The Second World War was a global war that lasted from 1939 to 1945, although related conflicts began earlier. It involved the vast majority of the world’s nations—including all of the great powers—eventually forming two opposing military alliances: the Allies and the Axis. It was the most widespread war in history, and directly involved more than 100 million people from over 30 countries. In a state of “total war”, the major participants threw their entire economic, industrial, and scientific capabilities behind the war effort, erasing the distinction between civilian and military resources. Marked by mass deaths of civilians, including the Holocaust (in which approximately 11 million people were killed and the strategic bombing of industrial and population centers (in which approximately one million were killed, and which included the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki) It resulted in an estimated 50 million to 85 million fatalities. These made World War II the deadliest conflict in human history.
Imperial Japanese Army (1944) Medium Tank – 170 built
An improved Chi-Ha
The Type 1 (一式中戦車 チへ) Ichi-shiki chusensha Chi-he was an attempt by Mitsubishi to modernize the Type 97 Chi-Ha, the latter being later upgraded to the Shinhoto standard in 1942. The efforts of the engineers were aimed at increasing the protection level and improve the main gun range, speed and accuracy. The American M4 Sherman was especially in their minds. Unfortunately, production was delayed due to steel shortages, reserved for warship construction. When the production run ended in early 1944, after 170 copies*, the model was desperately outdated. *170 is the commonly accepted figure. Japanese Tanks 1939-45, Steven J. Zaloga, 2007, goes as far as 587, perhaps including part of the Shinhoto conversions.
The all-welded armor was increased to 50 mm (1.97 in), with a straight flat plate to simplify production. It was also slightly longer and taller, and weighed 1.5 tons more. Fortunately, this was compensated by the Mitsubishi Type 100 diesel, which gave 70 hp more than the previous Type 97, with a 240 hp total. Its main Type 1 47 mm (1.85 in) high-velocity (810 m/s or 2,700 ft/s) gun had a barrel length of 2.25 m, and was found able to defeat 72 mm (2.83 in) at 200 m or 52 mm (2.05 in) at 1,000 m, almost double of the previous Type 97. However, it needed an elevation gear, but this also lead to superior accuracy. Elevation/depression was +20 and -15 degrees. The three-man turret was a retrofit of the Chi-Ha “Shinhoto” one. The Type 1 was also the first Japanese medium tank equipped with a radio as a standard.
The Chi-He in action
Fortunately (or unfortunately) for the Japanese, the Chi-He never left the Home Islands. They were kept here to defend against the projected, expected Allied invasion (Operation Olympic), scheduled for October 1945. However, what-if prospects, if the invasion had took place, would have seen the Chi-He still inefficient against the upgraded, 1944 pattern Shermans, especially the new M4A3E8, later deployed in the Korean war. A single prototype was derived from it, the twin 37 mm (1.46 in) AA gun Type 1 Ta-Ha SPAAG.
The most famous German self-propelled anti-aircraft guns (SPAAG) are the Panzer IV based Wirblewind, Ostwind, Mobelwagen and even Kugelblitz. However, despite being overshadowed by their tank-based counterparts, it was actually the half-track SPAAGs that made up the bulk of the German mobile anti-aircraft fleet. Thousands of such lightly armored vehicles were built, based on different chassis and with different gun combinations.
One of the earliest examples of such a vehicle is the Sd.Kfz.7/1, a version of the ubiquitous half-tracked tractor armed with a 2 cm Flakvierling 38 anti-aircraft gun system.
The Sd.Kfz.7, or Mittlerer Zugkraftwagen 8t (Medium Tractor 8 tonnes), was developed as part of the larger family of German half-tracks. The first specifications for this vehicle were laid down in 1932 by Wa.Prüf.6. The vehicle was developed by Krauss-Maffei, with the first vehicle entering production in 1933.
As the designation suggests, the Sd.Kfz.7 was meant to tow weights of up to 8 tonnes. It was the tow vehicle of choice for the famous Flak 88 anti-aircraft guns, the 15 cm sFH 18 howitzer, and the 10.5 cm K18 field gun. However, due to the chaos of war, these vehicles were sometimes seen towing larger loads. They also towed trucks and even light tanks through the harsh conditions on the Eastern Front. The Sd.Kfz.7 could also carry up to 18 men on its 3 benches. The rear of the vehicle was compartmentalized in order to carry various equipment, fuel and ammo.
The design constantly evolved during its 11 year production period. Several engines were used, with various changes made to the superstructure and suspension, including the addition of an extra pair of roadwheels with the last model, the Typ m 11, in order to reduce ground pressure.
In total, 12,000 Sd.Kfz.7 half-tracks were built by Kraus-Maffei, Daimler-Benz, and Hansa-Lloyd in Germany, Saurer in Austria, and Breda in Italy until 1944. They served on all front with the German Wehrmacht, as well as with Italy, Bulgaria, Hungary, and even the Yugoslav Partisans. Some were even used after the war by the Allies and the British tried to copy the design with the Traclat.
The Sd.Kfz.7/1, also known as the ‘Selbstfahrlafette auf m.Zgkw.8t (Sd.Kfz.7/2) mit 2cm Flakvierling 38’, was born shortly after the 2cm Flakvierling 38 was presented to Adolf Hitler in October 1939. The Luftwaffe ordered 100 such weapons systems to be mounted on the Sd.Kfz.7 chassis. Production started in February 1940 and continued until December 1944, by which time between 750 and 800 were manufactured. This made the Sd.Kfz.7/1 one of the most numerous SPAAGs the Germans had at their disposal.
The rear two bench rows were removed, as was the luggage compartment. In their place, a flat platform was created, with the gun mount in the center. A bench row was placed at the front of the platform, facing rearwards. The platform had three drop-sides. These were vertical when the vehicle was on the move, creating a space for the gun crew to stay in. When in firing position, these were dropped into a horizontal position, thus enlarging the space the crew had to move in. The rear drop-side also had a small ladder that helped the crew climb or descend from the platform. There were two kinds of drop sides used. For most Sd.Kfz.7/1 vehicles, these consisted of wire mesh fixed on a metal frame. Some of these metal frames had diagonal braces. However, vehicles built late in the war had these made of wood on a metal frame. This was probably done in order to save materials.
The windshield could be dropped down in order to allow a larger arc of fire for the gun. A tarpaulin could be added to give some cover from the elements, but it only covered the driver’s section.
The winch placed under the vehicle seems to have been retained. It was used to pull vehicles or guns that had gotten stuck.
After August 1943, the vehicle was up-armored using 8 mm steel plating (although production of the unarmored version continued in parallel) and the official designation also changed to ‘Selbstfahrlafette mitgepanzertem Fahrerhaus (Self-propelled gun carriage with armored cab) auf m.Zgkw.8t (Sd.Kfz.7/1) mit 2cm Flakvierling 38’. However, only certain sections of the vehicle were protected. There were two plates at the front of the vehicle, covering the radiator and the engine from frontal fire. The sides were completely exposed. A new armored cab was also added, protecting the driver’s position and the rear crew’s bench. It was partly open to the rear. The top part was only 1.5 mm thick. There were four vision ports protected by armored shutters, two in the front windscreen and two in the side doors. The forward armored shutters had glass vision blocks built in. There were also two hatches in the roof of this armored compartment. There was an armored firewall between the driving compartment and the engine compartment. The armor weighed 2.2 tons. There were plans to prepare a lighter armored cab weighing only 800 kg.
Tools could be carried on the outside of the drop-sides, like a shovel or a pickaxe. However, these are absent in a large number of contemporary photos. Tools are also often depicted as being mounted on the engine hood on the up-armored vehicles, but, yet again, photographic evidence is lacking. One vehicle, restored by Krauss-Mauffei and stored at least for a time at Koblenz, features these hood-mounted tools.
The gun system was mounted in the middle of the rear platform. There were no less than 4 gun mountings used during production. The first one was a small tripod that was height adjustable. Then, the gun system was mounted on a pivot which was also height adjustable. The third mounting is unclearly described in the literature. However, on later vehicles, a new mounting system was added, which allowed the mounting of the gun system using its usual tripod. This had the advantage of easily allowing the Flakvierling to be dismounted and placed on the ground, but this option seems to have been rarely used. The tripod mount was bulkier and occupied more space than the pivot mount.
The Sd.Kfz.7/1 also towed a Sd.Ah.56 special trailer. This was a two-wheeler trailer specially designed for carrying the ammo boxes and accessories for the Flakvierling AA gun system.
120 boxes of ammunition carrying 20 rounds each for a total of 2400 rounds were carried. 30 magazines were carried in the vehicles itself, with the other 90 being kept in the trailer. However, in operations, ammo boxes were scattered all around the rear platform, in order to allow easy access to the loaders.
A large number of chassis were also produced without the gun, meant to act as munition carriers. However, they had all the fittings needed to receive a gun and also acted as reserve chassis. It is unclear if these vehicles are included in the total production number or not.
The Sd.Kfz.7/1 kept all the automotive parts from the Sd.Kfz.7 half-track. The SPAAGs were based on the KM m 11 or the HM m 11 versions, the last in the evolution of the Sd.Kfz.7.
The original engine was a Maybach HL 62 TUK, although this was changed in 1943 for the HL 64 TR. The difference between the two was the displacement (6.4 liters instead of 6.2 liters) and the change of the lubrication system. Both were 6-cylinder water cooled gasoline engines. The HL 62 could reach a maximum of 140 hp at 2600 rpm. It could power the Sd.Kfz.7/1 to a maximum speed of 50 km/h. The 203-liter fuel tank gave a range of 250 km on road.
The engine was connected to a 5-speed differential gearbox (4 forward, 1 reverse) that powered the drive sprockets mounted at the front of the track. This was an “Aphon” type non-synchromesh gearbox. The clutch was a Mocano K 230 K. Seven pairs of interleaved rubberized roadwheels provided contact with the ground and also held the track on the return run. Six of the roadwheel pairs were sprung using a leaf spring suspension. However, the last pair, which also acted as the idler, had a torsion bar suspension instead.
Steering was achieved using the front two wheels. These were air-filled rubber wheels that were steered using the steering wheel in the driver’s cabin. The tracks could also be powered separately in order to help turning, but this was used only if the steering wheels were insufficient. The front wheels had a leaf-spring suspension
The 2cm Flakvierling 38
The Flakvierling 38 anti-aircraft mount system was introduced into service in 1940. It was developed by the Mauser company for the Kriegsmarine at first but was then adopted by the Wehrmacht in order to provide an anti-aircraft system with a better rate of fire. It consisted of four 2cm Flak 38 AA guns mounted together, two on each side. This allowed the Flakvierling to put up four times more bullets in the same amount of time compared to the single Flak 38, thus increasing the chances of severely damaging enemy airplanes.
Inadvertently, this also made the gun quite potent against ground targets, as it was able to saturate enemy positions with fire.
There was no central loading system and each gun had its own 20 round magazine. The magazines were mounted on the sides of the system. When the system was at 0 degrees elevation, the magazines were horizontal.
The guns had a maximum range of 4.7 km and a maximum altitude range of 3.7 km. The combined maximum rate of fire of the 4 guns was 1800 rounds per minute, but this was usually closer to 800 rpm in operation, as the guns needed to be reloaded after they finished their magazines. It could take as little as 3 seconds to fire off all four magazines. Special compartments for the magazines were present on either side of the mount, rotating along with the whole system. The gun barrels could be removed for cleaning.
The guns were fired with the use of two-foot pedals. Each pedal fired two diagonally-opposed gun, so the upper-left at the same time as lower-right. This was done in order to balance out the firing recoil. If a pedal would have controlled the guns on one side, then the recoil from firing them would have rotated the mount to one side, thus making it impossible to aim. If the pedal would have controlled the guns on the upper part, the recoil would have pulled the system upwards, again throwing off the gunner. With the guns fired in diagonal pairs, the recoil compensated both horizontally and vertically, allowing the gunners to aim properly at their target. An official order was issued to Flakvierling 38 crews to only fire two barrels at a time, but this recommendation was mostly ignored in the field.
The aiming system consisted of either a Flakvisier 38 or a Flakvisier 40. They differed in minor details. These were electrical devices which used batteries to adjust the sights in order to help the gunners aim.
The Flakvierling could rotate 360 degrees, with elevation ranging from -8 to 85 degrees. Both rotation and elevation were done manually. The first Sd.Kfz.7/1 were not produced with a gun shield, but this was introduced quite early and retrofitted to older vehicles. The guns were protected by a 3-part shield, with the outer sides being dismountable. The shield weighed 325 kg. These offered the gunners and loaders a degree of protection from rifle-caliber bullets. For land use, the whole system sat on a static tripod which had a ring on which the system rotated. When used on ships, the system sat on a pivot. No fewer than 10 men were needed to crew the Sd.Kfz.7/1, with a driver, a commander and 8 gun servants.
By the end of the war, the Flakvierling became less efficient against the newer versions of the Allied and Soviet ground attack planes, thus falling out of favor and being replaced by 3.7 cm guns. This was probably one of the reasons why the Sd.Kfz.7/1 was discontinued in 1944.
Markings and Camouflage
* Most of this information comes from photographic records.
The early war vehicles seem to have been painted in the regular Dunkelgrau color used for most German army vehicles at the time. Three license plates were fitted to the vehicle, two on the front bumper and one at the rear. No other markings seem to be present on the vehicles.
During winter, the Sd.Kfz.7/1 were white-washed in order to make them harder to detect by enemy pilots and ground troops.
The vehicles soon acquired various camouflage schemes, although it is unclear if these were regulated or purely the crew’s choice. A set of full-color pictures taken in Czechoslovakia in May 1945 of the surrender of the I. Flak-Korps show a number of Sd.Kfz.7/1 SPAAGs in green-sand camouflage colors, although the patterns are quite random.
An interesting feature on a number of vehicles is that the gun shield was covered with cloth, probably in order to minimize reflections that might give the vehicle’s position away. Also, large amounts of vegetation were used to camouflage the vehicle and make it harder to see from the air.
Markings were quite rare. One vehicle was photographed with kill marks on the gun shield, indicating the number of plane and ground vehicle kills the crew claimed. One other late-style vehicle has the nickname ‘Dorle’ written on the radiator armor plating. Another vehicle, from a leichte Flak-Btl., had some markings denoting its unit on the front fenders. An up-armored Sd.Kfz.7/1 had unit markings on the right cab door. However, these occurrences were the exception and not the rule.
