Friday, March 13, 2015

The 70th Tank Battalion - independent tank battalion

M5 light tanks of 70th Independent Tank Battalion pass in review for President Roosevelt.

Most Americans think of World War II tank warfare in terms of long thrusts by armored divisions, probably led by Patton. To his credit, he did lead such thrusts just as planners had envisioned when they created the 1st and 2d Armored Divisions as the principal components of the Armored Force of the United States in July, 1940. Modelled after German Blitzkrieg forces, armored divisions had enormous power and mobility. Tanks set the pace for their own motorized infantry. However, for tanks to use their manoeuvrability and speed, terrain and conditions had to be right. When they were not, such as in the hedgerows of Normandy, or in the forests of Germany, regular infantry with close tank support had to slug it out with the enemy at close quarters.

To provide this support, the 70th Tank Battalion was included in the original Armored Force as the first of the independent tank battalions. Called independent because they were not part of a division, these battalions were available to be attached to an infantry division when the need arose. It is believed that General Adna R. Chaffee, the first commander of the Armored Force, insisted upon the creation of independent tank battalions so infantry divisions wouldn't constantly be breaking up armored divisions by borrowing tank battalions from them every time tank support was needed.

As always in the Army command structure, a division controlled all attached units, including an independent tank battalion. This, at times, presented difficulties for tankers. It was a wise infantry commander who used tankers' advice on how best to use tanks. Most of them did so, but not all.

During the course of their combat, most independent tank battalions were attached to a number of infantry divisions. In its eight campaigns (the most for an independent tank battalion), the 70th was attached to the U.S. 1st Infantry Division (twice), the 9th, the 4th, the 63rd, C Company to the 45th in Sicily, and A Company to the French in Tunisia.

Because it was not always possible to foresee needs, an infantry division and its attached tank battalion often had little or no prior joint training. This could lead to a lack of coordination. Combat is a poor place for one unit to get to know the ways, styles, and idiosyncrasies of the other. In preparation for invasions, however, the infantry that would lead an assault and their tank support usually trained together. As the first independent tank battalion, the 70th was selected to be the first to undergo amphibious training with an infantry division, the 1st. Training was still in progress when Pearl Harbor was bombed on December 7, 1941.

As the only tank battalion and infantry division with joint amphibious training, the 70th, the 1st, along with the 1st Marine Raider Battalion, were sent on a mission to Martinique on January 9, 1942. Control of this Caribbean island in our own backyard by pro- Nazi, Vichy France was intolerable. Seeing the force against him, the Vichy governor capitulated without a shot being fired. In early March, the 70th and the 9th Infantry Division began training for "Operation Torch," the invasion of French North Africa. On November 8, 1942, B Company and the 47th Infantry Regiment landed at Safi, French Morocco, C Company and the 60th at Port Lyautey, French Morocco, and A Company and the 39th at Algiers, Algeria. Combat was over in a day except at Port Lyautey where it lasted three days.

The 70th was soon detached from the 9th, which meant A Company was alone and available in Algiers. It was sent to Tunisia in late December, 1942. The rest of the battalion set up a training school in Tlemcen, Algeria, to teach "Free French" cadres the use of MS light tanks.

In Tunisia, A Company was attached to the "Free French" XIX Corps. Not only was there no prior training, but the company found itself providing tank support for French, Senegalese, and Ghoumier infantry, all speaking a different language and with different military traditions. Even worse, French commanders at first deployed A Company tanks as sentinels and mobile pillboxes, out ahead of infantry in exposed positions and ineffective for an assault. On another occasion, the light tanks were used as bait, parading in front of heavier German tanks to draw them within range of French big guns and the 75s of U.S. 601st T.D.s and British Churchill tanks. Such misuse of tanks ended only when the A Company commander, Atlee Wampler, insisted that he be involved in all planning when company tanks were employed. In time, the French and A Company developed a good, solid relationship which lasted until the end of hostilities on May 13th.

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