'Armoured Warfare in the British Army'
This week's excerpt looks at the American tanks that were so important to the British Army from 1942 onwards
Dick Taylor began his Army career as a boy soldier and specialised in tank gunnery before being commissioned, finally retiring as a lieutenant-colonel in 2013 - so his perspective on armoured warfare is exceptionally well-informed. Armoured Warfare in the British Army 1939-1945 is the second of a three-part series but stands on its own terms as a comprehensive history.
It ranges across tank development, strategy and tactics to some detailed history of how tanks were deployed in the different campaigns. He draws on many personal accounts to portray the action on the battlefield and is particularly strong on how the armoured war unfolded from Normandy to Germany, 1944-45.
A very readable and absorbing study of a critical aspect of the war. Taylor provides a very full context of why soldiers found themselves in the particular tanks that they had when facing the enemy - and explains much about the way that different campaigns unfolded in the way that they did.
The following excerpt dwells on the relative virtues of the American tanks - the Grant, Lee and Sherman, that helped transform British armoured capabilities from late 1942:
The next American tank to enter British service, again in North Africa in early 1942, was the M3 Grant, a British development of the M3 Lee Medium Tank.5 The Grant/Lee - the two types were distinctive but often confused or just lumped together under the M3 designation - differed in that the Grant featured a 37mm gun turret of British design, in order to allow the radio set to be carried in the turret in accordance with doctrine; US tanks had theirs mounted in the hull and the more cramped Lee turret had a pretty useless vision cupola dominated by the breech of an equally useless .30in Browning MG.6
The main gun was a 75mm medium velocity type mounted in a limited traverse sponson in the right front of the hull. Despite the awkwardness of the mounting, the gun brought something that the RAC had lacked up to this point: the ability to fire a high-explosive shell from a reasonable distance in order to engage anti-tank guns (rather than having to charge them firing only solid shot AP). This was a huge benefit and influenced tactics immediately. Although not used in Italy as a gun tank, it also saw extensive and valuable service in the Burma campaign, where its role and employment were not handicapped by its somewhat archaic design.
The next tank to enter service, a logical development of the M3 series, was the game-changer: the M4 Sherman. The first examples arrived just in time to take part in Second Alamein, and used the same 75mm gun mounted in an all-round traverse turret. Although not without its faults, including a high silhouette and an alarming tendency to catch fire when hit, it was reasonably well-armoured by 1942 standards, roomy, easy to maintain and reliable.
The Sherman remained in service with the RAC throughout the war, on all fronts, and appeared to give the crews all that they desired, although this was not so, as will be explained shortly. The popularity of the Sherman in many circles, plus the seemingly endless supply of them, led at one point in 1943 to the suggestion that the British should stop trying to build their own Cruisers and rely on American production of the Sherman; fortunately, this did not happen.
In fact, by mid-1943 the Sherman was already obsolescent and needed serious development work to modernize it. In part this was due to the lack of armour, in part due to the increasingly mediocre 75mm gun. Unfortunately, General Montgomery, a man of strong ideas but no armour expert, managed to muddy the waters by insisting that the pre-war distinction between Cruiser and Infantry tanks was incorrect, and that what was needed were tanks, tank units and tank formations that could be used interchangeably in both roles.
Although he was correct in this, the mistake that he made was to try to fill this new doctrine of a ‘universal’ or ‘capital’ tank with an existing design: the Sherman. The Sherman was simply not up to the task, as its armour was far too thin to be used in the close-range engagements required of an Infantry tank, and its gun was incapable of duelling with Tigers, Panthers and the long 75mm-armed Mk IVs at typical engagement ranges needed in the Cruiser role.
Montgomery was no fan of the Churchill as he considered the top speed of 15mph to be too slow for exploitation, whereas in fact there were few occasions when such speed was required, and it possessed other qualities that he seemed unaware of. Montgomery’s doctrine could only be fulfilled once a genuine universal tank had been produced, and this could not be done overnight: in fact, it was not fulfilled until after the war with the advent of the Centurion, although the Comet would have made a reasonable stand-in.
