Hobo’s Funnies I

When, on 19 August 1942, the Allies mounted a major raid on Dieppe, they did so with the political object of demonstrating to Stalin that the opening of a ‘Second Front’ in the West was, for the moment, not a practical proposition. However, while the operation was ostensibly a failure, many valuable lessons were learned and put to good use in the planning of the invasion of Western Europe almost two years later.

After Dieppe the Allies recognised the impossibility of securing a heavily defended French port, deciding instead to invade over the open beaches of Normandy and bring their own prefabricated harbour with them. These beaches, while not as heavily fortified as the more important ports, nonetheless possessed formidable defences which were capable of inflicting terrible losses on a conventional landing force. The German belief was that the Allies would time their invasion to coincide with high tide, so reducing the period that their troops would be dangerously exposed while crossing the beach. They therefore constructed lines of obstacles that would remain submerged for a considerable period either side of high water. These included rows of fixed stakes, hedgehogs and tetrahedra made from girders, and triangular constructions known to the Allies as Element C, to all of which explosive devices had been attached. Such obstructions not only presented a physical barrier but were also capable of disembowelling any landing craft which tried to batter its way through.

The beaches themselves were heavily mined and covered by the fire of machine-guns and artillery weapons housed in concrete bunkers. Where no sea wall existed, high concrete anti-tank walls had been built to block natural exits from the shore. Behind, there were strongpoints containing more guns and automatic weapons, protected by mines, wire entanglements and anti-tank ditches, laid out in depth. Houses and other buildings, specially strengthened, had also been brought into the defensive scheme.

The difficulties facing the Allies were therefore considerable but not insuperable. It was decided that the landings would be made at half tide, when the water was beginning to rise but the lines of obstacles were still exposed. These would be tackled by underwater demolition teams of naval frogmen, who would first disarm the enemy’s explosive devices then clear 50-yard gaps for the passage of the landing craft. Beyond this point, the reduction of the defences became the responsibility of the ground troops.

In the British Army it was generally recognised that the key to the various problems associated with assaulting such long-prepared defensive positions lay in the use of armoured vehicles, just as it had in World War I. In April 1943 Major General P. C. S. Hobart, Commander of 79th Armoured Division, which had been raised the previous October as a conventional armoured formation, was informed that the Army’s specialist tank and assault engineer units would be concentrated under his command with the object of developing techniques and equipment that would be used to spearhead the coming invasion. At the time few of the division’s personnel could have imagined that they were destined to occupy a unique place in the annals of armoured warfare.

Hobart was unquestionably the man for the job. He had begun his career with the Bengal Sappers and Miners and was therefore familiar with assault engineering methods. After World War I he had transferred to the Royal Tank Corps and had commanded the 1st Tank Brigade in 1934. However, as he rose in rank, his innovations and bluntly expressed ideas on the mechanisation of the Army began to make him unpopular with the War Office; nor did it help that he was generally proved right. The problem was that while his insight amounted to something like genius, he had no patience with those who were not similarly gifted. Sometimes, members of his staff would be greatly touched by some personal act of kindness, but most regarded the experience of serving under him as being ‘absolute hell’; those officers who did not instantly and fully comprehend what the General was talking about were left wishing they had never been born. This might have been all very well in its way had not Hobart, who was no respecter of rank, dealt similarly with his superiors. Warned repeatedly by his friends to moderate his behaviour, he expressed genuine surprise that feelings should have been ruffled, and carried on as usual. Known as a fine trainer, in 1938 he was sent to Egypt to form and train the Mobile Division, as the 7th Armoured Division was initially known, and brought it to an outstanding pitch of efficiency and desert worthiness. Unfortunately, he was not to see the results of his work, for following yet another personality clash, this time with the GOC Egypt, he was removed from command and returned home. Early in 1940 he retired from the Army and joined the Home Guard, where his drive and energy quickly earned him promotion to lance corporal. At this point Winston Churchill, recognising the absurdity of losing one of the Royal Armoured Corps’ most outstanding officers at a time of national emergency, recalled him to form and train in succession the 11th and 79th Armoured Divisions.

In Hobart’s opinion not even specialist armour could be expected to produce the required results unless it received direct gunfire support from other tanks. This meant that conventional tanks would have to be landed in the first assault wave, before the beach defences had been neutralised by the specialist armour, a conundrum of apparently chicken-and-egg proportions to which the answer was provided by the DD (Duplex Drive) ‘swimming’ tank. The concept of such an amphibian, kept afloat by a collapsible canvas screen attached to the hull and driven by a screw which drew its power from the main engine, had been pioneered by Mr Nicholas Straussler during the inter-war years; the idea being that once the vehicle had reached the shoreline the buoyancy screen would be lowered and the normal drive engaged, enabling it to perform as a normal gun tank. Successful trials had already been carried out with the Valentine and the Stuart, but the choice for the Normandy landings fell on the Sherman because of its superior firepower. Hobart envisaged that, initially at least, the DDs would provide fire support from the shallows until the specialist armour had produced sufficient elbow room, then fight as the situation warranted. Among those units trained by 79th Armoured Division in the use of the DD were the 4th/7th Dragoon Guards, the 13th/18th Hussars, the 15th/19th Hussars, the Sherwood Rangers Yeomanry, the East Riding Yeomanry, the Canadian 1st Hussars and Fort Garry Horse, and the American 70th, 741st and 743rd Tank Battalions. Various methods of mechanical mineclearing existed, but experience at Alamein had shown that the best results were obtained by flailing, that is beating the ground ahead of a tank with chains attached to a rotating drum powered by the vehicle’s main or auxiliary engine, so detonating any mines in its path. The most successful design was the Sherman Crab, capable of clearing a lane almost ten feet wide at a speed of 1.25 miles per hour; when it was not flailing the Crab could fight as a normal gun tank. The 30th Armoured Brigade, consisting of the 22nd Dragoons, 1st Lothians and Border Horse and the Westminster Dragoons, joined 79th Armoured Division in November 1943 and was immediately equipped with Crabs, which it retained for the rest of the war.

The most versatile vehicle in the division’s armoury was the AVRE (Assault Vehicle Royal Engineers), which had been developed as a direct result of the experience gained in the Dieppe raid. The hull of the Churchill infantry tank was selected as the basis because of its heavy armour, roomy interior and obvious adaptability. The AVRE was fitted with a specially designed turret mounting a 290mm muzzle loading demolition gun, known as a petard, which could throw a 40-pound bomb, designed to crack open concrete fortifications, to a maximum range of 230 yards; reloading was carried out through a sliding hatch above the co-driver’s seat. Standardised external fittings enabled the vehicle to be used in a variety of ways. It could carry a chestnut paling (chespale) fascine, up to eight feet in diameter and fourteen feet wide, that could be dropped into anti-tank ditches, forming a causeway; it could lay an Small Box Girder (SBG) bridge with a 40-ton capacity across gaps of up to 30 feet; it could be fitted with a Bobbin which unrolled a carpet of hessian and metal tubing ahead of the vehicle, so creating a firm track across soft going; it could place ‘Onion’ or ‘Goat’ demolition charges against an obstacle or fortification and fire them by remote control after it had reversed away; it could be used to push Mobile Bailey or Skid Bailey bridges into position; and, on going which was not suited to the Crab, it could be fitted with a plough which brought mines to the surface. The 1st Assault Brigade RE, consisting of the 5th, 6th and 42nd Assault Regiments RE (ARRE), each with an establishment of 60 AVREs and a number of D8 armoured tractors, was formed as part of the division during the summer of 1943.

Naturally, the nature of its work meant that Hobart’s division had to function along the lines of a large plant hire organisation. No two sectors of the German coast defences were exactly alike, and each presented the attacker with its own set of problems. Liaison officers were therefore attached to each of the British and Canadian infantry divisions forming the first wave of Lieutenant General Sir Miles Dempsey’s British Second Army, which formed the left wing of the Allied invasion force. After discussions involving the detailed study of maps, models, the most recent air reconnaissance photographs and intelligence reports, the appropriate assault engineering equipment was allocated and formed into teams which received a similarly detailed briefing on their own specific tasks. These facilities were also offered to Lieutenant General Omar Bradley, commander of the US First Army, which formed the right wing of the Allied assault; apart from the DD battalions mentioned above, they were declined for reasons that have never been satisfactorily explained, with tragic consequences.

On the morning of D Day itself, 6 June 1944, sea conditions were never less than difficult and the fortunes of the DD units varied considerably. Off Utah Beach, the US 70th Tank Battalion launched 30 tanks from its LCTs 3000 yards out and all but one reached the shore safely. In contrast, off Omaha Beach the US 741st Tank Battalion launched 29 tanks 6000 yards out and all but two were swamped and sank. Off Juno, A Squadron of the Canadian 1st Hussars launched ten tanks at between 1500 and 2000 yards, of which seven touched down; the regiment’s B Squadron launched nineteen from 4000 yards, of which fourteen touched down. The day’s most successful performance was put up by the 13th/18th Hussars who launched 34 tanks some 5000 yards off Sword Beach and landed with 31. Elsewhere, conditions were so bad that launching was never contemplated. The US 743rd Tank Battalion landed on Omaha direct from its LCTs; as did, in the British sector, the 4th/7th Dragoon Guards and Sherwood Rangers Yeomanry on Gold and the Fort Garry Horse on Juno, arriving after the armoured assault teams.

The German infantry divisions manning the fortifications of Hitler’s Atlantic Wall contained a high proportion of non-Germans and were regarded by some as being second line troops. Despite this, and the fact that they had been forced to endure air attacks and a mind-numbing naval bombardment, they were prepared to offer the most stubborn and tenacious resistance. They were, however, quite unprepared for the DDs and the wave of specialist armour which was now being disgorged from its LCTs onto the beach, for so good had been the pre-invasion security that the existence of such devices had never been suspected.

For example, while swimming the DD revealed only a few inches of its floatation screen and from a distance resembled a harmless ship’s whaler. Once the vehicle emerged from the shallows, however, the screen dropped to reveal a Sherman spitting fire. On Juno Beach the Canadian infantry were pinned down until A Squadron 1st Hussars came ashore under heavy mortar and shellfire and quickly eliminated strongpoints containing two 75mm guns, one 50mm gun and six machine-guns, after which a large party of the enemy came forward to surrender.

Even the most meticulous of military planners works on the assumption that the natural state of war is chaos, and he allows for as many contingencies as he can. It was, therefore, never envisaged that all of 79th Armoured Division’s breaching teams would be able to clear lanes through the defences, but a sufficient margin of safety had been left for the momentum of the attack to be maintained and enable the assault divisions to start moving inland. It is impossible in these few pages to describe the actions of all the division’s teams, but the following are representative.

