Czech KZ-3 fixed Fortifications T-34-85 turret.
Bulgaria: T-34-85 turrets were built into a bunker to create a fixed piece.
As a result of the differences in attitude, policy and design which existed prior to it, when the Second World War broke out in September 1939 the tanks of the various armies differed considerably in their characteristics and in their intended method of employment. In consequence, when they were put to test their performance varied a great deal.
So far as British tanks were concerned, the 40mm guns of the early cruiser tanks, from the Mark I to the Mark VI Crusader, and of the Matilda infantry tank, were superior in terms of armour penetration to the 37mm gun of the original Pz. Kpfw. III and almost equal to its short 50mm gun.
However, no attempt was made in Britain to develop a tank with a larger calibre dual-purpose gun like that of the Pz. Kpfw. IV. What was developed were only close support versions of the cruiser and infantry tanks armed with 76.2mm howitzers, which were limited-purpose weapons with no armour piercing capability and which were in no way comparable to the dual-purpose guns of similar calibre mounted at the time in Soviet as well as German tanks.
A larger, 57mm gun was mounted in 1942 in the Crusader III cruiser tank and Churchill III and IV infantry tanks. Its armour-piercing capabilities were considerably greater than those of the 40mm gun and almost the same as those of the long 75mm with which Pz. Kpfw. IV had been rearmed by then. But it was still inferior to the latter, and other 75 or 76mm guns, so far as high explosive shells were concerned. Moreover, there was no British tank with a more powerful gun that could match the 88mm gun of the Tiger, which had appeared in 1942.
In fact, cruiser and infantry tanks continued to have exactly the same main armament, in spite of the considerable differences in their weight. This meant that the heavier, infantry tanks could not play a role equivalent to that of the heavy tanks of the German and Soviet armies, which were not merely more heavily armoured than the medium tanks but which were also armed with much more powerful guns. As it was, they were never expected to be a more powerfully armed complement to the cruiser tanks. Instead, they were intended to form a separate category of tanks for close cooperation with the infantry and for this purpose they were much more heavily armoured than the cruiser tanks but not more heavily armed. Thus, as a contemporary War Office publication put it, “The main differ ence between the infantry and cruiser tanks lies in the thickness of armour”
The concentration on armour protection in the development of the infantry tanks paid off at first in the case of the Matilda, which enjoyed a high degree of immunity when it was used in 1940 and 1941 in Africa against ill-equipped Italian forces. But, based as it was on armour protection, its success was cut short, like that of the Soviet KV, by the appearance of more effective anti-tank weapons. Thereafter it had to rely more on its armament and in this respect it was no better than the contemporary cruiser tanks. The same was true of its successor, the Churchill infantry tank, whose armour was progressively increased to a maximum of as much as 152mm but which, in spite of it. did not distinguish itself as a fighting vehicle.
In 1943 it was finally recognised that tank guns should not only be armourpiercing weapons but dual-purpose guns capable of delivering effective high explosive fire as well as perforating the armour of enemy tanks. Thus the final, 40 ton version of the Churchill and the 28 ton Cromwell cruiser tank were both armed with medium velocity 75mm guns. But when these tanks went into action in 1944 their armament was two years behind that of the Pz. Kpfw. IV and three behind that of the T-34. Moreover, they were no longer powerful enough to fight effectively the latest types of the opposing tanks, such as the Panther or, even more, the Tiger.
The official attitude towards this situation was that “the tank is designed with the primary object of destroying or neutralizing enemy unarmoured troops”. This may have been true during the First World War but the view implied by this statement that tanks should not normally fight enemy tanks was no longer realistic when both sides were using tanks on a large scale and fighting them could not be avoided. Nevertheless, such views persisted and so did the policy, of which they were an expression, of developing and using the two separate categories of infantry and cruiser tanks.
