LEARNING THE LESSON A SECOND TIME, FALL AND WINTER, 1944/45
After the “Panther Crisis” of July, 1944, and the set of tests conducted by First Army and 12th Army Group at Isigny in France, US Army Ordnance upgraded its testing and evaluation methodologies to ensure it would not be surprised again. New production techniques were used to improve the performance of existing AP projectiles. The new HVAP projectiles were put into production, although throughout the Autumn the production ramp was slow, and they were never available in the intended quantities.
M10 in Normandy
Tests aside, though, throughout the Autumn of 1944 US Army commanders in the European Theater of Operations (ETO) went silent on the issue. The opinions from ETO on the firepower of US tanks went through a remarkable see-saw ride in 1944.
In July there was shock and anger over how poorly US tank guns performed against German armour. By late August, when real test data showed just how badly US guns under-performed, no one cared any more. Independent tank battalions equipped with M4s were leading US infantry divisions into battle, and armoured divisions equipped with more M4s were leading the charge across France: It seemed nothing could stop them. It was not until the Winter, with the return of positional warfare, and then the German offensive in the Ardennes, that questions were once again raised about the performance of US guns and ammunition vs. German armoured vehicles.
COMBAT EXPERIENCES: Beyond What the Tests Showed
The reports issued after two sets of firing tests at Isigny painted a bleak picture of the capabilities of the Sherman’s existing 75mm gun, as well as the new 76mm which was being used in up-gunned models. The tests showed that the 75mm gun could not penetrate a Panther’s front from any range.
However, combat reports indicated that the 75mm actually could, on rare occasions, penetrate a Panther’s front. The mantlet of the early Panther was rounded. If a shot struck either the top or the bottom quarter of the mantlet, it tended to ricochet off due to the slope. Those striking the bottom quarter ricocheted downward from the turret face, which meant that the projectile could go on to strike the turret ring or the hull roof of the driving compartment, behind the driver or co-driver’s hatch. Here the armor was thin, and rounds that bounced off of the mantlet often jammed the turret or even penetrated through the hull roof.
British crew reports in particular speak of the deliberate tactic of aiming for the lower half of the turret front. Perhaps they found it more productive, given the British preference for solid shot. The US standard was an exploding AP shell, and as the Shoeburyness test indicated there was a substantial chance that the round would detonate before it penetrated a second plate. Still, regardless of the projectile, hitting the lower rounded portion of the mantlet was no easy feat – it meant shooting for a target about 6 inches high.
The 76mm, using its main AP round (the M62 APC), could not penetrate the front of the hull at any range, but could penetrate the mantlet at about 200yds or less. Again, though, the rounding of the mantlet played into the issue. Striking the top quarter of the mantlet could well lead a projectile to ricochet off into the sky. As a result, crews needed to hit the mid half to penetrate the turret, or the lower quarter, to have a chance of ricocheting into the hull roof. So with an M18 or up-gunned M4, the crews managed to gain an advantage of perhaps another 10-12 inches of target area on the Panther’s almost 10-foot high frontal aspect.
Adding an HVAP round, though, made the hull front of the Panther vulnerable. Well… somewhat. The lower front hull was vulnerable, though the glacis evidently was not, but even when impacting the lower hull penetration wasn’t a reliable outcome. It turned out that the original 76mm HVAP round T4 was not at its best against highly sloped plate: It had a greater tendency to ricochet than most other projectiles. During the Autumn and Winter there were at least two production changes to improve the metallurgy of the round, with the T4E17 version dominating Autumn production, being replaced by the T4E20 version about the end of the year, and eventually being standardized as the M93.
Still, performance against highly sloped plate still didn’t attain what the Army wanted until the post-war M319 HVAP round, which not only had an improved penetrator but also higher velocity due to improved powder. This became the US Army’s standard anti-tank round for the M4 in the post-war years, performing very well against Soviet-made T-34/85s in the Korean war.
That was the future, though: In 1944/45 the T4 / M93 HVAP round was the best that a Sherman tank could have to face Panthers … when there were any to be had, that is.
While they were different guns with different cartridges, the US 76mm and the 3-inch guns fired the same projectiles, at the same velocities. After the Isigny tests, production was immediately ordered on the T4 for both the 76mm gun of the Sherman and M18 tank destroyer, and the 3" gun that served as a towed gun and in the M10 tank destroyer. The initial production order was for 20,000 rounds. Then a target of 43,000 rounds per month was set for the remainder of the year, and 10,000 rounds per month thereafter. Production was slow to ramp up. The tungsten carbide steel used as the core of HVAP rounds was a critical war material, and was in demand for many wartime production requirements. Shooting it out of barrels at the Germans was a new requirement that only added to the stress on supplies. The 43,000 per month target for 1944 was quickly abandoned. Even the more modest rate of 10,000 per month was not reached until November of 1944.
The first 1,000 rounds of 76mm T4 produced in July were sent by air to ETO in time for the Isigny tests. The portion that remained after testing was issued to the troops. A second shipment of 1,000 3" T4 rounds was also shipped by air, in August. But after that, the rest came by normal surface shipping. After August, the receipt of HVAP rounds for the 3-inch and 76mm guns through the end of the campaign in ETO was:
Month/Year__3-inch HVAP__76mm HVAP
Normal shipping time for munitions from the US to ETO ran about 10 weeks. It was not until mid-January that HVAP rounds received in ETO exceeded 2,000 per week. Priority was given to the M18 tank destroyers units for the few 76mm T4 rounds that initially came in to ETO. It was only in 1945 that tank units received enough HVAP ammunition to carry the oft-quoted 2 or 3 rounds per tank.
