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US Armored Units in the North African and Italian Campaigns 1942–45

US Armored Units in the North African and Italian Campaigns 1942–45

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US Armored Units in the North African and Italian Campaigns 1942–45

5/5 (1 rating)
212 pages
2 hours
Feb 20, 2013


The Mediterranean Theater of Operations (MTO) saw the first operational deployment of US armoured divisions in World War II, and the experience proved chastening for the 1st Armored Division when it suffered defeat at the hands of Rommel's Afrika Korps at the battle of Kasserine Pass. This title covers the organization of these early US armored divisions, as well as the independent tank and tank destroyer battalions that accompanied them. It details the evolution of US armoured warfare tactics and doctrine, learned from the difficult experiences of North Africa, and illustrates how they were used elsewhere in the Mediterranean, particularly in the Italian Peninsula.
Feb 20, 2013

About the author

Steven J. Zaloga received his BA in History from Union College and his MA from Columbia University. He has worked as an analyst in the aerospace industry for over three decades, covering missile systems and the international arms trade, and has served with the Institute for Defense Analyses, a federal think tank. He is the author of numerous books on military technology and history, including NVG 294 Allied Tanks in Normandy 1944 and NVG 283 American Guided Missiles of World War II. He currently lives in Maryland, USA.

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US Armored Units in the North African and Italian Campaigns 1942–45 - Steven J. Zaloga



The first major commitment of US tank units during World War II took place in North Africa in November 1942. Two of the new armored divisions were deployed along with several tank battalions and tank destroyer battalions. The defeat of a combat command of the 1st Armored Division during the Faid–Kasserine battles in February 1943 demonstrated significant flaws in US armored organization, training, tactics and equipment. This led to extensive reorganization in the summer of 1943 that largely shaped the tank arm for the upcoming campaigns in Italy and France. US commitment of armored units in subsequent campaigns in the Mediterranean Theater of Operations (MTO), beginning with Operation Husky on Sicily in July 1943, saw the significant use of armored formations. But the US Army regarded Italy as a peripheral theater, and less than 20 percent of the army’s tank strength was deployed in the subsequent campaigns in Italy in 1944–45. In spite of the relatively small commitment of armored forces in the MTO, the campaigns of 1943–44 were vital in maturing US army organization and tactics for the forthcoming campaign in France and Germany in 1944–45.

The US Army’s attitudes to its tank force were in a state of considerable flux from World War I through to the 1942 landings in North Africa. During these formative years, American tank policy was heavily dependent on trends in Europe, and this would remain the case through the beginning of World War II.

When Combat Command B departed for North Africa in the autumn of 1942, the remainder of the 1st Armored Division remained in the United Kingdom for training. Here, a battalion of M3 medium tanks is seen on exercise near Perham Downs on December 6, 1942. (NARA)

The US Army Tank Service, later called the Tank Corps, was formed in January 1918 to support the American Expeditionary Force in France. There had been little military-industrial preparation prior to America’s late entry into World War I, so the Tank Corps was entirely dependent on France and Britain for its first tanks. At first, US tank organization did not precisely follow either French or British practices. The original plans in July 1917 were to deploy a light tank company in each division for close support, plus a number of heavy tank companies at army level for use on specific missions. This plan was superseded in September 1917 by a decision to concentrate the tanks under General Headquarters (GHQ) as a strategic asset that would be used as occasion warranted. This change followed the lessons learned by the French and British armies that the early tanks were not particularly robust and were complicated to operate. It was much simpler to concentrate the tanks in larger formations, such as battalions, with adequate technical support than in small, dispersed companies, which, by their very nature, would have less extensive service elements. Furthermore, early combat experiences with tanks suggested that attacks by concentrated forces of tanks had greater tactical potential than occasional, dispersed use. Under the new scheme, a tank brigade consisting of two light tank battalions and a heavy tank battalion, along with associated support elements, would support each field army.

As a first step, the US Army in 1918 began forming two tank brigades to support the two field armies that were intended for deployment in France. Brigadier General Samuel D. Rockenbach commanded the AEF Tank Corps in France. Curiously enough, two young officers who would earn greater fame in World War II were intimately involved in the early tank force. Capt. George S. Patton was assigned to create and train the first US light tank troops and would later lead the light tank battalions of the 1st Tank Brigade in their initial combat foray in September 1918. The new US tank training center at Camp Colt in Pennsylvania was commanded by Dwight Eisenhower. The AEF’s two light tank battalions with French Renault FT light tanks and one heavy tank battalion with British tanks saw extensive combat use in the concluding months of the war. In addition, US divisions were often supported by French and British tank units, further impressing US officers with the value of tanks on the modern battlefield.

