm.
antiaircraft gun was designed and built in secret. In those days the German
Army was rigidly limited as to men and materiel. It is known that the designers
of the gun were chiefly interested in constructing a double-purpose antiaircraft
and antitank weapon. The news of the gun's antitank capabilities was not allowed
to leak out, however, and not until the Nazis invaded Poland did the world
discover what the German designers had perfected.
Basically, the 88-mm. is a tractor-drawn gun for firing on moving
targets (fig. 1). It has a rate of fire of 25 rounds per minute, or
slightly better, and is capable not only of a great volume of fire, but
of extreme accuracy against moving targets of any type. This applies to
targets on the ground as well as those in the air. When the 88-mm. is to
attack armored vehicles, it is provided with a special armor-piercing
Rommel generally sends the gun into position under cover of medium tanks. The
tanks are then withdrawn for offensive operations somewhere else, and the
88-mm. begins its mission of trying to pierce the armor of approaching hostile tanks.
What are the gun's weaknesses? First, it makes a good target for dive bombers, even
though one of its duties is to oppose aircraft. The 88 has a hard time placing its
fire on dive bombers. They can come down at a furious speed, blast the 88, and get
away successfully. But the really important weakness of this, or any other gun, lies
not in its manufacture but in its crew. The gun is not alive; the men are. They know
that it may not be aircraft or long-range artillery which will end the big gun's
usefulness to the Axis, but a detachment of perhaps 20 American soldiers. To meet
such a threat, the crew wear their rifles strapped to their backs in readiness
for close combat.
The natural question that arises is: "Do we have a comparable weapon—if
so, what?" Fortunately, our 90-mm. is superior to the 88-mm. in every important
respect, and we are building even better models. The clever tactics of the
Germans, rather than the 88 itself, have been responsible for much of the
|Figure 1.—88-mm. Antiaircraft and antitank gun.|
2. TANKS IN THE SPOTLIGHT
Lately the Germans have been working their Mark IV tank overtime, especially
in Libya. It is a medium tank of 22 tons, carrying a crew of five (fig. 2). Armed
with one 75-mm. gun and two light machine guns, it has been used chiefly as
mobile, close-support artillery in desert warfare. The reported substitution
of a more powerful 75-mm. gun may send the Mark IV back to its normal task of
serving as the chief element in a breakthrough. Its best possible speed is
31 miles per hour. In studying the photograph for identification purposes, note
that the Mark IV has, on each side, eight small bogie wheels and four
track-support rollers. Testing a captured German Mark IV tank, the British
have discovered that it can be blinded by flame-thrower attack. Although the
flames are not likely to enter the turret or the driving compartment, they will
coat with thick soot all lookout points, including the telescopic sights on the
gun. As a result, the men in the tank cannot fire effectively until they have
changed or cleaned their sights.
|Figure 2.—Mark IV tank.|
The Germans also make wide use of the Mark III, a light medium tank of
18 to 20 tons (fig. 3). Formerly it was armed with one 37-mm. gun and two light
machine guns, but in most cases the 37-mm. has been replaced by a 50-mm. Its
best possible speed is 28 miles per hour, but it is much easier to maneuver
on the battlefield than the heavier Mark IV.
|Figure 3.—Mark III tank.|
The war in Africa has proved, however, that the American M3, known to the
British as the "General Grant," has the best tank armor in the
world. "General Grants" stay in the fight after as many as eight to ten hits
by 50-mm. and smaller antitank weapons. In at least one case, a "General Grant" has
continued to perform well after 27 hits. The new American M4, known as
the "General Lee," is even more reliable. It has greater speed and more
power, and is excellent for reconnaissance and pursuit. Among other
improvements, its 75-mm. gun has been placed in the turret instead of
on the side. This change gives it an all-around field of fire.
3. MECHANIZED WARFARE
The tactics used by the Germans in mechanized warfare are of interest to every
American in the field. German mechanized tactics are likely to follow certain
set patterns. Nevertheless, it must be remembered that German commanders are
clever at changing standard tactics to fit the situation at hand.
Under normal circumstances, the first German move is to order armored car
patrols, supported by antitank guns, to do a thorough job of
reconnaissance. Motorcycle riflemen also lend support if the terrain is
suitable. These reconnaissance patrols are drawn from the reconnaissance
battalions of the armored division. The size and makeup of each patrol
naturally depends on the mission it has to perform. Sometimes the Germans
even add a number of light tanks. These reconnaissance detachments not
only report our movements and those of their own units, but are supposed
to be strong enough to put up a fight, if necessary. While the patrols
are trying to find out our strength, German air and ground observers are
doing their best to detect our artillery and antitank-gun positions so that
these may be dealt with when the main attack begins.
Having decided where to strike, the enemy next brings forward his tanks, supported
by motorized infantry. He covers this move by a screen of antitank guns and tries
to bring his forward elements, including a company of Mark IV tanks, to within
about 2,000 yards of our own antitank guns and artillery. At this stage he generally
tries to refuel his tanks under the protection of his forward detachments.
The Mark IV tanks direct their 75-mm. gun fire on our antitank guns and
artillery. Meanwhile, Mark III tanks assemble for battle, and often challenge
our defended area at different points in strong, close formations.
The enemy then decides where he wants to begin his main thrust. Having done
his best to weaken the power of our defense by the fire of his Mark IV tanks
and artillery, he opens a strong attack with his Mark III tanks, followed by
motorized infantry and guns, and advances on his objective.
In addition, he often directs at least one column (containing tanks,
artillery, and motorized infantry) on some important locality in our area, such
as a tank repair center. There may be more than one of these thrusts. As a
rule, the Germans try to develop them into a pincer movement, with the
advance columns pushing ahead to meet at the final objective.
If one of the enemy's Mark III tank columns succeeds in penetrating any
part of our defenses and establishing a fairly good position, motorized
infantry is then moved forward to within a few hundred yards of the
position. The infantry dismounts and goes into action, mopping up as
rapidly as possible and organizing the position. German machine guns
and antitank guns follow the infantry closely. Every effort is made to
turn the captured position into an area, or a series of areas, capable
of all-around defense against any form of attack. In this last operation,
speed is emphasized.
In Libya, the Germans often start these attacks late in the afternoon so as
to have the advantage of fighting with the sun behind their backs. In this theater
of operations, the action is usually completed by
nightfall. Either side is likely to counterattack soon
after dark. Experience has shown that the Germans
especially dislike this form of combat, and United
Nations counterattacks begun at night have often succeeded in
recovering, at small expense, ground lost during the day.
It must be repeated that, although the Germans like to employ established
and familiar tactics, they know how to change them when necessary. The best
example of this is the new German technique of bringing up artillery in close
support of tanks, so that tanks are never required to face antitank
guns by themselves.