Friday, August 15, 2014

First Battle for American Tanks Crewed By American Tankers

With tensions rising in the Pacific, two Federalized National Guard units were equipped with M3 tanks (called Stuart by the Brits, but M3 by Americans. These units, the 192nd and 194th Tank Battalions were shipped to Manila, and assigned to field forces under General Jonathan Wainwright.  When the Japanese landed at Lingayan Gulf, the 192nd was sent -  on 21 December - North to intercept them.

The M3s were notorious gas hogs and had little or no organic mobile fuel support.  They headed to Gerona, which was supposed to have the high-octane petroleum those tanks converted radial aircraft engines burned, but those reports were wrong.  Company B, under Captain Don Hanes, was forced to consolidate remaining fuel and field just a single five-tank platoon of fully-fueled tanks to meet the Japanese advance.  With reports of enemy motorized forces fast-approaching Damortis, General Wainwright ordered Hanes to send his five operational tanks, under Lieutenant Ben Morin, to stop them.

At Damortis, these five M3 tanks encountered advanced elements of the Imperial Japanese Army's 4th Tank regiment, equipped with Type 95 Light Tanks.  These, though diesel-powered and slower than the M3s, were otherwise largely comparable. Both were equipped with dual-purpose (AP and explosive-firing) 37mm cannon - the American's gun had a higher muzzle velocity, but at combat ranges, the Japanese 37mm could breach American armor plate, especially to the side and rear.

This became the first time American-built tanks, manned by American Army crews, entered combat against the enemy - it was also the first tank vs. tank clash between Americans and the Japanese (or American tanks and any enemy tanks) - certainly the first time it happened in WW-II (some American armor might have engaged German armor in the waning days of WW-I, but I've yet to be able to confirm or deny this).  Later, as noted in another blog in this blog-site, the M3 and the M2A4 were the first US-built armor crewed by Americans to be taken on the offense (the PI's use of armor was clearly defensive).  And of course, the Royal Tank Regiment in North Africa used the Stuart (aka "Honey") earlier in 1941 against Rommel's Afrika Korps, being the first combat use of American-built tanks in WW-II.

Back to this combat ... the Type 95 had been state of the art for light tanks in the mid-30s (though the French arguably had the best all-round light tanks in the mid-30s - but with no armored doctrine, these still-formidable tanks were all but useless in May, 1940).  However, by 1941, it was not as advanced in some areas as the M3.  The M3 had more horsepower, better automotive qualities, a higher speed and a more potent 37mm gun (and a bit better armor).  However, as noted, at combat ranges, the Type 95's short-barrel/low-velocity 37mm was sufficiently potent to hurt the M3s.

The American tanks were not well-handled - this was a National Guard unit that had been recently federalized and which had little time to familiarize themselves with their M3s. At the same time, the Army doctrine was for "tank destroyers" to fight tanks, while tanks were to be reserved for breakthroughs and exploitation behind the lines (or for infantry support, which explained the early M3's plethora of .30-caliber Browning machine guns - five on these tanks).  To this end, the Army had shipped 75 very early models of M3 GMC  half-track tank destroyers (known as T-12 GMCs) to the PI to provide anti-tank protection. These halftracks mounted American-built French 75s from the Great War (versions of these guns were later used in the M3 and M4 medium tanks, and the M8 Howitzer motor carriage based on the M3).  These gave great service in the PI, but were not in this battle.

When the confrontation broke out, the lead American tank left the road to maneuver, but as it did it was hit - probably on the more vulnerable flank - and caught fire, a total loss, and the crew, including the wounded Lt. Morin, was captured.  The other four M3s were also hit, but none of those were disabled and they were able to pull back from field of combat, though they were later destroyed by a tactical Japanese airstrike. 

While in combat with the Type 95s, they did manage to hold up the Japanese drive for a while, though, and this set the pattern for later US tank use in the PI.  Americans would lie in ambush at strategic choke-points, such as bridges, surprise the enemy and cause casualties while holding up and delaying the Japanese, allowing more Americans and Filipinos to evacuate into Bataan.

This fight took place in the plains that stretched from Lingayan Gulf toward Manila, with tropical grass and clumps of tropical trees and shrubs. Fighting was at close quarters, and a scene in which Lt. Morin's crew was captured by a Type 95 crew is certainly eminently modelable.  The clash did little to stem the Japanese flood-tide, but it was an historical clash from several perspectives.  Because both vehicles are available in several popular scales, this is indeed history you can model.