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MARK R. HENRY, MIKE CHAPPELLTHE
US ARMY IN WORLD WAR II. NORTH-WEST EUROPE

Anti-tank guns

In 1939 production of the M3 37mm anti-tank gun began; this was generally based on the German 37mm, and over 20,000 were made in 1939-43. This drop-breach gun weighed just over 9001bs (408kg) and was used both as an AT gun and in the M3/M5 Stuart tank series; it could fire HE, AP, and a very useful canister ('grapeshot') round. The 37mm was adequate for use against Japanese tanks, but by the time of its deployment against the Germans in Tunisia it was ineffective. By 1944 the 37mm was only to be seen in the Pacific and in US light tanks.

The need for a heavier AT gun led to US production of the current British 6-pounder (57mm). The US M1 57mm weighed 2,700 lbs (1225kg) and fired AP or HE rounds, and was known for its vicious recoil. Some 16,000 had been made when production ceased in 1944; although it continued in service throughout the war it was obsolete for AT work by that date.

July 1944: in the wrecked streets of St L6, Normandy, GIs unhitch a 57mm anti-tank gun from a halftrack smothered in their slung packs. This US version of the British 6-pdr AT gun was barely adequate by 1944 standards but was used for lack of anything better.

The M5 3in (75mm) artillery piece was used for anti-tank work with good results in Tunisia. With a redesigned gunshield this 2.5-ton piece gave effective service until VE-Day. The M2 90mm AT gun used in the M36 tank destroyer and M26 tank was also built as a split-trail towed AT gun, but none reached combat before VE-Day.

Anti-aircraft guns

The US began the war with the M2 3in AA gun and a new M1 90mm gun. Also quick to come on line was the SCR 268/584 radar fire control system. A M2 90mm gun with gunshield was produced in 1943 which could be used for both AT and AA fire. The combination of radar guidance and the VT fuze made this AA gun extremely effective. The M2 weighed 16 tons and could fire up to 34,000 feet (10,360m, 6 miles). A 120mm AA gun was fielded in 1945 that could fire over 47,000 feet (14,325 meters).

For tactical AA defence both the water- and air-cooled ,50cal machine guns were used, as was the M1 US version of the British 40mm Bofors gun. The M16/17 halftrack mounting quadruple .50s in an electrically powered Maxson turret was the most common AA seen at unit level; some 3,500 were built from May 1943. A towed trailer version of the quad mount, and an M15 halftrack with two .50s and one 37mm gun, were less common.

Tactical air support

Air forces naturally tend to see their roles as fighting for air superiority and attacking strategic targets; ground troops are only marginally assisted by such operations. The German Blitzkrieg of 1940 had demonstrated that aircraft could also be used as mobile artillery, but the US Army Air Corps was reluctant to be tied down to directly supporting ground actions. This to some extent negated Allied air superiority over the battlefield, and in Tunisia and Sicily it was usually the Luftwaffe that did the strafing and fighterbombing. By 1944 Air Corps Gen Quesada planned to rectify this failure in the ETO by assigning special teams of airmen — including experienced pilots — to accompany spearhead ground units as liaison officers.

The Ninth Air Force had seven tactical fighter bomber groups (each usually of three squadrons) and one photo-recce group, specifically tasked with supporting the ground troops. Each corps, division, armoured combat command and mechanised cavalry group headquarters had an AAF radio team; Tactical Air Liaison Officers rode radio-equipped jeeps (and sometimes tanks) with forward units, vectoring the P-47s onto immediate targets just like artillery FOs; ground-fired smoke and WP rounds were also used to mark targets for the aviators. This tighter coordination between ground and air became a critical part in the success of US ground operations.

Operation Varsity, the Allied airborne crossing of the Rhine in March 1945, saw the first combat use of the 'recoilless rifle'; both the M18 57mm and M20 75mm were issued in limited numbers. Here GIs of the 17th Airborne Division prepare to fire the 57mm weapon, which was found to be an excellent replacement for the 2.36in bazooka; it fired HE and smoke as well as AP rounds. Note that the gunner has sewn a carbine ammo pouch to the sleeve of his M1943 field jacket.

It was also over the objections of the Air Corps that L4 Piper Cub 'Grasshopper' planes were procured for scouting and FO work. By 1944 the co-ordination between the Grasshoppers and the artillery was such that the appearance of this low, slow, flimsy and unarmed light aircraft could paralyse an entire German sector.

ENGINEERS

The combat engineer battalion assigned to each division was an important and valuable asset. They received some of the most rigorous training in the Army. Engineers were generally well armed and provided with .50cal machine guns and flamethrowers as well as mines and explosives. They were responsible for the bulldozers and bridging equipment so vital for breaching obstacles. Considering the multiple skills displayed by the engineers, it was the common GI joke that 'At least they were learning a trade'.

In Normandy, the engineers blasted holes in the massive banked hedgerows and, along with Ordnance, welded the Cullin pronged hedgerow-busting devices to the fronts of tanks. The following winter the 1128th Engineer Combat Group in Bastogne and engineer units throughout the Bulge repeatedly proved themselves key players in delaying and stopping the German spearheads.

The bulldozer was essentially an American invention, and it proved a life-saver in building and maintaining the logistical link between the front lines and the supply depots. In the Pacific it was the 'dozer that created resupply lines and airstrips in the jungles of New Guinea and the Philippines. Some bulldozers were fitted with an armoured cab because of snipers; and for obstacle-clearance under fire 'dozer blades were also fitted to Sherman tanks.

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