Front Line Wisdom

BY NIGEL BEAN

Have you heard of Michael Wittman? He was a much-vaunted German Tiger Tank ace of the Second World War. He was credited with ambushing and destroying 14 Cromwell tanks and 15 personnel carriers. Have you heard of the Tiger Tank grave yard at Hunts Gap or the mess left at Steam Roller farm in Tunisia where a pair of Churchills destroyed two 88 mm, two 75 mm and two 50 mm anti-tank guns, four smaller anti-tank guns, 25 wheeled vehicles, two 3-inch mortars, two Panzer III and inflicted nearly 200 casualties? I bet you haven’t.

Historians, for some reason, have never been kind to the tanks the allies provided to poor old Tommy. For instance, the Sherman tank they describe as substandard with an inferior gun. Its poor crew were just sitting ducks to the behemoth Tiger or Panther tanks who wrought havoc on their paper-thin hulls. A Ronson was the nickname given to the Sherman because they were petrol-powered and when they were hit, they tended to explode and spout flames from what was left of the turret. Remember the Ronson advertising slogan? “Lights first time, every time”, or words to that effect. And who can forget the images of the Churchill floundering around on the beaches of Dieppe? Like top trumps, the historian compares the guns of a tiger to the Sherman and Churchill, “the 88 mm had a range of 2 miles, far out outstripping anything the allies had, they could take out allied tanks well before the allies could retaliate”. Images are produced to show a picture of a Sherman tank or Churchill with a 75mm gun mounted and another of a Tiger with this huge protruding 88mm gun to empathise the point.

And that is why historians are historians and not Generals.

The General will know he has fast-moving tank destroyer units at his disposal, the M18 Hellcat had the best kill to loss ratio of any tank during the war. If a historian is going to big up any tank it’s this one. The M18 played a pivotal role in stopping the German advance in the Battle of the Bulge and its predecessor the M10 Wolverine was blunting German counter-attacks in Normandy.

On 10 July 1944, the 899th Tank Destroyer Battalion blunted a German counter-attack by the Panzer Lehr Division near Le Dézert and destroyed 12 Panthers, one Panzer IV, and one Sturmgeschütz III in a fierce two-day battle, most of it taking place at ranges of less than 200m.

These units were based on the principle of “shoot and scoot” so speed and ambush were the order of the day. The M18 would lay in ambush, shoot the Germans from the side, then scoot ahead and ambush head on. The Germans believed they were encountering a never-ending supply of tanks when in reality it was the same ones shooting.

A General will also know of the paucity of Panther or Tigers built. He will know that the chance of his tanks running into them during the next phase of the battle plan are small. He will also know they were built to fight on the Russian steppes, vast open country with good visibility. In the terrain of Tunisia, Italy and Normandy they were fairly useless. It’s written the turret of the Tiger 2 alone was equal to the weight of a Stug, a deadly highly effective ambush tank destroyer deployed by the Germans. As raw materials became scarce in war-torn Germany, the Tiger 2 became a very expensive propaganda weapon with no real practical use other than to scare opponents.

The standard mounted 75mm gun on the Sherman fired excellent high explosive (HE) rounds and their role was to take out infantry positions – machine gun nests and anti-tank positions. They were never meant to take on Tigers or Panthers who sought protection from the Shermans fitted with a 17lb or 76mm gun which was a match for the German tanks. So Shermans went around in troops of four, three Shermans with 75mm guns because they would encounter infantry regularly and one big gunned Sherman for whenever German tanks appeared.

The Churchill was originally fitted with a 2lb gun but was upgraded to the high velocity anti-tank 6lb gun. Firing standard armour piercing rounds this did penetrate the Tiger’s frontal armour at ranges of 600 – 800 yards. And the first clash of the tanks between a Churchill and a Tiger occurred at Hunts Gap in Tunisia where the Churchill won the day, by knocking the Tiger out with a round in the turret. It was a Churchill that also famously knocked out Tiger 131 that can be seen at Bovington Tank Museum today, with a round that glanced off the gun and wedged in the turret ring so it would not rotate, the panicking German tanks fled without first blowing it up. This gets mentioned along with the phrase ‘lucky’ shot by historians as they weave their web of German armour invincibility. They never tell you that on the same day Churchills took out a further two Tiger tanks at greater distances with their 6lb AT gun.

Tunisia also showed flaws in Germany’s testing of captured Churchills from Dieppe, they wrote them off as a relic from the First World War. This came back to haunt them time and time again as they left important hill top flanks protected with just infantry and mortar because their intelligence showed no tank could scale such a high flanking position. Then a Churchill would rock up to the top with Besa machine guns blazing and overrun the position. In Tunisia the Churchill performed well and gave the British troops hope knowing they were fighting alongside a tank that could hit back at a Tiger if one was encountered. But remember that was not its primary role and Tigers were rare.

It was the go anywhere Churchill that stormed through the impenetrable Bocage in France and left the infantry behind to achieve the objective ahead of schedule and at Operation Veritable the Germans made the mistake of leaving a flank less well defended because their intelligence told them no tank would make it through that boggy forest. The look on the faces of the German defenders must have been a picture when Churchills emerged from the forest pushing over the trees as they went, all guns blazing.

If you want to know the truth and how to win a battle, listen to the experts who know what they are doing and have witnessed the front line, who know what they have at their disposal and can rapidly make changes where necessary.

Ignore the guesswork-merchants and noisy commentators (Piers Morgan) playing top trumps.

Edited  by Paul Read.