During this same timeframe towed tank destroyer units were turning in their 3-inch guns for self-propelled tank destroyers, and those mounted in M10s were progressively replacing their 3-inch GMCs with 90mm M36 GMCs, and so production of 3-inch rounds began to tail off in 1945, closing out production by the time hostilities in ETO came to a close. In the meantime, the first 90mm-armed M36 tank destroyers were received in France and issued to TD units in September of 1944. After very quick orientation and training those TD units returned to the front, and the M36 saw first action in October. It was an immediate hit.
The Tank Destroyer Board in the US had no particular enthusiasm for the M36. The tank destroyer doctrine called for high mobility as well as firepower. The M10 had been accepted as a stop-gap design, to fill the ranks while the TD board’s own newly designed vehicle was perfected and built. That vehicle, the one that the TD board wanted, was the M18. Up-gunning to a vehicle which shared the M10’s relatively lethargic automotive performance was not in keeping with the doctrine of the tank destroyers. But the troops often saw differently, not least because doctrine was almost never followed to begin with.
TD troops seem to have held their equipment in high regard no matter what they were equipped with, as long as they were self-propelled. Whether they were driving M10s, M18s or M36s the TD men responded positively to questions about their gear. But infantry units in particular were very effusive in their praise for the M36 with its 90mm gun, and preferred it greatly to the other TDs. This is reasonably easy to understand. The infantry could not “maneuver” in response to the panzers, but rather had to stand their ground, relatively speaking. They took far less comfort in tank destroyers that could scoot away and reposition for an advantageous engagment later. They took much more comfort in tank destroyers that could stand with them in the line and fight it out with the panzers head-to-head. The larger HE round probably didn’t hurt either.
So we have the stage set on paper: the Panzer Divisions are re-equipping with Panther tanks; the 75mm is not adequate against the Panther’s front armor; the 76mm gun is only little better, unless it has its “magic bullet” HVAP rounds; the HVAP offer at least some chance of dealing with the big cats frontally, but they are in woefully short supply. And while the M36 redresses the firepower issue, there is a real scramble to make enough of them to go around, using any hulls they can find.
But despite this, the reality was that the commanders in ETO didn’t seem to care.
GOOD ENOUGH – Autumn 1944: The Breakout, Falaise, the Race to the Seine, and Beyond!
When studying the details, it is easy to lose track of the broader picture. So beyond the details of whether US tankers had 6 inches or 18 inches of target area on a Panther, what did they think of the M4?
Following are a selection of comments by tank unit commanding officers extracted from reports made from troop survey visits in the fall of 1944. Note that tank battalions with 2-digit numbers were part of the armored divisions, while those with 3-digit numbers were independent tank battalions operating with infantry divisions. (Special thanks to Rich Anderson, author/historian for these)
Headquarters Twelfth Army Group, Armored Section
6 October 1944
Subject: Visit to XII Corps Armored Units.
7. a. We visited Lt Col Abrams, C.O. 37th Tank Bn, 4th A.D. on 3 October. Col. Abrams stated that his battalion thought very highly of the 76mm gun. They felt the HE was as good or better than the 75mm and apparently had more blast effect. They were highly pleased with the ease at which they were able to hit the German tanks at ranges from 1500 - 1800 yards. …
b. Col Abrams does not believe in using extra sand bags on the front of tanks and carries extra track blocks for use as spares only. …
9. a. Visited Lt Col F.M. Kroschel, C.O., 737th Tank Bn, on 4 October. …
d. …He complained of lack of time for rest and maintenance. The Infantry C.O. does not realize the amount of time required for maintenance of armored vehicles…
f. … He felt that light tanks were not much use to the infantry as they could not take the slugging that they had to take as they were too thinly armored.
h. …He would like to have additional 105mm How tanks with power traverse and stabilizer to replace 75mm gun tanks up to one company in the Battalion.
10 October 1944
Subject: Visit to Ninth Army Armored Units.
2. Tactical employment of separate tank battalions:
a. The 709th Tank Battalion, in supporting the 8th Division, normally is allotted down to the point where one platoon is attached to each infantry battalion. This attachment is continued regardless of terrain or mission when in combat. Tank companies are not employed tactically as such. …
b. The 746th Tank Battalion is normally allotted one company to each infantry regiment and the company normally supports the battalion making the major effort or which is in the assault. The company commander is allowed considerable latitude in maneuvering his platoons…
j. Both battalion commanders are emphatic in their recommendation that a tank battalion be organically assigned to each infantry division…
k. During the early stages, infantry commanders were reluctant to accept any recommendations of the tank unit commander concerning tank employment. This situation has greatly improved. Tank unit commanders are freely consulted with a resultant improvement in overall combat efficiency and success.
2. [sic] Weapons and Gunnery.
a. The 105mm tank is well liked for its fire power. Battalion C.O. 741st Tank Battalion would like one platoon per company (with power traverse)…
14 October 1944
Subject: Visit to Armored Units XII Corps.
2. Organization. The 6th Armored Division likes the organization of the division generally but have the following suggestions.
a. The – 8 [sic: 9] 57mm AT guns in Armored Infantry Battalion are not desired due to being hard to manhandle and get up close enough to support the action. They have turned in all but three and armed the crew with M-1 rifle giving them additional riflemen.
b. More armored infantry is desired in the Armored Division…
a. The 6th Armored Division has received no 76mm tanks and have no great desire for them…
c. The 105mm tank is liked very much. Would like them in proportion of one platoon per medium tank company.
16 October 1944
Subject: Visit to First U.S. Army.
3. Assault Tanks – M4A3E2
h. Personnel were particularly enthusiastic of the Ford engine (only radials prior to this), sighting equipment (M71G Telescope), and the ammunition stowage (wet).
24 October 1944
Subject: Visit to Armored Units of the XX Corps.
