Experimental Mechanized Force
|Experimental Mechanized Force/Armoured Force|
Vickers Medium tanks on the move in England in the 1930s
|Equipment||Tanks and other armoured vehicles|
|Brigadier R. J. Collins|
The Experimental Mechanized Force (EMF) was a brigade-sized formation of the British Army. It was officially formed on 1 May 1927 and was intended to investigate and develop the techniques and equipment required for armoured warfare. As such it was the first armoured formation of its kind in the world. It was renamed the Armoured Force the following year and for two years it participated in exercises, which proved the capabilities of mechanised forces against traditionally-organised and trained infantry and cavalry. The force was controversial in the army and was disbanded in February 1929. The EMF was followed by experiments with a Tank Brigade in 1931, which had three mixed battalions of medium and light tanks and a battalion of Carden Lloyd machine-gun carriers as a reconnaissance force.
Armoured warfare theory
In the aftermath of World War I, several theorists sought ways to avoid trench warfare. The war of movement from August to December 1914 had cost the French c. 850,000 and the Germans c. 670,000 men. The trench warfare that followed had been less costly in men but attrition warfare was indecisive; limited objective attacks under an umbrella of massed heavy artillery-fire could succeed but at the cost of unlimited duration. Colonel J. F. C. Fuller, formerly the Chief of Staff of the Tank Corps, proposed an all-tank force, which would operate independently against enemy headquarters and lines of communication. More moderate theorists such as the historian and former British army officer Basil Liddell Hart, advocated mechanised forces of all arms, able to carry out operations of war other than the all-out offensive. Giffard LeQuesne Martel, a third influential reformer, proposed that tanks should be subordinated to infantry formations, while many cavalry officers maintained that the horse still had a part to play on a modern battlefield, in spite of all evidence to the contrary on the Western Front in World War I.
Formation of the EMF
Following pressure from Fuller and from George Lindsay, the Inspector of the Royal Tank Corps, General George Milne, the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, arranged for the formation of the Experimental Mechanized Force in October 1925. Milne was already inclined against the pure tank theorists and organised the force as a balanced force of all arms, as far as resources allowed. The force was established on 1 May 1927 at Tidworth Camp on Salisbury Plain and after unit training with the new equipment in the summer, training of the force as a unit began on 19 August. Fuller had originally been considered for appointment as commander of the force, combined with command of the 7th Infantry Brigade and the administrative responsibilities connected with the garrison of Tidworth. Fuller turned it down and resigned as the War Office refused to allot extra staff to assist him and Fuller believed he would be unable to devote himself to the force, its methods and tactics. Brigadier R. J. Collins, commander of the 7th Infantry Brigade, a light infantry-man was appointed to command the Experimental Force in April 1927.
Eastland vs. Westland
In 1927, the EMF (Eastland Force) fought the 3rd Infantry Division (Major-General John Burnett-Stuart) and a cavalry brigade (Westland Force), both sides having air support. The opponents began the exercise 35 mi (56 km) apart, Westland Force to capture high ground near Andover against Eastland Force based at Micheldever. The Fast Group dodged Westland Force cavalry patrols, covered 40 mi (64 km) and captured bridges, which enabled the rest of Eastland Force to advance. Despite a few losses from air attack, the Fast Group armoured cars attacked the vanguard of the Westland Force column and pin it down for attacks by aircraft at low altitude and a flank attack by the tanks. Eastland Force then leaguered overnight but Westland Force kept moving; Eastland Force armoured car and tankette reconnaissance parties spotted the move but lacking wireless, sent a despatch rider whose motorcycle broke down, half of the Westland Force column was over the River Avon before Collins received the information. Part of Westland Force reached the objective on the next day, winning the contest, albeit surrounded and under counter-attack by Eastland Force. After the exercise, Collins discussed the difficulties encountered by the EMF and its vulnerability to anti-tank guns and artillery. Burnett-Stuart said that the tank should no longer be considered an infantry-support weapon but the main arm on the battlefield. The General Staff produced a training memorandum in early 1928 which criticised poor co-ordination in the EMF and its failure to organise sufficient fire support before attacks.
