Interview with Harry Yeide – Part 1: US Armor in World War II

unnamedYeide booksHarry Yeide is a foreign affairs analyst with the federal government in Washington, DC.  He lives with his wife, Nancy, in Hyattsville, Maryland.  Mr. Yeide is the author of eight books on World War II history, focusing primarily on US Armor.  He has a website at yeide.net.  Earlier this month he agreed to talk with Tank and AFV News.

Posted below is the first installment of the two-part interview.

Part 1: US Armor in World War II

You have written two books on US separate tank battalions of WW2.  The first book on the topic was Steel Victory, which you followed up later with The Infantry’s Armor.  What prompted you to write that book? 

51R24ZtXXCLThat’s my book of love.  It’s something of a rework of Steel Victory which was my very first book.  I broadened it, I did a much better job on the European Theatre.  With first books you learn a lot.  I also broadened it to cover all theatres of war, which I think I should have done in the first place.  I was always a World War II nut as a teen.  I recall reading a work of fiction, it was called Hell has No Heroes, and it was written by a guy named Wayne Robinson who had served as it turns out with the 743rd tank battalion in the ETO.  It was about a DD Sherman tank crew.  All the way from the beach, or before the beach through to the end of the war.  I had never really thought about infantry support tanks but it was such a well told story, and it was a story of tanks being used in a way that people generally don’t talk about.  So that just kind of stuck with me.  Years later I got sort of addicted to the computer game Combat Mission, tactical level World War II stuff and I decided I wanted to write some scenarios for it.  I felt scenarios would be best if they were based on actual battle records.  My wife works at the National Gallery and she does World War 2 looted art and she said – “you know, they have all the military records out at college park, which is twelve minutes from my house.”  She said – “you ought to go out and take a look at some of those.”  So I went out and I started pulling separate tank battalion records.  I’m going though these things and I’m going wow, this is so unbelievably interesting .  I looked around and nobody had ever written a book on these things and I was talking to a friend at work and he said – “why don’t you write a book?”  And I thought, yeah, why don’t I write a book?  So I did.  And I kind of lucked into Eric Hammel, who was an editor at Presidio Press.  He accepted the book and was really my mentor for quite a few years.  So that’s how it happened.  And then I did some more books and I thought I should really go back and do this right.

There is a conventional wisdom that says that the proper use of armor consists of tanks grouped into powerful tank divisions to be used in “blitzkrieg” style operations as opposed to penny packets of armor being distributed among the infantry units.  However, the US Army kept roughly half their armor battalions in armor divisions and parceled the other half out to the infantry.

51CSQ8G174LThe army’s conventional wisdom was half and half.  And I think one of the big reasons for it was that between the wars the cavalry and the infantry had completely separate tank development approaches and programs, although they all had to go to the same supplier, ordnance.  So, their light tanks were pretty much the same thing.  But the key difference was that the cavalry never whole heartedly embraced mechanization.  It’s not true that the Cavalry branch completely opposed it, but they were doing everything they could to find some way to keep horses around.  The Cavalry liked the small light tanks because they could go fast, they could do cavalry stuff with them.  The infantry had the doctrine that you used tanks to support the infantry.  George Patton crafted the WWI infantry support doctrine that the army lived with after the war.

So you have these two bloodlines eventually coming together and the United States is fortunate because the infantry thinks about doing things in a slower way and it starts developing the line of medium tanks that eventually give us the M4 series.  So all this stuff comes together when the armor force is created and because the cavalry and the infantry hadn’t been able to agree on anything, that’s why the army set it up as a service test.  So the chiefs of infantry and cavalry could have nothing to say about it.  And from the beginning there were two armored divisions and a separate tank battalion, the 70th, which was specifically intended for infantry support.  They had the right idea in the beginning, it’s kind of surprising that despite the fact that they had a more or less functional doctrine from the First World War, it took them so long to work out how you have tanks and infantry working together in practice.

In your books, you sometimes use terminology that seems different from what is generally used in post war writing.  An example of this is referring to US infantry in WW2 as “doughs” rather than “GI’s”  Is that how you found it in the records?

