British Armour/Weapons 1944

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Sherman Firefly June 1944, France. German Anti-tank crews were trained to fire and focus their fire first on Armored command vehicles and the larger calibre Firefly to knock them out early.

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For a variety of reasons tank design in the UK and, to a lesser extent in the USA, had one distinguishing feature. The tanks were always two years out of date. When the German armour had the equivalent of 4- or 6-pounder guns, the British tanks had 2-pounders. When the British upgraded to 6-pounders, the German tanks had the incredible 88 mm. When the three British armoured divisions and eight armoured brigades landed in Normandy their Churchills, Cromwells and Shermans were hopelessly outgunned.

Half the German tanks in Normandy were the Panzer Mark IV ‘special’. It weighed 25 tons, moved at up to 25 mph, and its 75-mm Kwk 40 gun could penetrate 84 mm of armour at 1,000 yards. Its own front armour was 80 mm. The Panzer Mark V or Panther accounted for nearly 40 per cent of German tanks in Normandy; that is, one of every two tank regiments in most German armoured divisions was equipped with Panthers. It weighed 45 tons, could move at 35 mph, and its 75-mm Kwk 42 guns with a 14-pound shell could penetrate 118 mm of armour at 1,000 yards. Its own front armour was 100 mm. The Panzer Mark VI, or Tiger, was very nearly impossible to knock out. It weighed 54 tons with a maximum speed of 23 mph and carried 100 mm of frontal armour. Its 20-pounder shell from a 88-mm Kwk 36 gun could penetrate 102 mm at 1,000 yards.

Many German tank units had one Panther per troop of Mark IVs, a situation similar to the British units, which had one Sherman Firefly per troop. The Allied Sherman tank weighed 32 tons and could travel at 25 mph, but its front armour was only 76 mm thick. It could be knocked out by any German tank at 1,000 yards, even at 2,000 yards, and so was known as the ‘Tommy-cooker’. Its 75-mm gun could at best penetrate 74 mm at 100 yards, 68 mm at 500 yards, and 60 mm at 1,000 yards. However, its Ford engine was reliable and easy to maintain.

Trooper John Thorpe was the ‘Jack of all trades’ in 4 Troop C Squadron, 2nd Fife and Forfarshire Yeomanry, equipped with Shermans:

I could be called upon to take any other crew member’s place and I was the disposable member of the crew. I was sent on foot reconnaissance to find the safest place to locate the tank without placing it in jeopardy when advancing slowly towards a vantage point in a hedge or out of a wood, or at a crossroads in a village, or to attach a tow rope to help extract a disabled tank in the thick of battle. I developed not only a sixth sense but a super sense, a soldier’s deepest sense, the sense to survive.

The reality of this equation was very disturbing. Unless a 76-mm Sherman could get very close to the opposition or by chance catch it sideways on (Tiger had 80 mm of side armour, Panther 45 mm and Mark IV 30 mm) the contest was inevitably one-sided. Only the 17-pounder Sherman Fireflies were capable of a level fight. A limited number of Challengers – 200 in all – were allocated to Guards Armoured Division and 15/19th Hussars in 11th Armoured. A 17-pounder anti-tank gun was mounted on a Cromwell chassis and allocated on the basis of one per troop, with a crew of five. However, the German dual-purpose 88-mm gun (ground and AA) was reckoned to be the best available during the Second World War. Its muzzle power could destroy any Allied tank at 2,000 m and its airburst fuse could put a shell on top of a crossroads eight times out of ten. Bill Close, squadron commander with 3 RTR throughout the campaign, was wounded three times and awarded two MCs. As author of Panzer Bait, and having had no fewer than eleven tanks knocked out from under him, his views on tanks have much authority!

Our ordinary 75-mm gun could not knock out either a Tiger or a Panther except at about 500 yards range, and in the rear, and with a bit of luck in the flank! The 17-pounder Firefly was our best tank but even it could not penetrate the Tiger head-on at over 1,000 yards. Whereas all our tanks would be knocked out at 2,500 yards by the German 88-mm gun.

Steel Brownlie, troop leader with 2nd Fife and Forfarshire Yeomanry, also fought throughout the campaign, was wounded and awarded the MC. He wrote The Proud Trooper, a story of the Ayrshire Yeomanry. His comments are:

The great snag was that the Sherman, mechanically reliable and available in great numbers, was inferior in many ways to the German tanks. The armour was thin, the ammunition was stowed in open bins so that it exploded if there was any penetration. A hit almost inevitably meant a brew-up. Some boffin hit on the idea of welding bits of extra armour to protect the bins but their effect was to provide an aiming mark. I certainly saw many brewed-up Shermans with a neat hole in the ‘extra armour’. Even if you fixed spare track plates to the front of the Shermans, the basic weakness remained. You were in a ‘Ronson’ and if you were hit it was best to bale out p.d.q.

He also stressed the fear generated by the awareness of inferior armour: ‘My crews got almost obsessive about NOT having a thick, sloping glacis plate in front like the Panther. I recall deliberately backing into a firing position so as to have the protection of the engine. There was the added advantage that if you had to get out in a hurry you had all the forward gears.’

‘Sandy’ Saunders, troop commander with 2nd Northants Yeomanry, wrote:

The regiment had been training since 1939 as an armoured regiment in both an anti-tank and reconnaissance role. It was a pity that their equipment was inadequate. The Cromwell was designated a cruiser tank, fast across country but under-armoured and under-armed. The 75-mm gun was only capable of knocking out German Mark IV and Panther tanks at point blank range while their 75 mm and 88 mm (converted AA guns) could knock out a Cromwell at extreme range. We only started to get 17-pounder guns in the Challenger version of Cromwells in August – too late for 2nd Northants Yeomanry to try out in action.

