1st Army Tank Brigade 1940

In many ways the defining armoured element of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) that deployed to France in 1940 was the Matilda tank. Yet the BEF had a decidedly low number of infantry tanks. Of the various formations deployed to France only the the 4th and 7th Royal Tank Regiments were so equipped. Together they formed the 1st Army Tank Brigade.

These regiments remain a critical component of the Battle for France and as such deserve to be modelled. The obvious place to start is the TO&E which form part of the Spearhead rules. However, I wanted to explore the formations a little more. I hope the following is of some use to those players considering deploying to France and Belgium in 1940.

The War Begins:

At the start of the campaign 4th RTR was comprised of Matilda I tanks, excluding a handful of light tanks. In total there were 5 MkVIB light tanks and 50 Matilda I tanks. The 4th RTR can therefore be represented in Spearhead as follows.

4th Royal Tank Regiment, with:
Regimental Headquarters:
HQ: 1 x Matilda I tank
Recon: 1 x MkVIB light tank
3 Squadrons each of:
3 x Matilda I tanks

The 7th RTR in contrast had a mix of tanks though with a significant number of Matilda I and Matilda II tanks. Sources indicate at the beginning of the campaign there were seven MkVIB light tanks, 27 Matilda Is and 23 Matilda II tanks. This equates approximately to the following:

7th Royal Tank Regiment, with:
Regimental Headquarters:
HQ: 1 x Matilda I or Matilda II tank
Recon: 2 MkVIB light tanks
3 Squadrons each of:
1 x Matilda II tank
2 x Matilda I tanks

Battle of Arras (21st May 1940):

At the time of Arras the total available of available tanks was significantly reduced due to mechanical failure. The total number of tanks was only 58 Matilda Is, 16 Matilda IIs and 14 Mk VIB light tanks. Of this 4 RTR had thirty five Matildas Is while 7 RTR had 23 Matilda Is and 16 Matildas IIs. From this six Matilda II tanks were loaned from 7th RTR to bolster the capabilities of 4 RTR in the coming attack. Assuming 4 or 5 tanks per model I would represent these as two Matilda II stands with some Matilda I tanks being considered to bolster numbers.

The attack comprised two columns With left formed around the 4th RTR, supported by various elements including the various infantry components. An approximate reconstruction of the armoured element would be:

4th Royal Tank Regiment (Left Column), with::
Regimental Headquarters:
HQ: 1 x MkVIB light tank
1 Squadron of:
2 x Matilda I tanks
2 Squadrons each of:
1 x Matilda II tank (on loan from 7RTR)
2 x Matilda I tanks

Above the 4th RTR at Arras organised in squadrons. The miniatures are a mix of Heroics and Ros and Scotia, with Scotia providing the Matilda I tanks.

The right column was meanwhile formed around 7th RTR which in Spearhead can be represented by the following.

7th Royal Tank Regiment (Right Column), with:
Regimental Headquarters:
HQ: 1 x MkVIB light tank
Recon: 1 MkVIB light tank
1 Squadron of:
2 x Matilda I tanks
2 Squadrons each of:
1 x Matilda II tank
1 x Matilda I tank

Above, 7 RTR prepares for Arras. This regiment is also arranged by squadron but is proceeded by a reconnaissance MkVIB light tank. The Regimental HQ is safely in the rear.

You will note that the commanders of each regiment has the commander in a MkVIB light tank. At Arras the commander of 4RTR, Lt. Col. J.G. Fitzmaurice, was directing the action from his Mark VIB light tank when a round struck it in the side, tearing a hole through the armor and killing him. Given this, as well as the general shortage of infantry tanks, it seems appropriate to represent the HQ with MkVIB.

Interestingly the commander of 7 RTR Lt Col H.M. Heyland was also killed, apparently when out of his tank during the battle. While I have been unable to determine the type of HQ tanks used for 7 RTR but given the extremely low numbers of Matilda IIs I favour representation as a MkVIB allowing the few Matilda IIs available to be “in the fight”.

Below, a destroyed Matilda I being examined by a German, visible on the side is where the round presumably penetrated.

