Over 6000 American tanks were lost in the European Theater of Operation. Over 3000 British tanks were lost in Northern Europe and hundreds of Canadian and French tanks were lost after the D Day invasions until VE Day. Now what knocked out all these tanks. Almost naturally we think that German Panzers account for at least a majority of these losses, but that isn’t the case. Real combat isn’t like WoT, there are many other things besides tanks that fight and kill tanks.
An American studies states that based off a sample of 12000+ Allied tank casualties from all theaters of WWII 54% of casualties were the result of gunfire. “Gunfire” includes tanks of course, but also includes AT Guns, StuGs, other SPGs, and artillery pieces. The incompleteness of records led to the report to only reference gunfire instead of breaking it down further into different percentages. The second biggest percent is AT mines at 20%. Noncombat reasons(being stuck in the mud, mechanical breakdown, etc.) was the 3rd highest cause at 13%. The figure of 13% is, in all likelihood, too low. The US and British Armies were more concerned with weapon damage, the Canadian Army and the USMC recorded “more accurate” percentages of 25% to 40% of casualties attributed to noncombat reasons. Hollow Charge weapons like the panzerfaust were the 4th highest cause at 7.5 %. The remaining 6.5% was everything from mortars to aircraft to satchel charges.
*A tank casualty/loss is a tank that is unavailable for movement in a battle area. More than half of all losses were repairable.
Gunfire in all its forms causes the majority of Allied tank casualties. A British Report, broke down a sample of British tank casualties down further. Splitting up the gunfire into AT Guns, Tanks, SPGs, along with Mines and Bazookas(Hollow Charges).
The British experience in NW Europe(aka ETO) is analogous and comparable to the US’s. It can be assumed that these figures for NW Europe/ETO would be similar. The American Study’s samples show the British had more causalities, percentage wise, due to gunfire than American forces. In 1944 for example, the study showed that 50.9% of Amerian tanks sampled were lost due to gunfire compared to 59.2% of the British.
It seems that AT Guns and StuGs were much more responsible for tank losses than the Panzers. What is truly surprising is just how high the figure is for SPGs. This British study suggests that nearly 1/4 of Allied Tank losses in the ETO were caused by StuGs and other German SPGs. German’s Panzers only seemed to be the cause of 14.5% of tank losses. Large armored battles(Normandy, The Bulge, Push into Germany) did see spikes in casualties as seen below. 14.5% is still a noticeable percent, even if it is overshadowed by ~47% of SPGs and AT Guns combined. A British Study done of tank combat in Normandy shows that the Pz IV was the most common tank in the ETO and it can be fair to assume that it caused the majority of that 14.5%.
In the ETO gunfire was mainly from “medium” caliber guns, the 8.8 cm and the 7.5 cm guns which accounted for ~86% of losses due to gunfire. The study states that 50% of the gunfire was attributed to the 8.8 cm guns and 36% to the 7.5 cm guns. It is noteworthy to add that this is likely skewed because of the habit among troops to refer to most medium caliber guns as 8.8 cm guns. A report from US 1st Army, for example, has the figures for 55% for the 7.5 cm and 30% for the 8.8 cm. Smaller caliber guns accounted for 6%, large calibers accounted for a whopping 3%.
Gunfire casualties in the ETO were knocked out of action at an average of ~800 yards. German gunners didn’t seem to aim for any particular part of the tanks, the study’s authors suggest that the Germans fired at the first part of the vehicle they saw. 60% of gunfire hits were recorded to be hit from the side. 37% of hits were from the front and 3% were done from the rear. Distribution(turret/hull/suspension) of gunfire on tanks can be seen below along with distribution of tanks KO’ed by hollow charges.
Gunfire penetrations usually resulted in a single crew death and a single crewman wounded. Crews were rarely all killed, even if a tank burned. American Wet Storage also diminished the chances of burning in general. M4s with wet storage burned as little as 5 to 10%. British and Canadian burn rates were 80+%. American tanks in Italy, without wet storage also saw an 80% burn rate. That goes to show the “magic” of proper ammo storage. Distribution of casualties among crewmen is roughly even,unlike WoT’s radiomen…Light tanks had higher casualty rates(~65% per position) over their medium cousins(~50%). Please don’t confuse casualty with death.
Panzerfausts and Panzershrecks were responsible for around 13% of tank losses in ETO almost as much as Pz IVs, Panthers, and Tigers combined. Hollow charge weapons in the ETO usually dealt losses at a range of 50 yards(46 m). A report from the 736th Tank Battalion noted that Hollow Charge weapons were used in German Towns and roadblocks and were used to disable tanks, rarely actually destroying the vehicle. When the tankers existed the immobile tank they were gun downed by enemy small arms, American tankers didn’t seem to have adequate training in this regard. 51% of hollow charge rounds hit from the side, 31% from the front, 9.5 % from the rear, and 8.5% from above.
AT Mines were a constant threat for tanks and tankers in all theaters of war. In the ETO mines seemed to be the cause of 20-22% of tank losses. AT Mines rarely wounded or killed tankers. AT Mines were a very cost effective way to fight advancing tanks in WWII. In the Aachen Eschweiler mine fields it would take just ~221 mines(~$3700 total) to destroy a tank(~$200000). This rate was was higher in North Africa and Italy.
Data pulled from the French about the 1940 Battle of France seem to show that gunfire was the overwhelming cause of 95.4% of 1749 French tank losses. Mines took out 2.6% of French tanks while the Luftwaffe took out 2%. In 1944 and ’45 the French armored forces lost 549 tanks. Gunfire was the primary cause for French losses that couldn’t be repaired.
In conclusion it can be said that Germany’s most effective AT weapons were not the mythical Panthers and Tigers, but more humble weapons. The Panthers and Tigers combined likely only destroyed a few hundred Allied Tanks in the ETO, the Pz IV likely knocked out more just due to its numbers and availability. The StuG’s ability in AT combat is very impressive according to these studies, personally I’d give the “best tank of WWII” honors to the Pz III/StuG III. 7.5 cm and 8.8 cm AT guns showed their worth on the battlefield as well. The 7.5 cm gun, not the “dreaded” 8.8 cm, was in all likelihood the most effective German AT gun. Hollow Charges were an inexpensive and effective way for the Germans to combat Allied tanks along with AT Mines.
The trend seems to be that the more “humble” German weapons were more efficient than the famed 8.8 cms, the Luftwaffe(huehue), Tigers, and Panthers at knocking out Allied tanks. The location of hits on Allied vehicles show that side armor and ,to a lesser extent, frontal armor were not thick enough to stop the majority of Germany’s AT weapons. Lighter armored light tanks like the Stuarts were more dangerous to be crewed than mediums like the M4 and Cromwell. In British, Canadian, and non-ETO US vehicles, ammo storage was done poorly in comparison to the wet storage techniques of American tanks in NW Europe. Wet storage would have decreased crew casualties while likely increasing the rate of tanks that would be repairable in those units.
The Comparative Performance of German Anti-Tank Weapons During World War II by H. G. Gee
ORO Survey of Allied Tank Casualties of WWII by Coox and Naisawald
Armored Thunderbolt by S. Zaloga
A Survey of Tank Warfare in Europe from D-Day to 12 August 1944 by H. G. Gee