Military history

Weapons

If the German army was a superb fighting instrument, a decisive factor in its ability to defend Normandy for so long, and to such effect, was the superiority of almost all its weapons in quality, if not in quantity, to those of the Allied ground forces. In the air and at sea, the Allies achieved a large measure of technological as well as numerical dominance in the second half of the Second World War. Yet the industrial resources of Britain and America were never applied to provide their armies with weapons of the same quality as those produced by German industry in the face of the Allies’ strategic bombing offensive. In 1942, Albert Speer and his staff took the decision, since they could not hope to match the quantitative superiority of the Allies, to attempt to defeat them by the qualitative superiority of German equipment. Feats on the battlefield, such as Captain Wittman’s ravaging of the British armoured column at Villers-Bocage, were only made possible by the extraordinary power of a Tiger tank in among even a regiment of British Cromwells. During the first weeks in Normandy, Allied tank units were dismayed to discover the ease with which their Shermans ‘brewed up’ after a single hit, while their own shells were unable to penetrate a Panther, far less a Tiger tank, unless they struck a vital spot at close range. On 24 June, Montgomery’s Chief of Staff, de Guingand, wrote to him: ‘If we are not careful, there will be a danger of the troops developing a Tiger and Panther complex . . . P. J. Grigg rang me up last night and said he thought there might be trouble in the Guards Armoured Division as regards “the inadequacy of our tanks compared with the Germans” . . . Naturally the reports are not being circulated.’1Montgomery himself quashed a succession of complaints and open expressions of concern.

‘I have had to stamp very heavily on reports that began to be circulated about the inadequate quality of our tanks, equipment, etc., as compared with the Germans . . .’ he wrote to Brooke. ‘In cases where adverse comment is made on British equipment such reports are likely to cause a lowering of morale and a lack of confidence among the troops. It will generally be found that when the equipment at our disposal is used properly and the tactics are good, we have no difficulty in defeating the Germans.’2

Montgomery knew that it was futile, indeed highly dangerous, to allow the shortcomings of Allied weapons to be voiced openly in his armies, for there was no hope of quickly changing them. The battle must be won or lost with the arms that the Allies had to hand. The Americans, characteristically, felt less disposed to keep silence about technical failure. On 3 July, Eisenhower complained formally to the US War Department about the shortcomings of many of his army’s weapons, following a meeting in France at which, ‘from Monty and Brooke E learnt that our AT equipment and our 76 mm in Shermans are not capable of taking on Panthers and Tigers.’3 General James Gavin of the American 82nd Airborne Division described how his men first came to understand these things in Italy:

For years we had been told that our weapons were superior to any that we would encounter. After all, we were soldiers from the most highly industrialised and the richest nation on earth. But that very preoccupation with our advanced technology caused many to assume that technology alone would win battles – more emphasis was placed upon victory through air power than victory through better infantry . . . Our problems stemmed very often from the lack of imagination, if not lack of intelligence, of those responsible for developing infantry weapons.4

The Americans indeed possessed an excellent rifle in the semiautomatic Garand, and the British an adequate one in the bolt-action Lee-Enfield. But on the European battlefield, as commanders learned, men seldom fired their rifles. They had little need of accuracy when they did so, for they could rarely distinguish a target. American research showed that, in many regiments, only 15 per cent of riflemen used their weapons in any given action. What mattered was the weight of fire to saturate the battle area. For this, the Germans possessed the supreme weapons in their MG 34 and 42 machine-guns – invariably known among the Allies as Spandaus – with their fabulous rate of fire drowning out the measured hammer of the British bren or the American BAR squad light machine-gun. The MG 42’s tearing, rasping 1,200 rounds a minute, against the bren’s 500, proved deeply demoralizing to men advancing against it. A German infantry company carried 16 machine-guns, compared to the British 9, and the American 11, although the heavy Vickers and Brownings of the Allied support companies somewhat redressed this balance.

The handle on the German ‘potato-masher’ hand grenade enabled it to be thrown further than its British or American counterparts. The German Schmeisser was a far superior submachine gun to the American ‘grease gun’ or the British sten, which the War Office had ordered in quantity, in an eccentric moment in 1941, although it derived from a German patent sensibly spurned by the Wehrmacht. All the German small arms enjoyed a significant advantage over their American counterparts – in using ammunition with powder which produced less flash and smoke. It was markedly easier for a German soldier to pinpoint American fire than vice versa, a technological advantage upon which Marshall commented acidly in a post-war report.

