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

CHAPTER 9

The Final Campaigns: December 1944–May 1945

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THE FINAL SIX MONTHS OF FIGHTING in the European war shifted in intensity from front to front. In view of the desperate imbalance of forces against Germany, Hitler decided on a desperate gamble in December 1944, hoping to strike hard in the west while holding in the east. As a result, precious panzer reinforcements were concentrated near the Ardennes in December 1944 for the “Watch on Rhine” offensive. Technically, the composition of armored forces in these campaigns was very similar to the situation in the summer of 1944. There were few dramatic technical innovations in the final six months of the war.

GERMANY’S LATE-WAR PANZERS

The German panzer force in the last months of the war still relied on a mix of PzKpfw IV and Panthers in most of its panzer regiments. The primary emphasis of the German tank industry was simply aimed at maximizing production. Rather surprisingly, the Allied bombing offensive had not paid much attention to the German tank industry until the autumn of 1944. An RAF raid in the autumn of 1943 had struck the Alkett plant, but there were few raids on the main tank plants until the autumn of 1944. Although panzer production continued to increase through the summer of 1944, it began to suffer from the fortunes of war, losing access to metal alloys critical in steel armor production. In February 1944, the Wehrmacht lost control of the Soviet manganese mines at Nikopol and Krivoy Rog in Ukraine. Access to molybdenum was cut off by Allied bomber attacks on the Knaben mine in Norway as well as by the end of supplies from Finland and Japan. As a result, the molybdenum content in thick armor plate fell from a high of about 0.55 percent in 1943 to 0.25 percent in mid-1944 to none at all in 1945, leading to declining shock properties in German tank armor.1 Combined with declining industrial quality control in the quenching process, German tank armor, though still very hard, was increasingly brittle, prone to fracturing and decreased impact resistance. By some estimates, as much as half of the Panther armor was flawed, losing about 10–20 percent of its effectiveness. Quality control was further undermined by the extensive use of foreign forced labor in the panzer plants. Recent museum restorations have revealed some evidence of deliberate sabotage of fuel and lubrication lines in Panther tanks.2

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The Allies did not begin a serious campaign against the German tank factories until the autumn of 1944, and even then the effort was short-lived. It most seriously affected King Tiger production, but did not have as much impact against the dispersed Panther tank plants.

In August 1944, the RAF and USAAF began the first systematic air campaign against the German tank and vehicle industry.3 The main Panther plant, MAN at Nurnberg, was hit hard on 10 September 1944, costing the Wehrmacht the equivalent of over four months’ production, or about 645 tanks. Daimler-Benz was hit as well, but the second most important Panther plant, the MNH (Maschinenfabrik Niedersachsen) in Hanover was spared until March 1945. The greatest success of the air attacks were the raids against Henschel King Tiger plant in Kassel, which resulted in the loss of nearly three months’ worth of production, or about 700 King Tiger tanks.4 The Allies were unhappy with the results of the raids and they petered out in October, only to be resumed in the wake of the Battle of the Bulge.

While the air raids may not have had the dramatic results expected by Allied bomber chiefs, they had insidious effects on the panzer force. Speer was able to keep panzer production at adequate levels through the end of 1944 by shifting plant resources away from other products such as trucks and focusing on tanks. More critically, the panzer plants dramatically cut production of spare parts that in 1943 had constituted as much as 25–30 percent of the tank contracts. By the summer of 1944, only about 15 percent of Maybach engines were put aside as spares, and by the autumn of 1944 this had been halved again to only about 8 percent. This hidden cost of the air campaign would have dire consequences for the panzer regiments during the Battle of the Bulge due to the confluence of the continuing unreliability of some key components such as final drives and the growing decline in spare parts. The situation became so acute during the Ardennes campaign that some new tanks brought forward as replacements were cannibalized for parts to repair tanks at the front.5

The most critical loss of resources occurred in the summer of 1944 with the end of oil supplies from Romania, Germany’s main source of fuel. The strict rationing of fuel limited driver training. In the wake of the catastrophic loss of trained panzer crews in 1944, the lack of adequate driver training combined with lingering power-train problems in some of the designs such as the Panther and King Tiger led to frequent breakdowns, which contributed to poor operational readiness in the units. Some German accounts suggest that as many as half of all German panzer losses in the Ardennes were due to the abandonment in combat when they could not be quickly repaired or retrieved.

