Second World War AFVS III

The German High Command then conceived the idea of an offensive code-named Zitadelle against a Russian salient around Kursk, which was to use the revitalized panzer formations to destroy a large number of Soviet divisions and thereby weaken the offensive capabilities of the Red Army. Guderian and other generals objected to it and even Hilter had qualms about it, but the offensive went ahead in July 1943. Seventeen panzer divisions were assembled for it with a total of about 2,450 tanks and assault guns. They included 133 Tigers54 and 184 brand new Panthers. But the offensive took little advantage of the mobile warfare skills of the panzer forces. Instead, they were made to assault where the Red Army expected them and where it had prepared extensive minefields and other defences backed by about 2,950 tanks. In consequence they became involved in a battle of attrition and failed to achieve the planned encirclement of the Soviet forces, although they inflicted heavy losses on them.

Particularly intensive fighting took place near the railway junction of Prokhorovka, which has been described since as the greatest tank battle. In fact, it was a meeting engagement between the 2nd SS Panzer Corps, which had 294 tanks and assault guns including 14 Tigers, and the reinforced 5th Guards Tank Army, which had about 850 tanks. The latter were mainly T-34s but included 260 T-60 light tanks, which were easy targets for German guns, while the T-34s were completely outranged by the Tigers and consequently charged to close with them. In spite of this, by the end of the day the 5th Guards Tank Army had lost as many as 600 of its tanks, 334 of which were completely destroyed, while the SS Corps suffered a total loss of only 36 tanks and assault guns. These figures refute the description in some books of the Battle of Prokhorovka as a ‘death ride’ of the panzer divisions. In fact, over the whole of the Kursk salient the German Army lost 278 tanks and assault guns, including 13 Tigers and 44 Panthers, compared with a total loss of 1,254 tanks suffered by the Red Army.

However, German offensive operations were stopped after the Battle of Prokhorovka by Hitler, who became concerned about the Anglo-American landings in Sicily that had just taken place, and decided to withdraw the SS Panzer Corps so that it could be transferred to the West. The remaining panzer formations retained their qualitative superiority and the ability to score tactical successes and to inflict heavy losses on their enemies. But Zitadelle was their last major offensive on the Eastern Front. In its aftermath strategic initiative passed into the hands of the Red Army, which became increasingly proficient at the offensive operations that came to dominate the latter part of the war in Eastern and Central Europe.

At the beginning of the war, the Red Army had 30 of the mechanized corps it started creating in 1940, but most of them were quickly destroyed and in July 1941 they were officially abolished. Instead the remaining tank units were reorganized into independent brigades that were confined to close support of the infantry. Each brigade had 46 to 93 tanks made up of a mixture of KVs, T-34s and whatever light tanks were available. But as the Red Army began to regain its strength, it re-created four tank corps in March 1942. Initially each had two tank and one motorized infantry brigades, but a third tank brigade was added later, which brought their strength up to 98 T-34s and 70 light tanks. At the same time they dispensed with the KVs, which were not mobile enough for them and which were organized into independent tank regiments that would be used for infantry support.

By the end of 1942 the Red Army already had 28 tank corps. It had also created eight mechanized corps, each of which had one tank brigade and three mechanized brigades consisting of three motorized infantry battalions and a tank regiment, and each had a total of 100 T-34s and 104 other tanks. The tank and the mechanized corps were well designed for mobile operations of limited scope, but for larger scale penetrations of the enemy front and encirclement several would have to be combined, which led to the creation in May 1942 of the first two tank armies that corresponded to the German panzer corps, just as the Soviet tank corps corresponded to the panzer divisions.