This policy was, in fact, the root cause of the inadequate attention given to the gun-power of British tanks and of their shortcomings during the Second World War. How serious these shortcomings were is indicated by the fact that, in spite of the relatively large number of tanks produced in Britain, in 1943 and 1944 British armoured formations had to be equipped to a large extent with US built tanks. Yet in 1941 British tank output was already considerably higher than the German and at its peak of 8611 in 1942 it was more than double the latter.
Having developed the concept of the tank to the point where it had some effect on the outcome of the First World War, you might be forgiven for thinking that Britain would have had the edge in tank design. Sadly, this was not the case! During the early years of the war, British tanks were generally not as well armed nor as well protected as their German counterparts. Rather than concentrating on a small number of designs, and developing these to the point where they were reliable, the British tank factories produced a multiplicity of often outdated and unreliable machines that reflected the questionable strategy of producing separate ‘cruiser’ and ‘infantry’ tanks.
An extreme example of tanks designed for such special roles were the infantry and cruiser tanks which the British Army employed right up to the end of the Second World War in spite of their serious deficiencies. However, in 1944 while British troops were still fighting in Normandy, their commander, General Montgomery, proposed the abolition of the division between infantry and cruiser tanks and the adoption instead of a single type of ‘capital’ tank. As it happens, the latter was eventually developed into a heavy gun tank, which was used in small numbers between 1955 and 1966. But in the meantime the policy of using a single type of battle tank was put into effect with the adoption as such of the Centurion tank in 1949.
After 1942 attempts were made to rationalise their production by the use of common components but there were still two types of tanks which differed from each other in the amount of armour and weight but not in what mattered most, namely the main armament. The final outcome of this was the A. 41 ‘heavy cruiser’, six prototypes of which were completed just as the war ended in Europe. Its engine and transmission were much the same as those of the earlier Cromwell and Comet cruiser tanks and its Horstmann bogie-type suspension was inferior to the earlier cruisers’ Christie-type independent suspensions. But its 76.2mm 17 pounder gun represented a significant advance in the main armament of the cruiser tanks and its armour protection was also considerably better. The latter included, at last, a single sloping glacis plate. The design of the A. 41 also very sensibly dispensed with the hull machine gunner, so that it had a crew of four men, which was to become general practice.
The A. 41 ‘s main armament, armour and general characteristics put it on a par with the German Panther and it was deservedly produced and put into service in 1946 as the Centurion medium tank.
In 1946 the British Army also decided at long last to abandon the policy of having infantry and cruiser tanks, which did so much harm to the development of tanks in Britain, and adopted instead the concept of a ‘universal’ tank. Unfortunately, this concept implied not only a single type of battle tank but also one which could be readily adapted to a wide variety of special roles such as flame-throwing, mine flailing, bridge-laying and bulldozing, and which would also be capable of swimming with the aid of a collapsible flotation screen. The requirement that the universal tank be adaptable to all these roles grew out of the attention which the British Army came to devote during the war to various special-purpose versions of tanks. This led to the development of several ingenious devices but it also diverted attention and effort from the basic type of gun tank. How large a proportion of the available resources was devoted to the special-purpose versions of tanks is indicated by the fact that in the closing stages of the war they accounted for a special armoured division, the 79th, when the British Army only had a total of four other, normal armoured divisions.
Between 1939 and 1945, the British Army had access to some twenty indigenous tank designs, some of them so poor that they were never to see combat, together with Lend-Lease supplies of the American Stuart, Lee/Grant and Sherman tanks. Most numerous of the home-grown tanks was the Valentine, a private venture from Vickers-Armstrongs which accounted for almost one quarter of British tank production during the war years. Others procured in large numbers included the Churchill, the Cromwell and the outdated Matilda. The standard British anti-tank gun in 1939 was the 2-pounder (40mm) and when this proved to be inadequate against the better-armoured German tanks, it was replaced by either the British 6-pounder (57mm) or the American 75mm gun, both of which packed more punch. However, none of these could compare with the German 75mm and 88mm guns and it was not until 1944, when the Comet was fitted with a 77mm gun, that a British tank could finally face the Germans on a more-or-less equal footing . . . and just 1,186 Comets were constructed, all of them too late for D-Day and the battle for Normandy!
