today, we have a guest article by Atilla “Kwagga” Balint (his blog), enjoy!
America’s antitank arm
In 1940, the German Blitzkrieg had been introduced with terrific results on the Western front. Despite their higher average level of motorization, the Allied armies proved to be no match against the massed and highly maneuverable Panzer arm. At the same time, curious and anxious eyes followed the events on the other side of the Atlantic. The U.S. Army saw the combat in Europe the following way. Neither the scattered antitank guns of the infantry nor the allied tanks could stop the timely massed panzers. The fear from the new threat gave a stimulus to a process which lead to the foundation of an entirely new combat arm. Originally, the sole purpose of the Tank Destroyer arm was to deal with the Panzerwaffe of the Wehrmacht, which was then seen as a more or less homogenous armored force.
The battlecruisers of armored warfare
The U.S. had neither practical experience at tank vs tank combat nor antitank warfare in general. Until 1933, the only antitank weapon of the American arsenal was the fifty caliber heavy machinegun originally designed for the trench warfare in Northwestern-Europe fifteen years earlier. As start, two German 3.7 cm Pak36 had been bought in 1937 as a sample the American equivalent weapon was designed upon. The strong artillery tradition saw these small thus easily concealable guns as superiors to armor and the antitank gun as a cost-effective tool against the expensive armor. Another traditional view of the maritime power USA came from the naval warfare. The towed antitank gun was the equivalent of the coastal gun battery, which enjoyed the advantages of the more stable gun platform and the higher situational awareness compared to the armored warships. In short, timely and carefully placed, concealed antitank guns always have the advantage over the tanks. The trick was to get them there in time, where they can engage the armored spear of the Germans. So these „rolling coastal batteries” needed to have superior mobility to sort of intercept the marauding Panzer Divisions.
To add more flavour to this abstract, the advocates of the new arm also wanted to maintain an offensive spirit, and saw the TD as an agressive and not a solely defensive force, which seeks out the enemy tanks on the battlefield, and destroys them with superior armament and gunnery. The offensive nature in defense principle (or on the contrary, depends how we look at it) of the TD doctrine lead to confusions inevitably in real combat. Another historical and also naval analog of the tank destroyer could well be the British battlecruiser school. The fast and heavily armed battlecruiser with cruiser level armor was envisioned as it could outrun and outgun the slower enemy battleships and outgun the faster cruisers, thus it could protect the merchant fleet against commercial raids. What I’m telling about the thought here that let’s give bigger guns to our battlecruisers/tank destroyers than our tanks/the enemy have, and give them speed at the cost of armor to help them keeping their distance.
The Tank Destroyer arm was born in November, 1941, with the main purpose of defeating the Panzers in the future European campaign. This privilage also meant that the antiarmor capability of the armored force was kept on a more modest level for years. High velocity guns went to the TDs, whereas tanks were equipped essentialy with field artillery pieces. The rapidly built up American armored division was primarly an explotation force, a mechanized equivalent of the 19th Century cavalry. The breakthrough of the enemy defenses was tasked by the infantry branch, reinforced with independent tank battalions, but without heavier armor for the sake of standardisation and naval transportation considerations. Tank commanders like George S. Patton thought not much about the flawed TD doctrine. The later four star general predicted right that the TD will simply become another tank in time.
So how can a small, towed antitank piece have the aforementioned superior mobility to a tank? Because if we mechanize it, this low-profile but effective killer becomes just another obvious and almost blind on the move piece of armor. The latter can be helped if we „shave off” the turret roof, so the crew can still have superior situation awareness over armor. Additonally, if we want superior mobility for our TD forces to outmaneuver the Panzer units, we will need something not only hard-hitting and fast, but something with a low profile as well. Not surprisingly, the argument over the towed guns and the mechanized versions was won by the latter, because the faster TDs meant to change positions to avoid counterfire or being overrun by a superior force, and this was thought and proved to be much more circuitous for a towed piece at daylight.
Deployment and the order of battle
The tank destroyers were expected to fight in a concentrated mass, the same way as the panzers had been seen previously in Europe. The origin of the order of battle was the divisional antitank battalion, and the Army used up previous divisional units to build up the TD force. The three digit number name of the tank destroyer battalions with an infantry origin received a two digit „60” prefix, ex-armor received „70” and artillery „80”. The third digit sometimes corresponded with the mother division, for example the antitank battalion of the 3rd Armored Division became the 703rd Tank Destroyer Battalion, and so on.
