Friday, September 25, 2015

Revision or Correction

The Allies enjoyed a 3:1 superiority in tanks deployed in Normandy, and the vast majority of German tanks were of the same quality as British and US tanks. The powerful German Panthers, Tigers and King Tigers, some armed with improved 75mm and 88mm guns, were available only in small numbers, though the Panther was nearly as common as the Panzer IV, the most common tank. The Germans deployed only some 650 Panthers and 120–30 Tigers in Normandy. The Allied forces had over one armoured formation to two infantry, whereas for the Germans it was 1:4; for the British the ratio was about 1:1.

The million-strong British-commanded 21st Army Group that fought from Normandy to Germany (excluding attached US forces) was an extraordinarily armoured force. It had seven armoured divisions (four British, two Canadian, one Polish) and six armoured/tank brigades (three British, two Canadian and one Czech), as well as eleven infantry divisions. In terms of gun-power the German tanks were matched by the Sherman Firefly, a British adaptation of the Sherman to take the new British 17-pounder 76mm anti-tank gun. The 17-pounder was apparently superior to all German guns and with the new but rare discarding sabot round could destroy even the heaviest German tanks. The 21st Army Group had around 300 Fireflies at the beginning of the Normandy campaign, one for every three Shermans. The proportion of Fireflies increased to 50:50 as new HE ammunition for the 17-pounder became available. It was not until the very end of the war that Britain produced the Comet tank, armed with a gun related to the 17-pounder, firing discarding sabot shot if necessary, which was close to the Panther in overall performance. This is not to say that British tanks before the Comet were necessarily inferior in armour: the Mark VII Churchill was more heavily armoured than the Panther or Tiger.

Just as surprising is that British tank forces were better equipped than US ones. The US forces also acquired a Sherman with a 76mm gun, but this was inferior to the 17-pounder as an anti-tank gun. The Cromwells and the Churchills of the Anglo-Canadian forces were regarded as equal or superior to the Sherman. Except when they carried the 6-pounder these tanks had essentially the same gun as the Sherman; the Cromwell was just a little bit lighter than the Sherman, but faster and similarly armoured. The Churchill was considerably heavier, better armoured but slower. When mounted with the 6-pounder 57mm gun, the British tanks had a more effective anti-tank (though single-purpose) gun than the 75mm. 

Hobart's Funnies were a number of unusually modified tanks operated during World War II by the United Kingdom's 79th Armoured Division or by specialists from the Royal Engineers.

There was one other distinctively British aspect of the Normandy landings and the campaign in North-West Europe. Churchill appointed the pioneering tank officer Percy Hobart to command a special very large armoured division (the 79th) to hit the beaches of Normandy, and then proceed, with a whole series of wonderfully adapted tanks. Among them were swimming ‘Duplex Drive’ or ‘DD’ Sherman tanks, which could make it ashore on their own power; Sherman Crabs, with anti-mine flails attached; AVREs, Churchills armed with a spigot mortar, firing a ‘Flying Dustbin’ of explosive a short range to remove concrete obstacles; Crocodiles, Churchills armed with flamethrowers; and Grant CDL tanks, which had powerful searchlights to dazzle the enemy. Some of these machines were clearly useful in particular contexts, but whether they warranted the investment involved is not at all clear. The scale of the 79th Division was extraordinary. It had – at D-Day – three brigades: one of engineers with AVREs, one of Sherman Crabs and one CDL, its DD Sherman brigade having been attached elsewhere for D-Day. It would later have five brigades: one of AVREs, one of Sherman Crabs, one of Sherman DD swimming tanks, one mainly of Crocodiles and one of US-designed and US-built tracked landing craft. It is striking that the much larger US forces, while they adopted the DD tank for the D-Day landing, did not take up most of the other devices. As in the case, possibly, of Mulberry, and certainly of PLUTO, it is evidence of both the plenitude of resources available to British forces, and their tendency to go for complicated devices which the Americans avoided.