Nevertheless, the British continue to exhibit a love of the underdog and it is our knack of snatching victory from the jaws of defeat, against all the odds, that makes British tank design so fascinating.
The Italian tank type built was the CV.29, designed in 1929, which was based on the Carden-Loyd Mk VI tankette, four of which were purchased from Britain; the CV.29 was in all respects similar to the British original, and 25 were built.
Fiat and Ansaldo improved on this version to produce the slightly more sophisticated CV.33 series.
Two heavier tanks were produced in 1933-6, as prototypes for possible production; they had diesel engines and differed in details though had similar suspension. Largest was the turretless Carro Armato 12ton Tank of 1933. The lighter of the two tanks, the Carro Armato 8ton Tank appeared in 1936 and featured a 37mm gun in the hull front and an MG in the turret. From this prototype was developed the M.11 of which 100 were ordered in 1938. About this time the designation system for tanks was changed and the old CV type (Carro Veloce 33) became ‘L’ (for Light, L.33).
Meanwhile a greatly improved version of the L.33 appeared, the L3/35 which had better armour and a superior engine. There were several variants of this vehicle including a flamethrower. A further improved model was the L3/38 of 1938 which featured new suspension and other detail changes. In 1936 Fiat-Ansaldo built prototypes of 5ton vehicles which were light tanks considerably bigger than the L3/35 and fitted with turrets and 8mm MGs; this type was known as the L.6.
CARRO VELOCE 33 TANKETTE
Designed by Ansaldo and closely derived from the basic Carro Veloce 29 (see above) in 1931-2. Officially tested and design finalised in 1933. Total of 1,300 ordered initially, later increased. Built by Fiat-Ansaldo. Numerous variants and improved models (see below). Widely used and widely exported. The vehicle was airportable beneath an aircraft and could tow a tracked ammunition trailer. It was distinguished by being very low and small, and lacking a turret, the gun(s) being set in the superstructure. Riveted and bolted construction was used throughout and the vehicle was of very simple shape. Rear engine and front drive. MG armament except in special variants. 3.15tons; crew 2; 1 MG or 2 MG; armour 5-l5mm; engine (gasoline) 43hp; 26mph; 10.4ft x 4.67ft x 4.25ft. Other users: Afghanistan (1936-?); Albania (1938-40); Austria (1935-9); Bolivia (1937-?); Brazil (special export model with Madsen MG, 1938-c. 1946); Bulgaria (1936-9); China (1936-9); Greece (captured vehicles, 1941), Hungary (1934-8); Iraq (1936-41); Spain, Nationalist (1936-9).
CV Fiat-Ansoldo L38: Improved 1937-8 model with stronger suspension, new tracks, episcope for driver, and Breda MG. Many older vehicles were retrospectively modified to this standard. From 1940 some vehicles were rearmed with a 20mm Solothurn anti-tank pun, as in the illustration above.
L35/Lf (later L3-35Lf in 1940): Flamethrower conversion of any of the, three production types. Featured a 500kg armoured fuel trailer towed behind the vehicle. Flame-gun was mounted in the hull, replacing MGs. On some later vehicles the fuel tank was mounted on the rear superstructure. Range up to 100 metres. JLf stood for ‘lanciafiamme’ (flamethrower); known as ‘Carro d’assalto lanciafiamme’.
CV 33/11 special export model for Brazil with torsion bar suspension and 13 2mm Madsen MG.
Other variants: Recovery Vehicle (unarmed and with towing equipment); Tank Destroyer (1939 prototype, not adapted); Radio Controlled Demolition Tank (conversion by a tank unit); AA Tank (L3 with 8mm MG on AA mount in limited service).
