Armored Champion: The Top Tanks of World War II (2015)

CHAPTER 8

The 1944 Tank Contest

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WITH THE ALLIED LANDINGS IN NORMANDY ON D-DAY, 6 June 1944, the war in Europe became a true two-front battle. By May 1944, German tank strength in the west exceeded that on the Russian Front as the Wehrmacht prepared for the invasion. The Wehrmacht became badly overextended and suffered a crushing series of defeats. The Red Army’s Operation Bagration offensive in late June 1944 crushed Army Group Center and propelled the Red Army out of the Soviet Union and into Poland. Further offensives to the south put the Red Army into Romania by late summer and so sealed Germany’s fate by cutting off its principal source of oil.

In the West, the U.S. Army’s Operation Cobra offensive started the Normandy breakout. Hitler responded by launching a futile and costly counterattack at Mortain. The panzer divisions for this counterattack had been resisting the relentless British armor attacks around Caen. With the Caen Front weakened and the Mortain counterattack crushed, the Wehrmacht’s precarious defenses collapsed. In August 1944, much of the German army in the west was trapped in the Falaise pocket and the subsequent pockets on the Seine River, and around Mons in Belgium. With the panzer force grossly evaporating, Hitler had to decide whether to put the focus on East or West. He gambled on a last-ditch offensive in the west, while at the same time trying to hold back the Red Army in the east. The majority of new tanks went to the West to rebuild for the Ardennes offensive.

TANK BATTLES IN THE EAST: RED ARMY UPGRADES

By 1944, the Red Army was deploying a substantial and powerful armored force. On 1 January 1944 it totaled 23 tank and mechanized corps, 46 tank and other armored brigades, and 106 tank and other armored regiments, with 24,400 tanks and assault guns. There were numerous tactical improvements in the mechanized force. On the personnel side, the Red Army had moved away from its wasteful early war practices and made a greater effort to preserve specialized tank crews in the wake of costly battles for the reconstitution of the tank formations rather than expending them as surrogate riflemen and starting from scratch with new tank crews. A cadre of well-trained officers had gradually been created, even if the Red Army still lacked a modern NCO corps. The mechanized force had deepened the motorization of the motor-rifle troops of the tank and mechanized corps, thanks to the influx of Lend-Lease American all-terrain trucks.

On the equipment side, the German introduction of the Panther and Tiger tank at the Battle of Kursk led to a crash program in late 1943 to rejuvenate the Soviet tank force. The previous policy of favoring quantity over quality was abandoned. By this stage, the Soviet tank factories were on much sounder footing. A largely unheralded U.S. effort to provide industrial support included a stream of scarce materials and machine tools. More than half of the Soviet Union’s aluminum, a vital component of Soviet tank engines, came from U.S. supplies. The U.S. supply of cross-country trucks not only helped motorize the Red Army but also freed up Soviet automotive plants to manufacture light armored vehicles such as the ubiquitous SU-76M assault gun.

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Leningrad remained isolated due to the blockade and so had some very old types of tanks in service in 1944. This column of T-34 Model 41 tanks have been upgraded with appliqué armor by one of the local plants during the course of the siege and are seen on the rain-slicked streets of the city in January 1944.

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A T-34 Model 1943 named “Leningradets” of the 30th Guards Tank Brigade enters Krasnoye Selo outside Leningrad in January 1944. This unit converted to IS-2 heavy tanks later in the year.

As mentioned in the previous chapter, in the autumn of 1943, the Red Army dropped the planned T-43 in favor of adding a more powerful gun to the existing T-34. The first batch of tanks had the D-5T, the same gun as on the SU-85 tank destroyer. The definitive version developed at the main T-34 plant at Nizhni-Tagil used the ZiS-S-53, an improved weapon better suited to mounting in tank turrets. This entered production in March 1944 and started later at plant No. 174 in Omsk and at Krasnoye Sormovo as well. Production of the BR-365P tungsten-carbide HVAP ammunition began in February 1944 and the standard combat load was five to six rounds per tank. Although its gun was not as effective as either the Panther’s long 75mm gun or the Tiger I’s 88mm gun, it restored a measure of balance in the technological arms race since it could defeat either tank under the right circumstances. Furthermore, since it was based on a virtually unchanged T-34 chassis it did not upset production to the extent that the costly new Panther had done to German industry. Work on a next generation tank, the T-44, began in late 1943.

The shift to the T-34-85 had two other important consequences for the Soviet tank force beyond its better firepower. The T-34-85 finally introduced a three-man turret crew and a commander’s vision cupola. The retention of two-man turrets on the T-34 had been a lingering dead weight on Soviet tank tactics. Tank commanders were overburdened with their command responsibilities and gunnery chores. Combined with the abysmal optics in Soviet tanks and the tendency to fight “buttoned-up,” the Soviet tank commanders had poor situational awareness. The result was sluggish, bumbling, and uncoordinated tank tactics. Commander’s cupolas began to be added to the T-34 Gaika turret in the autumn of 1943, but this was only a temporary palliative. The commander had somewhat better situational awareness than in the earlier types of two-man turrets, but his tasks had not been reduced. The T-34-85 solved both problems with the three-man crew layout and the commander’s cupola. Another important change was the shift of the radio from the bow gunner’s station to the commander’s station. This allowed the tank commander to coordinate the actions of his tank with those of the neighboring tanks.

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A T-34 Model 1943 with tank riders of the 1st Ukrainian Front drives past a burning Tiger during the savage battles in southeastern Ukraine in March 1944. The Red Army had begun to receive HVAP ammunition for the 76mm gun, which gave it the capability to knock out the Tiger from the side at less suicidal ranges than in the battles in the summer of 1943.

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A T-34 Model 43 fitted with the yoke for a PT-34 mine roller passes by a scout detachment with Lend-Lease GPA amphibious jeeps during the liberation of the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius on 13 July 1943. This T-34 has the commander’s cupola fitted, as of the autumn of 1943.

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A T-34 Model 42 with Gaika turret of the 2nd Baltic Front advances toward Revel during the summer 1944 campaign. The turret tactical number is D003.

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The T-34-85 finally introduced a three-man turret crew, freeing the commander to concentrate on leading the tank.

Another key ingredient in the rejuvenation of the Soviet tank fleet was the improvement in quality control. Through 1943, output quantity had remained the emphasis; quality control was weak, as mentioned in the previous chapter. The Nizhni-Tagil design bureau had been pressing the GABTU to allow them to impose greater uniformity on the several plants manufacturing the T-34-85 and to put more emphasis on quality control at the subcontracting plants. This began to pay off in 1944. The policy of testing new T-34 tanks on a test track in 1943 found that only a small fraction could run the minimum requirement of 300 kilometers before breaking down. By early 1944, this dismal record had been overcome, and T-34 reliability finally reached acceptable levels. During February 1944 tests, 79 percent of tanks reached 300 kilometers, and of the test batches 33 percent reached 1,000 kilometers. This became immediately apparent to the tank troops. The deputy commander of the 1st Guards Tank Army, P. G. Dyner, commented that tanks in 1943 would reach only 75 percent of their guaranteed life span in engine hours and mileage, but in 1944 they reached 150 percent.1

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A view from the commander’s station in the T-34-85 looking forward toward the gunner’s station.

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One of the most important upgrades in the new T-34-85 was providing the commander with a vision cupola. This view, looking up toward the cupola, shows that it had five view slits around the base as well as a traversable MK-4 periscopic sight.