The effects of this policy on the Normandy campaign will be discussed later. Another issue that came to light during autumn 1944 was the reliability of the Sherman when compared with the Cromwell; during the high-speed advance on Antwerp in early September 1944, only five of the. Shermans in A Sqn 3RTR made it to the city, all the others falling by the wayside with various mechanical problems. The Cromwells in 7th Armoured Division had no such problems.
Therefore, the RAC was stuck with the Sherman and its drawbacks until the end of the war. The tank was improved, including the placing of lin applique armoured panels on the most vulnerable parts of the hull and turret fronts, and ammunition was placed in armoured stowage bins (although crews often then reduced the overall level of protection by stowing extra unprotected ammunition inside the tank). The biggest improvement was a British initiative: the fitting of the excellent 17-pounder high-velocity gun into the Sherman during 1943 to produce the Firefly.
Like the flail tank and the AVRE, this came about in the face of official opposition to an initiative from a junior officer. Major George Brighty RTR was serving in the Gunnery Wing at Lulworth and believed that the Sherman would be able to mount the new 17-pounder gun, although fitting it into the space available, and accounting for the extra recoil length, larger breech and recoil system, and much longer ammunition, made it a real challenge. Separately, in Egypt, Major George Witheridge, a 3RTR gunnery officer who was recovering from wounds, was sent to the American tank centre at Fort Knox for six months where he became an expert on Sherman gunnery, and was then posted to Lulworth as a lieutenant colonel.
Brighty meanwhile had been carrying out semi-official experiments, and was working on the issue of how to absorb the much larger recoil forces when Witheridge arrived and immediately became involved. Despite being told officially by the Department ofTank Design (DSD)to stop work, Witheridge used his contacts in the shape of the Director Royal Armoured Corps, Major General Raymond Briggs, another RTR officer, to get the project sanctioned, and the allocation of Mr Kilbourn from DTD to the project was the key to solving the design problems, by developing a more efficient recoil system, fitting a second hatch in the turret roof for the now-isolated loader, adding an additional armoured box behind the turret bustle for the radios and to counter-balance the longer barrel and, not least, rotating the whole gun through 90° anti-clockwise to allow easier and faster loading.
Unlike many British tanks, the gunner’s telescope had good magnification, x 3, allowing the gun to be fired accurately at ranges of up to 2,000yd. Once approved, a conversion programme for 2,100 tanks was authorized in early January 1944, using Sherman I (M4) and Sherman V tanks (M4A4). Although - as always - the programme did not run as fast as was desired, just enough Fireflies had been converted by D-Day to allow twelve tanks to be issued to each tank regiment in the armoured divisions; the impact of the Firefly in Normand}' will be examined in due course.
The Americans continued to develop the Sherman and, recognizing that the 75mm was inadequate, fitted a new 76mm gun into later model Shermans from the middle of 1944.The additional penetrative performance was nowhere near as good as the 17-pounder or even the 6-pounder firing APDS, but it was still better than the 75mm, and British and Commonwealth units in Italy received some of these models pending the issue of Fireflies, which did not start to reach Italy until October 1944.
Another Sherman derivative mounting a 3in gun was the M10 tank destroyer; this was developed because of an American doctrine that saw the need to provide a lightly armoured tracked anti-tank gun. Although it looked like a tank, with the same suspension as a Sherman, the turret walls were paper thin and there was no roof, making the turret crew extremely vulnerable to small arms and artillery/mortar fire. Despite this, some of the Royal Artillery anti-tank regiments in North-West Europe were issued with the M10, and towards the end of the war these were modified to accept the 17-pounder gun.
Finally, in 1945 the British were seriously considering bringing the new American heavy tank, the T26 (later the M26 Pershing), into service, but the end of the war stopped the project.
This excerpt from Armoured Warfare in the British Army 1939-1945 appears by kind permission of Pen & Sword Books Ltd. Copyright remains with the author.