Yes, that’s the bottom line.  The big example is “doughs.”  Tankers always called the infantry doughs or doughboys.  Always.  And if you look back at writings by US infantry officers, they also do that.  Nobody talks about the G.I., that’s a postwar construct.  One reason I adopted that was when I was working on Steel Victory and also the Tank Killers, I was lucky to still have a lot of veterans around.  They talked that way too.   It was very important to me that when I sent my manuscript out for veterans to look at that it passed the verisimilitude test, that they would agree that I was capturing their world.   Veterans have been terrific supporters on this armor stuff, many of these units were a part of the army that people didn’t really write about.  They have inevitably been very willing and open and send me home published books so that their story can finally be told.  That’s the big reason.  I did restrain myself and I didn’t call a jeep a “peep”, which is what all armor people called the thing.

Since its February (Black History Month) it’s a good time to point out that there were several Independent Tank Battalions made up of African American Soldiers.  How many units were there and what was their story?

Two separate tank battalions and one tank destroyer battalion.  The 761st tank battalion is pretty well known.  Kareem Abdul-Jabbar of all people wrote one of several popular histories of the battalion.  Those histories…let me say this.  If you look at my website, I put up the equipment reports from that battalion and the histories are not precisely right in describing certain events.  But at least their story has been told and the battalion is well documented in the records so it’s pretty easy to look at them.  The other is the 784th tank battalion.  They went into battle only by the 30th of December of 44.  They are very poorly documented.  The one difference between the two battalions is that the 761st clearly faced problems with a racist army, a 1940’s army.  You can see that in the pattern of constant re-attachments of the battalion to different infantry divisions.  And that meant that these poor men had to fight the war under the worst possible circumstances, because the records show that the key to reducing casualties and being effective on the battlefield was establishing good connections between armor and infantry.  Men and officers who knew each other would know each other’s limitations and abilities and wouldn’t abandon each other, wouldn’t put each other in positions they knew would be disastrous.  The 761st went from one of these brand new situations to another.  I think the 784th was only attached to maybe three divisions.  That was not grossly atypical for a tank battalion.

You said that one of the reasons for writing The Infantry’s Armor was so that you could include the Pacific theater, which you had not included in your previous book Steel Victory.  This also includes the Amphibious tank battalions?

708th_2I found it really quite interesting, in part because I did broaden it to the other armor force elements, the amtanks (amphibious tanks) and the amtrac battalions.  The first use of an separate tank battalion( 193rd) was very peculiar.  They were deployed at Makin Atoll and their equipment was a company of M3 Mediums, a company of M3 light tanks and a company of amtracs.  So they didn’t even start the war in a normal way.   You do find a lot of peculiarities.  On Bougainville for example, when they first used the tanks, there was some armor force trained guy who said we have to put a full company of tanks in a line and we’re going to roll them forward and engage the enemy.  That really didn’t work out.  They eventually figured out tactics where you could team the infantry closely with a single tank and the tanks would be spread in a pattern where they could support one another and you would move forward at two or three miles an hour.  Since the tanks were blind the infantry would spot the target with smoke grenades.  Behind the tanks would be arrayed engineers and BAR men and riflemen.  It was just a different kind of war than fought in Europe.  The exceptions were the campaigns in the Philippine Islands and on Okinawa, those looked a lot like a European war there.  You’ll see the 44th tank battalion during the Manila fighting looking an awful lot like any tank battalion fighting through a German city beside the infantry.

Of course, in the Central Pacific the Army amtrac and amtank battalions participated in almost every major landing, so they played a crucial role.  Often amtracs from the army were carrying marines to shore.  You’ll see army amtanks fighting beside the marines.  They were very integrated with the navy out there.

When you were researching the book, did you look at the tank loss figures for the units in the Pacific compared to the units in Europe?

