By Gregory Clark, August 3, 1940.

To understand the procedure of the German tank-dive bomber attack which brought disaster to the Allied armies in Flanders, we have to quit thinking of tanks as iron cavalry. We must think of them as land navy.

It is very much in our interests that we understand what happened in Flanders. The following details of that tank-dive bomber attack I got not only in the retreat itself from Brussels to the Channel, but on a return visit to France, via Brest, in which I talked, in all, to hundreds of officers and men, both British and French, who had survived these attacks and whose account of them tallied in general, so that I can outline the main type of attack. When you have read how simple and methodical the whole job was, the question in your mind will be – was there nobody in either the French or British armies who could have thought up a counter measure to deal with this type of attack?

The answer to that is that you cannot reorganize an army in a few days. The higher the efficiency of an army, the harder it is to change the system with which it is ingrained. The terrific speed with which the Germans pushed their attack was, you may be sure, to prevent that very thing – the discovery and organization of an adequate counter measure to the tank-dive bomber attack.

Just what we expected of German tanks I can’t say. This is, in the main, what they did.

A tank unit consisted of one big tank and two small tanks. A land battleship and two destroyers. The big tank was in wireless telephone communication with, as a rule, three Junker Stuka dive bombers. These planes waited, during an attack, either on the ground or possibly in the air.

The tank unit was given a piece of ground advance over. Its job was to seek out the resistance on that piece of ground. Not to try and get through by evading resistance, but to hunt the ground until it found the resistance, and then attack it.

Let us picture typical Flanders position, at the height of the battle. The Germans had broken through and were fanning out. Most positions therefore were not old-established trench or other defences, but new positions taken up to guard flanks, or new positions taken up in rear.

A battalion commander has a certain width of country to hold. Either a highway or one or more of the dirt roads that lace Flanders

A battalion commander has a certain width of country to hold. Either a highway or one or more of the dirt roads that lace Flanders everywhere, runs through his territory. He puts a company across the road, to build a barricade of elm trunks, farm wagons, rails, rocks, anything. They dig trenches for their machine-guns and anti-tank rifles. They fortify all the commanding ground. On their flanks, other companies, other battalions do likewise. Behind them, their support companies dig in and prepare positions of resistance. The air force reports that tanks are advancing.

Out of the dawn, instead of a long line of iron cavalry, come these tank units of three. Let us watch just one tank unit, as it comes cautiously up this road on which a point of resistance has been established. It is not Interested in its flanks. Not interested in any of its own infantry or motorcycle machine-gunners following an hour behind. It is interested only in locating the resistance in this piece of territory it has been assigned.

The System of Attack

Ahead of the tanks walk or cycle a few tank scouts. They are perhaps 300 yards ahead of the tanks. As they appear, the Allied garrison in the point of resistance open fire on them.

Instantly the scouts signal and the tanks halt. If necessary, they back up. They may even keep in constant slow motion, weaving this way or that or going to hide in a clump of bushes or behind a house. For it is when the tanks stop that the trouble begins.

The two small tanks immediately set out, one to the right, the other to the left, to feel along for the flanks or edges of the point of resistance. Out of the big tank emerges two mortar crews, each equipped with a five-inch mortar of the Stokes type. It fires a shell which blows a hole to bigger than a wash tub, but with a detonation that is terrific. It one of those noisy, demoralization bombs which the Germans put such faith in.

Now in the garrison of the point of resistance, all is tense. They know the tanks have arrived. Almost at once the mortar shells are falling at random all over their position. And from the flanks comes the sound of machine-gun and anti-tank rifle fire at the two smaller tanks furtively creeping along to feel and find the flanks of the position.

In the big tank, an officer is talking on the wireless telephone to his Junker dive bombers. He details his position to them. According to many of the soldiers I talked to, and especially case of a brigadier of a famous Scottish division, it was within five to 30 minutes that bombers arrived.

Bombing from the air is, of course, a new and incalculable item of modern war. The average soldier thinks of bombers as being impersonal. It comes with a very nasty shock to discover that three Junkers suddenly circling overhead are not casual wanderers of the sky, looking for what they may devour, but actually three bombers seeking for their target this particular position.

There overhead, the Junkers circle, amidst the hail of machine-gun fire which the position puts up, while they study the location of the three tanks, the big one and the two small ones defining the flanks of the position. Usually the tanks set out colored ground flares to show the bombers their location.

Then the bombers dive. They carried the same type of high intensity bomb as the mortars were throwing. Bombs of terrific blast but of no great destructive power. Follow my leader, the three Junkers dive, releasing only a couple of bombs at a time, but indiscriminately blasting the position as defined by the three tanks. This air attack lasted only a few minutes in most instances, but it put into effect exactly what all infantry are trained to do – take cover from air attack, all except, perhaps, the machine-gunners firing at the planes, and the minimum crews required on anti-tank rifles, mortars and so forth.

