[Lone Sentry] [Lone Sentry: www.lonesentry.com]

Lone Sentry: Tankers in Tunisia: Part 3 [original pp. 19-24]


[intro. & contents]
Part 1
[original pp. 1-12]
Part 2
[original pp. 13-19]
Part 3
[original pp. 19-24]
Part 4
[original pp. 24-27]
Part 5
[original pp. 28-30]
Part 6
[original pp. 31-35]
Part 7
[original pp. 35-39]
Part 8
[original pp. 40-44]
Part 9
[original pp. 44-49]
Part 10
[original pp. 49-53]
Part 11
[original pp. 54-60]
[original pp. 61-62]

LIEUTENANT COLONEL L. V. HIGHTOWER, Executive Officer, 1st Armored Regiment, First Armored Division. (Commanding Officer, 3rd Battalion, 1st Armored Regiment, during battles of Faid Pass and Sidi bou Zid.) 1 March 1943.*

[*NOTE: The next four interviews took place before my arrival. I had a copy of them and we discussed them. —TJC]

In tank fighting nothing is more important than expert reconnaissance of your routes of advance and withdrawal. Several times both we and the Germans have moved up on what we thought was a good clear route only to find a dry wash, nine or ten feet high, blocking our way, causing us to withdraw. In this country, too, we've learned to move slowly so as not to reveal our position. You can't boil up to battle at high speed without broadcasting your coming in a big cloud of dust.

German antitank gunnery has made our reconnaissance a particularly tough job. They drag their big 88-mm guns up behind their tanks and drop them in position. Usually the crew digs the gun in a hole, twelve by twelve by six feet deep, practically covering up the shield and exposing only the barrel of the gun. We've found those guns particularly hard to locate and they can break up your entire show if you don't pick them up in time. Apparently they use mats to hide the muzzle blast. Once we hunted a gun within a thousand yards for three days and then only found it by spotting the personnel approaching the gun position.

[Side view of the German 88-mm Gun]
Side view of the German 88-mm Gun

Generally they try to suck you into an antitank gun trap. Their light tanks will bait you in by playing around just outside effective range. When you start after them, they turn tail and draw you in within range of their 88-mm guns. First they open up on you with their guns in depth. Then when you try to flank them you find yourself under fire of carefully concealed guns at a shorter range. We've just got to learn to pick those guns up before closing in on them.

Although we've knocked down several enemy aircraft we find that our men are having trouble with their leads. You've got to shoot planes as you would ducks. The big fault with our antiaircraft fire is that about sixty percent of it does not have enough lead. Our boys don't seem to realize the speed of those ships. The .50 caliber machine guns, however, will keep 'em high; German pilots seem to despise the stuff.

The basic training they had in the States means a lot to our boys over here. Every time they hit the ground you'll find them digging a helluva big hole. I have yet to see one man get hit in a properly dug slit trench. One of my lads dug a shallow one and he came out with a bullet hole clear through the cheeks of his tail. You don't have to mention light discipline to them. They'll hoop and holler at anyone who uses a light at night, regardless of rank.

We've also learned that it's important for everyone to know what to do with wounds, especially shock. Although I saw one man die of shock from a simple hand wound, I've also seen our men save almost five hundred casualties by prompt treatment of their wounds with sulpha drugs and proper treatment for shock. Most of the sulpha drugs are administered by the men themselves. A couple of weeks ago one of my sergeants fixed up a man who had been severely wounded on the head and neck when he was blown off a tank. Today, the man is back in action.

The support artillery gives us is only as good as their observer. Commanders must get in the habit of assigning their best men as artillery observers.

Our 37-mm guns will knock out tanks if the crews will only camouflage their guns perfectly and then hold fire until the enemy comes in at point blank range. German camouflage is excellent; it's hard to believe they can hide a gun as well as they do. The rifle grenade is a good weapon at close quarters and will knock out anything under a Mark VI.

When the Germans go into position they'll hide their guns and tanks in anything, including Arab huts. And then they dress their personnel in Arab garb while going to and from their positions. Usually they'll try to suck you inside of a 1200 yard range. They frequently use machine guns to range themselves in and you can duck their shells by watching their machine gun fire. When they're moving they'll shoot at anything that looks suspicious and they'll generally knock down every Arab house in sight. We think that's a good idea and are beginning to follow suit. Sometimes they'll get the range with high burst smoke shells. But when we see three of those in a line we take off — that's the high sign for the Stukas. When firing, we always shoot low — even the ricochets will hit them. Most of our misses have been high.