1a35225uIn Europe you have high intensity battle pretty much all the time.  The one thing I will say about tank losses in the European theatre is that, in the separate tank battalions at least, there was a clear pattern by which losses are heaviest in the first weeks and then losses drop dramatically.  There are two factors at work here.  One, the least competent commanders are putting their tanks into situations where they get killed.  And two, everybody else is learning.  And the infantry is learning and losses go way down.  In the Pacific, there were two battles really where you saw European levels of losses.  The first was in Manila.  The Japanese were using guns up to 120mm to engage tanks.  They had learned a lot about how the Americans worked and were as effective as the Germans in their anti-tank warfare in Manila.  And the other is on Okinawa, where losses were almost catastrophic.  The army had not anticipated losses anything like what happened there.  There was a tank shortage there, they basically had to disestablish a battalion and spread its tanks around because they couldn’t get enough replacements.  So it varied, in other low intensity Pacific engagements the Japanese just were not equipped to deal with that kind of thing.   Although their 47mm anti-tank gun could kill a Sherman from 500 yards from the front so it’s not like they had nothing.  I would add Saipan to the list of Pacific battles with heavy tank losses as well.

I ask because people have a tendency to focus on hardware, and since the Japanese had far less impressive tanks and anti-tank guns than the Germans did, there is a tendency to assume that US tankers had it easier in the Pacific. 

The big beef I have with that hardware centric thinking is first off, you have the fact of rapidly dropping losses as a unit gains experience, which tells you the hardware was ok.  My conclusion from viewing a lot of after action reports is that there is a crucial factor and a secondary factor that determines who lives and who dies and the crucial thing is the tactical situation.  Most of the time the US army is advancing and the Germans have the benefit of concealment position and so on.  When you’re advancing, the enemy gets the first shot in most cases.  So your tank losses are relatively high.  When the Germans are attacking, plain old vanilla 75mm Sherman tanks handle Panthers with no problem.  In the Bulge for example, there were cases were American tankers did quite well against better German hardware.  The other thing is that a tank battalion is part of a bigger package.  For the separate tank battalion, that bigger package is the Infantry division.  The infantry divisions had a whole lot of stuff, so a tanker, or as the war progresses an observer in a light airplane, can get out ahead and spot individual German tanks and call down an artillery barrage that will destroy the vehicle.  You see time and again the Germans losing tanks to artillery.  And I’m sure it happened to American tanks, but not that often.  You have control of the air also part of the package.  I’ve never looked at data that tells you really how many German tanks tactical air really took out, but it’s clear that tactical air took away the German tanks ability to move.  And if you’re not moving, that’s a big deal for a tanker.

In your book The Tank Killers, you refer to the Tank Destroyer force as one the most successful “failures” in US military history.  What do you mean by that?

514RsS41rFLThe army declared them a failure.  Within a year after the war ended there were no more tank destroyer units.  The army said the concept had been fundamentally flawed.  It is undeniable that the tank destroyers were unable to execute the unrealistic doctrine that they had received. As to the brain trust that created the doctrine, I came to have a great deal of sympathy for these men.  As they were trying to mobilize the US Army from virtually nothing and they looked across the Atlantic, they saw ­­­­Panzer divisions going everywhere and defeating everyone.  This included the French, who sort of used a system like we did, parceling their tanks out.  It didn’t work for the French, so the main aim for the US planners was to find a way to stop the Panzers.  They designed a doctrine and eventually got the equipment they desired, the M18 Hellcat, to implement it.  The problem was that once TD’s went into action we were almost always advancing.  Nobody had thought to create a doctrine for what you do with tank destroyers when you are attacking the enemy instead of being attacked.

Americans are a pragmatic lot, they basically said well, the doctrine doesn’t work, so what will work?  The commanders in the field, the infantry, the tankers, and the TD guys worked together to come up with a doctrine that worked.  When you look at things like the kill/loss ratio of tank destroyers against enemy armor, granted these are claimed, but the ratio is strongly positive for them.  You see in the after action reports some validation of that because the TD men learned how to use two or three tank destroyers to take out a single German tank.  They had the advantage of numbers and the tactical situation.  Anyway, it was an extremely effective weapon on the battlefield.

In regards to the Tank Destroyer force,  official fighting doctrine and actual tactics and doctrine adopted in the field often varied quite a bit.  What were some of the interesting examples you found where TD units had to “throw out the rule book” and make up doctrine on the fly?

