Steel Victory: The Heroic Story of America's Independent Tank Battalions at War in Europe

Steel Victory: The Heroic Story of America's Independent Tank Battalions at War in Europe

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by Harry E. Yeide
     
 

Steel VictoryHarry YeideAdvancing at the speed of the infantry, the U.S. Army independent tank battalions ground slowly across the continent during World War II, from the bloody beaches of Normandy; through forests, villages, and cities in France, Belgium, and Germany; and into Czechoslovakia at the war’s end. Greater in number than the battalions in the vaunted… See more details below

Overview

Steel VictoryHarry YeideAdvancing at the speed of the infantry, the U.S. Army independent tank battalions ground slowly across the continent during World War II, from the bloody beaches of Normandy; through forests, villages, and cities in France, Belgium, and Germany; and into Czechoslovakia at the war’s end. Greater in number than the battalions in the vaunted armor divisions, the infantry tanks were doled out to a platoon here and a company there to undertake the war’s dirtiest mission–prying enemy troops from every position across the breadth of the great Allied offensive line of 1944-45. The bold American tank infantry teams of WWII’s European theater have become the stuff of legend. But the true details of their amazing missions have never been revealed in one comprehensive work of popular history . . . until now.

Using the words of the tank soldiers themselves, and the radio logs of their real-time communications, Harry Yeide vividly brings back all the men and machines of this crucial method of combat–one that, in the end, may have won the war. Here are startling revelations of the treacherous fighting, and the challenges and dangers of battling a better-equipped enemy in outmoded, slow-moving “death traps.” Inside you will discover:

• Tank commanders were often trained only for invasion–and were given no tactical training for what to do after penetrating the maze of hedgerows
• Tankers learned to fear their own air force in friendly fire from the “American Luftwaffe”
• Due to inadequate periscopes, commanders often entered battles with their heads stuck out of the turrets,becoming “priority targets” for German snipers
• Many tanks sank 1,000 to 5,000 feet away from the Normandy shore on D day.

Steel Victory recounts how tank planning, expertise, and accuracy grew as the war roared on–and reveals the inside story of how tank battalions turned the tide in the Battle of the Bulge and other major encounters of the European war. Here is an honest, painstakingly researched history of these man-driven vehicles that, in the words of one soldier, “saved the day, shot the hell out of the Germans, and had the hell shot out of them.”Harry Yeide is an international affairs analyst with the federal government. He has worked primarily with political and security/military issues, writing assessments for the president of the United States and senior policymakers. Yeide lives with his wife in Maryland.

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780891417828
Publisher:
Random House Publishing Group
Publication date:
12/02/2003
Edition description:
1ST
Pages:
336
Product dimensions:
5.82(w) x 8.50(h) x 1.15(d)

Meet the Author

Harry Yeide is an international affairs analyst with the federal government. He has worked primarily with political and security/military issues, writing assessments for the president of the United States and senior policymakers. Yeide lives with his wife in Maryland.

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1

GENERAL McNAIR’S CHILDREN


By the time dirt-grimed tankers rolled up to the assembly area south of Isigny and staff officers had gone out to report that the 743d had arrived as ordered, the XIX Corps had already planned an attack for the 30th [Infantry] Division. . . .

Move Out, Verify: The Combat History of the 743d Tank Battalion

Fifty-four medium tanks, model M4 Sherman; 6 assault guns, model M4 mounting 105mm howitzers; 17 light tanks, usually model M5 Stuart; 750 officers and men. Mere “attachments” to the infantry divisions and unglamorous step-sisters to the storied armored divisions, the U.S. Army’s separate tank battalions carried a heavy load in the European Theater of Operations (ETO) in World War II, but tend to get little attention. Their tanks fought beside—and often in front of—the “doughs” of the Big Red One, the Old Hickory Division, and other outfits whose well-earned reputations would not have been as grand were it not for the contributions made by the tank crews and their supporting troops. Soldiering in tanks that many considered outmoded death traps, they gave as good as they got (and often more) against a battle-honed foe who could deploy Panthers, Tigers, and other menacing war machines that excelled at killing from a distance and shrugging off American armor-piercing shells.