The order of battle of a TD battalion followed field artillery patterns. The main force was three gun companies, 12 vehicles/towed guns each, organized in three four-gun platoons. The overall gun strength was 36. Self-propelled TD battalions also had a cavalry recon troop with jeeps and armored cars. In the original order of battle we can find authorized bazooka- and machinegun teams, but those were absorbed as reinforcements for the infantry often. The TD force was meant to be independent and self-reliant at corps/army reserve. Several Tank Destroyer Battalions formed a group under an army corps, and a brigade could be built upon the groups at army level. But since the the methods of warfare had been shifted towards a more piecemeal combined force approach by the time the Americans arrived to Europe, the aforementioned mass and deployment of TDs never happened. The TD groups and brigades rarely got any combat mission, their role was mostly administrative, logistical, etc..
No less than 222 battalions were planned, but with the diminishing numbers of fighting divisions sent to Europe the final amount of TD units dropped to a total of 71 battalions as well. The sum of the tank destroyer battalions in the theatres of operations roughly equalled the number of the fielded divisions. The expected mass armored attacks of the Wehrmacht did never materialize, so there was no need for such antiarmor reserve. On the other hand, the armored and infantry divisions both needed additional antitank capability, and the infantry was also always short of tanks. All of the above lead to the phenomenon where a TD battalion was more or less permanently attached to each division, and TD gun companies reinforced rifle regiments or armored combat commands.
Baptism of fire – North Africa
The TDs were introduced in combat during Operation Torch, the North African landings of the Western Allies first. The scarcity of the troops lead to company level deployment and separated missions inmediately. The first two battalions arrived to the theatre with mixed equipment yet. The 601st and the 701st had two companies; M3 tank destroyer halftracks with a standard 75 mm field gun, the third companies were equipped with the M6 4×4 drive weapon carrier jeeps with a 37 mm antitank gun mounted on the back of the vehicle. This equipment was makeshift, a far cry from the demanded swift and turreted self-propelled guns with a high velocity main weapon. The first TD units stateside had access to only worse weapons like archaic soft skinned truck-based portees.
From the two above, the M3 TD halftrack had the more use. The umpteen reincarnation of the venerable french 75 mm rapid-firing field gun had still respectable punch in 1942, but the halftrack-mount came not without compromises. The lateral traverse had to be decreased from 30 to 21 degrees to each side, otherwise the recoil power simply tipped over the vehicle. The vehicle itself was open topped, and it offered minimal protection to the crew, barely enough against machinegun-fire and light artillery splinters. If the target was outside the traverse area of the main gun, an indigenous solution was applied. The halfrack could not pivot, but the driver could drive into the firing position with the front pair of wheels traversed right. If the target was more at the right, the TD moved forward a bit, if the target was at the left, the halftrack reversed.
The very first tanks knocked out by US TDs were Vichy French AMC35, but this light armor was nowhere the opponent compared to the Panzerwaffe. The two battalions entered Tunesia on its own tracks, but the reality of the battlefield soon shattered the doctrinal considerations. Instead of keeping them at corps reserve, the TDs were parcelled out by companies or even platoons to the armor and infantry. The 75 mm gun was adequate against German medium armor in North Africa, the gun halftracks were capable off knocking out multiple enemy tanks from hull-down positions. But these successes could not mask that the vehicle could burst into flames by a single splinter penetration, and the lack of turret did not help the quick response in the battlefield either. To sum up, TDs weren’t better off than the other branches of the rookie American army during the Kasserine-pass debacle. The tank destroyer gun companies were stucked in the general confusion and forced to fight an uneven battle piecemeal in these purple heart boxes.
The day of reckoning was coming. Five additional TD battalions arrived to Tunesia, two of them had been equipped with the brand new M10s. The M10 – called Wolverine by the British but not as such by the Americans – was still an intermediate tank destroyer. Based on the diesel engined A2 version of the M4 medium tank, the M10 wasn’t as low profile and fast as the TD-advocates wished to be, but it carried a powerful 3 inch gun. The chassis was widened over the tracks, and the height of the vehicle decreased a bit, the base armor thickness was lowered. The early turret of the Sherman tank with power traverse was replaced with an open topped one with cheaper hand-cranked traverse. A full 360 degrees traverse could last as long as 2 minutes, whereas a Sherman tank could rotate its turret at 24 degrees/sec. The hull machinegun was also eliminated to discourage the battlefield commanders to use the TDs as tank substitutes. The low traverse speed could be helped though, if the crew took a prepared firing position the similar way as the M3 gun halftrack, so the turret traverse was needed only for the fine aiming. M10 crews liked the safety and the low noise-level of the two diesel engines, although at least one of them had to be running to use the radio, but the noise of the battlefield suppressed this sound easily. The different fuel caused some problems, the TDs could not obtain fuel directly from the supported division, since all the rest run on gasoline, so they needed to keep up a separate supply chain through the corps itself.
