Armored warfare was a salient feature of the Second World War; among WW2 tanks the Allied and German armies all employed tanks and other armored vehicles. Apart from battle tanks (which the British called ‘‘cruisers’’) there were infantry support tanks, reconnaissance vehicles and armored cars, personnel carriers, and tank destroyers, which often were based on tank chassis. There were even plans to put tanks on landing craft. At the start of the Normandy campaign the Allies possessed about 5,300 tanks compared to Germany’s 1,500.
To focus on a particular instance in which WW2 tanks came into direct conflict, this article will focus on the Invasion of Normandy.
Though America produced enormous numbers of armored vehicles (forty-seven thousand tanks alone in 1943–44), only two main types were used by the U.S. Army.
M3 and M5 Stuart
When the M3, an evolutionary design based on the M2A4, was introduced in March 1941 it was in no way competitive as a battle tank. Certainly it could not compare to the German Mark IV or the British Crusader, let alone the Soviet T-34. However, the M3 was available in numbers sufficient for export and used by the British, who dubbed it the ‘‘Stuart’’ after the Confederate cavalry hero of the American Civil War. Armed with only a 37 mm gun and protected by no more than two inches of armor, it was nevertheless fast and agile with a four-man crew. Powered by either gas or diesel engines, Stuarts could reach thirty-seven miles per hour on roads. In Normandy, the M3 had no chance against German armor but was useful as an infantry support and reconnaissance vehicle.
From 1941 to 1943 Stuarts were built in three main variants and several lesser models. Total M3 production was some 13,600 tanks, of which 5,400 were provided to Britain and 1,600 to Russia. British tankers were so fond of the type that they nicknamed it ‘‘Honey,’’ and not without reason—it was fast, reliable, seldom threw treads, and proved reasonably easy to maintain.
The M5 was an upgraded version of the M3, weighing 16.5 tons. Owing to a need for more tanks of already existing models, the first of some 6,800 M5s were not delivered until November 1942. The M5 was primarily distinguished from the M3 by sloping glacis armor and a larger engine compartment to accommodate two Cadillac V-8s.
The Sherman had many failings as a battle tank. Its gasoline engine (variously 425 to 500 horsepower) was prone to ‘‘brewing up’’ and burning its five-man crew to death. Consequently, diesels were used in M4A2s and A6s. It was tall and top-heavy, making it a better target than the panzers or T-34, and it was outgunned by enemy tanks. However, it also had significant advantages, not least of which was availability. More than forty thousand Shermans were built from 1941 to 1946, meeting the needs of not only the U.S. Army but partly those of the British and Soviets as well. The Sherman, weighing between thirty-three and thirty-five tons, had armor 1.5 to 2.5 inches thick, easily defeated by many German weapons. In fact, Wehrmacht gunners described Shermans as ‘‘Ronsons’’ for the ease with which they could be made to burn. Though the M4’s 75 mm gun was adequate for originally envisioned purposes, the requirement set for a ten-thousand-round tube life dictated a low muzzle velocity, leading to poor penetration, and it is doubtful that many Shermans fired much over five hundred rounds. With greater experience, the British recognized the armament problem and upgraded to a seventeen-pounder (76 mm) in the Firefly version.
Shermans lent themselves to other uses as well, including the chassis and hull for the M10 tank destroyer and a variety of engineering vehicles. Conventional Shermans were fitted with the duplex drive kit and inflatable ‘‘skirts’’ for amphibious operations but proved largely unworkable on 6 June. “Funny” devices were added for the D-Day campaign, especially bulldozer blades and field-designed plows capable of penetrating the exceptionally thick foliage of Normandy’s bocage. The latter were developed by Sgt. Curtis Culin of the Second Armored Division, using scrap steel from destroyed German obstacles.
The M18 tank destroyer sustained a three-year development period, beginning with the dead-end T49 gun motor carriage (or GMC) with, progressively, 37, 57, and 75 mm weapons. The constant was a Continental R975 400 hp radial engine retained in the T67 vehicle, approved by the army in 1943. At that time the Tank Destroyer Command decided on a highvelocity 76 mm gun.