Within the first six hours that the US Army is North Africa, in the landing zones around Oran where the 1st Armored Division is landing, they have flying columns that they are throwing inland.  One of these columns has at the very point, the tank destroyers.  Why did they do this?  The tanks had 37mm guns, the tank destroyers had 75mm guns.  They looked at the big gun and the little gun and they thought well, the big gun is better.  Doctrine went right out the window and it wasn’t dumb, they wound up engaging some French artillery with the same model 75mm gun.  So you see by the time the fighting in Tunisia is going on, there’s finally a rapid advance.  The 1st Armored Division uses its tank destroyers to first soften up any position that looks like it might have a German gun or a tank in it, but then primarily to provide over-watch as they advance.  Again, it had nothing to do with doctrine but it worked for armor tactics.

In Italy, because the terrain just wasn’t satisfactory for mobile warfare, except briefly at Salerno (where the army didn’t even put tank destroyers ashore in any of the assault waves) and at Anzio and finally at the drive into the Po Valley.  Those are like the three instances of mobile warfare in Italy.  Tank destroyers basically functioned as mobile artillery battalions, and the 76mm/3inch gun had about the same blast effect as a 105mm, and caused considerably less damage to roads surfaces.  They found that the tank destroyer was optimal for providing artillery support over routes that Americans were planning to be using very soon.

In Normandy they wound up fighting just like tanks even though they didn’t have the machine guns the tanks had.  Tankers say the machine gun was really the most important weapon on the vehicle.  The open top turrets were a big vulnerability.  France was also the first fielding of the towed tank destroyer battalions, and they were utterly ineffective.

It always struck me as odd that they came up with the concept of a tank destroyer before they came up with an idea of what the tank destroyer equipment would look like, going with towed guns and also motorized gun carriages.

188671It started out as all mobile, the Dodge weapon carrier, the M6 with the 37mm and the M3 halftrack.  After North Africa, the army regressed and introduced the towed tank destroyer unit.  In North Africa the army had learned the painful lesson that German anti-tank guns were extremely effective.  Of course, it was a desert and it was flat and there were not a whole lot of trees and stuff to get in the way of a gunner’s vision.   They thought “well, the Germans have made pretty good use of these guns, why don’t we do that”, and that’s how you got the towed battalions.  But of course we were attacking and the terrain was totally different everywhere else for the rest of the war.

Amongst WW2 tank and armor enthusiasts, General Lesley McNair is sometimes regarded as a bit of a villain, getting assigned blame for the late arrival of the M26 Pershing, the flawed TD doctrine, the deployment of towed TD units and the late arrival of 76mm armed Sherman tanks.  Have you had a chance to do much research into the career of General McNair?

No I haven’t.  I characterize him as the accidental father of the Tank Destroyer force, because he did have a pre-disposition to the idea that it was better, cheaper and more effective to engage tanks with anti-tank guns than to use tanks against them.  But if you look at my website, you’ll see kind of the heart of the debate over this in an exchange of memos between him and General Lynch arguing over what tanks ought to do and what anti-tank guns ought to do.   It’s ­not that McNair said flatly that American tanks should not engage other tanks, it was a question of emphasis.  He just thought that it ought to be primarily the job of anti-tank guns to beat the Panzers.  Now of course he had never fought in a mobile offensive war before.  He definitely had an impact, I wouldn’t be surprised if he had a voice as an artilleryman in creating the towed battalions.  I’m not positive if that’s true but I wouldn’t be surprised.

He did have a substantial impact on the reorganization of the armored divisions because he argued and the war results confirmed that the structure we went to war with was way too heavy on tanks and not nearly enough infantry.  In the armor world that was a very positive impact.

 In the book “Steeds of Steel” you examined the history of the Mechanized Cavalry in WW2.  What was the role of the mechanized cavalry in the war?  Why did the Mechanized Cavalry differ from US armor units?