3. 735th & 712th Tank Battalions.
c. Both Battalion Commanders agreed that it would be desirable from a tactical and supply point of view to have the Tank Battalion an organic part of the infantry division.
d. Assault Gun Platoon. – The Assault Gun Platoon has been used to considerable extent, but the additional production of assault guns next year and consequent incorporation of this weapon within the tank company would render the separate Assault Gun Platoon unnecessary.
e. Light Tank Company. – Co, 735th Tank Battalion feels that the Light Tank Co has very little application in support of infantry divisions and that in the interest of simplifying the Separate Battalion organization the Light Tank Company could well be omitted. CO, 712th Tank Battalion has found the Light Tank Company extremely useful on special missions, particularly for pursuit, and would be reluctant to give it up.
b. 76mm Gun. – The opinion of tank commanders of the 735th Tank Battalion were divided regarding the 76mm gun. … Most of the direct fire using the 76mm gun has been at short ranges where the effects of the blast are most noticeable. The 712th Tank Battalion had not used their 76mm guns for direct fire and had formed no opinion regarding the gun. Their 76mm guns are on the M4A3 chassis which they consider far superior to the M4A1. There were no adverse effects of the 76mm.
Tank battalion commanding officers apparently had lots of opinions, and no hesitation in expressing them. They offered many comments on the tanks they used. Sometimes the commanders contradicted each other, but some issues were repeated often to for us to see patterns in their concerns. They liked the firepower of M4(105)s, and wanted a few more than the one platoon per battalion that the TO&E gave them. They didn’t seem to be quite as pleased with the company of light tanks that they were authorised. They liked the performance of the Ford GAA engine in the M4A3. They liked the armor of the M4A3E2 “Jumbo”
Notable by its absence was any expression of panic, or even concern, that they didn’t have the equipment they needed to deal with the Panzers.
So what happened to the Panther Crisis of July? Quite simply, it got lost in all the success.
Let us look, for a moment, at the timeline of accomplishments of the US 12th Army Group in ETO during this time. To give the proper context for these accomplishments, let us recall two things.
First, recall the timeline for the second test conducted at Isigny, using first shipment of HVAP ammunition to be rushed to ETO – the test that really demonstrated the under-performance of the very best that was in the near-term pipeline for US tankers. The test firings began on 20 August. The preliminary report was written on the 22nd, and the final report became available for distribution on the 30th of August.
Then, second, consider the originally planned timeline for the post-landing offensives in ETO, which had been drawn up by Field Marshall Montgomery (in charge of planning for the land campaign). The plan was built on a series of phase lines. It called for reaching the phase line of the river Seine by D+90 (4 September), and then pausing to assemble sufficient manpower and materiel to force a crossing of this major obstacle, which was expected to be one of the Germans’ main defensive lines.
Now compare those dates to these:
1 August: US Third Army breaks out of the Normandy boccage country at Avranches.
19 August: US 79th Infantry Division, of XV Corps / Third Army, reaches the Seine at Mantes-Gassincourt, about 20 miles “above” (north-west of) Paris. That same night General Bradley approves General Patton’s plan for crossing and establishing a bridgehead.
20 August: On the day the test firing begins at Isigny, the bulk of 79th Division crosses the Seine with 3 infantry regiments, a tank battalion, a tank destroyer battalion, AA and artillery. Advanced patrols capture an underground bunker command post of German Army Group B at La Roche Guyon.
22 August: On the day that the preliminary report from Isigny is written, Canadian First Army closes the Falaise gap, trapping about 60,000 troops of Army Group B. Army Group B is left with only about 30,000 troops, 314 guns, and about 60 tanks. These are ordered to withdraw over the Seine via ferries at Rouen to set up a defensive line, while leaving a bridgehead on west bank of the Seine as a rearguard. This rearguard prevents a rapid crossing by British 21st Army Group, but poses no obstical to US 12th Army Group.
The Seine itself is no longer a geographical barrier. On that same day the US 5th Infantry Division of XX Corps crosses Seine at Fontainebleau below Paris.
23 August: US 10th Infantry Division, 11th Infantry Division, and 7th Armored Division all make crossings of the Seine.
25 August: By this time the US 12th Army Group has five firm bridgeheads over Seine: one above Paris, and four below.
Recognizing the hopelessness of his position, and contrary to explicit orders from Hitler, the German commander of the Paris garrison, General von Cholitz, surrenders the city to the General Leclerc’s French 2nd Armoured Division (operating with US First Army). All of the bridges over the Seine within the city are intact.
30 August: The last German unit retreats across the Seine.
31 August – 2 September : US XIX Corps advances to the Belgian boarder – US 2nd Armored on left, 79th Infantry in center, 30th Infantry on right all move together. 79th Infantry Division advances from Mouy to St. Armand, then crosses into Belgium, pushing a salient 180 miles deep into enemy territory, in a period of 72 hours.
The confines of the boccage had been overcome. Once the US Army had achieved freedom of maneuver it moved so quickly, overcoming or by-passing German positions so rapidly that the Germans could not organize a defense. Ever since a cadre of US Army officers had observed and studied the German campaign across France in 1940, the doctrines, plans, training, and weapons had been developed for this. It was all working. The paper specifications may have said that the Germans should be able to stop the American tanks, but it seems that nobody told the crews of the M4s this.
In the US Army the armoured divisions, and even the infantry divisions, had a level of mobility that no other army could match (although by this time the British came very close). The US Army was not bound to the rail infrastructure. That was a good thing, as the allied air forces had spent months pulverizing the rail lines and marshalling facilities across Europe, and particularly across France. The US Army had enough trucks in ETO to move entire divisions by road (though not every division at once). The artillery was motorized, unless it was self-propelled (which was even better). And the supply echelons were motorized. Everything that was not a motor vehicle moved as cargo in a motor vehicle. Once on the move, no other nation could react to the American speed.
An M18 moving towards the Seine after the breakout
Almost every US infantry division in ETO had an independent tank battalion and a tank destroyer battalion assigned to co-operate with it. This gave them effectively about as much armour as an average Panzer division, providing both firepower and mobility. In the German army the only independent tank battalions were the Heavy Panzer Detachment (ie: Tiger) units. Only three of these were available during the Normandy campaign. The best that most German infantry divisions could hope for was the occasional support of assault gun (Sturmgeschutz) batteries.