Six prototypes were built as the T70 GMC, which was modified with a new hull face and an open, full-traversing turret. Designated M18, the new tank destroyer was fairly light at twenty tons, clocking 45 mph on the road and twenty cross-country. Buick began production in February 1944, delivering 2,500 through October of that year. A five-man crew was protected by half-inch hull armor and one inch in the turret, which proved insufficient once the Germans learned the vehicle’s shortcomings. However, the Hellcat’s speed and agility enabled it to ‘‘get out of trouble faster than it got in.’’ During July 1944 the 630th Tank Destroyer Battalion claimed fifty-three German tanks and fifteen self-propelled guns destroyed in exchange for seventeen Hellcats.
The British army lost most of its tanks at Dunkirk in 1940 and had to rebuild its armored force. Throughout the war Britain produced some twenty-four thousand armored vehicles of its own but received 3,600 built in Canada and 25,600 from America. If anything, Britain obtained too many different models of tanks and armored vehicles, where it might have concentrated on a few proven designs.
Developed from the Cromwell, the Centaur was distinct in having a Liberty engine, but most were subsequently converted to Cromwells by reequipping with Meteor engines. Because Centaurs were built with sixpounder guns they were considered unsuitable for combat and were primarily used as training vehicles. Some were put to other uses, such as antiaircraft platforms with twin 20 mm cannon or armored reconnaissance vehicles. However, eighty were upgraded with 95 mm howitzers for the Royal Marine Armoured Support Group (See British Royal Marines) on D-Day.
The forty-ton Churchill was among the heaviest Allied tanks of World War II. Like most British tanks it had a five-man crew. Its 350-horsepower engine, a Bedford twin six, drove it at barely twelve miles per hour, owing to its unusually heavy protection of six-inch frontal armor. Armed with a 75 mm main gun, the Churchill was better able to engage German armor than any other British tank.
The Crocodile variant of the Churchill was a flamethrower tank, towing a trailer with four hundred gallons (1,810 liters) of fuel, enough for eighty seconds’ duration. The flame jet could be streamed 120 yards, though seventy-five yards was considered the maximum effective distance.
The Cromwell replaced the ineffective Crusader and was deployed in early 1943. Powered by a six-hundred-horsepower Rolls-Royce Meteor engine, the twenty-seven-ton Cromwell was variously reported as having top speeds on flat terrain of thirty-eight to fifty miles per hour. It mounted a 75 mm cannon and was protected by armor between a third of an inch and three inches thick.
The need for armored support of airborne troops led to the Tetrarch, which became the basis around which the large Hamilcar glider was designed. Weighing barely eight tons, the Tetrarch had a 165-horsepower engine that drove it upward of forty miles per hour on flat terrain. The three-man crew fired a 76 mm close-support howitzer, being protected by armor of half-inch maximum thickness.
Germany and the Soviet Union built the best tanks of World War II. Among WW2 tanks, the series of Panzerkampfwagen (armored fighting vehicles) that spearheaded Hitler’s blitzkriegs in Europe and Russia caught the world’s attention and convinced other Western nations of the need to match the German standard. Unlike Britain, which produced a variety of mediocre designs, the German panzer force relied essentially on three types, each excellent for its purpose. Many German tanks used diesel fuel, which gave their crews an excellent chance of surviving battle damage, in contrast to the American Sherman, with its gasoline-powered engine.
Panzer Mark IV
The Mark IV was the most common German WW2 tank, and therefore in Normandy. More than eight thousand were built. Designed in 1937, the early models were armed with short-barreled 75 mm guns best suited for infantry support. However, combat experience—especially in Russia— demonstrated the need for more velocity and attendant greater penetration of enemy armor. Therefore, a long-barreled gun was added; the resulting Mark IVG became the third main variant, appearing in 1943. It weighed 25.5 tons and was powered by a Maybach three-hundred-horsepower engine delivering a top speed of twenty-five miles per hour. The five-man crew was protected by thirty to eighty millimeters (1.2 to 3.2 inches) of armor and had a standard load of eighty-seven main-gun rounds.
