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Tank Destroyers

The widespread demand for tanks or tank-like vehicles outside of mechanized formations led to a number of tank surrogates, weapons designed to provide armored antitank defense, close support of the infantry attacky or both. In the latter case, the surrogate needed considerable frontal armor and a dual purpose (antitank and antipersonnel) main gun. The most original of these tank surrogates was the American "tank destroyer."

The success of German armored forces early in World War II prompted a rapid search in the US Army for a means to defeat this threat. Three types of self-propelled tank destroyers filled the US inventory during World War II. The Army intended the "can-openers," as the tankers called the tank destroyers, to be fast moving, lightly armored, and powerfully gunned armored vehicles designed to counter enemy armored threats. Tank destroyer crews throughout the European war made significant field modifications to improve the primary protection of all three types of tank destroyers.

Like mercury spilling on a laboratory floor, the tanks and other armored forces of Germany rolled across the plains of Poland in 1939 and again in 1940 rifled through the fortified hills and panoplied valleys of Franca. Like mercury this armored force dissolved the best armament Poland, France, England, Yugoslavla and Greece could produce. The countries of the world looked on, at first with incredulity, and then with alarm approaching panic. Paesive, static and cordon defense had failed to halt or stop the tank supported by planes and infontry. German armor was uncontained.

When the German army defeated Poland in three weeks and, overran the Low Countries and France with astounding swiftness, the other armies of the world were stunnned. It was clear that the French static dIefense, in which other armies had placed confidence, was impotent againat the German air- armor- infantry team. A defeatest attitude permeated the opposing armies and threatened the United States Army. Suggested anitidotes for Germas~n armor were defensive in attitudes, admittedly expedient in nature and put forth without confidence.

In the US Army the solutions were static, apathetic -- gun defense intended to subject enemy armor to some slight attrition as it penetrated the antitank net. They held no promise of stopping and destroying German tatnks but merely the hope of exacting sufficient toll to reduice the initial strength of the attacking enemy armor, This, then, was the pathetic weakniess of the situatilon until General Marshall directed imuediate and conc(lusive planning of defense against armored forces, to include offensive action and organization.

Prior to 14 May 1941, the accepted United States military doctrine of antimechanized warfare was defensive in scope. Such were the tactics in the maneuvers of August 1940, during which practically all antltank guns were employed passively and in cordon defense. In the light of failure of such tactics in urope and in the August maneuvers of 1940, WD Training Circular No. 3, 23 September 1940 directed that a minimum of antitank guns should be placed in initial fixed positions, and a maxiimnnm held as a mobile reserve. This was the first break in a strictly anti doctrine and led eventually to aggressive tactics more compatible with US military tradition.

Some antitank guns existed in divisional, artillery but for the most part antitank weapons were at this time allotted to antitank companies of infantry regiments. Such decentralization ran contrary to the principles favored by the War Dept. Aa late as April 1941, so far as was known by the War Department, of all the armies and corps (excluding the Armored Force), only the VI Corps had issued any instructiorn on antitank defense.

"It is beyond belief," wrote Gen. Lesley J. McNair on 12 April 1941, "that so little could bc done on the question in view of all that has happened and is happening abroad. I for one have missed no opportunity to hammer for something real in the way of antitank defense, but so far have gotten nowhere. I have no reason now to feel encouraged, but can only hope this apathy will not continue indefinitely." On 14 April the Chief of Staff, directed prompt consideration be given to the creation to additional highly mobile antitank - antiaircraft units, as corps and Army troops in addition to organic antitank weapons.

On 14 May 194l, General George C. Marshall, Chief of Staff, directed the Assistant Chief of Staff G-3 to take immediate action on antitank measures to include an offensive weapon and organization to combat armored forces. In this directive, Gen Marshall indicated that defense against armored forces was a problem beyond the capabilities of any one am arid probably required the organization and use of a special force of combined arms, capable of rapid movement, interception and active rather than paseive defense tactics.

The Tank Destroyer Board was initiated 01 December 1941, and in forty-five months reported on more than 300 projects and tests. The Tank Destroyer Board compiled Tables of Organization and Equipment and the original Field Manual 18-5 "Organization and Tactics" which formed the basis for the tactical use and employment of tank destroyer weapons and personnel. The Board contributed in a major way in the developmrnt and refinement of motor carriages, M-8, M-10, M-10A1, M-20 oand M-36. It firmt tasted and recommended subsequent improvements in the rocket launcher Ml (bazooka), and then at the request of the War Department, compiled the text for the tactical use and employment thereof. This resulted in the War Department Training Circular No. 104, 16 December 1942.

As early as 2 December 1941, the Tank Destroyer Tactical and Firimg Center published for its command a list of self-propelled antitank weapons. This list included 8 gun motor carriages, all in experimental stage, and designated as the T2, TEl, T8, T13, T14, T21, T22 and T23, all dosignated for the 37mm gun. The T12, a 75iMu gun motor carriage, substitute for the 3" antitank gun, until that gun was produced, together, with the TI, T7, T1' and T24, all experimental gun motor carriages for the 3" gun, were listed also.