There is a common belief that the allies needed a 5-to-1 advantage to fight the Panzers. If this had been true the allies would have been thrown back into the sea, as there was no time during the campaign when they had so great of an overall advantage, and the restrictions of the terrain made it very difficult for them to use their superior mobility to concentrate forces at that level on individual battlefields. But fortunately this old saw is nothing but a myth. The British Army Operations Research surveyed the tank battles of Normandy and came to some interesting conclusions on this issue. Their Memorandum C6 (W/O 291/1218) examined all of the tank engagements from D-Day to 12 August, 1944, and observed that, in a tank vs. tank engagement, the allies always achieved victory when they held a 2.2-to-1 numerical advantage or better.
But that did not mean less than a 2.2-to-1 ratio resulted in a loss. The Germans, despite being on the defensive and having heavier tanks, needed a 1.5-to-1 numerical advantage to ensure their own success. In between those ranges it was a mixed bag dependant on many tactical considerations
This is the bigger picture. The tank was the single best weapon for bringing firepower, protection and mobility to the battlefield. The allies’ superior mobility allowed more tanks to reach the decisive point, often a place and time of their choosing, again and again. The allies’ superior number of tanks allowed not only armoured divisions, but even infantry divisions, to apply the tank’s firepower where and when it was needed. So long as the allies could bring more tanks to the battle, and even more importantly could bring tanks to more battles, the question of who had better tanks had little impact on the conduct of the campaign.
An example of how well the M4 could perform was seen in the armored battles in Lorraine.
In September, 1944, the US Third Army was across the Moselle River in the vicinity of Nancy. The Germans launched a series of armored counterattacks with the intention of restoring their line and crushing the over-extended U.S. spearheads of 4th Armored Division. The 21. Panzer Division and 15. Panzergrenadier Division led the attacks. Third Army stripped troops from uninvolved units to counter this attack on the bridgehead. This left Combat Command A (CCA) of 4th Armored Division isolated near Arracourt and generally under-strength.
Rather than distributing all of the tanks coming in as replacements across many panzer divisions which would still inevitably be under-strength, the Germans had instead siphoned off many of the new tanks to create a number of Panzer Brigades. These were powerful armor-heavy units without the tail of a division – spears that were all blade and little shaft. At 0730 on September 19, 1944, the German 113th Panzer Brigade slammed into Combat Command A.
CCA at this time had only one company of M4 tanks forward, with a company of M10 tank destroyers in reserve. 113th Panzer Brigade hit them with four companies of Panther tanks and a company of assault guns, along with two battalions of panzergrenadiers (armored infantry).
But one of the prices the Germans paid for creating new units, rather than re-building the existing cadres of their panzer divisions, was that the panzer brigades were inexperienced and under-trained. And they were fighting veteran US crews on a battlefield that allowed the US forces room to maneuver.
CCA of the 4th Armored Division was equipped mostly with 75mm-armed M4 tanks. They fought a series of delaying actions from ambush positions which bled the 113th Brigade every step of the way, slowed their advance, and reduced their cohesion. A second company of M4s arrived as re-enforcements. Once the Germans paused to regroup, CCA launched its own attack out of the fog, rolling up the German flank, and all but annihilating 113th Panzer Brigade.
The next day as they surveyed the battlefield the Americans counted forty-three knocked out German AFVs, almost all of them Panthers. German losses were actually greater than that, but they had managed to recover several knocked-out tanks as they withdrew. The two battalions of panzergrendiers had been shattered as well – overrun and scattered, suffering over 500 casualties.
And what price did the Americans pay for this victory? Six soldiers had been killed, thirteen soldiers wounded. Three M10s and five M4 tanks had been knocked out.
CCA 4th Armored Division did not win with overwhelming airpower or artillery support. Fog kept the airplanes home and made it almost impossible to bring down heavy fire concentrations on the Germans. The battle was almost exclusively a match between the armored forces. Nor did the Americans win due to overwhelming numbers. Overall they were outnumbered in both tanks and infantry. They won because they out-maneuvered their enemy, and concentrated forces for the decisive punch.
The commander of CCA’s tank battalion, Lieutenant Colonel Creighton Abrams, went on to become one of the most celebrated American armored commanders of World War II.
The rapid advances and stream of victories in the fall of 1944 did not mean there were no losses. Tanks were lost in combat with other tanks and SPGs, they were lost to mines, to infantry AT weapons, and with so much movement some of them just wore out. The British Army, based on their experiences in North Africa, had established enough of an overstock to keep up with losses. The US Army maintained a smaller overstock, and by September was falling behind on replacing losses. Some Sherman units were forced to operate without their full complement of tanks.
In a twist of fate the shortage of replacement M4s actually prevented the US Army from getting one of the better weapons for fighting the heavy panzers. By the summer of 1944 British arsenals that were converting Shermans to the Firefly configuration with the 17pdr gun had finished their conversion of the 600 Fireflies required by the British TOEs. After the summer’s testing had demonstrated the slight superiority of the British 17pdr, Eisenhower requested a number of Fireflies be converted for the US Army. But the question of where the tanks would come from could not be resolved.
The base M4 was the only model in service with both British and US armies for which a Firefly conversion had been designed (the M4A4 was also used for the Firefly, but the US Army did not use that model overseas). The British had stocks of M4s, but were determined to preserve their surplus for their own replacement needs, and insisted that US Army stocks be used for conversions. But the US Army had no excess of M4s … units were already under strength, and commanders were screaming for more tanks right now, no matter what gun was on them. So none were provided for conversions. Besides, the improvement in firepower was slight compared to the 76mm, so the issue wasn’t pressed.