The Sd.Kfz.7/1 was used by the Flak Kompanies and Flak Batteries of the Luftwaffe. These were used to accompany the Wehrmacht’s divisions or to protect important locations and installations like airfields. Two or three Sd.Kfz.7/1 SPAAGs formed a platoon. After 1943, a three-vehicle platoon was also added to the HQ unit of each Panzer Abteilung. This gave the tank units their own AA support, without having to rely on the Luftwaffe’s.
These vehicles were very well suited to accompany the German Panzer formations, as they could keep up with the tanks. Also, they could deploy very quickly, immediately providing cover for the troops in case of an unexpected air attack. A towed AA gun would first have to be taken off its trailer and then be placed on its mounting, which would take precious time during an attack. Also, the Sd.Kfz.7/1 could withdraw quickly if the situation required it, with little preparation required. As a trade-off, the Flakvierling could be towed by far smaller vehicles, meaning that the creation of a SPAAG meant the loss of a powerful tractor which could be used to tow a heavier piece of ordnance. This was especially important given the fact that, throughout WWII, the Wehrmacht was reliant on horses to tow their heavy ordnance, as there were never enough heavy tractors.
Their very high rate of fire made them a significant threat to enemy ground attack aircraft. Besides their potential to destroy the attackers, their presence could make enemy pilots hesitate or rush their attack runs, thus lowering their chances of success.
The Sd.Kfz.7/1 had a very high silhouette. Besides obviously making it more visible, this also made it harder to dug-in compared to the towed Flakvierling, as the whole tractor had to be accommodated under cover. Also, for the up-armored vehicles, the guns could not fire directly in front of the vehicle, creating a blind spot.
However, their lack of armor meant that they had to avoid enemy ground forces, as the initial batches of vehicles were vulnerable to all small arms fire and to artillery shrapnel. Even the later vehicles, although up-armored, were only protected against small arms fire coming from the front.
Despite these flaws, the Sd.Kfz.7/1 found itself pressed into a role it was definitely not suited for: fighting against enemy ground forces. In the ground fire support role, the Flakvierling could be a serious threat to enemy infantry and unarmored vehicles due to its high rate of fire and high caliber. Also, when using AP rounds, the Flakvierling could penetrate light armored vehicles such as armored cars or the shields of AT guns. When used in this role, the vehicle was driven in reverse, with the gun having a free field of fire towards the enemy. This did offer the advantage of a quick getaway if needed. Also, the armor of the vehicle was definitely insufficient for the task, with the crew members, especially the loaders, being protected only by the gun shield.
The Sd.Kfz.7/1 soldiered for most of the war, serving especially on the Eastern Front, but also in Africa, Italy and the Western Front after 1944. It is, as of now, unclear if these vehicles served in the invasion of France or Norway.
One famous occasion in which an Sd.Kfz.7/1 was used was during operation Market Garden. Then, a vehicle from an SS unit used its guns to fire at airdropped paratroopers while they were still in the air, but also at the supply gliders.
At least three Sd.Kfz.7/1 exist today in museums. One late version with the armored cab is at the Koblenz Armor Museum in Germany. This is not an original vehicle, but a reproduction. The base vehicle was an Sd.Kfz.7 recovered from a scrapyard in France where it had been used as a heavy load tractor. It was refurbished with the help of a number of German military defense companies, including Krauss Maffei (who paid for the reconstruction), MTU (engine), ZF Friedrichshafen (transmission), and Clouth (roadwheels).
A second vehicle is at the Sinsheim Technical Museum in Germany, being an early unarmored version. The gun shield is probably a later addition and does not match the usual Flakvierling shield.
The third vehicle is at the Saumur Tank Museum in France. It is awaiting restoration and, while visually in a bad state, the chassis and automotive parts are claimed to be in good order. It is a late war version with the armored cab. The Flakvierling 38 on the back seems to be missing.
6.85 x 2.35 x 2.62 m (22.6 x 7.9 x 8.7 ft)
Total weight, battle ready
1 Driver + gun team
Maybach HL 62 TUK, six-cylinder petrol
Half-track torsion arms, interleaved wheels
50 km/h (31 mph)
2cm Flakvierling 38
Links, Resources & Further Reading
Panzer Tracts No.12: Flak Selbstfahrlafetten and Flakpanzer, Thomas Jentz, 1998
Panzer Tracts No.22-5: Gepanzerter 8t Zugkraftwagen & Sfl. Flak (Sd.Kfz.7), Thomas Jentz
Gepard: The History of German Anti-Aircraft Guns, Walter Spielberger, 1982
‘Sd.Kfz.7 turned 7/1’, Walter Spielberger, Wheels & Tracks 12, 1985
German Half-Tracked Vehicles of World War II, John Milsom, 1975
Panzer Regiments: Equipment and Organisation, W.J.K Davies, 1978
Information about the Flakvisier from Handbook on German Military Forces, US War Department, 1945
20 mm Flak 38 on WW2-Weapons, written by WW2-Weapons team, consulted 29 December 2017, https://ww2-weapons.com/20mm-flak-38/
Deutsche Artillerie-Geschuetze, Alexander Lüdeke
War Office Tech Intell Summary No. 151, November 8th 1944
ETO Ordnance Technical Intelligence Report No.220, 11 April 1945
Special thank to the Sd.Kfz.7 Project Part Search for information about the suspension, to Mr. Hilary Louis Doyle for naming information, to Christophe Mialon for information about the vehicle at Saumur
Special thanks to Hunter12396, CaptianNemo, Craig Moore and Marcus Hock for help in searching for information and sources
The British Comet was essentially an upgraded Cromwell tank. In 1943, it was realized that a new British tank was needed that had a high-velocity gun that could take on and knock out the new Panther and Tiger tanks, but was also fast and had a low profile. The Churchill tank had good armor but was slow and had a weak gun. The Sherman tank was tall. The Cromwell tank was fast and low but its turret could not take a larger gun.
The A43 Centurion tank was under development but it would not be ready until 1945. The British Army needed a stop-gap tank that could quickly be introduced into production. The answer was to fit a new up-armoured turret with a high-velocity 77 mm (3.03 in) gun onto late version modified Cromwell chassis. It was called the A34 Cruiser Tank Comet Mark I Type A.
Design work started in May 1943. The Birmingham Railway Carriage and Wagon Company was the design parent of the British Cromwell Tank and the A34 Cruiser Tank Comet. Other companies were involved in the construction of this AFV, the biggest being English Electric, Fowlers, Leyland and Metropolitan-Cammell.
Production was dispersed around Britain because of the threat of German bombing. Orders for 3,000 Comet tanks were issued and they were to use chassis numbers in the range T334901 to T337900. The end of the war resulted in the early cancellation of part of this order. Only 1,186 were produced. Only 26 were recorded as lost in action during WW2.
When you look at the hull of the Comet and compare it with the Cromwell tank it was replacing, there are more similarities than differences. This was because there was a conscious decision by the wartime tank designers to avoid complications in production when the new Comet tank was introduced. This design restraint meant that a fully sloped armored front was not introduced even though it would have improved protection from enemy AP shells.
A larger turret ring was fitted to cope with the bigger wider turret. It was now 64 inches (1629 mm) in diameter. The turret traverse was powered by the tank engine but there were hand wheels for the final fine adjustments.
The hull of the Comet was of a welded construction rather than a one piece cast. It was faster to produce and lighter weight. No rivets were used and this reduced the risk of metal fragments flying around the interior of the tank after a non-penetrating hit.
The tow cable was intended to be stowed in a figure of eight around two semi-circular plates welded to the top hull plate either side of the driving headlights. A third plate was welded to the front to stop the cable dropping down and fowling around the track.
There appears to be a handle fitted to the front bulkhead to the right of the hull machine gun. It is ideally placed as a hand hold for a crew member climbing up the front of the tank. That is not the reason it was fixed in that location. It is designed to allow the end of the tow cable to be secured using a webbing strap.
There is a raised armored panel just behind the turret on the engine deck. It covers the engine air intake. Behind that is the rear gun clamp lock for the 77 mm (3.03 in) gun barrel. When the tank is traveling long distances in non-hostile areas the crew turn the turret to the rear and lock the barrel into position over the rear gun deck. This effectively reduces the length of the tank by 1.37 m (4’6”). This is helpful when being loaded onto railway flat backed tank transportation wagons. The Comet was the first British tank to be fitted with a gun barrel lock. They had been fitted to American tanks for a number of years earlier.
The square box fitted to the rear of the Comet tank is the infantry-tank telephone and a first aid box. It enabled the infantry to talk directly to the tank commander. The two slightly smaller boxes either side of the phone box are the rear smoke dischargers. They would be used to cover a retreat. The driver would reverse into the cloud of smoke to prevent the enemy gunners locking onto their next target.
At the rear of the tank, there was a large tow hook designed to be capable of towing a 17 pdr (75 mm/3 in) anti-tank gun.
The British tank designers had used the Christie suspension system on most of their cruiser tanks used in action during World War Two. The Comet tank was the last to use this system. It gave a fast and smooth ride compared to other tank suspension systems but it took up much-needed space inside the tank. Space that could have been used for the storage of additional ammunition or larger fuel tanks. If it was damaged the long torsion bars were often difficult to remove and replace out in the field.
The rubber rimmed road wheels were 31.5 inches (800 mm) in diameter. There were five pairs fitted either side. After testing of the A34 Comet prototype with and without top track rollers, it was found that the track worked better with them fitted. Four pairs of rubber rimmed top rollers were added to control the top section of the track on production models to keep the track in line and help prevent track slap and slippage.
These were not fitted on the Cromwell. Different types of top rollers were used in the course of the production process at different factories. This is why some Comet rollers look different from others.
Tracks and Track Guards
The Comet tank had a lower ground pressure and better grip than the Cromwell tank it was designed to replace. Its tracks were 18 inches wide (45.7 cm). The Cromwell tank’s track was 15.5 inches wide (39.4 cm)
Track mudguards are fitted to the front and rear of the Comet tank. They were made of thin metal and were very easily damaged. What looks like two runs of steps at the back of the track guards are in fact two metal strips that are designed to strengthen them. The tank crews also used them to help get on top of the tank.
The Comet was vulnerable to Panzerfaust infantry side attacks. It is strange that side skirt panels were not issued and fitted to add extra protection.
The New Turret
The crew in the turret was protected by 4 inches (102 mm) or armor at the front, 2.5 inches (63.5 mm) on the sides and 2.25 inches (57.2 mm) on the rear. The roof armor was 20 mm (0.79 in) thick. The turret was not cast in one piece. It was made from rolled homogenous armor welded together. The gun mantlet was cast as one item.
During trials, it was found that dirt and small stones could get stuck in the gap between the mantlet and the main turret, preventing it from moving up and down. The solution to this problem was the fitting of a strong canvas cover. Sometimes the canvas cover would get stuck in the top gap between the mantlet and the gun when it was elevated. To solve this problem, long thin pockets were added to the top of the cover and metal strips inserted inside to add rigidity.
The commander could also use a spotlight attached to the left-hand side of the turret. The spotlight had grip handles on the back to move it towards the desired direction. There was a dial at the back that could be rotated to focus the beam.
The rear armor of the turret was angled but this was normally hidden by the large rectangle sheet metal storage bin fixed to the rear of the turret. There were internal compartments inside the bin. It was designed to store: a Bren gun; jack and jacking points; chemical protection equipment; water and rations; camo net and muzzle covers for the main gun and machine guns.
The Driver’s Position
British Comet tank drivers sat on the right side of the tank. The driver had a hinged circular forward opening armored visor. It was 3 inches thick (76.2 mm). When in the open position, it gave the driver a good field of vision. In combat situations, the hatch was closed and locked in position by a T-shaped plunger.
The driver and co-driver/hull machine gunner had periscopes fitted with rain covers. The driver had a No.6 periscope and the co-driver had a 1.9x No.57 periscope. They were not in a fixed position. The crew could turn them.
The tank had two shielded driving lights. The one on the right was hinged to allow the flap to be opened and increase the light output. Both were protected from damage by the addition of two armored bars either side of each headlight.
Just like the Cromwell tank, the driver and co-driver hatches were side opening to help the crew get out a quick as possible. When the side panel was opened the top hatch came away as well. The circular armored cover between the two hatches and periscopes was used to protect the electrical extractor fan. When the BESA 7.92 mm (0.31 in) machine gun No.1 Mk.1 was fired, it gave off toxic gasses from the expelled bullet cases. These fumes needed to be evacuated as fast as possible to stop the crew getting sick.
The driver had a box to his immediate right which had the controls for the rear mounted smoke discharger.
The Machine Guns
A BESA machine gun was fitted in a gimbal-mount on the left side of the front hull. It was produced by the Birmingham Small Arms company. It was produced under license. The design was based on a Czechoslovakian ZB53 (model 37) machine gun. Unusually, the British version of the gun kept the original 7.92 mm (0.31 in) caliber. It used the same sized ammunition as the German Army machine guns. Captured enemy ammunition could be used to resupply the tank. It was simple and mechanically reliable.
The co-driver aimed the weapon using his periscope that was fixed just to the left of the gun. To stop the gun jumping around when it was fired the barrel was mounted in a metal cradle to improve its accuracy. The only drawback was that it reduced the angle of fire. A metal triangular block was fitted under the cradle to stop the gunner depressing too low and blasting away at the back of the tank’s headlights.
There was enough machine gun ammunition storage in front of the co-driver for eight spare ammunition boxes. Each box contained 255 rounds fitted in a webbing belt.
A second 7.92 mm (0.31 in) BESA machine gun was mounted to the right of the 77 mm (3.03 in) main gun. It protruded through the gun mantlet and was supported by a metal cradle to improve accuracy. To deal with the toxic gasses produced when the main gun and coaxial BESA machine gun were fired in the turret an electrical extractor fan was fitted. A circular armored cover was fitted to the turret roof to protect the electrical extractor fan. Just like on the hull, it was mounted between the two forward-looking periscopes.