Wayne Robinson, who served with and wrote the informal history of the 743d Tank Battalion, described a battalion’s role in these terms:

A separate tank battalion assigned to work with an infantry division fought at the foot soldier’s pace. Its job was to give the doughboy’sattack the added punch that tanks have, to bull ahead when the going got rough, to knock down houses Jerry tried to use as forts, to stop enemy tanks in the counterattacks, to spearhead a way for the doughboy and his rifle, his machine gun, and his mor- tar. . . . Often the doughboy regiment and its attached tank battalion slugged it out with the Jerry on the line for days, inching painfully ahead to engineer an opening in the enemy defenses through which the star ball carriers, the armored divisions, could do their free and fancy open-field running. When this happened, it became the job of the doughboy and his supporting tanks to follow up as fast as they could, moving behind the swift, surging, twenty-mile-a-day drives. The infantry moved and fought, mopping up the pockets of resistance always left in the wake of such drives. But mostly, while the big armor waited in reserve for the quarterback to call their number and set them going through the line, the infantry and the separate tank battalion were in the thick of the line play, fighting and getting hurt, always under fire, within enemy artillery range, doing their work ever at the front of the division’s sector.

The mission of the separate tank battalion as outlined in FM 17-33, 19 December 1944, was as follows:

•To lead the attack.

•To support by direct fire the advance of light tanks, other medium tanks, and ground troops.

•To feel out the enemy and develop weak spots.

•To serve as a reserve for exploiting a success or breaking up a counterattack against the supported unit.

•To accompany the infantry and assist the advance by destroying or neutralizing automatic weapons and pillboxes holding up the advance.

•To fight enemy tanks when necessary.

•To destroy dug-in pillboxes as necessary.

•To reinforce artillery fires.

•To assist the infantry in mop-up.

By the end of the war, infantry and tank commanders appended an additional role on the basis of combat experience: transporting infantry on tanks in fast-moving operations.

A mere four years separated the creation of the first tank battalions from the grueling combat of Normandy, France. Starved of resources, the U.S. Army had allowed its tank force to fade into irrelevance after World War I. Stunned by the German Wehrmacht’s Blitzkrieg through Poland and France, Congress found the money, and the Army re-created an Armored Force on 10 July 1940. The independent tank battalions were part of the scheme from the start, albeit initially as a side show. That they existed at all was the result of a doctrinal dispute between a group consisting mostly of cavalry officers who thought in terms of armored divisions and German-style Blitzkrieg, and a group who viewed tanks as an important infantry- support weapon.

The armored divisions look back on cavalry officers such as George Patton, Adna Chaffee, and Daniel Van Voorhis as their forebears; all were men who realized the tank’s potential in warfare and argued their cause. Chaffee became the first commander of the Armored Force, and the swashbuckling Patton became the U.S. Army’s most effective practitioner of mechanized warfare in the ETO. Despite the establishment of a separate Armored Force (in part to end the wrangling between the cavalry and infantry over the control and use of tanks), cavalry officers largely determined the organization, doctrine, and mission of the armored divisions.

Fittingly for the independent tank battalions, their most important patron during the early evolution of the Armored Force was the decidedly unglamorous, hard-of-hearing Lt. Gen. Lesley J. McNair, who, as commander of the General Headquarters (GHQ), lacked any clear authority over the newly created organization. His views on the subject nevertheless carried great weight at the War Department. Along with other senior infantry officers, McNair continued to champion the traditional infantry-support role of armor, which had a pedigree dating back to World War I. Whether or not this was wise lies in the eye of the beholder and admits to no authoritative answer. Military historian David Johnson, in an innovation-themed study of the Army during this period, concluded, “The GHQ [i.e., separate] tank units were memorials to the War Department’s reluctance to completely discard its conventional tank wisdom for a new concept.” Johnson himself concedes, however, that the cavalry officers in the Armored Force were perfectly comfortable with an infantry-support role for some of the tank battalions. And infantry commanders throughout the war expressed strong support for the concept. As a pragmatic answer, the arrangement worked in the ETO.

