Monday, March 21, 2011

From the Pages - Steeds of Steel

The U.S. Army's mechanized cavalry force served in an astounding variety of ways in World War II -- certainly a greater variety in one three-year period than any other cavalry force in human history. The transition from a traditional horse-mounted force to a mechanized force reliant on tanks, armored cars, and jeeps was not without its learning curve.

In the following excerpt from Steeds of Steel: A History of American Mechanized Cavalry in World War II, author Harry Yeide explores the first true test for America's new fighting force on the battlefields of North Africa during World War II.

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The first mechanized cavalrymen to engage the enemy appear to have belonged to the 1st Reconnaissance Troop, 1st Infantry Division, which landed near Oran, Algeria, at about 0830 hours on 8 November 1942 as part of Task Force Center in Operation Torch. The task force had sailed from England, as had the Eastern Task Force, which was landing British and American troops at Algiers. The Western Task Force deposited troops brought from the United States near Casablanca, Morocco. Mounted in scout cars and jeeps and feeling out the infantry’s route of advance, the 1st Reconnaissance Troop encountered French resistance at Ste. Jean Baptiste crossroads at about 2130 hours on 9 November. The men withdrew and reported the encounter to the commander of the 2d Battalion, 16th Infantry, who immediately ordered his force to engage the foe while the cavalrymen pulled back to screen the rear. This first encounter resulted in no losses of men or material.

The 3d Infantry Division’s Reconnaissance Troop, which landed at Fedala as part of the Western Task Force, had been scheduled to be the first cavalry outfit into action. The men wore special black uniforms for their pre-dawn assault on Yellow Beach. But a series of mishaps in lowering and loading boats prevented their landing until daylight. The troop returned to the transports rather than conduct a frontal attack across a well-defended beach in broad daylight. Elements of the 2d Armored Division’s 82d Reconnaissance Battalion did reach shore as part of the armored landing team of the same task force, but they do not appear to have engaged in battle that day.

Both the 3d Reconnaissance Troop and 82d Reconnaissance Battalion performed roles close to the one advocated by those who believed that mechanized cavalry should not fight during the 3d Infantry Division advance toward Casablanca beginning 10 November, which was supported by Combat Command B, 2d Armored Division. The 2d Platoon, Company C, 82d Reconnaissance Battalion, was probably with the point, identified only as five light tanks, when it ran into French resistance west of Bou Guedra at about 1700 hours. The column slipped around the French to continue to Casablanca, and the reconnaissance elements led the way during the lights-out night march. They reached Mazagan about daylight, and the French garrison surrendered. During the day an armistice was signed, which ended hostilities in Morocco. The 2d Armored Division, with its reconnaissance battalion, spent the remainder of the North Africa campaign guarding the frontier with Spanish Morocco to deter any Axis attempt to cut Allied lines of communication from there.

Tunisia: Meeting the Real Enemy
At dawn on 31 January 1943, the second squadron-size mechanized cavalry formation to reach North Africa, the 1st Armored Division’s 81st Reconnaissance Battalion, went into action for the first time at Station de Sened, in Tunisia. During November and December, the Germans had managed to land enough troops in Tunisia to stall the Allied advance and had even reclaimed the tactical initiative in some zones, particularly that held by the under-equipped French, who had joined the Allied cause after the armistice. By January, the winter rains had produced impassable mud across the front and convinced Lt. Gen. Dwight Eisenhower that he would have to call off offensive operations. Although ordered by Eisenhower to go over to the defensive, Maj. Gen. Lloyd Fredendall, commanding II Corps, wanted to capture Maknassy, east of Sened, with the 1st Armored Division before he did so.

The 81st Reconnaissance Battalion was to support an attack by Combat Command D by scouting routes of advance through the olive groves in the valley and surrounding foothills, by protecting the flanks, and if possible by cutting off the enemy’s escape route from Sened. Company C and a platoon of light tanks from Company D, the first battalion elements to reach the front, had participated in a raid with Combat Command C the night of 24–25 January across this very same ground. Elements of the Italian 50th Special Brigade supported by some tanks from the 21st Panzer Division held Sened.

The first job of the mechanized cavalryman was to find people to shoot at him. Lieutenant Colonel Charles Hoy, who commanded the 81st Reconnaissance Battalion, characterized its business this way: “The reconnaissance platoon, moving by bounds, comes under accurate enemy fire; it has gained contact. Long-range antitank and artillery fire cannot be considered contact with the enemy. The platoon must get in under this fire. Usually it can be done mounted, but once under accurate short-range fire, the men will generally have to dismount.”

In North Africa, the “meeting engagement” rarely involved two maneuvering forces encountering each other; instead, the most common situation was an attempt by reconnaissance elements to reestablish contact after the enemy had withdrawn to a new defensive position. The forward platoons generally had some idea where the enemy was, either from the G-2 (intelligence) or a map study that identified logical places that would favor a defender.6 At Sened, the Axis positions were known in the most general terms.

The savvy recon man, Hoy would later explain, knew that if he passed through artillery fire, contact with the enemy was imminent. In principle, scout cars would lead each section in a platoon, followed by one of the assault guns. The commander of the first car would head for cover—not reverse course—when he discerned accurate incoming small-arms or antitank fire. The second scout car would lay down return fire, and the assault gun would come into action as quickly as possible. Under this covering fire, the crew of the first scout car would dismount and seek to identify the nature of the opposition. The other two sections, meanwhile, would attempt to bypass the opposition, or at least establish observation posts on one or both flanks, typically supported by .30-caliber machine guns taken from the jeeps. In a meeting engagement, the enemy could often see the positioning of the new observation post (OP), and the men had to be prepared to defend it. The recon men would then set about establishing a new OP using stealth, possibly waiting until after dark.

But this was a first fight, and some of these were lessons yet to be learned. On that January day, the 81st Reconnaissance Battalion, with Company C leading, made some progress until coming under heavy artillery fire and grinding to a halt. Lieutenant Colonel Hoy committed the light tanks of his Dog Company to the attack, but to no avail. L. E. Anderson recalled that the company’s commanding officer inexplicably sent his maintenance and supply vehicles just behind the M3 light tanks. The tanks fanned out to bypass Sened and take it from the rear. Instead, German positions bypassed by the tanks opened up with mortars and machine guns, and explosions erupted around the support vehicles.

Confusion set in as several vehicles caught fire, and gasoline and ammunition blew up. “Unexpectedly, the lead tanks returned,” Anderson remembered, “coming over the hill at full speed, heading for the rear.” German tanks were said to be in pursuit, and the entire company fell back in disorder. Company B followed.

Indeed, sharp-eyed scouts had reported German Mark IV tanks—far more than a match for the M3s—and Italian armored cars in Sened and a suspected artillery position hidden in an olive grove. After six hours of shelling and air attacks, the green reconnaissance troopers pulled back, abandoning five scout cars, three jeeps, and two assault guns in the process.

The battalion, under frequent attacks by Stukas and Messerschmidts, made no more progress the next day. Companies A and C were dispersed along a rocky slope. Each scout car mounted a .50-caliber machine gun, and although most of the men took shelter in slit trenches, one man per car blazed away at any aircraft that came within range.

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