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Light tanks in WWII- Why?

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Light tanks in WWII- Why?
Posted by M4Shermanmodeler on Tuesday, February 4, 2020 2:50 PM

Here's a question for you guys who know armor strategy and tactics better than I:

From my armchair historian's viewpoint; it seems that by late 1942, especially in the European theatre, light tanks like M3 were little more than death traps for their crews.   My question is; how did they fit into the overall US armor doctrine? What job(s) were they supposed to do? With German armor and anti-tank guns plentiful on most fronts, and seemingly every other Wehrmacht soldier carrying a Panzerfaust, what could a company of M3's actually accomplish on the battlefield without being wiped out? Sometimes I wonder if some weapons/strategies/tactics remain in place beyond their time simply because the bureaucracy figures "well that's the way we've always done it".

Just thinking out loud here. Would like some input from those with more experience and maybe an inside view.

Tim-M4Shermanmodeler

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Posted by Real G on Tuesday, February 4, 2020 3:55 PM

As you had mentioned, it was just doctrine.  That and the loss of production due to retooling for a different type was not acceptable.  When you look at the Sherman, it was a tall, poorly armored tank with (originally) a low velocity gun, but that is what we had at the time.  But it was simple, reliable and we built thousands of them.  The Stuart was similar, and could still be useful against light armor and softskins.

Remember that at the time, the tank was a fairly new kind of weapon, and armies were still deciding on the best way to use them.  Only after WW II did we come to the conclusion that a single type of tank would best.  But with the currently poular introduction of tank guns on armored cars, perhaps the light tank is making a comeback of sorts.

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Posted by the Baron on Tuesday, February 4, 2020 3:57 PM

Don't forget that there were other theaters of war than the ETO and the Eastern front.  In the Pacific, light tanks had a role, though the Sherman was generally deployed as time went on.

And even in Western Europe, light tanks carried out scouting tasks, till they were replaced by vehicles designed for that role.

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Posted by GMorrison on Tuesday, February 4, 2020 4:24 PM

I suppose for the same reason that the US Navy didn't have 6,768 aircraft carriers in the Pacific during WW2.

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Posted by armornut on Tuesday, February 4, 2020 4:51 PM

    Light tanks are that...light, true they didn't pack a punch against the German machines however they could traverse more ground, travel at highr road speeds, and maneuver better in small villages. If a platoon of light tanks managed to get the drop on the larger enemy tanks, they could hold thier own.

       Light tanks as mentioned were used as scouts, recon and command vehicles. Being a real threat to soft skins is advantageous too, psychologically being hit by a " puny" gun makes ya just as dead.

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Posted by jgeratic on Tuesday, February 4, 2020 6:34 PM

Near the end of 1944, they were being replaced with the M24 Chaffee as it became available.

This breakdown of the late 1943 US Light Armored Division is interesting:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ru1_RxeGs5k

 

regards,

Jack

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Posted by GAF on Tuesday, February 4, 2020 8:48 PM

As the war progressed, they were generally used as scouting units and infantry support.

So why did the army continue to use them?  A lot has to do with the doctrine of "good enough" as changing horses in mid-stream was seen as unnecessary.  Also, there is logistics to be considered.  You can ship more light tanks in a freighter than heavy tanks, and you will have more ship cranes and dock facilities that can handle their weight as opposed to heavier tanks.

Gary

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Posted by Jammer on Tuesday, February 4, 2020 9:57 PM

Short answer: What GAF said, infantry support.

Longer answer: Everyone acts like WW II was one giant armored tank on tank battle.  Truth is, the US fielded 46 infantry divisions and 16 armored divisions in Europe during the war.  Infantry divisions were pure infantry with three infantry regiments per division.  Armed divisions were a mix of armored (tank) and armored infantry units, similar to today's modern US divisions.  See https://history.army.mil/documents/ETO-OB/ETOOB-TOC.htm for the official US Army OB for the European Theater of World War II.  Germany was not any different, Operation Barbarossa involved 100 infantry divisions and 19 armored divisions.  To quote from Wikipedia, the infantry division was the backbone of the German Army.  For most, if not all of the war, there was a need for infantry support.  THe light tank fits this role perfectly.  A light tank had several machine guns, a light cannon and was generally immune to small arms fire.  Even an M3 looks huge if all you have is a rifle; unless it closes to within 20 meters-ish, grenades are useless.  It's good for any mission that doesn't require it to fight a medium or heavy tank; recon, patrolling, infantry support in offense or defense.  And if it did run into a heavier tank, it could move out of danger fairly quickly.

