The ever-popular Harry Yeide is back! This week, he's taking a look at the development of the US Army's doctrine for using tanks in built-up areas. Over you you, Mr Yeide! - The Chieftain
An M3 medium tank belonging to Company A, 751st Tank Battalion (Medium), engages in street fighting in Bizerte, Tunisia, on 8 May 1943. (Signal Corps film)
M4 tank number C-14 (from the 3rd Platoon of "C" Company) stuck in the mud near the Rapido River north of Cassino on 8 February 1944. (Source: The 756th Tank Battalion)
As the tanks neared Cassino, they became channeled onto narrow paths, one along a blacktop road between the high bank of the Rapido River and the slope of Monte Cassino, and the other in the riverbed, so that only the front vehicles were able to fire. This became a problem when the smoke dissipated, and at about 1100 hours accurate fire screamed in from a camouflaged self-propelled gun in hull defilade on the outskirts of Cassino. The SP gun shot the turret hatch off the M4A1 in the riverbed and wounded the commander. A second shot passed so close to Redle’s head in the lead tank on the road that he was deafened in one ear for hours. Redle’s tanks backed into a quarry for protection, and the infantry’s attempts to knock the gun out with artillery and mortar fire were fruitless.
At 1630 hours, battalion CO Lt. Col. Harry Sweeting instructed that the 34th Division was going to fire a heavy barrage at Cassino, and he ordered the reserve force—four or five Company A Shermans—into town. At this point, coordination with the infantry broke down because the infantry officers had gone back several hundred yards to their battalion CP for orders, and Company K had pulled back to an assembly area. Moreover, the Company A tank platoon commander’s radio was on the fritz. The tanks charged alone into Cassino, where the Germans—who had been ordered to withdraw until their officers realized the tanks had no infantry support—waited in ambush.
Point-blank fire destroyed the last tank in line, and the remainder were trapped. The tanks sought a way out, and the Germans pursued them with bazookas, grenades, and dynamite. Three or four antitank rounds slammed into one tank but did not penetrate the armor. Close assault by infantry claimed one after the other, however. Redle was ordered to pull back because of advancing darkness, and he directed his driver to town to pass the order personally because of the radio problem. All he found was an empty tank from Company A.
The next morning, a company of medium tanks from the 760th Tank Battalion was attached to the 756th Battalion to reinforce its striking power after its heavy losses. Major Welborn Dolvin, the executive officer, commanded the tank force assigned to enter Cassino alongside the 3d Battalion, 133d Infantry Regiment. Dolvin’s tank took a high-velocity round in the final drive and burst into flames. Dolvin bailed out and sprinted to Redle’s tank, which had a radio on the battalion net, and directed the attack from the back deck.
“What’s holding you up?” queried Sweeting over the radio.
Dolvin looked around. “I don’t know, Colonel, but I think it’s the Germans.”
Another artillery barrage fell on Cassino, and the 760th Tank Battalion’s Company C and the infantry tried again. Lieutenant Leo Trahan’s 2d Platoon, followed by about fifty infantry, managed to capture the first four or five buildings in Cassino, and after some confusion between the tankers and infantry that nearly resulted in a withdrawal, the team got its act together and settled in to protect one another. Trahan’s tank was hit and burned during the aborted withdrawal, and a second tank became immobilized. Joined by other Company C tanks, the men from the 760th slugged it out in the streets of Cassino beside the tankers of the 756th Battalion until 7 February, when the detached company returned to its parent battalion.
For the next month, the medium-tank companies in the 756th Tank Battalion each kept a platoon—which by now usually meant no more than three tanks—in Cassino to work with the infantry. The GIs attacked mainly at night because German observation was so good that any movement drew heavy fire during the day. The tankers’ main job was to blast holes in the walls of fortified buildings that the riflemen could pass through, and gunners made heavy use of concrete-piercing ammunition.