Despite this, some officers in Normandy claimed that British tanks were once again much inferior to German, and once again questions were raised in the House of Commons by Richard Stokes. Once again, historians followed, condemning British tanks and holding their low quality responsible for setbacks suffered by British forces. More generally, historians have overplayed the differences in quality between British and German equipment, systematically neglecting the good, sometimes superior qualities of the former. To an even greater extent they have underplayed the comparatively lavish scale of supply of weapons to the British army. It was not just a matter of tanks. The British forces had ample supplies of transport of all kinds, from lorries to jeeps to universal carriers, Weasels, Kangaroos, Buffaloes and Terrapins. The Germans relied on horses and carts. Although German infantry units had a notionally higher proportion of machine guns and submachine guns, in 1942 and 1943 Britain alone out-produced Germany in these weapons by a factor of four to five and both were producing about the same in 1944, without even taking account of overseas British production. In Britain, submachine gun (Sten) production was in peak years much greater than rifle production; German submachine gun production was never more than about a third of rifle production. Sten guns were not just used by British forces, with some 600,000 sent to resistance units by the SOE, but it seems highly unlikely that this explains the apparently low proportion in British units. The Sten was similar, though perhaps slightly inferior, to the German MP40, and both were copied by the Americans in their M3, introduced late in the war to replace the Thompson (or ‘tommy gun’).

Thursday, August 13, 2015

WW2 Belgian armor

In September 1939, Belgium was not a negligible or token force. It held the seventh place in armored strength in Europe, just after Poland and the Czech Republic. This force was constricted by a limited budget, the result of the long-run 1930 financial crisis, and to be first and foremost a purely defensive force, according to the "non-provocation" policy of 1936 regarding the Kingdom relations with bordering Nazi Germany. This very firm neutral position was also required to keep at bay ever-present tensions between the two very different cultural majorities of Belgium, the Walloons, Catholics, related to the French, and the Flemish, Protestants, and culturally nearer to the low countries and Germany. This was accompanied however by energic measures such as a 15% defense budget increase, the national service military training being stretched from 8 to 12 months and modernization of all fortifications, highly rated by military experts in 1939.

Belgian armored forces were spread into several cyclist border units (notably the elite "chasseurs ardennais"), cavalry and infantry units. The fully motorized ones were supposed to act as "flying units" to defend major communications lines between five strategical strong points like the Namur and Liege forts, and above all, Eben-Emael. These thoroughly modernized fortifications -in the Maginot line style- were designed to serve as a buffer against German attacks, repelling assaults for at least five days, and at best two weeks, a delay thought long enough to allow the French and their British allies to move into place and built their own defensive line, closing the gap between the north sea and the Maginot Line itself -with the notable exception of the so-thought impassable Ardennes forest.

For these reasons, Belgium never tried to acquire or build medium tanks until 1936 -seen as an offensive or provocative gesture by the politicians. The bulk of the armored forces comprised towed AT guns, mostly those of the excellent SA-FRC (which stands for "Fonderie Royale de Canons") 47 mm (1.85 in), or modele 1931, of which over 750 were delivered to infantry and cavalry units. Tractors were of the Vickers "Utility Tractor" type, unarmed, small, stocky, of which two types largely produced, for cavalry and infantry. Their armor, equipment and speed differed accordingly. British Vickers designs also formed the basis of the two main Belgian tanks type. The British Vickers Mark VI served for the light scout tanks (T15) and Vickers unarmed tractors as tank hunters (T13) which evolved through three variants and formed the backbone of the Belgian antitank units. These were complemented -until 1939- by a handful of vintage FT 18s (a Belgian slightly modified FT 17 of WWI fame), scheduled for replacement by the recent ACG-1, of which only a dozen were delivered in time.

T15 light tank
The T15 was a version of the British "Commercial Light Tank Vickers Carden-Loyd 4 ton". They had a two-man crew and were armed with a 13.2 mm French Hotchkiss machine gun mounted in the turret. A total of 42 of these tanks were assigned to Belgian units.

T13 tank destroyer, models B1, B2, and B3
The T13 series was very similar to the T15; the only major difference was that the main armament was a 47 mm anti-tank gun instead of a machine gun. They were regarded as tank destroyers; except the first model (B1) all had fully rotating turrets.
Total production for the T13:
    T13 B1 - 35 produced.
    T13 B2 - 14 produced. These started their life as unarmed Carden Loyd tankettes which were modified and equipped with a turret with a C.47 gun in 1936.
    T13 B3 150 produced. Entered service in 1937.
The Wehrmacht operated some captured T13s during the first years of the war, as the T13 had a more powerful main gun than the Panzer I and Panzer II, common German tanks in the early war years.
There is a T13 B2 on display at Brussels Tank Museum.