During 1944, the plants assigned to manufacture the PzKpfw IV gradually shifted away from the standard tank configuration to other options. The Jagdpanzer IV, a tank destroyer version of the PzKpfw IV, had already been in production. This was modified to carry the long 75mm gun of the Panther tank, called the Pz IV/70, and used as a substitute tank in panzer regiments in place of the turreted version. Only one plant, the Nibelungenwerk, continued to manufacture the turreted version of the PzKpfw IV Ausf. J, and even this plant shifted part of its production to the Pz IV/70.6

Panther production was mainly focused on simplifying the design to maximize production. The Panther Ausf. G that had entered production in March 1944 remained the standard model through the end of the war with only modest detail changes. Likewise, the King Tiger with the Henschel turret configuration remained the production type from the summer of 1944 through the end of the war. Some idea of the combat potential of the King Tiger can be gathered by the tactics employed by Kampfgruppe Peiper, the spearhead of the 1.SS-Panzer-Division in the Ardennes offensive. This battlegroup was allotted a battalion of new King Tiger tanks for the attack. Peiper stuck them in the rear, following up the Panther and PzKpfw IV spearheads, realizing that these clumsy monsters were not well suited to offensive operations.

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By the time of the Ardennes fighting, the Panther regiments had been reequipped with the new Panther Ausf. G, which featured an improved hull. This is an example from the September 1944 production at MAN in Nuremburg using steel-rimmed road-wheels, an uncommon variant of the series.

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The final production version of the Panther was the Ausf. G with the simplified hull. By this stage, the gun mantlet had been revised with a “chin” below since Allied tank crews had discovered that Panthers could be knocked out by hitting the lower half of the original mantlet, bouncing the round through the thin armor of the hull roof. This was abandoned near Hosingen, Germany, in mid-February 1945.

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There has been considerable fascination in recent years about possible “Paper Panzers” entering service later in 1945. In reality, designs such as the E-50 seen in this illustration were very far from production.

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The decline in the offensive power of German infantry divisions forced the Wehrmacht to employ panzer divisions for breakthrough missions for which they were not well suited. The 12.SS-Panzer-Division Hitlerjugend tried using its Panther regiment to break through U.S. infantry defenses around the twin villages of Krinkelt-Rocherath in the opening phase of the Battle of the Bulge, only to have the regiment smashed in violent close-quarter combat.

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A trio of Panther Ausf. G of Panzer-Regiment.9 are burned out in a field outside Humain, Belgium, on 28 December 1944 after a battle with the U.S. 2nd Armored Division on 27 December 1944 during the Battle of the Bulge.

While there has been a fair amount of attention paid to various futuristic “Paper Panzer” designs, German production plans through the summer of 1945 envisioned manufacturing much the same assortment of tanks that had been in production since the summer of 1944. PzKpfw IV Ausf. J production was scheduled to finally end at Nibleungenwerk in July 1945 in order to switch completely to the Pz IV/70 and other variants. The only new type scheduled to enter production was the Pz 38D, an upgraded version of the chassis used for the Jagdpanzer 38 (Hetzer), slated to replace other types at the two Czech plants. Besides the assault gun version, a scout tank and Kugelblitz antiaircraft tank were also scheduled to enter production. There were no plans to build any of the “E-series” of future tanks, which remained a “make-work” project for German tank engineers rather than a serious production scheme. The noted panzer historian Tom Jentz wryly commented that the German engineers wasting time on these fanciful tanks found it “preferable to being drafted and sent off to a muddy foxhole on the Eastern Front.”7

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ALLIED ARMOR IN THE EUROPEAN THEATER OF OPERATIONS: LATE ARRIVALS

With very modest exceptions, the final campaigns in the European Theater of Operations (ETO) in February–May 1945 were fought with the same types of tanks as the campaigns in late 1944. Some new and improved tank types appeared, but they were very modest in number.

The most significant new U.S. tank type was the M26 Pershing, which began arriving in February–March 1945 under its original experimental designation of T26E3. The U.S. Army’s Ordnance department had been working on a follow-on tank for the Sherman since 1942, but with little sense of urgency. The most important innovation in the design was that the transmission was shifted from the front of the tank back to the rear engine compartment. This removed the need for a power-shaft through the center of the fighting compartment. The power-shaft in the Sherman took up considerable space and led to the tank’s excessive height, so the new design had a lower, sleeker hull. However, there was no consensus about what features were important, and the design went through numerous variations as the T20, T22, T23, and T25. These various designs examined different power-plants, types of suspension, and armaments. By late 1943, two of these were favored. The T25 was fitted with 3-inch (75mm) frontal armor, weighed 36 tons, and was armed with a 90mm gun. The T26 was essentially similar but with 4-inch (100mm) frontal armor, weighing 40 tons. A total of 40 T25E1 and 10 T26E1 prototypes were completed from February to May 1944.

In the autumn of 1943, Lt. Gen. Jacob Devers was commander of U.S. forces in the ETO, a placeholder position until Dwight Eisenhower’s appointment at the beginning of 1944. Devers had previously headed the Armored Force and was well aware that U.S. forces had encountered Tigers again on Sicily in July 1943 and in Italy in 1943–44. He wanted to make certain that U.S. forces could better deal with this threat. Devers requested that development of the T26E1 be accelerated and that 250 of these be manufactured as quickly as possible so that it would be possible to deploy them on the scale of one per every five M4 medium tanks. The head of Army Ground Forces, Lt. Gen. Lesley McNair, flatly turned down the request on the grounds that there was no demand from troops in the field and that the new Sherman with its 76mm gun was perfectly adequate. Devers continued to press the case for the T26E1, and on 16 December 1943 the War Department issued a directive that authorized the production of 250 T26E1 tanks by April 1945. The army’s opinion about the need for new tanks changed abruptly after the Normandy landings in June 1944. Widespread encounters with the Panther in Normandy in June–July 1944 led to an outcry about the poor armor and firepower of the Sherman.