The decision to simply rearm the existing T-34 hull, rather than move to the production of a more thoroughly improved tank such as the T-44, is illustrative of Soviet tank design philosophy during the war. The German programs were willing to incur a continual string of production and logistics difficulties to acquire modest—and in many cases irrelevant—technical improvements. The Soviet designers were forced to compromise in order to ensure ease of production, high production rates, and logistical harmony with the supply system. Although German industrial resources were greater than those of the Soviet Union, the incredible muddle of German industrial policy meant that the Red Army would outnumber the Wehrmacht in nearly all major categories of combat arms, but especially in tanks.

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The arrival of the T-34-85 in March 1944 did not reverse the German technical advantage in tank technology but it did level the playing field. The T-34-85 was superior to the most common German tank, the PzKpfw IV Ausf. J, in armor and firepower, though it was still not evenly matched against the Panther. The Panther could penetrate the T-34-85 frontally at 1,200 meters against the gun mantlet and turret front, and from 300 meters against the glacis plate. The T-34-85’s improved BR-365P tungsten-carbide HVAP core could penetrate 138mm of armor at 500 meters at 60 degrees, finally giving it the capability of penetrating the Panther frontally, though not at ranges as far as the Panther.

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The T-34-85 with the early D-5T gun saw its combat debut in the early winter of 1944. These served with the 119th Rifle-Tank Regiment in March 1944.

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A tank attack by a T-34 Model 43 of the 24th Tank Regiment, 46th Mechanized Brigade, with the 1st Baltic Front on 18 July 1944 during Operation Bagration. Although Soviet combined-arms tactics improved through the war, the Red Army never fielded an infantry half-track to mechanize its motor rifle troops.

The T-34-85’s real advantage was in numbers. At the end of May 1944, the Wehrmacht had only 304 Panthers on the whole Eastern Front. Production of the T-34-85 was running at about 1,200 per month in the spring of 1944, and there were about 7,200 produced by the time the summer 1944 offensives started. It was largely irrelevant whether the T-34-85 was evenly matched against the Panther the summer of 1944 because there were few confrontations with Panthers. The focal point of the Soviet Bagration offensive in June 1944, Army Group Center, had no Panther tanks at all at the start of the campaign.3 The T-34-85’s gun was very effective against the PzKpfw IV and StuG III that made up the bulk of the German armored force on the Eastern Front. In the postwar years, the Soviet Army developed a computer modeling program to assess relative combat performance of various types. Some historical examples were also run. The table below shows the Soviet assessment of major types in 1944, using the PzKpfw III with 50mm L/60 gun as the baseline tank.

The other major new tank to arrive on the scene in 1944 was the IS-2 heavy tank. By the summer of 1944, the KV-1 tank was regarded as obsolete. Its armor was insufficient to protect it against common German antitank weapons such as the 75mm PaK 40 antitank or the 75mm KwK 40 gun of the PzKpfw IV Ausf. G and Ausf. H. It had no firepower advantage over the T-34 since they shared the same gun. As a temporary expedient, the KV-85 was manufactured on a limited basis in August–October 1943 with only 148 built. This tank consisted of the KV-1S chassis with a new turret armed with the D-5T 85mm gun. These saw their combat debut in November 1943, starting in Ukraine.5

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In the summer of 1943, the heavy tank design bureau in Chelyabinsk was working on a new KV-13 “universal tank” to compete with the T-43. Even though this program was canceled, the KV-13 served as the basis for a new heavy tank to replace the KV family. The armor level was raised to 100mm on the bow and turret front. By this time, the old defense minister Klimenti Voroshilov was no longer in favor, so the new tank was named IS for Iosef Stalin. Although classified as a heavy tank by the Red Army, the IS was in fact about the same size and weight as the German Panther medium tank. There was some debate within the Red Army about the weapon needed for the new heavy tank. At first, the consensus was to arm the tank with an 85mm gun. This had performance similar to the German 88mm gun, and its ammunition was already in widespread production for both the SU-85 tank destroyer and the 85mm antiaircraft gun. The original version of the IS heavy tank with this gun, the IS-85, entered production at Chelyabinsk in December 1943. It was redesignated as the IS-1 shortly afterward.

However, before the IS-1 was issued to the troops, this matter was reconsidered. To begin with, the new T-34-85 tank would be armed with the same gun, so it made sense to give the IS a heavier weapon. The primary role of the new IS heavy tank was not tank fighting—they were to be issued to special Guards heavy tank regiments. The role of these regiments was to assist in breaking through German defenses during offensive operations. It is worth noting that this was the original tactical role of the German Tiger I; however, the Wehrmacht went onto the strategic defensive by the time the Tiger I was available in significant numbers, so as often as not it was used in its secondary defensive role of combating Soviet tanks.

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The KV-13 project was reorganized and the focus switched to heavier firepower. The result was the IS-85m, later called the IS-1. A small number were sent into combat in early 1944, but large-scale production awaited the 122mm gun version.

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Since the T-34 was scheduled to receive the 85mm gun, it made more sense to arm the new IS heavy tank with a more powerful gun. The 122mm D-25T was selected. This version was first called the IS-122 and later the IS-2.

The Stalin tank’s tactical role had significant repercussions in the selection of a main gun. The best tank gun for the IS series from a tank-versus-tank standpoint would have been the new D-10 100mm gun being developed for the new SU-100 tank destroyer. Although the IS was experimentally fitted with 100mm guns, this option was rejected. Production of 100mm ammunition was inadequate to support the new tank. The other option was a 122mm gun derived from the common A-19 field gun. This was attractive for two reasons. It offered good, though not great, antitank performance due to the sheer size of its projectile rather than the projectile speed. But more importantly, it was a fearsome direct-fire weapon, firing a massive 25kg (55lb) high-explosive projectile. This was six times heavier than the Panther’s puny 4kg round and three times heavier than the Tiger’s 9kg round. This was an important feature since the primary role of the IS tank was not to fight German tanks but to smash through German infantry defenses where good high-explosive firepower was essential. The A-19 gun was adapted for tank use by the addition of a fast-action tank-type breech and a muzzle brake, and the new gun was designated D-25T. The main drawback of the 122mm gun was its ammunition. It was a conventional two-piece field artillery type, which reduced the rate of fire and limited the on-board ammunition to only twenty-eight rounds.

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A view inside an IS-2m from the commander’s cupola on the left side of the turret, looking down toward the gunner’s station with the massive gun breech on the right.

A total of 67 IS-1 tanks were completed by the end of 1943, and 40 more at the beginning of 1944. However, the decision was to proceed with the IS-122, later designated IS-2. The first 35 IS-2s were finished in December 1943, followed by 360 through April 1944. The first separate Guards heavy tank regiments (OGvTTP: otdelniy gvardeiskiy tyazheliy tankoviy polk) began to be formed in February 1944. These regiments had a total of 21 IS-2 tanks formed into four companies with 5 tanks each. Heavy tank regiments not given the Guards honorific were designated as separate breakthrough tank regiments (otdelniy tankoviy polk proryva). These first saw widespread use during the summer campaigns of 1944.

Despite the importance of the T-34-85 and IS-2 in the summer campaigns, it should not be forgotten that light tanks constituted the bulk of the Soviet tank force even in 1944. This consisted of the T-70 light tank as well as Lend-Lease types such as the Valentine. So for example on 1 January 1944, of the 21,100 tanks on hand, 10,300 (49 percent) of the force was made up of light tanks. The end of light tank production in the Soviet Union was due in no small measure to the escalation in firepower on the Eastern Front. A study of T-34 tank losses in early 1945 showed the Wehrmacht’s shift to more powerful guns between 1943 and 1944.