Panzer Mark V Panther
One of the most attractive tanks of all time, the Panther incorporated wartime experience in its design. Its sloping armor (up to fifty-five degrees) was calculated to deflect enemy rounds striking at any angle other than nearly ninety degrees. With forty to eighty millimeters (1.6 to 3.2 inches) of armor and a high-velocity Kw.K.42 75 mm gun, the Panther was a formidable opponent on any front. Though unusually heavy for its day, at some fifty tons (about twice the Mark IV), the Mark V was reasonably fast—its gasoline Maybach 690-horsepower engine drove it at twenty-five miles per hour—but it could cruise 125 miles on roads. Panthers were deployed in time for the battle of Kursk in Russia during the summer of 1943 but experienced mechanical problems there. Subsequent improvements were made to the suspension and transmission, and some five thousand Panthers were ultimately produced.
Panzer Mark VI Tiger
The definitive German tank, the Tiger appeared in 1942. It was a sixtytwo-ton land cruiser with the awesome 88 mm Kw.K.36 L/56 (i.e., barrel length equal to fifty-six bore diameters) cannon that was already feared and respected by the Allies. The gun was extremely accurate; reportedly, it could place five rounds within eighteen inches of each other at 1,200 yards. The Tiger was protected by sixty-two to 102 millimeters (2.4 to 4 inches) of armor, rendering it almost impervious to conventional antitank weapons. It had the same basic engine as the Panther—a twelve-cylinder, 690 hp Maybach, which produced a respectable road speed of twenty-four miles per hour, about half as fast cross country.
Despite their strengths, Tigers were so expensive to produce—just 1,340 were made—that they were issued to only company and occasionally battalion-sized units. The seventy-ton King Tiger was not considered as successful as the original model, being better suited to defense than offense. In fact, some bridges could not support the ‘‘Royal’’ Mark VI.
Sd. Kfz. 138 Marder III
In 1942 the Marder (named for the marten, a tree-climbing weasel) was a ‘‘quick fix’’ for German armored units suddenly confronted with superior Soviet tanks like the T-34. The German PaK.40 75 mm gun was mated to the Czech 38(t) chassis with a Praga six-cylinder gasoline engine of 150 hp. The open-top, twelve-ton vehicle took a four-man crew. Nearly 1,000 Sd. Kfz. 138s were procured, as were 344 Sd. Kfz. 139s with the Soviet 76 mm gun chambered for German ammunition. Most of the latter were sent to the Eastern Front, though about sixty-five were shipped to North Africa.
Sd. Kfz. 142/Stu.G. III Assault Gun
As a production expedient this self-propelled assault gun was based on the Panzer Mark III chassis with 20-to-81-millimeter (0.8-to-3.25-inch) armor. Overall length (including gun) was twenty-two feet, six inches; height seven feet. It was produced in two main versions—the 142/1 with a 75 mm gun and the 142/2 with a 110 mm howitzer. Both were intended as infantry support vehicles, but the first version also proved effective in the antitank role. However, the 142/2 was among the most numerous German armored vehicles, with some 7,700 produced. The Stu.G. IIIs weighed about twenty-six tons, with the same Maybach V-12 gas engine of 300 hp.
Sd. Kfz. 173 Jagdpanzer
Built on a Panther chassis, the ‘‘Hunting Panther’’ lacked the Panzer Mark V turret but mounted the long-barreled 88 mm PaK.43 L/71 (length equaled seventy-one diameters), which was capable of destroying any Allied tank in France. Weighing fifty-one tons with a five-man crew, the Jagdpanzer was powered by a Maybach V-12 gas engine of 700 hp, which drove it at 28 mph on roads.
Like the Marder, the Hetzer (Baiter) was built on the four-man Czech 38(t) chassis with the Praga 150 hp engine. However, it was a fully enclosed vehicle of 17.6 tons, measuring sixteen feet long and seven feet high. It mounted a 75 mm PaK.39 L/48 gun that could penetrate most armor at typical engagement distances. With its seven-foot silhouette and twenty to sixty millimeters (0.8 to 2.4 inches) of sloping armor, the eighteen-ton Hetzer was an effective tank killer, though its limited traverse was a drawback. It could make 24 mph on roads and 10 mph cross country. More than 2,500 were produced.