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A view inside an M26 Pershing on the gunner’s side to the right. The gunner in American medium tanks could use either the telescopic sight to the left or the periscopic sight above to aim the gun. The periscopic sight also gave U.S. gunners better situational awareness than Panther tank gunners, who lacked such a sight. This extra sight facilitated rapid engagements.

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The M26 Pershing began to arrive in Europe in small numbers in early 1945 as part of the Zebra Mission. By the time they had arrived, the German tank threat had largely evaporated and they saw very little tank fighting.

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The most powerful U.S. tank to see service in the ETO was a single “Super Pershing.” This was a unique test tank based on the original T26E1 pilot tank but rearmed with the more powerful T15E1 version of the 90mm gun designed to offer performance comparable to the German 88mm KwK 43 on the King Tiger. It was not U.S. Army practice to send prototypes into combat, but in February 1945 Ordnance decided to ship the pilot tank to the European theater for a trial by combat.

Trials of the prototype T26E1 tanks in the summer of 1944 were successful enough that on 15 June 1944 the War Department decided that the 1945 tank production program would be changed to permit production of 6,000 T26 tanks. Nevertheless, the testing program uncovered a substantial number of significant modifications that would be needed before series production of the improved T26E3 started. By the end of 1944, forty T26E3 tanks had been completed. There was pressure to do something in response to the growing criticism coming from Europe; the tank fighting in the Ardennes in December 1944 increased the volume of complaints. The head of Ordnance research, Maj. Gen. G. M. Barnes, suggested sending half of the new tanks to Europe for impromptu combat trials while the other twenty went to Ft. Knox for the usual tests. The first batch of twenty T26E3 tanks arrived at the port of Antwerp in January 1945 and were assigned to General Bradley’s 12th Army Group. They were split into two groups, with ten each going to the 3rd and 9th Armored Divisions. Training for the new tank crews concluded by late February 1945 and the tanks went into action in March. Those with the 9th Armored Division attracted the most attention when they took part in the capture of the Rhine River bridge at Remagen. Additional batches of T26E3 tanks arrived in late March and early April and were issued to the 2nd Armored Division (twenty-two), the 5th Armored Division (eighteen), and the 11th Armored Division (thirty).

The T26E3 tanks saw little tank-versus-tank combat due to the miniscule size of the panzer force in the west in April 1945. By the end of the war, 310 T26E3 had been delivered to Europe, of which 200 were issued to tank units. However, it was only the tanks supplied in February 1945 that saw extensive combat. The Pershing experience can best be summed up as “too little, too late.” A postwar report by First Army assessed the combat trials of the Zebra Mission: “Unfortunately for this test, the German armor had been so crippled as to present a very poor opponent and the cessation of hostilities so soon after forming these companies precluded the gaining of any real experience.” The main complaint about the M26 was that its automotive performance was sluggish compared to the M4A3 Sherman, since they both were powered by the same engine but the M26 was nearly 10 tons heavier. U.S. Army operational research after the Korean War concluded that the M26 Pershing was about three times more effective than the M4A3E8; combat effectiveness was assessed as the ratio of tank losses versus tank kills along with the relative number of enemy and friendly tanks.

Another newcomer to the ETO was the M24 Chaffee light tank. This was a thoroughly modern design intended to replace the obsolete M5A1 Stuart light tank. It was armed with a lightweight 75mm gun with performance the same as the 75mm on the Sherman tank. It was the best light tank of World War II.

The Sherman underwent some significant improvements in the final months of the war. A new horizontal volute suspension system (HVSS) was introduced, permitting the use of wider 23-inch tracks. This substantially improved the mobility of the Sherman in soft soil. The first examples were fielded by the 4th Armored Division in the Bastogne area around Christmas 1944. They are generally called M4A3E8, although the U.S. Army actually had no formal designation distinguishing the VVS from HVSS Sherman types.

In the wake of the Ardennes fighting, many tank units began to introduce local innovations in protection and firepower. One of the most common local initiatives was the extensive use of sand bag or concrete appliqué to provide better protection against the panzerfaust and other German antitank weapons. Many Ordnance officers felt these improvisations offered little or no additional protection, but the efforts were tolerated, if for no other reason than the psychological value to the embattled tank crews. The most effective of these appliqué programs was undertaken by Patton’s Third Army, which began cutting up the tank wrecks in the Ardennes and welding the salvaged armor plate onto their Sherman tanks. This program was judged to be so successful that Bradley’s 12th Army Group sent back photos of the conversion to the United States, urging this to become the standard configuration for the U.S. Army in Europe. It also included a few changes in machine-gun armament, substituting a .50-cal heavy machine gun for the usual .30-cal co-axial machine gun and adding a .30-cal machine gun in front of the commander’s cupola.