On the roof of the turret, on the right side, just behind the periscope, was a 2-inch bomb thrower No.1. The gun loader had the firing controls near him inside the turret.
The 77 mm Gun
To avoid confusion with the 76.2 mm (3 in) 17pdr gun and the American 76.2 mm (3 in) tank gun, the new 3 inch (76.2 mm) high-velocity tank gun that was fitted to the Comet was called the 77 mm HV gun. It was very accurate and as well as firing high explosive and smoke shells, it could fire a number of different armor piercing rounds, like the armor piercing capped ballistic cap (APCBC) shell. There was only room for 61 rounds for the main gun to be stored inside the tank.
The 77 mm HV gun was a modified version of the powerful British 17 pdr (76.2mm) gun, redesigned by Vickers-Armstrong to fit inside the Comet tank turret. It was shorter than the 17 pdr gun with a reduced breech and recoil. This meant that it lost around 10% of its stopping power compared to the 17 pdr gun. It was still a very powerful gun that could knock out German Tiger and Panther tanks in the right circumstances. Although the 77 mm HV gun had a slightly poorer armor piercing capability than the 17 pdr, it was found to be more accurate at longer distances.
Firing trials started in March 1944 at the Army firing range at Ludworth Cove in Dorset, Southern England. A few problems were found that needed rectifying before production could start. This took time and the factories were only given the green light in October 1944. Shipping to the war zone only started in November. In December 1944 only 31 Comet tanks had been delivered to North-Western Europe. They were not used in the Battle of the Bulge German offensive of 16th December 1944. British armored units had to use Cromwells, Shermans and Achilles.
Capped armor piercing shells (APC) were introduced near the end of the war. The cap transferred energy from the tip of the shell to the sides of the projectile, thereby helping to reduce shattering. The cap also appeared to improve penetration of German tank sloped armor by deforming, spreading and “sticking” to the armor on impact. This thereby reduced the tendency of the shell to deflect at an angle but the cap structure reduced the aerodynamic efficiency of the round with a resultant reduction in accuracy and range.
A second aerodynamic streamlined cap was added to the shell to correct the range and inaccuracy defects. These improved armor piercing shells were called APCBC, armor piercing capped ballistic cap.
It could fire the newly developed armor-piercing discarding sabot (APDS) round with an extremely fast muzzle velocity of 3400 fps (1036 m/s). This speed added around 50% more penetration power to the round. When supplies arrived in Europe they were added to the range of shells carried by Comet tank crews.
The Birdcage gun sight
In front of the commander’s cupola was a strange looking contraption that looked like a small birdcage but without the wire mesh fitted. It was given the nickname ‘the birdcage’ but was a distant target blade-vane gun sight. It was used by the commander to line up the turret on the target. With the hatches in the locked down position, the commander had 360-degree vision in his rotating cupola.
A British WS No.19 Mark.III and an infantry WS No.38B wireless (radio) were installed in the turret. The two aerials were mounted on the rear of the turret roof. The short range very high frequency (VHF) B set antenna was fitted in the middle of the turret roof at the rear. It was used to communicate with infantry units. The tank to tank high frequency (HF) A set antenna was on the right-hand side of the turret roof behind the loader’s hatch. The loader was also the radio operator but the tank commander could access the controls if necessary.
Two Versions, A and B
There were two versions of the Comet Mk.I tank: Type A and Type B. The easiest way to tell the difference between the two is that the later Type B had ‘fishtail’ exhausts at the rear. Smoke dischargers on the side of the turret were added to the Type B tank. The top track rollers and rubber-tired idlers were later replaced with a different steel design as they tended to get clogged and packed with mud too easily. There were a number of other less obvious modifications like a new engine breathing system. The type ‘B’ tanks were introduced after the war.
Tanks sent to north-west Europe during 1944-45 were given the ‘Normandy modification’. They were fitted with a Normandy cowling on top of the vertical exhaust box at the back of the tank. It was a long semi-circular cover that went on the top. It was designed to reduce the visibility of smoke and flames from the engine. Some exhaust covers came in two parts. These were slightly larger.
The split Normandy cowlings enabled the gun to be locked to the rear for long distance road travel or transportation by rail. The one piece Normandy cowling prevented the gun barrel being locked to the rear. It had to be removed for rail transportation.
An added advantage of these cowling covers was that around six troops could be carried on the flat back of the engine covers without them choking on exhaust fumes.
After the war, the exhaust system was modified. It ended in a pair ‘fishtails’ at the end of the exhaust box. It is this version of the Comet tank being called the type B and the wartime original Comet tank called the type A. It had always been the intention to use this ‘fishtail’ exhaust system but it was not ready by 1944-early 1945. Planking plates had been fitted to the earlier models.
The 3rd Royal Tank Regiment, 11th Armoured Division was issued with Comet tanks. The white Allied air recognition star and circle was painted at the rear of the turret between the commander’s cupola and the loaders hatch, covering the rear storage box. The tanks were painted British SCC No.15 olive drab green.
The squadron markings would be painted in yellow on the side of the turret: A squadron triangle, B squadron square, C squadron circle and the HQ unit diamond marking. Their arm of service serial number was a white 52 on a red rectangle.
The 23rd Hussars, 29th Armored Brigade squadron markings would be painted in red on the side of the turret. Their arm of service serial number was a white 51 on a red rectangle. The 29th Hussars was a war-raised cavalry unit.
The 3rd Royal Tank Regiment tank names were painted on the front hull lower glacis plate. Other regiments painted them above the hull machine gun or on the side of the turret. The 3rd Royal Tank Regiment was a regular unit of the RTR.
The Scottish Territorial Army Regiment 2nd Fife and Fofar Yeomanry were also issued with Comet tanks. Armored Brigade squadron markings would be painted in blue on the side of the turret. Their arm of service serial number was a white 53 on a red rectangle.
The C Squadron, 15th/19 Hussars Reconnaissance Regiment received a few Comet tanks.
Not all Comet tanks used the same components. They were built at different factories around Britain with separate supply chains. Some underwent battlefield modifications. There are two different type of idler wheels. The original wheel was found to have a tendency to get packed with mud so a plain metal spoked one was introduced.
There were five different road wheels and hubs. Two different types of top track rollers were used. Fittings on the engine deck differed. During the war, only one rear red light was mounted in a holder on the right side of the tank. After the war ended a second was fitted on the other side.
95 mm Comet tanks
A few photographs exist showing what looks like a close support (CS) Comet tank armed with a 95 mm gun. No records of this conversion have been found. In the book ‘A34 Comet Tank: A Technical History’ by P. M. Knight. On Page 55 he says, “A Close Support (CS) version with a 9 5mm was considered as Cromwell production would be turned over to Comet production. It was not proceeded with though.”
It is believed that Comet tanks fitted with what looks like a 95 mm gun is in fact a dummy gun used on a Command Tank. But why wasn’t a 77 mm dummy gun used? A short 95 mm dummy gun would be lighter than a 77 mm dummy gun and would not over hang the front of the tank as much. It would also be easier to control going over rough ground as it would not be able to elevate. The Bovington Tank Museum’s David Fletcher in an article “Classic Military Vehicles April 2016” states that – “More surprising still was the number of converted Comets that were listed, although we think these were all post-war conversions; 40 Command tanks, 131 Control tanks and 25 OP tanks. There was also one such tank converted for the HQ of 6th RTR in Italy. When its 77mm gun was damaged the tank was rebuilt with a dummy 95mm howitzer and fitted out to suit the regimental commanding officer, although this was also, strictly speaking, a post-war conversion.”
There would have been no gun inside the turret. This would have given more room for additional radios and maps. The Tank Museum archives has a photograph of the 12th Lancers 95 mm Comet. It is listed as a ‘Mk IB Control’. The staff at the archives also made the following observation, “The interesting thing about all the images I have seen of these 90 mm Comets is that the stowage bin on the rear of the turret is a slightly different shape at base compared to those fitted to the gun tanks turret. The gun tanks all have a squared off base, the Control (or Command, depending on who filled in the Card!) have the slightly angled bottom corner.”
The 1st Royal Tank Regiment (1 RTR) certainly had at least one in Germany possibly holding on to it when they went for a tour of service in Libya after WW2. The only known photograph shows it with two Centurion tanks rather than other Comets. The photo would have been taken in the late 1940s. These tanks are easy to identify. The barrel length is different and it has a muzzle counterweight with the distinctive cut on the lower half rather than a muzzle brake.
Post-war Comets in the British Army
After the war, a flamethrower prototype was produced but never entered production. Comet tanks were deployed to the Canal Zone in Egypt and amongst those which were keeping the peace in Palestine. By 1949 Comets were starting to be replaced by Centurion tanks. Comets remained in regular British Army Service in Berlin until 1957 and British Hong Kong until 1959.
Comets in British Hong Kong
A number of Comet tanks were sent to British Hong Kong where they remained in service until 1959. When the new Queen Elizabeth visited they took part in a drive-by parade and salute. Peter Lebus was a National Service 2nd Lt in Hong Kong commanding 3 Comets in a tank troop, 7th Royal Tank Regiment RTR. These are his recollections – “There were no tanks on Hong Kong Island – only infantry, artillery etc. We were based at Sek Kong in the New Territories. There were 2 Squadrons in Hong Kong, the third was in Korea. Each Squadron had 3 Troops and each Troop had 3 tanks. The word “Company” is the same as a Squadron but applies to infantry.
“Each Squadron would be commanded by a Major or a Captain. A Troop would be commanded by a Lt or 2nd Lt. The 3 tanks within a Troop would be commanded by the Troop commander (Lt or 2ndLt), the Troop Sgt and another Sgt or Cpl. We were supposed to defend Hong Kong from the Chinese hordes – I don’t think that we would have lasted more than 15 minutes. In practice we were not able to be very active as so much of the countryside was either paddy fields or roads which we had to avoid if possible during the middle of the day to stop the tarmac being ripped up by our tracks. The tropical heat would make the tarmac soft. If we had to move along a road it was done in the early morning or late at night when the temperature had cooled down.”
“Most of our “defending” was done in scout cars patrolling the border with the HK police. The Comets were kept at base for emergencies and training. My only claim to glory was when I was scouting for an off road route to the border ended ignominiously when my tank slipped sideways on a hill side. The lower track slipped and jammed underneath the tank body. It took us 3 days to dig out by hand a flat area in front of the tank prior to getting it supported from above and in front. We were then able to break the lower track, lay it out in front and tow the tank onto it again and then reconnect it. All in all a steep and rather embarrassing learning curve. A little later I returned to Catterick to teach the next intake all about Centurion tanks”
In May 1960, Finland was sent a British Comet tank (13ZR12) for trials. They liked the tank, kept it and ordered 40 more with a lot of spare parts. They were given the Finnish Army registration numbers PS-252-1 to PS-252-41. They were fitted with the German Fu 16 radios that had been fitted to their StuG III Ausf.G assault guns. The British antennas were removed and replaced with the German radio aerials. The British infantry telephone box at the rear of the tank was replaced with a Finnish Army model.
Union (later Republic) of South Africa Army
In 1954 the South African government ordered 26 Comet Tanks. Later on, some were converted into armored battlefield maintenance and repair vehicles.
Republic of Ireland Army
The Irish Army purchased eight Comet tanks in 1958 and they were delivered between 1959 – 1960. Due to limited budgetary resources, spares were bought in limited quantitates. This caused problems as time went on. Spares became difficult to locate.
They used armor piercing APCBC shells and not high explosive HE ones, as the British Army had discovered a flaw in the HE fuse. A test was carried with one of the tanks having its turret replaced by a Swedish Bofors 90 mm recoilles gun. The experiment was not pursued. Lack of ammunition led to a reduction in the amount of live firing exercises the tank crews were allowed to conduct. The final exercise at the shooting range took place in 1973. They were withdrawn soon afterward.
The Burmese army purchased 25 comet tanks. They remained in service until 1995.
In 1957, Cuba was sold 15 Comet tanks.
A34 Comet tanks only remained a front line tank for a short time. When they were replaced by the Centurion tank they were sent to tank training units or Territorial Army units where they nearly served for the next 20 years. They started to be sold off in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s to foreign armies.
USA/Great Britain (1943)
Flamethrower Tank – 4 built
Although they had proved extremely useful in America’s fight against the Japanese in the Pacific, Auxiliary Flamethrowers (a flamethrower that is secondary to the main gun, rather than replacing the gun) were quite unpopular with the US Army fighting in the European Theatre of Operations (ETO).
Despite this, the British Churchill Crocodile, with its iconic trailer and bow mounted flamethrower, was well admired. American troops, who had received invaluable support from them, placed great faith in these British dragons. While the Churchill Crocodile was still being tested, American interest grew in the project, resulting in the development of their own version.
The American version would be based on their venerable workhorse, the Medium Tank M4 Sherman. It would become known as the Sherman Crocodile, in line with its Churchill brother.
In March 1943, US officers were shown the prototype of the Churchill Crocodile and queried the possibility of creating a similar vehicle based on their own Medium Tank M4, known to the British as the Sherman. In a meeting between UK, US, and Canadian military heads held on the 29th of June, 1943, at Dumbarton Oaks, Maryland, USA, it was surmised that the British led the Americans in flamethrower technology. This ‘flamethrower conference’ was held to evaluate possible requirements for future operations in Europe, namely Operation: Overlord, the amphibious landings of Normandy, which were planned for the following year.
The US Army informed the British War Office (WO) on the 11th of August, 1943, that they were estimating a need for around 100 of these ‘Sherman Crocodiles’, as they would come to be called. Construction of a wooden mock-up of the vehicle was completed by the British Petroleum Warfare Department (PWD). This mock-up was then inspected on the 1st of October, 1943. This was followed by a working prototype which was completed in January 1944. Trials took place at the end of that month, with a demonstration held for US officers on the 3rd of February. Overall, these officers would extremely pleased with the tank.
The First US Army put in an order for 65 tanks that month. This number grew to 115 units when it was predicted that General Patton’s Third US Army would also require armored flamethrowers in their future exploits. The initial order for Overlord, submitted to the British War Office on the 16th of February, was for 100 Sherman Crocodiles including 125 of the accompanying armored trailers. The first production vehicle was finally completed in March.