One of the major changes in Soviet force structure in 1944 was the addition of an enormous mass of self-propelled guns. These had begun to enter service in the summer of 1943, but became increasingly important in 1944–45. The predominant type was the SU-76M, a light SP gun consisting of the standard 76mm ZiS-3 divisional gun on an extended T-70 light tank chassis. This was employed as an assault gun, comparable in role, though not in configuration, to the German StuG III. The SU-76M was much more weakly protected than the StuG III, with the gun mounted in an open rear compartment. It was never a very popular vehicle in service, called “Suka” (bitch), a word play on its designation, or “golozhopy Ferdinand” (bare-ass Ferdinand). Nevertheless, it provided the Soviet infantry with a measure of armored support. The other assault guns were the ISU-122 and ISU-152, which were the IS-2 tank chassis fitted with a fixed superstructure and a 122mm gun or 152mm gun-howitzer. These powerful assault guns were intended for direct-fire support during breakthrough operations, though they had a secondary antitank role. The only dedicated tank destroyer was the SU-85, which combined the T-34 tank chassis with a D-5S 85mm gun in a fixed superstructure. At the beginning of 1944, self-propelled guns numbered 3,300, or 13 percent of Soviet AFV inventory. By the end of the year, they numbered over 10,000 and constituted 29 percent of the Soviet AFV inventory. This was largely due to the decision to end T-70 light tank production at the automotive plants in favor of the cheap but powerful SU-76M.

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After the stunning victories in Belorussia and Poland in the summer, the Soviet tank force began to run into stiffer opposition in the autumn. This new T-34-85 of the 25th Guards Tank Brigade, 2nd Guards Tank Corps, was knocked out in October 1944 during the bitter fighting in East Prussia, the first Soviet attack on German soil.

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Both sides made occasional use of captured tanks. This Panther Ausf. A served with Lieutenant Sotnikov’s company of captured Panthers, part of the 62nd Guards Heavy Tank Regiment, 8th Guards Tank Corps, during the fighting on the east bank of the Vistula near Warsaw in the late summer of 1944.

TANK BATTLES IN THE EAST: GERMAN OPTIONS

For the Wehrmacht, 1944 was a year of desperation. The year started out with a continuation of savage tank battles in Ukraine that lasted into the spring. There was a short respite in May and early June as both sides regrouped and prepared for the inevitable summer battles.

The likelihood of an Allied invasion of France prompted Berlin to begin shifting panzer divisions from the Russian Front to France precisely at a time when the Red Army was becoming its strongest and most competent. By the summer of 1944, the Ostheer was grossly overextended on the Russian Front, with an average tank strength of only 1,500 tanks through the first half of the year. As mentioned above, Red Army tank strength during this period was in excess of 20,000. Generally, about half of the total Soviet inventory was deployed at the front and the remainder split between reserves, military districts in the interior for training and reconstitution of new units, and the rebuild plants.

Through the summer of 1943, the Germans had been able to maintain a combat equilibrium on the Russian Front by offsetting their numerical weakness with modest technological advantages and superior crew and small unit performance. In 1943, the Red Army lost four Soviet tanks for every German tank lost, thereby dulling the impact of Soviet numerical advantages. However, in 1944 the Germans were not able to maintain the equilibrium due to the revival in Soviet tank design, substantial armor transfers to Western Europe in the spring of 1944 to deal with the forthcoming Allied invasion of France, and a diminishing disparity in German-versus-Soviet tank crew tactical skills.

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A PzKpfw IV Ausf. H in action early in 1944. The turret number starting with 5 indicates the fifth company of a panzer regiment. In 1944, panzer regiments typically consisted of a first battalion with four companies of Panthers and a second battalion, number 5 to 8, with PzKpfw IV.

On the positive side, the reforms of the German defense industry under Albert Speer ramped up German AFV production to its highest level of the war. This did not translate into enhanced combat power on the Russian Front, since attrition ate up much of the gains and more and more tanks were diverted to France. In addition, the German army suffered from a muddled and odd procurement process that left it saddled with dozens of types of tanks and assault guns, resulting in a needlessly complex logistics train. As the chart on page 219 shows, overall German tank strength on the Russian Front grew very modestly in 1944 despite the massive production increases.

In the area of medium tanks, the process of switching from the PzKpfw IV to the Panther was well underway but far from complete. There were still not enough Panther tanks in inventory to replace the PzKpfw IV. As a result, the standard panzer regiment of 1944 had one battalion of Panthers and one of PzKpfw IV tanks.

Production of the PzKpfw IV was halted at all of the plants but the Nibelungenwerk, which continued to manufacture the PzKpfw IV Ausf. H and Ausf. J. The other plants switched to various assault guns and tank destroyers on the PzKpfw IV chassis. To improve firepower and cut costs, the Jagdpanzer IV tank destroyer was recategorized as the Panzer IV/70 and used as an interim tank. This had the long 75mm gun of the Panther tank but mounted in a less versatile, fixed casemate.

After the awful teething problems of 1943, the automotive performance and reliability of the Panther improved dramatically in 1944, first with the Panther Ausf. A and later with the Ausf. G. Availability rates went from an average of 37 percent in 1944 to an average of 54 percent by that summer. While the Panther still had its issues, by the summer of 1944 it was at its peak performance and widely regarded as the most formidable tank on the battlefield, east or west.

Production of the Tiger I halted in August 1944 after some 1,343 had been manufactured. It was still one of the most formidable tanks on the battlefield, but also complicated and expensive to manufacture. While it had been nearly invulnerable on the battlefield in 1943, by 1944 it was starting to face real opposition for the first time in the shape of the T-34-85 and the Sherman 17-pounder Firefly. A perfect example is the fate of the famous Tiger ace Michael Wittmann. He scored about 120 of his 135 tank kills on the Russian Front in 1943 when his tank was nearly invulnerable in a frontal engagement against almost all Soviet tanks. After transfer to France, he survived less than two months of combat and was ambushed and killed on 8 August 1944 by a Sherman 17-pounder Firefly.

Captured Wehrmacht documents reflected the new reality for the Tiger:

When Tigers first appeared on the battlefield, they were in every respect proof against enemy weapons. They quickly won for themselves the title of “unbeatable” . . . But in the meantime, the enemy has not been asleep. Anti-tank guns, tanks, and mines have been developed that can hit the Tiger hard and even knock it out. Now, the Tiger, for a long time regarded as a “Life insurance policy” is relegated simply to the ranks of a heavy tank . . . No longer can the Tiger prance around, oblivious to the laws of tank tactics. They must obey these laws, just as every other German tank must.8

The power of the 88mm gun allowed longer engagement ranges against Soviet tanks, as is evident from the Soviet data below based on operational research on 735 medium and heavy tanks that had been knocked out.

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The combat debut of the King Tiger on the Russian Front was far from auspicious when a column was ambushed by T-34-85 tanks in August 1944 in Poland. This King Tiger was sent back to the Soviet Union for tests and is now preserved at the Kubinka Tank Museum outside Moscow.

Even if the Tiger was not as omnipotent in 1944 as it was in 1943, it was still one of the best tanks on the battlefield. The same cannot be said for its successor, the Tiger II or King Tiger. This was another example of the excessive influence of Ferdinand Porsche on Hitler and his inner circle. The King Tiger ramped up the firepower by adopting a longer and more powerful 88mm gun. Likewise, its armor was significantly upgraded. Serial production began in January 1944, but none reached service until the summer of 1944 due to the usual teething problems. While the Tiger I had weighed 57 metric tons, the King Tiger came in at 68 metric tons. This was not a practical weight for the automotive technology of the day, nor was it a practical weapon given the limitations of railroad transport, roads, or bridges in most of the combat areas.

