From World War I until the end of World War II, from the standpoint of doctrine, the preferred way to deal with enemy tanks was an anti-tank gun. During World War I, only one of the belligerents developed a significant anti-tank capability – the Germans. Ironically, when you consider World War II, the Germans fielded around fifty tanks including captured types during the war. Facing thousands of allied tanks on the Western Front, anti-tank tactics were a matter of necessity for the Germans.
Although the American Expeditionary Force in France included a substantial armored force, few, if any, American troops faced a German tank in combat. In the immediate post war period, while theorists debated the full potential of the armored fighting vehicle (A.F.V.), all agreed modern armies needed some anti-tank weapons. Naturally, the Americans looked to the German experience as a foundation for anti-tank tactics and when selecting anti-tank weapons. So was the German reaction to allied tanks during the Great War?
After the combat debut of the British tanks on September 15, 1916, the Germans turned to combined arms tactics and adapted existing weapons to counter to the tanks. The infantry received steel cored bullets for the MG 08 machine guns. In addition, for close range defense, the Germans issued package charges and bundled grenades. The engineers studied tank movements and improved obstacles. As is the case today, they also found mines effective against the tracks. Engineers also trained to use flamethrowers against vulnerable openings in the hulls. The artillery was at that time fielding light-weight versions of the standard 7.7-cm FK 96 n/A as an infantry accompanying gun. These guns, along with smaller 57mm and 37mm guns offered decent performance against the early tanks. Even the 7.58-cm leichte Minenwerfer (lMW) mortar penetrated 10 mm of armor at close ranges. Where these close range weapons failed to work, the Germans planned indirect fire and, where possible, aircraft strafing with armored piercing bullets.
The initial response to the tank worked well for about a year. Allied employment of the tank was premature and tactically flawed. Not only did the German high command believe their counter-tactics sufficient, they considered the tank of only limited value overall (explaining the limited German use of AFVs during the war). This attitude changed after November 20, 1917 with the initial assaults in the Battle of Cambrai using between 430 and 480 tanks. In the initial stages, British tactics, which included liberal use of smoke screens, confounded the German anti-tank efforts. Slightly thicker armor on the Mark IV tanks resisted the German armor-piercing bullets. Yet poor reliability and cross-country performance, along with evolving tactics, still proved the undoing of the British tanks. After substantial gains, the tanks out ran their supports. The British had squandered an opportunity.
Still the Battle of Cambrai marked the first of many swings of the tank vs. anti-tank pendulum. Faced with improved allied tanks, particularly the light French FT-17 (debuting at the same time, but not in the battle that is), the Germans started a crash program to produce a viable anti-tank weapon. One weapon that offered promise was a converted 2-cm aircraft cannon. With new armor-piercing ammunition, these cut through 13mm of armor at 250 meters. But the German high command apparently preferred the standard 7.92mm machine guns. Also heavier 13mm machine guns, then used as anti-aircraft weapons, received armor-piercing ammunition to improve utility of that type. Designated 13mm MG08 TuF, these saw limited service.
Foreshadowing the anti-tank rifles used in World War II, and perhaps even the modern lightweight anti-tank rockets, the Germans turned out a 13-mm Tankgewehr (T-Gewehr or anti-tank rifle) for issue to infantry units. The T-Gewehr used an enlarged version of the standard Mauser bolt-action and had a bi-pod from a light machine gun. The gun used the same cartridge as the MG 08 TuF, and was actually 13.2 mm for those with an eye for detail. Penetration reached 20mm at 500 meters.
But weighing nearly 40 pounds and possessing the kick of a full team of mules, the T-Gewehr had several tactical drawbacks. Worse, the penetration figures were in “best case” scenarios. At many tactical angles, the T-Gewehr could not penetrate the armor of the FT-17, the most common allied tank. (As a side note, many references say the American John Browning copied the German 13mm cartridge when designing the famous M2 .50 caliber machine gun. Although sharing a similar half-inch caliber, the two cartridges are actually different. The Germans used a semi-rimed case while Browning opted for a fully rimmed case for easier extraction. Truth is Browning designed the .50 caliber cartridge as an enlarged .30-06 cartridge, with development starting in 1910 without any help from the Germans.)
While the light infantry-carried weapons proved less than satisfactory, on the other end of the scale the Germans received favorable reports of 7.7-cm guns used against tanks. While the infantry-accompanying guns did well, they lacked the mobility to react to tank thrusts. More useful were the 7.7-cm Kraftwagenflak. Yes… FLAK. These were just light field guns on a turntable mount on the back of trucks. Unarmored, but mobile, these guns were designed for defending captive observation balloons from allied aircraft. But just as the 8.8cm FLAK turned against a later generation of British tanks in 1940, the 7.7-cm FLAK guns proved the better of those British tanks in 1918. Trouble was the Germans were just not able to make enough gun tubes or trucks to meet the need – both anti-aircraft or anti-tank.
In the last months of the war, the Germans produced the 3.7cm Tankabwehrkanonen (or TaK). The gun itself was the lash-up of a barrel from an old fortress gun (a Hotchkiss revolving cannon somewhat like the American Gatling gun in concept, thus one old gun made five new TaKs). With a small wheeled carriage, the four man crew of the TaK could follow the infantry into battle. But armor penetration was only 15mm at 500 meters.
As the war situation for Germany entered a more desperate stage in the fall of 1918, the Army called for an improved anti-tank gun. Had the war continued, a 5-cm TaK may have seen service, which designers estimated would penetrate a full 50mm (two inches) of armor at 500 meters. As mentioned earlier the tank vs. anti-tank pendulum was in full swing.
In summary, the German experience from 1916 to 1918 fighting tanks demonstrated the tank was best met with combined-arms tactics. The experience also showed the need for weapons with increasing armor penetration. These German lessons, gathered through post-war analysis, figured prominently as American officers drafted doctrine and considered new weapons through the 1920s and 1930s. I’ll discuss the American interpretation of the German lessons in the next post of this series.