The Germans had made themselves masters in the handling of mortars. Their mortar ‘stonks’, landing without warning in the middle of Allied positions, inaudible in transit because of their slow flight, grated the nerves of every British and American unit in Normandy, and were responsible for an extraordinarily high proportion of casualties – 75 per cent for much of the campaign. Every infantry division possessed some 60 81 mm and up to 20 120 mm mortars, which could throw a 35-pound bomb 6,000 yards. The Allies also, of course, possessed mortars, but never mastered the art of concentrating them with the devastating effect that the Germans achieved. Above all, men detested the Nebelwerfer, the multi-barrelled projector whose bombs were fitted with a brilliantly conceived siren, causing them to wail as they flew through the air, which had an effect on those who heard them often more penetrating than their explosive power. Nebelwerfers came in three sizes: 150 mm (75-pound bomb, 7,300-yard range); 210 mm (248-pound, 8,600-yard); 300 mm (277-pound, 5,000-yard). Each of the five regiments of these – the bulk of them concentrated in the British sector in Normandy – contained 60 or 70 projectors, some of them track-mounted. German infantry anti-tank weapons were also markedly superior. British battalions were equipped only with a spring-loaded projector named the PIAT, which threw a 2½-pound bomb 115 yards and demanded strong nerves from its aimer, who knew that if he lingered long enough to fire at his target with a chance of success, failure meant probable extinction. Even in short-range tests in England, the PIAT scored only 57 per cent hits. The American bazooka packed a wholly inadequate projectile for penetrating German tank armour. The Germans, meanwhile, were equipped in Normandy with the excellent Panzerfaust, the finest infantry anti-tank weapon of the war. Gavin’s paratroopers seized and employed as many as they could capture.

At a higher level Allied artillery and anti-tank guns were good and plentiful. Indeed, every army fighting in Normandy singled out the British and American artillery as the outstanding arm of the Allied forces. Artillery was responsible for more than half the casualties inflicted in the Second World War. Normandy was the first campaign in which the British used the new discarding-sabot ammunition5 for their 6- and 17-pounders, with formidable penetrating effect. But the towed anti-tank gun was of little value to troops in attack, and even very accurate artillery fire proved an uncertain method of destroying enemy troops who were well dug in. The British 25-pounder was a fine gun, outranging the American 105 mm by 13,400 yards to 12,200, and was immensely valuable for ‘keeping heads down’. But it lacked killing power against defensive positions. It was essential to bring down medium or heavy artillery fire for decisive effect, and there was never enough of this to go round. Nor did the Allies possess any weapon with the physical and moral effect of the German 88 mm, the very high velocity anti-aircraft gun that had been used against ground targets with dazzling success since the early days of the war. Time after time in Normandy, a screen of 88 mm guns stopped an Allied attack dead. Firing high-explosive airburst shells, it was also formidable against infantry. The unforgettable lightning crack of an 88 mm remained implanted in the memory of every survivor of the campaign. It was a mystery to the Allied armies why their own industries failed to build a direct copy of the 88 mm, the Schmeisser, or the potato-masher.

Yet the greatest failure was that of the tank. How could American and British industries produce a host of superb aircraft, an astonishing variety of radar equipment, the proximity fuse, the DUKW, the jeep, yet still ask their armies to join battle against the Wehrmacht equipped with a range of tanks utterly inferior in armour and killing power? A British tank officer, newly-arrived in France in June 1944, recorded a conversation with his regimental adjutant about the state of the armoured battle:

‘What do the Germans have most of?’

‘Panthers. The Panther can slice through a Churchill like butter from a mile away.’

‘And how does a Churchill get a Panther?’

‘It creeps up on it. When it reaches close quarters the gunner tries to bounce a shot off the underside of the Panther’s gun mantlet. If he’s lucky, it goes through a piece of thin armour above the driver’s head.’

‘Has anybody ever done it?’

‘Yes. Davis in C Squadron. He’s back with headquarters now, trying to recover his nerve.’

‘How does a Churchill get a Tiger?’