El-Guettar, the battle of the TDs
The TDs got their chance to prove their mettle soon. Rommel might had left Africa, but his spirit remained, and his successor: Von Arnim prepared to teach another lesson about mechanized warfare to the unexperienced Americans. There was intel about the notions of the Germans this time, and the 601st TD battalion of the 1st Infantry Division layed in ambush behind a ridgeline looking at the Gabes road, Tunesia. The veteran 10th Panzer Division of the Afrikakorps was approaching at 5.00 PM, 23rd, March. After a brief exchange of fire, the scouts dashed back like mad, and alarmed the TDs. The gun halftracks of the 601st were positioned on a reverse slope, and their fire was directed by a forward observer. The TDs fired from defilade, scooted back behind the ridge, then appeared again elsewhere along the ridgeline. The odds were against the 31 vehicles strength battalion, the Panzers in superior numbers and their escort infantry kept advancing as close to the line of TD as 100 meters. It was fight for their lifes, the Germans threw in their air force too. The reinforcements of two M10 companies of the 899th TD arrived. The C company of the 899th had managed to reach the western part of the ridgeline and went into hull-down. The B company was less lucky, the M10s entered the valley itself first, and the Germans cut them off inmediately from the ridge, so Baker was forced to exchange blows in the open. The battle lasted until 19.00 PM. Although at a terrible cost, but the two TD battalions held their ground, and not less than 52 burning hulk of German armor were left behind on the battlefield. The 601st was reduced to 25 percent of its strength, the 899th lost 5 M10s.
After Kasserine, El-Guettar was the first and last time in North-Africa, where the TDs met substantial amount of enemy armor. But this did not mean that the new branch was all iddle hands. Iddle units drive commanders crazy since the Roman times; like the sight of lazy men does this to women. The field commanders at Tunesia started to utilize the weapons of the new branch better. The TDs carried guns with better antiarmor performance and flatter projectile trajectory, and the gunners were trained to be a better shot. The open topped vehicles allowed the TD crews to be more aware of their surroundings. The advancing tanks had a problems with spotting the concealed antitank guns of the enemy, but the TDs could see and eliminate them from an overwatch position. The tank destroyers took a high ground, covered the tanks from distance until the next hill, then rolled out for the next position. Several battalions had artillery background which came handy. These units could assist the field artillery in indirect fire strikes. Except the battle of El-Guettar, the TDs were occupied with support missions like bunker busting and artillery, and the success of these in North-Africa lead to the introduction of new training pamflets for the still preparing stateside units.
The towed gun reemerges
The Americans were fascinated about how the Germans used their towed antitank guns both in defense and for supporting various attacks in North Africa. Rommel run the gauntlet of the British in-depth antitank defense in his last battle at Medenine, Tunesia. These events seemed to justify the views of the towed gun party, and plans were made to convert/equip half of the TD battalions into towed configuration. The earliest form of the towed 3 inch gun had appeared before Pearl Harbour, but there weren’t any buyers. The weapon itself was basically a mash-up of existing and tried components. The mounting and the hidropneumatic recoil mechanism of the standard 105 mm field howitzer was married to the barrel and breech of the old 3 inch antiaircraft gun. The product was made without light alloys, the field howitzer carriage was excessive for the lighter gun, and the antiaircraft gun chamber operated at lower pressure than the dedicated antitank guns like the German 7.5 cm Pak40 or the British 17 pounder. All these above resulted in a mediocre weapon, which also suffered from poor shell design, so the 2.2 tons M5 never reached it full potential.
Inner politics and institutional rivalries run their circles about the towed gun. The Army Ground Forces had the final word. The independent TD branch was the personal brainchild of the AGF-chief General Leslie McNair, the Jackie Fisher of the U.S. Army. The R/D department Ordnance pushed for fancy new equipment, the Armored Forces always looked at the TD and their unearthly mission with mistrust. The infantry was more sympathetic to the tank destroyers, but didn’t want an antitank gun that had the weight of a field howitzer, the TD branch was all for mechanized pieces. General Omar Bradley wanted one organic 3 inch towed antitank battalion for each infantry division preparing to Europe, but this would have meant no TD-control. The TD branch reluctantly but accepted the 3 inch M5 gun as tank destroyers, so the formal control was kept. The infantry received a copy of the British 6 pounder gun as 57 mm M1 instead, which could be manhandled, and was considered satisfactory against the expected German medium armor for the upcoming European campaign.
The Tank Destroyer enters Italy
The TDs took part of the landing operations on the Italian Peninsula from the first day. The concentrated TD reserve per doctrine still did not cope well with the real life front demands, and the battalions were scattered again among the fighting divisions. The combat experiences in Italy showed that the still a bit lethargic and obvious M10s are better off in the second line of the organized defense. If the numbers and the direction of enemy armor were known, the TDs made short work of any armored counterattack from prepared positions.