On Nan Sector of Juno Beach, where the 8th Canadian Infantry Brigade was to come ashore between Bernières-sur-Mer and St Aubin-sur-Mer, the breaching teams consisted of Crabs manned by B Squadron 22nd Dragoons and the AVREs of 80 Assault Squadron RE (5 ARRE). The DDs had yet to arrive and the teams’ LCTs, also behind schedule, touched down on the rising tide. With the area of exposed beach shrinking steadily and becoming crowded with infantry, No 1 Team’s leading Crab flailed up to the sea wall against which an SBG AVRE laid its bridge. Unfortunately, the first AVRE to surmount this struck a mine a little way further on and was immobilised, blocking the intended exit. Nearby, however, a section of the sea wall had been partially blown down by the preparatory bombardment and two Crabs not only succeeded in flailing their way up to the gap but also scrambled over it and reached the lateral road beyond, which they proceeded to clear. Two fascine AVREs followed and dropped their bundles into the anti-tank ditch beyond. Later, the damaged AVRE was pushed aside by a bulldozer, the driver of which was almost immediately killed by a mine, and the gap through the minefield was completed by hand, creating a second exit.

Because of congestion in the approaches to the beach, No 2 Team’s LCTs touched down some 300 yards east of their intended target. As the AVREs emerged they were immediately engaged by a 50mm anti-tank gun firing from the west. The SBG AVRE was knocked out and another AVRE commander was killed before the remainder silenced the emplacement with their petards. The sea wall, 12 feet high, was only 50 yards away and the Crabs flailed a lane up to it. At this point the loss of the SBG was keenly felt, for although the AVREs damaged the wall with their petards in an attempt to bring it down, they failed to make a wide enough gap and the crater created was too soft and steep for the passage of vehicles. By now the infantry had worked their way forward and drew the team commander’s attention to a beach ramp blocked by Element C, which was blown apart by petard fire. The Crabs then flailed the ramp and an AVRE dropped a fascine into the anti-tank ditch, completing the exit.

No 3 Team had a much easier time, despite the fact that one of its LCTs was hit and barely managed to reach the shore. The Crabs flailed a lane to the sea wall, the SBG bridge was positioned and the Crabs crossed it to continue flailing a route through the dunes as far as the lateral road. No 4 Team, on the other hand, was dogged by bad luck. The LCTs came in 150 yards east of their objective, close to the high tide line and in an area where the depth of water varied considerably. An incoming landing craft collided with an SBG AVRE as it disembarked, forcing the crew of the latter to abandon the vehicle; so close were they to the enemy that three were killed and one wounded by sniper fire and grenades. The team’s Crabs turned west and flailed a lane to No 3 Team’s exit. An AVRE also unrolled its bobbin carpet over an area of soft sand but this was quickly torn apart by the passage of tracked vehicles.

Pending the arrival of the DDs, the infantry had to rely on the Crabs and AVREs to assist them in dealing with those of the defences which were still holding out. ‘A pillbox on the cliff fell to petard fire and houses belching forth streams of mortar bombs and small arms fire were silenced by 75mm and petard fire,’ recorded the divisional historian. As the accuracy of the petard declined beyond 80 yards, most of these engagements took place at close quarters. The bomb itself, known as The Flying Dustbin, was visible throughout its flight and its effect was devastating, bringing whole sections of house down in a thunder of collapsing brickwork and splintering timber; needless to say, very few hits were required to bring the defenders out into the open.

To the east, the breaching teams on Queen Sector of Sword Beach, where the British 8th Infantry Brigade was coming ashore at Lion-sur-Mer, consisted of A Squadron 22nd Dragoons and 77 and 79 Assault Squadrons RE (5 ARRE). On the right No 1 Team beached at a point overlooked by high sand dunes. In the face of fierce fire, the Crabs flailed up the beach and over the dunes, one commander killing two snipers with a grenade thrown from the turret. The leading AVRE, commanded by Sergeant Kilvert, was hit as it emerged from the LCT and drowned in the shallows. Undeterred, Kilvert and his crew grabbed their personal weapons and made their way across the beach to storm a fortified farmhouse and rout an enemy patrol, later handing over their prisoners to the infantry. The team’s remaining AVREs assisted the Crabs in completing a route inland then set off to assist 48 Royal Marine Commando in the capture of Lion.

No 2 Team lay off the beach until the DDs of 13th/18th Hussars had touched down, and in the process drifted west of No 1 Team. The first Crab to disembark, commanded by Sergeant Smyth, immediately charged and crushed the 75mm anti-tank gun that had opened fire on No 1 Team. The Crabs then cleared a lane across the beach until one blew a track on a mine. It was bypassed and an SBG bridge was dropped across the wrecked gunpit, completing the exit. After this, the team’s AVREs also headed for Lion.

No 3 Team’s Crabs completed one lane, along which a Bobbin AVRE unrolled its carpet; the vehicle then struck a mine and, having also been hit by anti-tank fire, was drowned by the rising tide. A second lane was then flailed, at the end of which an SBG bridge was laid to provide an exit from the beach. No 4 Team’s LCT became the target of a heavy calibre gun and was hit repeatedly. The leading Crab got ashore safely but the second was hit while on the ramp and nothing could get past. When more hits caused explosions aboard the craft, killing the sector’s senior engineer officer, it was forced to withdraw and sail back to England. When the team’s solitary Crab had part of its jib shot away by anti-tank fire, its commander, Lieutenant R. S. Robertson, jettisoned the rest and fought as a gun tank.

As more troops and their supporting armour arrived the battle moved inland while the Crabs continued to flail the beach and the AVREs set about the task of recovering vehicle casualties and assisted in removing beach obstacles. The 79th Armoured Division’s breaching teams had employed 50 Crabs and 120 AVREs, of which 12 and 22 respectively had been knocked out; casualties amounted to a total of 169 killed, wounded and missing, which, given the nature of the task which had been set, was astonishing. By midnight on 6 June, 57,000 American and 75,000 British and Canadian troops had been put ashore; and on the British sector alone 950 fighting vehicles, 5000 wheeled vehicles, 240 field guns, 280 anti-tank guns and 4000 tons of stores had been landed.

Hobo’s Funnies II

If, superficially, this suggests an absurdly cheap victory, it must be compared with what happened on the American sectors where, it will be recalled, the troops did not have the benefit of armoured breaching teams. On Utah Beach their task had been eased somewhat by the dropping of the US 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions some miles inland during the previous night; but on Omaha Beach the US 1st and 29th Infantry Divisions were pinned down on the shore by defences that were no more formidable than those on the British sector. Not until an hour after the initial landings did the situation begin to improve slowly when eight American and three British destroyers, observing the carnage amid the shattered LCIs at the water’s edge, closed in to batter the defences at point blank range. Even then, it was only by the inspired leadership, heroism and self-sacrifice of individuals and small groups that the Americans began to make ground little by little. By midnight, while the other beachheads were between seven and nine miles deep, that at Omaha amounted to a foothold extending at best some 2000 yards from the shoreline. The cost had been 3000 casualties, half the American losses for the day, including that of the two airborne divisions; British and Canadian casualties at Gold, Juno and Sword Beaches amounted 4200 killed, wounded and missing.

The events of D Day demonstrated beyond any possible doubt the validity of Hobart’s tactical concepts and his thorough training methods. For the remainder of the campaign in North-West Europe elements of 79th Armoured Division, now known throughout 21st Army Group as ‘Hobo’s Funnies,’ played a vital part in every major and countless minor operations fought by the British and Canadian armies, as well as providing support for the Americans when requested.

Enough has been written on the conduct of operations in Normandy for only the briefest of reminders to be given here. Although the terrain, much of which consisted of small fields bounded by hedges set on earth banks, favoured the defence and was far from ideal tank country, the Allied strategy was for the British and Canadian armies to maintain constant pressure and thereby draw in the bulk of the German armour while the Americans prepared to break out into the open country to the south and east. To achieve this a series of major operations – Epsom, Jupiter, Charnwood, Goodwood and Bluecoat – were mounted throughout June and July, wearing down the German strength in heavy attritional fighting. The American breakout, codenamed ‘Cobra’, commenced on 25 July and proved to be unstoppable; concurrently, at the northern end of the front, the Canadian First Army was pushing slowly but steadily southwards from Caen towards Falaise. With both their flanks now hanging in the air, the German armies were compressed within a pocket from which comparatively few escaped. By 21 August the fighting in Normandy was effectively over.

While these operations were in progress 79th Armoured Division received a new weapon which had not been employed during the D Day landings. This was the fearsome Crocodile, consisting of Wasp flamethrowing equipment fitted to a Churchill VII which was coupled to a two-wheeled armoured trailer holding 400 gallons of inflammable liquid. From the coupling, a pipe led under the tank’s belly to emerge into the driving compartment where it joined the flame gun, which replaced the hull machine-gun. On leaving the flame gun the liquid was ignited electrically and propelled in a jet to a range of 120 yards, clinging to everything it touched. The propellant gas was pressurised nitrogen, housed in cylinders inside the trailer, permitting flaming for a total of 100 seconds in short bursts. Once the flaming liquid had been expended the trailer could be dropped, leaving its parent vehicle free to fight as a gun tank. Naturally, the Crocodile was hated and feared by the enemy, whose anti-tank gunners would attempt to knock out the trailer before it could be brought within range. Often, however, the appearance of a Crocodile was in itself sufficient to induce surrender; on the other hand, incidents occurred in which captured Crocodile crews were shown no mercy. The division possessed three Crocodile regiments – 141 Regiment RAC, 1st Fife and Forfar Yeomanry and 7 RTR – which together formed 31st Tank Brigade.

Another class of vehicle was added to the divisional armoury as a direct result of the fighting in Normandy, thanks to Lieutenant General Guy Simonds, the 41 year old commander of the Canadian II Corps, whose innovative ideas often complemented those of Hobart. The Allies had sometimes resorted to concentrated carpet bombing to blast their way through a sector of the enemy’s front. This certainly obliterated anything in its path, but the huge crater fields made life very difficult for armoured vehicles trying to penetrate the gap, as any World War I tank crewman might have predicted. In planning Operation ‘Totalize’, the Canadian drive in the direction of Falaise on 8 August,

Simonds hit on the novel ideas of using bomb carpets to protect the flanks of the advance, and mounted his infantry in makeshift armoured personnel carriers. At this period the Allied armoured divisions’ organic infantry were equipped with the M3 armoured half-track, but the infantry divisions had no APCs at all, save for their small tracked weapons carriers. Simonds therefore had the guns stripped out of a number of M7 Priest Howitzer Motor Carriages, which were then capable of carrying twelve infantrymen apiece; inevitably, these weaponless versions of the M7 were known as Unfrocked Priests. The idea worked so well that it was decided to convert turretless Sherman and Canadian Ram tanks to the role; with equal inevitability, the APC family so created were referred to a Kangaroos. Two APC regiments – 49 RTR and 1st Canadian APC Regiment – were formed with 150 Kangaroos each and attached to 31st Tank Brigade.