In 1942 it was decided to armour the ALn-556 railcars of the Ansaldo firm, for service in Yugoslavia. The Railway Engineers chose models produced from 1936 to 1938. They had to be shortened by 5.60m (18ft 4½in). The prototype was tested in the Ansaldo-Fossati workshops in Genoa, and was adopted on 5 September 1942, with several recommended changes, with the designation ‘Littorina blindata mod. 42 (Li.Bli 42)’. The first production model was rolled out on 20 September and joined the 1o Compagnia Autonoma Littorine Blindate. This company would receive eight railcars in total, and was made up of ten officers, twelve NCOs and 167 men. The 8.5mm armour protection was built in one piece, pierced only by access and maintenance hatches, and firing ports.
Armed with two tank turrets mounting 47mm guns, two versions were used at the same time. The first version had two openings in the roof to allow firing two 81mm Model 35 mortars, or flamethrowers through side apertures. The second had a circular tub with a pedestal-mounted 20mm Breda Model 35 cannon. The 8.5mm armour protection was built in one piece, pierced only by access and maintenance hatches, and firing ports.
When the Italian Armistice was signed, the ‘Liblis’ were based at Karlovac, Ogulin and Split (Croatia), Ljubljana and Novo Mesto (Slovenia) and Suse (in Italy, 30km/19 miles west of Turin). A series of machines was then ordered for the Wehrmacht in 1943 (see the chapter on Germany).
The Independent Railway Company saw hard service up until the Armistice of 1943, and suffered heavy losses. In particular two ‘Libli’ were destroyed, the first at Split in October 1942 and the second at Ogulin on 12 February 1943.
Length: 13.50m (44ft 71/2in)
Width: 2.42m (7ft 111/4in)
Height: 3.57m (11ft 81/2in)
Weight: 39.5 tonnes
Motor: FIAT 355C, 80hp at 1700 rpm
Maximum speed: 80km/h (50mph)
Range: 450km (280 miles)
Armour thickness: 8.5mm
Armament: 2 turrets similar to those fitted to the M13/40 tank, with 47mm/L32 gun with 195 rounds and 8mm Breda 38 machine gun
Either 2 x 81mm Mod. 35 mortars with 576 bombs Or 1 x 20mm Breda Mod. 35 anti-aircraft cannon
2 Mod. 40 flamethrowers
4 x 8mm Breda 38 machine guns in side ball mountings with 8,040 rounds
The personal arms of the crew and hand grenades
Crew: 1 officer, 2 drivers, 2 gunners, 2 loaders, 6 machine gunners, 2 mortar specialists, 2 flamethrower engineers, 1 radio operator
Radio equipment: Marelli RF2CA or RF3M set
Various: Turret searchlights, track repair equipment.
As the Germans raced to the sea to cut off the Allies, several attempts were made to strike at the German flanks. At Marle and Montcornet on May 17, Arras on May 21, and Cambrai on May 22, the attacks were too little, too late. Airpower isolated the attacking units and punished them severely, often before their attacks ever started. Once in contact with German ground units, the attacking Allies found themselves outgunned and alone. The decision to start using the German 8.8cm anti-aircraft gun in an anti-tank role helped seal the fate of the poorly-planned Allied attacks.
17th May 1940 France: At dawn, Rommel and his armoured advance guard, thrust towards Landrecies.
At 5.15 am the Germans enter Landrecies and make straight for the local headquarters; which they capture and then take the bridge over the Sambre. On the upper Oise, Reinhardt’s advance-guard seizes the bridges between Hirson and Guise at about 8 am. In the middle Oise between Guise and La Fere, posts manned by the French 2 Armoured Division were attacked at 5 am by forward elements of the 2nd Panzers, and resisted fiercely on the bridges of Moy, Bethenicourt and Mezieres. But farther to the south, the bridge of Ribemont was seized at 9am by the 1st Panzers. Then the Panzers are halted. According to Guderian’s memoirs, this morning with his leading troops on the Oise, Von Kleist arrived by plane in a towering rage. Guderian was ordered to stop his columns at once, by the Fuhrer’s orders. He also stormed at him for having exceeded his instructions. Finally, he relieved him of his command, which he handed to his senior divisional commander. Guderian consequently sent orders to all his units to stop where they were, and handed over to General Veiel. Then by wireless he gave a full account to von Runstedt. In the afternoon the army group commander asked General List, commanding the 12th Army, to settle the quarrel. The latter went to see for himself, saw the position, re-established Guderian in his command, and even authorised him to send out “strong fighting reconnaissance patrols” on the next day, but without moving his command post. Guderian now used a succession of “advanced CP’s” to pursue his advance. On the French side, one positive action was the counter-attack by 4 Armoured Div., under Col. de Gaulle. He had only 150 tanks in three battalions, one of Renault R 35 s and two of Renault B 1biss. His intention was to reach Montcornet, on the Serre about 12 miles to the north, a junction of roads to Saint-Quentin, laon and Rheims, to block the German’s routes in those directions. They reached Montcornet, but the German’s were in strength on the Serre, and the unsupported tanks cannot cross it. In the evening, severely harassed by German artillery fire and continuous Stuka attacks, the group fell back to Laon, bring 130 prisoners with them.
