M36 Tank Destroyers in Combat

A decision that altered the war for the tank killers emerged from the Führerbunker under the ruins of Berlin during February 1945: 1,675 tanks and assault guns (new or repaired) were sent to the Eastern Front, while only sixty-seven went west. Hitler also stripped the Western Front of half its panzer divisions. The Führer was more worried about the Soviet threat to Berlin than the danger that the Western Allies would leap the Rhine. America’s tank destroyers would never again encounter the panzers in large numbers.

Western Europe was littered with the hulks of the panzers that had tangled with the tank killers. As of 28 February, the TD battalions in Third Army alone had reported the destruction of six hundred eighty-two tanks and one hundred twenty-five SP guns—more than a third of the roughly twenty-two hundred panzers Third Army claimed to have destroyed. One battalion commander told Army Ground Forces that his men (equipped with M18s) had the panzer’s number and considered the highly mobile and easily hidden PAK 75mm antitank gun to be the most dangerous weapon they faced. As for the panzer, “the enemy tank can be easily out-maneuvered and is extremely susceptible to two-way attack.” In short, the men had regained confidence in their ability to handle heavy German tanks with their 76mm and 3-inch guns.

On 1 February 1945, ETOUSA caught up with the field expedient adopted in many TD battalions and ordered that supplementary machine gun mounts be installed on the front of all M10 and M36 turrets. The theater headquarters acknowledged that crews generally wanted a hull-mounted or coaxial machine gun but observed that this was the best available solution.

Surge to the Rhine

Hitler may have decided to stop worrying so much about his Western Front, but the Americans—having eliminated the vestiges of the Ardennes offensives and stopped Nordwind in its tracks—were preparing to take a wrecking ball to the West Wall. On 2 February, the Combined Chiefs of Staff approved Eisenhower’s plan to advance to the Rhine along its length and cross in strength in Montgomery’s sector north of the Ruhr at the earliest opportunity. Most of Bradley’s and Devers’s troops were to halt offensive operations in February while Ninth Army (under Monty’s operational control) crossed the Roer plain in support of British and Canadian operations to the north.

American forces finally seized the Schwammenauel Dam near Schmidt on 10 February, but the Germans jammed open a release gate, and the Roer River quickly became a temporarily uncrossable barrier. By the time Ninth Army could get going, the American advance would resemble a broad-front offensive.

In the meantime, troops all along the line probed and gathered intelligence they would need when they headed for the Rhine.

The 614th Tank Destroyer Battalion was deployed east of the Vosges Mountains near Prinzheim, France, in early February. Lieutenant Joseph Keeby, a Chicago man in command of the 1st Reconnaissance Platoon, had orders to capture some prisoners for intelligence purposes. The infantry had tried several times without success because of extensive mine fields along the German line. Keeby gathered the thirty-one men of his raiding party three days before the operation. They went over sketches, drawings, and maps of the route to a mill the Germans were using, probably as a command post. Keeby divided his team into an assault group and a security group to provide cover.

The night of 4 February, Keeby led the assault team through the freezing darkness in a cautious approach to the objective. As the men neared the first German outposts, a machine gun opened fire. Keeby and his team dropped to the ground. The security group returned fire immediately, and the machine gun fell silent. One man spotted a second German MG preparing to open fire and killed the crew. The assault group moved forward again.

The men crept closer to the mill. Suddenly, automatic rifle fire snapped through the air. Private First Class Henry Weaver, close behind Keeby, spotted the German and shot back. His aim was true.

Surprise lost, six men stormed through the door of the mill. Private George Bass raked the first room with submachine-gun fire while Keeby tossed hand grenades. When the smoke cleared, eight German soldiers lay dead on the floor. Six others surrendered. The recon men took them back to the battalion’s position. Mission accomplished.

Along most of the front, the halt in offensive operations was strategic, not tactical, and the Americans continued to batter away at the West Wall. The doughs, tanks, and TDs were working together better than ever. AARs indicate that provisional platoons combining the two types of armor were occasionally created for some small missions. Captain Duchossois, commanding Company B, 610th Tank Destroyer Battalion (M36), described combined armed operations at Brandscheid at the stump of the Bulge in early February:

We moved across the line of departure as a tank destroyer, tank, infantry team—infantry, a tank, and a tank destroyer followed by more infantry, another tank, and a tank destroyer. We used this formation because of the poor visibility, the limited routes of approach, and uncertainty of the definite location of all fortifications.