Hope this helps

Doug

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Posted by stikpusher on Tuesday, February 4, 2020 10:27 PM

M4Shermanmodeler

Here's a question for you guys who know armor strategy and tactics better than I:

From my armchair historian's viewpoint; it seems that by late 1942, especially in the European theatre, light tanks like M3 were little more than death traps for their crews.   My question is; how did they fit into the overall US armor doctrine? What job(s) were they supposed to do? With German armor and anti-tank guns plentiful on most fronts, and seemingly every other Wehrmacht soldier carrying a Panzerfaust, what could a company of M3's actually accomplish on the battlefield without being wiped out? Sometimes I wonder if some weapons/strategies/tactics remain in place beyond their time simply because the bureaucracy figures "well that's the way we've always done it".

Just thinking out loud here. Would like some input from those with more experience and maybe an inside view.

 

By late 1942, US Army armor doctrine had barely been tested in battle. Aside from some combat in the Philippines, the first real clash of armor involving US Army armor was during Operation Torch against French Forces in November. They did not meet the Germans until they had driven into Tunisia and ran into German forces rushed there to oppose them. But in late 1942, every army, even the most battle experienced, German and Soviet, still widely deployed light tanks.

North Africa for both US and British forces was a theater where what worked and didn’t work was learned. British forces had a 2 1/2 year campaign to learn those lessons. US forces leaned in a more abbreviated six month period. After North Africa, the proportion of light to medium tanks in US armor units was drastically altered, with mediums becoming the mainstay of the tank battalions. Light tanks were reduced to a single company per battalion. US Armor doctrine evolved as a result of battle experience. As it did for every other army in WWII.

Panzerfausts would not appear on the battlefield until mid 1944, and those were a close in weapon anyways, with a battlefield range of under 100 meters. In some battlefields such as urban or heavy foliage areas, that’s great. In more open terrain, their effectiveness is reduced. 

AT guns? Every army has those, and could employ them effectively for prepared defenses. The defending force usually has the advantage in a prepared defense over an attacking force and can inflict disproportionate casualties.

But here is where light tanks come into play. Getting the enemy defenses to reveal themselves by light units, they can be engaged more advantageously by main force units and supporting artillery. Conversely, rapidly moving light units can show where the enemy is not, and relay that information to main force units for exploitation. And as mentioned above, the superior M24 light tank entered the battlefield in late 1944. Its’ 75mm gun certainly packed more punch than the 37mm gun of the M3/M5.

And in the Pacific, where there were large numbers of Army tank battalions employed supporting each infantry division, M3 and M5 light tanks were up to the task of engaging and defeating Japanese armor. 

 

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Posted by PFJN on Wednesday, February 5, 2020 8:51 PM

Hi,

In addition to what others have said, I have seen it noted that about 1/3 of the Soviet tanks involved in the actions around Kursk i n the Summer of 1943 were actually T-60 and T-70 light tanks, and that many Soviet light tanks were built at smaller factories that could not necessarily handle constructing larger tanks.

Pat

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Posted by M4Shermanmodeler on Wednesday, February 5, 2020 9:35 PM

Lots of fascinating information here. Thanks to everyone for their replies. You're never too old to learn something new!

Tim-M4Shermanmodeler

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Posted by stikpusher on Thursday, February 6, 2020 10:36 AM

One last point I might add. Your basic point was on the northwest Europe campaign from D-Day to VE-Day. That campaign lasted only 11 months. The armored force doctrine and TO&E was based off of the battlefield experience in North Africa and Italy. The Normandy fighting was indeed an eye opener, and losses were higher than expected, and the Panther was a major surprise. It was expected to be encountered in limited numbers like the Tiger, not as a standard “medium” tank like the Panzer IV. 

Fixes that were already in the pipeline, 76mm gun M4s, were rushed forward. The M36 & M18 GMCs were fielded, M24 was in its final phases of development, and the T26 program was given added priority for completion. But only so much can be done in 11 months. The need had to be identified, solutions thought up, designed, developed, tested, corrected if need be, produced, and fielded. Not to mention the manpower training and logistics in fielding a completely new vehicle or family of vehicles.

The Panther tank is a good example of this sort of thing. The need was identified in summer 1941, design and development occurred during 1942, and the first models rushed into battle at Kursk in summer 1943 before the design bugs had been worked out. More were lost due to mechanical issues than due to combat damage. And that is over the time span of two years. 