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An M4A3 (76mm) of Company C, 774th Tank Battalion, passes by a knocked-out Panther tank near Bovigny on 17 January 1945 while supporting the 83rd Division during the drive to seal the Bulge.

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The best Sherman variant for the infantry support mission was the M4A3E2, which had an increased armor basis thicker than the Tiger tank. The gun mantlet was 7 inches thick (180mm) and the turret front sides were 6 inches (150mm). In early 1945, about 100 were rearmed with spare 76mm guns, such as this example with the 3rd Armored Division in Cologne.

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An M4A1 of Company F, 33rd Armored Regiment, Combat Command B, 3rd Armored Division, passes by a knocked-out PzKpfw IV Ausf. G, probably from the 11.Panzer-Division, in Bad Marienburg on 28 March 1945 during the breakout from the Remagen bridgehead. The M4A1 is a survivor from the Normandy campaign and has a large steel plate added to the hull front, a modification on many 3rd Armored Division tanks following the capture of Cologne earlier in the month. By this stage of the war, there were barely a dozen PzKpfw IV in service on the entire Western Front.

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The lingering inadequacy of the Sherman’s frontal armor led Patton’s U.S. Third Army to devise the most practical solution: They cut armor plate off knocked-out American and German tanks in the Ardennes area and bolted it to their tanks like on this M4A3E8 of the 11th Armored Division.

In the British case, 1945 saw the first widespread deployment of the new Comet cruiser tank.9 This was an evolutionary break from the Centaur/Cromwell/Challenger family, with the redesign of nearly all of the critical features. The Comet was designed from the outset to carry a new 77mm high-velocity gun that used the same projectiles as the 17-pounder but a more compact propellant casing. The suspension was completely redesigned, and the tank used a wider track to get away from some of the mobility issues suffered in the Cromwell. Much as was the case with the M26 Pershing, few Comets arrived before war’s end and they saw very little tank-versus-tank combat since there were so few German tanks operational in the west in the last months of the war. In the wings was a completely new tank design, the Centurion, but it did not enter service use prior to the end of the war. A postwar British study concluded that the Comet was more effective than the T-34-85 but slightly less effective than the IS-3 Stalin heavy tank.

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Undoubtedly the best British tank of the war was the Comet. The 29th Armoured Brigade began converting to the new type in January 1945, and there was at least one duel between a Comet and a Tiger on 12 April 1945, with the Comet winning in this rare encounter.

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A total of about 100 American M4 and M4A3 tanks were rearmed with 17-pounder guns by British arsenals in the spring of 1945, but they did not arrive in the ETO until April 1945 and never saw combat. The smaller tanks in the foreground are M22 Locust airborne tanks. GEORGE BRADFORD

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The Churchill infantry tank continued in service through 1945 with the Guards Armoured Brigade. This one, named “Essex,” supported troops of the U.S. 17th Airborne Division during the Rhine operations in March 1945.

THE ENDGAME: FINAL GERMAN OPTIONS

In view of Germany’s desperate circumstances in late 1944, Hitler convinced himself that a success in the west could change the course of the war. In his fevered mind, the alliance between Britain and the United States was fragile, and if their forces could be separated by an assault to the North Sea, the Allied front would collapse. Hitler dreamed that a third to a half of the Allied divisions on the Western Front could be destroyed. In September 1944, he began to chart the strategic course for Germany in the final phase of the war. The basic premise was “Hold in the East, attack in the West.” The Ardennes offensive was a final gamble concocted out of desperation.

Given the disparity of forces, the precious panzer forces had to be allotted with the utmost care—a powerful panzer force was essential to the success of an Ardennes attack. As a result, the panzer units in combat on the front line in the west were kept to a minimum through the autumn of 1944. Panzer units destroyed in Normandy were rebuilt in Germany and held in reserve along the frontier. Due to the priority given the Ardennes offensive, panzer allotments favored the West over the East through December 1944, as is evident in the chart on the next page.

The panzer units withdrawn from France in September 1944 were quite weak, and many did not receive their full complement of tanks until four to six weeks before the start of the Ardennes offensive, as seen in the same chart.

From a technical perspective, the tank fighting in the Ardennes that started on 16 December 1944 did not differ greatly from the fighting in Normandy. The principal tank types on both sides were largely similar. In the case of the U.S. Army, the most important shift from June 1944 to December 1944 was the arrival of more M4A3 tanks with the 76mm gun. In June 1944, no U.S. tank units in Normandy had the 76mm gun tanks, but by the time of the Ardennes a third of all Sherman tanks in the Ardennes were the 76mm version. In addition, there were small but significant supplies of HVAP ammunition. In the case of German units, the mix was similar to Normandy, with the panzer regiments roughly equal in PzKpfw IV and Panther tanks; however, there were some changes, for example the growing numbers of Pz IV/70 being used as substitute tanks in some units.