This became painfully evident on its combat debut on the Eastern Front. The schwere Panzer-Abteilung 501 was delivered by train to Kielce in occupied Poland. The unit had forty-five King Tigers when it left the station, but after a 45-kilometer drive to the battlefield it was reduced to only eight functional tanks due to mechanical breakdowns, mainly reduction gear failures. By the following day, four more tanks limped to the front lines, bringing the strength to twelve. When the small number were sent on a mission on 13 August 1944 near the village of Ogledow, they were ambushed at close range by a T-34-85 of the 53rd Guards Tank Brigade, 6th Guards Tank Corps, which knocked out three with close-range side shots using HVAP ammunition. Several more were hit and lost in scattered encounters with IS-2 tanks in the same area.

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A pair of Panthers on the Eastern Front in 1944. Reliability issues with the Panther had improved markedly since its combat debut at Kursk the previous summer.

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A Panther Ausf. A lost during the fighting in Poland in the summer of 1944 after it slipped into an irrigation ditch. Such mishaps were not an uncommon fate for tanks in the chaos of battle.

An even more absurd design was the 188-metric-ton super-heavy tank, ironically called the Mäuschen (little mouse) and later “Maus.”12 Manufacture was expected to consume 264 metric tons of steel compared to 39 tons for a PzKpfw IV and 77.5 tons for a Panther. Production was scheduled to begin in November 1943, but Allied bombing raids managed to demolish critical production machine tools so no serial production took place. A completed prototype was sent into action around Berlin in 1945 but was blown up by its crew.

During the 1944 fighting, the Wehrmacht was seldom outfought by the Red Army at the tactical level, but it was outfought at the operational and strategic level. In the summer of 1944, Hitler was again successfully deceived by Stalin. The Red Army conducted an active and successful deception campaign to convince German commanders that their summer offensive would fall in other sectors.13 The Wehrmacht concentrated its heaviest panzer forces in northern Ukraine, expecting the Red Army to attack across the Ukrainian plains into the flat tank country of central Poland. Instead, the Red Army executed the unexpected Operation Bagration offensive through the marshy and wooded reaches of Belarus, encircling and annihilating Army Group Center in the worst German defeat of the war. The German infantry held a wide front of reinforced trenches, supported mostly by StuG III assault guns and towed antitank guns.

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A view from the commander’s seat in a Panther Ausf. G, looking forward toward the gunner’s station. In spite of its overall excellence, the Panther did have its foibles. The gunner was limited to the telescopic sight with no other viewports, which tended to increase the time needed to acquire and engage targets compared to tanks such as the Sherman and T-34-85, which gave the gunner periscopic sights.

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The Panther retained the classic German layout with a three-man turret. It was German practice to leave the radio in the hull for operation by the bow gunner.

For the attack, the Red Army had 2,715 tanks and 1,355 assault guns, with roughly 40 percent located in tank and assault gun units for infantry support in the breakthrough phase and about 60 percent in the tank, mechanized, and cavalry corps for the breakout and exploitation phase. Of the 3,035 German tanks and AFVs on the Russian Front in June 1944, Army Group Center had only 85 operational tanks and 404 StuG assault guns.14 There were none of the new Panthers and only 29 Tigers. The Ostheer was anticipating a continuation of the winter–spring fighting in the sector of Army Group North Ukraine, and so the bulk of its operational resources were there, some 830 operational tanks and 480 StuG assault guns. This force included most of the new Panther tanks. The success of the Red Army’s deception campaign gave the Soviets an 8 to 1 advantage in AFV strength in the Bagration sector. Once the Red Army pushed through the initial German defenses in the first few days of the attack, the Germans had no reserves in the region to stem the rapid Soviet tank advances. The capital city of Minsk fell to a Soviet tank corps that hardly encountered any German armor whatsoever in a week of fighting. The rout of Army Group Center in June–July 1944 unhinged German defenses in the Soviet Union and led to the advance of the Red Army across the borders into occupied Poland, up to the gates of Warsaw.

Soviet AFV losses in this campaign were the highest of the year but also the most consequential in terms of the campaign’s success. It was followed by the Lvov-Sandomierz offensive in Poland, which saw significant setbacks when the Germans staged a large panzer counterattack on the east bank of the Vistula River near Warsaw, bringing the offensive to a close.15 By this time, opportunities beckoned elsewhere. The Red Army launched attacks into Romania, knocking the Romanian army out of the war and taking over the vital oil fields near Ploesti in August 1944. Fuel starvation would eventually cripple the Wehrmacht.

During the late autumn of 1944, fighting on the Eastern Front was concentrated on the northern and southern flanks. The Red Army continued to struggle against the Germans’ tenacious defense of East Prussia and the Baltic coast, while in the south fierce battles erupted in Hungary around Budapest. By this stage of the war, the Red Army was irresistible. It was no longer a matter of whether the Red Army would defeat the Wehrmacht, it was simply a question of when and with how many casualties.

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A lingering weak spot in German defenses on the Russian Front was the poor state of equipment of its allied forces. The Germans wanted to charge the Hungarians an exorbitant price to license-manufacture the Panther tank, so the Hungarians instead designed their own equivalent, the Tas tank seen in this illustration. Only a single example was completed before Allied bombing destroyed the factory in 1944, ending the program.

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Not all tank battles of 1944 were fought with the most modern equipment. Panzer-Abteilung 211 serving in Finland was still equipped with the old war-booty French Somua S35 tank. When Finland switched sides, the German units retreated north into Lapland and Norway. Finnish tank units, equipped with war-booty Soviet T-34 tanks, caught a rearguard on this road and knocked out these two German tanks on 29 October 1944. SA-KUVA

TANK BATTLES IN THE WEST: THE ALLIED PROSPECTS

Tank fighting in the west did not reach the proportions of the Russian Front until the summer of 1944. Although there was some tank fighting on Sicily in July 1943 and on the Italian mainland in September 1943–June 1944, it was on a relatively small scale, as can be seen from the chart below covering the period of the fighting around Anzio and Monte Cassino in early 1944. It is also interesting to note that German AFVs in Italy had a far better availability rate than in Russia, perhaps due to better spare parts supply.

As can be seen, the polarity of German tank strength began to shift westward in May 1944, a process which continued into the summer. However, the Russian Front continued to account for the majority of tank and AFV losses, especially due to the large numbers of StuG assault guns in the east, as seen from the comparative chart below.

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ALLIED TANK DEVELOPMENTS: THE U.S. ARMY

The principal tank of the U.S. Army in 1944 remained the M4 and M4A1 Sherman. A number of improvements were introduced between the Mediterranean Campaign in 1943 and the Battle of France. Due to British pressure, a telescopic gun sight was added to supplement the periscopic sight, along with a new mantlet as the M34A1 gun mount. The British also complained about the vulnerability of ammunition stowed in the sponsons. As a short-term solution, appliqué armor was added. As a midterm solution, “wet” stowage was introduced that placed the ammunition in bins surrounded by water or antifreeze to reduce the probability of ammunition ignition. The more important aspect of the program was moving the ammunition from the sponson into the floor to make it less likely to be hit; this required a redesign of the fighting compartment and turret basket. The “wet stowage” Shermans began appearing in the summer of 1944. The appliqué armor and M34A1 gun mount became part of a “Quick Fix” program in 1943–44. Kits were manufactured in the United States and shipped to Britain as a “Blitz” upgrade prior to the Normandy landings.