Armoured Force, 1928–1933
The EMF was renamed Armoured Force (AF) and in early 1928 the 280 vehicles of 15 types conducted exercises to test the limits of the AF. At the end of the year the AF was suspended because the army took the view that little more could be learned from it as presently constituted. Milne wanted a year's interval due to the lack of light tanks and tankettes necessary for an experimental brigade with a battalion of light tanks and tankettes with three battalions of infantry. In the period 1930 to 1931, Milne intended to establish a permanent 1st Armoured Brigade. An experimental Tank Brigade was established with three battalions of mixed medium and light tanks and a battalion of Carden-Lloyd machine-gun carriers operating as light tanks for reconnaissance but with no supporting arms. Broad commanded the brigade and concentrated on improving command by using flag signals and radio sets fitted to company and command vehicles. After two weeks the Army Council witnessed a manoeuvre in formation, which was maintained through a bank of fog, a persuasive example of massed armoured manoeuvre. The British were the world leaders in tank design and the organisation and use of armoured forces. The Reichswehr in Germany had only a few covert prototype vehicles and had created little in writing about the use of tanks. In the US, tank experiments had only begun and in the USSR, the Red Army had started to develop theories of deep operations but the best Soviet tanks were Vickers derivatives. In late 1933, the new CIGS, Field Marshal Archibald Montgomery-Massingberd permanently established a Tank Brigade under the command of Percy Hobart. In February 1934 Massingberd desired to include a tank brigade and a cavalry division with mechanised transport and light vehicles for reconnaissance, in a Field Force for continental operations but in October decided that the cavalry division should be replaced by a mechanised Mobile Division.
On 25 January 1934, Massingberd issued a directive to determine the training of the Tank Brigade which, rather than frontal attacks, emphasised independent operations such as raids and flank attacks. The brigade was to prepare for strategic or quasi-independent attacks on an enemy's organisation behind the front line by exploiting an opponent's weakness rather than confronting strengths. The brigade was to examine its ability to manoeuvre en masse, co-operate with the RAF and experiment with the means to supply and maintain the force while moving 70 mi (110 km) a day or 150 mi (240 km) over three days and then conducting an attack. The Tank Brigade was composed of the 2nd, 3rd and 5th battalions of the Royal Tank Corps each with Vickers medium tanks and tankettes. In May a staff exercise was conducted to devise methods for deep operations behind an enemy front line, in which the enemy had invaded friendly territory and a counter-offensive was about to begin. The brigade would make a 100 mi (160 km) flank move to attack enemy rear organisations 40 mi (64 km) behind the front line. The result was a decision to move dispersed on a wide front to deceive the enemy as to the objective and to evade air attack. The RAF was to co-operate for reconnaissance, air defence, supply and as a substitute for artillery support, which was thought incapable of keeping up.
When the brigade began to train as a unit, the Tank Brigade had four battalions, three with a combination of medium tanks and tankettes and a light tank battalion with three companies of light tanks and tankettes. Each medium company had an HQ section of four medium tanks and three mixed companies with a command tank, a section of seven tankettes or light tanks, one section of five medium tanks and a section of two tanks for close support, theoretically carrying guns capable of firing high explosive shells; no tanks were armed like this and Vickers medium tanks were substituted instead. Nearly all the force was tracked and there were no infantry or artillery. Hobart manoeuvred the brigade in a 10 by 10 mi (16 by 16 km) box formation which could make 8 mph (13 km/h) covering about 60 mi (97 km) a day and move somewhat more slowly at night. The brigade was so successful that the non-mechanised troops of Aldershot Command complained that they were being set up to fail. In September the Tank Brigade was joined by the 7th Infantry Brigade, a brigade of motorised field artillery and supporting units to make up the Mobile Force and opposed by a non-mechanised infantry division, a brigade of horsed cavalry and two armoured car units.