Initially, the Sherman Crocodile was going to a truly large collaboration between British and American industry. The plan was for the American side to provide any parts necessary or unique to the M4 Sherman. The British, who would also construct the Crocodile, would provide the trailer and component parts of the flamethrower. In reality, British factories became overwhelmed with the production of their own Army’s orders for the Churchill Crocodile and were barely scraping together other orders. As a result, no Sherman Crocodiles were ready for the US Army on D-Day.
Foundation, The M4
The M4 started life in 1941 as the T6 and was later serialized as the M4. The tank entered service in 1942. All Sherman Crocodiles were based on the M4A4, with one exception. The single Crocodile prototype was based on the M4A2.
The M4A2, known to the British as the Sherman III, was a diesel-powered model. The radial petrol engine of previous models was replaced with the General Motors 6046 engine (a combination of two GM 6-71 General Motors Diesel engines). The hull was of a welded construction.
The M4A4, known to the British as the Sherman V, was almost exclusively used by the British military and, like the A2, had a welded hull. Many A4s were famously converted into the 17-pounder armed Firefly. The unique feature of the A4 was its Chrysler Multibank engine. This large power plant was unpopular with the American military but liked by the British. This larger engine also resulted in the lengthening of the hull. This is most noticeable when looking at the suspension bogies as the gap between the units is much bigger than other M4 models.
The average speed of the M4 series was 22–30 mph (35–48 km/h). The tank’s weight was supported on a Vertical Volute Spring Suspension (VVSS), with three bogies on each side of the vehicle and two wheels per bogie. The idler wheel was at the rear.
Standard armament for both models consisted of the 75mm Tank Gun M3. This gun had a muzzle velocity of up to 619 m/s (2,031 ft/s) and could punch through 102 mm of armor, depending on the AP (Armor Piercing) shell used. It was a good anti-armor weapon, but it was also used to great effect firing HE (High-Explosive) for infantry support. For secondary armament, the M4s had a coaxial and a bow mounted .30 Cal (7.62 mm) Browning M1919 machine gun, as well as a .50 Cal (12.7 mm) Browning M2 heavy machine gun on a roof-mounted pintle.
The M4 base vehicle remained mostly unchanged. It retained full operation of its turret and 75mm gun and bow-mounted .30 Cal (7.62mm) machine gun, as was intended for an auxiliary flamethrower. Depression of the 75mm was slightly hampered over the right of the upper glacis, however, due to the placement of the flame gun.
The basic layout of the Sherman Crocodile was the same as the Churchill. All of the flamethrowing equipment would be external. This included the Crocodile’s iconic wheeled trailer which was attached to the rear of the tank. This coupling at the rear of the vehicle was officially known as “The Link”. The trailer weighed 6.5 tons and was protected by 12mm (0.47 in) thick armor. “The Link” was made up of 3 articulated joints which allowed it to move up, down, left or right and swivel on the horizontal axis to allow it to navigate rough terrain. The trailer carried 400 UK gallons (1818 liters) of flamethrower liquid and 5 compressed bottles of Nitrogen (N₂) gas. The tank could be jettisoned from inside the tank in case of emergency.
The Nitrogen gas propelled the fuel along a pipe which ran from the rear plate of the tank, along the right flank, to a flame projector mounted on the upper glacis to the right of the co-driver/bow machine gunner’s position. The entirety of the pipe was covered in thin metal plating to protect it from shrapnel or small arms fire. This flame projector was mounted on a pedestal protecting by sheet metal plating. It had a full range of motion, able to actuate up and down, as well as traverse left and right. The weapon was operated by the bow-gunner/assistant driver with controls at his station.
Including the Crocodile prototype built on the M4A2, only four Sherman Crocodiles would be completed out of an initial introductory order of six. The three production models were built on the hulls of the newer M4A4.
The Crocodiles were effectively kept in a state of limbo in the UK until a request came in for Crocodiles in November 1944. This request came from General Omar Bradley’s 12th Army Group and General William Simpson’s 9th US Army. These armies showed the most enthusiasm to armored flamethrowers, having been some of the first to benefit from the support of British Churchill Crocodiles during the fighting in and around the port city of Brest. More Sherman Crocodiles were requested, but production never resumed.
The four Shermans were sent to the 739th Tank Battalion (Special Mine Exploder Unit), a unit that had previously been equipped with Canal Defence Lights (CDLs).
Sherman Crocodiles would have to wait until February 1945 for their first and only use in combat. They took part in Operation: Grenade, the assault on the ancient 13th-century citadel in Julich, Germany. On the 24th of February, the Crocodiles supported the 175th Infantry, 29th Division in their efforts to secure the town. The town was secured by afternoon, but the garrison of the old citadel was putting up a stiff resistance.
The embattled fortress was surrounded by a moat that was 85-foot (26 meters) wide and 20-foot (7 meters) deep. Division commanders were not keen on throwing wave after wave of infantry against the walls of the citadel, so the
Crocodiles were brought in. The Crocodile unit arrived at half-strength, due to the fact that two of the tanks broke down before reaching the battle. When the remaining tanks arrived, they advanced to the edge of the moat and began to pump flaming liquid through every possible void. A large number of defenders quickly abandoned their positions and retreated underground.
With the garrison seeking refuge, the Crocodiles turned their attention to the gates of the citadel. The tanks pounded the gates with approximately 20 rounds of High-Explosive from the 75mm main guns. When they had succeeded in blowing the gates off their hinges, the Crocodiles resumed flaming, covering every inch of the inner courtyard in flames.
With the last survivors from the fort running to nearby hills, the 175th Infantry waded across the moat, securing the complex by 15.00 hours (3:00 pm) that day. The Citadel would continue to burn for two days. In March, the Crocodiles would support elements of the 2nd Armored Division after crossing the Rhine, but after this, there was very little need for the Crocodiles once the Siegfried line had been breached and passed.
Other flamethrowers were used with standard gun Shermans in Europe. These were either the E4-5 or ESR1 Auxiliary Flamethrower that replaced the bow machine gun. They were also in use in the Pacific fighting the Japanese. Though their effect was described as “positively pathetic” by commanders in the ETO, a large number of the weapons were used.
An interesting point to note about the three Crocodiles based on the M4A4 is that these are among some of the only M4s of that iteration to serve with the American Army in the European Theatre. The only other time the A4 was used by American forces in the ETO was after the Battle of the Bulge when US armored forces had a brief shortage of tanks. Gaps were filled with some A4s from British stocks.
The Crocodiles survived the war, but what happened to them is unknown. None of them are known to survive today.
Other American M4 Flamethrowers
In the Pacific Ocean Theatre (PTO), the Americans had successfully designed and built a main armament flamethrower on the M4. A main armament flamethrower replaces the main gun, unlike the auxiliary of the Crocodile. This vehicle was known as the M4 POA-CWS H1 (POA-CWS: Pacific Ocean Area-Chemical Warfare Service) and was mostly used on the M4A3 model of Sherman. They served in a number of famous actions, including the assault on the treacherous volcanic island of Iwo Jima.
There was also use of smaller “periscope” flamethrowers that were attached to the co-driver/bow machine gunner’s hatch. This was also designed by POA-CWS, and was designated the H1 Periscope Mount Flame Thrower.
American development of Mechanized Flamethrowers based on the M4 continued after the war, resulting in such projects as the T33, as well as the M42B1 and B3 which served in great effect in the Korean War.
Further British Experiments
Alongside the Crocodile, British designers continued to work on other possible flamethrowing Shermans. Most notably, this took the form of more reptilian Sherman flamethrowers. These were the Salamander series and the Sherman Adder. Both of these were based on the M4A4.
The Salamander series went through 8 variations, Type I to Type VIII. They all focused on finding the best location for the flamethrower and accompanying equipment. The flamethrower of choice for this tank was the Wasp IIA which had a range of 90 – 100 yards (82 – 91 meters). Designed by the Petroleum Warfare Department, the initial Type I mounted the Wasp in an armored sheath under the 75mm main gun and was fed from fuel tanks in the sponsons. Type II and III were designed by the Lagonda luxury car company and they were the only variants to have a smaller crew at four men, instead of the regular five which the other models retained and mounted their flamethrowers in the 75mm gun tube. Type II also tested a flame gun mounted above the co-driver/bow machine gunner’s position. Type IV to VIII were all designed by the PWD. They all varied in pressurization methods and fuel tank arrangements. On Type VI and VIII, the flame gun was mounted in a blister on the side of the turret. On Type VII it was mounted in the antenna socket on the right front of the hull.
Salamander fell by the wayside. Though tested for a short period in 1944, nothing came of the projects. The next project was called the Adder. The configuration of the Adder was thus: an 80 UK gallon (364-liter) fuel tank was mounted on the rear plate of the M4. An armored pipe running across the top of the right sponson fed the fuel from this tank to a flame gun mounted above the co-driver/bow-machine gunner’s position. The gun had a range of 80 – 90 yards (73 – 91 meters). A simple armored skirt was added to the flanks to protect the suspension. Like the Salamander, however, the project did not make it past prototype stages.
Specifications (M4A4 based)
Dimensions (L-W-H, without trailer)
19’4” x 8’8” x 9′ (5.89 x 2.64 x 2.7 m, measurments without trailer)
The M26 Pershing descended from a long series of medium and heavy tank prototypes, dating back from 1936. During the war, heavy tank development had been long delayed or given low priority since the US Army, USMC and Allied forces required a mass-built, good-all-around medium tank, which took the shape of the Medium M4 Sherman.
By 1944, the High Command was aware of the limitation of the M4 when facing German tanks. By mid-1944, both the British and US had undertaken upgrades in armor and guns on the Sherman, and developed tank-hunters instead of mass-producing a brand new model. However, by the fall of 1944, these stopgap measures proved insufficient, and the innovative M26 was eventually pushed forward for production. But it was a bit too late. The Pershing saw little combat and mostly soldiered during the Cold War, starting with Korea. At last, the crews had the ideal tank to deal with German armor, but historians and authors still debate about the causes of such delays. Could the Pershing have been a game changer if introduced earlier?
T20 Prototype (1942)
Development of the T20 Medium Tank started as an upgrade over the M4 in 1942. This new tank had common features with earlier models, notably the characteristic suspension (HVSS) bogies, roadwheels, return rollers, drive sprockets and idlers. By May 1942, a mock-up of the T20 had been already produced. U.S. Army Ordnance also ordered the development of the M6 heavy tank, which would prove a dead end. The main feature of the T20 was the lower silhouette and more compact hull, allowed by the availability of the new Ford GAN V-8 combined with a rear transmission and rear sprocket drive layout.
This engine was an early attempt to produce a V12 with similar layout and performances to the Rolls Royce Merlin, but development was stopped and the engine was turned into a smaller V8. Other improvements included a sturdier horizontal volute spring suspension (HVSS), a longer barrel version of the 75 mm (2.95 in) (M1A1), and 76.2 mm (3 in) front armor. The weight and width were very similar to the M4, allowing transportation in similar conditions. However, the T20 also pioneered the Torqmatic transmission, which proved highly problematic during trials.
T22 and T23 Prototypes
Problems with the Torqmatic dictated a return to the M4 transmission, leading to the T22. Variants of this medium tank also tested an autoloader, thus reducing the turret crew to just two.
In 1943, the need to replace the M4 was not apparent, and the U.S. Army Ordnance decided to test several electrical systems on the next T23 Medium Tank, mainly the transmission. These entered service but, because of maintenance and supply problems, only operated on U.S. soil for the duration of the war, mainly for training purposes.
The T25 and T26
The T25 was a new design, up-armored and up-gunned. This was done as it was clear, after the first encounters with German upgraded Panzer IVs, Panthers and Tigers, that the M4 was less up to the task than previously thought. The debate was heated, but finally, a breach opened and clear-cut decisions were taken after the reports came from Normandy. Meanwhile, a series of T25s was built, inaugurating a new, far larger cast turret derived from the one on the T23, in order to accommodate a 90 mm (3.54 in) gun.
The T26 added upgraded armor to the mix, with a new 102 mm (4 in) thick glacis and reinforced hull. Their overall weight rose to 36 tonnes (40 short tons), up into the category of “heavy tanks”.
Performance decreased, and triggered reliability and maintenance issues, as their engine and transmission were not designed to cope with the additional stress. The T25 displayed VVSS suspensions while the T26 used the final torsion bar system retained on the M26. The T26E1 was the prototype upon which the upgraded production version T26E3 was based on. After a small pre-series, this was standardized as the M26.
Compared to the Sherman and previous models, the Pershing was revolutionary. The new Wright engine and short transmission gave it a low profile, as opposed to the Sherman. The glacis plate was one of the thickest ever fitted on an American tank to that point. The torsion bar system conferred a noticeably better ride and was leagues ahead of the tractor-based VVSS, as well as simpler than the HVSS. The large tracks fitted with soft steel shoes contributed to lowering the ground pressure and giving better grip on soft terrain. Above them, two wide mudguards mounted large storage bins for tooling, spares and equipment.
The drivetrain, modeled and tested on the T26, counted six pairs of rubberized roadwheels, each fitted on its own wheelarm. They were connected to the torsion bars by the way of an eclectic spindle, and each was also connected to a bumpstop, which limited the motion of the arm. Three out of the six received extra shock absorbers. There was also one idler (identical to the roadwheels) at the front and one sprocket at the rear, on each side.
The idlers could be precisely adjusted to the track thanks to a large notch. This meant that the idler could be displaced forward or backward and thus change the track tension. There were also five return rollers. The tracks were a new model, but rather classic in appearance, each link being articulated with wedge bolts and having a two-piece center guide. These were also rubberized.
Construction called for large cast sections, front and rear, attached to the hull sides and welded together. Another cast section went across the engine deck for better strength. There was an infantry telephone fitted on the back panel of the engine compartment, inside an armored box. Infantrymen could then communicate with the tank, for close support, even in the midst of battle.
The engine compartment was covered by eight armored grids, four openings total, only accessible when the turret was turned to the side. The two rearward ones granted access to the engine, while the two forward ones allowed access to the left and right fuel tanks, the right being shorter to make room for the auxiliary engine and electric generator. There was also a semi-automatic fire extinguishing system. Also on the engine deck was located the radiator filler cap and gun travel lock. The transmission had three speeds forward and one reverse. The differential operated three drumbrakes on each side.