The air force did its best to support Colonel Charles de Gaulle’s armored thrusts toward Montcornet on 16 and 17 May. Night fighters received day ground assault missions, and the remains of the bomber units were committed. But Colonel de Gaulle failed to tell the air force the time and direction of his movements. As a result, 68 bomber sorties went in before de Gaulle moved and were of no assistance to him. Laon and Montcornet are famous in post-war official French history because they were the site of so-called “victories” by the 4th DCR led by… colonel De Gaulle!
On 17 May there was an attack on Guderian at Montcornet by the 4th DCR under the command of Colonel (as he still was) de Gaulle. This unit, assigned to General Robert Touchon’s 6th Army, had been hastily assembled only days earlier out of a battalion of infantry support tanks, a battalion of B1 tanks, and a few other medium tanks, making about 95 tanks in total. They had never trained together before, and they lacked radios, anti-tank guns, and air support. The attack took the Germans off guard, but they were able to fend it off easily enough. It was no discredit to de Gaulle that his ramshackle unit, hastily cobbled together, had been unable to achieve greater results. To the north of the German corridor, on 17 and 18 May, the Germans were engaged in fierce fighting at the Forest of Mormal by elements of the First DLM, which had arrived from Holland. On 19 May de Gaulle’s 4th DCR carried out another attack near Laon, which enjoyed more tactical success than the first one. But in the end all these attacks were like flies buzzing around the tortoise head, while never concentrating sufficient force to threaten its jugular.
Specifically, on May 17th, 4 tank battalions advanced on the Laon-Montcornet road (on the left on the D977 through Chivres and Clermont: 46e BCC with Renault B1 bis and 19e BCC Renault D2, on the right on the D181 and D18 through Sissonne, Boncourt-Lappion, Dizy-le-Gros, la Ville-aux-Bois 2e and 24e BCC Renault R35) without any infantry support. They reach Montcornet separately, first the light tanks, then the “heavies” (delayed by astronomic gas consumption), but are repelled by anti-tank fire and must retreat, leaving 7 R35, 4 D2 and 2 B1 bis on the battlefield. The objective of the “offensive” (which turned out to be no more than an armed reconnaissance) i.e. cutting off the supply lines of the Guderian tank corps, has not been achieved, and it is even dubious that it indirectly caused the famous temporary stop ordered by von Kleist, which was sent to Guderian before the first contact and lifted the same evening…
On May 19th, the 4th DCR, with all its elements (about 30 B1 bis, 40 D2 and 40 light tanks) as well as 40 Somua S-35 of the 3e Cuirassiers and the armored cars Panhard 178 of the 10e Cuirassiers, attacked North from Laon towards Crécy-sur-Serre and was repelled by concentrated anti-tank and artillery (105mm) fire, probably from the 37th Pionier battalion from the 1.PzD, with one anti-tank company (37mm), a heavy infantry company and an artillery battery. Losses are estimated at 181 men for the 4e BCP and 38 armored vehicles (9 B1 bis, 2 D2, 7 S-35, 10 light tanks Renault R-35 or Hotchkiss H-35 and 10 Panhard P-178).