The reorganization of the Soviet armoured forces did not prevent their defeat in the Battle of Kharkov in May 1942, but they played a major role in the encirclement of Stalingrad and after the Battle of Kursk they led the offensives that restored Soviet control over Ukraine, Belarus and the Baltic states. During this period new types of armoured vehicles came into use, starting in 1943 with the SU-122, a ‘turretless tank’ on the lines of the German assault guns, which consisted of a 122mm howitzer mounted in the hull of the T-34. It was relatively ineffective and was quickly superseded by the SU-85, which was very similar except for being armed with a long-barrelled 85mm gun. Adoption of the 85mm gun was prompted by firing tests carried out with the Tiger captured on the Leningrad front, which brought out the need for a more powerful weapon than the 76mm guns of the contemporary Soviet tanks to defeat its 100mm thick frontal armour. About 2,050 SU-85s were produced by the autumn of 1944 when the SU-85 was succeeded by the SU-100, which was similar except for being armed with a long-barrelled 100mm gun. The gun of the SU-100 was an adaptation of a naval gun, just as the 85mm gun of SU-85 was an adaptation of an anti-aircraft gun, which speeded up its development and facilitated the production of about 1,200 by the end of the war. The guns of SU-85 and SU-100 made them effective as tank destroyers, and the T-34 chassis on which they were based provided them with the mobility required for operation with armoured forces.

Before SU-85 and SU-100 were developed, a small number of another turretless assault gun was used at the Battle of Kursk. This was the 45.5-tonne SU-152, which represented the second and much more sensible attempt to mount a 152mm howitzer on the KV tank chassis than the first, which involved mounting it in a huge turret. The resulting KV II was used in 1940 in the assault on Finnish defences, but proved unsuitable for more mobile warfare and disappeared shortly after the German invasion in 1941.

New types of tanks were also developed during 1943. One of them was the new version of the T-34 armed with an 85mm gun mounted in a three-man turret, the first of which was issued to Soviet tank units in March 1944. It was still inferior to the German Panther so far as its gun performance and frontal armour were concerned, but it outnumbered the latter, 18,000 having been produced by the end of the war compared with 5,966 Panthers, not all of which were of course available for the Eastern Front. New heavy tanks were also developed, first by re-arming the KV with the same 85mm gun as that originally mounted in the SU-85 to produce the KV-85, of which only 130 were built in 1943. It was followed by Iosef Stalin, or IS, which had a more heavily armoured KV chassis and dispensed with the fifth crew member, who was the hull machine gunner. IS-1 was armed with an 85mm gun but IS-2 was armed with a 122mm gun.66 The gun was once again an adaptation, in this case of an artillery gun, and with it the 46-tonne IS-2 matched the Panther and the Tiger in gun power, but its rate of fire was slow and it only carried 28 rounds of ammunition. IS-2 began to be produced by the end of 1943 and to be issued in the spring of the following year to independent heavy tank regiments, which were used to support medium tanks by their fire.

To counter IS-2, the German Army had the 68-tonne Tiger II, as well as the turretless Jagdpanther armed with a 88mm L/71 gun that was longer barrelled and more powerful than the 88mm L/56 gun of Tiger I. Eventually 489 Tiger IIs were built, but they were completely outnumbered by IS-2, the production of which amounted to 3,207 tanks by the end of the war. The German Army also had the Jagdtiger armed with a long barrelled 128mm gun, the first of which was built in October 1943 but whose production was disrupted by air raids, so that only five were in the hands of the troops in June 1944. The 70 tonne Jagdtiger was the most powerfully armed and the most heavily armoured vehicle of the Second World War, having 250mm thick frontal armour, but only 77 were built.

The Red Army made full use of its numerical superiority by launching simultaneous offensives along different parts of the Eastern Front and destroying separately parts of the German Army. In this it was helped by Hitler’s disastrous strategy, which required German forces to hold on to their positions instead of being allowed to operate more freely. In particular they were expected to hold on to cities and towns designated Feste Platze, or fortresses, which were to break the momentum of the Soviet onslaught. What this did instead was to split German forces between isolated strong points in which they could be more easily encircled and destroyed piecemeal. These methods contributed, among others, to the destruction of the Army Group Centre in June 1944 in Belarus, which came to be regarded as an even greater catastrophe for the German Army than Stalingrad.

The offensives of the Red Army brought it in April 1945 to the gates of Berlin, which it stormed, delivering a coup de grâce to Hitler’s Reich. The forces that assaulted Berlin included four tank armies and a total of 6,250 tanks and assault guns. Determined resistance in urban terrain far less suitable for the operation of armoured forces than the plains of Eastern Europe exacted a heavy toll on the Soviet armoured units, which lost 1,997 tanks and assault guns, more than the 1,519 the German defenders had when the assault on Berlin began.

