The dust of the First World War settled. After many millions of lives were lost, the world hoped that it was the last war. Politicians and the press wrote of it endlessly. Reality, however, was much darker. Instead of one large war, the 1920s and 1930s saw many small wars all over the world where newest technology kept killing: Afghanistan, Morocco, Syria, Iraq.
Difficult Science of Small Wars
In a small colonial war, the enemy refused to follow the rules, opting out of open battle. Those that fought against European type armies knew that numerical superiority would not help, and bravery alone could not overcome modern weapons. The Europeans had to seek out their enemy in mountains and deserts. Colonists risked ending up far from their main forces, surrounded by enemies who were armed not with pikes and daggers, but modern rifles.
The situation was made more difficult due to a lack of training. Surviving veterans of WWI retired, and new recruits could barely shoot. Overall, training was lacking. In the Middle East, Soviet forces were often ambushed, as were British forces in India and Afghanistan. In Morocco, Spanish hubris led to a defeat of their 12,000 man army.
Use of armoured vehicles was a logical choice: armoured cars, tankettes, and even tanks, the world war left a plentiful inheritance. However, dozen-ton monsters that could crush fortifications could not reach the battlefield in these wars. No bridges would hold them, there would not be enough fuel, the lifespan of tracks would not last.
Benefits of Light Vehicles
Light tanks were used in these small wars. In Damascus, tanks successfully suppressed an uprising. In Afghanistan, even one light tank was enough to control a mountain pass. Two or three vehicles could complete any task: scout, attack, protect the flanks, cover a retreat.
However, tanks, trucks, and tractors needed more and more ammunition and fuel. Afghan and Moroccan tribes relied on a popular tactic: raids and ambushes. Even aircraft could not always find them: in Afghanistan and Tajikistan they hid underneath overhanging cliffs, or in the sands near wells in the deserts of the Middle East.
Tanks could not protect every kilometer of every road. The British had to rely on a complex system of small guard posts and mechanized patrols. It turned out that machineguns on armoured cars and tanks could not always elevate far enough to shoot up a mountain. At night, tanks had to close in to form a perimeter, with openings in between plugged with rocks.
Tanks of the Colonial Front
Even tanks could not compensate for problems with planning or tactics. For instance, Spain bought a dozen Renault tanks and six Schneider tanks when they discovered they could not deal with Moroccan mountain men. However, the first tank battle on March 18th, 1922 ended poorly. Tanks were supposed to cover the attack, but fell behind infantry on rough terrain. Moroccans were not afraid of the new weapons and quickly found dead zones for their armament. The Moroccans even attacked the tanks with knives; at least one driver was wounded in the face. To make matters worse, machineguns were only installed in the tanks the day before. The untested weapons began jamming when ammunition deformed from the heat.
Tank crews had to abandon three immobilized and disarmed vehicles. The tanks could not be recovered, as they were blown up with dynamite by Moroccans. The mountain dwellers set up ambushes to hunt lone tanks, sticking a metal rod into their tracks, and then pouring gasoline on the immobilized vehicle and setting it on fire. This tactic worked if there were no other tanks nearby to kill the attackers with canister shot or machineguns.
Spanish tanks redeemed themselves in an amphibious landing in September of 1925, effectively a little Normandy. Tanks that came ashore forced the mountain tribes to retreat and even leave some heights without battle. Sometimes, the tanks even succeeded without an infantry escort. Aside from fighting in battle, the tanks pulled out trucks that were stuck, towed 75 mm guns, carried 600 kg carts with supplies, evacuated the wounded.
Tankettes, the tanks' "little brothers", also did not weather tactical mishaps well. In the fall of 1931, a Soviet unit (150 men on trucks and a platoon of T-27 tankettes) suddenly came across 600 Basmach bandits, reinforced with infantry and anti-tank trenches. The tactics manual dictated simultaneous use of all tankettes, with infantry moving up under their fire, but only one tankette was moved out. It got stuck in a hole, was shot up point blank, and burned up. The crew and unit commander died.
Small wars, despite the tiny amount of vehicles used, taught many important lessons. The most important lesson was this: never underestimate your enemy, even if he looks weak and primitive. Always remember weak and strong sides of your technology.
Original article available here.