Char S-35 = Char SOMUA-35. Char = tank. SOMUA = Societe d’Outillage Mécanique et d’Usinage d’Artillerie; 35 = year of service (1935).
In the early 1930s the French cavalry issued a requirement for a tank to be called the Automitraillesuse de Combat (AMC) and a vehicle to meet this requirement was produced by the SOMUA factory. After trials this was accepted for service as the standard medium tank of the French Army, under the designation Char S-35. It entered service in 1936 and by the time of the capitulation of France (25 June 1940) some 500 had been manufactured.
The S-35’s hull was constructed in three castings (hull floor, front superstructure and rear super structure) which were then bolted together. The driver sat at the left front of the vehicle with the radio operator to his right, both men entering and leaving the tank via a door in the side, although an under floor escape hatch was available for emergency use. The turret, which had electric traverse, was also of cast construction, with a maximum thickness of 2.2in (56mm).
Main armament was the 47mm SA 35 gun which fired either high-explosive or amour-piercing rounds. The engine and transmission were at the rear and were separated from the fighting compartment by a fireproof bulkhead.
For its day the Char S-35 was an excellent tank, having good armour and a 47mm gun which was more powerful that the 37mm gun fitted to PzKpfw III.
It also had some disadvantages. The three piece construction system made for ease of manufacture, but a hit on one of the joins was likely to split the tank wide open, while the small turret meant that one man had to combine the roles of commander, loader and gunner. Finally, there was a general shortage of radios and during the brief campaign some 80 percent of French tanks did not have them, which naturally made command and control very difficult.
Specifications Country of origin: France. Type: medium tank. In service: 1936-1945. Combat Weight: 44,2001b (20,048kg). Dimensions: length 17.9ft(5.5m); width 6.93t (2.1m); height 8.80ft (2.7m). Engine: SOMUA water-cooled eight-cylinder petrol engine, 190hpat 2,000rpm. Performance: road speed 23mph (37km/h); range 160 miles (257km); trench 7.8ft (2.3m); gradient 65 per cent. Ground pressure: 13.1lb/sq in (0.9kg/sq cm). Power-to-weight ratio: 10hp/ton. Armour: hull – 1.6in (41 mm); turret – 2.2in (56mm) maximum. Weapons: 1 x 47mm SA 35 main gun; 1 x 7.5mm coaxial MG. Ammunition: 118 rounds 47mm; 1,250 rounds 7.5mm. Crew: three.
Crécy-sur-Serre: 19 May 1940.
At the time of the German attack in 1940 most French tanks were organised into 13 tank battalions in four Divisions Cuirassées de Réserve (= Reserve Armored Division (DCR); each battalion had 34 tanks and two battalions were usually grouped to form a demi-brigade. In the shambles following the first German attacks, Colonel De Gaulle, who had long been an advocate of armoured warfare, was appointed commander of 4th Armoured Division (11 May), although this formation was very short of equipment and morale was poor. Nevertheless, De Gaulle’s drive and enthusiasm enabled him to lead an attack on the German lines-of-communication at Montcornet on 17 May, but this was seriously disrupted by attacks from ubiquitous Ju-87 Stukas which were called up by radio by the German ground troops as and when required.
De Gaulle’s next attack was against the bridge at Crécy-sur-Serre on 19 May. By this time he had received reinforcements, particularly of artillery and tanks, the latter including two companies (40 tanks) of Char S-35. The 4th Armoured Division reached the bridge, but there was yet another example of the ineptness which characterised the whole French campaign. Arrangements had been made for French fighters to provide air cover for 4th Armoured Division against attack by Stukas, but when the time of the attack (H-hour) was brought forward someone omitted to tell the air force so that the tanks were again heavily attacked by Stukas. Then, when the French tanks had been forced to withdraw, the French fighters arrived to find both ground and air empty.