The M36 commander’s cupola had a one piece hatch and six direct vision prisms made of thick bulletproof glass, inserted inside the cupola bulge. In practice, the hatch had the tendency to jump loose and a field experiment later passed into general practice consisted of drilling holes into it. The top of the hatch mounted a periscope and the entire structure moved freely around a fixed azimuth scale. When inside, the commander had a lever for traversing the turret left or right. Just behind him was mounted the SCR 5-28 radio set. Due to its lengthwise position, a mirror allowed the commander to use the commands at hand. The gunner had an M10 periscope, with x6 magnification, and to its left was an M71 auxiliary telescope with x4 magnification.
The M3 90 mm (3.54 in) gun was power traversed, with a joystick controlling elevation and a pump for manual traverse. The gun also had an elevation handle and, just behind it, a manual trigger, in case of failure of the electrical fire system. There was also a gear change lever, for choosing between the manual or hydraulic options for traverse. At a lower position was found the manual traverse lock, which was used when the turret was reversed and gun lowered and attached for transportation. The gun had a classic percussion fire system and manual breech. The loader also fired the cal.30 (7.62 mm) coaxial machine gun, and had his own vision system. Just left of him were the ready racks, storing ten rounds of various types for immediate use. Additional stowage inside six floor compartments was used. He also had a pistol port.
The driver and assistant driver both had sprung suspended seats and single-piece hatches. The driver had a rotatable periscope, immediate access to the semi-automatic fire extinguisher to his left and a brake release. The instrument panel counted (in order) five circuit breakers, a fuel gauge, a lever for fuel tank selector, electrical starter, electrical gauge, tachometer, personal heater, differential settings, fuel cut-off emergency button, panel light trigger, main lights, speedometer, oil pressure & engine temperature gauges, as well as several lamp indicators.
The two brake levers had no neutral positions. The turning radius was about 20 feet (6 m). The assistant driver was in charge of the bow machine-gun, a ball-mount cal.30 (7.62 mm), and had a complete set of driving levers if needed to replace the driver, and had a simple hatch periscope which allowed him to see his machine-gun tracers. The turret roof also housed, near to the commander cupola, a multi-purpose cal.50 (12.7 mm) heavy machine gun. Ammunition racks for it and the coaxial cal.30 were found inside the turret rear cast “basket”.
Production and Controversy
It is a known fact that the actual production of the T26E3 preseries, which was standardized in March as the M26, only began in November 1944 at the Fischer Tank Arsenal. Only ten were built this first month. Then it raised to 32 in December and gained momentum in January 1945, with 70 vehicles and 132 in February. Added to this, the Detroit Tank Arsenal also joined this effort, releasing some additional tanks in March 1945. From then, around 200 left both factories each month. In total about 2212 vehicles were built, some after WW2. Although months were needed to train crews and maintenance teams, the first real operations began in western Germany in February-March 1945.
The controversy came with the legitimate question about the well-documented inefficiency of the M4 Sherman against German armor after 1944, correlated with the fact that the US Army failed to field a new tank model in time, since the T26 was delayed for so long. Several historians, like Richard P. Hunnicut, Georges Forty and Steven S. Zaloga specifically pointed to the responsibility of the ground forces head, General Lesley McNair, in this matter of fact. Depending on the these opinions, several factors contributed to these delays:
-The development of tank destroyers alongside regular M4s and based on the same chassis (McNair himself developed and strongly supported this doctrine) or the introduction of improved M4s (the 1944 “76” versions).
-The need to have a streamlined and simplified line of supply. Most US tanks at that time were M4s or based on the M4 chassis, sharing the same components. Adding to this a brand new set of parts and a heavier, untested tank, would have imposed many changes and perhaps jeopardized such 3000 miles long (4800 km) supply lines, which became essential from D-Day on.
A state of complacency after the introduction of the M4, as it was seen as superior to German tanks in 1942 and still a match in 1943. Many officers, including Patton himself, were quite happy with the high mobility and reliability of this model, and opposed the introduction of a new heavy type, which was seen as unnecessary. Even when the Tiger and Panther were encountered in limited numbers, the order to study a new model was not given, and instead time was “wasted” on studying a new electric transmission. Only after Normandy were some efforts made to develop a new tank from the T25.
-From Zaloga’s point of view, there was a clear opposition to the development of the T26, only lifted when General Marshall, supported by Eisenhower, overruled McNair in December 1943 and renewed the project, although it proceeded quite slowly. Hunnicut underlines the ordnance requested 500 vehicles of each model in development then, the T23, T25E1 and T26E1, because of contradictory wishes. The Army Ground Forces systematically objected to the 90 mm (3.54 in) armed new heavy tank, while the Armored Forces branch wanted the 90 mm (3.54 in) to be mounted on the Sherman.
The Super Pershing & T26E4
The first combat experience showed that the M26 still fell short on firepower and protection when facing the formidable German Tiger II. Because of this, experiments were carried out with the longer and more powerful T15 gun. The first vehicle, based on the first T26E1-1 vehicle, was shipped to Europe, where it was uparmored and saw limited combat, being now commonly known as the “Super Pershing”. Another T26E4 prototype and 25 “serial” vehicles followed, with slight differences.
This modified version came into production after the war and most Pershings in service were upgraded to this standard. It replaced the M3 with the new M3A1 gun, characterized by a more efficient bore evacuator and single-baffle muzzle brake. The M26A1s were produced and modified at Grand Blanc Tank Arsenal (1190 M26A1s in all). They cost $81,324 apiece. M26A1s saw action in Korea.
The Army Ground Forces wanted to delay full production until the new T26E3 was battle-proven. So the Zebra Mission was mounted by the Armored Forces Research and Development unit, led by General Gladeon Barnes in January 1945. Twenty vehicles of the first batch were sent in Western Europe, landing at the Belgian port of Antwerp. They would be the only Pershings to see combat in World War Two, spread between the 3rd and 9th Armored Divisions, part of the First Army, although some 310 would be shipped to Europe until V-day. They drew their first blood in late February 1945 in the Roer river sector. A famous duel took place in March at Köln (Cologne). Four T26E3s were also seen in action during the “mad dash” to the bridge at Remagen, providing support, but not crossing the fragile bridge for days. Instead, these heavyweights crossed the Rhine on barges.
After the war, M26s were grouped into the 1st Infantry Division, stationed in Europe as a reserve, following the events of the summer of 1947. The “Big Red One” counted 123 M26s in three regimental and one divisional tank battalions. In the summer of 1951, with the NATO reinforcement program, three more infantry divisions were stationed in West Germany, and accepted mostly battle-proven M26s retired from Korea. However, by 1952-53, these were phased out gradually in favor of the M47 Patton.
The Belgian Army inherited the bulk of these, including many reconditioned M26A1s from USA, for a total of 423 Pershings, leased for free as part of the Mutual Defence Assistance Program. These served in three Régiments de Guides, three Régiments de Lanciers and three Batallions de Chars Lourds. These were also phased out and replaced by the M47 Patton, only two units retaining them by 1961. They were retired from service in 1969. By 1952-53, France and Italy also benefited from the same program and were given M26s. France swapped them soon after for M47s, while Italy retained them operationally until 1963.
While the heavy fighting at Okinawa raised concerns about the losses taken by M4s, it was eventually decided to send a shipment of 12 M26s, departing on May, 31. They landed at Naha beach on the 4th of August. However, they arrived too late as the island was nearly secured.
The bulk of the M26 (and M26A1) force saw action during the Korean war, from 1950 to 1953. The first units to be called were the four infantry division stationed in Japan, only counting a few M24 Chaffees and howitzer support models. The M24s were quickly found no match for the numerous T-34/85s fielded then by the North Koreans. However, three M26s were found in storage at the Tokyo US Army ordnance depot, and were quickly brought back in service with fortune-made fanbelts. They were formed into a provisional tank platoon by Lieutnant Samuel Fowler. They were deployed in mid-July, first seeing action when defending Chinju. However, their engines overheated and died out in the process. By the end of July 1950, more divisions were sent, but still counting mostly medium tanks, M4s of the latest types. Many M26s were hastily reconditioned and shipped. By the end of the year, some 305 Pershings managed to arrive in Korea.
After November 1950, however, most of the tank to tank battles were already spent, and North Korean T-34s became rarer. A 1954 survey showed that the M4A3s scored the highest kills (50% because of their large availability), followed by the Pershing (32%) and the M46 (only 10%). However, the kill/loss ratio was clearly favorable to the second and especially for the third, as the M26 found no difficulty getting through the T-34s armor at any ranges, well helped by the largely available HVAP ammunition, while its armor stood well against the T-34’s 85 mm (3.35 in) gun. In February 1951, Chinese forces deployed considerable numbers of T-34/85s, but these were widely spread between infantry divisions for close support. The same year the M46 Patton, the upgraded version of the M26, gradually replaced the Pershing, as it was found unable to display sufficient mobility on the mountainous terrain of Korea.
Starting a Dynasty: The Patton Series (1947-1960)
Too late for World War Two, but also not mobile enough for Korea, produced in small quantities related to other models from the same time frame, the Pershing seemed to have been a stopgap model, bound for history’s dark corners. However, it technically started a brand new generation of US Cold War tanks, sharing the same revolutionary suspension system, roomy turret and low-profile hull, better known collectively as the “Pattons”. A dynasty which lasted well into the 90s, when the last modernized M60s in service came to retirement. Many are still found in frontline units all around the world.
Yugoslavian Partisans (1945-49)
Modified Light Tank – 3 converted
Genesis of the Light Tank M3A3 With 7.5 cm PaK 40
The Axis invasion (codenamed ‘Directive 25’) of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia started on the 6th of April 1941 (also known as the ‘April War’). The Yugoslav Army was taken completely by surprise by the speed and size of the Axis forces. The war ended on the 17th of April 1941 with the capitulation, occupation, and division of Yugoslav territory by the Axis forces.
However, very soon after the Axis occupation, in the second half of 1941, the first resistance groups started a rebellion against the occupiers. There were two resistance fighters groups, the Royalist Chetniks (Četnici/Четници) and the communist Partisans (Партизани). The Chetniks were led by General Draža Mihailović (Дража Михаиловић) and the communist Partisans movement was led by Josif Broz Tito (Јосиф Броз Тито). The term ‘Partisan’ describes both groups by definition, but today the name Partisans has become a synonym for the communist resistance movement in Yugoslavia.
Although in the beginning, these two groups worked together in the fight against the occupying Axis forces, a conflict between these two forces in late 1941 would break out into an open civil war. This lasted until the end of the war and the victory of the Partisans.
By the end of 1943 and early 1944, because of the lack of Chetnik actions against the Germans, the Allies decided to send large amounts of military aid to the Partisan movement instead, including weapons, tanks, and aircraft. According to the agreement between the Partisans and the Allies, it was planned to form one tank brigade equipped with Allied fighting vehicles (armored cars and tanks).
This unit, named the First Tank Brigade, was formed on the 16th of July 1944. The British provided all the equipment needed to equip this brigade. In its inventory, there were some 56 M3A1/A3 Stuart tanks, 24 AEC Mk.II armored cars, and two M3A1 armored reconnaissance cars. The next larger delivery of 36 mostly M3A1 tanks would take place on the 6th of March 1945 (plus a few Stuart tanks received during the war from the Allies) so that the total numbers of Stuart tanks used is around 100.
The caliber (37mm) of the main gun on the Stuart M3A1/A3 tanks was inadequate for anti-tank duties in 1944/45, but Stuarts were still used, since most German tanks on this front were older (mostly Italian and French models). There was also nothing better available at that time, partly because there were not enough Soviet-supplied weapons. The Partisans, as a result, were forced to use the AEC Mk.II armored car (due to its better firepower, the 6 pounder – 57mm Anti-Tank Gun) for engaging better and stronger enemy tanks in mix units together with Stuart tanks.
But this tactic of using both vehicles types for fighting enemy armor led to a lack of any reconnaissance (vehicle or infantry) element of the brigade. The inability to determine exact information about the enemy forces, in particular, unit strength and exact positions, led to great losses.
By the end of the War, more than 60 Stuart tanks were destroyed or damaged. On several of these damaged tanks, the turrets were removed and Partisan engineers decided to try to mount some captured German weapons, to be used as improvised self-propelled guns with increased firepower. Two confirmed modifications are known; one armed with a German 7.5cm PaK 40 anti-tank gun and the second armed with the 20mm Flak 38 Flakvierling anti-aircraft gun. These modifications were quickly built and put into use without proper testing.
There is also no information about the exact names for these vehicles, or whether the Partisans even assigned an official name for them.
On some damaged tanks, the tank turret was removed and in its place, a new modified gun platform was fitted. The upper structure mounted the 7.5cm PaK 40 anti-tank gun with its twin layer gun shield of 4mm (0.16 in.) thick steel and a small armor plate (there is no information on its thickness) between the gun and the tank hull. Two more armored plates were used for the side protection (taken from damaged German Sd.Kfz.251 or 250 half-tracks). In principle, the armor of the upper modified gun platform offered only limited protection for its crew, mostly from small caliber bullets and shrapnel.
The main armament, as previously noted, was the 7.5cm Pak 40 anti-tank. The choice for the main gun was very simple one, as the Partisans captured a number of these guns, so they used what they had. The exact number of rounds for the main gun is not known, but it is often mentioned as being around 25 rounds. The 7.5cm Pak 40 gun had enough power to destroy nearly all types of enemy tanks that could be encountered on this front. These being the German Panzer IV or some captured Russian T-34/76 (known as “Panthers” by the Partisans) in Germans use.
The secondary armament consisted of one original hull mounted Browning 7.62mm (.30 cal) machinegun. On some photographs, a second Browning machine gun can be seen placed on top of the gun shield or behind it, but the photographs are not clear enough.
Due to the removal of the tank turret and installation of the new 7.5cm PaK 40 anti-tank gun, it was necessary to do some modifications on the two roof hatch doors (used by the driver and hull machine gunner) so that they could be opened forwards only. Except for the change in the upper structure of the tank, the rest of the vehicle was the same as the original (hull, running gear, armor, and engine).