 

 

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Posted by tankboy51 on Thursday, February 6, 2020 11:01 AM

So modelers 20 years, or more later, could have lots of things to do.

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Posted by alxdotcom on Thursday, February 6, 2020 1:03 PM

When we ask "Why light tanks...?", lets not forget that the Germans moved principly by HORSES in WWII. Although we tend to think panzer and mechanized, horses and mules far outnumbered tanks and trucks in the Wehrmacht.

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Posted by Striker68 on Monday, February 10, 2020 6:34 AM

The book "Storm of steel: the development of armor doctrine in germany and the soviet union, 1919-1939" provides a lot of information on the problem the Germans and Soviets had coming up with armor doctrine and even getting armor units added to their forces.  It covers the construction difficulties both countries had producing armor for even the lowest numbers.  It can be a bit dry but doctrine and production are explained well and provide a picture why early war armor units looked like they did.

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Posted by Rob Gronovius on Monday, February 10, 2020 11:45 PM

M4Shermanmodeler

Here's a question for you guys who know armor strategy and tactics better than I:

From my armchair historian's viewpoint; it seems that by late 1942, especially in the European theatre, light tanks like M3 were little more than death traps for their crews.   My question is; how did they fit into the overall US armor doctrine? What job(s) were they supposed to do? With German armor and anti-tank guns plentiful on most fronts, and seemingly every other Wehrmacht soldier carrying a Panzerfaust, what could a company of M3's actually accomplish on the battlefield without being wiped out? Sometimes I wonder if some weapons/strategies/tactics remain in place beyond their time simply because the bureaucracy figures "well that's the way we've always done it".

Just thinking out loud here. Would like some input from those with more experience and maybe an inside view.

At the beginning of WW2, the 37mm gun was considered an anti-tank gun. More than enough to deal with the tanks of the time. The M2 medium tank and M2 light tank both used the 37 mm. Towed anti-tank guns were 37 mm.

Then after the British fought in Africa, a 75mm gun was determined to be necessary to defeat the German panzers. The US modified the M2 medium tank to accept a 75 mm gun in a casemate sponson which gave us the M3 Lee medium tank. This tank was only a stopgap measure until a turret could be developed to house the 75 mm gun in a fully rotating turret. This became the M4 Sherman. The height of the M3 and M4 were based on the Wright radial engine that was used to power the tanks.

Getting back to the light tanks, M2 and M3. Again their height was determined by the Continental radial engine. After combat input from the British, the M2 was upgraded into the M3 and the M3A1. The British were so pleased with the tanks that they called them "Honey" because they were a "honey of a tank" compared to the British cruiser tanks of the time. The official name was Stuart so in British use you often see them called Stuart Honeys.

Light tanks are not designed to lead the armored force into battle. Tactics of the time were to use infantry and medium tanks to punch a hole into the enemy lines. Once penetration is reached, light tanks are sent into the breach like light horse cavalry. Once in the enemy's rear area, the light tanks wreak havoc on the enemy's lines of communication (headquarters area, supply lines, etc.).

The 37 mm gun is more than effective enough against unarmored supply and headquarters type units. Remember, every army in the world was still mainly a foot army with horse drawn vehicles. Even those with mechanization were no match for light tanks. It's one of the reasons why the predecessor to the M3 light tank, the M2A2 and M2A3 light tanks had twin turrets with .50 caliber machine guns; they're shooting at virtually unarmed rear area troops and horses. Even the original M3 light tank had the two sponson machine guns fired by the driver like he was a fighter pilot.

The end of the Stuart line culminated in the M3A3 and M5/M5A1 light tanks. By the time these got to the war, tactics had changed and they were considered obsolete. The Germans in Africa were defeated and new tactics were being developed to deal with the eventual invasion of western Europe. It would no longer be a traditional "punch through enemy lines", but it would be a pursuit of forces withdrawing into Germany. Very fast tank destroyers like M18 Hellcat arrived and new M24 light tanks would be used to maintain contact with enemy rear guard covering the withdrawal. In this case, the M24's 75 mm gun was much more powerful than the 37 mm of previous light tanks.

 

Of course, the German rear guard eventually gets overrun, bypassed or just run out of fuel and ammunition. Once you have an army on the run, it's only a matter of time before the rear guard is gone and your advancing forces are shooting unarmored supply vehicles and personnel carriers. That's why US tanks like the Chaffee and tank destroyers like the Hellcat were made to be fast. It's also why these vehicles became obsolete in the US Army so quickly.