As of 1940, the War Department contemplated the activation of only fifteen GHQ tank battalions organized under three Reserve (later Tank and then Armored) Group headquarters. McNair was convinced from the start that the Armored Force was the most wasteful of the ground arms in its use of men and equipment, and he argued in 1942 and 1943 that the armored divisions were bloated and unwieldy. Combat experience helped McNair make his case by showing that tanks frequently needed escort by foot troops to locate and destroy antitank defenses. In 1943, McNair wrote in a memorandum: “It is believed that our 1943 troop basis has entirely too many armored divisions, considering their proper tactical employment, and too few GHQ tank battalions. It is particularly important that the latter be available in quantities to permit all infantry divisions to work with them freely and frequently.”

In part due to McNair’s influence, the armored divisions were reorganized twice, first in March 1942 and again in September 1943. The latter affected all but the 2d and 3d Armored divisions and released two battalions per division into the GHQ pool. Standard separate battalions were made identical to the divisional battalions and hence could theoretically be attached to armored divisions—although that did not occur directly in even a single case in the European campaign. Prior to the reshuffle, a sharp distinction existed between medium and light tank battalions. Afterward, although a few light tank battalions continued to exist, the vast majority were mixed. Each had three medium tank companies (seventeen tanks each), one light tank company (seventeen tanks), and six assault guns (Shermans mounting a 105mm howitzer in place of the normal 75mm cannon). The battalions also became administratively self-contained, each receiving a service company and a headquarters company.

Several tank battalions (701st, 736th, 738th, 739th, 740th, and 748th) were organized as special battalions under T/O & E (Table of Organization and Equipment) 17-45S and equipped largely with M3 Grants mounting special searchlights and code-named Canal Defense Lights (CDLs). Each CDL battalion had a headquarters company, a service company, and three medium-tank companies, each with three platoons consisting of six CDL tanks and one standard fighting tank. Each company also had two standard tanks as command tanks, and battalion headquarters had three more.

Developed by the British in 1939, the CDL project was shared with the United States in 1942 with the proviso that American forces would not use the equipment without checking with London first. Moreover, the components would be manufactured by different firms and assembled under military supervision in order to maintain secrecy. The primary mission of CDL tanks was to provide illumination for aimed fire at night. Secondary missions included dazzling enemy soldiers with a flicker effect and protecting friendly foot troops in triangles of darkness formed between adjacent lights. Training, conducted in strictest secrecy at Fort Knox, Kentucky, and the Desert Training Center at Indio, California, was completed between December 1943 (736th and 748th) and April 1944 (739th). No CDL battalion was used in combat as such. In light of the need for more standard battalions to support infantry divisions, the U.S. European command on 23 October 1944 requested permission to convert four special battalions to standard battalions. The War Department agreed, and the 701st, 736th, 740th, and 748th were so converted; the 738th and 739th were converted to mine exploder battalions.

The separate battalions, then, came from three sources. The first independent tank battalion, the 70th, was created alongside the 1st and 2d Armored divisions on 15 July 1940, originally as a light tank battalion. From the start, it was to support infantry divisions and operate under their command.

A second wave of independent battalions was activated in 1941–43 to fill out the pool of units that McNair envisioned as a flexible force to strengthen infantry or armored divisions as needed. Indeed, the Armored Force initially referred to these units as reserve tank battalions. These included the 191st–194th (pulled together from National Guard tank companies), 701st– 702d, 735th–764th, 766th–767th, and 781st–785th battalions.

The third group of independent battalions resulted from the reorganization of the armored divisions in late 1943. These included the 706th–718th, 771st–780th, and 786th–788th. The 712th and 777th Tank battalions, for example, were separated from the 10th Armored Division on 20 September 1943.

From the initially planned fifteen separate battalions, the number of such units rose to twenty-six by late 1942, forty-one by mid-1943, and sixty-five by late 1944. The separate battalions by that time outnumbered the fifty-four battalions incorporated into armored divisions. As of 1 January 1945, thirty-one separate battalions were in the ETO: the 70th, 191st, 701st, 702d, 707th, 709th, 712th, 735th, 736th, 737th, 738th MX (mine exploder), 739th MX, 740th, 741st, 743d, 744th Light, 745th, 746th, 747th, 748th, 749th, 750th, 753d, 756th, 759th Light, 761st, 771st, 774th, 778th, 781st, and 784th.14 (Rich Anderson’s list—corrected here—mistakenly includes the 40th, which was actually part of the 7th Armored Division, and omits the 784th, which is reported attached to the 104th Infantry Division beginning 31 December 1944.)