The dimensions of this vehicle were similar to the original tank configuration. Due to the length of the 7.5cm Pak 40 gun, it was certainly a bit longer than the original but the exact details are unknown. The weight of this vehicle was probably around some 15 to 17 tons. It had four crew members: commander, driver, gunner, and a loader. The gun crew had a very limited working space to effectively operate the main weapon.
There is little information on the precise participation and loses of the Partisan Stuart PaK version. What is known from the contemporary photographic evidence is that they were used in combat. There are only a few documented actions in which these tanks were used.
They were used at the end of March 1945 in the area of Drenovača (Дреновача) against German positions. Then, on the 27th and 28th of April 1945, near Ilirska Bistrica (Илирска Бистрица), after some heavy fighting (between the Partisan and German forces), the Germans managed to push the Partisans out of Bistrice. This was with the support of one armored company equipped with several or more ‘Panther’ tanks (in reality captured and reused Russian T-34/76 tanks), The next day, Partisans carried out a counter-attack and on that occasion, one T-34/76 was hit and destroyed by a Stuart PaK version. They also took part in tough battles for the liberation of the Trieste (Трст) by the end of April 1945.
The final fate of Pak version is not known, whether they were lost in combat or if they survived. Тhe First Tank Brigade war losses were as previously noted, around 30 to 34 tanks destroyed and a similar number of damaged tanks. So it’s possible that in these numbers include some Pak-conversion tanks.
The role of this vehicle was very likely primarily for destroying enemy heavy armor and as a long-range fire support in a way similar to some German armored vehicles. We can conclude that this hybrid vehicle had both good and bad sides. The positive side was the superior firepower compared to the original and weaker cannon 37mm main gun. Negative sides were: limited working space for the gun crew, weak armor, limited ammunition storage, unproven designed and the whole new gun platform was very likely to stressful for the whole chassis.
It is believed three Stuart tanks were modified, but according to other sources (mostly on different internet websites) up to 5 vehicles were rebuilt this way, but this is probably not correct. What is particularly strange is that this conversion always appears alone in contemporary photographs, so it possible that only a single vehicle conversion was ever carried out. Currently, it cannot be exactly verified how many such vehicles were built. Their final fate after the war is unknown.
The 7.5 cm PaK 40 Anti-Tank Gun
The 7.5cm PaK 40 was a Rheinmetall solution for the German problems with their insufficiently strong anti-tank guns. It was first issued in very limited numbers by the end 1941 and start of 1942. It became the standard and a highly effective German anti-tank gun used until the end of the war, with some 20,000 examples being built.
The Pak 40 was in essence just a larger version of the 5 cm Pak 38. It had a split tubular trail carriage, double plate shield (two 4mm plates 25mm apart) to protect the crew, solid rubber tires with a torsion-bar suspension, and a muzzle-brake on the long gun barrel. It was an excellent anti-tank gun, but the main problem with it (according to many sources) was the heavyweight in action, many were lost because they became bogged down in mud, especially on the East Front. After the war, many European countries put them to good use to re-equip their shattered armies for some time.
The maximum effective range of Armor Piercing (AP) rounds was 2 km and for High Explosive (HE) rounds was 7.6 km (4.72 miles). Elevation was -5° to +22° with 65° traverse. Weight in action: 1425 kg /3142 lb. The armor penetration at a range of 1 km (0.62 miles), depending on the ammunition used was around 97 mm which was enough to destroy almost every tank of the period at that range.
The Pak 40 used several different types of ammunition:
– 7.5cm Pzgr Patr 39: Conventional piercing shell (AP) with ballistic and penetrating caps. Complete round weight of 12 kg (26.46 lb),
– 7.5cm Sprg Patr 34: Standard high explosive shell (HE) Complete round weight of 9.15 kg (20.18 lb),
– 7.5cm Patr H1/B: Complete round weight of 8 kg (17.64 lb), Hollow charge shell used in limited number because the low muzzle velocity (450 mps/1476 fps) made precise and accurate shooting at fast targets very difficult.
4.33 x 2.47 x 2.29 m
Total weight, battle ready
5 (Gunner, two loaders, driver and commander).
Continental 7 cylinder petrol
250 hp – air cooled
58 km/h (36 mph) road
29 km/h (18 mph) off-road
120 km at medium speed (74.5 mi)
7.5cm Pak 40 Anti-Tank Gun
From 13 to 51 mm (0.52-2 in)
Links, Resources & Further Reading
Artillery From WWI to the present day, Michael E. Haskew, Amber Books 2010.
Waffentechnik im Zweiten Weltkrieg, Alexander Ludeke.
Fighting men of WWII Axis Forces, David Miler, Chartwell Books.
German Artillery of World War Two, Ian V.Hogg
Oklopne jedinice na Jugoslovenskom ratištu, Bojan B. Dumitrijević i Dragan Savić, Institut za savremenu istoriju, Beograd 2011.
Armored units and vehicles in Croatia during WW II, Part I Allied armored vehicles, Dinko Predoević, Rijeka 2002.
Modernizacija i intervencija, Jugoslovenske oklopne jedinice 1945-2006, Institut za savremenu istoriju, Beograd 2010.
As the United States army entered World War II, it drew certain conclusions from Germany’s quick victories over Poland and France. One was that a highly mobile tank destroyer force needed to be held in reserve to deal with sudden Panzer breakthroughs as they occurred, rather than keep anti-tank forces at the front.
Therefore, anti-tank elements were removed from infantry divisions to form independent battalions, which were initially equipped with a number of improvised mobile tank destroyers, the M3 half-track mounting a 75 mm (2.95 in) gun, and the GMC M6, a truck with a 37 mm (1.46 in) gun.
Once Operation Torch provided battlefield experience for the army to evaluate, it became apparent that more powerful tank destroyers would be needed. First of the more powerful weapons was the M10, built on the chassis of an M4 armed with a 76.2 mm (3 in) gun. However, the M10 was still insufficient, so an order went out for a tank destroyer designed from the ground up to hunt and destroy tanks. This vehicle would become the M18 Hellcat.
In December 1941, the Ordnance Corps issued a requirement for a fast tank destroyer using torsion bar suspension, a Wright/Continental R-975 engine, and a 37 mm (1.46 in) gun. This became the T42 37 mm (1.46 in) Gun Motor Carriage. The army then changed their request to a vehicle mounting a 57 mm (2.24 in) gun, thus the designation changed to the T49 57 mm Gun Motor Carriage. Yet another change, requesting a 75 mm (2.95 in) gun, led to the T67 Gun Motor Carriage, of which one was built from a T49 chassis.
Finally, the T70 76 mm Gun Motor Carriage emerged and would become the M18 Hellcat. It was designed by Harley Earl at Buick. Tests on an oval track, as well as a specially designed bumpy track, demonstrated that the lightly armored vehicle could achieve high speeds. Production of the M18 started on January 7th, 1943, when 1,000 units were ordered.
Speed and agility were the hallmarks of this particular tank destroyer; these qualities came about from using a powerful engine and by keeping armored protection to a minimum. As was the case with other tank destroyers used by the United States, the M18 had an open turret, which left the crew vulnerable to snipers, grenades, and shrapnel.
Rarely was the high speed of the Hellcat fully used in combat, but the ability to outflank German tanks, for side and rear shots, did benefit the crews against the heavily armored Panther and Tiger tanks. Ease of maintenance came from the engine being mounted on steel rollers, which permitted quick removal and replacement. The transmission was also easily accessed in this manner. The 76 mm (3 in) gun soon proved to be not as effective as hoped against German armor, although a limited supply of high-velocity armor piercing ammunition did compensate to some extent.
The crew comprised five members, the commander in the turret left rear, gunner in the turret left front, loader in the turret right, driver in the left front, and assistant driver in the hull right front. The armor consisted of rolled and cast homogeneous steel, as follows: Gun shield .75 inch (1.9 cm) from 0-60 degrees; Front (cast) 1 inch (2.5 cm) 23 degrees; Sides .5 inch (1.3 cm) 20 degrees; Rear .5 inch (1.3 cm) 9 degrees; Top (none); and floor 0.25 in (6 mm).
The main armament was a 76 mm (3 in) M1A1, M1A1C or M1A2 gun with 45 rounds. It had a 360-degree manual and hydraulic traverse at 24 degrees/second, +20 degrees to -10 degrees of elevation/depression. The secondary armament comprised a .50 (12.7 in) caliber M2HB machine gun in a ring mount (800 rounds), rotating 360 degrees, with manual traverse.
In July of 1943, the Hellcat went into production at the Buick plant in Flint Michigan. Although Buick was contracted to build 8,986 Hellcats for the US army and Lend-Lease recipients, only a total of 2,507 vehicles were produced, with production ceasing in October 1944.
There were a number of variants tested using the chassis of the Hellcat. The T86 and T86E1 amphibious tank destroyers, as well as the T87 105 mm (4.13 in) amphibious Howitzer Motor Carriage, the T88 105 mm (4.13 in) Howitzer Motor Carriage and the Super Hellcat mounting the turret from the M36 turret were all tested, but none proceeded to production before war’s end.
The only variant of the M18 to see production and combat was the T41/M39 armored utility vehicle, used as a turretless personnel or cargo carrier and as a gun tractor. M39s saw service in both World War II and Korea, before being declared obsolete on February 14th, 1957. A prototype of the M39 was tried as a flame thrower tank, the T65. It did not go into production.
Although some Hellcats went to China to fight the Japanese army, they were primarily used in support of infantry, as Japanese armor was scarce and of poor quality. Two battalions of tank destroyers did see service in the invasion of the Philippines using Hellcats. Starting with Anzio in Italy, M18s saw action in Italy and Northwest Europe.
The following tank battalions used the M18 during part or all of their service: 602nd battalion 9\1944, 603rd 8\1944, 609th 9\1944, 612th 1\1945, 637th 1\1945 (Pacific), 638th 11\1944, 643rd 2-3\1945, 648th 5\1945?, 656th 2\1945, 661st 2\1945, 704th 7\1944, 705th 7\1944, 801st 4\1945, 805th 6\1944, 807th 4\1945, 809th 2\1945-4\1945, 811th 11\1944, 817th 4\1945, 820th 4\1945, 822nd 4\1945, 824th 3\1945, 827th 12\1944. Note: The dates are for when the unit received the Hellcat.
According to the army’s “Seek, Strike, Destroy” doctrine, these battalions were to be kept under the control of upper echelon headquarters, in order to respond quickly to mass Panzer attacks. However, since the Germans almost never employed their tanks in this manner, the battalions ended up parceled out to infantry divisions, where they provided direct fire support, blasting pill boxes and other fortifications, or in indirect fire roles interdicting German movement. Not designed for these roles, the M18 nevertheless did excellent work supplementing the artillery of these infantry divisions.
Throughout the long campaign in Italy, then through France and the Low Countries, the tank destroyer units had a number of moments to shine as tank destroyers; at Arracourt, in France, on September 19th 1944, the 704th TD battalion in support of the 4th Armored Division destroyed 15 tanks of the German 113th Panzer brigade while in a dense fog; during the Ardennes offensive on December 19th-20th 1944, 4 Hellcats of the 705th TD battalion supported an attack on the 2nd Panzer division.
This spoiling attack slowed down the German attempt to seize Bastogne until the Americans could organize their defenses. In addition to serving with the United States army, the Hellcat also served with the armies of Taiwan, West Germany, and Yugoslavia (until the 1990’s).
After the first encounters with tanks like the T-34 and the KV-1 in the summer of 1941, the OKH was well aware that it had to quickly devise a response, in order to have the necessary firepower when needed. The long-period development projects, like the Panther and Tiger, were already on the agenda, but faster ways of fielding this kind of firepower were already available in the shape of self propelled guns, already tested and built since 1940.
These were proven solutions, fast-built at low cost. Older tank hunters equipped with the Pak 40 75 mm (2.95 in) gun, like the Marder, were barely sufficient against the KV-1, so the adoption of the most efficient piece in the German ordnance came as a necessity. Following the specifications of 1942, a tank hunter was planned to carry the ubiquitous 88 mm (3.46 in) gun. It was to be built by Alkett (Altmärkische Kettenwerke GmbH) in Berlin.
Alkett choose the Geschützwagen III/IV chassis to mount the heavy 8,8 cm Panzerabwehrkanone 43/1 L/71 (Pak 43/1), a lightweight version of the standard German AA gun, also mounted on the Tiger II tank.
The chassis was based on the Panzer IV, with the same suspension configuration with four bogies, each with two pairs of rubberized roadwheels, idlers at the rear and drive sprockets at the front, but lengthened and strengthened.
The hull armor was 30 mm (1.18 in) at the front, 20 mm (0.79 in) on the sides and 15 mm (0.59 in) for the rear plate. The engine was a Maybach HL 120 TRM Ausf.A V12 producing 300 hp@3000 rpm, with 11,867 L of displacement.
It was coupled with a ZF (Zahnradfabrik Friedrichshafen AG) SSG 77 Aphon transmission of the synchromesh manual type, with 6/1 gears. The driver had a Daimler-Benz/Wilson clutch/brake with a Fichtel & Sachs La 120 HDA dry clutch, triple disc.
The gun and its bearings were placed at the rear of the chassis, surrounded by an open-topped superstructure, which had a 15 mm (0.59 in) front and 10 mm (0.39 in) sides to protect the crew (only against shrapnel and small arms fire).
There was a 15 mm thick (0.59 in) gun shield inside the casemate, acting like an internal mantlet and allowing some traverse, 15° to either side and between -5° in depression and +15° in elevation. To balance the weight, the engine was shifted from its rear position to the center.
The gun was semiautomatic, with an horizontal sliding block, manual traverse and elevation. The casemate and hull could carry from 24 to 40 rounds, crammed into any space available, of the Pzgr.39 (Armor Piercing Composite Ballistic Cap) tungsten-core type, which could penetrate 132 mm (5.2 in) at 2000 m.
There was no secondary armament except one 7.92 mm (0.31 in) MG 34 or MG 42 machine-gun carried inside the vehicle, with 600 rounds in store. The gun was aimed by a gunner’s sight with a 5x magnification, 8° field of view, and had an indirect fire sight Aushilfsrichtmittel 38 with a 3x magnification, 10° field of view. There was also a FuG Spr.f radio.