After Arras:

On the 23rd of May a composite force was assembled from the runners under command Major George Parkes. Known as 4/7 RTR it comprised two Matilda II tanks, 18 Matilda Is, seven MkVIB light tanks. To represent this force I would use the following.

4/7 Royal Tank Regiment, with:
Regimental Headquarters:
HQ: 1 x MkVIB light tank
Recon: 1 MkVIB light tank
1 Squadron of:
2 x Matilda I tanks
1 Squadron of:
1 x Matilda II tank
2 x Matilda I tank

References:

I found the following articles particularly useful when preparing this document.

Advertisements

After Arras

Oberst Karl Rothenburg, commander of 7th Panzer Division’s 25th Panzer Regiment, dropped into the turret hatch of his command tank. Moving past him were the tanks of 2nd Panzer Battalion. Pausing for a moment he contemplated the last 24 hours before giving the order, “Forward Hans, its time we gave the Tommies another lesson”. The Panzer 38t lurched forward. For a moment his mind drifted, the drama of yesterday’s unfortunate incident around Arras was of course still haunting, but the advance must be renewed. Surely British resolve was weakened after yesterday’s attack, and the corresponding casualties. The wreckage of British Matilda tanks, some still smouldering after greeting an 88mm shell yesterday was a stark reminder of the battle. Then on the left another, this time a machine gun armed Matilda, upturned by a Stuka’s dive bomb attack. Combined they left a vivid image as the panzers once again moved west.

Then as the tank lurched right he was reminded of his orders group. Why was the British to their front so bunched, assuming the reconnaissance was correct, and why was the British right flank so open? As he considered the possibilities the sound of machine guns could be heard 1000 yards to the northwest, then the pounding of artillery. The battle had begun.

Above, 2nd Panzer moves forward, in the distance elements of 1st Panzer can be seen.

Rothenburg and his staff had hastily determined the plan based on patrols by the divisional reconnaissance battalion. The hasty analysis indicated three British infantry battalions somewhat clustered together in the northern sector of the area of operations. Some prisoners indicated that a number of Matilda tanks were in the vicinity, though numbers and locations were vague. Radio traffic indicated elements of a British Cavalry formation, operating MkIV light tanks may also operating in the area.

Above, the general situation viewed from the north with the British forces in the foreground, mostly deployed in the “V” formed by various streams. The infantry are from 50th Division, 150th Brigade with the 4th Battalion East Yorkshire (centre) and 5th Green Howards (left foreground). The 4th Green Howards are in the right foreground. Below, guns from the 72nd (Northumbrian) Field Regiment provide support for 5th Green Howards.

After some deliberation at his orders group Rothenburg opted for a flanking movement to the south with the Panzers while pinning the British forward elements. One Panzer battalion would advance deep before swinging north. Simultaneously, a Panzer battalion and Schutzen battalion would attack the British forward elements from two directions. This plan of course required two Panzer Battalions, both from the 25th Panzer Regiment, as well as a Schutzen Battalion from the 7th Schutzen Regiment. The attack would be supported by the divisions artillery assets of three battalions, with the Schutzen battalion being the main effort, would be allocated two artillery battalions.

Already ahead and to his left was the 1st Panzer Abteilung and to his right I/7th Schutzen Abteilung was moving forward. He was himself near the front of the 2nd Panzer Abteilung. The telltale indication of battle joined soon came from his right as 1/7th Schutzen began to be engaged. First spasmodic fire which soon evolved into full battle as artillery and machine gun fires increased to full crescendo.

Above, 1/7th Schutzen advance on their first objective.

The Schutzen battalion advanced rapidly and within 60 minutes of crossing their start lines were at their initial objective, a long ridge that dominated the valley to the west. While elements of the battalion dispersed into firing positions on the high ground two platoons moved forward to probe the likely enemy positions on three areas of rising ground across the valley, separated by a gentle stream. In direct support of the battalion was an 88mm Flak battery and the 7th Schutzen sIG 33 150mm self-propelled Infantry Gun battery. Both these batteries were tasked with securing the high ground adjacent to a portion of the British position where they would have excellent fields of fire. As the infantry moved into advanced positions and the assets deployed the British responded.

