Friday 25 March 2022

Where There's Smoke

 "Use of smoke in tank units as a method of improving survivability of a tank

Some experience gained from using smoke from the Churchill tank during penetration of heavily fortified defenses allows for some conclusions to be made.

The survivability of a tank and hence the survivability of a tank unit, i.e. the length of time that the former is kept in fighting order, becomes of utmost importance for commanders. Smoke is one of the biggest and most important aspects of keeping a tank alive. Each soldier is going to give the same answer: smoke is used to blind the enemy when approaching its front line and to blind individual strongholds inside the enemy's defenses. Our small experience lets us share some concrete examples.

First of all, it is important to blind the enemy along the entire front on which a tank unit is attacking. Use smoke shells with a range of 450 meters. Upon close approach, use smoke shells with a range of 120 meters. This use of smoke allows you to approach to a close range with the smoke covering you from enemy anti-tank guns. Tanks that reached the enemy's first line of defense must use smoke against the next line using either long range or close range smoke shells depending on the weather conditions and the rate of advance of our units.

Tank smoke must be used by the infantry as well. Our unit attacked an enemy located along a railroad twice. The starting positions were chosen on the eastern slope of a nameless hill. It was possible to approach the enemy quickly, but we could not reach the enemy's trenches. The enemy had a lot of anti-tank guns places in dugouts and pillboxes that disabled our tanks with precise fire. The use of artillery to knock out these anti-tank guns gave no results.

The third attack under the direction of Guards Lieutenant Yermolenko was performed with the skillful use of smoke. Having crossed difficult terrain with no losses, the tanks tore into enemy defenses, covering the flanking anti-tank guns with smoke and preventing them from being able to fire accurately. The tanks then called in artillery and destroyed them. What did Guards Lieutenant Yermolenko do and what can we learn from him?

Instead of the previously used initial positions, Guards Lieutenant Yermolenko chose starting positions near marker 30.9. The tanks reached these positions strictly on schedule, within 35 minutes. The tanks departed from their intial positions as artillery fire was at its most intense and reached the nameless hill. As the artillery barrage moved on, the tanks deployed a thick smokescreen in front of the enemy's forward trenches, ensuring that the tanks and infantry could reach them. As the tanks advanced, they changed the range of their smoke shells from 450 to 190 meters, and so Guards Lieutenant Yermolenko's tank group reached the front line of the enemy's defenses.

Having reached the enemy lines, the smoke cleared, and Guards Lieutenant Yermolenko's tanks saw the following situation.

Targets #1 and #2 were preparing to fire at the tanks, but were blinded by Guards Lieutenant Yermolenko's tank. Targets #3, 4, and 5 were blinded by Guards Lieutenant Mednov's tank. Fire from their cannons and machine guns destroyed the enemy's personnel. Flamethower tanks following in the second echelon reached the enemy's positions without losses and began to smoke out enemy infantry from their holes where they dug in over the course of a year.

The battle lasted for over two hours and Guards Lieutnant Yermolenko was ordered to withdraw once the situation demanded it. His tank group dealt considerable damage to the enemy, destroyed target #2 with their fire, corrected the fire of artillery that destroyed targets #4 and #5, and allowed infantry to move up by burning up the enemy infantry in its trenches. Upon receiving the order to withdraw, the tanks skilfully covered their retreat with smoke. This tank group took no losses from direct fire anti-tank guns, only from high caliber indirect fire. Guards Lieutenant Yermolenko's tank was knocked out, but the crew simulated a fire with smoke bombs, repaired the tank, and drove off the battlefield.

Simulation of fires

Simulation of a fire is an important aspect of extending the tank's survivability on the battlefield. The crews must be well trained to use smoke in battle. Our training was mostly practical, and we practiced using smoke grenades to imitate a burning tank in various ways before the battle. Smoke grenades were set off on the engine deck, above the driver's compartment, on the track, and near the turret. In all cases, the effect was very good and the crews were interested in this technique. A set of six smoke grenades was carried in tanks. In battle, it turned out that this was not enough, since the simulation had to last for at least 20-30 minutes, meaning that 10-15 smoke grenades had to be carried. Grenades need to be thrown into the wind so that the resulting smoke envelops the tank. With medium wind, a new grenade should be thrown out every 2 minutes. If the wind is strong, grenades need to be thrown more often. Do not allow the smoke to thin, since if the smoke first dissipates and then starts up again from the next grenade, that will draw suspicion from the enemy who will then attempt to destroy the tank.

Based on the above experience, at least 10-15 smoke grenades need to be carried in a tank. The use of smoke along the front where the tank unit is attacking, blinding of individual strongholds, and simulation of fires are all real techniques that can extend the survivability of tanks on the battlefield.

During these combat operations, we also took off the bomb thrower from the tanks, gathered up a sack of smoke shells, and set up two men in forward trenches to create a smokescreen. This experience proved unfavourable, since the bomb thrower does not have a mount and thus cannot be aimed at all.

  1. It is impossible to set up smoke in the necessary direction and at the necessary distance.
  2. Since it is impossible to aim, the expenditure of smoke shells increases by over 50% and the smoke is not distributed evenly. Openings are left, which enables the enemy to observe our movements and reduces the effect from the smokescreen.
Nevertheless, we arrived at the conclusion that it is necessary to fire the smoke from our trenches, which means that the bomb thrower must have a portable mount that would enable us to use it in this fashion.

The use of smoke at all stages of the battle is necessary in tank units. For this, it is necessary to install smoke launchers on our tanks and equip the tanks with smoke munitions. The tankers see the enemy first and therefore tanks can be the ones to set up a smokescreen in a timely and effective manner to help the battle at any stage. The skillful use of smoke at the right time is a useful and applicable measure that must be adopted by all as a means of extending the survivability of tanks, tank units, and tank formations in general.

Commander of the 50th Independent Guards Heavy Tank Regiment, Guards Lieutenant Colonel Velichko."

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