As they were being overwhelmed on the Eastern Front, German forces were also gradually overcome in the west. The process began at the Second Battle of Alamein in October 1942, when the British Eighth Army commanded by General B. Montgomery attacked the German and Italian forces that had advanced into Egypt. The latter included two panzer divisions with a total by then of 211 PzKpfw IIIs and IVs and two Italian armoured divisions with 280 M 13/40s. The Eighth Army facing them had three armoured divisions, two of which were reinforced by the attachment of a second armoured brigade, and two independent armoured brigades. In total, therefore, it had seven armoured brigades and 1,441 tanks backed by a reserve of 1,230 tanks held in Egypt in depots, workshops and training units. The disparity in the resources was therefore considerable and even greater than these figures would indicate because, of the German tanks, only 30 were PzKpfw IV armed with the long barrelled 75mm L/43 gun, whereas tanks deployed by the Eighth Army included not only 170 Grants but also 252 newly arrived US-built M4 medium tanks, which the British Army called Shermans.

Shermans were armed with 75mm guns that were somewhat better at penetrating armour than the 75mm guns of the Grants, although not as good in this respect as the 75mm L/43 guns of PzKpfw IV. However, unlike the hull-mounted guns of the Grants, those of the Shermans were mounted in turrets, which made them tactically more effective, and they also fired high explosive as well as armour-piercing ammunition unlike British-built tanks, most of which were still armed with 40mm 2-pounders that only fired solid shot.

Taking advantage of its newly received tanks and its numerical superiority, the Eighth Army wore down the tank strength of the German and Italian forces in a series of attacks that on the 13th day of the battle forced them to retreat, at which stage they were left with ten German and no Italian tanks.

The M4 medium tank, or Sherman, which the British Army first used at Alamein was developed as a result of decisions taken by the US Army as early as August 1940, even before the M3 medium tank and its British Grant version were designed, to follow them as soon as possible with a tank also armed with the 75mm gun but mounted in a turret. Not to delay production, the M4 used basically the same chassis as the M3 medium tank while its general configuration followed that of PzKpfw IV. A pilot model was completed in September 1941 with series production beginning in February 1942.72 Apart from light tanks, the M4 became almost the only tank used by the US Army up to the end of the Second World War, by which time a total of 49,234 were produced.73 It also became the principal tank of the British Army.

The Sherman was used to an increasing extent by the British Army after the Battle of Alamein not because there was a shortage of British tanks but because of their shortcomings. In fact, the number of tanks produced in Britain in 1940 was the same as that produced in Germany and in 1941 it overtook the latter, producing 4,811 compared with 3,114. Even more were produced in Britain in 1942 when the annual output rose to 8,611 tanks, which was more than twice the number produced in that year in Germany.

Unfortunately, much of the considerable British production effort was misdirected or even wasted. The extreme example of this is the Covenanter cruiser tanks, 1,365 of which were produced but none of which was considered fit for battle.

The failings of the Covenanter were due to a considerable extent to the company responsible for it having little experience of tank design. A similar situation existed in the case of other tanks, such as the A.13 and Crusader cruiser tanks, which acquired a reputation for unreliability when used in North Africa. Some of the problems were aggravated by the way in which tanks like the Covenanter and Crusader were rushed into production, and these persisted because rectifying them would have interfered with the production of the maximum number of tanks that was demanded after the defeat of France in 1940, when the British Expeditionary Force lost about 700 tanks. The perceived shortage of tanks that drove the demand for the production of the largest possible number of tanks was exaggerated by Churchill, who stated two years later in the House of Commons that ‘we had … in the United Kingdom less than 100 tanks’. In fact, production records that have come to light since then indicate that in spite of the tanks lost in France and some 300 sent to the British forces in Egypt, there must have been still at least 700 tanks in Britain.