In this last battle the Char S-35 proved itself to be superior to the German PzKpfw III and IV in almost all respects, and if deployed and directed correctly by commanders and crews with greater faith in its capabilities (and in themselves), it could have turned the tide on several occasions. As it is, however, the Char S-35 is best described as almost a battle winner, since it was so much better than the German tanks facing it and if handled better it might have had a significant effect on the battles in the summer of 1940.
German Panther tank camouflaged between buildings, near Monte Cassino, Italy, Apr-May 1944.
In an effort to break the disastrous stalemate at Anzio, the Allies launched Operation Diadem on 11 May 1944. The key Allied armoured formations involved in the battle were the US 1st, Canadian 5th and British 6th Armoured Divisions, as well as the Polish 2nd Armoured Brigade.This was an all-out armoured thrust designed to pierce the German defences; it also served to distract Hitler from the impending invasions of Normandy and the French Riviera, and the massive Soviet offensive on the Eastern Front. After months of deadlock the honour of taking Monte Cassino would eventually fall to Polish Shermans.
Operation Diadem called for a rapid penetration of the Gustav Line at Cassino and a joint thrust northwards. Lieutenant General Oliver Leese’s British 8th Army was to push up the Liri valley as far as Sora and up the Sacco valley as far as Valmontone, southeast of Rome. Lieutenant General Mark Clark’s US 5th Army was to drive along the coast to link up with the US 6th Corps, which would break out from the Anzio beachhead and strengthen the final push on Rome.
On the left two British divisions were to push up the coast to pin down the 3rd Panzergrenadiers, and in the meantime the US 1st Armored and 3rd and 45th Infantry Divisions were to conduct the main attack towards Campoleone. The fighting was heavy, with the Americans losing a hundred tanks, and little progress was made until the 1st Armored Division finally pieced the Caesar Line.
During the fierce battles for Cassino tanks proved to be of limited value; in the town itself they were hampered by rubble and craters which prevented them from moving freely. During the First Battle, when the houses and streets of Cassino were still recognisable, tanks losses were high because they made suicidal frontal assaults and blundered into anti-tank ambushes and well laid mines. In just twelve days of fighting the US 756th Tank Battalion had twenty-three of its sixty-one tanks knocked out, with another twenty-one damaged. An armoured sortie into the Cassino massif early in the Third Battle was hopelessly mismanaged, resulting in considerable losses.
The defenders had no intention of surrendering any ground. During March and April the German paratroopers toiled on Cassino’s defences, hauling up their anti-tank guns to protect the most vulnerable sectors, as well as manning the fortified dugouts and bunkers that overlooked the approaches to the top of the Cassino massif. In addition, between Cassino and Rome the Germans had constructed a whole series of defensive lines upon which they could fall back. One of the strongest was the Hitler Line; this was studded with Panther tank turrets embedded in concrete, which were ready to exact an appalling toll on Allied tanks and infantry.
Captured German Fallschirmjäger parachute troops file past a Sherman tank of the New Zealand Armoured Brigade at Cassino.
The battle for Monte Cassino comprised four major engagements, involving American, British, Canadian, French, New Zealand and Polish forces.The centrepiece of the battle was the struggle for the monastery overlooking the town of Cassino. By early 1944 the western section of the German Winter Line was held by their forces in the Rapido, Liri and Garigliano valleys, and the surrounding mountains and ridges known as the Gustav Line.The Germans did not occupy the monastery and incorporate it into their defences until after American bombers flattened it in mid-February.
After struggling for six weeks through 7 miles of the Bernhardt Line at the cost of 16,000 casualties, the US 5th Army finally reached the Gustav Line on 15 January. The first assault was launched two days later. Although US troops got across the Rapido, tanks were unable to reach them, leaving them at the mercy of the panzers and self-propelled guns of General Eberhard Rodt’s 15th Panzergrenadiers.
When the Third Battle commenced on 15 March it was hoped to launch a decisive blow on the German defences in the monastery and town. This included a surprise attack by the British 20th Armoured Brigade moving up a track from Cairo to Albaneta Farm towards the monastery. The conditions were completely unsuitable for tanks. A German counterattack from the monastery left the tanks stranded round Castle Hill; lacking infantry support, by mid-afternoon they were all knocked out.