Battle of Beresford Bridge
In the autumn of 1934, Burnett-Stuart, now GOC Aldershot Command, adjudicated that the Mobile Force to have neglected supply difficulties and devised an exercise to challenge the force. Several objectives behind enemy lines near Amesbury were to be raided and the Mobile Force was to be ready to fight a battle after the raids. The challenge required a long approach march from its assembly area and cross the defended obstacle of the Kennet and Avon Canal. The exercise was to begin at 2:00 a.m. on 19 September against the 1st Infantry Division (Major-General John Kennedy), which left only four hours of darkness, insufficient for the move to be completed before daybreak. Lindsay had no command staff and several members of the Tank Brigade and infantry brigade staffs were at odds. The Mobile Force plan was a wide flank move at night around rather than through the opponent and then a daytime lay up for maintenance followed by the raids on day three. Burnett-Stuart had doubts because of the supply implications of the scheme and a new plan for the 7th Infantry Brigade to capture canal crossings on day one was adopted, for the Tank Brigade to cross at night, the raid plans to be decided later.[a]
The Mobile Force began from Gloucester, west of the River Severn, to break through the defenders' positions at Hungerford. The infantry brigade made a 50 mi (80 km) night move across the front of the defenders and easily captured crossings at Hungerford but was then subjected to bombing while waiting for the Tank Brigade to move during the night. When the brigade arrived, the element of surprise had worn off and the Mobile Force faced powerful opposition. During the afternoon of 20 September, umpires judged that the Mobile Force was compelled to retire by air attack; Kennedy sent armoured cars and cavalry sortied to the north, planted mines and blocked roads, which made the retreat of the Mobile Force most difficult. Despite the partiality of the umpires, the Mobile Force split up and managed to retreat, bypassing many of the obstacles. The exercise was condemned by Liddell Hart who portrayed its rules as biased and which had a disastrous effect on the development of armoured forces but it had no effect on the attitude of the General Staff. Exercises in England had either been unrealistic operations on Salisbury Plain or road-bound, with no obstructions from demolitions or anti-tank obstacles like minefields, broken bridges, rivers, defiles and ridges. With no need of engineers to overcome obstacles, there was no need to gain control of an area with infantry. In 1935, much of the equipment used by the Experimental Mobile Force was sent to Egypt.
Order of battle
- Flank Reconnaissance Group
- Two armoured car companies (3rd Battalion Royal Tank Corps [RTC])
- Main Reconnaissance Group
- Tank battalion
- Mechanized Infantry
- Field Artillery
- 9th Field Brigade Royal Artillery (QF 18 pounder field guns, QF 4.5 inch Howitzers 2 batteries towed by Dragon tractors, 1 battery towed by Crossley-Kégresse half-tracks)
- 20 Battery (self-propelled Birch Guns)
- 9th Light Battery, Royal Artillery (3.7 inch Mountain Howitzers portée on Burford-Kégresse half-tracks)
Attachments (occasional) Infantry
- 2nd Battalion Cheshire Regiment
- A plan was laid to advance on a wide front with mixed units of armoured cars, light tanks, motorised infantry and the Vickers Medium Tanks. The faster vehicles would arrive at the canal and seize crossings for the medium tanks and the raids would begin at dawn on the next day but Hobart rejected the plan over the division of the Tank Brigade in mixed columns.
- Harris 1995, p. 217.
- Fletcher 1990, p. 58.
- Harris 1995, p. 225.
- Jankowski 2013, pp. 114–120.
- Harris 1995, pp. 315–319.
- French 2000, pp. 28–30, 97.
- Place 2000, pp. 95–96.
- French 2000, p. 29.
- Harris 1995, pp. 216–217.
- Harris 1995, pp. 218–219.
- Harris 1995, pp. 220–221, 225, 228.
- Harris 1995, p. 244.
- Harris 1995, pp. 247–248.
- Harris 1995, pp. 248–249.
- Harris 1995, pp. 249–250.
- Harris 1995, p. 250.
- Harris 1995, pp. 250–251.
- Plant 2014a, pp. 31–33.
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