Among the ground forces, the self-propelled 3 inch gun; the M10 became the best antitank tool in Italy. The British 17 pounder offered much better anti-armor performance, but it was a big piece of towed antitank artillery, and it could take half a day to build a proper firing position for it. The most common German armor in Italy was the Pz IV with a long barrelled 7.5 cm gun. The recommended firing distance for the M10s was 500 meters to 1000 meters. Sometimes the Germans came up with heavy armor, and placed the Tigers at the front of armored columns. The Tiger was hard to take out from the front, but if the TD crews held their breath and waited for a flankfire opening they could stop the whole column by knocking out only the Tiger, if the terrain was such restrictive for armor, and the Italian country it often was. TDs could take on bigger game than Tigers in Italy. On 16th, February, 1944., one M10 of the 645th TD/45th Infantry Division knocked out a gigantic enemy assault gun with flankfire, later identified as an 88 mm „Ferdinand”.
The M10 had somewhat better off-road performance than the M4 Sherman, or at least the more adventurous crew dared to take more off-road risks and crossed streams the tankers rather avoided in Italy. One of the crucial problems of the improving combined arms team-play of the U.S Army was the lack of compatible radios. Tankers, TDs, infantry: all radioed on another frequencies. To overcome this problem the experienced 701st TD of the 1st Armored Division changed their sets to tank standards. The TDs in Italy accompanied tanks regularly. The armored spear was followed at 400 meters. If this distance was shorter there was a danger that the same enemy fire will disable the TD as well, if it was longer they would had been to far to give effective support. Typically, an armored combat command (brigade) or regimental combat team of the infantry was supported by a company of TDs. The direct support of infantry was the more typical modus operandi on the peninsula. This case the TDs acted like direct firing artillery engaging ad-hoc targets, especially bunkers and pillboxes.
Artillery warfare thrived in Italy, the massed counterattack of the Germans just didn’t happen. But there was plenty of work around; a battalion of TDs effectively doubled the amount of light artillery pieces in an infantry division. The 3 inch gun had a longer range than the 105 mm howitzer, and it was more suited to interdiction and harassing fires. The shells with the lower amount of high explosive did less damage to the roads the advancing allies intended to use later. In the meantime the one-oh-fives could focus on destruction. The field artillery work of the TDs had its own backwards: the long firing missions used up the gun barrels, the muzzle velocity and the dispersion suffered. For every armor piercing shot away by the TDs there were thirteen high explosive at average. The supported divisions often took away the recon element of the TD battalions, used them themselves or trained these mechanized scouts as forward artillery observers. The American Tank Destroyer emancipated in Italy, the bastard stepchild who had to take every dirty job started to receive appreciation and some understanding.
New equipment, mixed reception
The first towed tank destroyer unit in combat was the 805th, which arrived to Italy in October, 1943. The clumsy 3 inch guns did not see much direct combat, the terrain was too restrictive. The M5s ended up as artillery, and they were were exchanged at the first chance. The same unit received the first brand new M18 tank destroyers in Juny, 1944. The M18 or Hellcat was the bona fide, designed from scratch according to the doctrine tank destroyer. It was really fast on paved road reaching up to 80 km/h. It was small and had a low profile, the turret traverse got powered. The new and more compact 76 mm M1 gun of the Hellcat fired the same projectiles as the 3 incher, and although the barrel was shortened, the increased propellant charge helped to maintain the same muzzle velocitiy. The different cartridge cases prevented the interchangeability of 3 inch and 76 mm ammunitions. The hot stuff Hellcat didn’t receive much praise in the MTO. The character of the Italian combat did not favour race cars on tracks, but rather something with the ability to take more punishment, and the Hellcat was even less armored than the already thin-skinned M10. Before the landings by Anzio, other new equipment had arrived. The M20 and M8 6×6 armored cars of the recon troop weren’t much liked either. Their armament was to light, fully tracked light tanks already at service did better off-road, and the armored cars proved to be very vulnerable to antitank mines.
The real taste of combat – Northwestern Europe
Harsh lessons waited for the confident Americans in Normandy, France. The 57 mm antitank guns of the infantry were a minor obstacle for the next generation of Panzers. The TDs had to be placed more forward to the main line of resistance, but one company of the three should had been kept in reserve in case of an armored enemy breakthrough. If the Panzers approached, the TDs had to join the battle at company strength. The 3 inch and 76 mm guns could defeat the frontal armor of the Panthers and Tigers at suicidal short ranges, the gunners were forced to take flank and rear shots, but this wasn’t always possible in the bocage. The flanks of the German heavy armor were often secured by infantry armed with antitank rocket launchers or by lighter armor. The American TDs quickly learned about their own inferiority in equipment, and tried to lure the bigger game into woods or settlements, where the advantage of thicker armor and bigger gun melted away.
