Author: Steve Traywick
I’ve written about some of the men I served with, now I have to talk about the hardware: Tanks.
By 1917, the British Army had lost nearly a million men on the bloody killing fields of the
Western Front in France. The Brits (and French) had squandered hundreds of thousands of lives making headlong infantry attacks against a German trench system protected by artillery, machine-guns, barbed-wire and of course tough infantry to gain mere yards of ground. They were getting desperate.
On the morning of 20 November 1917, German troops in front of the town of Cambrai, in northern France on the Escaut river, were stunned to see what appeared to be prehistoric monsters crawling at them out of the fog and smoke. The tank was making its battlefield debut.
American industry did not have the time to develop a tank of their own. Between the world wars, the US half-heartedly played with tank designs. The Great Depression and isolationism, however, kept America’s military on a shoestring budget. Meanwhile, Germany developed and built tanks of their own and more importantly, based on the
theories of a genius named Heinz Guderian developed the tactics to use them en mass.
When Germany invaded the Netherlands, Belgium and France in 1940, France had a larger, better armored and better armed fleet of tanks. French military wisdom of the time taught that tanks were simply mobile pillboxes and slaved them to infantry units. Guderian’s theory on the use of tanks called for them to be used in masses with infantry in support, an iron fist in an iron glove. Strong points would be bypassed with follow on infantry taking them out. Germany used these ideas and tactics to do to France what she had failed to do in WWI; the French army and British Expeditionary Force were taken out and France was overrun.
When Franklin Roosevelt realized that the US would eventually be drawn into another European conflict he tasked Gen. George C. Marshall to plan for a massive and rapid expansion of all services. Marshall knew that all U.S. troops and equipment would have to
be sent to the European theatre on ships. He selected the Sherman tank because of its light weight and smaller size. Marshall knew that American industry could mass-produce thousands of these tanks and she did.
I won’t go into the entire history of WWII. I also won’t say that the Sherman tank single-handedly won the war, but they played a huge part in the Allied victory.
The Soviet Union had also built a huge fleet of tanks. I once spoke to a German Frau who told me that as a child at the end of the war she’d seen hundreds of American and Russian tanks lined up along what would become the Iron Curtain facing each other. The Cold War was just beginning.
There has been an arms race of one kind or another since the first human picked up his first rock and hit someone over the head with it. One tribe/country/army/navy would develop a weapon that would crush/penetrate/blow up/destroy/kill anything it strikes. Another tribe/country/army/navy would develop armor to protect its own weapons thus allowing it to strike back with its own weapons. The Cold War brought this philosophy onto an entirely new lethal level with new ships, planes, tanks and of course nuclear weapons. Mankind had finally risen to his full potential; he had given himself the ability to destroy nearly all life on this planet.
NATO and the United States knew that in the event of a war with the Warsaw Pact (the Soviet Union) would try to use overwhelming numbers of tanks and troops to steamroll NATO forces. NATO forces would have to destroy huge numbers of Soviet tanks in order to hold the line. Accuracy in tank gunnery had always been a high priority for US Army tankers. Notes on the Yom Kippur war had really hammered this home. The IDF had stood off attacks from two different countries coming from two different directions and had won that war. Israel had also taken massive casualties (by IDF standards) from new and improved Soviet built anti-tank weapons systems. The United States and NATO would have to design tanks that improved crew survivability, ensured main gun accuracy and gave armor forces agility and maneuverability. Unfortunately, the M60 series tank wasn’t the solution, but improvements were coming. That’s where I entered the picture as a very tiny gear in a very large machine.
In January, 1980, 1st Squadron 11th ACR boarded trains for the ride down to Vielsek (sp) Germany. Vielsek was part of the larger Graphenwoehr training complex. Graf was where American and NATO forces went to conduct live fire. Graf had been used by the Wermacht for armor training since the 1930’s. It was not a pleasant place. There were only three seasons at Graf: Cold and frozen, cold and muddy or cold and dusty. Any warm, clear weather reported from there was an anomaly, but I did actually see a couple of nice days.
Vielsek was used for NETT (New Equipment Transition Training). Whenever the Army comes out with a new weapons system, the crews not only spend class time learning how the system is supposed to work, they will also take the new equipment out for hands on training to find out if the system will work the way it’s supposed to.
We moved into large, open cinderblock barracks for our stay; one platoon per building. Our bunks would be a cot with our tanker rolls (sleeping bag, shelter half and air mattress) spread out on them. Latrines and showers were across the street. There was quite a bit of snow on the ground. What wasn’t covered with snow was mud. 1Sgt Navotny promptly put out the word, “If you have to piss, for Christ’s sake go across the street and use the latrine! No pissing against the wall of your barracks! When this shit thaws out the entire area will smell like piss!”
Note: Whenever I think of how Navotny talked, I always try to end the sentence with an exclamation point. This was how Navotny talked. Whenever he said anything, you could practically see the exclamation points hovering in the air.
M60A3 transition (NETT) wasn’t very long. The M60 series tank had been in the Army
inventory for years and the crews new the mechanics of the tracks and power packs inside and out. What was new was the fire control system. Someone in the Pentagon had evidently watched Star Wars and decided that lasers were the wave of the future and perfect for bringing down the Evil Empire…Wait, scratch that. Here’s what sort of happened…Army tank gunnery training was both simple and complicated. The philosophy behind it was simple: What can be seen can be hit and what can be hit can be killed. And he who shoots first usually wins. Picture Matt Dillon facing down an outlaw in the streets of Dodge City. Speed and accuracy are everything.
The ruby rod laser in the rangefinder could send a burst of light out to the target literally at the speed of light; the beam would strike the target and return to the tank. The rangefinder timed the return and computed the range to the target it and fed that information into the ballistic computer. “…What can be seen can be hit and what can be hit can be killed. And he who shoots first usually wins….” Tanks came a very long way in a very short time.
To be continued……
[Editor’s Note: Steve Traywick was born in Union City, Tennessee on April 11, 1958 but grew up in Houston, Texas. Steve went into the Army in June 1979 as a 19E10 (M60A3) Tank Crewman. He arrived in Fulda FRG, Germany in November 1979. Strategically important during the Cold War because it was an area where tanks could invade, The Fulda Gap is situated between what used to be the East German border and Frankfurt. Steve was assigned to B Trp 1/11 ACR and served there until January 1984 when he was transferred to A Co 2/8 Cav, 1st Cavalry Division at Fort Hood. Steve continued his service with the 1st Cavalry Division until he left the service in 1989.]
Other Posts by Steve Traywick
- Reflections of a Cold War Warrior
- Every story has a beginning and this one is mine
- Reflections of a Cold War Warrior Being There
- Reflections of a Cold War Warrior – Duty
- Reflections of a Cold War Warrior – Continue the Mission
- Reflections of a Cold War Warrior – The Men
- Reflections of a Cold War Warrior – Christmas