The final battle commenced with Operation Diadem on 11 May and saw the British 8th Army make two opposed crossings over the Rapido river. Once this was bridged, tanks of the Canadian 1st Armoured Brigade moved up to support the infantry – armoured support had been lacking during the first two battles. In the meantime the Polish Corps fought against the German paratroops in and around Cassino in what was clearly a grudge match.
While the Polish Corps consisted of two infantry divisions, the 3rd Carpathian and 5th Kresowa, they had the normal allotment of divisional tanks and were supported by the Polish 2nd Armoured Brigade.The latter consisted of the 1st and 2nd Polish and 6th Kresowa Armoured Regiments, equipped with American-supplied Shermans. In total the Poles mustered 50,000 men, who had arrived in Italy between December 1943 and January 1944 and first went into the line in March. Around 80 per cent of these troops were former Russian prisoners of war, but they were strengthened with Poles from the Carpathian Brigade that fought with the British 8th Army at Tobruk. A Polish armoured division was formed but this was committed to the Normandy campaign.
After the failure of the assaults by the Americans, New Zealanders and Indians, the same formidable defences confronted the Poles. In particular, the monastery, the south and west of the massif, and part of the town were held by the paratroops, whose key strongpoints were situated at Colle Sant’ Angelo – Point 706 – Monte Castellone; in the monastery and the upper reaches of the town; on Points 593 and 569; and around Massa Albaneta.
The German 1st Parachute Division holding Cassino had considerable firepower. It was supported by 242 Assault Battalion, 525 Anti-tank Battalion (equipped with self-propelled 88mm guns), four artillery battalions from the 10th Army and one from the 90th Panzergrenadier Division. In addition, 71 Werfer Regiment had forty 150 and 300mm mortars near Pignataro and thirty 150mm and 200mm mortars at Villa Santa Lucia. The Nebelwerfer or ‘Moaning Minnie’ six-barrelled rocket launcher was a particularly devastating weapon.
The Poles had great difficulties in concentrating their men at the forward jump-off points, and were assisted by five Cypriot mule companies and two British jeep platoons in moving up their stockpiles for the attack. The 3rd Carpathians had the job of storming the monastery ruins after securing Point 593 and Albaneta Farm to the northwest. The 5th Kresowas were to assault Phantom Ridge and Sant’ Angelo to the south. The going was tough for all the Allied forces committed to the offensive. Astonishingly, within 20 minutes of the opening Allied barrage the Carpathians were on Point 593 and the Kresowas had gained Phantom ridge, though they suffered fearful casualties in the process.
Polish tanks with names like Claw, Pygmy and Pirate advanced on Albaneta on 15 May firing on burnt-out Allied tanks, the remains of the March attack, which were being used as enemy machine-gun posts. They were soon halted by mines, and sappers had to crawl under the tanks for protection from snipers as they worked to clear them. ‘We were in utter despair,’ said one Polish tank commander, ‘being unable to reach our comrades dying in front of Albaneta. With real fury we blasted away at the ruins, and at every suspicious bush or pile of stones.’ The tankers took no chances and showed no mercy. Anything that moved was deluged in machine-gun and anti-tank gun fire by the Polish tanks. On the night of 17 May the determined Poles finally gained all their main objectives, including Point 593, but not Albaneta, where the Germans clung on to the last.
Polish troops moved into the monastery on 18 May to find it abandoned.The 1st Parachute Division had called it a day. Lieutenant Casimir Gurbiel and a platoon of Uhlans from the Podolski Lancers were the first Poles to enter the monastery. The only remaining Germans were the badly wounded; when asked why they had held out so fanatically, they replied they had been told the Polish did not take prisoners. Nearly a thousand Poles died in the two attacks.
Six days later the Canadian 5th Armoured Division breached the line, opening the route to Rome. The Allies hoped that this would break the deadlock that had blighted the Italian campaign to date. It was not to be.