The infantry had been more understanding toward the special deployment of the TD; at the planning board and until the first shot at least. The TD liaison officer at the infantry HQ found himself swarmed with urgent requests and commands like destroy this or that, make a flanking move, and so on. The TDs were needed as tanks, because the usual one independent tank battalion attached more or less permanently to one infantry division wasn’t enough for three rifle regiments. A division commander usually had two battalions of AFVs under his commmand; one tank and one TD, so it is easy to imagine what happened next, the specialized antitank vehicles had to play armor. The thinly armored and open topped mechanized TDs without bow and hull machineguns were poorly suited to lead attacks, but they were available. The infantry demanded their constant presence. The 3 inch guns had a flat trajectory and with trained crews the TDs could take out enemy bunkers and machinegun nests with pinpoint accuracy, so the impetus of the advance was not broken so easily. The doughboys hold their line more stubbornly if they knew the TDs are around and/or the friendly artillery kept working. Towed battalions were typically attached to infantry divisions. Their only notable success was the participation of 823rd TD/30th Infantry in defeating the Leibstandarte counterattack at Mortain. The thick fog had hidden the M5s, and the gunners aimed at the machinegun muzzle flashes of the enclosing Panthers.
The M18 Hellcat found its element in the race to the German frontier after the Normandian breakout. Their biggest feat was achieved around Arracourt, North-Eastern France, where the 704th TD/4th Armored helped to chew up several German armored brigades between 18th and 22nd, Septermber, 1944. The division caused 75 tank losses for the Germans in 4 days. The foggy weather helped to compensate for the weaker guns of the Americans against the Panthers, and the hastily formed, straight from the armored school Panzer brigades lacked infantry and artillery support. These green troops rode into the crossfire of hull-down American tanks and TDs, and were decimated accordingly. The mad dasher Patton’s Third Army prefered the nimble M18s over the old M10s. The crews were confident that they had the best kind of vehicle for taking out German heavy armor by flank shots and for avoiding punishment. The 76 mm gun had the same ballistic limits as the 3 incher. One M18 was tried with the turret of the M36 TD and the 90mm M3 gun at the end of the war. The Hellcat could take the 90 mm, and plans were made for field conversion of the existing vehicles in Europe, but V-day and the arrival of Pershing tanks put and end to the TD developments. Bradley’s 12th Army Group was more for the well tried M10s. The Hellcat’s mobility was somehow overrated; the M4A3 medium tank could keep up with the M18s offroad.
The arrival to the Franco-German border and the Siegfried-line meant concrete fortifications again. The sniping TDs worked in pairs; the other two vehicles of a platoon watched out for the hidden antitank guns between the targeted pillboxes. The first new M36 TDs had arrived in October, 1944, just in time to support the Allied thrust on the Roer plain and to the Rhine. The firepower of the 90 mm gun was welcome, but even the improved TDs could not always prevent the disproportionate losses caused by the heavier German armor. The more tank-heavy 2nd and 3rd Armored Divisions shared similar fate during that rainy late autumn. On 17th, November, the 2nd Armored of the 9th US Army had prepared to renew its advance near a village called Puffendorf. Task Force Disney received murderous fire by Panthers and dug in King Tigers of the Eastern Front veteran 9th Panzer Division and the recently reequipped 506th Schwerer Panzer Battalion. The fact, that by this time about half of the 2nd Armored mediums were equipped with the new 76 mm guns did not help much. The two crawling tank battalions were caught in the open, the deep mud made flanking maneuvers impossible. Air support was out if question due to the bad weather. The retreating TF Disney was on the brink of annihilation when the M36 company of the 702nd TD rushed for the rescue, and knocked out enough German tanks to discourage a further attack. The day was the German’s, the terrain favoured the defenders, the King Tigers could open up at 3000-3500 meters and penetrate American armor with impunity. The TDs tried to lure out the big cats, but those kept the safe distance. The attack of the 9th Panzer against the 2nd Armored was one of the most painful memory of American tankers, which had shattered their built up confidence at their equipment. The M36s held their own, but against King Tigers the Slugger was no gamechanger.
The final test – The Ardennes
Hitlers’s last gamble in the Ardennes could have been the wet dream of the American Tank Destroyers founding fathers, but the reality of the battlefield passed beyond the abstract doctrine much earlier. About two dozen TD battalions fought in the Ardennes, but not as a concentrated force. Their deployment followed the well-established patterns, one battalion per division, one company per infantry regiment or armored combat command, and so on.