After Normandy, the first major operation involving 79th Armoured Division was the capture of the Channel Ports. Hitler had given specific instructions to the garrison commanders that they were to be denied to the Allies at all costs and each was protected by a cordon of fortified areas which included an anti-tank ditch, minefields and numerous concrete strongpoints. These were studied in detail and assault teams formed to deal with them – Crabs to clear lanes through the minefields and provide direct gunfire support, AVREs with SBG bridges and fascines to fill in the anti-tank ditches, and AVREs and Crocodiles to tackle the strongpoints. On their own, neither AVREs nor Crocodiles could guarantee success against the thick concrete structures; the AVRE’s petard bombs might crack the concrete but they would not touch those inside; and, on the approach of a Crocodile, the defenders could retire into the inner chamber until it had finished flaming, then return to their fire slits. Together, however, they proved to be a deadly combination; once the AVRE had cracked open the structure the Crocodile would flame it and the burning liquid would flow inside, consuming the oxygen and forcing the defenders into the open.

Le Havre was assaulted by the 49th (West Riding) Division plus the 22nd Dragoons, A Squadron 141 Regiment RAC, 222 and 617 Assault Squadrons RE; and the 51st (Highland) Division plus B and C Squadron 1st Lothians and Border Yeomanry, C Squadron 141 Regiment RAC, 16 and 284 Assault Squadrons RE. The attack commenced at 1745 on 10 September and during the next two days the assault teams fought their way steadily through the defences, leaving the infantry to accept the garrison’s final surrenders on 13 September. Faced with tough resistance and extensive minefields, the teams enjoyed mixed fortunes but, as on D Day, a sufficient margin had been allowed to ensure success. Personal initiative, too, played a major part; at Harfleur, for example, the AVREs of 222 Assault Squadron RE filled in an anti-tank ditch by felling several trees with their petards. One Scottish company commander, having taken over a captured bunker as his headquarters, answered a ringing telephone and found himself talking to a German, who he invited to surrender. The suggestion was indignandy refuted, but others sharing the line had no reservations and promptly emerged from a number of neighbouring strongpoints. They had felt secure behind their minefields and were dismayed when these were breached by the Crabs, which came as a complete surprise to them; understandably, it was the Crocodiles which had shocked them most, and they described their use as ‘unfair’ and ‘un-British.’

The Americans had already taken St Malo and begun to assault Brest on 25 August. The garrison of this major port, consisting of 35,000 men under an extremely tough paratroop commander, Major General Hermann Ramcke, resisted so stubbornly that the attackers made little progress. At length General Bradley requested the assistance of Crocodiles to subdue the defences and in response B Squadron 141 Regiment RAC, commanded by Major I. N. Ryle, was attached to Major General W. E. Sands’ US 29th Infantry Division for the reduction of Fort Montbarey. This consisted of an old casemated masonry fort within a moat, surrounded in turn by concentric lines of defence incorporating 40mm and 20mm gun positions and a minefield which included buried 300 pound naval shells. On 14 September, after American engineers had gapped the minefield, a two-tank Crocodile troop, covered by the squadron’s gun tanks, led the infantry attack, burning up weapon pits as it went. One Crocodile blew up when it ran over a shell but the second continued until the American infantry had consolidated their gains around the fort itself. At this point the Germans began to emerge with white flags and the Crocodile, having exhausted its flame fuel and fired off all its 75mm ammunition, began to turn for home. As it did so it slid into an anti-tank ditch. A troop of Churchill gun tanks came forward to assist, but the first of these slid into another tank trap, the second shed a track and the third bellied in a crater. Observing this unexpected series of accidents, the enemy changed their minds, retired within the defences and opened fire again. Although disappointing in its eventual outcome, the day’s fighting yielded 122 prisoners, plus two 50mm guns, one 105mm gun and two major strongpoints captured. All the ditched tanks were recovered despite sniper fire.

Two days later the battle was resumed: ‘One troop of Crocodiles (Sergeant Decent), supported by direct fire from every available tank and self-propelled gun, crept up to the fort and rolled their flame over the moat. A gun tank pounded the main gate and three prisoners emerged. One was sent back to call for surrender – this was refused, so two more troops (Lieutenants C. Shone and T. P. Conway) gave the fort all the flame and HE they had, to the accompaniment of all guns at hand. Phosphorous and mortar bombs rained down and a 105mm gun pumped 200 more rounds at the gate. As the fire shifted to the northern edge, the sappers, under smoke, blew charges against the wall and the infantry went in. An officer with a white flag greeted them; he and his 30 men were being suffocated by smoke and phosphorous. The outhouses were blazing and after a little hand-to-hand fighting all was over. The Germans expressed their respect for flame and showed how effectively casemates had been penetrated and crews burned alive.’ The fall of Fort Montbarey made Brest untenable and on 18 September Ramcke capitulated.

Meanwhile, Boulogne was attacked on 17 September by Major General D. C. Spry’s Canadian 3rd Division, with assault teams provided by A and C Squadron 1st Lothians and Border Yeomanry, A and C Squadrons 141 Regiment RAC, 81 and 87 Assault Squadrons RE. The plan, conceived by Simonds, incorporated two phases. First, breaches were to be made in the outer crust of the defences by carpet bombing, through which infantry in Kangaroos would be carried forward to the point where cratering prevented further progress; they would then establish themselves while bulldozers carved routes across the devastated area. The second involved the assault teams, formed into three all-armoured columns, exploiting through the infantry and advancing into the town centre from different directions. The defences themselves were subjected to an additional heavy battering by the Second Tactical Air Force and RAF Bomber Command, while the Allied artillery support programme included participation by two fourteen- and two fifteen-inch coast defence guns firing across the Channel from England. In the event, the battle took the form Simonds had intended, although the severe cratering caused the assault teams as much trouble as the enemy. On the other hand, there were unexpected strokes of luck. One column, for example, was guided by a French taxi driver through the tangle of city streets, and the crews of two AVREs which had petarded the main gate of the Citadel into surrender, taking the German adjutant and 30 of his men prisoner, were considerably surprised when the next figures to emerge from the fortress were grinning Canadian infantrymen who had been ushered through a secret entrance by a member of the Resistance. The last of Boulogne’s defences surrendered on 21 September and a further 9500 prisoners began their march into captivity; the Canadians sustained only 634 casualties.

Hardly had the fighting ended than 3rd Canadian Division began moving towards its next objectives, the coastal batteries between Cap Gris Nez and Calais, and the port of Calais itself. Here the assault teams were drawn from the same units that had stormed Boulogne, save that the AVREs were manned by 81 and 284 Assault Squadrons RE. Deliberate flooding of the surrounding area restricted the approach to a heavily fortified coastal corridor from the west but, against this, almost two thirds of the 7500-strong German garrison, consisting in the main of elderly or sick men, was required to man the coastal batteries. It was apparent as soon as the attack began on 25 September that they lacked the will to fight and, having witnessed the capabilities of the assault teams, most surrendered after a token resistance. By 1 October, at a cost of only 300 Canadian casualties, the entire area had been cleared. For the first time in four years, shipping in the Straits of Dover could operate without the menace of enemy gunfire. The Lothians, having captured the German flag flying over the Cap Gris Nez gun positions, presented it to the Mayor of Dover, which had itself been a regular target of the coastal batteries.

With the exception of Dunkirk, the garrison of which was to be contained and allowed to rot until the war ended, all the Channel ports were now in Allied hands. Yet, so thorough had been the German demolitions that it would be months rather than weeks before traffic would begin flowing through them and the Allied lines of communication stretched back some 400 miles from the German and Dutch borders to the Normandy beaches. Again, while the 11th Armoured Division had captured the Antwerp docks more or less intact on 5 September, these could not be brought into use until the enemy had been cleared from both banks of the Scheldt. Therefore, even while fighting for the Channel ports was in progress, plans were being made for opening the sea approaches to Antwerp. These included augmenting 79th Armoured Division’s amphibious capability by the issue of the Buffalo LVT (Landing Vehicle Tracked, originally developed for the Pacific theatre of war) and its smaller cousin the Weasel. In British service the Buffalo could carry either 24 infantrymen, or one 17pdr anti-tank gun, or one 25pdr gun-howitzer, or one tracked Universal Carrier, or ammunition and supplies. 5 ARRE had, in fact already converted to the amphibious role and was joined by 11 RTR, both regiments being equipped with 100 Buffaloes.

The first area to be tackled was an enemy pocket on the south bank of the Scheldt, centred on the town of Breskens. When this was attacked on 6 October by the Canadian 7th Brigade little progress was made, partly because flooding had again been used to restrict the frontage, and partly because the defence was being conducted by the German 64th Division which, recruited largely from men on leave from the Eastern Front, was a very different proposition from the fortress troops encountered the previous month. However, during the early hours of 8 October 5 ARRE’s Buffaloes ferried the Canadian 9th Brigade across the mouth of the Braakman Inlet (referred to as the Savojaards Plaat in the divisional history), covering the eastern flank of the pocket, and landed in the enemy’s rear, achieving complete surprise. Major General Eberding, commanding the German troops within the pocket, reacted quickly to the threat but was unable to prevent the Canadian 8th Brigade being similarly lifted into the beachhead two days later. Now under simultaneous pressure from north and south, he shortened his perimeter, but one by one the towns in his possession fell to the Canadians and their supporting teams of Crabs, AVREs and Crocodiles. By 3 November the pocket had been cleared.

Across the Scheldt was the South Beveland peninsula, connected to the mainland by an isthmus along which the 2nd Canadian Division was slowly fighting its way forward. To accelerate the capture of the peninsula the 156th Brigade, from 52nd (Lowland) Division, was carried the nine miles across the river in the Buffaloes of 5 ARRE and 11 RTR, accompanied by eleven DDs manned by B Squadron Staffordshire Yeomanry, in the pre-dawn darkness of 25 October, direction being maintained with the assistance of bursts of Bofors tracer fired at timed intervals from the south bank. A beachhead was established and rapidly expanded without difficulty, although only four of the DDs were able to surmount the muddy dykes and accompany the troops inland. On 27 October 157th Brigade, also from 52nd Division, was ferried across and that night the 2nd Canadian Division broke through the isthmus defences to join the Scots in overrunning the rest of the peninsula.

West of South Beveland was the heavily fortified island of Walcheren, covering the entrance to the Scheldt. Diamond shaped and measuring some twelve miles by nine, most of the island lies below sea level and is protected by dykes and sand dunes up to 100 feet high. The Germans were well aware of its strategic importance and had built numerous concrete coastal batteries containing guns of up to 220mm calibre, both among the dunes and inland; beach defences included mines, posts, hedgehogs, Element C and wire. Many of these defences were neutralised when, during early October, the RAF mounted a series of raids which breached the dykes in four places, allowing the sea to flood in.

Two landings were planned, the first based on Breskens and directed at Flushing on the south coast of the island with No 4 Commando leading in landing craft, followed by 155th Brigade (52nd Division) in Buffaloes, while the second, based on Ostend, was directed at Westkapelle on the west coast with 4th Special Service Brigade coming ashore in Buffaloes launched from LCTs, plus a strong armoured assault team, which would also land from LCTs.