The infantry advanced until they were held up by a fortification. When this happened, the tankers “closed up” the aperture with machine gun fire followed by the tank destroyers firing several rounds of 90mm.

Usually, the Jerries would put some white article out of the embrasure, but they would not come out to surrender until the infantry moved in and brought them out….

We found we had to keep a tank destroyer right behind the lead tank because our routes of approach were such that unless a tank destroyer was up there initially, it would be impossible to pass the tanks in order to fire on the pillbox. As a result, the leading tank destroyer and tank did the majority of the firing.

It is absolutely necessary to have communications with not only the infantry, but the tankers also. One of the simplest ways to accomplish this is to have both tank destroyer and tank platoon leaders equipped with SCR-300 radio sets on the infantry frequency.

Ninth Army crossed the Roer River on 23 February. Tank destroyer battalions played a secondary role, firing direct (typically at ranges between two and three thousand yards) in support of the assault infantry, and reinforced division artillery units. Battalion recon companies crossed the river with the assault wave to provide radio links back to the destroyers.

The AAR of the 821st Tank Destroyer Battalion for February offered the following description of the now-standard operating procedure, in this case during fighting on the east bank of the Roer River near Jülich with the 29th Infantry Division and 747th Tank Battalion: “As the infantry and tanks pushed forward, 821st destroyers provided close-in direct support for the infantry and mutual support for the tanks. As the infantry, tank, and tank destroyer teams approached a town that proved to be an enemy strongpoint, destroyer guns would fire direct covering fire at buildings. This fire neutralized enemy machine gun positions and denied snipers the use of the buildings. When enemy armor or emplaced antitank guns held up the advance of the infantry, destroyer guns were called upon to neutralize the enemy positions. Tanks and tank destroyers were called upon in accordance with the type of mission to be performed and worked together to outflank enemy strongpoints in and around towns. When enemy resistance was neutralized, tank destroyers immediately assumed defensive anti-mechanized positions against possible enemy counterattacks, while the infantry consolidated their positions and prepared to move on to the next objective.”

During the three-day operation described, the TDs killed seven panzers, two SP guns, six AT guns, and two halftracks.

The AAR of the 656th Tank Destroyer Battalion, a newly arrived outfit operating with both the 9th Armored and 78th Infantry divisions, noted, “Resistance, mostly from the German 3d Parachute Division, was determined…. Tactics employed were those of tanks rather than tank destroyers. The destroyers followed behind the assaulting wave of infantry. When an obstacle, an enemy machine gun or strongpoint, interfered with the infantry advance, the destroyers [opened fire]. Upon approaching a town, it was customary for the supporting destroyers to fire a preparation. First, destroyers fired on the upper stories of buildings, forcing the enemy into the cellars. The fire was shifted to lower floors and cellars.”

The 3d Armored Division broke out of the Roer bridgehead on 26 February. The date was another fateful one for the Tank Destroyer Force, because the tankers were using several of the new M26 Pershings in combat for the first time. The Pershing was more heavily armored than the Sherman and carried the same 90mm gun as the M36 in a fully protected turret. One of the Pershings during the day destroyed two Tigers and a Mark IV at a thousand yards. The tank destroyer once again had no edge in killing power over the American tank.

Charging with the Cavalry

Captain Charles Seitz, commanding Company A of the 808th Tank Destroyer Battalion, described how tank destroyers operated with the fast-moving armored cavalry during operations to clear the west bank of the Rhine River during late March. One M36 platoon worked with each squadron. Seitz reported, “The cavalry’s mission was to exploit the Moselle bridgehead in the north of the Moselle triangle and push as quickly as possible to the Rhine and then sweep to the south along the Rhine as fast as possible. This meant rapid movement, so we found it necessary to place the M36s in the support section of the cavalry teams’ columns, following a reconnaissance troop and a platoon of light tanks. Each team moved along a different route to the objective. The lighter vehicles could move as fast as the situation allowed without being held back by the slower M36s [the M18 could keep up!]. Then, if something were hit, the destroyer would have time to move up to it and size it up.