American TDs were in the line from day one. In the North, the confident but unexperienced Sixth Panzer Army (SS) met stubborn resistance of US infantry divisions reinforced with self-propelled TDs and independent tank battalions. The M10s helped to hold the line as integral parts of infantry antitank defense. The old TDs played a smart game against their technically superior opponents. They used high ground, ridge lines, little settlements for cover. They shot and scooted. Meanwhile, the concentrated American artillery cut down the escorting German infantry, and the TDs cooperating with bazooka teams soon transformed the inbuilt areas into a killing ground for the solitary Panzers. The German artillery could not afford wasting ammo for counterbattery during the battle. The Northern flank held, Sepp Dietrich’s Sixth Panzer Army had been stopped cold by Elsenborn Bridge in two days. The determined and fierce resistance channeled the offensive effort to further South, but by Christmas, the spearhead of the 1st SS Panzer Division; Kampfgruppe Peiper was checked at Stoumont, and was cut off from reinforcements and supplies by the 3rd Armored and 30th Infantry Divisions.
Seven battalions were equipped with the new M36s in the Battle of the Bulge, and three of them saw significant action, the 702nd and 703rd of the 2nd and 3rd Armored Divisions and the 814th. The 814th TD was attached to the 7th Armored Division. The battalion took part in the successful delaying action around St. Vith, Belgium, at the southern part of the Northern Sector. The mountainous and wooded terrain of the Ardennes restricted the movement to the roads, so posession of major traffic hubs like St. Vith became crucial. The 814th covered the retreat of the battered 7th Armored, but it suffered 50 percent casualities. The Sluggers reported about 30 knocked out German tanks, but in this case the wrecks were left on German territory, and they could be repaired.
Further South, the more prudent 5th Panzer Army had the more initial successes. Several towed battalions in the sectors of the overstreched VII Corps, 1s Army and the 14th Cavalry Group did their best but the combined German attack swept the unmaneuverable 3 inch guns away quickly. Another traffic hub further at the South was Bastogne. Popular history never forget to mention how the shivery paratroopers of the 101st Airborne held the line around the Belgian city, but several other subunits took part of the defense too: like the elements of the 9th and 10th Armored, corps artillery battalions and the 705th TD with its M18s. The commander of Team Desobry (battalion level mixed force of the 10th Armored) remarked that the TD crews knew much more about armored combat than his tankers. One succesful tactic of the M18s was that the dug-in infantry let the Panzers ride through the main line of resistance, and the TDs picked them up one by one after. The „Cabrio” TDs themselves were not happy about the weather for sure, otherwise the self-propelled units were in their element, the restricted terrain offered a lot of cover and ambush possibilities. Their cumulative losses during the whole campaign were modest by any standard, whereas the towed units were decimated.
The clumsy towed guns stood and died; the daylight change of firing positions proved to be impossible for the M5s. The 3 inch guns were part of the static defense, where you could plan flankfire against a certain route of attack, but when the situation changed, the mediocre guns had deal with the German armor frontally. And when a towed gun was spotted, the mortar and automatic weapons fire of the accompanied infantry neutralized them quickly, or they were disabled by direct hits of the tank guns. A mechanized TD could dodge this punishment and try again elsewhere. The best utilization of the towed TDs was to secure supply routes or using them as indirect firing artillery. Their shortcomings were foreseen before the battle, and the Army planned the dozen or so towed battalions to reequip with new 90 mm towed guns, but the battlefield mobility and vulnerability would had been still a problem. The aforementioned debacle put an end to the towed tank destroyer or antitank gun in US service. By V-Day, only four towed battalions remained, the troops chose to replace them by any means; second hand M10s in bad shape included.
The M36 GMC started as a sideline project of Ordance if a heavily armed bunker buster was needed to penetrate the West Wall. None of the Sluggers were newly built. The M36- or more like converted M10B1s with the same Ford V8 gasoline engine as the M4A3 Sherman tank-has a new but still open top turret with 24 degrees/sec power traverse. The original batch of converted M10B1s and M4A3s (known as M36B1) lacked the muzzle brake. The 90 mm M3 gun made a lot of flash and noise, roused dust, so the commanders often had to dismount and track the target outside of the vehicle with binoculars. The M3 offered better antiarmor performance than the 3 inch, but it wasn’t an almighty big cat killer. The 703rd TD had conducted tests against captured Panthers in December, 1944, and they found, that 90 mm armor piercing projectiles still bounce on the sloped glacis armor, although they penetrate the front turret and the nose plate to a less extent. The M36s with the gasoline engine were noisy and more thirsty, the older M10s were appreciated due to their stealthy twin-diesel powerplant. The common fuel eased the logistic burden, the TDs could receive gasoline directly through the supported division. The reequipment was a slow process. The troops demanded the constant presence of the TDs. As a compromise, gun companies were pulled back for a week long rapid training one by one.
Due to their firepower and accurate shooting, the M36 learned the respect of the supported troops inmediately. The TDs got several nicknames like the Tiger Tamer, The Can Opener, or the already mentioned Slugger – a baseball term. The majority of the M36s arrived at spring, 1945. After the Bulge, the commanders in Europe wanted all 90 mm armed vehicle as fast as possible, so the conversion program was joined by earlier diesel engined M10s (M36B2) and plain M4A3s, making a total of converted 1772 vehicles.