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Production of the PzKpfw IV tank shifted to the PzKpfw IV/70 late in 1944. This was armed with the long 75mm gun of the Panther tank, but in a fixed casemate. This is a late-production example with the mesh “Thoma” skirts. This particular vehicle was captured by the 78th Division during the fighting near ۣkerath on 28 March 1945.

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The outcome of the Ardennes fighting had far more to do with tactical circumstances than with technical factors. There was little tank-versus-tank fighting in the first few days of the battle, since the U.S. units stationed in the Ardennes were four infantry divisions with a small number of supporting tank battalions and tank destroyer battalions. The first few days of the campaign occurred in early winter weather with soggy ground, rain, and evening snow. The German tanks were obliged to stay on the roads, and each little stone village was contested.

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By 1945, the Panther was no longer invulnerable to frontal attack. This one was knocked out during the fighting for Festung Posen in the city of Poznan, Poland, in February 1945. There are two gouges on the upper glacis plate and two large penetrations, most likely from 122mm projectiles.

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U.S. Army encounters with the Tiger I in the ETO were very rare. This Tiger from 4.Kompanie, schwere Panzer-Abteilung 506, knocked out a T26E3 Pershing named “Fireball” of the 3rd Armored Division on 26 February 1945 near Elsdorf, Germany, but while attempting to withdraw was immobilized and abandoned. “Fireball” was repaired and put back into action. Another Tiger from this unit was knocked out the following day in an encounter with another Pershing.

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The Schwerpunkt (focal point) of the attack was in the northern sector by Sepp Dietrich’s 6.Panzer-Armee consisting of two SS-Panzer-Korps. The infantry divisions in the northernmost sector failed to win a breakthrough, so the 12.SS-Panzer-Division was committed to this role; it was ground down in these struggles and failed to penetrate the U.S. infantry defenses. The neighboring 1.SS-Panzer-Division plunged into the weakly held Losheim Gap, encountering little resistance from the scattered U.S. mechanized cavalry units. Although it pushed as far as La Gleize, the U.S. Army brought up infantry reinforcements that encircled and destroyed the German spearhead, Kampfgruppe Peiper. The failure of the 6.Panzer-Armee attack was a reminder of the Wehrmacht’s declining offensive power due to its weak infantry and panzer divisions’ inability to penetrate a stout infantry defense.

Farther south, Manteuffel’s 5.Panzer-Armee showed much greater prowess than the Waffen-SS and managed to encircle and break through the newly arrived and inexperienced 106th Infantry Division. This created a significant breakout opportunity, especially once the weather changed and the ground froze. The gap near St. Vith was exploited both by the army panzer divisions that raced toward Bastogne and by the remaining II.SS-Panzer-Korps that pushed toward Liège. The problem facing the Wehrmacht at this point was that the U.S. Army had far greater reserves as well as the capability to move them far more quickly than the German reserves. The II.SS-Panzer-Korps advance was halted around Manhay upon the arrival of the 3rd Armored Division with substantial infantry and artillery support. The army panzer advance beyond Bastogne was crushed in the days around Christmas by the 2nd Armored Division in the Celles pocket.

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The U.S. Army had a series of encounters with the King Tiger in March and April 1945 in the areas near Kassel where the tank was manufactured. This one from schwere Panzer-Abteilung 507 was knocked out by Task Force Kane, Combat Command A, 3rd Armored Division, in front of Hotel Kaiserhofen in the fighting in Osterode on 10 April 1945.

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By this stage, the offensive had failed since the U.S. Army could continue to reinforce the Ardennes while the Wehrmacht’s momentum was already spent. Hitler would not accept defeat and insisted that Bastogne be taken as a consolation prize for his ill-conceived gamble. In the face of Patton’s spectacular counterattack, even this minor prize eluded him.

At the end of two weeks of intense fighting, the panzer regiments in the Ardennes were shattered. The best units, the 8 Panther battalions, had only about 105 tanks operational out of the starting force of about 415 Panthers; 180 were total losses and the remainder were battle damaged or broken down. The Panther was again suffering from durability issues, especially with the power-train’s final drives. Its strained transmission was functional in the hands of an experienced driver, but the inexperienced crews in the Ardennes had received insufficient training due to the late arrival of their new tanks and the lack of fuel for practice. German accounts suggest that as many as half of the tank losses in the Ardennes were due to mechanical breakdowns.