Simon Frazer, 15/19th Hussars, commented:

My appreciation of tank v. tank situations was coloured by three oversized factors favouring the enemy, viz silence, muzzle velocity and thick sloped armour. We had to match this with the speed, manoeuvrability and camouflaged outline of our Cromwells. ‘David and Goliath’ I told my dispirited crew to cheer them up. Our 75 mm became known as ‘the sling’ thereafter.

Reg Spittles, 2 Troop Corporal A Squadron, 2nd Northants Yeomanry, described some of his tactics:

I found that if in doubt to stand back and put a couple of ‘smoke’ shells into the area. If it was a possible anti-tank gun or infantry ambush that would often resolve the situation and cause an enemy withdrawal.

Tank maintenance itself gave few headaches because the Cromwell – Rolls Royce engine, transmission, tracks and traverse – was such a reliable vehicle. The 28-ton tank was reliable on the road, but its 75-mm gun shots bounced off Tiger full frontals. On dry hard fields Cromwell IVs and VIIs would do over 30 mph in fifth gear. But the story gets worse.

Every infantry battalion feared the noisy Nebelwerfer mortar, an ugly multi-barrelled brute on wheels, and easily towed. Its ‘moaning minnie’ stonks are said to have accounted for 75 per cent of infantry casualties in Normandy. They came in three sizes with a maximum range of 8,600 yards, and most of the five Nebelwerfer regiments (each of sixty projector-mortars) were concentrated on the British/Canadian front.

Only the British 25-pounder field guns with a range of up to 13,400 yards, and 4.5-in./5.5-in. medium guns meshed together in troop, battery and regimental and the larger ‘Uncle’ and ‘Victor’ targets were capable of inflicting dramatic large-scale protective barrages or defensive fire plans. Their pinpoint DF and DFSOS targets were praised by the infantry.

The Spandau was a faster firing weapon than the Bren, the Schmeisser better than the cheap little Sten gun. The Panzerfaust one-shot anti-tank missile was more effective than the British Piat. Major Ned Thornburn, Company Commander 4 KSLI, had these views: ‘The Bren was adequate, the Sten did nothing to heighten our chaps’ morale, the Piat was not reliable, often ineffectual – the Panzerfaust was better. Our 3-in. mortars were, however, as effective as their Nebelwerfers.’

The Germans laid hundreds of thousands of mines, mainly Teller mines, in roads or on verges. These could be gingerly excavated after location or lassooed with a long rope and towed away. Booby traps in houses were rarely defused by the REs, but simply blown up on the spot. But one of the greatest perils to infantrymen was schu-mines or S–mines planted randomly in fields and verges. The former were explosives contained in a wooden box more or less undetectable by the usual mine detectors. They exploded with the pressure of a foot on the buried lid. The latter were just as lethal – small anti-personnel mines activated by a trip wire, which exploded at waist height. The schu-mines would take your legs off and the S–mines would tear your whole body apart.

Field Marshal Montgomery, who had some capacity for deluding himself, wrote to Alan Brooke:

I have had to stamp very heavily on reports that began to be circulated about the inadequate quality of our tanks, equipment, etc. as compared with the Germans…. In cases where adverse comment is made on British equipment such reports are likely to cause a lowering of morale and a lack of confidence among the troops. It will generally be found that when the equipment at our disposal is used properly and the tactics are good, we have no difficulty in defeating the Germans.

Absolute rubbish of course, unless a ratio of five to one in tank losses was considered acceptable. Simon Frazer’s 15/19th Hussar troop peppered a Mark V tank west of Argentan and hit it twenty-two times. They found the Mark V the next morning. It had been abandoned by its very gallant crew because it had run out of petrol. Admittedly its turret superficially resembled a cheese grater, but not one hit had penetrated.

Lieutenent-General Horrocks, XXX Corps Commander, knew the score. He wrote: ‘Our Shermans and Cromwells had to approach within 500 m of the heavier Panther or Tiger tanks to knock them out, whereas the 88 mm or the Tiger could dispose of Allied tanks at 2 km. The Panther’s gun was superior to Cromwell or Sherman, and Mark IV was certainly their equal.’

With the benefit of hindsight, there should have been many more 17-pounder Sherman Fireflies available before D-Day. The meagre supplies were ‘reserved’ for British armour despite belated American recognition of their superiority in the field. Bill Close, 3 RTR, commented: ‘The Comet tank (finally issued early in 1945) was the last contributed by Britain’s tank manufacture during the war. With a maximum 100 mm of armour, 77-mm gun and speed of 30 mph, it could tackle all but the King Tiger.’

But at least the Allies had almost total superiority in the air. Although at one time or another most units were bombed by the Luftwaffe and the RAF, and almost inevitably were shot up by USAAF prowling Thunderbolts, the universal view was ‘Thank God for the Tiffies.’ 155 Typhoon pilots were lost over the Normandy battlefields engaging in a very close support against Boche strongpoints, tanks, or dug-in 88-mm anti-tank guns, but many individual ‘little’ battles were won and precious lives saved by the RAF intervention. LIMEJUICE was the magic radio call that produced – often from a cab-rank of circling predatory Typhoons – almost miraculous support. The FOOs who were given the opportunity of calling for LIMEJUICE via the regimental radio network, had a feeling of power, of waving a magic wand. There is no doubt that the RAF was very highly regarded by the front line troops despite the occasional ‘incidents’.

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