‘It’s supposed to get within two hundred yards and put a shot through the periscope.’

‘Has anyone ever done it?’

‘No.’

The Sherman tank was the principal armoured weapon of the Allied armies, magnificently reliable and mechanically efficient, but critically handicapped by thin armour and lack of an adequate gun, save for the few British 17-pounder-mounted Sherman Fireflies. The Sherman weighed 32 tons and could move at 24 mph. It carried only 76 mm of frontal armour, 51 mm of side armour. The Mk V 75 mm gun with which most models were equipped could penetrate 74 mm of armour at 100 yards, 68 mm at 500 yards, 60 mm at 1,000 yards. Even the upgunned 76 mm and 17-pounder versions suffered problems from the fierce flash when they fired, making it difficult for the crews to observe fall of shot. Note the white star painted on the turret side, the universal identification symbol for all Allied vehicles in Europe.

If this account6 bordered upon satire, the reality was little different – the product of an extraordinary lack of Allied foresight. A specialist who was intimately concerned in the British tank design programme from its earliest days, Colonel George Macleod Ross, suggested after the war that the War Office made a fatal error by separating the development of fighting vehicles from that of tank guns. Ross, and other experts, argued that it was vital to design the right tank gun, and then to build a suitable vehicle to carry it. Instead, throughout the Second World War, a succession of British tanks were produced in isolation from any consideration either of the enemy gun that they must expect to meet, or of the weight of armour that their own gun must expect to penetrate. Tank design was located at Chobham, while gun design was sited at Woolwich. Although the design of the superb British 17-pounder gun was approved and a prototype constructed in June 1941, it was not mounted in a tank until the first Sherman Firefly was belatedly produced in August 1943, in too small a quantity to influence OVERLORD decisively. ‘It is not unfair to say,’ declared Ross, who served for much of the war as British Technical Liaison officer to the US Army Ordnance in Detroit, ‘that little of the labour and materials expended on the 25,000 British-built tanks helped to win the war.’7 A visit to Eighth Army in the desert by a temporary technical observer in November 1942 resulted in a disastrous report to the War Office, allegedly approved by Montgomery, asserting that ‘the 75 mm gun is all we require’.8 This report set the seal upon British tank gun policy for much of the rest of the war, ensuring that 6-pounder and 75 mm-gunned Churchills and Cromwells would form the basis of British tank strength. ‘None of our authorities seemed to understand as the Germans did’, wrote Ross, ‘the need in war for sustained improvement of weapons.’9

Yet the decisive force in wartime tank production, as in so much else, was the United States. Russell Weigley, an outstanding American analyst of the US army in the war, has highlighted the failure of its architects to match their end – the application of concentrated power upon the battlefield – to their means: principally, the Sherman tank. Against 24,630 tanks built by the Germans and 24,843 made by the British by the end of 1944, the Americans turned out a staggering 88,410, 25,600 of which were supplied to the British. The great majority were Shermans, first produced in 1942, and dominating all Allied armoured operations in 1944–45. Two-thirds of the tanks employed by British units in Normandy were Shermans, the balance being chiefly Cromwells (7th Armoured Division) and Churchills (79th Division and independent armoured brigades). The Sherman was a superbly reliable piece of machinery, far easier to maintain and with a track life five times longer than its German counterparts. It weighed 33 tons, compared with the 43 tons of the Panther, and 56 tons of the Tiger. Its fast cross-country speed reflected the Americans’ doctrinal obsession with pace in armoured operations. It possessed two important advantages over its German opponents: a faster speed of turret traverse to engage the enemy, and a higher rate of fire. Conversely, it suffered two critical weaknesses: first, its readiness to catch fire, which caused soldiers on the battlefield to christen it ‘the ronson’ or ‘tommy cooker’. This was a reflection upon its design and thin armour, rather than (as the US War Department suggested tetchily after early complaints) because its crews were loading too much ammunition into its turret. Second, and more important, it was undergunned. Its original 75 mm gun produced a muzzle velocity of 2,050 feet-per-second against 2,900 f.p.s. of the British 17-pounder and the 3,340 f.p.s. of the German 88 mm. At a range of 200 yards, the British gun had almost thrice the penetration of the 75 mm. A Tiger could knock out a Sherman at a range of 4,000 yards, while the American tank could not penetrate a Tiger’s frontal armour at all. Even when the Sherman was upgunned with a 76 mm, it was compelled to close to within 300 yards of a Tiger to have a chance of knocking it out. ‘Not only do German Mk V and Mk VI tanks keep out a greater proportion of hits than Shermans,’ concluded a gloomy SHAEF Operational Research report in 1944, ‘but also they are far less likely to brew up when penetrated’ (emphasis in original).10 Even the much lighter 25-ton German Mk IV tank, which made up about half the tank strength of the panzer divisions, packed a KWK 40 75 mm gun with a muzzle velocity 20 per cent greater than the Sherman’s 75 mm. This was capable of penetrating 92 mm of armour at 500 yards against the 68 mm of the Sherman’s gun.