By the time the US Army caught up on M4 replacements in late Fall, the British had increased their war establishment from 36 to 72 Fireflies per Brigade, and the arsenals were again busy doing British conversions. In the end it was not until the spring of 1945 that the British did, in fact, convert 81 Fireflies for the US Army. By that time, however, the US Army in ETO was receiving 90mm gun-armed M26 tanks in increasing numbers, and there was no further interest in Sherman Fireflies.
If the US was short of M4s, they were wallowing in equipment compared to the Germans. Most panzer divisions had not been at full authorized strength since 1941. In 1944 panzer divisions were authorized to have two battalions in their panzer regiment, one of Pz IVs and one of Panthers. Each battalion was authorized to operate four companies of 22 tanks each, for a total authorized tank strength of over 170 medium tanks, plus StuGs, tank destroyers and recon vehicles. But in 1944, even when rested and replenished, panzer divisions were almost never at full strength. A panzer division was lucky to have more than 100 operational tanks and tank destroyers combined.
However, after the Normandy campaign it was no longer a question of how close a panzer unit was to full strength – the Panzer forces in France had almost no strength left at all. They had been crushed.
Here are the reported strengths of the 10 panzer divisions of Army Group B on 22/23 August, 1944:
2. Panzer: 1 infantry battalion, no tanks, no artillery
21. Panzer: 4 weak battalions, 10 tanks, artillery unknown
116. Panzer: 1 infantry battalion, 12 tanks, approximately two artillery batteries
1st SS Panzer: weak infantry elements, no tanks, no artillery
2nd SS Panzer: 450 men, 15 tanks, 6 guns
9th SS Panzer: 460 men, 20-25 tanks, 20 guns
10th SS Panzer: 4 weak infantry battalions, no tanks, no artillery
12th SS panzer: 300 men, 10 tanks, no artillery
(9th Panzer and Panzer Lehr provided no reports. Both divisions had been destroyed)
Added to this were three Schwere Panzer Abteilungs (Heavy Tank Detachments) that were involved in the Normandy campaign: 501st, 502nd and 503rd. These had brought a total of 132 Tigers into action. Between the three they reported no operational Tiger tanks remaining (the last four were lost trying to cross the Seine by ferry).
A US Army M4A1 passes knocked-out Pz IVs in France
It was a happy time for the M4. It was what the tank, and the US Army’s armored divisions, had been made for.
And then … the forward troops reached the end of their supply lines. The few port facilities that had been taken were not yet functional, and it just wasn’t possible to move enough material over the beaches, even if the US Army had worked out how to carry it forward several hundred miles by truck. The front stopped advancing, and settled down. This gave the Germans enough time to organize their defenses and rebuild some of their strength.
It was time for the lessons of July to be learned again.
NO LONGER GOOD ENOUGH – Winter 1944/45: The Siegfried Line, the Bulge and the Fall of Germany
Combat became positional, more a question of firepower than maneuver. The rain and snow began to fall. The roads and fields alternated between muddy and icy. M4s, M10s and M36s struggled in the mud. And the Panzers came surging forward down the narrow lanes of the Ardennes forest, leading with their heavy armor. US Army infantry divisions that had been roughed up in the slogging match of the Huertgen Forest, and green units new to ETO, were hit by fast-moving Panzer units lavishly equipped with Panthers and Tiger 2s.
King Tigers move up a narrow road in the Ardennes
Armoured divisions, independent tank battalions and tank destroyer battalions were all involved in fighting back in the Ardennes.
By this time the M36 90mm tank destroyer was coming into service in greater numbers, but the majority of tank destroyer battalions were equipped with the 76mm gun in M18s, or the 3-inch gun in M10s, or even the towed 3-inch guns. M36s were mostly issued to the M10 units as replacements, to bolster their firepower. But there were not enough M36s to fully re-equip most M10 units, particularly as the towed gun battalions were all also being re-equipped with self propelled tank destroyers (This can be the subject of an entirely different article, and is a case of equipping to fight the last battle). And so the M10, which was available in numbers, continued to soldier on.
Even with the 3-inch and 76mm guns, the crews of the tank destroyers performed well. However, the positional warfare and the battles in the forests of the Ardennes, which provided so little room for maneuver, once again soured the opinion of tankers against the M4. American forces continued to fight on to victory, but with equipment that most US tankers now considered entirely outclassed.
In March of 1945 General Eisenhower wrote a note to General White of the US 2nd Armored Division, asking if some of his experienced officers and NCOs could assemble their views on the qualities of US versus German tanks. General White replied within 2 days with a digest of his own views and the views of the officers leading his combat commands and his tank battalions. The effort expanded beyond the original intent into an expansive report examining a great variety of equipment, not just tanks
The report included observations on American vs. German tanks from a variety of officers in the 2nd Armored:
20 March 1945
Allied Expeditionary Force
My dear General Eisenhower:
In this letter I am setting forth my personal convictions as to the quality of our tanks and certain other items of equipment in comparison with the German, as you requested in your letter of 18 March 1945.
I have enclosed a separate document giving a digest of the opinions of officers and enlisted men who have had much experience and in whom I have great confidence. I have also included a large number of the actual statements made by them. Allowing for the traditional enthusiasm displayed by the American soldier when he is given (or takes!) the opportunity to express himself in regard to any possible shortcomings in his rations, clothing and equipment, I think they are sincere, reasonably factual, indicate considerable thought and knowledge of the subject, and above all, they are most refreshing. I have not edited them in any way and I believe they are a true cross-section of opinion of the command.
I feel that many criticisms made by tank crews would not appear had we been equipped with a larger proportion of M4A3E8 tanks for Operation “Grenade.” Only two or three tanks of this type actually saw combat. During this operation only twenty-nine percent of our medium tanks mounted 76-mm guns, and only four rounds of HVAP ammunition per 76-mm gun was available. Incidentally, rounds of this type expended in this operation have not been replaced. However, the 76-mm gun, even with HVAP ammunition, is not effective at the required ranges at which we must be able to effectively engage enemy armor.