A hail of machine gun fire erupted and almost simultaneously a barrage of fire from 25pdrs crashed down on the Flak battery deploying on the high ground. The German infantry went to ground suffering few casualties in stark contrast to the Flak battery whose prime movers and guns, as well as ammunition, erupted in a series of explosions.

Above and below of the 1/7th Schutzen. The 88mm Flak battery has already been destroyed.

The German response was equally devastating. As this was considered the main effort of the German attack the battalion was heavily reinforced with indirect fire weapons. A series of German artillery fires from two divisional artillery battalions unleashed their fire. The hills opposite became a death trap for the Tommies who suffered heavy casualties from around 30 guns ranging in caliber from 150mm to 105mm. Targeted first were the Vickers HMG teams which were quickly neutralised. Simultaneously, German infantry advanced in a series of short movements well supported by the heavy machine guns and 75mm Infantry Guns of the Schutzen Battalions Heavy Weapons Company.

While British counter battery fires were for once both responsive and accurate the damage had been done. The British position was untenable and soon, now engaged by German small arms the remnants of the 4th Battalion East Yorkshire Regiment began to fallback.

It was at this time that the Panzers of 2nd Battalion of 25th Panzer Regiment were to converge on the flank of 4th Battalion of the East Yorkshire Regiment (4ER), which can be seen above.

From here they would provide unstoppable momentum to the attack. Yet unfortunately the advance of the Panzers was stalled. As advanced elements prepared to attack the 4th East Riding two troops of Matilda tanks were observed moving towards a blocking position on the flank of 4ER. The British tanks were a significant proportion of the survivors from the fighting of the previous day, which now formed a composite formation denoted called 4/7 RTR and were command of Major George Parkes. A proportion of 4/7RTR, some four troops, were now allocated to support of 4ER.

Above, elements of 2nd Panzer Battalion engaged against British armour. In the fore ground elements of 1/7th Schutzen drive back elements of the 4th East Riding.

The 2nd Panzer Battalion was itself strung out, a result of the advance through the defiles caused by various streams, woods and villages. Leading the advance of the German 2nd Panzer Battalion was a platoon of Panzer II tanks and another of Panzer 38ts. Seizing a small area of ground these tanks took up various hulldown positions and began to engage the advanced Matilda troop, consisting as it did of four Matilda II tanks. Unsurprisingly the German fire was ineffective with the 20mm and 37mm guns unable to penetrate the British armour. Colonel Karl Rothenburg, aware of the critical nature of the engagement moved forward, and along with the battalion commander, personally directed fire.

The British tank advance was stalled and now Rothenburg ordered forward his attached Schutzen company, their mission to clear a wooded area to the German left, suspected to be held by British infantry and then using combined arms engage the Matilda tanks from the flank. Alas, the Schutzen company soon became bogged down in the woods and its numerical advantage began to slip away. The Tommies in this sector seemed to maintain a greater resolve. Below the Schutzen company of 2 Panzer Battalion move forward while in the right foreground elements of 1/7th Schutzen battalion have secured one of several areas of high ground across the stream.

As the infantry attack played out, the Panzers opposite the handful of Matilda II tanks, would continue to exchange intermittent but ineffective fire until nightfall. Of note the second troop, some four British Matilda I tanks, languished unengaged some 50 yards west of the Matilda II tanks.

Above, the Schutzen of 2nd Panzer Battalion are heavily engaged against British infantry. Had the been eliminated the British Matildas would have been flanked. Below, another view of advanced elements of 2nd Panzer Battalion engaging the British tanks.

While 2nd Panzer Battalion was moving engaged the 25th Panzer 1st Panzer Battalion was simultaneously moving west. In a deeper flanking action this battalion secured its primary objective. Soon after 6pm, as the battalion continued its advance swinging north, another two troops of Matildas were seen moving south. Like the first two troops they were taking up a blocking position. Like the former they too stopped and, with infantry deployed in nearby woods, provided a difficult obstacle. Around 7pm British lorries were seen moving forward and unlimbering a battery of 2pdr anti-tank guns. A series of artillery fires was requested by the forward observation party attached to 1st Panzer. Unfortunately the divisions third artillery battalion was currently repositioning and was unavailable. Below, elements of 1st Panzer consolidate their position.