ACG-1 tank
The Renault AMC 35 tank, also designated ACG1, was armed with a 47 mm gun and a coaxial machine gun. 25 of these tanks were ordered although only 12 were accepted into the Belgian army due to supply problems. The Belgian ACG1 and the AMC 35 had different turrets. The Belgian Army disliked the layout of the AMC 35 turret, and so designed their own. Instead of waiting for the other tanks to arrive the Belgian army created the T-13 B3, also armed with a 47 mm C.47 gun. Eight of the ACG1 were in front line units at the start of the 1940 campaign. The ACG1 had a reputation for mechanical difficulties which caused a dispute with the French manufacturer, and slowed deliveries until the problems were solved. The 47 mm main gun in the ACG1 was the same anti-tank gun then in service with the Belgian Army.

Renault FT tank
The Belgian army had 75 Renault FT tanks (of World War I vintage) at the start of World War II. The Belgian Army had two types of FT tanks, the Char canon armed with a short 37 mm Puteaux SA-18 gun and the Char mitrailleuse armed with a machine gun. Unlike the French Army, the Belgian Army had withdrawn all FT tanks from front line service before World War II. They remained in storage depots during the 1940 campaign.

Belgian forces in May 1940
In May 1940 the Belgian army could deploy 22 divisions (mostly infantry ones - 100,000 men for the standing army, 440,000 mobilized recruits in 1939, and 900,000 total with reserves in May 1940, an astonishing feat for a 8 million population) and about 200 AFVs spread into "penny packets" among divisions, and nearly 700 towed antitank guns either by artillery tractors, trucks or Ford-based Marmon Herrington armored cars. Total strength was only 2 fully mechanized divisions, one armored regiment and two motorized divisions. Following the Mechelen incident (a plane crash involving a German Major in Belgium near Meuse river), German plans detailing upcoming operations were found, and brought to the Allies. As it was, this plan called for a simple invasion trough Belgium, targeting western coast harbors, virtually repeating 1914 Schlieffen plan. However both King Leopold and General Raoul Van Overstraeten, his aide de camp, suspected some trick and rather firmly thought a wide encirclement using the Ardennes forest was more probable, but General Gamelin ignored the warnings and stuck to his Dyle plan. The Belgian army was supposed to hold the Antwerp - Liege - Namur line on the borders as long as possible to allow the main French forces to take positions, and withdraw afterwards to make junction with French forces, theoretically presenting a narrower front, easier to defend

7 TP

The need for a more powerful armoured vehicle - the tankettes being incapable of an actual combat role - forced Poland to turn her attention to a further Vickers product, namely the Vickers-Armstrong Six-ton tank, (Vickers Mark 'E'), which was soon to gain a worldwide reputation for a whole decade. In fact, between 1930 and 1939, Vickers-Armstrong Ltd sold over 190 machines of that type (tanks and tractors) to foreign countries - Bolivia, Bulgaria, China, Finland, Greece, Japan, Portugal, Russia and Thailand (Siam) - but the largest order came from Poland with a total of 50 (other sources give 38) tanks with either the single and twin turret arrangement.

The fact that the Vickers-Armstrong Six-ton tank was well within the capacity of the Polish technology, and as it offered some potential for further development, the PZI design bureau was entrusted with the study of a homemade copy. Subsequently PZI produced the 7 TP, a 9ton twin turreted tank which was to be a considerable step forward in design over the Vickers original. At first, the Armstrong-Siddeley engine of the Six-ton was replaced by a licence-built Saurer 6-cylinder diesel engine which developed 110hp, so making the Polish 7 TP the first diesel-powered tank to reach production status.

The 7 TP armour was also 4mm thicker than the Six-ton armour. The first 7 TP to be built by PZI left the works in I934 and production continued at a slow tempo up to 1939. While the production of the modified twin turret model 7 TP was proceeding slowly, it was decided to introduce a single version carrying a Bofors gun (the turret being manufactured by this same concern). This variant appeared in 1937, but the production was restricted by the difficulties of making armour plates and of procuring the turrets from Sweden. Afterwards, in 1939, some quibbles about its unsuitable armour thickness brought PZI to evolve a heavier variant with an improved engine, welded armour thickened up to 40mm in front, a strengthened suspension, wider tracks and a turret with a rear overhang which could accommodate both transmitter and receiver radio sets. The up-armoured 7 TP, which now weighed 11 tons, did not have time to go beyond the prototype or, at best, pre-production stage.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

“Fortress Tank”

France had fought World War I without a heavy tank. In July 1918, at the very end of that conflict, it began development of such a machine. Manufactured by FCM (Forges et Chantiers de la Méditerranée, Le Seyne, Toulon), the Char 2C was intended as a breakthrough tank or “Fortress Tank” (Char de forteresse), intended to lead the great Allied offensives that were planned for the spring of 1919. France planned to produce 300, but only 10 were ever built. This monster had a crew of 12, weighed some 152,100 pounds, and was powered by two Maybach or Daimler Benz 250-hp gasoline engines. It had a speed of 7.5 mph. The Char 2C had maximum 45mm armor and was armed with a turreted 75mm gun (later a 155mm) and four machine guns.