Both landings took place on 1 November. That at Flushing went entirely according to plan, with the commandos having the good fortune to come ashore in the one area that had not been mined, while the Buffaloes sustained comparatively small losses, despite the heavy volume of fire directed at them.

Hobo’s Funnies III

At Westkapelle, however, the story was very different. The assault was to be delivered at the breach in the dyke just south of the town, but the sea approaches to this were covered by three major coast defence batteries. To the north of the gap were Battery W.17 at Domberg, armed with four 220mm French guns and one 150mm gun in open concrete casemates, and Battery W.15 on the northern outskirts of Westkapelle, armed with four British 3.7in AA guns in concrete casemates and two British three-inch AA guns in open emplacements, all of which had been converted to the coast defence role; south of the gap, between Westkapelle and Zoutelande, was Battery W.13, armed with four 150mm guns in concrete casemates, two 75mm guns in casemates and three 20mm AA cannon.

Because of this the landing force would have direct support from the 15in guns of the battleship HMS Warspite and the monitors HMS Erebus and Roberts, which would open fire at 0815, joined twenty minutes later by the First Canadian Army’s medium and heavy artillery, firing across the Scheldt from Breskens. Escorting the landing craft during their run in towards the beach would be a Close Support Group containing 27 LCGs (Landing Craft Gun) and LCT(R)s (Landing Craft Tank (Rocket)).

Sea conditions were good but mist blanketing airfields in England had kept the promised air support grounded, although it was expected to clear. It also grounded the Bombardment Group’s spotter aircraft so that Warspite and the monitors were forced to fire by dead reckoning. As a result, their heavy shells did less damage than was expected until the Artillery Air OP light aircraft arrived from Breskens; for a while, too, Erebus was forced to cease firing because of mechanical problems in her turret. Bursting shells began to fountain around the Support Group while it was still some four miles short of the shore, but seeing that the German fire had not been appreciably reduced, the gun and rocket craft closed in to conduct a deadly and one-sided duel with the enemy batteries. Their self-sacrifice succeeded in concentrating most but by no means all of coastal gunners’ fire on themselves, and it eliminated a number of smaller posts and pillboxes, albeit at terrible cost; nine of the craft were sunk, eleven were put out of action with serious damage, and of the 1000 Royal Naval and Royal Marine personnel who provided their crews 192 were killed and 126 seriously wounded. At the critical moment, flight after flight of rocket-firing Typhoons roared in to strafe the defences, enabling the LCIs and LCTs to ground and disgorge their Buffaloes, which secured the shoulders of the breached dyke or passed through to assault Westkapelle from the rear.

The armoured assault team, carried in four LCTs, had the worst landing in the division’s experience. ‘One craft was hit repeatedly, the SBG bridge shot away from its AVRE and a fascine AVRE set on fire. By the efforts of its crew, explosives were jettisoned and the fire put out. The craft was later ordered to withdraw back to Ostend. The second LCT, Cherry, was hit hard astern and had many casualties, forcing it to withdraw and come in later. The third, Bramble, was able to touch down among broken boulders. The first AVRE to get ashore bellied (in the mud), so the craft pulled out and beached on sand further south. Two Crabs made heavy going of it but got up the beach; a bulldozer followed but the SBG was hit by a shell and the AVRE stuck. Cherry beached further south and offloaded all but one Crab, which was inextricably tangled up in the vessel’s bridge which had been wrecked by fire. The bulldozer, in an attempt to recover the bellied AVRE off Bramble, sank itself in a quicksand.

‘About this time Sergeant A. Ferguson (1st Lothians) fired eleven rounds of 75mm at the church tower east of Westkapelle which was being used as an observation post. The tower burst into flames and Germans came running out. Westkapelle had almost been cleared by the commandos but heavy shelling and mortaring of the beaches went on. All over the shore Buffaloes and Weasels were searching for an exit. Two Buffaloes loaded with ammunition were burning fiercely – in fact the beach was covered with smashed and burning vehicles and casualties were mounting.

‘The fourth LCT, Apple, landed on the left. The first Crab got ashore but stuck when it tried to tow the second off. The bridge AVRE disembarked, laid its SBG over some bad going, crossed it, then bogged, which blocked the way of the second AVRE already on the bridge. In spite of all efforts both tanks were drowned by the rising tide.

‘The tanks had found a small gap through the rocks but the sand was soft and they spoiled it completely for other vehicles. However, by dint of great perseverance and sterling work under shell and mortar fire, two Shermans, two AVREs, two Crabs and a bulldozer reached the village. They worked right through it dealing with roadblocks and houses and filling in craters with the bulldozed rubble and trees. That night the tide through the breach rose so high that the two Crabs were drowned.’

During the afternoon Battery W.13 surrendered to 48 Royal Marine Commando; one of its 150mm casemates had been cracked, killing the crew, and the remaining big guns had expended their ammunition. 41 Royal Marine Commando stormed West-kapelle village and Battery W. 15 at about noon, then moved north to tackle Battery W. 17 at Domburg, which gave up without a fight shortly after dusk. Resistance in this area, centred on Domburg village and a number of smaller concrete strongpoints among the dunes to the north, now became stiffer, and for the next six days the armoured assault team, reduced to two Sherman gun tanks and two AVREs, was fully engaged in supporting 41 Commando and No 10 Inter-Allied Commando as they fought their way along the coast towards Veere. Both AVREs eventually fell victim to mines, but the Shermans soldiered on to the end, firing no less than 1400 rounds of 75mm AP and HE. Later, Hobart received a personal note of thanks from Brigadier B. N. Leicester, commanding 4 Special Service Brigade: ‘I want to let you know how very well your chaps did….The few tanks we got ashore were worth their weight in gold….In the north we had no close-supporting fire other than three machine-guns which were of little use against concrete. There the tanks consistently and successfully supported troop attacks on concrete by 75mm, the accuracy of which was a pleasure to watch – I saw them! Their Brownings too had a most heartening effect in keeping the enemy infantry to ground.’

After the coastal defences had been stormed and Flushing was captured, the remaining German resistance was centred on the fortified town of Middleburg in the centre of the island. As this was surrounded by flooded terrain, the garrison felt reasonably secure, but on 6 November the Buffaloes of A Squadron 11 RTR, with 7th/9th Royal Scots aboard, set out from Flushing to prove them wrong. The direct route lay along the banks of the Flushing-Veere Canal, but this was mined and covered by anti-tank guns and machine-guns. Under the guidance of a Dutch civilian, a more circuitous route over inundated countryside to the west was adopted. Thus far the enemy, drawn mainly from the 70th Division (nicknamed the White Bread Division because most of its men had stomach ailments), had put up a remarkably tough fight, but so surprised and demoralised were they by the sudden arrival of the leading infantry company in eight Buffaloes that they offered no resistance. The German garrison commander, Lieutenant General Wilhelm Daser, indicated his willingness to surrender, but not to a junior officer, a difficulty which was resolved by supplying the infantry company commander with a badgeless raincoat and according him local and temporary promotion to lieutenant colonel.

Between 1 October and 8 November the First Canadian Army had sustained 12,800 casualties, half of them Canadian, from all causes. In return, over 41,000 prisoners had been taken and both banks of the Scheldt had been cleared. Minesweeping had begun even before Walcheren surrendered and the first cargoes reached Antwerp on 26 November.

The 79th Armoured Division continued to provide specialist armoured teams for the whole of 21st Army Group, plus the US First and Ninth Armies, and were engaged in a variety of operations spread across a wide area. On 16 December a major German counter-offensive was launched through the Ardennes with the object of recapturing Antwerp, but the only elements of the division to become involved in the subsequent fighting, collectively known as The Battle of the Bulge, were the two Kangaroo regiments and one troop of 11 RTR’s Buffaloes.

The counter-offensive failed, although it did delay Allied plans for an advance to the Rhine by approximately six weeks. After the threat had passed, 79th Armoured Division commenced detailed planning for Operation ‘Veritable’, 21st Army Group’s eastward drive through the Reichswald Forest into the Rhineland. For this, the initial allocation of specialist armour was as follows:

15th (Scottish) Division: One regiment of Crabs, two squadrons of AVREs, two squadrons of Crocodiles and both Kangaroo regiments;

51st (Highland) Division: One squadron each of Crabs, AVREs and Crocodiles;

53rd (Welsh) Division: Two squadrons of Crabs and one squadron each of AVREs and Crocodiles;

2nd and 3rd Canadian Divisions: One squadron each of Crabs and AVREs, four squadrons of Buffaloes.

Following the heaviest preparatory bombardment fired by British artillery in World War II, Veritable commenced on 8 February 1945. Conditions were atrocious, continuous rain having produced deep mud, while on the northern flank the Germans breached the dykes protecting the Rhine flood plain, which now lay under five feet of water moving at a speed of eight knots. The Reichswald itself consisted of close plantations and was considered by some German officers to be tank-proof on its own account; in addition, it also contained a northern extension of the Siegfried Line, and while the concrete structures for this had not been completed, there were bunkers, minefields and anti-tank obstacles. Holding the area was the 84th Division, which had twice been bled white since the Normandy landings and had recently been reinforced with more units consisting of men with medical conditions; this was not expected to put up much of a fight, but in immediate reserve were troops of the German First Parachute Army who could be relied upon to contest every foot of ground.

During the early days of the battle the appalling going again provided the armoured assault teams with more problems than the enemy. Wallowing slowly forward through the morass, the vehicles bellied and towed each other free in agonising slow motion, with chilling rain sheeting down on them the while; at one stage it was estimated that three-quarters of the tanks in the forest were bogged down. Yet, somehow, lanes were cleared of mines by the Crabs, anti-tank ditches were bridged or filled in, and bunkers petarded or flamed into submission. On the right and in the centre only the Churchill gun tanks of the infantry-support tank brigades and the Churchill-based Crocodiles and burden-free AVREs were simultaneously able to cope with the mud and splinter their way through the trees. The commander of one captured feature went so far as to pass the outraged comment: ‘We had never thought that anyone in their right mind would use tanks in this forest; it is most unfair!’ On the left, where the flooding was total, the Canadians mounted their attacks in assault boats, supported by fire from Buffaloes, and were supplied by Weasels and DUKWs.

It was this ability to retain mobility that the Germans found most unsettling. As the rains became less frequent and the floods started to subside, they rushed nine more divisions to the threatened area, drawn from the American sector of the front. This suited the Allies very well for on 23 February the US Ninth Army, forming the right wing of 21st Army Group, seized crossings over the river Roer at a cost of less than 100 casualties and, breaking out of its bridgeheads a week later, its armour reached the Rhine on 2 March. The effect was to isolate First Parachute Army, still locked in its bitter struggle with the British and Canadian divisions to the north, so that von Rundstedt, the Commander in Chief West, had no alternative other than to withdraw what remnants he could across the river. Together, the Reichswald battle and the American offensive had cost the German Army some 90,000 men. The British sustained 10,330 casualties, the Canadians 5304 and the Americans 7300.