The following are my personal convictions pertaining to the items listed:
The major items of ordnance equipment are sound in design from a mechanical standpoint, particularly with the changes in suspension of the M24 light tank and M4A3E8 and M26 medium tanks. Any increase in armor plate thickness would decrease speed and maneuverability and it is felt that these highly desirable characteristics should not be sacrificed. The main armament of our tanks, including sights, is not comparable to that of the Germans.
Tank, Light: The M5 light tank should be replaced with the M24 light tank as soon as possible. The latter is a highly satisfactory tank in every respect. Every effort should be made to improve the gun, sights and ammunition. The M5 light tank is obsolete in every respect as a fighting tank.
Tank, Medium: The M4A3E8 has comparable speed and maneuverability to any German tank. The 76-mm gun is reasonably satisfactory, provided sufficient HVAP ammunition were available. If it were possible to design and substitute a long barrel piece with muzzle brake and approximately 3400-3500 feet per second muzzle velocity, similar to the German 75-mm HV tank gun, this tank would be equal to anything our enemies have to offer.
The M26 medium tank has not as yet been issued to this division and consequently no comments can be made. Experience with the M36 tank destroyer with 90-mm gun indicates that this should be a highly effective tank when HVAP ammunition becomes available. Its issue to this division is eagerly awaited.
Tank Destroyer, M36: Has not lived up to expectations, but when HVAP ammunition becomes available it is hoped that it will be more effective. Fighting compartment precludes efficient service of the piece and available ammunition is not effective at required long range.
M4A3E8 Assault Tank with 105-mm Howitzer: An ideal weapon for purpose for which designed. Turret should have power traverse.
The most important point, and upon which there is universal agreement, is our lack of a tank gun and anti-tank gun with which we can effectively engage enemy armor at the required range. The correction of this deficiency has made progress, but the problem has not as yet been satisfactorily solved.
I would like to express my sincere appreciation for this opportunity to write you informally on these matters which are of such immediate concern and importance.
Isaac D. White
Colonel Paul A. Disney
Commanding 67th Armored Regiment
Armor: Insufficient to prevent penetration by high velocity ammunition used by German tanks and anti-tank weapons.
Armament: Both 75-mm and 76-mm guns with available types of ammunition are incapable of neutralizing enemy tanks at ranges at which the latter are capable of neutralizing our tanks. When engaged at closer ranges with HVAP [high velocity armor piercing], 76-mm guns have disabled German tanks but penetration of armor seems to be rare. …
I believe the necessity for equipping troops with tanks capable of engaging enemy tanks on an equal basis outweighs all other considerations. Being close to the using personnel I am acutely aware of the morale factor involved in equipping troops with present tank equipment.
My opinion as to ability of M26 with 90-mm gun to meet Panther and Tiger on equal terms is based only on knowledge that present tank destroyers equipped with 90-mm gun and 'souped up' ammunition have been able to knock out such tanks where 75-mm and 76-mm guns were unable to. It is therefore reasonable to believe that a more equal footing would be obtained by supplying the M26.
Brigadier General J. H. Collier
Commanding Combat Command "A"
The consensus of opinion of all personnel in the 66th Armored Regiment is that the German tank and anti-tank weapons are far superior to the American in the following categories:
The German guns have a much higher muzzle velocity and no tell-tale flash. The resulting flat trajectory gives great penetration and is very accurate.
The 90-mm, although an improvement, is not as good as either the 75 or 88. If HVAP ammunition becomes available, it will improve the performance of both the 76-mm and 90-mm guns. …
German tanks have better sloped armor and a better silhouette than the American tanks.
The M24 tank has not been available long, but has created a very favorable impression.
It is not possible to comment on the M26 tank, as we have had no experience with it. …
It is my opinion that press reports of statements by high ranking officers to the effect that we have the best equipment in the world do much to discourage the soldier who is using equipment that he knows to be inferior to that of the enemy.
Lt. Col. Wilson M. Hawkins
Commanding 3rd Battalion, 67th Armored Regiment
My personal opinion about the comparative quality of U.S. and German tanks can be stated briefly as follows: if such a choice were possible, I would prefer to fight in the present German Mark V or VI tank against the present U.S. medium tank and tank destroyer with the 90-mm gun. … The feeling among the tank crew personnel, men who have four, five and six full campaigns to their credit, is the same. …
Our M4 tank does not compare favorably with the German Mk V or VI in armor plate. Theirs is much thicker than ours and sloped so as to prevent strikes against it at angles approaching the normal. I have inspected the battlefield at Faid Pass in Tunisia, being with the force which retook it. Inspection of our tanks destroyed there indicated that the 88-mm gun penetrated into the turret from the front and out again in the rear. Few gouges were found indicating that all strikes had made penetrations. Our tanks were penetrated by 88, 75, and 50-mm caliber in this engagement in all parts of the hull and turret. I personally measured many of the holes.…
The tank gun is the most vital factor in tank fighting. I know of many cases to prove the fact that the German 75-mm and 88-mm mounted on Mk IV, V, and VI tanks will penetrate our tanks, while our weapons will not penetrate theirs at the same range. Many tests have been made and results have been published of these facts. We have been out-gunned since Tunisia, when the Germans brought out their Mk IV Special with the long-barreled 75-mm gun. The higher muzzle velocity of the German guns increases their accuracy, as range estimation are of less importance with such a flat trajectory. I have fired all our tank weapons and know this to be so. Our 76-mm gun is a big improvement over the 75-mm. …
Some of my tank crews claim penetrations on the front plate of Mk V tanks, using the 76-mm gun and HVAP ammunition (3400 feet per second). They have more confidence in this combination than any other we have. So far, however, we have never been able to supply a tank with more than two or three rounds of this ammunition. We have been unable to obtain it. So far, we have been unable to obtain more than seven tanks out of seventeen mounting a 76-mm gun. So far, in this battalion, I have three tanks with the wide E8 suspension and track out of a total of fifty-four tanks.