“In this type of movement, good liaison was important. This was achieved in one of two ways depending on the situation. One was that the platoon leader rode behind the team commander, and the other was that the team commander had a radio vehicle accompany the platoon leader [the price of having incompatible radio gear].

“When the cavalry did find opposition—chiefly in towns—the destroyers moved into position to supply assault fire. In one instance, the combination of the cavalry’s speed and the assault fire of the destroyers persuaded approximately seven hundred fifty Germans in the Bingen area to give up to our much smaller force.”

Seventh Army, meanwhile, on 15 March launched Operation Undertone, which aimed at retaking the ground lost during Nordwind and clearing the southern Saar. On 16 March 1945, the men of the 776th Tank Destroyer Battalion were attached to the 63d Infantry Division, which was trying to crack the Siegfried Line defenses near Ensheim, just south of Saarbrücken. Advances in the north might be unfolding with accelerating speed, but here the Germans still fought tenaciously.

In the early dawn hours, company and platoon leaders conducted a foot reconnaissance under small-arms and mortar fire to survey possible firing positions. They then met with infantry commanders to coordinate team play. That night, as the men tried to get some rest in the assembly area, they were subjected to artillery and rocket fire.

The next day at 0500 hours, the M36s of Companies A and C moved forward over sloped terrain under enemy observation in support of the doughs of the 254th and 255th Infantry regiments. Ahead lay three belts of mutually supporting fortifications, the first cleverly concealed along a ridgeline running between two heavily wooded ravines. Minefields and dragons teeth protected the approaches. Antitank ditches further restricted the movement of armor. The defenses included pillboxes, covered trenches, and turrets mounting 75mm guns. Substantial artillery, mortar, and Nebelwerfer rocket launcher units backed the defenders.

As the first M36s advanced, the sound of their engines provoked a heavy barrage of artillery and rocket fire. Fragments whistled over the heads of the crewman crouching in their open-topped turrets, passing close enough to knock off two radio antennae in Company C. Staff Sergeant Oliver Stevens dismounted and ran through the incoming fire to the infantry observation post to make final arrangements about targets. For the rest of the day, he would race between the infantry and the TDs to coordinate action.

The TDs maneuvered into exposed firing positions as close to the pillboxes as possible while German artillery fire began to crash into the assault force. The infantry was forced back initially under the withering fire, but the TDs remained forward, pounding the German lines. Gunners maintained such a high rate of fire that crews had to periodically cease fire to allow their guns to cool. When that happened, a crewman would mount the exposed rear deck and continue to hit the enemy with the .50-caliber antiaircraft machine gun. As TDs ran through their ammunition, they would back to a covered position, reload, and advance again.

The Germans tried to drive the Americans back with infantry counterattacks. Crewmen grabbed their carbines, tommyguns, and fragmentation grenades to beat the assaults back. A bazooka round destroyed one M36, and several others were damaged by artillery and bazooka rounds. One shell blew Private First Class Canterbury’s hatch off where he sat in his radio operator’s seat. He climbed out, recovered the hatch, and put it back on. Fragments from exploding shells, meanwhile, were raining into the turrets of the forward platoons, and more radio aerials, guns sights, periscopes, and even .50-cals were lost.

Strongpoint by strongpoint, the return fire ceased under pounding from the TDs. The battalion noted that its 90mm fire destroyed embrasures and in many cases pulverized the pillboxes. The doughs were able to advance by the afternoon, and engineers blew gaps in the dragon’s teeth. German prisoners were shell-shocked.

The TDs passed through the dragon’s teeth, and they were able to engage some emplacements from a distance of only seventy-five to one hundred yards. As Staff Sergeant Stevens moved his platoon forward in one sector, the lead TD broke through a temporary bridge the engineers had established across an antitank ditch. Under heavy fire, Stevens tried to pull the TD out of the way but could not. Stevens drove back to the CP, where the infantry regimental and battalion commanders were anxious to speak with him because enemy fire had knocked out all of their communications with the infantry. He collected bridging material and some engineers and returned to the ditch. The engineer officer asked as they came under renewed machine-gun and artillery fire, “Nothing can live down there! Shouldn’t we go back?” In the end, the fire was too heavy, and the effort was abandoned.