The Char 2C had a loaded weight of 69 tonnes, partly because of its armour - 45 mm at the front, 22 mm at the sides, but much of it just because of its huge size. The armour was among the thickest of World War I-era tanks, though by modern standards this would be considered thin. It is still easily the largest tank ever taken into production. With the tail fitted, the hull was over twelve metres long. Within its ample frame there was room for two fighting compartments. The first at the front, crowned by a three-man turret (the first in history) with a long 75 mm gun, and the second at the back, topped by a machine gun turret. Both turrets had stroboscopic cupolas. The three independent 8 mm machine gun positions at the front gave protection against infantry assault.

The Char 2C is the only super-heavy tank ever to attain operational status — a super-heavy tank is not simply a tank that is very heavy but one that is much heavier than regular tanks of its period. The next operational tank to weigh about the same would be the Tiger II heavy tank of World War II.

The fighting compartments were connected by the engine room. Each track was powered by its own 200 or 250 hp engine, via an electrical transmission. Top speed was 15 km/h. Seven fuel tanks, containing 1,260 litres, gave it a range of 150 kilometres.

To man the tank required a crew of twelve: driver, commander, gunner, loader, four machine gunners, mechanic, electrician, assistant-electrician/mechanic and a radio operator. Some sources report thirteen, probably due to pictures of the crews that included the company commander.

The ten tanks were part of several consecutive units, their organic strength at one time reduced to three. Their military value slowly decreased as more advanced tanks were developed throughout the 1920s and 1930s. By the end of the 1930s they were largely obsolete, because their slow speed and high profile made them vulnerable to advances in anti-tank guns.

Nevertheless, during the French mobilisation of 1939, all ten were activated and put into their own unit, the 51st Bataillon de Chars de Combat. For propaganda, each tank had been named after one of the ancient regions of France, numbers 90-99 named Poitou; Provence; Picardie; Alsace; Bretagne; Touraine; Anjou; Normandie; Berry; Champagne respectively. In 1939, the Normandie was renamed Lorraine. As their main value was in propaganda, the giants were carefully kept from harm and did not participate in the September 1939 attack on the Siegfried Line. They were used for numerous morale-boosting movies, climbing and crushing old French forts instead. To the public, they obtained the reputation of invincible super tanks, the imagined dimensions of which far surpassing the real ones.

Of course, the French commanders knew perfectly well this reputation was undeserved. When the German Panzerdivisionen in the execution of Operation Fall Rot ripped apart the French lines after 10 June 1940, the decision was made to prevent the capture of the famous equipment. It was to be sent to the south by rail transport. On 15 June the rail was blocked by a burning fuel train, so it became inevitable to destroy the tanks by detonating charges. Later Goebbels and Goering claimed the tanks were hit by German dive bombers. This propaganda lie was to be repeated by many sources. One tank, the Champagne, was nevertheless captured more or less intact and brought to Berlin to be exhibited as a war trophy. In 1948 this tank disappeared, causing many to speculate it still survives at the Russian Tank museum in Kubinka.

In 1926, the later Champagne was modified into the Char 2C bis, an experimental type with a 155 mm howitzer in a cast turret. New engines were fitted and the machine gun positions deleted. In this configuration the tank weighed perhaps 74 tons. The change was only temporary though, as the vehicle was brought back into its previous condition the very same year; the new turret was used in the Tunisian Mareth Line.

Between 15 November and 15 December 1939 the Lorraine, as the company command tank, was experimentally up-armoured at the Société des Aciéries d'Homecourt to make it immune to standard German antitank guns. The front armour was enhanced to 90 mm, the side to 65 mm. In this configuration, weighing about 75 tons, the Lorraine had at that time the thickest armour of any operational tank, and is probably still the heaviest operational tank ever