North Africa Campaign World War 2
WWII

Tanks and infantry – the almost-forgotten war-winning combination

How a combined-arms, infantry-tank approach helped the Allies win WW2.

North Africa Campaign World War 2

These days, many people know the story, or at least they think they do.

The 1940 Battle of France was a resounding German victory, brought about by vastly superior Blitzkrieg tactics that overwhelmed the staid, obsolete Allied defensive doctrines.

In essence, the French and British were caught completely by surprise when the Germans burst out of the Ardennes Forest in May 1940. Unlike the French and British, the Germans had decoupled their tanks from infantry, placed them into separate panzer units and let them roll over the enemy at speed.

This sent the Allies reeling back, broke their line, forced the French to capitulate and the British to scramble desperately out of Dunkirk.

After that, Britain and her main allies from 1941 onwards, the US and USSR, concentrated on modernising their own weapons, wartime economies and fighting doctrines and, having done so, eventually went on to win the war.

This is the popular understanding of the Battle of France and the Second World War more generally, and there is indeed a certain amount of truth to it.

Yet, it is also not completely true.

While the Allies certainly did gear up their economies, and did develop more advanced tanks, planes, guns and tactics, in the case of armoured warfare, they also used existing doctrines more effectively.

In other words, they found that despite the Germans’ glamorous high-speed advance and victory in 1940, there actually was still a place on the modern battlefield for slower tanks supported by infantry after all.

Tank Museum Bovington
Wireless radio set from inside a British tank at the Tank Museum in Bovington – this technology also revolutionised warfare, enabling better communication and coordination between tanks and infantry (picture: writer’s collection)

On The Ground, Facing The Germans In France

This aspect of the story is what historian and archaeologist Tim Strickland MBE MA FSA has focused on in a recent book on the Second World War, 'Strick: Tank Hero of Arras', as well as in a speech at the Tank Museum in Bovington, Dorset, as part of TANKFEST, a festival displaying tanks and other armored vehicles which ran from September 17 to September 20.

Some of the early chapters of his book deal specifically with the Battle of France, giving a specific tank commander’s eye view of events.

The soldier in question was a member of 4 RTR (Royal Tank Regiment), a unit that ended up right in the thick of the action, and his account of the opening of the battle certainly gives a sense of what it was like to experience Blitzkrieg:

“Suddenly, it all began when the air was filled with aeroplanes and they were all attacking us. We were bombed, dive-bombed and machine gunned.”

He fired back with a Boys anti-tank rifle and may have even hit a twin-engined Heinkel (or possibly a Dornier or Junkers - such was the speed and confusion of events that he was not to know) near Waterloo in Belgium. (Once the battle had started, Allied units moved into Belgium to meet the German advance that was expected there).

Though, if he did hit one of these aircraft, it was a small dent in an otherwise overwhelming attack. From the rest of Tim Strickland’s account of the battle, it is easy to see that it was lost not so much by a poor choice of tactics, as by the utter chaos that followed the swift German push into France.

And once again, it was not just the sudden arrival of huge numbers of attacking aircraft. The Germans’ rapid tank advance also surprised and disoriented the Allies. When the French withdrew in the face of it, so too did the British, lest they be outflanked and overwhelmed by German General Heinz Guderian’s speedy XIX Army Corps (later 2 Panzer Army.)

In response, the British tried to get their tanks to where they were most needed, but arrangements to move them by train were haphazard, and when they did get into battle, it turned out they were not always required after all. Efficient it most definitely was not.

Tim Strickland quotes Vyvyan Pope, the AFV (Armoured Fighting Vehicle) advisor at GHQ, and the 1 Army Tank Brigade commander Douglas Pratt as saying at one point in a report to the War Office:

“You will be astounded to learn that 1 Army Tank Brigade marched and counter-marched the better part of 300 miles to fight one action.”

And all this through a country that had streams of refugees choking roads, and where German planes constantly bombed and strafed the tanks of 4 RTR.

Strick in Italy early 1945
‘Strick’ in Italy in 1945 (picture: Strickland Family Collection)

As it turns out, Tim Strickland’s connection to the battle is personal as well as professional. The 4 RTR tank commander neck deep in it was none other than his father, Sergeant (and later Major General) Eugene Strickland, or ‘Strick’ to his friends.

And Sergeant Strickland would experience not only coming under attack by the Germans, but counterattacking them at the town of Arras on 21 May 1940.

Here, a mixture of infantry and Matilda tanks, including one commanded by Strick, held up the German advance for three days, thereby aiding preparations for the evacuation operation that would soon get underway at Dunkirk.