A quick fix that could have improved the Sherman’s antitank performance would have been to lengthen the gun tube as the Germans had done on the PzKpfw IV during the production of the Ausführung G from L/43 to L/48. The M3 75mm gun on the Sherman had a relatively short length of L/40 largely based on prewar conceptions that looked with disfavor on the barrel projecting beyond the front of the tank, which allegedly made it vulnerable to accidents. Extending the barrel could have increased muzzle velocity, and hence penetration, without the need for a new family of ammunition. This was never seriously considered since the Army was working on the 76mm gun and there was never much clamor from tank crews in the Mediterranean Theater for better antitank performance. There simply wasn’t much tank-versus-tank fighting in Italy in 1943–44 to spur demands for improved gun performance.

After much argument, the U.S. Army began to manufacture a new 76mm gun for the Sherman family, starting with the M4A1 (76mm) in January 1944. The first batch of 120 tanks arrived in the United Kingdom in April 1944 and quickly became orphans. Although the gun offered better antiarmor performance than the 75mm gun, its high-explosive round was inferior. The 76mm HE charge was only .86 pounds of explosive while the 75mm round contained 1.47 pounds of explosive. From experiences in the Mediterranean theater, the U.S. Army viewed high-explosive firepower as more important than antitank performance; they had not yet faced the Panther tank.22

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The first M4A1 (76mm) arrived in Britain in April 1944 but attracted little enthusiasm due to the poor high-explosive performance of its new gun. After encountering the Panther in Normandy in July 1944, attitudes changed and the 2nd and 3rd Armored Divisions received over fifty each for the Operation Cobra breakout late in July.

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The M4A3 (76mm) used the standard three-man turret. The new turret included an excellent all-around vision cupola of modern design with thick, armored glass that did not require the commander to operate levers to open up each view slit.

The British demonstrated their 17-pounder to the U.S. Army in 1943. U.S. officers who had seen the gun fired in Britain were surprised by its substantial muzzle flash and the unnerving tendency for flashback at the breech, which hinted at design problems.23 A variety of U.S. guns were in development, including both the 76mm M1A1 and a new 90mm gun, which were believed to be more than adequate to handle the German threat. The British first proof-tested the 17-pounder in a Sherman turret in late December 1943. In late October 1943, a British officer from the Washington office tried to convince Lt. Gen. Jacob Devers of the benefits of the 17-pounder over the American guns. Devers wanted evidence to back up the claims, and a comparative shoot of the 90mm and 17-pounder was conducted at Aberdeen Proving Ground in the United States on 25 March 1944, followed by a similar trial at Shoeburyness in Britain on 23 May 1944. The British offered to provide 200 guns and ammunition per month to the United States within three months’ notice. The 17-pounder had two principal antiarmor rounds, a conventional APCBC and a new APDS.

The comparative trials did demonstrate that the 17-pounder had superior short-range performance to the American 90mm gun slated for new tank destroyers, to say nothing of the 76mm tank gun. At longer ranges, its performance when using the new APDS ammunition was erratic due to problems with the sabot separation. However, by the time these assessments were made, both the 76mm and 90mm tank guns and ammunition were already in production in the United States, and the 17-pounder would not be available until well after the Normandy landings. Ordnance was not keen on adopting the British gun for a variety of reasons. Its performance was slightly better than the 90mm gun, but Ordnance was developing the T4 high-velocity, armor-piercing (HVAP) ammunition that would boost 76mm gun performance to near the level of the 17-pounder without the need to switch to yet another new gun and ammunition. There was also concern that British arsenals could not meet U.S. quantities for either guns or ammunition. But the real problem was that the U.S. Army in general did not have a realistic appreciation of the future tank threat. Attitudes about the 17-pounder option would change after the Normandy fighting in June 1944.

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As a result of these various developments, all U.S. tank units arriving in Normandy after D-Day were still equipped with the standard 75mm version of the M4 and M4A1 Sherman medium tank. Contrary to the mythology, the lack of a powerful tank gun didn’t matter very much in the first two months of U.S. Army fighting in Normandy. There were no Panther tanks in the American sector in June 1944, nor, for that matter, many German tanks at all. The initial AFV fighting in June 1944 was against the StuG III, StuG IV, and Marder 3, all armed with the 75mm gun. The most common adversary was the 75mm PaK 40 antitank gun of the infantry divisions in this sector. During the advance on Cherbourg in June 1944, there were only two German tank battalions, both equipped with obsolete war-booty French tanks.

The Sherman’s main problem in the Normandy fighting was its poor armor. The M4 was a good tank in 1942 and early 1943 when the main German antitank weapon was the 50mm PaK 38. But the new 75mm PaK 40 had begun to appear in Tunisia in early 1943, and by the summer of 1944 it was the predominant antitank gun in the German army. It could penetrate the Sherman frontally at any normal combat range. The Sherman design was robust enough to receive additional frontal armor, but units in Italy were adamant that they did not want more armor if it compromised mobility. The tank battalions in Italy were very sensitive to mobility issues since they were often used in mountainous areas such as the areas around Monte Cassino. In late 1943, the Army Service Forces dispatched a “New Weapons Board” to the Mediterranean Theater of Operations (MTO) and European Theater of Operations (ETO) with the dual mission of collecting information on the performance of existing U.S. Army weapons as well as informing units deployed overseas of planned improvements in weapons. Their report, published in April 1944, provides some insight into the general attitude within the U.S. Army toward the performance of the M4 and M4A1 tanks prior to the Normandy campaign. Overall, the report concluded:

The medium tanks of the M4 series are well liked by the using personnel . . . The M4 tank is good and well liked by everyone . . . Opinion of proper armor thickness was divided. Armored Force troops generally regard the present armor as adequate. They do not want to sacrifice maneuverability, speed, or floatation to gain additional armor protection.

This opinion would be quickly reversed after the first few weeks of fighting in Normandy.

ALLIED TANK TACTICS IN 1944: THE U.S. EXPERIENCE

The U.S. Army did not begin to face serious German tank opposition until after the fall of Cherbourg in late June 1944. This shifted the focus of the U.S. Army attacks southward to Saint-Lô. The First U.S. Army had more tanks than Montgomery’s British/Canadian armies in the Caen sector, but only a small fraction of these saw combat from D-Day until Operation Cobra in late July 1944. For example, in mid-July 1944 the U.S. First Army had about 3,770 tanks deployed to France, but only 1,390 were in units actually committed to the front. U.S. Army doctrine was that the infantry would be supported by the separate tank battalions but the armored divisions would not be used until the infantry had secured the breakthrough. U.S. armored divisions were designed for exploitation, not for grinding breakthrough battles, and certainly not in congested hedgerow terrain. There was a single misbegotten use of a combat command of the 3rd Armored Division around Villiers-Fossard on 29 June 1944 which only proved the point.

When the focus of U.S. attacks shifted to the Saint-Lô sector in early July 1944, the Germans began reinforcing the American sector with more tanks. The Panzer-Lehr Division and 2.SS-Panzer-Division Das Reich were moved into the American sector. By this stage, the Panzer-Lehr Division was down to less than half of its original tank strength after a month of fighting in the British sector. A spoiling attack by four Kampfgruppen (battle groups) on 11 July 1944 against U.S. encroachments over the Vire River was a shambles, with one of the battle groups—including its company of Panther tanks—surrounded and wiped out. The Panzer-Lehr Division commander, Fritz Bayerlein, complained that the Panther was ill-suited for use in the bocage country as its long barrel was difficult to traverse on the narrow country roads.

