MARK R. HENRY, MIKE CHAPPELLTHE
US ARMY IN WORLD WAR II. NORTH-WEST EUROPE
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.
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.
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.
A major mission of the combat engineers was dealing with mines. Both the US anti-tank (M1A1) and anti-personnel mine were considered adequate but underpowered. The Hawkins mine was a light device capable (just) of blowing the track off a tank, and was used primarily by Airborne troops in Normandy. For mine location and lifting the SCR 625 mine detector was used; this could find metal mines buried up to 18 inches deep. It was fragile, however; not waterproof; and required the operator to stand exposed while using it. Probes or bayonets carefully shoved into the earth at a 30-degree angle, by GIs inching forward and making a finger-Up search of the ground ahead, were a common if nerve-racking expedient.
Belgium, winter 1944: 90mm anti-aircraft gunners of the 11th AA Group firing furiously in an attempt to bring down a German V-1 flying bomb on its way to Antwerp or London. Several belts of US and British AA units were set up to try to counter this new threat.
The Japanese rarely used buried mines but the Germans frequently employed them. For anti-personnel work the German 'S' mine or 'Bouncing Betty' was commonly encountered; once set off by a 71b foot pressure the initial charge blew the mine about 4ft into the air before the bursting charge sent the shrapnel filling scything in all directions. The smaller 'Schu' mine was made of wood and thus difficult to detect; its ½lb to 2lb charge was capable of shattering a man's leg and blowing off his foot. The Teller mine was the powerful German anti-tank pattern. Many of these mines were booby-trapped when laid to prevent their extraction. The GIs did not envy the combat engineer his job.
In addition to mine detection, engineers also used explosives themselves. The British-developed 'Bangalore torpedo' was a 5ft long, 2in diameter pipe filled with 8.51bs of ammonium nitrate explosive. Bangalores were pushed ahead on the surface of the ground to clear obstacles; as well as cutting wire entanglements - their primary purpose - they could set off concealed enemy mines by sympathetic detonation. (A disadvantage was that nearby mines which were not set off by the explosion would commonly become 'tenderised', i.e. very sensitive and hazardous.) Sections of pipe could be fitted together to lengthen the charge; a larger version called a 'snake' was also used. Other explosives used by combat engineers included 'primacord' (detcord), and ½lb or 1lb blocks of TNT.
Bridging was another primary function of engineers. Pneumatic raft pontoon bridges were common, as was the use of the British-developed prefabricated steel girder Bailey bridge with a 40-ton loading capacity (i.e. capable of carrying tanks). The Bailey was quick to put in, but erecting it was found to be a difficult and dangerous task for the engineers; the US Army was slow to embrace the Bailey, although it revolutionised the deployment of tactical bridges. It should be noted that the Army accepted the Corps of Engineers requirement that tanks have a limited width and weight (30-35 tons) to match existing tactical bridging capacity. This limitation further slowed the development of a heavier modernised tank.
Mine-clearing, Trier, Germany, March 1945: engineers from the 10th Armored Division pay the price of getting it wrong. The nearer casualty has a chance, and the medics are dressing his badly injured face, left arm and left leg (note that the left-hand medic has his own serial number stencilled on top of his helmet). The casualty lying ignored in the background seems to be dead already from massive head injuries.
The development and characteristics of US tanks in World War II is a vast subject covered in detail in many other publications (for two, see the inside back cover). The following brief notes are intended only as a very basic introduction.
The majority of US vehicles of the 1940s were gasoline (petrol) powered and mechanically very reliable. Unfortunately, tanks using gasoline (as opposed to diesel fuel) are more likely to burst into flames when hit. The German and British nicknames for the M4 Sherman, 'Tommy Cooker' and 'Ronson' - after a popular brand of cigarette lighter - were significant: over 60 per cent of knocked-out Shermans burned. (The greatest factor in the initial detonation was loose or unprotected stowage of main gun ammunition, however.) Nevertheless, the Sherman series was the best tank available to the Western Allies in early 1942; and faced by the vast task of outfitting not only US but also Allied armies, America kept the Sherman in production throughout the war. It weighed between 30 and 35 tons, mounted a short 75mm gun and two or three machine guns, and had a crew of five; maximum armour thickness was 50mm (hull) and 75mm (turret).
In the constant race with German designers, US tanks rapidly fell behind in both armour protection and main armament. By the time of the Tunisian campaign the Sherman was already being outclassed by the new long 75mm gun mounted in late models of the German PzKw IV, but US tank losses were written off as due to poor training and tactics, soon to be corrected. The Sicilian and southern Italian campaigns saw minimal tank-vs-tank action: and the US Army landed in France in June 1944 expecting the Sherman to do well against the opposition. The actual experience of the crews - at first trapped in the tight country of the Normandy borage, where the defending Germans had all the advantages - soon produced a 'Tiger psychosis'. US tanks were unable to inflict or survive significant damage in straightforward confrontations with the German 75mm PzKw V Panther at most battle ranges, or at virtually any range against the massive 88mm PzKw VI Tiger.
Comparatively speaking, the .Allied types were both under-gunned and under-armoured - sometimes chronically so - throughout the war. Thin armour on tank destroyers and Stuart tanks, and barely adequate armour on the Sherman, is evidenced in many photos by the piling of sandbags and extra track plates on the hull fronts. This was nothing more than a 'bandaid' to make the crew feel better; the provision of extra plates welded to the sides over the ammo stowage areas was of more help, as was the water-jacket 'wet stowage' Fitted to some Shermans. The M4A3E2 Jumbo which appeared in autumn 1944 was a Sherman with frontal armour protection essentially doubled; placed at the front of tank columns to act as an anti-tank fire 'magnet', it was successful, but only 254 were built.
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 — 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.
For identification purposes US vehicles were usually marked with prominent white stars; each theatre of operations had its own variation as to how these were to be applied. By 1944. GIs believed the stars, stripes and rings were too high profile and gave the enemy an aiming point, so these markings were commonly dirtied, reduced or painted over. For identification from the air high visibility coloured and shaped recognition panels and flags were used.
A semi-standardised system of unit number/letter bumper/hull markings was developed, using flat white stencilling. The standard order, seen from left to right facing the vehicle, was division-regiment- company-vehicle; the company letter and vehicle number were usually separated from the divisional and unit numbers. Armies used an 'A', artillery used 'F' or 'FA', infantry used 'I', Airborne used 'AB', headquarters used HQ', TDs used 'TD' and Armored units used a triangle. Thus e.g.: 751-2911 B6 would identify 75th Infantry Division. 291st Infantry Regiment. B Company, vehicle 6; and 82AB-505AB A2 identified 82nd Airborne Division, 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment. A Company, vehicle 2.
The M10 was the first TD vehicle specially designed for the AT mission. It mounted the M7 3in (75mm) naval gun, which could penetrate 3ins of steel at 1,000 yards - a more powerful weapon than the M3 75mm of the Sherman. The gun could fire HE, AP, canister and smoke. More than 7,000 of this 33-ton vehicle had been built when production stopped in late 1943. The workhorse of the TD units, it saw action in North Africa, Italy and throughout the ETO, and to a limited extent in the Pacific.