Advances were measured in tens of yards, and tankers learned that working with the infantry in the confusing urban battlefield could be tough. Lieutenant Howard Harley lost his tank to bazooka fire on 12 February and later related, “It was because the fight was so wild that we got ahead of the infantry. You get lost in your intent sometimes and pursue targets with intent so strong you can get up ahead without realizing it.” A British observer who witnessed the Cassino operation commented, “In the initial advance, the tanks work in mutual support. Once inside the town, however, it becomes a personal matter, and each tank must fend for itself. . . . An enemy behind solid walls is difficult to dislodge. . . . By continuous firing at heavily fortified buildings, and chipping a few inches with each shot, the 75mm HE shell with a delayed-action fuse has finally reduced the strongest building. . . . There have been many occasions when, at the request of the infantry, close tank support has been given from the immediate vicinity of the forward troops; each support naturally increases the danger to the tank. Casualties to crews have been caused by the penetration of enemy rifle grenades and [antitank] bombs of the rocket type fired on the upper surfaces of the tank from upstairs windows. . . . During a sortie, as many as 200 shells have been directed against [the tanks] in town. Despite this, the infantry still prefer to have them in close proximity.
”Sweeting told the observer that his use of tanks as close as five yards to the infantry was “an improvised use. . . which should not become a habit.” The British officer noted that the Germans used their self-propelled guns aggressively in the town’s streets—they would advance to point-blank range, fire, and withdraw—and that chance engagements with American tanks were frequent. There were few long streets, and local commanders had to designate streets for use by friendly tanks—any other vehicular movement was met immediately by fire. The Germans generally used their Mark IV tanks outside the town but occasionally employed them much as the Americans used their Shermans.
Redle described one such encounter, when Sgt. Haskell Oliver’s tank was crossing a street to knock holes in the wall of a building near the town jail. A ball of fire streaked past the nose of the tank, and Oliver backed off. Sweeting was in a nearby observation post and reported that a Mark IV had fired at Oliver. Get the panzer, he said.
The infantry watched as Oliver dismounted with his crew to look the situation over from behind a boulder using binoculars so that each man knew where the Mark IV lurked, and they put their heads together to come up with a plan. The crewmen climbed back through their hatches and settled into their seats. Oliver asked if everyone was ready.
“At Oliver’s command,” recalled Redle, “[Roy] Anderson thrust down on the throttle, and the Sherman suddenly roared around the granite shoulder; he yanked the sticks to align the tank on that Mark IV and heaved back on the sticks to lurch to a stop. [Bert] Bulen, with his head pressed into the sight rest, saw the ground as the 30-ton hulk rocked forward, and as it reared back and the sight came level, he swung the turret and squeezed off the first shot. His hand-eye coordination allowed him to place that first shot as the sights still moved across the target. [Ed] Sadowski slammed shell after shell into the recoiling breech as fast as Bulen fired, Bulen spinning the elevation/deflection wheels quickly and firing again and again. The German was out-maneuvered and was knocked out immediately.”
The 34th Infantry Division never did take Cassino. Three more bloody Allied assaults would fail to capture the town, which was to fall only when the Allies unhinged the Gustav Line in May. The American tankers kept their hand in for the next round, and in March, the 760th Tank Battalion and several tank destroyer battalions supported the 4th Indian and 2d New Zealand divisions in their unsuccessful attempt to capture Cassino.
See my website: World War II History by Harry Yeide
See the book from which this article largely derives: The Infantry's Armor
[i] FM 17-10, Armored Force Field Manual: Tactics and Technique, 7 March 1942.
[ii] FM 17-10, 142-143.
[iii] Tank Gunnery, The General Board, United States Forces, European Theater, not dated, 18. (Tank Gunnery)
[iv] History, 751st Tank Battalion. After-action report, 9th Infantry Division.
[v] Fazendin, 10, 76, 81.
[vi] Roger Fazendin, The 756th Tank Battalion in the Battle of Cassino, 1944 (Lincoln, Nebraska: iUniverse, Inc., 1991), 89-101, 114-117, 124. David Redle, letter to author, January 2008. “History” (actually the journal), 133d Infantry Regiment. AAR, 760th Tank Battalion.
[vii] “Action by 756 Tank Bn (US) in support of 133 Infantry Regiment (US) During the Crossing of the Rapido River and Subsequent Fighting in the Northeast End of Cassino,” Lieutenant Colonel Grenfell, Director of Military Training (Brit) Observer Staff, not dated.
[viii] Fazendin, 126-127.[ix] AAR, Combat Command B, 1st Armored Division.