Production & Variants
The model, called “Hornisse” (Hornet) initially, was presented to Hitler in October 1942, approved, and production began in January 1943 as the 8,8 cm Pak 43 (L/71) auf Fahrgestell Panzerkampfwagen III/IV (Sf) or 8,8cm Pak 43 (L/71) auf Geschützwagen III/IV (Sd.Kfz.164).
In May 1943, a new model was introduced, featuring a new driver’s front armor plate, 15 mm (0.59 in) uniform gun shield and some other minor differences.
This new version represented the bulk of Alkett’s production until early 1944, when it was slowed but not stopped. Some models received the wider “Ostketten” tracks, adapted to the Russian winter and autumn, making the overall width rise to 3.17 m (10ft4), instead of 2.95 m (9ft8).
Hitler renamed it “Nashorn” (Rhinoceros) in 1944, and this name stuck to the series ever since. Some authors, however, make the distinction between the early and late series using the two names. By 1944, new tank hunters, with a lower silhouette and much better protection, like the Jagdpanther, were favored by the OKH.
The bulk of the 494 vehicles produced were delivered in 1943 (345), however the remainder were delivered discontinuously, 133 from February to November 1944, and only 16 from January to March 1945.
The Sd.Kfz.164 Nashorn in Action
When entering service, the Hornisse was issued to six of the newly-formed heavy antitank battalions, the schwere Panzerjäger Abteilungen 560, 655, 525, 93, 519 and 88, each with 45 vehicles. The main gun was derived from the regular 88 mm (3.46 in) Pak 43, one of the most effective anti-tank guns of the war, and later used, with few modifications, on the Ferdinand/Elefant, Tiger II and Jagdpanther.
In addition, the Panzergranate 40/43 tungsten carbide–cored round could defeat 190 mm (7.48 in) of RHA at a 30° angle at 1,000 m. This allowed the Hornisse to engage enemy units while staying out of range themselves. So there was no need for armor protection. It was reported several times that T-34s were destroyed at distances of around 4000 meters, in almost direct fire. Usually, the prey were the “hard-skinned” KV, IS-2, SU-152, ISU-122 and ISU-152.
This made the Nashorn the first of the German alpha predator bred for the Eastern Front. The Sd.Kfz.164 was first blooded at the Battle of Kursk, and performed quite well, engaging heavies like the KV-1. Its long-range ability was found particularly adapted to the open and flat landscapes of Russia. Added to this, the open fighting compartment gave excellent peripheral vision compared to an enclosed turret.
After Kursk, three of these Abteilungen, the 560 sPzJagAbt, 655th sPzJagAbt and 525 sPzJagAbt, were sent to Italy. They again proved to be successful tank destroyers. Six more schwere Panzerjager Abteilungens (560, 655, 525, 93, 519 and 88), each equipped counting 30 Nashorns, saw service on the Eastern Front, Normandy and Italy. Each Abteilung was composed of a command company and 2-3 companies (14-17 tank hunters each) with 4 platoons each.
There was a Nashorn ace, platoon commander of 1st company, sPzJagAbt 519, Junior Lieutenant “Tiger of Vitebsk” Albert Ernst. On December, 23, 1943, he destroyed 14 Soviet tanks in a single day with 21 rounds near Vitebsk. In December 1943, he destroyed 19 more enemy tanks and was awarded the Knight’s Cross.
Lieutenant Beckmann from sPzJagAbt 88, destroyed a Soviet IS-2 at the amazing distance of 4600 meters near Marzdorf in March 1945. A Nashorn from the 2nd Company, Abteilung 93 destroyed the only M26 Pershing in Europe, at 250 meters, with the first shot, in Niehl, north of Cologne, March 6, 1945.
Czechoslovakian Army Nashorns
Surviving Nashorns self-propelled guns were used by the Czechoslovakian Army after WW2. Twelve vehicles underwent renovation and entered service in 1950. They were officially called “Samohybné děla Nashorn (88 mm ShPTK vz. 43/41N, SD-88). They were later withdrawn from Army service and presumably scrapped.
Czechoslovakian Army records recorded the original German production chassis number (Fgst.Nr) of the Nashorns that entered their service.
German Fahrgestellnummer 310004, date in service 2nd June 1950,
Tactical unit number 121, army registration number 79.671
German Fahrgestellnummer 310077, date in service 2nd June 1950,
Tactical unit number 24, army registration number 79.672
German Fahrgestellnummer 310032, date in service 2nd June 1950,
Tactical unit number 184, army registration number 79.973
German Fahrgestellnummer 84494, date in service 2nd June 1950,
Tactical unit number 182, army registration number 79.974
German Fahrgestellnummer 84431, date in service 2nd June 1950,
Tactical unit number 169, army registration number 79.975
German Fahrgestellnummer 310294, date in service 2nd June 1950,
Tactical unit number 175, army registration number 79.976
German Fahrgestellnummer 84431, date in service 2nd June 1950,
Tactical unit number 98, army registration number 79.977
German Fahrgestellnummer 310093, date in service 2nd June 1950,
Tactical unit number 190, army registration number 79.978
German Fahrgestellnummer 84433, date in service 2nd June 1950,
Tactical unit number 47, army registration number 79.979
German Fahrgestellnummer 310437, date in service 2nd June 1950,
Tactical unit number 97, army registration number 79.980
German Fahrgestellnummer 310398, date in service 2nd June 1950,
Tactical unit number 69, army registration number 79.981
German Fahrgestellnummer 84432, date in service 2nd June 1950,
Tactical unit number 110, army registration number 79.982
Sd.Kfz.164 Nashorn Specifications
8.44m (7.26m without gun) x 2.95m x 2.65m
27’8″ (23’10” without gun) x 9’8″ x 8’8″ ft.inch
Total weight, battle ready
24 tons (52,910 lbs)
88 mm (3.46 in) L/60 Pak 43/1
Hull 20-30 mm (0.78-1.18 in)
Sides 10-15 mm (0.39 – 0.59 in)
The Char de bataille was Col. Estienne’s concept. The French “father of tanks” wrote a memorandum (Mémoire sur les missions des chars blindés en campagne) in 1919, full of war experience, tactical reports and theoretical concepts of mechanized warfare, notably the proper use of different types in the offensive. The “char de bataille” (“battle tank”) was a heavy tank, near to the “char de rupture” or “breakthrough tank”, but the former was more a dual-purpose (infantry support and antitank) machine than the “char de rupture”. The latter concept gave birth to huge the FMC F1, with the sole purpose of terminating fortifications.
This duality was at the very core of the idea, shaping the many prototypes which followed in response. In 1921, the project was studied by a commission led by General Edmond Buat. First specification was for a low-cost self-propelled artillery, 25 mm (0.98 in) of armor and some machine-guns in turrets. Maximum metric weight was 30 tons.
The project evolved and the machine-gun turret was equipped with an antitank 47 mm (1.85 in) gun. The main gun was a 75 mm (2.95 in) howitzer, in a low hull sponson. Industrial rivalry in the past had delayed several projects, including the FCM 2C, so Estienne was poised to create a formal agreement, submitted to the industrialists involved, free to share their plans, with the promise of no less 1000 orders.
The Army was then to choose between the projects and various patents to compose their model, built by all. The four companies involved in the project were Renault and Schneider (SRA and SRB), FAMH (Saint Chamond) and FCM (Forges et Chantiers de la Méditerranée) with the FCM 21.
The four projects, one for each company, were submitted to the commission on 13 May 1924 at Atelier de Rueil. The twenty kilometer test course proved too much for them, showing the haste of their conception. The commission, over the supervision of Estienne, choose the SRB as a base.
The SRB (Schneider and Renault project) weighed 18.5 tons, was 6 meters long (19.7 ft), with modified FT tracks, an antitank 47 mm (1.85 in) gun, Renault six-cylinder 180 hp engine, with hydraulic Naëder transmission from the Chaize company combined with a Fieux clutch and Schneider gear box, a speed of 18.5 km/h (11.5 mph) and a 370 l fuel tank giving a 370 km (230 mi) autonomy.
This prototype then received many modifications, including the 75 mm (2.95 in) howitzer, new Holt-type tracks, the FAMH suspension, track tension wheel and a small gangway to access to the engine, with 40 mm (1.57 in) armor.
Design of the B1
The design process of this modified SRB led to the 1926 “tracteur 30”. The plans were made by Schneider’s chief engineer, revised by the STCC (Section Technique des Chars de Combat). A mockup was built by Renault and three prototypes were to be built by the companies involved, with some modifications by the new 1926 “direction de l’infanterie”, changing it to a primarily infantry support tank. Modifications of the design included no AT weapon, lower speed, 22 tons max and radio for coordination.
The three prototypes of the “B” serie (n°101, 102 and 103) were ready by 1929-30. They differed by their engine, clutch, transmission and served both for technological and tactical experiments, at the champ de Châlons, forming the “Détachement d’Experimentation” unit in 1931. They were extensively used in maneuvers until 1934, each time with some modifications by the Atelier de Reuil near Paris, to meet new requirements and army specifications. In the end, the B1 received its final turret, with the low velocity 47 mm (1.85 in), and coaxial Reibel machine-gun.
Like the 1924 prototypes, it had a very large track, inspired by earlier famous British models. Armor also protected the suspension and the hull was riveted. The Renault inline 6 cylinder 16.5 litre petrol engine was chosen, which provided 9.7 bhp/ton, the power was transmitted by a double differential steering system, 5 forward, 1 reverse gear. Suspension was in the form of bogies with a mixture of vertical coil and leaf springs. Both early and final turret designs (APX1) were one-man only.
Production: The B1
Production started in 1935, with Renault building 182 Chars B, AMX -a Schneider subsidiary- 47, FCM 72 and FAMH 70. At 1.5 million francs apiece, it was by far the costliest tank ever built en masse. Consequently, the original order of 1000 was reduced to 400. This further increased the tension between the two doctrinal schools which had influence then, one professing the use of a few, heavily armored battle tanks, while the other advocated the use of swarms of light tanks. Almost ten light Renault tanks could be built for the price of a single B1. Despite all problems, monthly production reached 41 by May 1940, and when it ceased in June, 25, 369 has left the factory floor.
As the few, even more expensive and now largely obsolete FCM 2C was kept out of real operations, the B1 became the main French “char de rupture”, a specialized breakthrough tank in specialized units. Operational capabilities were limited by their high consumption, which in turn limited their range and condemned them to be used in strategic reserves. In fact they formed the “Divisions Cuirassées de Réserve” (DCR) with limited strategic flexibility, intended for the second phase of the assault.
The B1 had some shortcomings which had to be dealt with. An obvious lack of antitank firepower, with its low velocity L27/6 SA34 47 mm (1.85 in), which was only given APHE rounds (high explosive), capable of defeating 25 mm (0.98 in) of armor. The 75 mm (2.95 in) SA35 ABS L17.1 howitzer could fire HE and APHE rounds, only suitable against fortifications, with a poor traverse of only one degree. The aiming was given to the driver’s abilities with the Naëder hydraulic precision transmission.
It was served by the radioman and the commander, who was also given the task of aiming and firing the turret 47 mm (1.85 in) gun. Communication was assumed by an ER53 radio telegraphy set, which worked with Morse code only. There was a small corridor, right on the rear, giving access to the ammunition reserve, next to the engine. The main access door was on the right side. The suspension system was rather complicated, made of three main bogies, sprung by vertical coil springs, each supporting two others, with a pair of road wheels. Production of the B1 was very slow. Only 34 machines were delivered until July 1937. By then, there was serious consideration given to an upgrade, which led to the B1 bis.
The upgraded B1 bis and B1 ter
The B1 bis was a modernization of the type, with an emphasis on anti-tank capability and protection. The armor was uprated to 60 mm (2.36 in), and a new APX4 turret with a longer barrel (L/32) SA 35 47 mm (1.85 in) gun was mounted. To cope with the added weight (now 31 tons), a new engine was fitted, a V12 Renault capable of 307 bhp (229 kW). 35 of the first series were retrofitted with the new engine. Autonomy was limited to only 180 km (110 mi).
There had been some attempts of towing an extra 800 l fuel tank, but it never realized. At cruise speed, reserves were exhausted in just 6 hours. A larger left air intake was fitted. Ammunition storage was improved between the beginning and the end of the production, from 62 to 72 47 mm (1.85 in) rounds, but still, no AP shells. Production started in April 1937 and stopped in June 1940. By then, 377 had been delivered out of an order of 1144, but only 129 were ready in September 1939.
In exercises, the complex and advanced hydrostatic steering Naëder system proved difficult to use and costly, betrayed by other technical elements like a porous bronze housing and feeble seals causing significant losses of castor oil. The TSF was not practical, as the tanks needed to be at rest to communicate. No tactical coordination was possible on the move. The costly turret was slower to produce than the hulls and three B1 bis were ultimately put in service without turret, as gun carriages.
The B1 ter was a late attempt to radically improve the design. The main features were new 75 mm (2.95 in) armor welded with slopes to the hull, a new 350 bhp engine to deal with this added weight (36.6 tons) and some simplification in the design for mass-production in 1940, like the omittance of the Naëder transmission. Rearranged interior allowed a fifth crew member to be carried, as a mechanic. The main howitzer received better traverse, 5 degrees higher. Only two prototypes were ready by June 1940. Production never started.
The B1 had some additional flaws as well, which never helped its performances. High consumption issue, which was aggravated by any aiming of the main howitzer, was never solved. The absence of an efficient compass orientation and no internal communication system were also resented in operations. The one-man APX-1 turret was also cramped, ergonomics were poor, and the feebly armored cupola had inadequate means of vision. Plus, the barrel pointing device was quickly deregulated.
Many other issues were never solved because of the delays. The most serious was of course disastrous tactical management. B1s were “wasted” at individual defensive spots, many were simply outmaneuvered. But despite all this, the B1s were still, tank to tank, formidable machines, which proved very effective in single actions.
The B1 bis in action
Despite its obsolete features, low autonomy and speed, the B1 was hard to stop. Its most formidable assets were its huge armor and good firepower, then unmatched in the west. The 60 mm (2.36 in) frontal armor was sloped, which mean it was near 80 mm (3.15 in) effectively. There were no real weak spots, and this invulnerability helped the B1 to close on targets, then destroy them with the turret 47 mm (1.85 in) or the brute force of the howitzer HE shells.
