American Tank Destroyers
By Jason Rahman
When you hear the multitude of tales about the faults of the Sherman during the fighting in Normandy, things like a weak gun and poor armor, one must wonder what its designers were thinking. The answer is that the Sherman was designed to support the infantry, not fight tanks. So what was supposed to fight enemy tanks? For the answer to that question we must turn the page back five years to September 1939.
The 1930s were a turbulent time in military circles. Increasing mechanization, improvements in aircraft technology and, most importantly, the coming of age of the tank all required a major rethinking of military strategy. Germany in particular began to look into the idea of using large armored spearheads to push through the frontlines and head to the rear of the enemy, taking out supply dumps and communications centers as they went. With the enemy's supply and communications taken out his army would soon collapse. This was a radical change from past military thinking where the primary objective was to destroy the enemy ground forces as a whole.
The German invasion of Poland showed just how powerful these tank columns working with the air force could be, and the rest of the world began to hurriedly look for ways to stop these armored columns. The U.S. Army theorized that the only way to stop German armored columns was with massed groups of self-propelled anti-tank guns. These so-called tank destroyers were arranged into battalions that were attached to individual corps and divisions to prevent armored breakthroughs, and also into tank destroyer groups. The tank destroyer groups would be held in strategic reserve and if a hostile armored column managed to break through the tank destroyer groups would intercept the column. That's all theory, of course, and during the war no such situation presented itself, except perhaps at the Battle of the Bulge.
The first tank destroyer battalions were formed during mid-1941 and were originally equipped with normal anti-tank guns mounted on the back of trucks and half-tracks. Each tank destroyer battalion was a self-contained unit and had all the support units necessary to operate independently contained within the formation. The battalion was the smallest unit in which tank destroyers were intended to operate, but this was theory and it occurred only once, at the Battle of El Guettar. Instead, the tank destroyer battalions were often broken up into individual companies and platoons to provide armor support and local anti-tank defense to the units to which they were assigned.
During 1941-42 the Army was so enthusiastic about the tank destroyer concept that most infantry divisions had their towed guns removed to be replaced by attached tank destroyer battalions. When the fighting in North Africa exposed some of the tank destroyer's flaws a number of officers, including General Omar Bradley, wanted to reintroduce towed anti-tank guns to the infantry for self-defense. Unfortunately his suggestion was misunderstood and soon towed tank destroyer battalions were formed; these turned out to be badly flawed because the enemy tanks would just avoid the towed battalions or have their supporting infantry force the gun crews to retreat.
As a whole the tank destroyer concept didn't turn out well. The situation for which it was designed for never happened and it was found that conventional armor formations could do a much better job. There were also numerous problems with the tank destroyers themselves. They lacked the balance of armor, mobility and firepower needed in armored warfare. In the end tanks, not tank destroyers, became the prime opponent of enemy tanks with the infantry possessing just enough anti-tank weapons to protect themselves. By 1946 the last tank destroyer battalion was deactivated.
When the tank destroyer battalions were first formed they were equipped with a plethora of improvised equipment. From small trucks mounting 37mm anti-tank guns to half-tracks with 3-inch guns there was an incredible multitude of self-propelled anti-tank guns produced during 1941-42. By late-1942 the tank destroyer battalions finally began to receive their first fully armored, tracked tank destroyer, the M10.
M10 Wolverine: The first tank destroyers were nothing more than trucks with guns on back: much like the "portee" anti-tank guns used by the British. Such vehicles would not stand up to prolonged combat against a German armored spearhead. A fully armored vehicle mounting a powerful gun was needed. The M10 was designed during early 1942 to meet this need and it entered production that September. It remained in production for only three and a half months, a span during which nearly 5,000 were built! The M10 was a nothing more than a modified M4A2 chassis with a sloped, lightly armored upper hull. On top of this was a lightly armored, open-top turret mounting the powerful 3-inch gun. Its primary flaws were a high silhouette and the lack of armor on the turret top.
The M10 was the definitive tank destroyer, equipping the majority of tank destroyer battalions. Two models of the M10 were produced, the only difference being whether a diesel or gasoline engine was fitted. While designed as a specialized tank killer the M10 saw extensive service as an assault gun/ bunker buster, especially in Italy and during the last months of the war. Large numbers of M10s were sent to the British who called it the Wolverine, but by 1944 they were dissatisfied with its weak armament and replaced its gun with the 17-pounder, naming the new vehicle Achilles.
The M10 appears in An Army at Dawn.
M18 Hellcat: The M18 was the only purpose-built tank destroyer, originally designed during 1941 as a self-propelled 37mm gun. By 1942 armament had changed to a 57mm gun and by late 1942 it was given a 76mm gun as its main armament. Many late-model Shermans were re-armed with this same gun. Production of the M18; also known as the Hellcat, began in July 1943 continuing until October 1944, with a total of 2,500 were built between those dates. The M18's small chassis mounted an open-topped turret with a 76mm gun and a 50.-caliber machine gun. The M18 had a very good power-to-weight ratio and has the distinction of being the fastest tracked vehicle of World War II; of course it needed to be fast considering that it only had 13mm of armor!
The M18's high-speed ability is represented with a special rule allowing it to move and shoot in the same turn. Like all American tank destroyers the M18 had been switched to an assault gun/bunker buster role by the last few months of the war. Several variant models of the M18 were developed but, with the exception of the M39 armored personnel carrier, none were produced. Despite the thin armor and open-topped turret the M18 was an excellent vehicle that appears in Elsenborn Ridge.
M36 Jackson: By late 1943 the M10's 3-inch gun was no longer capable of taking on newer German tanks like the Panther and Tiger, so plans to up-gun the M10 were drawn up. Production started during early summer of 1944 using a mixture of new production and conversion of existing M10A1 chassis. It was planned to produce or convert only 500 vehicles, but a total of 2,400 were produced or converted by the end of the war. Most M36's were conversions of the M10A1, but there were a few models of M36 that were conversions of either the regular M10 or M4A3.
The primary modification was the addition of a new turret with a 90mm main gun and a couple of minor modifications such as a generator and a different ammunition storage arrangement. The 90mm main gun was a powerful weapon that could knock out any German tank it would encounter during late 1944 and early 1945. The M36 was exported to numerous countries allied to the U.S. and continued fighting until the early 1990s. The M36 appears in Elsenborn Ridge.
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