Although tanks had proven themselves to be an important ingredient in the new tactics of European warfare, the US Army Tank Corps was short lived. In the postwar demobilization, it was disbanded under the National Defense Act of 1920 and the tanks handed over to the infantry branch as a support weapon, much like light machine guns and other innovations. The demise of the Tank Corps was part of a larger shift in US Army policy forced on it by national priorities and a retreat into isolationism. World War I was the war to end all wars and national leaders were hopeful that the American-inspired League of Nations would make future wars unthinkable. The Army budget was heavily cut, and its interwar orientation shifted from the conduct of high-intensity combat in Europe to more traditional missions such as policing the frontier and overseas possessions, where tanks were a wasteful indulgence. There was little money spent on new tank design since the army possessed over a thousand tanks left over from World War I, far in excess of the needs of its actual order of battle. Through most of the 1920s, the US tank units consisted of scattered companies of M.1917 light tanks, a US-built copy of the Renault FT. The US Marine Corps deployed a few M.1917 tanks on missions in China in the 1920s, but for the most part the tanks remained rusting away in garrisons except for the occasional summer maneuver.

Again, it was Europe that enervated American developments. In 1927, Secretary of War Dwight Davis witnessed the British Mechanized Force at Aldershot. He was so impressed by the display that he ordered the creation of a similar test force. The Experimental Mechanized Force was assembled at Camp Meade, Maryland, in the summer of 1930 and conducted maneuvers for three months. It consisted of two tank battalions, an infantry battalion, a cavalry armored car troop, an artillery battalion and supporting troops. It was temporary in nature and its component units returned to their garrisons in the autumn. The army chief-of-staff, Gen. Charles Summerall, concluded that the tank might someday be used to constitute a new offensive combat force but that the maneuvers had not proven the maturity of the concept. Summerall recognized that obsolete equipment was to blame for the shortcomings of the experimental force and urged further funding for equipment modernization. The more far-sighted army officers realized that the meager peacetime budget precluded any extensive mechanization of the army, but they hoped that the judicious expenditure of the limited funds could form a seed from which a mass army would grow if the need arose.

Although senior infantry officers opposed efforts to take away their control of the tanks, a Mechanization Board was formed in 1930 to study army needs. In October 1930, Summerall ordered the creation of a new mechanized force at Ft. Eustis, Virginia, as a permanent organization to study mechanization needs. However, congressional funding for the force was pitifully small, about $250,000 or roughly the cost of a platoon of tanks. The force was hardly in place when the new chief-of-staff, Douglas MacArthur, disbanded it in late 1931. MacArthur preferred to let the existing combat arms choose their own path to mechanization rather than to create a new organization. The important consequence of the mechanization debate was that it opened up tactical and technical competition between the infantry and cavalry branches. Although the cavalry was forbidden from procuring tanks under the 1920 Defense Act, MacArthur’s support for broader mechanization opened the door for the cavalry to experiment with its own tanks under the linguistic subterfuge that they were combat cars. The cavalry branch eventually showed enthusiasm for tanks with the durability and speed suitable for their missions, overcoming the infantry’s complacent acceptance of the poor technical performance of existing tanks. The cavalry inherited the Mechanized Force mission from the Ft. Eustis group, and the 1st Cavalry Regiment was moved to Ft. Knox to begin the process of mechanization. Cavalry efforts were expanded in 1936 by moving the 13th Cavalry Regiment to Ft. Knox due to the acquisition of more combat cars, and these two regiments were used to create the mechanized 7th Cavalry Brigade, commanded by Col. Adna Chaffee.

The advent of the Great Depression undermined efforts to buy any significant number of new tanks or cavalry cars in the early 1930s, but MacArthur supported the allocation of funds to continue to develop more modern designs until funding could support serial manufacture. Rather than spend the little money available on the manufacture of obsolete tanks, the army preferred to hoard as much as possible for tank development and the construction of small numbers of pilot tanks. In the five years from 1930 to 1934, the US Army funded the production of only nine tanks.

The late 1930s saw a continued deterioration in the international situation with Japanese military operations in China, the German reoccupation of the Rhineland under Hitler’s aggressive new Nazi government, the Italian invasion of Ethiopia and a civil war in Spain aggravated by the thinly concealed involvement of the Great Powers. The rise in tension was reflected in worldwide tank production, especially in Europe. In 1934, the tank production of Britain, France and Germany was only about 150 vehicles, but by 1937 this had climbed ten-fold to about 1,535 tanks. With the US economy beginning to recover from the Depression and with war brewing in Europe and the Pacific, the US Army began a slow program to mechanize, funding 62 tanks and combat cars in the 1936 fiscal year budget and 186 in 1937.

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