With the flanking actions of the Panzers clearly delayed, Rothenburg ordered the 1/7th Schutzen forward again. Reacting almost immediately the battalion resumed its advance moving across the valley floor and rolling up the Tommies to their front. The sIG 33 battery maintained a deadly fire targeting a series of British positions while the 105mm divisional artillery destroyed deeper targets including a Bofors battery providing support fires over open sights. British infantry resolve now began to stiffen in part by a series of artillery fires by 25pdrs. This forced the commander of 1/7th Schutzen to order a pause while the battalion consolidate its gains.

Above, the 1/7th Schutzen advance. The British platoon on the right foreground, part of the 5th Green Howards was quickly eliminated as was the troublesome Bofors battery which is top right, also from the 5th Green Howards. Soon after the 1/7th Schutzen were advancing up the slopes of the main hill, their secondary objective with the 4th East Riding continuing to give ground.

Around 8pm a localised counter attack by 5th Green Howards was moving against the 1/7th Schutzen’s right flank. The Schutzen battalion’s 3rd Company was well positioned to halt this attack which was poorly executed. Both British companies advancing in column, such was the hurried nature of the British push, and therefore provided no immediate threat. As dusk began to settle on the battlefield the sIG 33 battery found the range of the Green Howards. Combined with infantry and machine gun fire the Tommies soon went to ground.

Above, the 5th Green Howards begin to move forward. In the background is a forward observation officer section. His placement, and subsequent failure to move, resulted in the attached artillery failing to fire. No doubt the Battalion commander was more concerned of another German battalion advancing on his position.

Above, the sIG 33 battery engages the 5th Green Howards, while below the general situation. 1/7th Schutzen is on its secondary objective and in the process of driving back the 4th East Riding.

As night enveloped the field Rothenburg assembled his battalion commanders to evaluate the afternoon’s engagement. 1st and 2nd Panzer Battalions were practically unscathed, in part to Rothenburg’s determination to direct the battle from his forward HQ. The 1/7th Schutzen had suffered a greater number of casualties attacking over the relatively open valley. However, the well coordinated and supported attack had achieved significant results. The British casualties, even without considering those captured, were twice that of the 1/7th Schutzen’s casualties. Further, the British right flank remained completely open. At first light, 1st Panzer Battalion now poised astride the road to the coast would continue its march to the sea. The Tommies had once again failed to block the German advance.

The scenario was developed using the Scenario Generation System and involved the Germans conducting a Hasty Attack with three battalions with both players selecting an Option A. The British commander had three infantry battalions on table and maintained a Divisional Cavalry Regiment off table which was uncommitted. At the end of the engagement both commanders had secured or maintained two objectives, with the Germans contesting a third. No battalions had tested morale but one British battalion, some 20 stands in strength had lost 8 stands. The Germans had lost six stands, excluding off table artillery. This converts to a 5-3 British victory. If however the 1st Panzer Battalion had exited the table the result would have been a 6-5 German victory. Exiting too early would however have likely resulted in the commitment of the British Divisional Cavalry which would have negated the advantage and changed the result to a 4-4 draw. A fascinating result and a quandary for both players. The German commander of course only suspected the existence of the Divisional Cavalry, it could easily have not existed. It highlighted the advantages of the scenario system creating something of the “Fog of War” In summary a slender British victory, though one Reich Minister Goebbels would of course deny.

The miniatures are all 6mm and from Heroics & Ros excellent range. The Germans are from my own collection, while the British are from Robin’s collection. Buildings are from Timecast and trees mostly from Irregular Miniatures terrain range. Other terrain is homemade.

For those wishing to view the engagement through the eyes of the BBC reporter another version of the battle can be found here.

Scenario System Availability

Due to some ISP changes, as well as an error on my part, the Scenario Generation System was off line recently. The links have now been resolved and players wishing to download the Spearhead & Modern Spearhead Scenario Generation System can now do so again. I apologise for any inconvenience while the system was unavailable.

