“In the months following Dunkirk, the words ‘panzer division’ took on a near-mythical significance” – Tarus Pursuant – A History of 11th Armoured Division
In the summer of 1940, following Dunkirk, there was a recognition that Britain would need new style Armoured formations to counter attack and destroy any invasion force. However the raising of such new formations, after the BEF losses in France, would take time and the immediate task was to provide anti-tank defences in as great a depth as possible. Such defences included concrete tank blocks, anti-tank ditches, minefields and Z1 naval scaffolding. These obstacles were covered by both anti-tank guns and infantry. This page will look at tank defence from the point of view of the infantry.
From the start there was a drive to try and dispel the ‘near-mythical’ status of the German Panzer Divisions. Notes attached to the War Diary of 7th Manchesters note: “Tanks are also subconsciously credited with infallibility. There is no greater mistake”. Weakness noted include the limited field of view from the observation slits, slow traverse of the turret and the ‘dead zone’ of the tank’s gun (they cannot depress enough to fire at anything within approx 20ft or elevate above 25 degrees). It is also noted that if the tracks can be damaged the tank is a “sitting bird”.
Obstacles were designed to either halt armoured vehicles (e.g. tank ditches and concrete blocks) or by immobilizing them (e.g. minefields) when they could be engaged and destroyed either by anti-tank guns or the infantry. Military Training pamphlet No 42 Tank Hunting and Destruction describes tank hunting as a sport – to be regarded as the same as big game hunting! However the pamphlet does then go on to describe the weaknesses of a tank. These are:
i) Drivers, gunners and commanders slits – vulnerable to small arms fire.
ii) Belly of the tank – armour at this point is its weakest and there may be opportunities of a few well aimed hits with an anti-tank rifle e.g. as the tank rears up to cross a bank.
iii) Tracks – can be removed with anti-tank mines, anti-tank rifle or even crowbars etc rammed in between the driving sprocket and track.
iv) Louvres or air vents – if incendiary devices are exploded over these the tank may be set on fire.
v) Turret – whenever possible the tank will drive with its turret hatch open and is the vulnerable to a surprise attack with grenades etc.
Diagram showing parts of a tank - Military Training Pamphlet No 42, Tank Hunting and Destruction
Tactical action against tanks by the infantry was two fold. Firstly, any tank attack would first come up against obstacles (e.g. minefields, concrete tank blocks). Such obstacles, as well as being covered by field artillery and anti-tank guns would also be covered by the infantry. A variety of weapons were at the infantry’s disposal, ranging from the Boys anti-tank rifle, Molotov Cocktails, anti-tank grenades and the flame fougasse.
Anti-tank rifles are mentioned in most Suffolk Home Forces Defence schemes. They should be sited to cover the approach to a defended locality and also sited to fire in enfilade (e.g. 6th Kings Own Scottish Borders). They should not open fire until the target is within range i.e. 300 yards. The War Diary of 1st Liverpool Scottish gives detailed instructions in the use of Molotov (spelt Molitoff in the War Diary) including instructions that all sections should hold 15 bottles (Operational Instruction No 14, 29th May 1940). Virtually all War Diaries refer to flame fougasses, which would be the responsibility of the local infantry commander to fire.
Left: A Finn in 'The Winter War' with a Molotov - War Diaries often refer
to the success of the use of these by both the Finns and Spanish.
Above: Boys anti-tank rifle in pre-war training.
The destruction and immobilization of tanks by grenades and bombs required the ability of the attacker to get close to the tank. This could be achieved by the use of trenches, smoke, fieldcraft (a tank has limited field of vision and its guns can only fire in one direction at a time) and ambush (see below).
Some anti-tank grenades: Top left - No 75 (can be thrown or buried and used as a mine)
Bottom left: ST Grenade - designed to stick to A.F.Vs
Middle and right: No 68 - designed for use against A.F.Vs and fired from a discharger
If enemy tanks broke through the Coast defence the second action to be taken by troops was tank hunting. Military Training Pamphlet No 42 Tank Hunting and Destruction notes that this will be done with troops on an area basis who will have first hand knowledge of the area allotted to them. Opportunities to attack tanks could arise from inland road blocks (the same principles of covering these obstacles as for the Coastal defence although if possible should be covered by troops other than the specialized tank hunting troops), by ambush or attacking tanks ‘in harbour’ i.e. when tanks rest up, for example at night, usually in concealed places such as woods. 55th div Defence scheme issued instructions for tank hunting platoons to be organised for each sub-sector, under the direction of local commanders. The Defence scheme of 6th Kings Own Scottish Borders shows tank hunting areas allotted to companies with instructions that all ranks should be familiar with their area and the immediate areas on their flanks. Of note is that the tank hunting areas extend way beyond the battalion's boundary. Tank hunting exercises were also frequently held during 1940/41 - Bren carriers playing the part of enemey tanks.
Recommended training for tank hunting troops included fieldcraft (including practise in tank stalking), night work, ambush training, field engineering (knowledge of prparing road blocks and general knowledge of explosives), recognition of Armoured Fighting Vehicles (knoweldge of enemy and allied A.F.Vs and the weak spots of a tank) and weapon training (including the anti-tank rifle). Specialist trained snipers should also form part of a tank hunting detachment.
Suffolk, with its narrow winding roads, hedge rows and villages with narrow streets would have been ideal country to set up tank ambushes. The essence of a good ambush is surprise. The basis of a typical ambush plan would have been:
i) Surprise and overcome the reconnoitring motor cycle scouts.
ii) Attack tanks individually and prevent them supporting each other - can use bends in roads or smoke to achieve this. Narrow village streets may allow simultaneous attacks on supporting tanks.
iii) Look outs to protect the ambush detachment from attack by lorried infantry following the tanks.
iv) Arrangements for withdrawal of ambush detachments, re-grouping so new ambushes can be prepared.
The tank destruction role in villages or road blocks inland would most likely have fallen on the Home Guard (e.g. the Home Guard had responsibility for covering the blocks on the Back Line). Suitable road blocks could be formed by road cratering and rails. A block must be covered with fire. Weapons should cover the block from the flanks (on the enemy side of the block) with other personnel sited to prevent any outflanking attempt by the enemy. Weapons principally for the Home Guard for this role also included the Harvey Flame Thrower, the Northover Projector (designed to throw the A.W grenade - an improvised phosphorus Molotov type grenade - over a range of 50 to 150 yards) and the Spigot Mortar.
left: Home Guard prepare to deal with the enemy with Molotovs
Right: Northover Projector
6th KOSB papers, TNA
1st Liverpool Scottish papers, TNA
7th Manchesters papers, TNA
Tank Hunting and Destruction, Military Training Pamphlet No 42, W.O, 1940
Small Arms Training, Pamphlet No 13: Grenade, W.O, 1942