The precise arrayment of British tanks was in fact 58 Matilda Mark I tanks and 16 Matilda Mark II tanks. The latter were much more formidable and Tim Strickland said in an interview that his father believed that if more Matilda IIs had been available, and if they had had their early mechanical problems worked out, this would have made a huge difference at Arras, and in the battle more generally. 

Two Tanks Used By The British During The Arras Counterattack:

Tank

Matilda I

Matilda II

Crew

2

4

Armour

60mm

78mm

Top road speed

8 mph

15 mph

Weight

11.2 tonnes

26.9 tonnes

Weaponry

.303-in Vickers machine gun

2-pdr gun, 7.92mm BESA machine gun

Number built

140

2,987

Matilda Mk I and II tanks at Tank Museum in Bovington
A Matilda Mk I (left) and Mk II (right), both on display at the Tank Museum in Bovington (picture: writer’s collection)

For his part, when other tanks in his squadron broke down, Strick ended up directing his driver to take their Matilda I tank into Arras alone.

He ran into and cornered a group of at least 30 Germans, then marched them out of the town at gunpoint, in front of his Matilda.

He then took part in another counterattack at the town of La Bassee, where his Matilda was knocked out by friendly fire and Strick had to make a run for the coast.

He was captured, then escaped, was recaptured and re-escaped before making it to England via Dunkirk.

Strick had a unique biography that included him having learnt French and served in the Army as both an officer and in the ranks. These experiences helped him escape from France as well as with the command responsibilities he would later assume.

Back To England, And (Not Quite) Back To The Drawing Board

Once again, the lesson of German victory in France in 1940 would seem to have been that speed was key – so how had the allies been caught so badly off guard?

To fully answer this, it is necessary to wind the clock back slightly to the birth of armoured warfare in World War 1.

It was the British who first deployed their Mark I Tank in battle in 1916, who then followed up with Mark IV Tanks dispatched in huge numbers the following year at Cambrai, and whose Mark IV tanks would face off against the German A7V in the world’s first tank-versus-tank battle in 1918.

Of all these actions, Cambrai was the most influential, since the use of tanks on such a vast scale yielded a number of important lessons.

One was that when used on ground that was flat enough and dry enough, the Mark IV tank could punch through formidable German defence lines.

osprey publishing Alexander Turner
The opening of the Battle of Cambrai shown near La Vacquerie – the infantry follow the tanks, getting protection from and later giving protection to them (image from 'Cambrai 1917' by Alexander Turner © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing)

Another was that, for all their strengths, tanks were also surprisingly vulnerable. At the village of Flesquieres, where infantry support had been insufficient, a large number of tanks were picked off by German field guns that were difficult for them to see.

Likewise, tanks crawling through the narrow streets of the village of Fontaine-Notre-Dame, again, without accompanying infantry support, found themselves at the mercy of German Storm Troopers. These elite soldiers improvised, filling sacks with grenades and flinging them underneath the tanks to blow off their tracks.

In ‘Cambrai 1917’, Alexander Turner quotes one British tank commander, Captain Groves, whose account of the battle should disabuse anyone of the notion that those inside tanks were invulnerable:

"Hell was let loose as we turned into the street. We were being fired at from the roofs – front, back and sides. A combination of splash and armour flaking [spall] made it most difficult to see anything when handling a gun … The gun ports were all lit up with sparks."

This, and the blind spots inherent in tanks meant that they simply could not counter the threat of infantry that got too close, or field guns that were too well hidden, at least not without infantry support.

Osprey Publishing
Tanks advancing on Flesquieres outside Cambrai, where insufficient infantry support allowed many to be picked off by field guns (image from 'Fortifications of the Western Front 1914-18' by Paddy Griffith © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing)

In other words, without supporting infantry to keep an eye out for threatening infantry like German Storm Troopers, or for field guns, tanks’ blind spots could be used to sneak up on or fire at them.

These lessons were therefore carried into World War 2 – or, at least, that is how it seemed, until it looked like the doctrine of combined tank and infantry warfare was going to be dispensed with for good by Heinz Guderian’s use to his tanks at top speed. By World War 2, some tanks were after all considerably faster than their predecessors in the First World War, as well as infantry moving on foot.

Leaving behind both the infantry and the doctrine that said tanks should fight alongside them is what enabled the lightening-quick German advance in 1940 possible.

And yet, as Strick and his comrades had shown, even if they were eventually overwhelmed, the well-run combined infantry-and-tank countermove at Arras had significantly slowed the Germans’ progress.

Furthermore, as Tim Strickland explained in his speech at the Tank Museum, the need for speed was in fact complete nonsense, as he put it.