The Scenario Generation System, as well as supporting documentation for World War II Spearhead can be found here.

Shevchenkovskiy Rudnik

The constant roar of the panzer engines made the last comments at the orders group difficult for the offices assembled to hear. Adjusting his back, the cramped conditions were doing nothing to relieve the incessant pain, von Funck gathered his voice. “Gentleman, we have been defeating the Soviets since we crossed the border almost two weeks ago. Now, while it seems the enemy resolve is stiffening I have complete faith in you to execute your orders. Remember, we must manoeuvre at every opportunity and use the indirect approach to overwhelm the Bolshevik.” Handing over the briefing to the regimental commander von Funck departed. Indeed in these few days since crossing the border in June 1941 his opinion of the fighting quality of the enemy had reached a new low. He had no doubt the enemy would be swept aside.

The companies of the divisional reconnaissance battalion, combined with information from an ever increasing flow of prisoners indicated a concentration of Soviet tanks to the Division’s front. While a cautious commander could await a concentration of the division von Funck wished to retain the momentum. Two battalions from 6th Schutzen would advance. Both would advance from the left in an oblique movement. The 1st Battalion would take the position on the extreme left and advance through the town of Berezyne. While a Flak platoon would be deployed in a covering position in the nearby woods the remainder of the battalion would advance to the dominating ground to the south-east. As 1st Battalion past through Berezyne 2nd Battalion would cross its start line advancing in a similar south-easterly arc falling on the north of a ridge that ran east to west, the Shevchenkovskiy Ridge. Behind this stood the village of Shevchenkovskiy Rudnik. In immediate reserve was 1st Panzer Battalion which sat due west of Shevchenkovskiy Rudnik and south of the ridge.

General Hans von Funck was confident that the direction of his attack, effectively an attack from the north, would draw out the Soviets who would be forced to react. Leaving their west facing orientation and defensive positions they would instead advance north to counter the German force. These Soviet attacks would, as always, be disorganised and lacking in combined arms. They would first be held by the Schutzen and then, with their flanks exposed be destroyed by the Panzers.

Above, the battlefield as viewed from a Fieseler Storch from the north looking south. The town of Berezyne is visible in the right foreground while in the centre left is the village of Shevchenkovskiy Rudnik. West of the village is the key east-west Shevchenkovskiy Ridge. 1st Battalion (left) and 2nd Battalion (centre right) are clearly visible.

Below, 1st Battalion is somewhat scattered but has just secured its primary objective. The battalion advance position will be the second ridge across the stream. In the extreme distance Soviet tanks and infantry are just visible. The Soviets had achieved combined arms here by deploying an independent company. On the extreme left an 88mm Flak platoon has fully deployed and covers the gap in the two battalions. It’s position provides an excellent overwatch position covering the flank of 2nd Battalion.

Below, another view from the Storch this time flying near 2nd Battalion looking east. Shevchenkovskiy Ridge is on the right where an advanced platoon of KV-1 tanks has been located. The KVs, originally facing west, would soon fall back over the ridge.

The Soviet defences had been well considered with no less than three KV-1 platoons carefully deployed in ambush. As one retired another prepared to open fire. Below, in the centre distance another T-26 platoon engages 2nd Battalion from a wood. Hidden next to it was a second KV-1 platoon. Undeterred the 6th Schutzen’s 2nd Battalion press forward to seize the ridge, and into the Soviet trap. Additional T-26s, T-34s and infantry are visible just west of the village of Shevchenkovskiy Rudnik.

While 2nd Battalion was advancing on to Shevchenkovskiy Ridge a Soviet reserve tank regiment was ordered forward. Expecting a weak Soviet tank reserve the commander of 6th Schutzen’s 1st Battalion was alarmed to report a massed Soviet armoured thrust which predominantly comprised T-28 supported by a battalion of T-26 light tanks.