THE ARMORED GROUP

Independent tank battalions initially were subordinated to an armored group headquarters. McNair envisioned armored groups as performing the role of armored divisions. He thought that battalions of tanks, armored infantry, and armored artillery from nondivisional pools could be flexibly attached to the headquarters, but this did not work out in practice.

Armored groups wound up playing a rather peculiar role, generally as the coordinator of armor-related issues within a corps. The after-action reports (AARs) of the tank battalions indicate that the armored group headquarters now and again exercised tactical control over tanks in combat. More generally, however, they provided services such as coordinating equipment upgrades; scheduling chaplain services, Red Cross Clubmobile visits, stage shows, and movies; obtaining replacement tanks and ammo; and arranging for special equipment such as mine-clearing tanks. They collected information on and inspected their battalions, exercised command authority when those battalions were between attachments to infantry divisions, and sometimes passed orders from the corps or division to the battalions.

Some armored groups played different roles. The 4th Armored Group, for example, specialized in preparing tank and amphibious units for operations in the Pacific.16 The 5th Armored Group was organized solely to oversee the activation of several battalions manned by black enlisted men and largely white officers, including the 758th Light, 761st, and 784th Tank battalions; it was deactivated in December 1944.

Beginning October 1944, armored groups in the ETO were judged redundant and were gradually attached to armored divisions to provide a more robust headquarters capability for their combat command reserve (CCR) elements. A small detachment was carved off each group to remain as the corps armored section. The first so treated was the 3d Armored Group, which was attached to the 5th Armored Division. By the end of the war, this practice had become general.

FROM ACTIVATION TO INVASION


As the independent tank battalions stood up, they often obtained cadre troops—those needed to form the organizational skeleton of a unit—from another battalion. An order from Headquarters, Armored Force on 16 March 1942 indicated that ten of the twelve then existing independent tank battalions were to be manned at their T/O & E strength “plus a cadre equivalent over strength” in order to provide trained troops later to newly activated battalions. The 746th Tank Battalion, for example, drew its activating officers from the 760th Tank Battalion and its initial cadre of enlisted men from the 70th Tank Battalion.

Newly formed battalions typically went through a basic-training regimen of about thirteen weeks and qualification on tank weapons, but the details varied from battalion to battalion. Most courses were at the unit’s home base, but some officers and men attended the Armored Training Center at Fort Knox, Kentucky. Some battalions had to conduct their own basic training for raw recruits received directly from replacement centers. The Army’s assumption was that six months was the time required to train a unit for combat. First furloughs followed the completion of basic training. For most men, this was the first opportunity to visit their homes as soldiers. Maneuvers followed, normally in combination with a permanent change of station for the battalion. Major maneuver areas included Camp Polk, Louisiana; and the Desert Training Center, including Camp Young in Indio, California, and Camp Laguna, thirty miles north of Yuma, Arizona.

The country was at war, but despite their warlike preparations, the men were an ocean away—psychologically and physically—from what was to come. The history of the 741st Tank Battalion for 6 April 1942 records: “A demonstration of a company of tanks in attack was given at 1:00 p.m. that day. This demonstration was witnessed by a number of civilians and the remainder of the battalion. Immediately following this, tanks were available for members of this battalion to give tank rides to members of their families.” On 10 November 1942, notes the 743d Tank Battalion diary, one tank and two halftracks took part in a scrap drive in Centralia, Washington, and on 14 November Lieutenant Linsroth took one tank and a halftrack to Seattle to participate in the half-time show of a University of Washington football game. In April 1943, the 747th Tank Battalion hosted a dance for a newly arrived WAAC (Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps) detachment, which the unit diary brags was a “big success.”