What was required instead was good armour, guns and some degree of manoeuvrability. The tiny, unassuming Matilda had in fact been the first heavily-armoured tank in the world.

Mr Strickland, in an interview with Forces News, indicated that the real problem was one of not applying the old doctrine properly:

“I think that in 1939/40, in France, I think it’s fair to say that our (armour) had simply lost the habit of fighting efficiency (and had forgotten all the lessons of the First World War Battle of Cambrai). And so the doctrines that were being produced by men such as the famous JFC Fuller (the planner of the Cambrai offensive and Plan 1919) were actually being read and copied by the Germans."

He also explained that, in fact, faster tanks were not as impressive as they seemed:

“We have tanks that are capable of doing everything in all roles, but in 1940, the technology was not producing tanks that were capable of doing everything. So what we had was two different types of tanks. We had infantry tanks, which were designed to be slow moving, quite heavily armoured, but not with particularly impressive guns because they were designed to go alongside infantry at infantry pace. That is something had had been learnt at Cambrai in 1917. On the other side we had cruiser tanks, but the technology was not up to what they were designed to do, so to create a speedier tank, you had to make the armour lighter and thinner and the gun smaller, and less heavy.”

This, in other words, made them soft targets once they were properly engaged, and while it was true that the Germans did manage to introduce a tank that was both quick and heavily armoured by 1942, Tim Strickland again explained that there were good reasons for the Allied lag:

“Then you see you go back to the old, old story of the difference between democracy and dictatorship. Dictatorship prepares for war, democracy does everything it possibly can not to be ready for it, because they want to spend money on other things. So when it comes to it, the Germans had had a lot of practice and preparation, so of course for a long time in the war they were ahead of us in that way, but with the Churchill tank, by … late 1944, for example, the Marks of the Churchill tank, the Mark VII in particular, they were comparable with any of the German tanks.”

Out To Africa, And On To Italy

As well as eventually matching the Tiger tank, the heavily armoured Churchill, which first came into service in 1941, turned out to have a very useful trick up its sleeve.

Strick and his united the North Irish Horse (NIH) would end up fighting in Tunisia as part of the North Africa campaign.

As Tim Strickland explained in his speech, the north of the country is not desert, but is instead green and mountainous. By the time Strick and his comrades arrived in early 1943, Rommel had almost pushed the Allies back in North Africa, and to take them on the enemy would require dislodging them from their positions on the high ground.

This is where the unexpected capabilities of the Churchill came into play, because for all its heavy armour and immense size, this new tank was also an excellent hill climber.

In his book, Tim Strickland quotes the war correspondent Philip Jordan, who witnessed the Churchills ascending to a position known as Mergueb Chaouach during the April 1943 Battle of Ten Peaks:

“The tanks went ahead to within 200 feet of the summit and began methodically to blast the excellent machine gun nests to pieces, one by one. From the lower slopes of the hill the Churchills looked like ships sailing on bright green waters, for the wind was so high that it blew the thigh-high corn into regular waves that lapped the tanks’ sides. Indeed, the whole hill was like water.”

It was during the campaign in North Africa that the Allies won the Second Battle of El Alamein, after which the other Churchill, the British Prime Minister, remarked:

"Before Alamein we never had a victory. After Alamein we never had a defeat."

This was not strictly true, but it was in the sense that the battle and the larger North African campaign was where the tables began to turn in favour of the Western Allies. And Strick and his own Churchills played a role.

At first though, the Ten Peaks victory took some time to be fully appreciated. In a kind of miniature reversal of what had happened in France three years beforehand, the Germans were so shocked to see the enormous, lumbering Churchills coming up the slopes towards them, that their resistance quickly crumbled.

Yet the victory evidently also surprised the British, because a few days later they sent infantry from the Queen’s Own Royal West Kent Regiment, the Buffs (Royal East Kent Regiment), the East Surrey Regiment and the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders at Longstop Hill.

This initial attack was repulsed but then two squadrons of Churchill tanks from the North Irish Horse went in with the Argylls. As Tim Strickland explains in his book:

“The Germans had prepared a hornet’s next of no less than 120 machine-gun emplacements and bunkers, supported with the usual mix of artillery, mortars and anti-tank guns.”

He also indicates just how frustrated his father was that the lessons from the previous battle were not properly applied, and the Churchills not used to support the infantry sooner.

However, when they finally were thrown into the battle, again, their mere presence was enough to force the German defenders to surrender. Once more, they were shocked to see the Churchills climbing such heights, and indeed the Churchill tank turned out to be very well suited to hill climbing.

The victory at Longstop Hill allowed the British to go on to take the capital, Tunis.