The big problems confronting the Board initially was the development of an ideal tank destroyer, described as a fast moving vehicle mounting a weapon with a powerful punch which could be easily and quiokly fired and with armored. protection against small arms fire. The most important feature was mobility in all cases superior to that of hostile tanks. This implied speed, not only on highways, but cross country, and this implied maneuverability and this implied flotation.

The chief obstacle to a start on the new tank destroyer was due to previous failures in tests by Orduance of individually sprung wheel suspension. The volute spring and bogie suspension then common to nearly all U.S. Army tracked vehicles would not permit the speed and maneuverability desired; as, with increased speed, vibration became destructive. Thus it was the middle of March before action was attained by General Motors Corporation on a vehicle design embodying Christie suspenslon. Subsequently a Christie suspension was devised and developed for a vehicle of track laying type, by Mr. Schilling, engineer for General Motors.

Evidence supported the fact that tank destroyers were specialists in a technique and in training basically different from other arms. The Chief of the Armored Force in 1941 did not want the responsibility of tank destroyers, deeming their mission counter to mission of tanks. he future of tank destroyers wae at stake, and the backlog of opinion, beginning with the Chief of the Armored Force in 1941; and following through successive cumanders of Tank Destroyer Center as well as the Palmer Board indicated unified support for the idea that the mission and. techndque of tank destroyers was divergent from that of other arms.

The 1942 tank destroyer battalions were combined arms forces in their own right, although they did not include a balance of all arms: each platoon had four self-propelled guns, an armored car section for security, and an antiaircraft section. When the U.S. Army first encountered the Germans in Tunisia during 1942-43, the tank destroyers proved a dismal failure. Both tank destroyer doctrine and German armor design had outpaced the actual development of American tank destroyers, so that 1942 tank destroyers were little more than improvised guns mounted on half-tracks.

From a study of battlefield reports it was remarkable that tank destroyer doctrine as conceived and developed by Tank Destroyer Center in 1942 was so basically right in its vision and prescience that it stood all tests of combat missions. Probably the most valuable lesson learned by Tank Destroyer Center through the review of activities, battlefield reports and study for redeployment was that a specific plan of training and doctrine once established through careful study and analysis should not be changed by fluctuating opinions irduced by local or limited horizons. After a study of battlefield reports and the varled uses made of tank destroyer units, boldness anr aggressiveriess on the part of teank destroyers in direct support of infantry was demanded by commanding generals on many occasions.

Tank-destroyer units were iniatially organized to operate independently against enemy armor in open tank terrain such as North Africa. However, for mutual support, they were often attached to, or placed in support of infantry divisions. This arrangement provided the infantry with much needed anti-tank protection and afforded the tank destroyer units with protection from infiltrating enemy foot troops. Both branches soon developed a healthy respect for each other. The tank destroyer units always "tied in" with the infantry before dark, and remained either on the front line, or in direct suppprt of the leading elements, in both the attack and the defense. The infantryman's morale was always higher with the tank destroyers nearby, after he found out that its noise and size was over shadowed by its punch.

Once in Normandy, the Americans discovered that the towed antitank gun was almost useless in the more restricted terrain of Western Europe. Towed guns were not only slow to move, but too close to the ground to shoot over hedgerows and other obstacles. Furthermore, between Africa and Normandy, the Tank Destroyer Center had procured much more effective, properly designed self-propelled guns. The M18 model with a 76-mm gun and especially the M36 with a 90-mm gun were excellent weapons, although even the 90-mm. had less penetration capability than the German 88-mm.

By early 1945 the disappearance of German tanks left the tank destroyers without adversary according to their first mission, as therefore nullified the greet need experienced in 1941, 1942 and 1943.

Japan's armor was negligible, but reports revealed sn intricate and effective system of field fortifications, the destruction of which required direct fire by high velocity weapons with the accuracy of tank destroyers. Questionnaires were submitted to all officers of Tank Destroyer Center recently returned frcau the Southwest Pacific and recommendations were sought for correct participation by tank destroyers. One lesson indicated was increased emphasis on tank destroyer cooperation with infantry in achieving front line objectives. The pillboxes and cave openings of the Japanese offered a very =all aperture as a target and direct hits were necessary to destroy them. The M18 with Its accuracy and power proved most effective at Ie Shimaa, but close coordination with infantry was elemental.

Although tank destroyers engaged tanks and tanks did not engage tanks in their primary missions, the consensus by American commanders in Europe, as revealed by analysis of their reccomendations, was that the tank destroyer was just another tank. The similarity of tank destroyers and tanks was emphasized, but the question of divergent missions and specializod training was not touched upon except by General Gerow and implied by General Elsenhower.

When officers of the European Theater of Operations studied their combat experience after the war, they noted that tank destroyers were almost never used in the role that doctrine assigned to them, but instead fought in frontline units where they suffered from inadequate armor protection. These officers believed that a tank with a heavy main gun could better perform the mission of the tank destroyer, and therefore recommended that tank destroyers as a separate arm be discontinued.

Although not officially part of Armor, most tank destroyer units were redesignated as tank battalions after the war, and Armor adopted the Tank Destroyer Command's former mission of countering enemy tanks.

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Page last modified: 04-05-2019 18:13:38 ZULU