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Posted by Est.1961 on Tuesday, February 11, 2020 4:16 AM

Can't read that Rob and not leave a comment, Yes

Edit: Just read the posts a big Yes to all the contributors to this thread. 

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Posted by Peaches on Tuesday, February 11, 2020 10:20 PM

Real G

As you had mentioned, it was just doctrine.  That and the loss of production due to retooling for a different type was not acceptable.  When you look at the Sherman, it was a tall, poorly armored tank with (originally) a low velocity gun, but that is what we had at the time.  But it was simple, reliable and we built thousands of them.  The Stuart was similar, and could still be useful against light armor and softskins.

Remember that at the time, the tank was a fairly new kind of weapon, and armies were still deciding on the best way to use them.  Only after WW II did we come to the conclusion that a single type of tank would best.  But with the currently poular introduction of tank guns on armored cars, perhaps the light tank is making a comeback of sorts.

 

 

Actually the Sherman wasn't poorly armored for it's time.  Also, yes it was a tall tank, however that was a good thing then.  It was able to see other tanks and fire first. 

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Posted by GMorrison on Tuesday, February 11, 2020 10:30 PM

The short answer, and Rob is the word here; is that's what we had.

He alludes to a separation of discussion.

Online wot and stuff like that load firepower up front. In fact, that's one of three in the field, setting aside availabilty, what's on hand and what's immediately buildable.

Even the first PZK 3 had 37mm and 50mm weapons. But that was on a high speed v ehicle with 3 or 4 crew.

The T 34 had a 76 mm weopon, a three man crew and 50mm armor. A high speed and range of fuel.

Lot's of variables there, at best a medium tank.

A parallel discussion about the most successful USN aircraft in that war, the Grumman Wildcat.

Why? Lot's of them, high rate of production, attrition of good pilots on the other side.

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Posted by Rob Gronovius on Wednesday, February 12, 2020 12:34 AM

GMorrison

The short answer, and Rob is the word here; is that's what we had.

He alludes to a separation of discussion.

Online wot and stuff like that load firepower up front. In fact, that's one of three in the field, setting aside availabilty, what's on hand and what's immediately buildable.

Even the first PZK 3 had 37mm and 50mm weapons. But that was on a high speed v ehicle with 3 or 4 crew.

The T 34 had a 76 mm weopon, a three man crew and 50mm armor. A high speed and range of fuel.

Lot's of variables there, at best a medium tank.

A parallel discussion about the most successful USN aircraft in that war, the Grumman Wildcat.

Why? Lot's of them, high rate of production, attrition of good pilots on the other side.

 

At the time, tanks were at their infancy. No one knew what a good tank was supposed to be. Heavy, slow and big gun? Light, fast, small gun? If you look at some of the land battleships the Russians built, or the US M2 medium tanks bristling with machine guns, even the British Crusader had that twin gun mini turret adjacent to the driver.

The US chose mechanical reliability; a tank that could road march 100 miles and roll into battle. The Germans designed mechanical monsters that had to be railed to the fight and needed a lot of logistics.

The Russians chose a fast tank that wore the crew out if they had to travel a great distance, but was extremely effective on home turf.

In the end, it was logistics, and quantity of tanks that won the war.

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Posted by Tanker-Builder on Wednesday, February 12, 2020 7:11 AM

Hi ;

      It's my understanding, that besides the oft misunderstood evaluation of the enemy, that they were necessary. Why? Well the idea was to give the infantry protection and the ability to move faster into an area after they had done the job of defeating the enemy group they were fighting. It was certainly easier with light Tanks than lugging and setting up field guns constantly I would imagine.

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Posted by Aaronw on Wednesday, February 12, 2020 7:44 PM

The myth of poor US armor is exactly that, a myth.

Reality is the M4 was arguably the best tank of the war, it proved itself against Axis armor during the war, and against its rival the T34 in several later wars Korea in particular. There were numerous examples of M4s defeating Panthers and Tigers in single combat. The M4 had excellent armor (better than the early T34) and the German's did not consider them to be easy targets. It wasn't until the fighting in Normandy that the M4 suddenly became a "death trap". The Bocage was terrible tank country, and any tank leading an offensive there would have suffered heavily. The stories about it being highly flammable have been disproven, and in fact part of that myth actually comes from its great durability. German crews got tired of seeing the same tanks that they knocked out the day before coming at them again, so it became common practice to continue firing on them until they caught fire.