Plans were already in hand for the crossing of the great waterway. These included use by 79th Armoured Division of a device cloaked in such secrecy that, although units had been equipped with it since 1942, it had never been used operationally by British troops, an omission described by Fuller as the greatest blunder of the war. The device was a British invention known as the Canal Defence Light (CDL) and it consisted of an M3 Lee/Grant chassis and hull fitted with a specially designed turret housing a 13 million candlepower carbon arc the intense light from which was reflected through a narrow slit controlled by the rapid movements of a mechanically driven shutter. The flickering effect of the light induced temporary partial blindness, sometimes accompanied by nausea, loss of balance and disorientation, and it also prevented the enemy identifying its source or even whether it was moving or stationary. Tactically, it was possible for troops to advance towards their brilliantly illuminated objective, yet remain completely invisible in the dense black space between two CDL beams. The Americans were also interested in the idea and had formed CDL units, although they codenamed the vehicle the Shop Tractor. Once again, however, obsessive secrecy had prevented its use until, even as 21st Army Group was completing its preparations for crossing the Rhine, the US 9th Armored Division seized the Ludendorff Bridge at Remagen by coup de main and a CDL unit was successfully employed to defend the structure against attacks by German frogmen; even this local usage had required the personal sanction of General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Allied Supreme Commander. On the British sector the CDLs were to be used in a similar fashion, as well as providing directional light for the Buffalo crossings, requiring B Squadron 49 RTR, one of the original CDL units, to abandon its Kangaroos and retrain in the role.

For the Rhine Crossing, codenamed ‘Plunder’, and the subsequent expansion of the bridgeheads secured, 79th Armoured Division effected the greatest concentration of specialist armour since D Day. This included two DD regiments (Staffordshire Yeomanry and 44 RTR) and three additional Buffalo regiments (1st Northamptonshire Yeomanry, 1st East Riding Yeomanry and 4 RTR). The lessons of South Beveland and Walcheren had been learned and, to assist the DDs in climbing the floodbanks, they would be accompanied by a number of specially adapted Buffaloes that would unroll a chespale carpet ahead of them where necessary. As few permanent defences existed on the east bank of the river there was no immediate requirement for AVREs and assault regiments RE were given the task of manning motorised rafts which would be used to ferry non-DD tanks and other vehicles across in the wake of infantry divisions.

The allocation of units from 79th Armoured Division to the higher formations involved in the crossing was:

BRITISH SECOND ARMY

British XII Corps: two regiments plus one squadron of Buffaloes, three assault squadrons RE manning motorised rafts, one regiment of Crocodiles, two squadrons of Kangaroos, one Crab regiment, one half-squadron of CDLs and one DD regiment.

British XXX Corps: two regiments of Buffaloes, three assault squadrons RE manning motorised rafts, three squadrons of Crocodiles plus one in corps reserve, one squadron of Kangaroos, one squadron of Crabs plus two in corps reserve, one half-squadron of CDLs and one DD regiment.

US NINTH ARMY

US XVI Corps: one squadron of Crocodiles, one squadron of Crabs.

Plunder was the sort of huge set piece operation in which Montgomery excelled. The river crossing, supported by air attacks and the fire of 3300 guns on a 25-mile frontage, commenced at 2100 on 23 March. The six understrength German divisions on the east bank could only offer weak resistance and by morning bridgeheads had been established with very few casualties; before the enemy could recover his balance the US XIX Parachute Corps (British 6th and US 17th Airborne Divisions) had been dropped behind him. Armour began to flow across the river and, day by day, the bridgeheads were expanded until the point was reached when the German Army, with nothing in reserve, was unable to contain them. The war had only weeks to run.

For the Royal Tank Regiment the Rhine crossing was memorable in a number of ways. Lieutenant Colonel Alan Jolly, commanding 4 RTR, crossed with the same brown, red and green flag flying from his Buffalo that the 17th Battalion Tank Corps had flown when their armoured cars reached Cologne at the end of World War I. On 26 March 11 RTR’s Buffalo crews on the east bank were rounded up to meet one of their vehicles that was carrying more brass hats than they had ever seen in one place. The men were deadly tired and hollow-eyed, their battledress crumpled and their boots plastered with mud. Their days involved many hours of continuous work, with a few precious intervals for rest and sleep, and the arrival of the generals was less than welcome. As the VIPs clambered down, however, they began to take more interest. Major General Hobart, their divisional commander, was of course a familiar figure; equally familiar, although not many had seen him in the flesh, was the Army Group commander, Field Marshal Sir Bernard Montgomery, casually dressed and wearing their own black beret; some probably recognised Lieutenant General Neil Ritchie, commanding XII Corps, but not many could have put a name to Field Marshal Sir Alan Brooke, Chief of the Imperial General Staff, or to General Sir Miles Dempsey, commander of the British Second Army. Yet it was a cherubic figure wearing only a lieutenant colonel’s insignia on the shoulder straps of his British Warm, and the badge of 4th Hussars, his old regiment, in his standard service dress cap, who attracted most attention. As he called the men to break ranks and gather round delighted grins began to spread and there were astonished exclamations of: ‘It’s Winnie!’ The Prime Minister congratulated the men on their efforts and Montgomery, completely relaxed after the success of the operation, urged them to take advantage of the situation: ‘Go on, ask him for a cigar!’ At that precise moment, it would have been strange for one so steeped in a sense of history if Churchill had not reflected on how armoured warfare had developed since he had encouraged its first painful beginnings some thirty years earlier. Later, he visited the US Ninth Army’s bridgehead, causing near heart failure among senior American officers by repeatedly exposing himself to danger.

The CDLs of B Squadron 49 RTR had also fulfilled their promise. They naturally attracted much of the enemy’s fire, and consequently were unpopular neighbours, but they were difficult to locate and only one tank was lost. From 25 March until 6 April their role became the night defence of the pontoon bridges which the engineers had worked at top speed to complete. Three frogmen were exposed by the flickering beams and captured, and a large number of floating objects were engaged and sunk. Some of the latter exploded and while most of these devices were primitive mines consisting of logs to which charges had been strapped, one was thought to be a midget submarine, of which the Germans had several types. The CDL squadron followed up the advance into central Germany and was in action again during the crossing of the Elbe at the end of April.

During the last month of the war in Europe 79th Armoured Division was again dispersed across a very wide area, assisting in the liberation of those parts of Holland still under German control, driving north to participate in the capture of Bremen and Hamburg, and east until contact was established with the Russians. One of the most remarkable facts about the division’s history was that the nature of both its equipment and the operations it undertook was successfully concealed from the general public until after the Rhine Crossings. The media then received appropriate releases, resulting in a series of sincere if over-enthusiastic tributes, some of which fell just short of claiming magical powers.

At this period the divisional strength amounted to 21,430 men and 1566 armoured fighting vehicles; the strength of a conventional armoured division was about 14,400 men and 350 AFVs. 79th Armoured Division was a unique formation, although a similarly equipped but much smaller assault brigade supported the British Eighth Army’s final offensive in Italy. ‘Hobo’s Funnies’ were disbanded in 1945, and although assault engineering techniques have reached new levels of sophistication, no formation of the same size and scope as Hobart’s division has been formed since, for the good reason that the circumstances that called it into being have mercifully never been recreated.

Staghound

Chevrolet’s fortune with the T17E1 was much brighter. The first pilot vehicle also was delivered to Aberdeen Proving Ground in March 1942. After inspection, it was sent along with the second pilot to the General Motors Proving Ground for tests. Although many mechanical failures occurred, they appeared to be easily corrected. The changes involved the gear box, differential, universal joints, and splines. A wooden mock-up of the production model was completed on 16 June 1942 and the final stowage was approved. The production vehicle carried a crew of five, two men in the hull and three in the turret, with a gross weight of 32,000 pounds. The hull itself was a main structural element so no frame was required. The springs, steering gear, and transfer case were attached directly to the hull.

The turret was similar to that designed for the light tank T7, but the thickness was reduced to 1 1/4 inches at the front, sides, and rear and 3/4 inches at the top. The hull armor ranged from 7/8 inches at the front to 3/8 inches at the rear. The frontal armor of the hull and turret was angled at 45 degrees from the vertical. Turret armament consisted of a 37mm gun M6 and a .30 caliber machine gun in a coaxial mount. A .30 caliber machine gun was on the turret roof and another such weapon was mounted in the right front hull. The cruising range was extended by jettisonable fuel tanks installed on each side of the vehicle. Two 97 horsepower, six cylinder, GMC engines were mounted in the rear hull. The engines could be operated simultaneously or individually. A Hydramatic transmission for each engine transmitted its power to a single, two speed, transfer case. From there, drive shafts powered the front and rear axles. Named the Staghound I, the T17E1 was authorized for production to fill British requirements. A total of 2,844 T17E1s were built from October 1942 through December 1943. The T17E1 was never standardized, although standardization as the armored car M6 was proposed at one time and some of the name plates bear that designation in anticipation of standardization.

Although the Staghound was widely used by the British forces, it was not a popular vehicle. Designed for the desert, it was considered to be too large and heavy for operations in Italy and France. The following comments were taken from the history of the 11th Hussars entitled “The Eleventh at War” by Brigadier Dudley Clarke.

“The Staghound was an American product intended to replace the Daimlers at the squadron and regimental headquarters. It was a huge vehicle, 8 feet broad and 13 tons in weight carrying a crew of five with a 37mm gun and a .3 Browning machine gun. The 11th Hussars found it unwieldy and it never earned their affection.”

Staghound T17E1 armored car specification

Creator: United States of America

User: Britain, Canada

Denomination: T17E1 Armored Car

Number built: 4,094

Length: 5,49 m

Width: 2,69 m

Height: 2,36 m

Weight: 14,000 kg

Maximum speed: 89 km/h

Operational range: 724 km

Secondary armament: one 37 mm M6 gun

Main armament: three 7,62 mm machine guns

Engine: two rear-facing 6-cylinder GMC 270, 97 hp each (72 kW)

Crew: 5

Armor: from 13 mm to 51 mm

Posted in AFV

Guy Armoured Car

With the first mild-steel prototypes appearing in 1938, the Guy armoured car was the first all-welded armoured fighting vehicle to be produced for the British Army, a feat which was recognised by the Royal Commission on Awards to inventors after the war, when Guy Motors was awarded a sum of £5,000.

The basis of the vehicle was the chassis of the Guy Quad Ant field artillery tractor, which had been redesigned by the Royal Ordnance Factory (ROF) at Woolwich to place the engine at the rear, and which had been fitted with reinforced suspension to accommodate the increased weight. Whilst the early prototypes were of riveted construction, the company proposed to the War Office that a welded hull would provide a higher standard of protection and special jigs and manipulators were constructed to facilitate the process. initially described as `tank, wheeled, Mk I’, with its 15mm-thick armour and turret-mounted machine gun, the production versions of the vehicle offered the same levels of protection, and the same type of armament, as the British light tank Mk VI.