U.S. tank losses in the Ardennes were numerically greater than German losses simply because the U.S. Army had so many more tanks. In the case of the U.S. First Army, which bore the brunt of the Ardennes fighting, by the end of December it had lost about 320 Sherman tanks, of which about 90 were M4A1/A3 (76mm), equivalent to about a quarter of its average daily strength that month. Due to continual reinforcements, First Army had about 1,085 Shermans on hand at the end of December 1944 with about 980 operational and only 9 percent sidelined with mechanical problems or battle damage. Maj. (Dr.) P. E. Schramm, historian of the German High Command, concluded that “the Battle of the Bulge finally demonstrated the armored superiority of the U.S. Army over the Wehrmacht.”

There was a sharp flare-up of fighting in Alsace when German Army Group G launched Operation Nordwind on New Year’s Eve. This sector was starved of armor due to the priority afforded the Ardennes offensive; there were only about 260 tanks and AFVs, of which about 200 were operational.

On the U.S. side, the Seventh Army had one French and two U.S. armored divisions: 2e Division Blindée, 12th and 14th Armored Divisions, plus five separate tank battalions and five self-propelled tank destroyer battalions with a total of 376 light tanks and 704 M4 medium tanks. The French 1st Army in the Colmar area had substantial armor but was not involved in the initial Nordwind fighting. The Nordwind attacks were beaten off with heavy German losses; this was the last major use of German armor in the west. By 1 February 1945, overall German tank and AFV strength was 2,013 (1,162 operational) in the west and 2,550 (1,323 operational) in the east.

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One of the more absurd German projects was the 180-ton Maus super-heavy tank. The project was abruptly ended by Allied bombing attacks against its plant, but one tank was hurriedly put into action in the Berlin area in 1945. It was demolished by its crew, but the Red Army pieced together a hybrid using the combat-damaged hull and the turret from a second prototype. It is now preserved at the Kubinka Tank Museum outside Moscow.

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Since the Russian Front had priority, replacements to the West fell to a trickle. By 15 March 1945 the Wehrmacht had only 765 tanks and AFVs in the west, of which just 431 were operational. With the destruction of Army Group B in the Ruhr pocket in April 1945, on 10 April the Wehrmacht in the west had 273 tanks and AFVs, with only 178 operational. At this point, the American and British forces had in excess of 15,000 tanks and AFVs operational. Encounters with German tanks and assault guns continued through the end of the war but on a greatly diminished scale.

RED ARMY TANK INNOVATIONS: 1945

The Red Army’s tank units fought the 1945 campaign with the same tank types used during the latter half of 1944. There were some improvements in the T-34-85 and IS-2, but new types such as the T-44 and IS-3 arrived too late for combat use. Quality control at the tank plants continued to improve, significantly reducing attrition through mechanical breakdown. Out of 18,346 tanks and AFVs from the 1st Belorussian and 1st Ukrainian Fronts participating in the Berlin Operation, 212 vehicles failed for mechanical reasons, or a bit more than 1 percent.21

Following the cancellation of the T-43 universal tank and the adoption of the T-34-85, the Soviet medium tank design bureau at Nizhi-Tagil turned their attention to an entirely new medium tank design that emerged in 1944 as the T-44. The new layout would form the basis for nearly twenty years of Soviet medium tank production, through the T-62 of 1962. The T-44 used a turret and gun system virtually identical to that on the T-34-85. The main departure in the design came in the hull. The hull form was extremely simple, its compact size made possible by a radically different transverse engine layout. The power-plant was a derivative of the wartime V-2 diesel that powered the T-34, KV, and IS, but mated to a new transmission. The suspension externally resembled the T-34, but inside torsion bars had replaced the Christie–style spring suspension in order to provide more internal volume. The first trial series of the tank entered production in 1944. No large-scale production was undertaken during World War II due to severe teething problems with the design, especially its new power-train. This tank represented an impressive mixture of design simplicity and high combat effectiveness for a 30-ton tank. The T-44 came very close to the combat capabilities of the German Panther in a design that weighed only about 65 percent as much. Although some Soviet tank training regiments were equipped with the T-44 during 1945, none of the tanks saw combat use due to their technical immaturity.

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The Red Army made extensive use of Lend-Lease Sherman tanks in the final campaigns. This M4A2 (76mm) is seen in Grabow, Germany, in May 1945 shortly before war’s end.

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Although the T-34 went out of production in 1944 in favor of the T-34-85, there were still some in service in the 1945 campaigns, such as these two examples in Leipzig, Germany, at the end of the war.

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Design of the T-44 began after cancellation of the T-43. It used a turret very similar to the T-34-85, but the hull was a completely new design with torsion bar suspension and a transversely mounted engine. Although a number of training regiments received the T-44 before war’s end, it never saw combat use during World War II.

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Following the completion of the IS-2 design in 1943, the Soviet heavy tank design bureau at Chelyabinsk began design of IS-3 heavy tanks based on the lessons of the Kursk battle.22 Soviet engineers concluded that hits on the turret front were most often the cause of tank loss, followed by hits on the hull front. The IS-3 design placed the emphasis on a radical new turret with 200mm armor and a new hull front design. However, the thick, new armor proved difficult to manufacture, and the first series production examples did not begin to roll off assembly lines until May 1945 and did not see combat use against Germany. The IS-3 was first publicly displayed at a victory parade in Berlin on 7 September 1945, which involved fifty-two IS-3 tanks from the 2nd Guards Tank Army. Aside from a very small number of IS-3s produced in 1945, large-scale production did not take place until 1946.