North Africa Campaign World War 2
An illustration of the Battle of Longstop Hill showing the Argylls in the foreground being supported by one of the Northern Irish Horse’s Churchill tanks in the background (picture: ‘Longstop Hill 1943’ from the painting by Stuart Brown, Skipper Press)

The Churchill, though, did have one serious flaw: its gun mantlet, the armoured shield attached to its main turret gun, had a concave shape. This meant that it cast a shadow around its gun, making it an easy target for enemy tanks.

Though here too, an innovative solution to this problem was borne out of the North Africa campaign.

Specifically, the 75mm gun and accompanying convex mantlet was stripped out of damaged American Sherman tanks (which were also being used in the campaign) and mounted on the Churchill’s turret.

The result was the Churchill Mark IV NA (North Africa) 75, as in 75mm gun – a unique subtype of the tank.

The two tanks served together and their various capabilities were compared as well as combined.

Churchills had better armour while Shermans were quicker over uneven ground, though they were otherwise fairly similar. The Sherman’s gun was preferred (along with its mantlet), and was able to fire both regular and HE (High Explosive) shells.

World War 2 tank
A Sherman at the Tank Museum in Bovington (picture: writer’s collection)

A Comparison Of The Churchill And Sherman:

Tank

Churchill IV

Sherman V

Crew

5

5

Armour

102mm

76mm

Top road speed

15.5 mph

20 mph

Weight

39 tonnes

31.6 tonnes

Weaponry

1x 6-pounder gun;

2x 7.92mm BESA machine guns

1x 75mm gun;

2x .30 M1919 machine guns

Number built

5,640

49,234

Churchill NA75 Osprey Publishing
A Mark IV Churchill NA75, a Churchill Mark IV tank with a 75mm gun from a Sherman tank attached while in North Africa (image from ‘Churchill Infantry Tank’ by David Fletcher © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing)

As well as learning about the surprising hill-climbing abilities of the Churchill, and how to modify its main gun, those who were part of the North Africa campaign learnt most of all about how best to work together.

Tim Strickland pointed out in interview that much of the tactical doctrines of North Africa needed to be radically revised when Strick and his comrades moved to Italy. The tight confines of the topography there, as well as plentiful foliage, made operating there very different, even if the Churchill’s hill climbing continued to come in handy.

So too did the by-now vastly improved interoperability of the infantry and tanks that supported them. Tighter fighting amongst towns or thick forests meant tanks were likely to run into German soldiers ready to pounce on them. And in this war, they had more than mere bags of grenades but instead anti-tank rocket launchers called Faustpatronen.

Infantry support was essential for neutralising this threat to the tanks.

Meanwhile, the tanks would be essential for helping the infantry break through tough defences.

Once again though, the lessons of the previous campaign would come in handy when it came to this kind of interoperability. Mr Strickland said of his father:

“I think he had learnt exactly how to work, and I must say, conversely, his infantry had learnt how to work together with tanks. So the two of them had actually developed from hard and sometimes bitter experience in Tunisia, they had learnt exactly how to work together, instantly, whenever the roles needed changing – they changed them quickly. And I think those lessons they took to Italy, and in Italy of course they ended up being supremely successful, in the end.”

That success too would be hard fought. The Hitler and Gothic lines, two truly formidable defensive positions, had to be broken through.

In the case of the former, for instance, this lay across the Liri Valley, north of Cassino, and was six months in the preparation of anti-tank defences. These included a new weapon – a German Panther turret gun dismounted and placed atop a casement at ground level, then masked by camouflage. This made it very difficult to spot, yet simultaneously able to blast a target from a mile out.

Mr Strickland described how these formidable defensive positions were taken on:

“The only way to smash this defensive line was to return to the 1917 doctrine of the Battle of Cambrai (of having massed tanks supporting, and supported by, infantry.) In other words, no one was going to use any clever tactics, they were just going to go straight towards it, in broad daylight … The tanks (went) at infantry pace remember. Speed is irrelevant … in this sort of action. And the important thing was to just not give way to the German reaction, but to fight, and fight, and fight until you had forced them to move. And in the course of that, my father’s regiment that he was commanding then, the North Irish Horse, most of its tanks were knocked out in the space of a few hours.”

And so, in a way, the Allied war had come full circle, beginning and ending with Cambrai, its lessons about the essential nature of tank-infantry cooperation – lessons that could have been forgotten after 1940, but were reapplied to help bring victory in a second world war.

(Cover image to interview is an illustration of Strickland’s journey out of Arras in 1940, escorting German POWs, by Graham Sumner, from the Strickland Family Collection).

Thanks to Stuart Brown at Skipper Press for the illustration of the Battle of Longstop Hill.