The training that the independent tank battalions underwent was to some extent appropriate for what would come. Brand-new outfits were able to learn the basics of fire-and-maneuver as coherent units. The records of the 741st Tank Battalion, which would land in Normandy on D day, indicate that this unit conducted maneuvers with the infantry-heavy 7th Mechanized Division in October 1942 and underwent amphibious training in July 1943. The 70th, another D day assault battalion, underwent amphibious training in June 1941 and practiced tank-infantry cooperation with the 1st Infantry Division in a series of maneuvers later that year.

The tankers in some cases were already learning critical lessons such as the need to establish direct liaison contact with the infantry. There is no indication in the records, however, that such lessons were pulled together and shared among the tank battalions.

In other aspects, the training did not give the soldiers in most outfits a realistic appreciation for, and preparation to handle, the realities they would face in France. In the worst cases, the training appears to have been simply inadequate or to have created unrealistic notions about the likely course of battle.

Homer Wilkes, a lieutenant in the 747th, recalls that for his outfit, “there was no training with the infantry, no training with artillery, no training with air support, and no amphibious training. (However, the men were taught indirect fire with tank cannons by their own officers.) In that condition, the command sailed for England in February 1944.”

The diary of the 743d offers the following account of exercises that probably encouraged the tankers to view themselves as invulnerable less than one year before the battalion would be taking heavy losses in Normandy: “Battalion participated in a maneuver from 27 June 1943 to 14 July 1943. . . . When the enemy armored division attacked just after daybreak, they were stopped with loss of thirty-six tanks, five halftracks, and six wheeled vehicles. The battalion lost one tank and one halftrack. During the remainder of the day, the enemy continued its attacks, hitting at the flanks, but it encountered stubborn resistance each time and sustained losses at the ratio of 20 to 1.”

Training did not include the use of tanks in towns, which was common in European combat.

Battalion records provide no evidence that units were given any practice dealing with known German capabilities (beyond basic enemy vehicle identification training) in the tactical or technical sense. This was true despite contact with the enemy, which for the independent tank battalions occurred as early as 29 December 1942, when the Afrika Korps mauled a platoon of Company A, 70th Tank Battalion, northeast of Pichon, Tunisia.

CHARIOTS OF IRON


The Sherman M4 tank—the nickname adopted from the British, who named American armored equipment after famous Civil War generals—is probably the most simultaneously praised and criticized armored vehicle in history. The M4 in its many variants was the only medium tank used by the independent tank battalions in the ETO. (A few of the M26 Pershing tanks—a medium tank dubbed “heavy” to improve troop morale—saw service with the armored divisions shortly before the end of the war.) Standardized in 1941, the Sherman represented the cutting edge of tank technology. Critics argue, however, that by 1944 the Sherman was effectively obsolete when compared to tanks fielded in western Europe by the Germans. Others argue that the M4 was a remarkably versatile and reliable tank well suited to the American combined-arms approach to war.

The tank battalions landing in Normandy initially were equipped mostly with M4 or M4A1 Shermans (the former had a welded hull, and the latter a cast hull with rounded contours). The thirty-four-ton vehicle had a crew of five (commander, gunner, cannoneer/loader, driver, and assistant driver/ bow gunner or “bog”). Its main armament consisted of a 75mm gun in a fully traversing turret supplemented by a coaxial .30-caliber machine gun, a second .30-caliber mounted in the hull at the assistant driver’s position, and a .50-caliber machine gun mounted outside the commander’s hatch on the turret. The front plate (glacis) of the Sherman had two inches of armor (later increased to two and a half inches), the sides and rear were one and a half inches thick; and the front of the turret was three and a half inches at its thickest. The power plant was a Wright Whirlwind aircraft engine that could push the vehicle close to thirty miles per hour under optimal conditions; M4A3s using Ford engines entered the battalions, too, and the records of some units indicate that these became the preferred variant.

The Sherman was undeniably a compromise to the realities of American production capabilities and shipping capacity—a compromise that arguably lasted longer than necessary. The Sherman, for example, inherited the chassis and engine of its predecessor, the M3 (referred to as the General Lee in American service and the General Grant in British service). The M3 itself had been a massive compromise with the mounting of its main gun in a side sponson that provided only limited traverse. Moreover, Army regulations prohibited vehicles wider than 124 inches because of shipping constraints.26 These restrictions affected how wide the turret could be, which in turn limited the size of the main gun, and how wide the tracks could be, which in turn helped determine the vehicle’s “flotation,” or ability to distribute its weight for maximum maneuverability on soft surfaces such as mud. The need to mount the Wright Whirlwind engine forced a relatively tall design in relationship to the vehicle’s other dimensions.