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Among the armament options for the T-44 was the same 122mm D-25T gun used in the IS-2 heavy tank. Although the gun was successfully mounted in a prototype as seen here, the ammunition was too large and the gun breech too massive to make this a practical alternative.

Although the Red Army did not conduct a comparative evaluation of the various types of tank present on the 1945 battlefield, it was done after the war as part of a computer modeling effort.23

January 1945: Red Deluge

The Russian Front at the beginning of 1945 was quiet in the center around Warsaw while fighting continued to rage in the northern sector in East Prussia and in the southern sector around Budapest. Berlin had no doubt that the Red Army was planning a major campaign into central Germany sometime in the New Year, and on 12 January 1945 the Vistula-Oder offensive was unleashed. In about three weeks’ time, the Red Army swept from Warsaw all the way to the Oder River, swamping the threadbare German defenses. The Soviet formation at the heart of the offensive, Marshal Georgi Zhukov’s 1st Belorussian Front, had nearly a third of the armor deployed by the Red Army at the time.

By the beginning of February 1945, the 1st Belorussian Front had reached Kustrin, 50 miles from the heart of Berlin. The Soviet penetration at this point was narrow, so the neighboring fronts began assaults to widen the penetration at its shoulders. In the north, the 3rd Belorussian Front began its attack toward the Prussian port of Königsberg while the 2nd Belorussian Front pushed into Pomerania, aiming for the Baltic port of Danzig. On Zhukov’s southern flank, Marshal Ivan Koniev’s 1st Ukrainian Front pushed through southern Poland toward Dresden.

At the beginning of February 1945, the German tank balance between East and West was fairly similar. The tank imbalance between the Wehrmacht and the Red Army was grotesquely skewed in favor of the Red Army, with Zhukov’s forces alone having about double the entire German tank strength on the Eastern Front. With the Red Army now in striking distance of Berlin and the Ardennes operation a costly flop, Hitler ordered another strategic change of course. Tank reinforcements to the West dried to a trickle, and most armored resources were directed to the East. Dietrich’s 6.SS-Panzer-Armee was pulled out of the Ardennes in mid-January, partially refitted in Germany, and sent east to Hungary.

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A T-34-85 of the 3rd Belorussian Front during the fighting with the 3.Panzer-Armee in Prussia in January 1945.

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The most numerous Soviet armored vehicle after the T-34 was the SU-76M assault gun. It was put into production at smaller automotive plants as a more useful weapon than the previous T-70 light tank. It was used primarily for infantry fire support. Two are seen here in action in the Carpathian Mountains in January 1945.

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A snow-camouflaged Panther Ausf. G moves forward toward a tactical bridge during the fighting in the Gran bridgehead in February 1945.

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Hitler had little confidence that defensive measures against Zhukov’s force on the Oder River would have any appreciable effect. However, the southern flank in Hungary seemed to offer more lucrative prospects since the Red Army had concentrated the bulk of its offensive strength in the center in the drive through Pomerania and Silesia. The available panzer reserves were moved into the Lake Balaton region of Hungary for Hitler’s last major panzer offensive of the war. The aim was to strike southeastward from the area between Lake Balaton and Budapest and cut off a bulge in the Soviet line to the western edge of Balaton.

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A pair of IS-2m tanks of the 29th Guards Heavy Tank Regiment, 4th Guards Tank Corps, 1st Ukrainian Front, during the fighting near Wislica, Poland, during the January Vistula-Oder offensive.

Operation Frühlingserwachen (“Spring Awakening”) was launched by Army Group South on 6 March 1945. The main strike force was Dietrich’s 6.SS-Panzer-Armee, modestly reequipped since the Ardennes debacle. For this offensive, the corps’s four panzer divisions had a total of 278 tanks and AFVs, including 87 PzKpfw IV, 61 Panthers, 9 King Tigers, and 80 PzIV/L70. This was only about half the strength the corps had at the start of the Ardennes offensive.

Facing this offensive was the 3rd Ukrainian Front. The Red Army was concentrating its resources in the central sector toward Berlin, and local commanders were warned that they would have to make do with available resources. Therefore, defensive preparations were based heavily on antitank artillery. This was one theater where the Germans had a decided advantage in armor strength.

The Spring Awakening offensive penetrated nearly 30 kilometers into Soviet lines but quickly floundered on the Soviet antitank defenses. The Wehrmacht’s offensive energy was largely spent in a week of fighting. The 3rd Ukrainian Front claimed 324 tanks, StuG, and Panzerjäger at the end of the offensive, about half of the attacking force. This was the last major German panzer operation of the war. By this stage, whatever tactical and technological edge the Wehrmacht may have enjoyed was impotent in the face of the growing proficiency of the Red Army and its substantial advantage in armored force.