The M4 was such a turd, that it remained in US service until 1957, 12 years after WW2 ended. Isreal continued to use upgraded M4s until the early 1990s 50 years after the tank first saw combat.

 

The M3 was a very good light tank when first deployed. Most light tanks of the late 1930s to 1940 were armed with machineguns or 20mm cannon. The M3 was armed with a proper anti-tank gun with the 37mm. In 1940 37 and 40mm (British 2 pounder) anti-tank guns were standard issue for all major militaries. It wasn't until 1941-42 that the larger 45mm (USSR), 5cm (Germany) and 57mm (UK, USA) began to enter service. In 1942 North Africa US M3s were at a disadvantage, but remained  a capable threat and accounted for many German Panzer 3 and 4 medium tank losses.

 

Technology advances were rapid during the war, some early war tanks Panzer 3/4, M4, T-34, Churchill were capable of being upgraded to keep pace, many others including the M3/M5 became outdated a few years into the war.

As mentioned in several posts above, as infantry support an M3/M5 (and also M8 armored cars) armed with a 37mm gun and several machineguns was a welcome sight. The 37mm gun which had both HE and cannister rounds available could do a great job of taking out a dug in machinegun, infantry holed up in a building or a sniper concealed in a structure. A 37mm round is fairly small but it has a lot more punch than most infantry weapons except for a mortar or bazooka. Being mouted in a light armored vehicle it had far better protection and mobility than any crew served infantry weapon. The 37mm remained adequate to do the job on most light enemy armor (half tracks, armored cars and light tanks) through the end of the war.  

 

The US made a lot of tanks, more than 22,000 M3/M5 and 50,000 M4 tanks were built during the war, compared to around 5000 Panzer 3, 8000 Panzer 4, 6000 Panther, 1300 Tiger I and 500 Tiger II (more M3 built than all major German medium and heavy tanks combined).

M3 might not have been a jugernaut of a tank, but through shear numbers it meant US infantry usually had tank support available where German infantry often did not.  

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Posted by GMorrison on Wednesday, February 12, 2020 11:47 PM

 

My dad served on the M40 GMC 1950-1952.

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Posted by Liegghio on Sunday, February 16, 2020 10:19 PM

My father was a tanker in the Italian Army in WW2. The Italians didnt have any heavy tanks, or many medium tanks, so they used what they had. He fought in a CV33/35 (I'm not enough of an armor expert to tell them apart from the few photos he left me), in the Balkans. He didn't like to talk about his experience but from what I remember him saying it sounds like the light tank was essentially used as a portable machine gun nest. It was a vehicle which could position a pair of machine guns and their ammo faster  than machine gun crews traveling on foot, was resistant to rifle caliber bullets, had a low profile, and could traverse the severe mountainous terrain of the Balkans. You were out of luck against any anti-tank guns or real armor, but he killed so many infantry that he actually ended up feeling haunted by it and wouldn't buy us kids any war toys.

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Posted by castelnuovo on Sunday, February 16, 2020 11:41 PM

I am from Croatia and if your dad was in the Southern balkans all they could use was light tanks anyway. The roads were bad, very little pavement, twisting nerrow mountain roads that most often couldn't even support a heavy tank.

BTW, my grandfather was a POW in L'Aquila.

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Posted by stikpusher on Monday, February 17, 2020 9:47 AM

Italian WWII medium tanks were in the same weight class and armor protection class as most other countries’ light tanks. They were actually designed for the type of combat area encountered in the Balkans- small narrow mountain roads. Italian WWII light tanks were on par with the tankettes of the few countries that developed those vehicles. Very much a mobile lightly armored machine gun pillbox. Probably the closest country in WWII AFV designs for to Italy was Japan.

 

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Posted by Liegghio on Tuesday, February 18, 2020 12:27 AM

L'Aquila is on the other side of the mountains from my old village.
My dad eventually was injured when his tankette tipped over and rolled down a steep mountain side. He was mustered out on partial disability and spent some time in Germany as a guest worker in a BMW aircraft engine plant to support my mother and  older brother. 

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Posted by ikar01 on Tuesday, February 25, 2020 10:38 PM

As a former driver of light armor in the A.F. I can only guess that it was to make the bigger tanks look good and imptrddivr.

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