Above, the Soviet Tank reserve advances while below, 1st Battalion prepares to engage them. The 1st Battalion was already engaged in an ineffective fire-fight with elements of the Soviet centre near Shevchenkovskiy Rudnik. As the T-28s moved up the engagement became general. German artillery fires were generally ineffective and the Soviet combined arms ensured the German infantry engaged their counterparts while the Pak-36 and 75mm Infantry Guns attempted to counter the Soviet armour. However, dispersed along the lines their fire was ineffective. 1st Battalion was hopelessly pinned down.

The Soviets now began their counterattack. In the centre Soviet tanks surged forward. Nearest to Shevchenkovskiy Rudnik the T-26s were concentrated while at the western end of the Shevchenkovskiy Ridge T-34s and KVs advanced. All around them Soviet infantry moved forward. Soon, the Soviet armour attempted to overrun elements of German infantry on the ridge, with mixed results. While German artillery fires were typically concentrated at infantry on occasion the were focussed on tanks. Pak-36 and 75mm Infantry Guns further targeted the Soviet tanks – when they crested the ridge.

In all the better part of a Soviet Tank Brigade was now concentrating their attack on 2nd Battalion. The armour was particularly determined (veteran morale), yet the supporting infantry were equally focussed on their task (regular). A further infantry battalion was soon detected moving towards the ridge having been previously positioned on the Soviet extreme left. 2nd Battalion was clearly about to be overrun!

Below, T-34s and KV-1s press their attack against elements of 2nd Battalion.

Below, another view of the situation, this time looking east along Shevchenkovskiy Ridge. Visible in the distance near Shevchenkovskiy Rudnik are T-26 and a KV-1 platoons, some ten tanks in total. All would advance on 2nd Battalion before being driven back by fire by 88mm Flak weapons deployed to the left. In the extreme distance elements of the T-28 equipped brigade can be seen engaging 6th Schutzen’s 1st Battalion.

Below, a view of 1st Battalion’s position. Unable to engage the armour effectively the battalion abandoned its forward position and retired to its secondary position while covered by fire from the anti-tank guns and infantry guns the battalion. While executed with precision the retirement was the first significant retreat of the division since the invasion began.

General Hans von Funck was furious. His intelligence officers had clearly let him down and he had foolishly underestimated the enemy. The well considered Soviet defence and audacious counter-attacks were decimating 6th Schutzen. Either a general retreat must be authorised, or the reserve committed. Yet what could the Panzers of 1st Battalion achieve by attacking in to the KV-1s and T-34s astride the battalion’s route of attack? It was a hopeless situation. Yet, the prospect of a retreat was unpalatable. The orders were issued and 1st Panzer Battalion moved forward with speed.

Above and below the Panzers move forward. Visible are Pz-38ts, Pz-IIs, PZ-IVs and halftracks.

Details of the unfolding engagement on the southern flank of the ridge are confusing to say the least.

The advancing Panzers were hopelessly outmatched by their Soviet opponents and paid a significant cost for their frontal attack. Yet many Soviet tanks were outflanked and engaged from the flank and rear. Some were even isolated and engaged by German infantry and halftracks. Soviet infantry suffered heavy casualties from German infantry and concentrated artillery fires. Yet, a further Soviet battalion (veteran) was committed and attacked the Shevchenkovskiy Ridge with great determination.

As darkness engulfed the battlefield the fires of burning vehicles provided an eerie illumination. Von Funck’s veterans had held, but the butcher’s bill had been terribly high. The 7th Panzer had fought well, but over confidence, and a resolute enemy, had nearly ended in catastrophe. Von Funck had been taught a lesson!

The scenario was another Hasty Attack and like those previously, had been developed with the Scenario Generation System. The change in Soviet force structure had proven particularly effective. Careful and considered deployment had resulted in combined arms being achieved by the Soviets at each point of engagement. Further, the use of ambushes had resulted in a number of surprises for the Germans. Soviet resolve had also stiffened with two Soviet battalions, or equivalents, being veteran while another was regular. Only the T-28 Regiment was classed as green. The massed T-28s were particularly effective and their ability to engage infantry was particularly concerning. This was countered by their tendency to become periodically combat ineffective – suppressed.

Another outstanding game, full of challenges and an ideal way to complete a series of Ostfront games between my son and I, at least until next time…