The American War Department could not claim ignorance of the enemy’s developments in the field of gunnery. As early as May 1942, Major Jarrett of US Army Ordnance shipped a captured 88 mm gun across the Atlantic with a report emphasizing its potency. There were a variety of causes for the American failure to pursue the improvement of the Sherman at once. The designers were pinning most of their hopes upon early production of an entirely new replacement tank. Enormous effort was wasted on a new model, named the T20, whose development spanned three years and seven pilots, but of which only 120 reached the battlefield at the end of the war. General Electric were labouring on a strange white elephant designated the T23. Colonel Ross wrote that ‘there can be no excuse for the abysmal ignorance of tank tactics generally and tank operations in Europe in particular which prompted this half-hearted attempt to design a worthy successor to the Sherman when the simple answer was to design a better gun, something infinitely easier than a tank.’11 There was undoubtedly chauvinistic resistance in the US to copying either the German 88 mm or, more plausibly, the British 17-pounder. Since the first days of the war, tank design also suffered from the misconceptions of General Lesley McNair, the principal architect of the US army in the Second World War. McNair believed that armoured divisions would chiefly be employed for exploitation and pursuit, and that tanks would seldom be called upon to fight other tanks. He fell victim to the same fallacies that underlay the creation of the battle-cruiser by the admirals of an earlier generation, sacrificing armour to speed only to discover that mere pace in battle is almost meaningless, unless matched by survivability.

Above all, there was a belief at the top of the American armed forces that the Allied armies possessed such a vast numerical superiority of tanks that some technical inferiority was acceptable. Yet when a Sherman tank in Normandy, or even a platoon or battalion of Shermans, found itself confronted by enemy tanks whose armour their guns could not penetrate, numerical advantage seemed to mean little. The apprehension and caution of tank crews were well founded. They knew that if they were hit, they almost certainly burned. If they burned, each crew member had only a 50 per cent statistical prospect of survival. Bradley wrote: ‘This willingness to expend Shermans offered little comfort to the crews who were forced to expend themselves as well.’12

We all thought that our tanks were deficient [wrote a British tank officer], and I believe that this had a highly adverse effect on morale. In the end we all became ‘canny’, and would obey orders only to the extent that there appeared a reasonable expectation of successfully carrying them out. There was thus a sort of creeping paralysis in the armoured units; because of the pervading fear of 88s, Panthers, Tigers and Panzerfausts, initiative was lost and squadron commanders tended to go to ground at the first sign of any serious opposition and call up an artillery ‘stonk’. With any luck, as the day wore on, the battle died down and that was at least another day got through.

If the technical detail above seems laboured in a campaign narrative, it has been pursued because no single Allied failure had more important consequences on the European battlefield than the lack of tanks with adequate punch and protection. No weapon, above all no tank, is good or bad in isolation. It must be judged against the enemy weapons which it is expected to fight. Sufficient examples have been given elsewhere in these pages of encounters between German and Allied tanks in which it was not uncommon for the panzer to destroy four, five or even more Shermans before being knocked out itself. The Allies’ failure to make forceful judgements about the need to match each new generation of German tanks and the blindness of the General Staffs to the need for bigger tank guns, cost them dearly on the battlefield. Even huge losses of Shermans could be made good. But the knowledge of their own tanks’ weakness had a serious effect upon the confidence and aggressiveness of Allied units wherever armour met armour.