The first armoured examples appeared in 1939. in its Mk I configuration, of which 50 examples were constructed, the vehicle carried a turret-mounted 0.5in Vickers machine gun, together with a co-axial Vickers 0.303in; the Mk IA, which accounted for the remainder of production mounted 15mm and 7.92mm Besa machine guns. some examples may have also been fitted with a Boys anti-tank rifle as the main armament.

The power output of the Meadows 4ELA four-cylinder engine was 53bhp from a capacity of 3,686cc, and, in combination with a four-speed gearbox, was capable of propelling the 5.2-ton vehicle at a maximum speed on the road of 40mph (65km/h). Rigid axles were used front and rear, suspended on semi-elliptical multi-leaf springs.

Total production amounted to just 101 vehicles before Guy handed the design over to the Rootes Group although the company continued to produce the hulls for what became the Humber Mk I armoured car.

A handful of Guy armoured cars went to France in 1939, but from 1940 the type was used only for training and domestic defence work including the escorting of VIPs.

In 1940, the lower part of the hull was also used to construct a wheeled armoured carrier, but there was no series production. With the turret removed and the hull modified, the Guy was also used as an experimental mount for the 25-pounder (87.6mm) field gun, but, again, there was no series production.

Designed              1938

Manufacturer      Guy Motors

Produced              1939-1940

No. built                101 (50mk.1 & 51mk.1a)

Specifications (Mark I)

Weight 5.2 long tons (5.3 t)

Length   13 ft 6 in (4.12 m)

Width    6 ft 9 in (2.06 m)

Height   7 ft 6 in (2.29 m)

Crew      3

Armour up to 15 mm (0.59 in)

Main Armament .5 inch Vickers machine gun

Secondary Armament .303 inch Vickers machine gun

Engine   Meadows 4ELA 4-cyl petrol engine 55 hp (41 kW)

Power/weight     10.6 hp/tonne

Transmission       4 forward, 1 reverse gear

Suspension          4 x 4 wheel

Operational range 210 mi (340 km)[1]

Speed    40 mph (64 km/h)

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Cold War Main Battle Tanks I

During the Cold War the confrontation between NATO and Warsaw Pact tanks came to exemplify the land battle in a way that had no parallel at sea or in the air. Indeed, the tank became the dominant symbol by which armies not only were judged by others but also judged themselves; and when the Chieftain tank was described as the ‘virility symbol’ of the British army, the comment could equally well have been applied to other tanks and other armies.

THE REQUIREMENT

The main battle tank, like any piece of military equipment, was designed to meet a specification laid down in a general-staff requirement. The various armies had generally similar requirements, although, since the design of any weapons system must inevitably involve compromises, they tended to make different judgements on the relative priorities.

The requirement started with the tank’s offensive capabilities, which were that it had to be able to destroy the following:

• Tanks in daylight at an ever-increasing range. In the 1960s this was 2,000 m, but by the late 1970s it had increased to 3,000 m, and up to 5,000 m if possible, which had to be achievable with at least two different types of ammunition.

• Light armoured vehicles (e.g. armoured cars and armoured personnel carriers) at ranges out to 5,000 m, and troops in the open at all ranges between 75 m and 2,000 m.

• Field defences by direct fire using a high-explosive round (and also to fire smoke and illuminating rounds).

• Aircraft, particularly helicopters and drones, flying at low altitude (150 m) and low speed (maximum 300 km/h).

In order to perform these tasks the tank needed to be immune to enemy anti-tank weapons, using a combination of armour protection and the ability to present a small target by using ground, smoke and agility. Apart from protection against enemy anti-tank weapons, the crew also needed protection against nuclear, biological and chemical (NBC) weapons. The tank needed to have good cross-country mobility, coupled with long range to enable it to work over wide fronts and at great depths.

There was a host of other requirements, as well. For example, all nations required to move their tanks by train, which meant that the vehicle had to fit on to a standard flat wagon, and that its height and width must fit inside the relevant railways’ standard loading gauge. Similarly, weight was restricted by national road and bridge load-bearing capacities, as well as by the capability of tank-transporter vehicles. The designer’s task was to endeavour to meet as many of these requirements as possible, and, where they conflicted with each other, to achieve a compromise acceptable to the general staff.

TANK DEVELOPMENT 1949–1989

The story of the development of the tank is typical of that of many weapons systems during the years of the Cold War as NATO and the Warsaw Pact vied with each other in a seemingly endless competition, which cost their countries vast sums of money and kept some of their finest scientific brains and key defence industries fully employed.

All tanks are, in essence, compromises between mobility, firepower and protection, and the major armies came to differing conclusions about the balance, based primarily upon their experiences in the Second World War, but with some changes resulting from later conflicts such as the Korean and the Arab–Israeli wars. Thus the Soviet army, with its strategy of attack, was wedded to the concept of a fast, highly manoeuvrable tank with good firepower, which had also to be available in large numbers; protection and casualties were relatively low priorities in an army awash with manpower. The British, shaken by the way their tanks and in particular their guns had been outclassed by German tanks throughout most of the Second World War, vowed never to be outgunned again. Accordingly, they gave firepower the top priority, followed closely by protection, and with mobility a poor third; as a result, throughout the Cold War, British main battle tanks were almost invariably the heaviest in service. The Americans fell somewhere in between, their thrusting tactics requiring speed and manoeuvrability, with firepower second and protection third. All NATO countries, however, were convinced that the answer lay in defeating the sheer quantity of Soviet tanks by superior Western quality and sophistication.

Defeating the Opponent’s Tanks

There were four types of weapon for use against other tanks:

• Very-high-velocity solid projectiles fired by other tanks. These depended upon their kinetic energy to punch their way through the armour. and included the armour-piercing discarding sabot (APDS) and the armour-piercing fin-stabilized discarding sabot (APFSDS).

• High-explosive anti-tank (HEAT) projectiles, fired by enemy tanks or infantry. These used chemical energy to burn a hole through armour. Since the effect of these rounds did not depend on the velocity of the projectile, this type of warhead was used both in tank guns and in antitank guided missiles.

• High-explosive plastic (HEP) projectiles, fired by tanks. In these the round blistered on to the face of the armour plate and then exploded, dislodging a scab on the inner face which ricocheted around the inside of the tank.

• Anti-tank mines, which attacked the belly of the tank.

• Top-attack minelets, delivered by aircraft or artillery shells, which used small HEAT charges to attack the top of the tank.

Two of the key criteria in the use of tank guns to fight other tanks were, first, their ‘first-round kill probability’ and, second, the achievement of ever greater range. These depended on a host of factors, each of which was repeatedly addressed during the course of the Cold War. The most effective rounds were those using kinetic energy to penetrate the enemy armour. The kinetic energy of a moving body is the product of the body’s mass multiplied by the square of its velocity, all divided by two:

Both variables in this equation were tackled with enthusiasm.

The rounds’ mass was increased by fabricating the rounds of ever denser material: first steel, then tungsten carbide and finally depleted uranium. Even greater attention was paid to increasing the velocity, since, as the equation above shows, the effect of this was squared. The original round was the armour-piercing discarding sabot, which was spin-stabilized, being ‘spun up’ by the rifling in the gun barrel; the mass could be increased by making the round longer, but beyond a length-to-diameter ratio of about 7:1 the round became inherently unstable. A length-to-diameter ratio of about 12:1 could, however, be obtained by making the round fin-stabilized, with almost negligible rotation. This resulted in a smooth-bore barrel, which was initially examined and rejected by the US army in the early 1950s, but which was adopted by the Soviets and the West Germans in the 1970s, even though it meant that none of the existing spin-stabilized range of ammunition could be fired and an entirely new range had to be produced.

The construction of the barrel and the methods by which it was produced were also critically re-examined, and new and more exotic production processes were developed to produce ever truer barrels. The question of increasing the accuracy of assessments of range to the target also exercised the tank designers, since, in a direct-fire engagement, the more precisely the range is known, the more likely it is that the first round will hit. In the early 1950s most tanks used an optical rangefinder, but the accuracy of such a device depends upon the length of its ‘base’ (i.e. the distance between the two lenses), which was limited by the width of the turret. A delicate optical device was also at an obvious disadvantage in a vehicle which travelled over rough terrain and which could expect to be hit by incoming rounds.

The British produced a simple system in which a machine-gun, mounted coaxially with the main gun and firing rounds which were ballistically matched to the APDS rounds, was used to find the range. This was accurate and cheap, but the intended target knew from the machine-gun hits that it was under attack and there was always a brief pause between the British tank gunner seeing the hit and firing the main gun. Finally came lasers, which were not only absolutely precise and gave an immediate read-out to the gunner, but were also difficult for the enemy tank to detect, although laser-warning devices started to be fitted in the 1980s.

As time went by, research revealed increasingly exotic factors which could affect the probability of a first-round hit. These included ambient weather conditions, since crosswinds could blow the round off course, while rain, temperature and humidity could also cause minor deviations. As a result, tanks were fitted with environmental sensors so that these factors could be included in the fire-control equation. Also, because the tank would be firing from a hastily chosen fire position, it was unlikely to be level, and so the angles relative to true vertical and true horizontal had to be calculated and allowed for.

It was also discovered that, despite the ever more sophisticated methods of manufacture, barrels had become so long that they bent under their own weight. The amount of what was known as ‘droop’ was infinitesimal, but it was just enough to affect the gun’s accuracy. Thus a reflector was fitted in a protective housing above the muzzle and a laser in the turret detected the amount by which the barrel was off true. This too then became part of the fire-control calculations.

By this time the quantity of information being fed to the gunner was so large that he needed assistance from a fire-control computer. The complexity of the computer increased rapidly as its value was more fully appreciated – not least because it could perform a number of tasks automatically, thus easing the load on the tank gunner. One effect of the introduction of computers – usually known as ‘integrated fire-control systems’ (IFCS) – was to cause a rapid escalation in tank costs.

Defending One’s Own Tanks

The tank also had to be defended against enemy anti-tank weapons. In the 1940s and 1950s tank hulls and turrets were fabricated from cast homogenous steel, with the thickest armour in the forward quadrant, while protection against HEAT and HEP projectiles was obtained in some designs by spaced armour. As the kinetic-energy weapons became more powerful, tank designers responded by sloping the armour, thus effectively increasing the distance to be penetrated by the incoming round, as well as increasing the possibility that the round would ricochet off the plate. In the 1970s the British introduced ‘Chobham’ armour, which was created by mixing layers of conventional armour plate and ceramic materials, which effectively overcame the menace of the HEAT round. Then, in the 1980s, explosive reactive armour (ERA) appeared, in which the most vulnerable areas of the tank were covered with specially tailored explosive blocks, which were detonated when hit by an APDS/APFSDS projectile, thus diverting it away from the tank. The blocks were individually bolted to the armour plate and could be easily replaced. The Soviets also developed a special lining for the interior of their tanks, which was designed to prevent small metal fragments from ricocheting around the crew compartment.