The Sherman also initially fell victim to official U.S. Army doctrine, formulated by McNair, which saw the role of the tank as infantry support and for fast, deep penetrations of the enemy’s rear once infantry had cracked the main line of resistance. Tank destroyers—not tanks—were supposed to deal with enemy tanks. The close-support role led directly to the selection of a low-velocity 75mm gun for both the M3 and M4. The Army gave little emphasis to providing the Sherman with the kind of armament it needed to kill the latest generation of German tanks until it became clear that, in the real world, American tanks were running into German tanks with some regularity—and often with unhappy results.

The Sherman as Impotent Deathtrap


American tankers had been assured by the Army that they had the finest tank in the world, but it took only a few encounters—particularly with German Panther tanks—for them to realize they had problems. The Sherman’s 75mm gun could deal effectively with the still widely used Panzerkampfwagen IV (always referred to by tankers as the “Mark IV”), but it could not penetrate the glacis of the Panther (Mark V) or Tiger (Mark VI) from any range. All tanks common in German service, meanwhile, could penetrate the thickest armor of the Sherman at all ordinary combat ranges and had superior optics that allowed accurate gunnery at longer distances.28 Indeed, the literature is rife with tales of rounds from the Panther’s long-barreled, high-velocity 75mm cannon and the Tiger’s powerful 88mm gun penetrating Shermans and exiting the other side of the tank. Major Welborn G. Dolvin, commanding officer of the 191st Tank Battalion, summarized the situation from the tanker’s point of view in August 1944 after his outfit had been in action for only two weeks: “The Sherman tank, equipped with the 75mm gun, is no match for . . . the German Mark IV, V, or VI. On numerous occasions, hits were obtained on German tanks with no noticeable results. On the other hand, German high-velocity tank guns never failed to penetrate the Sherman tank. This situation has a tremendous effect on the morale of the tank crews. This was evidenced by reluctance of crews to fire on German tanks, feeling that it would do no good and would result in their being promptly knocked out. Crews soon became ultracautious where German tanks were in the vicinity.”

Shermans also had a nasty tendency to catch fire and burn out completely when hit, which conditioned crews to abandon them at the first sign of trouble. The 743d Tank Battalion, for example, lost ninety-six medium tanks from 6 June 1944 to 8 May 1945, sixty-five of which burned. Crews believed that the use of a gasoline-powered engine, rather than diesel, was the reason for this, but investigation by the Army concluded that burning ammunition propellant from rounds in the Sherman itself was the main cause. Whatever the cause, the following account from the history of the 737th Tank Battalion could describe the experience of any other battalion at one time or another: “[On 3 March] 2d Platoon of Company B working with the 3d Battalion of the 10th Infantry [Regiment of the 5th Infantry Division] advanced toward Ordorf. Suddenly the tanks were subjected to a terrific barrage from five well-camouflaged 88mm AT [antitank] guns [and all] five tanks were set aflame.”

American tankers generally thought that German tanks, with their wide tracks on models subsequent to the Mark IV, had better mobility in mud or snow than theirs did. Tests showed that the Panther was capable of speeds similar to the Sherman’s on surfaced roads.

The Sherman had some irritating mechanical peculiarities, too. In order to prevent hydrostatic lock in tanks with the Whirlwind power plant, for example, a crewman had to hand-crank the engine about fifty turns (which actually turned the engine over five times) before starting. The engine also needed to be operated at above 1,200 rpm to avoid fouling its 18 spark plugs; during periods when advances were measured in yards, there was much engine idling and many fouled plugs. Nonetheless, particularly as compared with German tank engines, the Sherman’s engine variants were all reliable workhorses.

Sherman crews complained of one more characteristic: the Sherman’s high silhouette, which they said was inferior to that of the German tanks. But this gripe, at least, stands up poorly to examination. The Sherman was tall relative to its other dimensions, but not as compared with German tanks. The Sherman equipped with the 75mm gun was nine feet tall (76mm-equipped Shermans were slightly taller), while the Panther was nine feet eight inches high and the Tiger was nine feet five inches. Perhaps tankers should have been grateful that the Sherman presented relatively less target area in the other two dimensions than did their foes.