We also need a good system for identifying friendly tanks. Once when my radio was knocked out I heard my own tanks turning their guns on me — and I really sweated out that approach. At dusk it's always hard to tell which vehicles are friendly, and we're always afraid to shoot until they're right on top of us. When the Stukas come over, the German tanks send up a line of rockets and orange smoke to show their positions.

One evening several Mark IV's followed a British tank column right up to their tank park until a 25 pounder battery spotted the strangers on the tail of the column and blew them off the road.

In using tanks in action, take it very slowly. Germans do it that way all the time. Do not shift gears once you start, particularly in the dusk, because the backfires will give you away. Keep the tanks out of column at all times. Never travel in column, travel in V, line, wedge, but never in column. Stay off the roads. Get off the roads and never use them. You don't need an assembly area for a reinforced battalion. You can go right into action without first using an area. Push your tank destroyers well forward, and keep your infantry ahead.

It is according to the situation whether the infantry goes ahead of the tanks. If it is a defense position that has had a chance to organize positively and definitely, I would most certainly have the infantry with the tanks. I would have them follow the tanks on foot, but I would have the infantry right there. Once those 88-mm guns start to bark, you can't pick them up in your tank. Attack them with infantry. Get the infantry out of the half-tracks. Don't take any thin-skinned vehicles with the tanks, they open on them the first thing. Don't take your assault guns or mortars with your tanks, because they will smash them in open country.

The artillery observer has got to be right with the assault company commander or the tank battalion commander, and I mean not more than 35 or 40 yards away. Of course that is standard operating procedure. I just mention it because it is so necessary.

Teach your commanders to stay out of the fight until they are the last tank or thereabouts. They are too prone to become interested in a personal duel, and forget about their control of the units.

A reconnaissance of the field, if you are lucky enough to be able to make it, is the most important thing I can think of.

Medium tanks don't get bogged down so easily. If you come to a bog, don't ever let them try to shift gears, shift before.

The Germans bring their 88-mm guns towed behind their tanks (may be 75-mm guns, or both — I know they bring 88-mm guns). They tow them up and dig in. Their tanks come out and get your attention and, unless you know their tricks, they lead you right between their guns and they get behind you and get you. Don't always bite at the first 88-mm guns which shoot at you. There will be several up much closer. The first 88-mm gun that barks and the first tank are generally bait and you shouldn't plunge at them. If they stage any night attack or late evening attack and neither side stays there, they will come out and put their 88-mm guns in no-man's-land away ahead of where their tank positions are. Their tanks were within 1000 yards of the Pass, but their guns were 4000 yards ahead of the Pass.

Four 88-mm guns, if dug in, are a match for any tank company. They are the most wonderful things to camouflage I have ever seen. They are very low to the ground. You can watch the fire coming in, little dust balls on the ground give them away and show how low they are. They just skip along the ground. The pit is 12 by 12 by 6. The gun looks like a pencil or black spot. The shield is level with the piece and all you can effectively see is the tube. The crew is even dressed in Arab clothes, and they do everything to camouflage their position. You can get them out with high explosive ammunition, with your artillery. If a tank gun can find them, you can get them out. Over 1200 yards there is no use worrying about them. Their shells bounce off the medium tank at that range. Under 1200 yards, watch out. The enemy's gunnery stinks at long ranges. I feel that our men are better. If we can fight a tank for a tank and a gun, I think we can do it, and that is giving them great odds, because I would say the gun is worth four tanks, but we can do it.

You can see the shells coming. You can watch the adjustments they are making. They all seem to be short and behind. Then they get up and begin to shoot under the tank. During this time, we knocked out four tanks. We picked off the leader. You can tell after a while which is the leader by the difference in the vehicles. They pick at such things as half-tracks with two antennas, etc., and we caught on after a while. When you get one of their commanders they stop and seem sort of dazed.