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The U.S. Army had developed the M6 heavy tank early in the war, but by 1944 it was widely regarded as too cumbersome and insufficiently armored or armed for its size. Its main gun was the same 3-inch gun as in the M10 tank destroyer, but with a co-axial 37mm gun. This example was on display in Washington in February 1944, but none were deployed overseas.

Aside from the extensive tank losses on D-Day, U.S. tank losses in the bocage fighting were relatively modest until the combat intensified on 25 July 1944 with the launch of Operation Cobra, the breakout from the Saint-Lô sector. By this stage, the First U.S. Army was fielding nearly 1,000 M4 Sherman tanks and 880 M10 and M18 tank destroyers against a German opponent with only 154 tanks and AFVs, including 57 Panthers, a 10 to 1 advantage. Furthermore, the main fighting took place in the Panzer-Lehr sector, and that division had only 16 Panthers at the time of the Cobra attack, about half of which were smashed during the preliminary carpet bombing.

The first large-scale use of the U.S. armored divisions during Operation Cobra started on 26 July 1944 after the infantry had secured the breakthrough. Two armored divisions, the 2nd and 3rd, began the exploitation phase, followed a few days later by two more divisions, the 4th and 6th. After Operation Cobra succeeded in gaining a breakout, new armored divisions were gradually fed into the battle, with ten committed by the end of 1944.

Tank-versus-tank fighting intensified in the American sector in early August when the U.S. units were counterattacked by the 2.Panzer-Division and 116.Panzer-Division, followed by the Operation Lüttich panzer counteroffensive around Mortain. The initial fighting with the two panzer divisions consisted of very small-scale skirmishing, with typical engagements comprised of fewer than a half dozen tanks on either side; the Mortain counteroffensive was borne mainly by U.S. infantry divisions.25

Over the years, a myth has developed that it took five Shermans to knock out a Panther or a Tiger. The U.S. Army encountered no Tiger tanks in combat in Normandy.26 The encounters with Panther tanks were very small scale and not as lopsided as the myth would suggest. Part of the problem stems from the widespread misidentification of German AFVs by U.S. troops. Virtually all German tanks and AFVs—PzKpfw IV, StuG III, and Panthers—were indiscriminately identified as “Tigers,” just as every German antitank gun and field howitzer was an “88mm.” More often than not, the Normandy duel of Sherman versus panzer depended on the skirmish conditions. A PzKpfw IV or StuG III waiting in ambush could make fast work of two or three Shermans. But there were also numerous occasions when a small group of Panthers would stumble into a hidden 57mm antitank gun or Sherman tank in ambush and take disproportionate losses. The myth has also been inflated by legends such as “Barkmann’s Corner,” when a single Panther tank of the 2.SS-Panzer-Division allegedly shot up nine Shermans and halted a major U.S. advance.27 It’s worth noting that the month with the highest tank casualties for the U.S. Army in 1944 was August, at a point in time when German tank strength in the west was threadbare. The high tank losses in August were typical of armies engaged in fast offensive operations regardless of the amount of armored opposition. Operational research has shown that armies engaged in pursuit and exploitation often have a high tank casualty rate caused by insufficient time for maintenance and increasing mechanical failures. Some studies from the Normandy period suggest that under these conditions, tank losses due to mechanical failures and other noncombat causes outnumber combat casualties about 4 to 1.28

The first large-scale tank-versus-tank fighting by the U.S. Army in France occurred in September 1944 in Lorraine. Hitler planned the so-called “Vosges panzer offensive” as a means to cut off the most threatening spearheads of Patton’s U.S. Third Army. Several of the new panzer brigades, intended for combat on the Russian Front, were instead sent west. Instead of a concentrated attack, local commanders committed the panzer brigades in piecemeal fashion and they were ground up in encounters with the French 2nd Armored Division at Dompaire and with U.S. infantry divisions. The panzer brigades were amply equipped with Panther and PzKpfw IV tanks, but the crews were new and inexperienced. During the climax of the fighting around Arracourt, a few panzer brigades and divisions were committed against the 4th Armored Division. The battle was a classic meeting engagement with neither side enjoying any advantage. It was a lopsided victory for the U.S. Army, and a clear example of where superior crew quality outweighs technological advantages. Of the 616 panzers and assault guns committed to the Lorraine fighting in September, there were only 127 operational by 1 October.30 Total losses amounted to 101 PzKpfw IV, 118 Panthers, and 221 assault guns and tank destroyers; 148 armored vehicles were damaged and inoperable. Third Army AFV losses for the whole of September were 200 tanks and tank destroyers.

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The subsequent tank fighting in the autumn of 1944 was on a small scale compared to the summer. German tank strength in the west, as shown on the chart on the next page, fell from around 1,500 in September to about 700 in October. This was due to both the heavy losses suffered in Normandy and Lorraine and Hitler’s decision to husband his panzer force for a last-ditch gamble in the Ardennes in the early winter of 1944. The Waffen-SS panzer divisions were pulled back into Germany for rehabilitation; the battered army panzer divisions remained in the field but at greatly reduced strength until withdrawn in the weeks before the Battle of the Bulge for hasty reequipment.

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A clear example of the reduced scale of the tank fighting was the campaign around Aachen, the first German city under siege in the west. During the attack north of Aachen on 2 October 1944 by the U.S. Army’s XIX Corps, there were 320 armored vehicles consisting of about 200 M4 medium tanks, 50 M5A1 light tanks, and about 70 M10 tank destroyers. The German Corps in this sector only had about 80 armored vehicles, mostly StuG III or StuG IV assault guns.

The scale of tank fighting waxed and waned until the start of the Ardennes offensive in mid-December 1944, as can be seen from U.S. tank casualties, which fell markedly after their summer high point. The Battle of the Bulge will be covered in the next chapter.

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ALLIED TANK DEVELOPMENTS: THE BRITISH ARMY

The British army was so favorably impressed by the performance of the Sherman tank since its combat debut in the autumn of 1942 at El Alamein, and so discouraged by the mediocre performance of most British tank types to date, that the Sherman was adopted as the standard British cruiser tank. At the same time, the more heavily armored Churchill tank had proven to be excellent for the infantry support role.

Development of a new cruiser tank had continued in Britain through 1943, concentrating on the related Centaur and Cromwell tanks. The early tests of these tanks revealed continuing reliability and maintenance problems, the traditional bane of British tank design in World War II. Examples sent to the United States were tested at Aberdeen Proving Ground. The U.S. test reports were particularly harsh about their low mechanical reliability and their excessive maintenance demands, 199 man-hours for the Cromwell compared to 39 man-hours for an M4A3 subjected to the same test.33 A British observer at the tests sent back a note that read: “These tanks have made us a laughing stock out here . . . The Americans are politely indifferent to what happens to them.”