For this reasons, the B1 was the Wehrmacht’s most feared enemy tank, a mechanized nightmare which caused heavy casualties by itself during the few fights in which it was engaged. The Germans never experienced such losses in tank to tank combat until the fall of 1941, when encountering the Soviet KV-1 and T-34. The Panzer I and II were absolutely harmless to the B1, and the Panzer III, with its thin armor and 37 mm (1.46 in) gun, presented no serious threat to the French heavy tank. As for the Panzer IV, it had only 20 mm (0.79 in) protection (Ausf. A).
It’s standard gun was the low velocity, short barrel 75 mm (2.95 in) KwK 37, which was only effective at short range. For this reasons, the Panzer IV barely presented a real threat except in close, real time coordination with other vehicles. The same could be said about most German antitank guns of the time. The famous standard-issue “door-knocker” Pak 37 and even the Pak 40 were harmless. Contrary to common opinion of the time, the large ventilation exhaust panel was indirectly 55 mm (2.17 in) strong and never presented a weak point.
When the war broke out in September 1939, there were perhaps 180 operational B1 and B1 bis in all. They were used for the Sarre offensive, a short-lived burst without serious opposition, with a massive force of 41 divisions and 2400 tanks. The aim was to distract and divert German forces from Poland, France’s ally. After slowly penetrating 8 km (5 mi) into enemy territory, the entire force withdrew by order of general Gamelin into the security of the Maginot line. Several officers, including Henri Giraud and Charles de Gaulle, wildly protested. In effect, the Germans would have been in great danger and the Rhine was in reach. But Gamelin then was so confident about the famous fortified line, that he saw any large-scale offensive to be a useless waste of material and men.
During the “Phoney War”, all B1s were gathered in massive infantry support divisions, the “division cuirassés de réserve” or DCR, which were tactically committed in the second phase of any assault, the first being led by cavalry tanks like the SOMUA S35. No tanks were sent in Norway, but the real deal began in May 1940.
Three DCR, comprising 69 tanks each, were mobilized. Part of the 37th Bataillon de Chars de Combat, which comprised only B1s, were all rearmed with long-barrel SA 35 guns in May 1940 (turret designation APX1A). After the German invasion began, four new DCR of 52 B1s were constituted, as well as five Compagnie Autonome de Chars (autonomous tanks companies), with 56 B1s in all, plus 34 more in the 28 BCC (Bataillon de chars de combat). All B1s were reequipped with phonic versions of the ER53 radios, and command tanks received ER55 long-range radios.
B1 tanks were used (and lost) during the first phase of the operations, especially the first week. Most counter-offensives against Guderian’s “run to the sea” counted at least several B1s. Without air support, these moves were doomed to fail against the quick and lethal Stuka attacks. Bad tactics of course brought these precious tanks to inept, hasty defensive “plugs” in the defensive lines, most of the time, ending in pure waste.
In some case, the B1’s extraordinary sturdiness allowed some success, notably the counter-attacks at Laon and Moncornet led by col. De Gaulle, and stiff resistance like at Hannut and particularly Stonne. During these events, some individual B1s blocked the German advance by themselves, inflicting horrendous casualties. In a particular case, a single B1, Eure, commanded by Captain Pierre Billotte, attacked frontally and single-handedly destroyed thirteen Panzer IIIs and IVs, and then withdrew, while being hit 140 times.
During two days, B1 tanks from the 3rd Division Cuirassée de Réserve literally ruled the battlefield at Stonne, destruction coming only due to German overwhelming attacks against single tanks and excellent communication, air strikes and indirect fire (by German howitzers). Some B1s also broke down or ran out of ammunition and petrol. The last surviving B1s were mixed with other tanks in support of the so-called “hedgehogs”, which fell one after the other in June 1940. By the 26th of June, the campaign was over.
B1/B1 bis fate: German and French service
The Germans captured hundreds of tanks, including no less than 161 B1 bis tanks, later pressed into service as Panzerkampfwagen B-2 740(f). Sixty were converted into flamethrower versions (Flammwagen auf Panzerkampfwagen B-2 (f)), and sixteen to carry the 105 mm (4.13 in) howitzer. A single unit was equipped only with B1s, the Panzer-Abteilung 213, stationed in the British Channel Islands. One of these ended at the Bovington museum, repainted in French colors. 17 units in all received modified B1s, as they saw service in the Balkans (March-April 1941) and the Eastern Front, where their armor and armament proved well-adapted against Russian heavy tanks.
By 1944, they were all gone. Those stationed in France took part in the defense of Normandy, and others were stationed in support of the German units defending Paris. In August 1944 some were captured by insurgents and used for punctual actions by local FFI units. In 1945, German pockets of resistance in France, especially those on the western coast, were left to the FFI and the regular French 1st army. Edmond Voillaume’s 2nd Company was equipped with 19 B1s, which decisively took part in the reduction of the Royan pocket, and La Rochelle. B1s were also part of the 13th Dragoon Regiment, which took part in operations in Alsace and Southern Germany. They were stationed after V-day in the French occupied zone, until the unit was disbanded in 1946.
From the hedgerow of Normandy, France, to the hills of Italy and the plains of Netherlands, the Firefly was one of the few Allied tanks the Germans learned to fear… Among the most potent Allied conversion of the war, and certainly one of the deadliest version of the Sherman, it was a clever -although risky and improvised- move to try to keep up with the latest German tank developments. At that time, the “basic” M4 Sherman equipped the Allies almost exclusively, from the US to the British, Canadian, ANZACS, Free Polish and Free French forces, and its limitations were well known before 1944.
Its basic 75 mm (2.95 in) gun was excellent to deal with other tanks at reasonable ranges and against armor up to 75 mm (2.95 in), or against fortifications and infantry. But facing the latest versions of the Panzer IV, the Panther and Tiger, it was woefully inadequate. However, the British Army had just received the superlative 17 pounder, which proved itself able to nail any known Panzer. Mated with the Sherman, this stopgap combination (before the new generation of Allied tanks could enter service) became lethal, and added its own weight to the Allied effort to secure victory.
The idea of putting the 17 Pounder (76.2 mm/3 in) on a Sherman was long opposed by the Ministry of Supply. It finally happened largely due to the efforts and perseverance of two officers, British Major George Brighty, with the help of Lieutenant Colonel Witheridge, an experienced veteran of the North African campaign and wounded at Gazala. Despite reports and refusals, they managed to pursue the project by themselves and eventually get the concept accepted. Massive delays also began to appear in the development of the official projects which were meant to mount the new gun. Brighty had already made attempts of the conversion at the Lulworth Armoured Fighting School in early 1943. This first version had the whole recoil system removed, locking in effect the gun in place, while the tank bluntly absorbed the recoil. Witheridge joined Brighty due to the doubts of the Challenger being ready in time and lobbied actively for the same idea, providing his assistance and solving the recoil problem.
They received a note from the Department of Tank Design to cease their efforts. However, thanks to Witheridge’s connections, they eventually convinced the head of the Royal Armoured Corps. They then won over the Director General of Weapon and Instrument Production, and the Ministry of Supply, who ultimately gave them full support, funding, and an official approval. In October-November 1943 already, enthusiasm and knowledge about the project grew. In early 1944, before the new delays of the Challenger and inability of the Cromwell turret ring to receive the 17 pdr became known, the programme was eventually given the ‘highest priority’ by Winston Churchill himself in preparation for D-Day.
About the 17 pounder
This legendary piece of ordnance was the first of the many ROF (Royal Ordnance Factory) cannons which came to fame postwar. These included the rifled L7 105 mm (4.13 in) and later the L11 120 mm (4.72 in) gun that was given to the Chieftain and Challenger. The 17 pounder was a 76.2 mm (3 in) gun with a length of 55 calibres. It had a 2,900 ft/s (880 m/s) muzzle velocity with HE and HEAT rounds and 3,950 ft/s (1,200 m/s) with APDS or Armor Piercing Capped, and Ballistic Capped. These figures allowed it to defeat armor in the range of 120-208 mm (4.72-8.18 in) in thickness at 1,000 m and up to 1,500 m with the APDS.
The design of the gun was ready in 1941 and production started in 1942. It proved itself time and again in Tunisia, Sicily and Italy, with the first action in February 1943. So the idea to have it inside a tank turret was a priority, since the QF 6-pdr was found inadequate by 1943. However, the 17 pounder was long and heavy. It therefore needed much reworking and compromises to have it installed in a turret, and intermediary solutions had to be found. By 1944, the Archer used it, as well as the Achilles (M10 Wolverine), the Challenger, and later the Comet.
The work of genius was that of succeeding cramming the heavy gun into a turret it was never designed for. By doing it, W.G.K. Kilbourn, a Vickers engineer, allowed the quick conversion of the most prolific Allied tank. This ensured that no changes in maintenance, supply and transport chains were needed. These were quite critical factors after D-Day.
There were a few changes made to the chassis, most of which were Mk.I hybrids (cast glacis) and Mark Vs, except for the modified ammo cradles and the hull gunner position being eliminated to make room for more ammo. The turret interior was also completely modified. The rear was emptied to allow the gun to recoil and a counterweight was added to the rear to balance the long barrel. This “bustle” now housed the radio, formerly at the back of the turret, and could be accessed by a large hole in the casting. The mantlet was also modified, 13 mm (0.51 in) thicker than the original. The loader also had his position changed. A new hatch had to be cut into the top of the turret over the gunner’s position since the size of the new gun prevented the gunner from using the normal hatch.
But the 17-pdr itself still had a one-meter long recoil course, and the whole recoil system was completely modified. The main recoil cylinders were shortened while additional new cylinders were added to take advantage of the turret width. The gun breech was rotated 90 degrees to allow the loader to sit on the left. The gun cradle also had to be shortened, which caused stability concerns. These were solved by the adoption of a longer untapered section at the base of the barrel. Therefore, the Firefly had it’s custom tailored version of the 17 pdr.
Main Gun Penetration Figures
Official British War Department test figures show that the 17pdr anti-tank gun firing armor piercing AP rounds would penetrate the following thickness of homogeneous armour plate and these distances: 500 yrds. (457 m) = 119.2 mm; 1000 yrds (914.4 m) = 107.3 mm and 1500 yrds (1371.6 M) = 96.7mm. When firing armor-piercing capped (APC) rounds at face-hardened armor plate these are the test results: 500 yrds. (457 m) = 132.9 mm; 1000 yrds (914.4 m) = 116.5 mm and 1500 yrds (1371.6 M) = 101.7 mm. When fired at slopped armour it was estimated there would have been 80% success at 30 degrees’ angle of attack.
The Firefly in Action
The Firefly was ready in numbers and filled the 21st Army Group’s Armored Brigades in 1944, just in time for D-Day. This was fortunate because Allied intelligence did not anticipate the presence of enemy tanks, of which the numerous Panthers were formidable adversaries for the Sherman.
Ken Tout summed up his impressions about the Firefly, then at the 1st Northamptonshire Yeomanry: “The Firefly tank is an ordinary Sherman but, in order to accommodate the immense breach of the 17-pounder and to store its massive shells, the co-driver has been eliminated and his little den has been used as storage space. … The flash is so brilliant that both gunner and commander need to blink at the moment of firing. Otherwise they will be blinded for so long that they will not see the shot hit the target. The muzzle flash spurts out so much flame that, after a shot or two, the hedge or undergrowth in front of the tank is likely to start burning. When moving, the gun’s overlap in front or, if traversed, to the side is so long that driver, gunner and commander have to be constantly alert to avoid wrapping the barrel around some apparently distant tree, defenceless lamp-post or inoffensive house”
Fortunately, the Firefly was also present. The British and Commonwealth units had to face over 70% of all German armor deployed during the Battle of Normandy, including the much-feared SS Panzer units, in particular around Caen. In turn, the Germans learnt to recognise and respect the Firefly, which often became their #1 priority target in most engagements. Such was the damage they inflicted. In response, the crews usually painted the protruding half of the barrel with an effective countershading pattern to try to disguise it as a regular Sherman. A common tactic was to place the Fireflies in good hull-down positions in support of other Shermans, covering them in the advance each time an enemy tank would reveal itself, at least in theory.
Their effectiveness rapidly became legendary, as testified by the most enviable hunting scores of all Allied tanks. On 9 June 1944, Lt. G. K. Henry’s Firefly knocked-out five Panthers from the 12th SS Panzer Division in rapid succession during the defense of Norrey-en-Bessin. Other Shermans were credited with two more, out of a total of 12, successfully repelling the attack. On June 14, Sgt. Harris of the 4th/7th Dragoon Guards destroyed five Panthers around the hamlet of Lingèvres, near Tilly-sur-Seulles, changing position in between. Even the most feared German top ace tank commander, Michael Wittman, was presumably killed by a Canadian Firefly. This famous action was credited to Ekins, the gunner of Sergeant Gordon’s Sherman Firefly from the Sherbrooke Fusiliers Regiment, A-Sqn. He destroyed three Tigers in a row, one of which was presumably that of Michael Wittman, near Cintheaux, in August 1944.
In total, the 1900+ Fireflies were used by the 4th, 8th, 27th, 33rd Armored Brigades, the Guards Armoured Division and the 7th and 11th Armoured Division in Normandy and north-western Europe, including the Netherlands and Northwestern Germany. In Italy, it was deployed with the British 1st and 6th Armoured Divisions. The Canadians had Fireflies with the 1st (Italy) and 2nd Brigades and in the 4th and 5th Canadian Armoured Divisions, mostly in north-west Europe in 1945. The 1st Czechoslovak Armoured Brigade operated 36 Firefly 1Cs during the siege of Dunkirk in 1944. The 4th New Zealand Armoured Brigade had some during the Italian campaign, as did the Polish 1st Armoured Division (NW Europe) and 2nd Armoured Brigade (Italy), and the 6th South African Armoured Division in Italy. After the war, Fireflies were still used by Italy, Lebanon (until the 1980s), Argentina, Belgium and the Netherlands (until the late 1950s).
Sherman Firefly Specifications
19’4” (25’6” oa) x 8’8” x 9′ (5.89/7.77 oa x 2.64 x 2.7 m)