Tank crews in this battalion are adding sand bags to their tanks, about 170 bags for each tank, in an effort to make up for the tank's lack of armor and the penetrating ability of German guns.
Harold A. Shields, First Lieutenant
Company "A," 66th Armored Regiment
On 2 March 1945, the 2nd Battalion, 66th Armored Regiment, was making a drive to the Rhine River. Upon taking the battalion objective at Fichlen, Germany, three of our medium tanks were knocked out by a German self-propelled gun (a long-barreled 75 on a Mark IV chassis). I took this self-propelled gun under fire with my platoon of M24 light tanks at 800 yards. The platoon fired a total of twenty-five rounds, the majority of which were AP. None of the AP pierced the front slope plate of the self-propelled gun, but ricocheted off. Some medium tanks from "I" Company, 66th Armored Regiment, with 76-mm guns, also fired on this self-propelled gun, and their rounds also ricocheted off. The range these tanks took the self-propelled gun under fire was approximately six hundred yards. It was impossible to fire at the side of the self-propelled gun as it was in position between two buildings, so it had to be taken under fire from the front. The next day, 3 March, I went to look at this self-propelled gun. None of the AP rounds had penetrated the front. The rounds had made a few dents in the armor plate and then ricocheted off. [Note, however, that given he was able to examine the gun, the US Army appears to have still been able to win the fight with the equipment at hand –Chieftain] I also examined the three tanks that had been knocked out by the German self-propelled gun. In all cases the German rounds had penetrated all three tanks and in one case had penetrated the turret of one tank on one side and had gone out the other.
The sentiments of the tankers in 2nd Armored were echoed by other units, as seen in further comments from tank unit commanders interviewed by 12th Army Group:
7 December 1944
Subject: Visit to Ninth Army Area.
4. Tanks: Tank units [743rd and 747th Tank Battalions] have lost confidence in the 75mm tank gun as it cannot do the job it is called upon to do. Among tank requirements, the gun comes first. Tankers desperately desire a gun capable of knocking out enemy tanks and bunkers. Armor protection is secondary but is considered of far more importance than was formerly the case. All other considerations are minor and are considered as mere refinements and gadgetry. The M4A3E2 is very well liked and the two battalions prefer to be equipped 100% with this tank. The 76mm should be standard with this tank. Neither battalion now has any 76mm guns.
Headquarters 6th Armored Division
14 December 1944
b. M4E6 [i.e., wet stowage M4A3] Tank
1) The 76mm gun is desired. This is based on the fact that future targets in this theater will probably be steel or concrete. Against personnel, the coaxial machine gun is the best weapon.
B. All tanks of the M4 series. There is a definite lack of floatation and power compared with what we require to get effective results. Time and again a tank has been knocked out by direct fire because it could not negotiate a reasonable hill except at the very slowest speed. The great majority of tank losses can be attributed directly to being stuck in the mud or on a hill where they became easy targets for direct fire guns. Experience is indicated that direct fire guns have great difficulty in hitting moving tanks. Our whole tactical conception of the employment of tanks is based upon their maneuverability. When this is lost through lack of flotation or power, tank tactics disappears. …
1 February 1945
Subject: Visit to Armored Units XX and XII Corps.
2.d. The [778th] battalion has mostly M4A3 tanks. It has 9 76mm tanks and 4 M4A3E2 Assault Tanks. The M4A3E2 tanks are liked by the Bn for their armor protection…The battalion likes the 76mm over the 75mm especially in attacking concrete pill boxes. The Bn Commander would prefer to have a medium tank company instead of the present light company.
4.d. The [702nd] Battalion is up to strength on Medium Tanks and two under strength on light tanks…At the present time they have 5 76mm tanks and 5 M4A3E2. The latter tank is very popular due to its armor and new turret with vision cupola. They report that its mobility is satisfactory to their needs. The 76mm gun is preferred to the 75mm.
6.d. The [737th] Battalion has 39 medium tanks of which three were M4A3E2. This tank has been the most satisfactory for their type of combat but needs a heavier gun. Would prefer 90mm.
13 February 1945
Subject: Visit to Armored Units.
2. 6th Armored Division.
c. Equipment: - Present tanks are entirely unsatisfactory, due to lack of a satisfactory gun and lack of flotation.
Again, a variety of views and opinions were expressed. Some are contradictory. But overall there is a clear pattern of dismay about US tanks. In particular it is clear that the tankers felt their guns were not adequate against German armor, while German guns were very capable against their armor. But note that it wasn't until December 1944 that the 9th Army units lost confidence in their 75mm guns.
It was in this setting that the M26 Pershing tank came in to the ETO. With its 90mm gun, 4-inch sloped armor, wide tracks and low profile it seemed to be the solution to the tankers’ major concerns. A new Ordnance report on the 90mm gun and its ammunition was prepared and issued along with the new T26E3s in January of 1945.
Ordnance published a new report on the ammunition for the 90mm gun in January 1945, co-incident with the arrival of the first T26E3 tanks.
In this report Ordnance made it clear that they had gotten the message from the Isigny tests of the prior summer.
By this time Ordnance had given special attention to the metallurgy and design of penetrators, with an eye to the specific requirements for success against German heavy armor. The report included this description of the 90mm HVAP round (the emphasis, using font styles, has been presented as from original report):
Purpose: This is a special hyper-velocity, armor piercing round for attack of heavily armored vehicles. It gives greatly increased penetrative performance up to 2,000 yards range over the standard A.P.C.-T. Projectile, 90mm, M82. It is especially effective at shorter ranges. … This shot will penetrate all plates of the German Pz Kpfw V “Panther” and “King Tiger” Tanks. IT WILL DEFEAT THE GLACIS PLATE OF THE “PANTHER” AT RANGES UP TO 450 YARDS AND OF THE “KING TIGER” AT 100 YARDS RANGE. UP TO RANGES OF 800 YARDS THE SHOT WILL PENETRATE THE GUN MANTLET AND TURRET FRONT OF BOTH THE “PANTHER” AND “KING TIGER” TANKS.