41yKZOvaLBLIt was the great missed opportunity.  Had the cavalry embraced mechanization, they probably would have had the tanks entirely.  But they didn’t and so they lost most of their equipment and a lot of the cavalry men went to the armor force.  The army had to come up with something to do with the cavalry.  At the outbreak of the war the army was still messing around with these mechanized horse regiments where part of the force is mechanized and they were going to haul horses around in these great big moving vans so they could be both mobile and then get off and deploy. It was just idiotic.  Realizing that, the army crafted for them another unrealistic doctrine, and that doctrine was that they were going to be light and fast and they were going to use stealth and speed to acquire information as a reconnaissance force.  At the same time, and it’s a shame nobody really paid attention to this, the armored division’s armored reconnaissance battalions had their own doctrine.  Their organization was similar to the newly created mechanized cavalry squadrons but they had an extra troop and they had more assault guns.  The armored division’s thinking was that they were going to have to fight for information.  And that’s exactly what happened in North Africa, cavalry and the armored reconnaissance battalions had to fight for information.  However, the doctrine never changed.  The squadrons that go ashore at Normandy are still being told that they are supposed to be fast, light and sneaky and not have to fight for information.  And just like everybody in North Africa and Sicily and Italy, they find that they have to get out and fight.

My conclusion is that basically they had conducted all the traditional roles of cavalry, despite the doctrine they had.  The cavalry actually somewhat managed to adjust itself back to what it had always been trained to do.  You see the cavalry being used in pursuit, you see the cavalry being used in screening, you see it being used for conservation of force, filling in between divisions or corps.  There was an army general board that looked back at the cavalry in the ETO and it concluded that “the survey showed that squadrons in the ETO spent 33% of their time in defensive combat, 29% in special operations, which included mobile reserve, rear area security and operating in the army information service, 25% conducting security missions, screening, protecting flanks, securing gaps between other units, 10% offensive combat, and only 3% conducting reconnaissance.  And the survey noted that security and reconnaissance missions often involved offensive combat and that dismounted action was two times as frequent as mounted action.

Now, each infantry division had its own cavalry reconnaissance troop which were organized as mechanized cavalry parallel to the troops in the mechanized cavalry squadrons.  Especially in the Pacific you see the cavalry troops just doing all sorts of different things.  In the jungle they were used somewhat like LRRPs in Vietnam.  Deep penetration reconnaissance, calling in artillery strikes on Japanese positions, that kind of thing.  You see them manning amtanks during landings.  You see them in the Philippines acting just like mechanized cavalry anywhere else in the world.   It’s just a wide array of things they faced in the Pacific.  The cavalry takes pride in being flexible, and those troopers were.

Your book “Weapons of the Tankers: American Armor in World War II” is unlike your other books in that it’s more of an illustrated book focused on hardware.   How did that book come about?

Weapons of the tankersIt was an idea pitched to me.  I confess I’m not really thrilled about that project, in part because the footnotes got totally hosed.  As far as my own interests go, what attracts me is the story of how the soldiers used the hardware, not the hardware itself.  The tactical interplay at platoon, company, battalion level, that’s what I find most interesting.  I’ll never take a tilt at the hardware again.

In 2012 you were part of the “Operation Think Tank” forum put on by World of Tanks.  How did that come about and what was that like?

Nick Moran invited me, I was thrilled.  That event was one of the best things of my life.  I had so much fun out there.  Meeting Steve (Zaloga) for the first time, David Fletcher, everybody else on the panel was terrific.  They gave us the morning to go through the museum and crawl on anything we wanted.  I was so excited just going from thing to thing, I finished the day and realized I had taken almost no pictures.  So anyway, that was fantastic, the crowd was great, it was really super.

*****

Comments

  1. These interviews are really great reads, hopefully you can catch more interviews with these AFV history “stars”. 🙂

    Like

    • I plan to do more. I have one that is recorded but not yet transcribed with R.L. Dinardo, author of “Germany’s Panzer Arm” and Mechanized Juggernaut or Military Anachronism:Horses as the German Army of WWII.” Hopefully that one will be finished and up by the end of next week. I’ll contacting some other authors soon to see if I can get interviews.

      Like

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