The Sherman as Effective War Machine

The Army was more than a little defensive about the fighting qualities of the Sherman. Let us stipulate: The Sherman was not capable of going toe-to-toe with Panthers or Tigers on equal terms, particularly at long ranges. Although this problem loomed large in the minds of tankers, such encounters were not the typical daily activity of the infantry-support tank crew, and the Sherman would arguably have been no better at its other missions had it been a Panther. Moreover, the historical record shows that the Sherman was hardly helpless against German armor.

The Army offered a strategic-level defense of the Sherman that probably struck many tankers as a massive rationalization. Nonetheless, wars are won or lost in the big picture. General Patton offered the following observations in a 19 March 1945 letter to The Army and Navy Journal, published on 31 March:

Since 1 August 1944, when the Third Army became operational, our total tank casualties have amounted to 1,136 tanks. During the same period we have accounted for 2,287 German tanks, of which 808 were the Tiger or Panther variety, and 851 on our side were the M4. These figures of themselves refute any inferiority of our tanks, but let me add that the Third Army has always attacked, and therefore better than 70 percent of our tank casualties have occurred from dug-in antitank guns and not enemy tanks, whereas a majority of the enemy tanks have been put out by our tanks.

In the current operation, had the 4th Armored Division been equipped with Tiger and Panther tanks and been required to make the move from Sarreguemines to Arlon, then through to Bastogne, from Bastogne to the Rhine, and now to Mainz, it would have been necessary to re-armor it twice; and furthermore, it would have had serious if not insurmountable difficulty in crossing rivers.

Finally, we must remember that all our tanks have to be transported on steamers, and the difference between forty tons and seventy tons is very marked. The seventy-ton tank could never have been brought ashore in landing boats as many of our medium tanks were. Nor could they have marched from the Cotentin Peninsula to the Rhine as practically all of our tanks have been required to do.

The experiences of at least one independent tank battalion, which kept unusually good aggregate records, seem to support aspects of Patton’s case. The 743d, while losing ninety-six medium tanks during the European campaign (many to antitank guns or bazookas) reported forty-one Mark IV, twenty-six Mark V, four Mark VI, and ten self-propelled guns (eighty-one total) positively destroyed. The battalion also destroyed approximately one hundred pillboxes and machine-gun nests, thirty-six antitank guns, nine field pieces, four armored cars, and approximately one hundred twenty-five miscellaneous wheeled vehicles—the targets expected of the infantry-support tank. On the other hand, the 3d Armored Division reported dramatically higher loss rates in proportional terms. The 3d, one of two “heavy” armored divisions with more tanks than the standard reorganized armored division, entered combat in Normandy with 232 Shermans. The division during the European campaign lost 648 completely destroyed and another 700 knocked out, repaired, and put back into service.

Long-range mobility was, as Patton suggested, a real strength of the Sherman. The M4 used half as much gasoline as did the heavier German tanks, and the Sherman’s track was good for about 2,500 miles, as compared with about 500 miles for the Panther and Tiger.

Moreover, separate tank battalion loss rates suggest that one of the Sherman’s main weaknesses was inexperienced crews. Units tended to suffer a substantial portion of their total losses for the war in their first few weeks of combat, after which the tankers who survived evidently learned how to fight more effectively. Consider the following examples. The sixteen tanks lost by the 743d on D day alone accounted for 17 percent of its total Sherman losses for the war; the 737th, attached to the 35th Infantry Division, entered combat on 14 July. It lost twenty-three Shermans in its first three days of fighting, 35 percent of its total losses for the war. The 750th, attached to 104th “Timberwolf” Infantry Division, endured its first real combat on 16 November 1944 near Aachen and lost thirty-five tanks in the first seven days of fighting, an astonishing 61 percent of the battalion’s total medium tank losses; the battalion’s AAR specifically draws attention to inexperience as a contributing factor in the losses.

Copyright© 2003 by Harry Yeide

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