The report included information on a new round for the 90mm gun, the T33, which reflected additional attention to the metallurgy needed to effectively penetrate Panther, and to design considerations needed for attacking the Panther at longer effective ranges:
Description: The 90mm Armor Piercing Shot T33 is issued as a fixed complete round for the Gun, 90mm, M3 mounted in Heavy Tan, T26E3 and Gun Motor Carriages, M36 and M36B1. The shot is a modification of the standard AP, M77 which has been reheat-treated and to which a ballistic windshield has been attached.
Purpose: This is the most effective shot for the defeat of high obliquity caliber thickness homogenous armor plate. The shot will defeat all plates of the German Pz Kpfw V “Panther” Tank except the gun mantlet. IT WILL PENETRATE THE GLACIS PLATE OF THE “PANTHER” TANK UP TO 1,100 YARDS RANGE.
Extensive testing was done on Panther tanks that had been shipped to Aberdeen. As with typical Ordnance reports there were tables and charts of performance. But this report also included ample photographic evidence of the effectiveness of 90mm rounds on Panther tanks.
There would be no repeat of the prior summer’s surprises, when test results on US Ordnance plate did not match actual performance, due to the different characteristics of German armor.
200 M26s were in ETO by the close of hostilities in 1945
Perhaps the best summary of the attitudes of US tankers on their guns can be illustrated by the changing feedback given over time by the US 6th Armored Division. Revisiting the above-quoted surveys:
14 October 1944
Subject: Visit to Armored Units XII Corps.
a. The 6th Armored Division has received no 76mm tanks and have no great desire for them…
14 December 1944
Subject: Operational Information on M-4 Series Tanks
Headquarters 6th Armored Division
1) The 76mm gun is desired. This is based on the fact that future targets in this theater will probably be steel or concrete. Against personnel, the coaxial machine gun is the best weapon.
13 February 1945
Subject: Visit to Armored Units.
2. 6th Armored Division.
c. Equipment: - Present tanks are entirely unsatisfactory, due to lack of a satisfactory gun …
This transition of views does not derive from any decline in the qualities of US guns, nor any improvement in German armor. Rather it is a reflection of the changing nature of the combat that 6th Armored was involved in. It is, in effect, a microcosm of the growing maturity of user feedback, as the US Army learned first-hand what tanks had to be able to do, while also gathering real-world data on what their own guns and their opponents’ armor were actually capable of.
The US Army was not alone in going through this learning curve. The Germans struggled in 1941, when they discovered that their tank guns were inadequate against the Soviet T-34. The Germans also discovered at that time that their standard AP rounds had poor metallurgical qualities. It took about a year, until mid- to late-1942, before the Germans had effected their solutions to these issues.
The British found out in 1941 that their 2pdr gun was not good enough against their German adversaries. They managed to respond on the firepower issue within a year, as the 6pdr began to replace the 2pdr, but it was not until almost two years later with the advent of the 17pdr that the British truly got the anti-tank firepower they wanted.
For the US Army’s perspective, the M4 was very well regarded by both British and US tankers in Tunisia in 1942 and 1943. When paired with the M10 tank destroyer (and later the M18), it appeared that the US had everything that was needed. And so they would have, if the panzers they faced in France in 1944 were the same panzers they had faced in Tunisia in 1943. But they weren’t.
US Army Ordnance had developed the basic tools. The Sherman had a 75mm gun in 1942. The 76mm gun was developed specifically to fit as an upgrade in the Sherman in 1942, and was available in 1943. The 90mm gun was developed in 1943, and was available for tanks in 1944.
But there was no consensus that this was the right path to follow. Ordnance’s own flawed testing lulled Army Ground Forces and the commanders in the European Theater of Operations into a false sense of security. It was not until the cold hard realities of combat in Normandy that a clear picture emerged on the needs for better guns to defeat the panzers. And even here AGF and ETO waffled on their feedback, demanding immediate solutions in the Summer, then asking only for more of the existing designs in the Fall, and finally screaming for immediate solutions again in the Winter/Spring. But as with any major industrial/technological undertaking, there are no immediate solutions. Fortunately, Ordnance continued their development efforts regardless of the changing user feedback, and so had effective solutions available within less than a year of the first hint of crisis.
The US Army responded better and faster than either the German or British armies. But alas, even with under-performing US tanks and guns, the Germans had been defeated before the US response to the Panther could make its way to the forefront.
So what of the whole debacle anyway? Would the outcome have been significantly different had the M4(76) been the standard American tank instead of the 75mm variant? Probably not. Neither would have been of great effectiveness against the German frontal armour, and as we’ve seen, when not facing the front of the cats, the 75mm seemed quite good enough. Would the outcome have been any different had HVAP ammunition been available for the 76mm guns from June 6th 1944? Again, I doubt it would have been enough to make a huge difference, as the ‘engagement range’ was such that it would only have helped a small amount of incidents. Of course, if you were the tank crew involved in that particular incident, you would have had a much different view of not having 76mm HVAP. 90mm guns were of practical utility but were being churned out pretty much as quickly as hulls could be found for them.
Really the US was a victim of nothing more than poor intelligence. They underestimated the enemy threat, and failed to prepare for it accordingly. It wasn’t that they couldn’t build tanks capable of winning the war with fewer losses, they chose chose not to since they honestly believed what they had was perfectly servicable and didn't warrant the issues with introducing the upgraded equipment. When informed otherwise by the Germans, they reacted with commendable speed whilst balancing out current operational requirements with future upgrades.