The British Army conducted its own tests, code-named Exercise Dracula, comparing the Cromwell and Centaur against Shermans. A major of the Westminster Dragoons commented after the tests that:

The outstanding lesson of this exercise has been to me the exceptional reliability of the American machines. All my ideas, based on 2½ years of experience with an armoured regiment equipped with British machines, have had to be revised, and though before the exercise started I was inclined to think that perhaps the Sherman was somewhat overrated, I am completely convinced of the superiority of this machine over anything that this country has produced to date. It is evident that the commander of a unit equipped with Shermans can be confident of taking 99% of his tanks into battle, at any rate during the first 2,000 miles of their life. On the other hand, if he were equipped with Cromwells or Centaurs he would be in a continuous state of anxiety as to whether enough of his tanks would reach the battlefield to carry out the normal tasks expected of the unit.34

These tests only served to reinforce a predilection of British leaders to rely on U.S. tank production due to their reliability, the known problems with British tank design, and the recognition that British industry was badly overstretched. Resources diverted from tank production could be used for other vital war materiel. In the summer of 1943, the British government began to take steps to trim back planned Centaur production in favor of further Lend-Lease acquisition of Sherman tanks.35 Work on the Cromwell continued, but the lingering reliability problems encountered in 1943 curtailed deployment to the British army units earmarked for France in 1944. Although it was intended to be the principal cruiser tank of the armored divisions, it seldom exceeded a third of the strength of the Sherman with the units of Montgomery’s 21st Army Group in Northwest Europe in 1944–45. Aside from addressing reliability issues, the Cromwell was rearmed. It was originally fitted with the usual 6-pounder, a gun with excellent antitank performance but poor high-explosive firepower. Instead it received a 75mm gun similar in performance to the Sherman’s.

Even if the British army went into France in 1944 with the Sherman tank, the configuration of its Sherman force was markedly different from their American allies. The British army had a fundamentally different view of tank armament than the Americans, resulting from their more extensive experience in tank combat. Britain had started the war in 1939 with most tanks still armed with machine guns. By the time of the Battle of France in 1940, a transition was underway to the 2-pounder (40mm) antitank gun, roughly similar in performance to the contemporary U.S. Army 37mm tank gun. British experiences fighting panzers in France and in the North African desert led to yet another shift to the 6-pounder (57mm) tank gun, and by the battle at El Alamein in the autumn of 1942, the American 75mm tank gun had been introduced into service.

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The new Cromwell cruiser tank had some of the features deemed essential in British tank doctrine, but mechanical teething problems in 1943 forced the British army to maintain their dependence on the Sherman tank as the mainstay of their armored units.

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The Cromwell command tank, named “Hela,” of 1st Polish Armoured Division Commander Gen. Stanislaw Maczek, which took part in the Normandy campaign and the fighting for Falaise.

The constant escalation of German tank armor and firepower, largely propelled by the tank arms race on the Russian Front, had forced the British army into a continual series of improvements in tank firepower. Having been caught unprepared on so many occasions and forced to catch up to German developments, on 9 March 1943 the British General Staff established a new “Policy on Tanks” that noted:

Fulfillment of their normal role necessitates that the main armament on the greater proportion of tanks of the medium class should be an effective HE weapon and at the same time as effective a weapon as possible against enemy armour of the type so far encountered during in this war. The smaller proportion of tanks of the medium-class require a first-class anti-tank weapon for the engagement, if necessary, of armour heavier than that against which the dual-purpose weapon referred to above is effective.

In practice, this meant that the British tank force slated for operations in France was based around tanks with a dual-purpose 75mm gun, especially Shermans, while two tanks per troop would be fitted with the new 17-pounder antitank gun. In contrast to the American 76mm gun program, which was pushed along by the development agencies with little enthusiasm from either the Armored Force or the Army Ground Forces, the British 17-pounder program was started earlier and enjoyed broad and official support from the development agencies, the tank force, and the general staff. It was optimized for tank fighting, and its poor high-explosive performance was simply ignored as irrelevant to its mission.

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British regiments in Normandy were equipped with a mixture of 75mm Shermans and some with the long 17-pounder, seen here to the left. This is a unit from the Polish 1st Armoured Division that served with the Canadian First Army during the fighting to close the Falaise Gap.

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The Challenger was an attempt to adapt the 17-pounder gun to the Cromwell chassis by lengthening the hull. The design never proved entirely satisfactory, though it did see combat service in Europe in 1944–45.

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The Churchill became the mainstay of British tank brigades for the infantry support role. A portion retained the 6-pounder gun even in 1944 due to its superior antiarmor performance compared to the American 75mm gun. This example is seen parading in front of Buckingham Palace in London in 1944.

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The Sherman Firefly with its 17-pounder gun was a major step forward in dealing with the threat of more heavily armored German tanks such as the Panther and Tiger. However, the new APDS discarding sabot ammunition did not become widely available until late in the summer of 1944.

A similar effort was made in connection with the Cromwell cruiser tank. The basic Cromwell could not accommodate the 17-pounder gun due to its small turret ring. The Challenger, a lengthened version of the Cromwell with the 17-pounder, was designed to supplement the Cromwell. The Challenger suffered from serious reliability and mobility issues, and as a result was deployed in very small numbers.

After World War II, the British Army Operational Research Group (AORG) attempted to calculate the technical effectiveness of British and German tanks in tank-versus-tank engagements using both theoretical parameters and data collected from the 1944–45 campaigns. Effectiveness was defined as “the reciprocal of the number of tanks required per enemy tank to achieve parity in battle.” A summary of the results are contained in the chart on the next page. The study suggested that the Cromwell was the least effective of the major tank types and the Sherman Firefly was the most effective in tank-versus-tank fighting. The Churchill was not considered since tank fighting was not considered its principal mission. The data suggests that the PzKpfw IV Ausf. H was about 10 percent more efficient than the normal 75mm Sherman and about 10 percent less efficient in battle than the Sherman 17-pounder Firefly in an engagement at 1,000 yards. By the study’s definition, this meant that it would take eleven 75mm Shermans to reach parity with ten PzKpfw IV tanks in an engagement at 1,000 yards.

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ALLIED TANK TACTICS IN 1944: THE BRITISH EXPERIENCE

The Allied tank strength in Normandy was concentrated in the British/Canadian sector during the June–July 1944 fighting, largely due to terrain difference. The countryside in the British sector around Caen was mostly open farmland that was much more suitable for tank fighting. The terrain in the American sector, both on the Cotentin peninsula and around Saint-Lô, was primarily bocage, a substantial type of hedgerow. The charts below refer to “British” tank strength as a shorthand for tank units of Montgomery’s 21st Army Group. Of the six armored divisions and eight brigades committed to the Normandy fighting, one armored division and one armored brigade were Canadian and one armored division was Polish. These units were equipped and organized in British fashion. One of the British divisions, the 79th Armoured Division was a specialized unit with a variety of armored engineer vehicles, flamethrower tanks, and other “Funnies.” It did not fight as an armored division, but managed and deployed its specialized vehicles to support other formations.

British armored divisions were organized into three brigades, one each of tanks, infantry, and artillery. The principal difference between these divisions and the U.S. armored divisions was tactical doctrine. The U.S. Army favored combined-arms tactics at the brigade level, and each division had three combat command headquarters, essentially a brigade headquarters. Units were not permanently assigned to these, but rotated depending on the circumstances. Combat Command A and B (CCA, CCB) were intended to be the fighting force while Combat Command R was intended to serve as the reserve and for rehabilitation of exhausted units. The British armored divisions lacked these combined-arms headquarters and tended to fight the combined-arms battle at divisional level, not at brigade level. This proved deficient in Normandy. The Guards Armoured Division took their own approach and did combine tanks, infantry, and artillery in combined-arms teams; the 11th Armoured Division and the Polish 1st Armoured Division also adapted their structure to fight the combined-arms battle at brigade level by the late summer of 1944.