The last months – combat tactics
The big tanks became species about to extinct in the last year of the war. The Americans met them at significant numbers only around Paderborn in the Eastern Ruhr region, where the Panzer school was located. The 3rd Armored of the 1st US Army tried to finish the encirclement of the Ruhr from the South, when the division encountered about 60 Tigers and Panthers. Although the „Spearhead” was supported by 10 new T26E3 heavy tanks, the resistance of the Panzer pups lead to a two day stalemate. The M36s still took names, but even their presence could not always preclude the high losses of the supported armored task forces. One example, Task Force Welborn and its Shermans were virtually annihilated during a close encounter with seven King Tiger tanks.
Above the American TDs, only the M36 had measureable performance against the new generation of German AFVs. Tungsten-cored projectiles HVAP (high-velocity armor piercing) helped the 3 inch gun and the 76 mm a bit, but this kind of ammunition was in very limited supply. The rare metal was kept for the aircraft production facilities. The first 2000 piece of ammo arrived only in August, 1944, the total supply was 18 000 until the end of the war. The different cartridge cases made the 3 inch and 76 mm subcalibers uninterchangeable. The HVAP proved to be very accurate, but it wasn’t up to the full-bore ammunition of the British 17 pounder. These early type of subcaliber penetrators had a low length-diameter ratio, and they lost penetration against increasily sloped armor rapidly. The supply officers made a lot of effort to get the message across the crews that they should keep the silver bullets for the big cats and should not waste them against the first difficult target. The 90 mm was better, but the glacis of the Panther was still a tough cookie. The first American improved ammunition that could deal with 85 mm thick armor at 55 degrees slope arrived at spring, 1945.
When the TDs did not play a cat and mouse game with the Panzers, they got in the tank line, and helped the infantry anyhow they could in the Ruhr urban combat. The thin-skinned and open topped TDs were even more vulnerable in such close quarters, especially against fire from above, upstairs. The crews developed a special, preventive tactic to overcome the enemy defenses. The gunners shot all windows from the top to bottom, forcing the defenders systematically downwards, but the death could come from below, through the cellar windows as well. All crews had their own carbines and hand grenades for emergencies.
All American tankers feared the hollow charge antitank shells and rockets, but the TDs feared the allied air force, too. pPowling fighter-bombers with itchy fingers often strafed any tanks indiscriminately. This kind of friendly fire was typically the first combat experience of the new TD units. Airburst artillery and mortar fire also posed a problem. Several units started to experiment with improvised turret covers from November, 1944. The converted diesel-engined M10s (M36B2) had received an overhead cover in factory, but this versions missed the war. The antiaircraft-machinegun mount on the back of the turret had not much use. Experienced units tended to move the 50cal to the front, or they mounted another machinegun on the gun mantlet.
The combined arms teamplay success was overshadowed by the lack of compatible radios. Armor, infantry, TDs, they all radioed on different frequencies. The TDs overcame the problem on such a way, that the company or platoon leader took a spare set and went to the HQ of the supported task force, and the TDs on the field were led by the his deputy. From November, 1944, several units exchanged radios, standardised common frequencies, but the obligate trust in liaison officers, hand and flagsignals, preliminary briefing was more typical.
TD officers coordinated the deployment of heavy antiaircraft batteries in antitank role during the winter of 1944. Like In Italy, tank destroyers were employed as indirect firing artillery in Northwestern Europe. The American economy had started to revert into peacetime production after D-Day, and an artillery ammunition-shortage appeared by the late autumn of 1944. The attached TD battalions had to help out the always overladen divisional artillery.
Tank platoons of the infantry were escorted by 1-2 TDs. Tiny, two-gun sections supported rifle company-based combat teams. When the 9th Armored Division captured the Remagen bridge by suprsise on 7th, March, 1945, the first company of tanks was followed by a platoon of M18 TDs through the intact bridge. The tactics of overwatching tank destroyers from North-Africa reappeared sometimes in Europe, but there wasn’t any standard or recommended tank-TD formation; the troops on the field had to invent these themselves. The TDs formed the armored spearhead sometimes, but they could be found at the end of the armored column as well.
In the shadow of the setting sun and the Lend and Lease
Technically, the first vehicles built as TDs fought and lost yet in the Philippines, but not as tank destroyers. The 50 M3 gun halftacks were part of a provisional artillery group, some of them was found fighting under Japaneese insignia three years later. Where the Sixth Army took part in the battles of the Pacific the TDs followed. The first M10s entered combat on the Kwajalein-atoll, but they were around on Peleliu. Five battalions fought in he Philippines, two additional units joined that campaign. The Imperial Japaneese Army had only scattered light armor, and the organic antitank weapons of the infantry could deal with them. The TDs had to deal with Japaneese fortifications instead. The M18 Hellcat took part of the Okinawa Campaign, the TDs fired incendiary projectiles with delayed fuse setting into the openings of tunnel systems. The casualities among the crews were high due to the fanatical close assaults and snipers. The Army TDs demanded close cover by the infantry, and put multiple extra machineguns on the vehicles.