The Panzer VI, or Tiger, was the most feared German tank in Normandy, almost impenetrable by frontal Allied tank gunfire, and packing a devastating punch with its 88 mm KwK 36 gun. Muzzle velocity in all guns is chiefly a function of barrel length, and Allied troops were always shocked by their first encounters with the Tiger’s gun, ‘as long as a telegraph pole’, as so many men reported. Its 20-pound shell could penetrate 120 mm of armour at 100 yards, 112 mm at 500 yards, 102 mm at 1,000 yards. The Tiger itself carried 100 mm of frontal armour, 80 mm of side armour, weighed 54 tons and had a maximum speed of 23 mph. It was normally employed in independent battalions allocated to German corps or divisions for specific operational purposes. Its principal shortcomings were clumsiness of movement and lack of mechanical reliability.

Throughout the war, the British authorities were at pains to stifle any public debate about the shortcomings of their tanks, although these were well known throughout the British army. The Labour MP Richard Stokes, who had himself fought gallantly in the First World War, was a thorn in the government’s flesh on the issue of tank design, as he was also about strategic bombing, the ‘unconditional surrender’ doctrine, and other embarrassing military matters. Stokes made himself intimately acquainted with every detail of British and German tank performance – thickness of armour, relative muzzle velocities and so on. He became the scourge of the government benches by rehearsing these unwelcome facts at every opportunity. On 30 March 1944, he requested that a Churchill and a captured Tiger tank should be brought to the House of Commons for members to judge for themselves the fighting power of each. The Prime Minister replied:

No sir. I think the trouble and expense involved, though not very great, is still more than is justified to satisfy the spiteful curiosity of my Honourable friend.13

Stokes was aided and abetted by a handful of like-minded spirits. On 20 July 1944, Mr Ellis-Smith asked the Prime Minister for details of the relative performance of British and German tanks. Mr Churchill replied:

Before the House rises I shall hope to give a solid report upon the performances of British tanks in the various theatres of war. For the present I rest on my statement of 16 March, as follows: ‘The next time that the British Army takes the field in country suitable for the use of armour, they will be found to be equipped in a manner at least equal to the forces of any other country in the world.’

On 25 July 1944, Stokes asked the Secretary of State for War, ‘whether he will assure this house that our troops in Normandy are equipped with tanks at least the equal of both the German Tiger and Panther in armour and armament?’ As in almost every debate in which this issue was raised, P. J. Grigg dismissed Stokes with the assurance that public discussion of this issue was not in the public interest. The backbencher denounced ‘the most complete humbug with which this matter is treated’. On 2 August 1944, Stokes yet again savaged the government about the shortcomings of British tanks: ‘Relatively speaking, today, we are just as far behind the Germans as we were in 1940. I submit that this is a disgraceful state of affairs.’ Another MP, Rear-Admiral Beamish, leapt to the government’s defence: ‘The Honourable member has spent his whole time in doing everything he can to lower the prestige of the British army.’ Stokes rejoined: ‘My criticisms have been based upon irrefutable facts.’ Hansard recorded the laughter of the House. ‘It is all very well for honourable members to laugh,’ said Stokes, ‘but these men are dying.’ He quoted a letter that he had received from a Churchill tank crewman who suggested that the Secretary of State for War should go out and fight ‘with one of these ruddy things’. The Speaker intervened to reproach Stokes for his language: ‘I have heard bad language from him three times.’ Stokes declared that he was merely quoting the direct speech of others, from the battlefield. It was self-evident that his information, and his report on the sentiment of tank crews, were entirely well founded. But he remained a prophet without honour. The government lied systematically, until the very end of the war, about the Allies’ tragic failure to produce tanks capable of matching those of the Germans.

Colonel Campbell Clarke, perhaps the foremost British ordnance expert of the war, originator of the 25-pounder and the entire range of successful anti-tank guns, wrote early in 1945:

We here in Britain have some time ago reached the stage where military weapons have developed somewhat beyond the educational capacity of the average soldier to appreciate their functional use; still more so that of the General Staff officer to direct their future lines of development for war. The inevitable consequence has been, and will increasingly be, tactical stagnation and ‘surprise’ by an enemy who is prepared to plan new methods for their use in conjunction with a first-hand knowledge of technical possibilities and limitations.14

Any armoured officer fighting in north-west Europe in 1944 would have echoed his sentiments.

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