Academic journal article The Historian

From Pigeons to Crystals: The Development of Radio Communication in U.S. Army Tanks in World War II

Academic journal article The Historian

From Pigeons to Crystals: The Development of Radio Communication in U.S. Army Tanks in World War II

Article excerpt

THE TERM BLITZKRIEG (lightning war) has become encrusted by layers of legend, even myth, which make it seem like some esoteric branch of knowledge. It really should be regarded as little more than a useful nickname for large, fast-moving, deep-penetrating, quasi-independent mechanized formations. (1) Such mechanized formations, often assisted by close air support, did have a serious impact on some World War II campaigns; hence, blitzkrieg has received a great deal of attention from military historians. One aspect of mechanized warfare that has not been studied closely, however--at least not in one, easily accessible place--is radio communications. (2) This article fills that gap. It does so by examining both the theoretical and the practical struggle to introduce radio communications for the U.S. Army's Armored Force in 1939--41, and by evaluating the consequences of their use in the final stages of the war.

When tanks were first invented, they were slow-moving contraptions meant to assist the infantry during World War I. Given that role, tank movements could be controlled by flag, flare signals, or even messengers. But after World War I, some farsighted visionaries such as George S. Patton in the United States and Captain Sir Basil Liddell Hart in the United Kingdom envisioned blitzkrieg, although the term had not been invented yet. One problem such reformers had in overcoming conservatism among infantry and horse cavalry officers was that they were too farsighted; their dreams tended to outrun the available technology. (3) If such visionaries were to have fast-moving, far-ranging tank forces, they could not depend on flags, flares, motorcyclists, pigeons, airdropped messages, or even wire. They needed radios.

The use of radios in the 1920s, however, presented a variety of problems: they were big and took up precious space inside tanks; they were hard to keep tuned as tanks bounced along; they were delicate (tubes could break easily) and, especially at night, were subject to atmospherics as well as static produced by the tanks' own engines and treads. Furthermore, the use of as many radios as military reformers wanted would require more frequencies than could be allocated; moreover, radio transmissions could drift into neighboring frequencies. Perhaps worst of all, the enemy could overhear radio transmissions and then pinpoint the location of their origins by radio direction finders. To prevent the enemy from understanding one's messages, one would have to encrypt them, a slow, laborious process. (4)

Despite these deterrents, the British, French, and German armies each experimented with large, quasi-independent, radio-managed tank forces in the late 1920s and early 1930s. The British results were initially impressive; however, because of a lack of funding and a certain amount of skepticism, by 1940, the British had made only middling progress in creating a blitzkrieg style of warfare. The French were even worse off, with about 80 percent of their tanks having no radios at all. (5) By contrast, the German military, under the guidance of Colonel, later General, Heinz Guderian, had embraced radio technology wholeheartedly. Sometimes known as the single most important German father of the blitzkrieg, Guderian's work with tank radios was a critical aspect of his research and development. (6) Guderian had been a signal officer associated with horse cavalry during World War I, and by the 1930s he enjoyed the cooperation of Colonel, later General, Fritz Fellgiebel, inspector of the German Army Signal Troops. Horse cavalrymen were thus not necessarily reactionary; they were at least used to thinking in terms of speed and daring. Guderian and Fellgiebel turned horse cavalry audacity into mechanized doctrine. Inspired in part by Britain's experiments with tank radios, they ensured that all German tanks had both two-way radios and a communications doctrine. Moreover, they provided each panzer division with a whole battalion of signal troops--a strategy that proved extremely effective in battle. …

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