In the ideal attack, the effect of the dive bombing was to drive the majority of the garrison under cover. As the dive bombers finished their job, though still circling and diving furiously, there suddenly appeared in front the big tank in full charge, and at the same time, the two flank tanks came rolling in from the sides or even from the rear. The big tank destroyed the barricades, drove over the trench and strong points, dealt as rapidly as it could with all the resistance that was still organized after the bombing.

Not all these attacks were ideal. Sometimes the garrison put one or more of the tanks out of action, sometimes valiant machine-gunners got the Junkers as they dived. But so methodical and so completely unnerving and unique were these attacks that, as events show, the great majority of them succeeded to this extent – that resistance in this point was either driven to ground, forced to withdraw or scattered. Without a moment’s delay, in these cases, the tank unit went through, went on to seek further points of resistance.

The psychological power of this attack was profound. Troops from time immemorial have held the opinion that when the enemy has gone through, that is defeat. When the garrison of the point of resistance did emerge and assemble itself, they did so in the knowledge that the enemy had broken through and gone on. And that enemy infantry was soon following.

It was a very terrible position. If they stood fast and remanned the position, to meet the following infantry, the tanks could easily be recalled to take them in rear. If they moved to new positions they were caught in the act, as a rule, by the advanced units of motorcycle machine-gunners working from every hill and copse.

The natural instinct of junior commanders and in some cases higher commanders was to retreat, before the oncoming infantry could arrive, and try to get ahead of the tanks, to interpose themselves again, in fresh lines of resistance, between the tanks and the rear positions. This is, of course, precisely what the tank-dive bomber strategy hoped for. To remove these garrisons and make easy the advance of their following infantry. And nothing suited the plan better than the endless taking up of new and hasty points of resistance. In other words, set them up for the tank-Junker units to knock down.

Come From Behind, Too

After the evacuation from Dunkirk, one of the highest officers in the British army said to a specially assembled group of war correspondents who wanted to know what happened:

“You cannot fight armor without armor.”

In other words, if we had had as many armored divisions and big tanks as the Germans we could have gone tank hunting and a land naval battle would have ensued in which land battleships would seek each other all over the country, leaving the infantry and artillery to battle it out in their own terms.

As it was, the tanks broke through in this methodical, terrific, noisy. cautious and cooperative fashion, and once the tank units had done their job of seeking and shifting resistance, where the holes were made, the fast tanks went through and penetrated deep and got in behind and wrecked organization in plain guerrilla style, in rear areas where no organization had been set up to deal with them. And whenever it was set up, the same old tank-Junker set-up was promptly employed.

Here are a few of the comments of those who experienced the direct tank-dive bomber attacks.

A colonel of infantry: “In my case, I witnessed one of these attacks from a distance. And when my turn came, I had my battalion so arranged and so forewarned that we successfully beat off two separate attacks by two units, one after the other, complete with Junkers. The next thing I knew they were coming from behind. A unit that had broken through to the east of us simply turned and came along and caught us in the rear. My losses were extremely light, in view of three attacks, but since we were surrounded and apparently to be subjected to consecutive attacks until we were all wiped out, orders came for me to withdraw.”

A sergeant: “We were prepared to fight tanks. But the tanks stayed just out of sight and whistled up the dive bombers, who came and blasted us. There were six planes, not three, in our case. They roared around us for nearly an hour. Besides the mortar shells, they had field guns firing at us, too. Then from three sides came tanks, all firing rockets that stopped the artillery and sent the Junkers away, and shooting with cannons and machine-guns and weaving this way and that. What we ought to do is arm infantry with naval guns. Fifteen inchers.”

A chaplain: “I went through three of these assaults and saw several others from a distance They did not attack on a solid front. They merely punched holes. And where they punched a hole, other tank units came through and went right and left along the rear, attacking from behind.”

An artillery lieutenant: “I had two field guns. At first we were given conventional targets, firing on tanks advancing on roads. But once they broke through, they came from all angles. We did a great deal of open-sight shooting at tanks. One of my guns got three, a big one and two small ones. The other got two of the medium ones. We were constantly attacked by dive bombers. Sometimes we supported infantry in their positions. But later we just travelled the country, hunting tanks. Finally, we were going up a road when we came smack into six tanks in the fields on either side. We tried to run the gauntlet with our two dragons and their bouncing guns, but we were both in the ditch in less than 100 yards, under the concentrated machine-gun and light cannon fire of the tanks. Only six of us got away from that shemozzle. We learned later that we had blundered into a tank rendezvous where they were awaiting supplies of fuel. That is the way they were, in little flotillas all over the place, methodically going about their business.”

Editor’s Notes: The Stokes mortar was the British army’s standard mortar during World War 1. Greg was likely using it as a generic name for a type of mortar. The British replacement was the ML 3-inch mortar.

The term “Blitzkrieg” was not used in this early war article, but it was what he was describing. It was never a described German military tactic, but Greg got the general idea right, where there was constant communication between forces to move quickly. The overall tactics are much more complex, as can be read in the Wikipedia article.