The ten German tanks were sitting on a ridge shooting at half-tracks. They had been at my left rear and I hadn't seen them. There was a Mark VI, Mark IV's, and some Mark III's. They stopped on the crest and did a right flank and started to get in column. They will put a Mark VI in the middle and the others on the flanks, always making one flank heavier than the other, however. We picked out one and hit him and he stopped. We burned the next one. Then the Mark VI, which I thought was a Mark IV, came close. They are hard to identify, but have a more or less square outline, with an offset box on the side. You cannot identify their guns. We bounced four off the front of him. Then another tank came up right along side of him, and it was easy to move a hair to the left and pick him off. We had no armor piercing ammunition so I know a high explosive shell will crack a Mark IV. You should shoot low and it will ricochet and kill them in the turret, or damage them so they will be of no use.

[View of a German Mark VI Tank with its 88-mm gun turned to the rear]
View of a German Mark VI Tank with its 88-mm gun turned to the rear

Our 105-mm gun is good against tanks. I watched one gun hit three tanks coming in a big mass of tanks, approximately thirty tanks, and with high explosive ammunition he collapsed three of them like taking shoe boxes and shoving them flat. The rest of them scattered or moved up to the right. We had to leave because more were moving up.

The 50-mm gun is almost the same as to amount of powder as the 88-mm gun. I think their antitank guns are mostly 88-mm and 75-mm. The only 50-mm I have seen are in Mark III's and Mark IV's. Just go slow and watch them. Get your reconnaissance out in front, men on foot. If you rush right out there you will rush right into it. You want some artillery well forward. 105-mm guns shooting at over five thousand yards aren't much value. I think they shouldn't ever be over 4000 yards in ether direct or indirect fire.

I worked against hostile infantry some. We got a few of them and they went in their foxholes. We shot at them and don't know whether or not we got a lot of them. They will stand there and use those 20-mm cannon at you, but it doesn't bother you. I did run across a small German or Italian tank and found the tail end of a rifle grenade near it and the tank was burned and blasted to pieces.

Stukas with 500 pound bombs really don't hurt the tanks unless there is a direct hit, except for the dust. You have to move out of it. When the Stukas appear the Germans shoot green and white, or green and red, flares, changing every day — they also shoot a blast of orange gas to identify themselves. Another thing, they mark a target with three smoke shells. After these three bursts you had better clear out, for they will be over in about one minute.

They use a lot of high burst ranging. The artillery will shoot one, apparently getting the range from a map, and they will hit one overhead and then drop right down on you. It is easy to dodge an 88-mm gun because they start with machine gun bullets. When they begin hitting you, turn suddenly right or left to avoid it.

Bore sight to beat hell but don't let the boys try to do it at 1000 yards so the axis of sight and tube coincide, because when you are shooting at 6000 yards there is no telling where it will hit. Keep your sights parallel. Bore sight on a distant object; the more distant the more effective. We had one tank which threw a track which we couldn't possibly get started, and we had a lot of ammunition. That commander stood there with his glasses and proceeded to throw a lot of high explosive shells. German tanks went in all directions. That quadrant is very worth while; and glasses are necessary.

Before we put a single round of ammunition in our carrying racks we try them in their guns. A lot of them won't fit, and the battlefield is a bad place to find it out, although I know of two sergeants who climbed out under fire and rammed the shells out.

At Sbeitla it was the tanks that bothered us more than the antitank guns. There were just too many. With a detached air, we were just seeing how many of them we could get before they got us. The Germans will come up about 60 yards at a time, sitting there looking, then moving again. The Mark VI was the main threat. Our boys always came out of the top of the tank, not the escape hatch. Sometimes the Germans machine gun the crews and other times they don't bother. I was very thankful for my good physical condition. We had to run about half a mile before even halting. The country was very flat and they could have got us with machine gun fire.

COLONEL STACK: We have got to do some sucking in ourselves instead of being sucked in. Move with extended intervals, not all in front, but with a long tail so that when they do pull a trap or envelopment there will be something to back us up. Companies should be deployed with considerable distance between them.

LIEUTENANT COLONEL HIGHTOWER: I think it should be nearer 9 wave tank attack rather than 3 wave. Watch the envelopments and hideouts. I still believe that at 2 to 1 odds we can lick them, because our boys can shoot better. I have seen one German tank versus one American tank and the Americans hit many shots before they. They can't hit at all at long ranges.

Every battery I saw of the 91st Field Artillery did a bang-up job all the time, and I have had them all at one time or another. "A" Co. of the 701st Tank Destroyer stayed right to the bitter end and Wray should be promoted. He salvaged vehicles on the field and did a fine job. We could use him in the regiment. He is so utterly fearless and his men are the same way. Of course my men are the bravest in the world.

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