Key point: Allied tanks were a nasty surprise for the Germans. However, the tanks were not used en masse and did not turn the tide of the war.
The Somme offensive, which began on July 1, 1916, had by late that month deteriorated into a series of small, costly actions. Hoping to revive the attack, the British Army launched another major offensive on September 15. Spearheading the new effort were tanks, a British secret weapon designed to crush the German barbed-wire and machine gun-laced trench system that had brutally resisted all Allied attempts to end the bloody stalemate on the Western Front. The first ever use of tanks on the battlefield so unnerved the Germans facing them that, according to a British soldier witnessing the event, “[the tanks] were frightening the Jerries out of their wits and making them scuttle like frightened rabbits.”
This first appeared earlier and is being reposted due to reader interest.
Despite the surprise their appearance caused to the Germans, the small number of underpowered, slow steel behemoths failed to gain a decisive victory for the Allies. The battle petered out by mid-November, and the front returned to its prior stagnant condition. Although the first British use of tanks proved to be premature, its employment by the Allies would no doubt continue. Realizing this, the Germans looked for ways to combat the unnerving new threat.
Adapting to Armored Warfare
Exaggerated stories of the Germans being dumbstruck and running for their lives in their first encounter with the new British “land cruisers” belied the fact that the German Army moved quickly and effectively to develop antitank techniques. They were aided by the moonscape terrain of the Western Front, the mechanical unreliability of the first tanks, and some bizarre attempts to make the new weapon more effective. For example, the early French practice of installing extra fuel tanks on top of their armored fighting vehicles in order to extend their range guaranteed the prompt incineration of both tanks and crews by accurate enemy fire.
After the debut of the tank on the modern battlefield, German infantrymen took on tanks like any other targets: aiming for openings in the armor, throwing hand grenades and using direct fire from field guns over open sights. Within a week of the first appearance of the tanks, German planners had gained from captured tank crews and documents a good appreciation of the new weapon and its abilities and limitations.
The Baled Charge
One of the first and most effective antitank measures sprang from the natural tendency of men in combat to shoot at the enemy with everything they had. Tanks drew fire from everywhere, sufficiently intense to strip away any friendly infantry support in the vicinity. The tank by itself was also vulnerable, and the initial German tactic was to throw everything they had at the steel monsters. To eliminate, or least dampen down “tank fright,” German infantry were drilled in assaulting knocked-out armored vehicles to learn the tank’s weaknesses and instill confidence in the attacking foot soldiers. An early frontline improvisation, the Geballte Ladung, or baled charge, was introduced. This was made by wrapping around a German “potato masher” hand grenade the heads of six other grenades to be thrown into one of the tank’s many openings. A swift improvement on the weapon took the form of a half-dozen grenades being put in a sandbag with one grenade’s fuse pulled just prior to placement on the tank.
Taking into account the great risk to a trooper using the grenades-in-a-sack method, safer alternatives were sought. One of the more effective was the K-round. This was a bullet with a tungsten carbide core instead of the soft alloys used in normal small-arms rounds. First employed to punch holes in the metal plates protecting enemy machine-gun and sniper positions, the K-round, when fired from German machine guns, would pierce 6mm- to 12mm-thick armored protection, causing injuries to crewmen inside and stopping the proper operation of the tank. The Germans quickly learned that the best way to us the K-round-spewing machine guns as tank killers was to post them in groups of two, mutually supported by other machine-gun groups and echeloned in depth behind the front lines. Like the use of grenades, the K-round was an ad hoc measure developed by frontline troops in response to an emergency situation. At this point in the war, no comprehensive directive was forthcoming from the German Army High Command on how to deal with the tank threat.
The T Rifle
By March 1917, British tank design had progressed to a point where special steel plates fitted on tanks could defeat the armor-piercing capability of the K bullets. The Germans took up the challenge by inventing an antitank rifle known as the Tank Abwehr Gewehr. A military version of the prewar elephant gun, the Mauser-built T Rifle, as it was commonly called, was five feet, five inches long, weighed 37 pounds, and used a 13.7mm round. Effective at a range of 120 yards, it required a two-man crew to lug it and its ammunition. Its limited range, which exposed shooters to retaliatory action, as well as its neck-breaking recoil, made the weapon very inaccurate and unpopular with the troops. The men who had to operate the beast discovered that grouping four to six of the rifles just behind the first trench system was the most effective way to use the T Rifle. Experience showed that its best employment was against tanks that had broken through the front and could be stalked using natural or manmade cover.
In tandem with fire and grenade attacks against enemy armor were early attempts by the German soldiers to create lethal physical barriers between themselves and approaching tanks. This too was an improvised program. Headquarters in the rear continued to evince a strange complacency about tanks, coming to the unwarranted conclusion that they were not a serious threat so long as the men at the front kept their wits about them. Hoping to keep more than just their wits, German soldiers quickly began to develop additional antitank defenses. The first were based on terrain modification. Wherever possible, the area fronting a position would be flooded to create swamp-like conditions to prevent tank movement. Additional measures were used to make the terrain inhospitable to tank movements, with especially deep trenches—12 feet wide and 15 feet deep—dug to prevent access.
The Allies quickly provided bridging equipment that allowed them to cross these new trench barriers. In desperation, German soldiers tried to construct wooden stockades to restrict the movement of tanks. Not surprisingly, these wooden obstacles proved rather frail barriers for even the earliest tanks. Next, tank pits (large holes topped with camouflaged lids) were designed to swallow a tank whole. This proved a failure on two counts: the effort was usually discovered by enemy reconnaissance and the obstacles were avoided, or the pits were destroyed by pre-assault artillery bombardment that might happen to fall inadvertently on the holes.
The Challenges of Direct and Indirect Fire
With the failure to slow the advance of tanks with terrain modifications such as trenches and pits, the Germans turned to direct projectile fire as their best bet to beat the tank menace. The problem with this seemingly reasonable assumption was that artillery fire came from guns in the rear of the German lines. Indirect fire at great distances on targets that were relatively small and moving—albeit only at four miles per hour—over a wide area of undulating ground wrapped in artificial smoke seriously inhibited the proper sighting of the guns.
The Antitank Mine
The Germans turned to another tank-stopping method—mines. Within weeks of the first appearance of British tanks on the Somme, antitank mines were being designed and used. The first antitank mines used by the Germans was merely artillery or mortar shells whose nose fuse was replaced with a cartridge case, covered by wooden planks, with nails driven through them to create pressure points which would detonate the shell as the vehicle passed over. The concept was refined to include a pivot board that released a pin from a spring-loaded striker to set off the shell when a tank passed over it. One improvement was the 12-pound Flachmine 17, a tarred wooden box packed with explosives and a main charge with four spring percussion detonators at the top. These detonators could be triggered by either a pressure fuse or a remote-controlled electrical current running to the mine from a power source located back in the German trench system.
These improvised explosive devices proved too dangerous and time-consuming to be of any great practical use. As a result, very few were created. Their use was also mitigated by the attitude of German army commanders that the tank was not a serious threat. This strange mindset changed considerably after the Battle of Cambrai in November 1917. There, 200 tanks led the initial assault, rousing German commanders from their doubts as to the concrete threat from Allied tanks. Their response was to build a better antitank mine, a 13-inch wooden box filled with eight pounds of gun cotton. A spring-restrained bar was placed over the contraption, and when it was depressed by the weight of a tank, the mine fired. The power of the resulting explosion was strong enough to damage a tank’s track and put the vehicle out of the fight.