These defences were all intended to defeat direct-fire weapons, but the anti-tank mine meant that the underneath of the tank had to be protected, as well. Such mines also attacked the tracks, damage to which could prevent the tank from moving, thus scoring a ‘mobility kill’.

Finally, the tops of the tank hull and turret were for many years more lightly armoured than the rest of the tank, because they were relatively safe from attack. In the 1980s, however, these areas also became targets for attack by a new weapon, the bomblet with a HEAT warhead, which was delivered in large numbers either by artillery shells or in canisters dropped by aircraft.

Tank Propulsion

At the start of the Cold War, Soviet tanks were all diesel-powered, while all Western tanks were powered by petrol engines. A petrol engine provided greater power for a given weight than a diesel, but fuel consumption was very high, resulting in a short range and a large load on the logistics system; the British Centurion Mk 3, for example, which served in the Korean War, had a range of just 161 km and had to tow a single-wheeled trailer to increase this. Also, petrol was inherently dangerous, with the US M4 Sherman being especially notorious for ‘brewing up’ when hit.

One of NATO’s earliest attempts at standardization was to insist that military engines should all be capable of ‘multi-fuel operation’, so that they could use petrol of varying grades and also diesel, with only minor adjustments required on changing over. This was tried and proved an expensive failure, and tank engines rapidly changed to diesels or turbo-charged diesels, which not only offered much greater range but also were markedly less flammable. In the 1980s, however, the US M1 Abrams entered service powered by a gas turbine, which offered exceptional power output for it size.

The ever-increasing power output from these engines tended to offset the growing weight, as is shown by the power-to-weight ratio, which is a fairly reliable means of assessing tank mobility. This increased from 10 kW/tonne for the British Chieftain in the 1970s to 19 kW/tonne for the US M1 and 20 kW/tonne for the German Leopard 2 in the 1980s.

SOVIET TANKS

Throughout the Cold War it was the Soviet tank force which held the initiative, with the West reacting to this. Soviet designers were innovative, while the Soviet General Staff appeared to be much less conservative about the design and employment of tanks than many of their counterparts in the West. There was also a fundamental difference in approach between the Soviet/Warsaw Pact and NATO armies, since the former were building tanks in very large numbers for an attack, whereas the latter built much fewer tanks for defence.

At the start of the Cold War, the Soviet armoured forces had tremendous prestige, having played a major role in the defeat of Nazi Germany. The main Soviet tank, the T-34, had come as a very unpleasant surprise to the Germans, having good armoured protection and being very robust, not too heavy (32 tonnes) and totally devoid of any frills. It was originally armed with a 76.2 mm gun, but was later upgunned with an 85 mm weapon, and in the early days of the Cold War this T-34/85 was considered to be a major threat to NATO’s Central Front.

The T-34/85 was complemented by the JS-3 (JS = Josef Stalin) heavy tank, which caused particular concern to Western armies in the early years of NATO, since it was armed with a 122 mm gun – by far the heaviest and most powerful weapon in any tank of that era, and able to defeat any NATO tank. In addition, the cast hull and turret were excellently shaped and made of armour up to 230 mm thick, which would have resisted any existing NATO tank gun. The JS-3 weighed 46 tonnes, had a maximum speed of 40 km/h, and, for its time, was a very formidable threat, and Western countries produced a number of tanks specifically to counter it. The JS-3 was produced in moderate numbers and was succeeded by the T-10, essentially an improved JS-3, but with even better armour, a newer and more powerful version of the 122 mm gun, and a new engine giving greater speed. The T-10 was in production from 1957 to the early 1960s, when it was phased out in favour of the T-62 medium tank, but, with the JS-3, it remained in service with reserve units for many years.

Meanwhile the major development effort was concentrated on the first post-war Soviet medium tank, the T-54, which entered service in 1954 and served with all the armies of the Warsaw Pact. Over 95,000 T-54s and an improved version, the T-55, were produced in the USSR, Czechoslovakia, Poland and China – a production run which lasted some thirty years, setting a record which is unlikely to be surpassed. The hull was well sloped, with thick armour, and the low, squat, hemispherical turret was designed to prevent penetration by anti-tank rounds, causing considerable discussion in the West. The T-54/55’s 100 mm gun was powerful for its time, and with their good cross-country performance and low profile these tanks were ideal for the Warsaw Pact requirements.

Next to appear was the T-62, which entered service in 1962 and was of generally similar shape and layout to the T-54/55, but slightly larger. It introduced the yet more powerful 115 mm gun (at a time when the West was standardizing on 105 mm), which was also the first smooth-bore tank gun to enter service, enabling it to fire fin-stabilized rounds with considerably greater muzzle velocity. The T-62 was, however, only a qualified success: among its serious shortcomings were a poor suspension, a tendency to shed its tracks, vibration, and an automatic cartridge-case ejection system which could severely injure its crews. These problems led to a much modified version, with a revised suspension, the T-72.

There then followed the T-64, a totally new design throughout, with a new 125 mm smooth-bore gun and a twenty-two-round automatic loader, which enabled the crew to be reduced to three men. The T-64B introduced a revised 125 mm gun, which was capable not only of firing normal rounds, but also of launching a radio-guided anti-tank missile with a range of up to 4,000 m. There was a new-style angular turret, which, together with the glacis (i.e. front) plate was fabricated from composite steel/fibreglass armour. The running gear, which gave good cross-country performance, was based on that of the JS-3, but, surprisingly in an army renowned for its simple, powerful and reliable engines, the power unit in the T-64 proved to be very unreliable. With horizontally opposed pistons, this was of similar layout to the British Chieftain tank engine, which also proved very troublesome. This led to the T-80, which was essentially an improved T-64 with a completely new gas-turbine power pack.

The T-72, which was produced in parallel with the T-64, had a different hull and suspension from the T-64, but mounted the same 125 mm smoothbore gun/missile launcher as in the T-64B. Later versions also included a laser rangefinder.

All these Soviet tanks were built in vast numbers and, as happened in other armies, they were constantly being upgraded and rebuilt. As new models appeared the older models were simply passed along the chain to lower-category units, thence to reserve units, and finally to storage depots, making it almost impossible to say that a Soviet tank had actually gone out of service.

Since their tanks were built to attack, and because much of western Europe’s terrain is criss-crossed by small rivers, the Soviets gave their tanks a river-crossing capability. This involved making the entire tank watertight and fitting a breathing tube to the turret hatch. Thus, if bridges were unavailable, Warsaw Pact tanks were able to wade across rivers up to 4.5 m deep, although the breathing tube was so narrow that there was no question of the crew using it for an escape, and river-crossing exercises were viewed with considerable trepidation by Warsaw Pact tank crews.

The Soviet army was consistently able to produce tanks which were at least 10 tonnes lighter than their Western counterparts. These tanks were built for a specific purpose – attacking in large numbers – and they suited that purpose well. Soviet designers were consistently innovative, producing new types of round and gun, and fielding devices such as automatic loaders at a time when Western designers were well short of perfecting them.

A major advantage for the Warsaw Pact was that its forces used only Soviet-designed tanks, which resulted in a great degree of standardization.

Although Soviet tanks were never used in anger against Western tanks in Europe, they did meet in wars in the Middle East and Asia. Generally speaking, in a one-on-one engagement the Western tanks proved superior in such wars – although not by a very wide margin. In the event of a conventional Warsaw Pact attack in western Europe the vastly greater numbers could well have been difficult to counter, especially as they would then have been operated by crews with much better training than those in the Middle East.

NATO TANKS

At one level NATO did manage to achieve a degree of standardization on tanks. Standardization agreements (known as STANAGS) were agreed through NATO channels and were published on many matters concerning tanks, a common main-gun calibre and the types of ammunition to be used, so that rounds could be freely exchanged between different armies. There were also a series of NATO Standard Tank Targets, based on the known criteria of Soviet tanks, which were the baseline against which all NATO guns were tested. These STANAGS were reasonably successful, although the agreements were not absolutely binding and countries were able to abandon them without penalty, apart from the logistic disadvantage of being unable to use standard NATO items.

At the highest level, however – that of tank design – NATO standardization was much less successful. Four NATO nations – France, Germany, the UK and the USA – designed tanks, and there were numerous attempts to achieve commonality through collaborative projects, but, without exception, these came to naught. The first was between France and Germany in 1956, when the plan was for the two countries to agree on the general specifications for a tank, following which they would each design and build prototypes. These would then be evaluated, and the resulting winner would be placed in production in both countries. The Germans had a domestic competition between two consortia, the winner of which was pitted against the sole French entrant, but the two countries could not agree on the outcome. As a result, the French placed their entrant in production as the AMX-30, while the Germans produced theirs as the Leopard 1. In a further divergence from standardization, while the West Germans armed their tank with the British 105 mm L7 gun– at that time the de facto NATO standard – the French armed the AMX-30 with their own 105 mm design, whose rounds could not be used in the L7 barrel.

Then, in 1963, the USA and West Germany agreed on a joint programme for a common tank to replace the American M60 and German Leopard 1 in the 1970s. The designers were given carte blanche to produce a totally new and revolutionary main battle tank (MBT), and this they certainly did. Known as the MBT-70, it included numerous innovative ideas, the most striking of which was a 152 mm gun/missile launcher, launching the Shillelagh missile, firing conventional ammunition with combustible cartridge cases, and served by a fully automated loader. The suspension was capable of ‘squatting’ to achieve a low profile in a static position, and could also be extended to ensure good cross-country mobility. There was a very powerful engine, capable of accepting numerous different fuels in line with NATO’s ‘multi-fuel’ policy. In addition, the automatic loader enabled the crew to be reduced to three, all of whom were housed in the turret, with the driver in an independently rotating capsule which ensured that he always faced forward. Sensors included a laser rangefinder and an environmental-control/life-support system, while reliability standards were supposedly the highest ever achieved in a tank.

A prototype was running in 1967, but by 1969 costs were escalating out of control. Estimated unit cost of a production MBT-70 was $1 million per tank at a time when the then current production tank, the M-60A1, cost $220,000 (both at 1970 prices). A design was prepared for an ‘austere’ version, designated XM-803, but the US Congress stopped the entire programme in January 1970, and it was accepted in both the USA and West Germany that virtually all the money spent on the MBT-70 programme had been wasted.

Similar British–German and Franco-German collaborative projects were equally unsuccessful, although they were both cancelled before the expenditure had reached MBT-70 proportions.

Cold War Main Battle Tanks II

US Tanks

In the late 1940s the US army was equipped with two principal types of tank. The most numerous was the M4 Sherman medium tank, armed with a 75 mm gun and weighing 32 tonnes, which had proved a great success in the war, despite an unfortunate tendency to ‘brew up’ (i.e. to catch fire when hit). The second was the newer M26 Pershing, which had a much more powerful 90 mm gun, although, at 42 tonnes, it also weighed considerably more. Tank development was progressing at a relatively slow pace with the aim of introducing a new tank to replace these two in the mid-1950s when in 1950 the Korean War broke out, leading to a demand from the field army for newer and better tanks, to be delivered as quickly as possible.

