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MARK R. HENRY, MIKE CHAPPELLTHE
Mine-planting, Hotton, Belgium, December 1944: a GI - probably from the 51st Engineer Combat Battalion, a 1st Army unit operating with Combat Command R of 3rd Armored Division - carefully places an anti-tank mine to slow up the advance of 116th Panzer Division during the German offensive in 'the Bulge'. On 21 December this important bridge over the Ourthe was successfully defended by a scratch force of HQ personnel, engineers and two Sherman tanks. This man wears his cartridge belt hanging open on its suspenders, for comfort.
As well as having guns with about twice the effective range of the US 75mm, the Panther and Tiger were massively armoured. Despite the introduction of the 76mm Sherman in mid-1944, tanks with the new turret only replaced about half of the 75mm Shermans with front-line battalions before VE-Day. The 76mm gun had better armour penetration but a weak HE shell, no WT round, and left room for the stowage of 30 per cent fewer shells. Although some generals - including Patton - were unconvinced of the need for the new gun, after the 76mm Sherman reached the front it was a high-demand item and many 75mm tanks were retrofitted. Units sometimes borrowed the new High Velocity Armor Penetrating (HVAP) ammo or 'hyper-shot' from M18 tank destroyer battalions, giving their 76mm Shermans 50 per cent more penetration at under 500 yards; even so, the 76mm often 'scuffed' rather than penetrated the heavier German tanks. Only the appearance in small numbers of the 90mm M36 tank destroyer in late 1944, and of M26 Pershing tanks in 1945, theoretically gave American tankers the edge. However, other factors outweighed the bare mathematics of armour thickness and gun power.
US tanks had speed, mechanical reliability, radio co-ordination, fast gun loading and turret speed on their side вЂ” as well as sheer numbers in the field. Centrally, the decision to standardise the versatile MS, M4 and M10 hulls, drive trains and suspensions also gave US Ordnance a huge edge in ease and speed of manufacturing; large numbers of variant models, from self:propelled artillery to armoured recovery vehicles, were produced on these basic chassis. The US production of Shermans alone - 57,000 by July 1945 - represented twice the total tank production of Germany and Britain combined.
Luckily, there were never very many Panthers or more than a handful of Tigers on the battlefield. US armour commanders adapted by bringing the co-ordination of superior numbers, artillery and airpower to an unequalled level as a 'force multiplier'. The provision of good radio communications should not be underestimated as a factor in this success: every US tank bad a receiver (SCR 538), and leaders' tanks - and by 1945 most others - had transmitters and receivers (SCR 508/528). The Sherman platoons manoeuvred to ambush the Panzers, fired WP rounds to blind the enemy, flank- or back-shooting them from short range, playing cat and mouse in cover, and relying on speed and numbers in break-through battles to make the most of their equipment. It is a tribute to the American crews that they were able to fight the US tanks through the 1944/45 ETO campaign and win essentially every major battle. After the German retreat from France in late summer 1944 there was a steady shift, in the US Army's favour, in the level of skills shown by German versus American tank crews.
October 1944: M4 Sherman medium tank of the 32nd or 33rd Armored Regiment, 3rd Armored Division, giving a ride to GIs of the division's 36th Armored Infantry Regiment. Note the extra plate commonly welded on the hull over the ammo stowage area inside. The stack of sandbags on the front might help protect against the contact-detonated Panzerfaust used by German infantry, but were of no practical use against the AP shot of tanks and anti-tank guns.
US armoured divisions were configured into three fighting brigades or 'combat commands' (CCA, CCB, and CCR). Combat Commands A and B were fluid organisations embracing various infantry, tank and artillery units and attachments as the mission required. Combat Command R (for Reserve) was commonly the smallest CC and usually composed of resting or left-over units.
Most US tanks were given standard model designations, e.g. M4 Medium. The British, who were heavy users of US tanks, had a tradition of naming the types, and gave them American generals' names - Stuart for the M3 Light, Grant and Lee for different versions of the M3 Medium, and Sherman for the M4 Medium. The GIs adopted most of these names, and the Army began officially naming tank models by the end of the war. The crews commonly grew attached to their vehicles and sometimes named them individually, usually using the initial letter of their company (i.e., B Co - Betty, Barbara, Beauty, etc).
Development of the M26 Pershing heavy tank was suddenly given high priority in autumn 1944. Weighing 46 tons and mounting a 90mm M3 gun, it was capable of knocking out most German tanks. The Pershing began arriving at the front by February 1945, the 3rd and 9th Armored Divisions receiving the first limited issue. By VE-Day, of the 700 built, 310 were in the ETO and 200 of these were in combat units. Some M26s arrived in Okinawa in August 1945 too late to see use.
The US Army fouglu in Tunisia with both the M3 and improved M5 Stuart 16-ton light tank. Armed with an M6 37mm main gun and the to their specialised anti-tank mission GIs referred to the TDs as 'can openers'. The TD concept was abandoned and units were disbanded in 1946.
Germany, 1945: in the streets of a captured town a GI - apparently wearing a Parsons jacket over winter overalls - poses for an Army photographer in front of an M5A1 Stuart light tank. Note the 'duckbill' extensions to widen the track and give better floatation on soft ground - this was also a problem for the M4 Sherman. By the time of the November 1942 Operation Torch landings in North Africa the Stuart was already completely out-gunned and under-armoured for combat against Panzers, but it served on until 1945 in the reconnaissance role.