Enemy guns still remained the main adversary of Soviet tanks. A survey of knocked-out and disabled tanks detailed the causes of incapacitation. Of the tanks listed as disabled in the top chart on the next page, 34 percent of the February figures and 26 percent of the March figures were total losses.

The final month of fighting saw the Red Army conducting massive armored offensives along several axes. Although the final operation against Berlin is certainly the most famous, there were also large-scale operations in the direction of Prague and Vienna. There were four entire tank armies taking part in the Berlin campaign: the 3rd and the 4th Guards Tank Armies advancing from the southeast, and the 1st and 2nd Guards Tank Armies advancing from the Kustrin area from the east. Although called “armies” by the Red Army, they were closer in strength to American or British corps. For example, the 3rd Guards Tank Army had 606 tanks and AFVs on 15 April 1945, including 386 T-34-85, 23 IS-2, and about 190 assault guns and tank destroyers.29 The three Soviet fronts (1st Ukrainian, 1st Belorussian, and 2nd Belorussian) totaled 6,250 tanks and assault guns in mid-April 1945.32

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A column of IS-2m heavy tanks on the approaches to Berlin in the spring of 1945.

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A classic view of an IS-2m prowling the streets of Berlin in the final campaign of the war. This is from the later production series with the simplified, thicker nose armor.

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The two German army groups, Mitte (Center) and Weichsel (Vistula) faced the three Soviet fronts from the Baltic to Dresden, covering a battleline about 185 miles wide. Army Group Center, the main group defending Berlin, had about 1,190 tanks and AFVs, of which 805 were operational on 10 April, as detailed in the chart on page 287. This was about half of total German panzer strength on the Russian Front at the time. Soviet accounts usually credit the Wehrmacht with 1,519 tanks and assault guns for this campaign, though this total probably includes other categories of armor such as armored cars that are excluded from the table. Army Group Vistula, covering the northern German sector, was smaller but in better working order with a total of 770 tanks and AFVs, of which 690 were operational. In total, both army groups fielded 547 tanks, 904 assault guns, and 44 tank destroyers in the opening phase of the campaign. It’s interesting to note that the three Soviet fronts later claimed to have knocked out or captured 4,183 German tanks and assault guns in the Berlin operation. The number of tanks and armored vehicles actually involved in the storming of Berlin is considerably smaller than these figures suggest since these numbers cover the entire front line.

The Soviet assault lasted for about three weeks and was enormously costly on both sides. The Red Army’s final assault made lavish use of armor and artillery. In the main sector, the 1st Guards Tank Army deployed 138.5 tanks per kilometer; the 2nd Guards Tank density was 130.1 tanks per kilometer. By the time the Red Army reached the outskirts of Berlin, most of the Wehrmacht tank force had been overcome, but there were a small number of tank-versus-tank engagements within the city. Soviet armor losses were substantial, amounting to about a third of the attacking force in a three-week battle.

TOP TANKS OF 1945

Picking the Top Tanks of 1945 is difficult since there were a number of late arrivals and “might have beens.” For example, if the T-44 had actually seen service, it would be a serious contender. But it did not, as was the case with Britain’s excellent Centurion.

The German tanks were contenders, but the performance of the Panther in the Ardennes was shaky due to both mediocre crew training and declining technical quality. The King Tiger had impressive armor and firepower but its excessive weight and cranky automotive performance rule it out. For Tanker’s Choice, I would pick the M26 Pershing. It had an excellent gun, which offered both antitank and high-explosive firepower. Furthermore, the quality of the design is evident in its longevity. The M26 formed the basis for the postwar generation of U.S. battle tanks from the M46 through the M47, M48, and M60 series. The Pershing also had advantages in armor. Other contenders such as the British Comet had excellent antitank firepower but less-potent high-explosive firepower. Possible Soviet contenders such as the IS-2M had significant issues, especially the meager ammunition stowage and slow rate of fire.

Commander’s Choice is more difficult. Top contenders would include the M4A3E8, especially with the U.S. Third Army upgrades. Its most likely rival was the T-34-85 for its widespread availability and generally good technical qualities. The winning combination for me is the M4A3E8, specifically the U.S. Third Army version with HVAP ammunition. By this stage, the M4A3E8 had excellent dependability and was available in large numbers, and the upgrades significantly improved both survivability and firepower.

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The M26 Pershing continued to serve in Europe in the years after the war, in this case during Exercise Rainbow in Germany in September 1950.

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Aggravated by the failure of Ordnance to address the Panther threat, U.S. tank units in the ETO took measures into their own hands. The 12th Army Group offered this configuration as their solution to the problem, refitting an M4A3E8 with extra armor plate on the hull front and making a number of other changes such as a co-axial .50-cal machine gun and an additional machine gun for the commander.