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’).

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