The British called their Lend and Lease-d M10s Wolverines, the American never called their M10s like that. The limey M10s with the 17 pounder were never called as Achilles, either. The 17 pounder conversion took a rapid start right before the European invasion. 1017 M10s were converted from May, 1944 to the end of the war, that’s two-third of the total vehicles received. The British did not keep the tank destroyer organisation, but the Wolverines were much better than previous antitank portees. The British M10s belonged to the antitank artillery and formed one company (12 guns) of each divisional antitank regiment. Seven such antitank regiments fought in Normandy. The British Army established a self-propelled mounts only on the first day policy for artillery; the M10s secured the beaches against an armored counterattack on D-Day. The highes number of 17 pounder armed M10s was around 300 in fifteen regiments at the end of the war. One interesting deployment of the Commonwealth M10s was the support of infantry tank battalions. The slow and heavily armored Churchill tanks lacked a high velocity gun. They were next to helpless against German armor, so the attached M10s covered their movement with their more antitank-oriented armament. The Free French received 227 M10s for eight self-propelled antitank regiments; they kept them until the mid-fifties. The Soviet Union had two independent antitank artillery regiments with 52 M10s altogether, the 1223rd and the 1239th. The latter fought alongside Su-85s in Belorussia and Poland, the 1223rd reached the Baltic states and Eastern Prussia.
Disbanded, but not forgotten
The history of the American Tank Destroyer could be described as the most successful failure. What is behind this oxymoron? The TDs were a well-prepared, hard-fighting arm. Their presence was influental from North Africa to the Elbe, they took jobs they were not designed or trained for. The TDs were most effective if they were integrated in the infantry antitank defense, otherwise the concept itself was impractical. The time of the massed Panzer forces had passed, the Blitzkrieg gave up its place to the war of attrition where the artillery and air forces prevailed. The continental armies took a combined arms approach, and the American TDs never fought fought en masse in Europe as envisioned.
The very existance of the TD branch and the lack of tank vs tank combat experience hampered the rearmament of the M4 medium tanks before D-Day. Several field commanders with combat experience strived for the 90 mm gun instead of the 76 mm in the T23 turret, but their effort wasn’t critical. The U.S. Army faced the same shock about the inadequancy of its tanks and tank armament in Normandy as the Germans did in Russia three years earlier. The Sherman tank could mount the 90 mm gun without much difficulties, and such tanks could have been produced from August, 1944 at latest, making the M36 tank destroyer redundant. In retrospective, the decision of waiting for the new brand new but untried T26 instead was unfortunate; the American tankers had to face the Ardennes offensive with inferior equipment. The main concern was the lack of effective gun.
It has a gun and armor, it has tracks, it’s a tank: that was the view of the infantry about the TDs, which is understandable from the point of view that the former needed more tank support. The infantry divisions strived for an organic tank battalion in each rifle regiment instead of one TD and one tank battalion attached to a division. The post war budget approach viewed the controversial arm as surplus. the Tank Destroyer Command was disbanded without a successor in November, 1945. George C. Patton was right, the tank destroyer became another tank. The remaining TDs were released for military aid along with hundreds of various Sherman variants. The reorganizing Western European armies took them as cheap and easy way to maintain an antitank force until better tanks arrive.
The original article appeared in the Haditechnika (Military Technology) magazine by the same author in 2011.
The Tommy-helmets on these soldiers tell that this photo about the M3 TD was taken yet in the United States.
The M6 Fargo was meant to fight light tanks, the 37 mm gun was ineffective against a Pz IV over 100 meters.
The later type transmission cover shows that this is a gasoline-engine M10A1.
The big white star draw the fire of the enemy, but the obvious marker was needed to distinguish the M18 from the German tanks with similar silhouette.
The black panther became the insignia of tank destroyers.
A knocked out Panzer IV „salutes” one M36 ofthe 703rd TD. This unit was temporarily attached to the 82nd Airborne Division under the Battle of the Bulge. The cold was such that the turret traverse mechanisms froze.
The British M10s with the 17 pd gun can be recognized after the double chambered muzzle brake. The rivets on the hull were joint points for otherwise never used applique armor.
TDs from a different era. The M36s in Yugoslavia were upgraded with the diesel engine of the T-55 and modern, local cumulative ammunition.
M36 in indirect fire role. The Americans insisted on higher gun barrel life at the cost of powder charge and muzzle velocity.
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