There was also a perception that British tanks were outgunned by German tanks. Actually, the 40mm 2-pounder gun of the British tanks could perforate thicker armour than the 37mm and 50mm L/42 guns of most German tanks, and it was only the long-barrelled 50mm L/60 introduced in 1942 that was superior to it. Where the British tanks were consistently deficient was in not having a gun capable of firing effective high explosive as well as armour-piercing ammunition, like the 75mm gun of the PzKpfw IV even in its original short-barrelled L/24 form. When the British tanks finally advanced beyond the 40mm gun, they went no further than the 57mm 6-pounder with which the Crusader was re-armed in 1942. The 6-pounder was a very effective anti-tank gun, as good in fact in this respect as the long-barrelled 75mm L/48 gun of the PzKpfw IV, but as a high explosive firing weapon it has been described as ‘useless’. Thus it was only with the arrival in 1942 of the American-built Grants and then of Shermans armed with 75mm guns that British armoured units were equipped with tanks capable of firing not only armour piercing but also effective high explosive ammunition.

Yet in 1943 and even in 1944 the General Staff and the War Office were unable or unwilling to accept that both types of fire should and could be delivered by every tank. They accepted, rather reluctantly, that some British tanks might be armed with ‘dual purpose’ guns, but expected that others would specialize in one or the other of the two functions. This would have perpetuated the specialization that bedevilled British tank development, manifesting itself in the division into infantry and cruiser tanks and the arming of tanks with the 40mm 2-pounder whose ammunition was only effective against other tanks. It was only during the last two years of the war that this tendency to over-specialize began to fade away.

In the meantime, the Eighth Army chased what was left of the Afrika Korps out of Egypt and pursued it across Cyrenaica into Tripolitania, where it was reinforced by the remaining Italian armoured division, the Centauro. However, the latter was still only equipped with M 13/40s or the very similar M 14/41 tanks, which were by then completely outgunned by tanks like the Sherman. After some delaying actions, the German and Italian forces retreated into Tunisia until they reached the Mareth Line of fortifications built before the Second World War by the French against an Italian invasion from Libya.

Two months earlier, in November 1942, Anglo-American forces landed on the Moroccan and Algerian coasts of what was then French North Africa and after overcoming some French resistance advanced on Tunisia. The German High Command reacted by landing a panzer division as well as other troops, including some Tiger tanks, in Tunisia. Having built up their strength, the German forces in Tunisia severely mauled the US 1st Armoured Division that had advanced from the west to the Kasserine Pass, destroying more than one hundred of its tanks, which included Lees, the US equivalent of the British Grants, as well as Shermans. They then turned against the British Eighth Army but were repulsed at Medenine. The Eighth Army subsequently stormed the Mareth Line, in which Valentine tanks played a prominent part, but after one more major action in Tunisia units equipped with them were provided instead with Shermans. The Crusaders, with which the British 6th Armoured Division was partly equipped when it landed in Algeria, were also replaced at the time by Shermans.

Towards the end of the campaign in Tunisia, which ended with the surrender of the German and Italian forces in May 1943, British forces were reinforced by two brigades, or about 300 Churchill infantry tanks. These 39-tonne tanks were designed during the ‘Phoney War’ that preceded the fall of France in 1940, when tanks were expected to have to operate over shell-torn ground similar to that encountered during the First World War. They were relatively slow but better armoured than the Matilda infantry tanks. However, in spite of their weight, they were originally only armed with 40mm 2-pounders, although the Mark I version also had a 3in (76.2mm) howitzer mounted in place of the hull machine gun. But before they were deployed in Tunisia they were re-armed with the 57mm 6-pounders, which, together with their ability to operate over difficult ground, made them effective in the close mountainous terrain in which the Tunisian campaign was fought. On the other hand, the 52 Tigers that were sent by the German High Command to Tunisia were misused there when they could have been better employed on the Russian Front, where the open country made their 88mm guns much more effective.

After their victory in Tunisia, Anglo-American forces invaded Sicily and then advanced slowly up the Italian peninsula, where the terrain generally restricted movement off the roads. The scale of tank operations was therefore limited, and they commonly consisted of small scale actions in close support of the infantry. By the same token, the incidence of tank versus tank fighting was low, although Allied forces included a considerable number of armoured units. These included an armoured division and eight separate tank battalions in the case of the US Fifth Army and, eventually, three armoured divisions and two independent tank brigades in the case of the British Eighth Army. The opposing German forces included, at different times, one or two panzer divisions and an independent heavy tank battalion with up to 45 Tigers, as well as another battalion equipped with 76 Panthers that first went into action against the Allied landing at Anzio in February 1944.