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The Churchill infantry tank served as the basis for the Churchill Crocodile flamethrower tank, which towed a special trailer for the fuel and compressed air. This was one of the types employed by the 79th Armoured Division “Hobart’s Funnies” and is seen here near Sterkrade, Germany, on 31 March 1945.

The independent brigades were intended to support the infantry; each had three regiments and therefore tank strength comparable to an armored division. The plan was to equip these brigades with the thickly armored Churchill infantry tank. However, there were not enough Churchills produced, so the “tank” brigades were based on Churchill tanks while the “armored” brigades received the Sherman. These units were used in the same fashion as the U.S. Army’s separate tank battalions, with individual regiments allotted to the support of infantry divisions during particular missions. Of the independent brigades in Normandy, three were Churchill tank brigades and five were Sherman armored brigades.

From a broader operational perspective, the British army in Normandy suffered from a distinct shortage of infantry. The British armed forces were grossly overextended with heavy commitments to the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force; the army usually took the short end of the stick in manpower allotments. British armored doctrine was similar to all the major armies and saw the main mission of armored divisions as the exploitation of breakthrough won by the infantry supported by independent brigades. However, the available infantry divisions were too small in number and short of replacements once heavy casualties were incurred in the first few weeks of fighting. Under these circumstances, Montgomery began using the armored divisions against doctrine to win the breakthrough. Although not publicly stated, British army commanders had already expected to face this dilemma and had planned accordingly. British tank reserves in Normandy were massive, often totaling 50 percent of the deployed strength. By way of comparison, U.S. tank reserves in Normandy were only 7 percent.37 The British commanders appreciated that using the armored divisions to win breakthroughs would prove costly in vehicles, but they made a calculated choice to sacrifice machines over men to win the Normandy campaign.38

The British Second Army in Normandy faced the bulk of Panzergruppe West, the main German armored force, for the first six weeks of fighting in Normandy. Montgomery launched a series of offensive operations to secure key road junctions at Tilly-sur-Seulles and Caen, and then to break out farther south. These operations proved very costly in tanks as the Germans skillfully repulsed attack after attack. The reasons for these difficulties have been very controversial and the subject of innumerable historical arguments. A technological answer has been a popular explanation, blaming the thin armor and weak antitank performance of the Sherman. Indeed, complaints of the Sherman’s poor performance in 1944 largely originate in the British debates over the performance of British armored units in Normandy, not the performance of the Sherman in the U.S. Army.40

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Recent studies have offered a more nuanced portrait of the problems facing Montgomery’s forces in the Normandy battles. The British army was slow to adopt combined-arms tactics below divisional level. The expedient use of armored divisions rather than infantry divisions to secure breakthroughs inevitably resulted in heavy tank losses. Another factor worth mentioning is the relative density of German defenses. The British Second Army was facing four German panzer divisions by the middle of June, with a combined strength of more than 675 German tanks and AFVs on a front about 20 miles wide. By way of comparison, the Wehrmacht’s Army Group Center, the target of the Red Army’s Operation Bagration offensive in late June 1944, had about 500 tanks and AFVs on a sector about 250 miles wide. In other words, Montgomery’s forces were facing an opponent with an armored density about fifteen times greater than the key summer battle fought by the Red Army. Even Army Group North Ukraine, the most heavily defended sector of the Russian Front in June 1944, had a German armor density that was more than six times less than that faced by the British in late June 1944. The successful U.S. Army breakout from Normandy, Operation Cobra, faced about four times less German armor than the British.

British armor losses in Normandy, while heavy, were not unusually severe. By way of comparison, British losses in the first two months of fighting in Normandy were 1,142; Soviet losses during the two months of Operation Bagration were 2,857. The Normandy campaign was more costly than subsequent British campaigns, as is suggested by the chart on page 249.

In the British sector, the principal source of British tank kills was other armored vehicles. The chart on page 249 shows German kill claims by type of weapon based on the data from several panzer divisions. This underestimates the number of tanks knocked out by antitank guns and rockets since it does not include the claims by these divisions and supporting elements.

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A Panther knocked out by Canadian troops with a PIAT antitank launcher during the fighting in the Caen sector in June 1944.

German armored vehicle losses in 1944 exceeded the entire previous four years of war. Statistics on German tank losses in the west in 1944 are misleading and probably incomplete. The German army had a habit of keeping knocked-out tanks on strength as “repairable” if they were recovered. In the event they were transported back to Germany for rebuilding, they do not appear to have been counted as a loss, since the records only cover “total losses.” In the case of the Normandy fighting, the many tanks knocked out but still in German hands were not written off until September 1944 after the debacles at Falaise, the Seine River, and the Mons pocket. This creates a misleading impression of tank combat losses in June–August.

After the August debacle in France, in early September 1944 the Wehrmacht’s High Command West (OB West) had only thirteen infantry divisions, three panzer divisions, and two panzer brigades rated as combat effective. A further forty-two infantry divisions and thirteen panzer divisions had been rendered ineffective for combat, and of the infantry divisions seven were simply disbanded. There were barely a hundred tanks still available on the Western Front. On 4 September, the new Army Group B commander, Field Marshal Walter Model, warned Hitler that unless ten infantry and five or six panzer divisions were available by September 15, “the door to north-west Europe would stand open.” German officers called the last weeks of August and first weeks of September 1944 “the Void” due to the collapse of German defenses.

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The rapid pursuit to the German frontier created problems for the Allies. On 11 September 1944, the first day that U.S. Army troops entered Germany near Aachen, the Allies were along a phase line that the Operation Overlord plans did not expect to reach until D+330, 2 May 1945, some 233 days ahead of schedule. Logistics had failed to keep pace with the unexpectedly rapid victories of August–September 1944. Until the supply situation could be remedied, Allied operations along the German frontier would inevitably be constrained.

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Germany did manage to hang on. The risky Operation Market Garden airborne operation in the Netherlands failed. The fuel shortage caused by the U.S. Army Air Force oil campaign and the loss of the Romanian oil fields to the Red Army in August 1944 put an end to most Luftwaffe and Kriegsmarine operations. The young air force technicians and navy crew were unceremoniously transferred as infantry fodder along the German frontier. The sudden rebirth of the Wehrmacht in September 1944 was dubbed the “Miracle on the Westwall.”

TOP TANK OF 1944

My Top Tank choices for 1944 are fairly obvious. Tanker’s Choice is the Panther, which redeemed itself after its messy introduction into service in 1943. In the summer of 1944, the Panther was at its peak since it still had excellent crews. Its performance would start to falter later in the year due to the heavy attrition in trained and experienced crews. The most likely Allied contender would be the Sherman Firefly 17-pounder, but it had unimpressive armor compared to the Panther.

Commander’s Choice for 1944 goes to the T-34-85. This was an excellent and much-belated upgrade to the T-34 that was too long in coming. But when it did arrive, it came at an opportune moment to assist in the Soviet victories of the summer and autumn of 1944. As in the case of other Commander’s Choices, it combined good technical capabilities with decent durability and large production quantities. The most likely U.S. contender would be one of the Sherman variants, but the M4A3 (76mm) was not quite up to its peak in the autumn of 1944, with too little HVAP ammo available and mediocre floatation in soft ground.

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A Panther on the prowl during the battles in Hungary in the autumn of 1944. Hungary would be the focus of German panzer operations through early 1945.

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A column from the 2nd Guards Tank Corps enters Vilnius, Lithuania, on 13 July 1944 following a week of fighting with the 3.Panzer-Armee. Behind the T-34-85 on the left is an improvised Flak truck, consisting of a GAZ-AA mounting a war-booty German 20mm antiaircraft gun