The TDs supported the assault for sixty straight hours under constant fire, using the darkness to refuel, rearm, and perform critical maintenance. During the engagement, they fired 2,450 rounds of 90mm ammunition at the fortifications. Every M36 suffered damage, and three were total losses. Two men were killed and eleven wounded, many of whom refused evacuation and stayed with their under-manned destroyers.

And the infantry won through. Stevens commented, “In this operation, the enemy artillery and rocket fire, direct AT fire, and all types of small arms fire exceeded any I have experienced in all the other assaults that I have been in, which include the crossings of the Volturno River, the assault on Cassino, the Gothic Line breakthrough, and the operations around Mateur in Africa.”

Across the Rhine

Montgomery’s operatic assault across the Rhine on 23 March was to have been the first Allied crossing, but it was almost the last. Not only had First Army jumped the river at Remagen, Patton sneaked the 5th Infantry Division across the night of 22 March, then quickly carved out two more bridgeheads on the east bank at Boppard and St. Goar on 24 and 25 March. Seventh Army crossed at Worms on 27 March. It was time for the Reich to experience American blitzkrieg.

On 25 March, Bradley told First Army to break out of the Remagen bridgehead. Seventh Corps struck eastward before turning north to isolate the Ruhr. The history of the 3d Armored Division recorded, “At 0400 hours on 25 March the combat commands were rumbling out of bivouac. They went out along the dawn-dim roads in multiple columns of spearheads, 32d and 33d Armored regiment tanks leading, squat and black in the gloom, with blue flame spitting from their exhausts. Tank destroyers of the 703d TD Battalion followed, clacking rapidly over the cobbles, their long 90mm guns perfectly balanced in heavy steel turrets. Armored infantrymen of the 36th, the ‘Blitz Doughs,’ rode in personnel halftracks.”

Mobile warfare was back. The semi-official history of the 628th Tank Destroyer Battalion—which was operating again with the 5th Armored Division—observed, “After being penned for so many months by terrain and prepared defensive positions. . . the only limit on the armored forces was one of resupply of rations and gas. Reminiscent of the hard driving, fast moving armored slashes following the breakthrough at Avranches, France, last August, once again the 5th Armored Division and the tank destroyers were on the loose, deep in enemy territory.” Resistance was so fragmented that the battalion would lose only one TD east of the Rhine River.

Ninety Allied divisions—twenty-five of them armored—began slicing through the Reich’s heartland.

German tank strength in the West was dwindling toward the vanishing point. When news of Patton’s crossing at Oppenheim had reached Hitler, he had called for immediate countermeasures, but German commanders had nothing with which to respond. The only “reserve” was an assortment of five panzers under repair at a tank depot one hundred miles away. The bottom of the barrel had been scraped. As of 31 March, the entire force of panzers and assault guns in Third Army’s sector was estimated at only forty-five vehicles. German Army Group B in the Ruhr had only sixty-five tanks left.

Still, panzers appeared now and again. On 30 March, 3d Armored Division relayed orders to the 703d Tank Destroyer Battalion to support the attack by the division on the road junction at Paderborn, the Fort Knox of the panzer arm. German instructors, officer cadets, and trainees drove their remaining tanks—including some sixty Tigers and Panthers from an SS replacement battalion—out to contest the American advance, and battle flared across the training grounds for two days.

Task Force Welborn formed one of the division’s two prongs and was advancing near Etteln at dusk. The column had identified four Royal Tigers ahead, but they had been struck by fighter-bombers, and Col John Welborn had been assured that the panzers had been knocked out. The column advanced, and the very functional Tigers opened fire with their deadly 88s. Seven Shermans were soon burning. The TDs of 2d Platoon, Company B, returned fire and knocked out two Royal Tigers—a job that required thirty-five rounds of AP and five of HE. One 703d recon jeep was destroyed by return fire. During this action, division CG MajGen Maurice Rose was killed when he was cut off by four Royal Tigers. A panzer commander, misinterpreting the general’s action, shot him when he reached to drop his holster.

Belton Cooper, in his history of the 3d Armored Division, reports that Royal Tigers destroyed an entire company of Shermans from an unidentified task force and that one M36 was lost during the debacle. The incident is not mentioned in the division’s own history. Several sources concur that one M36 was destroyed that day, but the exact circumstances remain unclear.