This led to several ‘crash’ programmes, in the first of which a turret designed for the proposed mid-1950s tank was mounted on the existing M26 Pershing hull to produce the M47. The second design was based on a number of features of an experimental heavy tank and resulted in the M48. However, the US army paid a severe penalty for attempting to rush these two designs through the design and development stages, and the initial production versions of both the M47 and the M48 were unfit for combat use. Neither saw service in the Korean War, for which they had been designed, and it took several years to put everything right.

In the mid-1950s most Western tanks were armed with 90 mm guns, but Soviet tank armour was increasing in effectiveness, so the major armies started to seek even more powerful weapons. The US army produced an experimental 90 mm gun with a smooth bore, which enabled it to fire fin-stabilized projectiles, but in a competition with US-designed 105 mm and 120 mm guns and the British-designed L7 105 mm gun the latter won and was adopted, albeit with a US breech-block. At the same time it was decided to replace petrol engines with diesels, not least because the range of early M48s was a meagre 112 km. All of these enhancements, coupled with a totally new turret, were then incorporated into an improved M48, which was originally designated M48A2; but it was then decided that it was so different that it warranted a new designation, and as the M60 it served for many years as the army’s standard medium tank.

In the late 1950s development started of a 152 mm gun/launcher which was to be mounted in both the new air-portable light tank, the M551 Sheridan, and the planned MBT-70, which was under development with West Germany. Hopes for the new gun/launcher were very high, and, in view of the Soviet tank threat and possible delays in the MBT-70 programme, it was decided as an interim measure to mount the weapon in a totally new turret on the M60 chassis, the new version being designated M60A2. The project was approved in 1964 and a prototype was running in September 1965, leading to an order for 300 in 1967. What had appeared to be a neat interim design, however, turned into yet another major problem, with difficulties being encountered not only with the gun/launcher, but also with the Shillelagh missile, the 152 mm conventional round, and the mating of the new turret to the existing chassis. Production started in 1969, but was quickly suspended due to the unreliability of the first off the line, and service acceptance was not achieved until 1971, although even then the first operational unit was not formed until 1974. Thus it had taken ten years to get an ‘interim’ model using a majority of existing components into service. The M60A2 actually remained in service for under ten years, in what was a singularly poor programme and a very bad bargain for the US taxpayer.

With the collapse of both the US–German collaborative MBT-70 programme and the ‘austere’, US-only, XM-803 programme, the US army found itself in the early 1970s in the embarrassing position of being without a viable future tank. However, in 1973 contracts containing an outline specification were placed with two US companies, who then developed and built prototypes which ran competitive trials in 1976. Later that year it was announced that the Chrysler tank had won and would be put into production as the M1 Abrams. Although the tank was a purely American design, it was constructed from the British-developed ‘Chobham’ armour, while the main gun was a British L7 rifled 105 mm in the first version (M1 and Improved M1) and the German smooth-bore 120 mm in the MlAl. One of the major new features of the M1 was the use of a gas-turbine power unit, which provides high power, but at the cost of high fuel consumption. The tank eventually entered service in 1982.

British Tanks

The British had suffered from a succession of somewhat indifferent tank designs during the Second World War, but at the start of the Cold War the British prime production tank was the Centurion, which proved to be a great success. It was heavier than its contemporaries, the US M48 and the Soviet T-54, but the British were determined to have a well-armed and well-armoured tank following their experiences of being been consistently outgunned by German tanks, particularly the Panther and the Tiger. The Centurion’s main gun was progressively improved: the early tanks were armed with a 76 mm gun, but this was replaced first by an 83 mm gun and later by the L7 105 mm gun, which was so good that it was adopted by virtually every other army in NATO, except the French.

In the late 1940s the British also developed a heavy tank to meet the NATO requirement to defeat the Soviet JS-3. The Soviet tank’s armour was so thick that a very powerful gun was required to defeat it, and the British selected a US 120 mm gun, which, with its associated ammunition, was so large and heavy that the Conqueror tank, in which it was mounted, weighed 65 tonnes. The Conqueror earned a reputation of being slow and suffering from relatively poor mobility, although its top speed was only marginally less than that of the Centurion and its power-to-weight ratio (10 kW/tonne) was identical. Only 180 were built, and all were deployed in West Germany between 1955 and 1968 as tank destroyers.

In the 1950s the British started a project for their next tank, to replace both the Centurion and the Conqueror. This again followed their invariable Cold War priorities of firepower and protection, although one of their earliest decisions in this project caused considerable surprise among their NATO allies. The very powerful British L7 105 mm tank gun and its ammunition had become the virtual NATO standard in the 1950s, being installed in US M48s and M60s, British Centurions and West German Leopard Is, but the British themselves then became the first to leave the standard by insisting on a new 120 mm gun for this new tank. Initially, the new tank – named Chieftain – was beset by problems, particularly with the engine, transmission and suspension, but these were eventually resolved, particularly when an order from the shah of Iran for 700 tanks produced both money and an even greater sense of urgency to find a cure. The original staff requirement had been issued in 1958 and a prototype was running in 1959, but the Chieftain did not enter full service with the British army until 1967.

The search for a successor to the Chieftain began with a joint future-tank project with West Germany, but when this broke down in 1977 the British were forced to continue on their own in a project known as MBT-80. However, the contract to sell Chieftain tanks to Iran had led to a much improved version, known as Shir 2, of which several prototypes had been completed when the new Khomeini government suddenly cancelled the order. The British then decided to produce a modified version of Shir 2 to meet their own requirement for a Chieftain replacement. This tank, which had a new hull and power pack, but the same L11 120 mm gun as the Chieftain, was eventually placed in production as the Challenger, entering service in 1983.

German Tanks

The West German tank industry produced just two tank designs during the Cold War – Leopard 1 and Leopard 2 – both of which were outstandingly successful. The Leopard 1 was originally produced as part of the 1950s Franco-German project, but, when this fell apart, the German entry was placed in full production in 1963 for the German army. Some 4,561 Leopard 1s were produced in Germany between 1965 and 1979, with another 920 in Italy.

The Leopard 1 was conventional in design, being armed with a British L7 105 mm gun, powered by a multi-fuel engine, and with a crew of four. The design incorporated the lessons learned by the German army on the Russian front in the Second World War and was well armoured but also highly mobile. The Leopard 1 became the virtual NATO standard tank of the 1970s, equipping the Belgian, Canadian, Danish, Dutch, West German, Italian and Norwegian armies.

The Leopard 2 was started as a low-key insurance against the failure of the US–German MBT-70 programme, which turned out to have been a wise precaution. When the collaborative project was cancelled in January 1970, the Bundesheer placed orders for seventeen prototypes of the German design, which were completed in 1974. Production started in 1979, with 2,125 being produced for Germany, 445 for the Netherlands, and others for the Swiss and Swedish armies. One of the significant features of the Leopard 2 was the Rheinmetall smooth-bore 120 mm gun, which fired fin-stabilized ammunition and was able to penetrate the NATO standard heavy-tank target at a range of 2,200 m.

French Tanks

In the early post-war years the French worked hard to re-establish their military industries, one of the most important being tank design and production. Like the UK and the USA, the French produced a heavy-tank design in the late 1940s, intended to counter the JS-3. This 50 tonne tank was armed with a 120 mm gun, but did not go into production because large numbers of US M47s were made available under the US Mutual Defense Assistance Program. France then joined with Germany in a collaborative programme to develop a new medium tank, but, when they failed to agree with the Germans on a winner, the French placed their entry, the AMX-30, in full production in 1967. The AMX-30 was less heavily armoured and thus 3 tonnes lighter than Leopard 1. Also, whereas other NATO armies at that time were standardizing on the British 105 mm L7, the AMX-30 was armed with a French 105 mm gun. This had a rifled barrel, and its only anti-tank round was a unique HEAT projectile in which the charge was mounted on ball-bearings; this meant that, while the projectile body spun to maintain stability in flight, the charge remained stationary (or spun at a very slow rate), which, according to the French army, considerably enhanced its effect. All other NATO tanks carried at least two, if not three, types of anti-tank round, such as HEAT, HESH/HEP and APDS projectiles. The only other NATO country to buy the AMX-30 was Greece.

Several efforts to produce a replacement for the AMX-30, including a joint project with Germany, failed. In the end a new version, the AMX-30B2, was placed in production in 1981, and 693 of the original model were upgraded to the new standard. As the Cold War ended, a totally new French tank, the Leclerc, was about to enter production.

Collaboration

The NATO countries’ experiences with tanks typified much that was good about the Alliance, as well as some of its failures. There was a considerable exchange of information about the Soviet armoured threat and about each other’s plans for countering it. There was also a large degree of agreement on standards – particularly on weapon calibre, ammunition types, fuel and so on

There were also some substantial efforts – the term ‘heroic’ might not be an overstatement – to achieve collaboration. The Franco-German attempt in the 1950s and the German–US attempt in the 1960s both resulted in prototypes, but there were also several others, including one between West Germany and the UK in the 1970s, and another between France and Germany in the early 1980s, which came to naught even before the prototype stage had been reached. Part of the reason was that, for the countries concerned, the tank was so pivotal to the army’s prestige and to its self-image that, no matter how good the intentions at the start of a collaborative project, national considerations frequently reigned supreme. Another reason was that countries considered it vital to their national interests to maintain their own national research-and-development capabilities, as well as tank, gun and ammunition production bases. There were also the potential export markets to be considered. There was, however, one advantage in all this, in that, once the major tank producers had paid the research-and-development costs and had fought out their political battles with each other, the smaller NATO nations were then able to move in and place their tank, gun and ammunition orders at very advantageous prices.

Lessons from the Tank Programmes

The national programmes outlined above were hugely expensive, but there were other aspects which added significantly to the defence budgets. There were, for example, many projects which were either purely experimental or which were intended for production but never got beyond the prototype stage. For example, the US army’s experimental T92 was developed in the late 1950s. It included many new features, such as a 90 mm smooth-bore gun and a very low silhouette, but was cancelled in 1960 on the grounds that its hull and turret were so different from preceding tanks that production lines would have required complete retooling, which would have been more expensive than simply improving the M48 to produce the M60. The total costs of this abortive programme, including the development of the gun and the construction of eleven prototypes, was $25 million (at 1960 prices)

The NATO armies were faced with a major dilemma. First, information about Soviet equipment was sparse and, in general, the details of a new Soviet tank were learned only after it had entered service in East Germany with the GSFG. But, as has been made clear above, new-tank programmes were lengthy – a minimum of ten years for a completely new tank and gun – and there were many pitfalls. On those occasions that armies tried to shortcut the lengthy procurement system in order to get a new tank or a new gun into service quickly, they almost invariably landed in trouble, as did the US army with the M47 and M48 in the early 1950s. Even worse was the later experience with the M60A2, when the apparently simple ‘interim’ arrangement of marrying the 152 mm gun/launcher to a new turret on an existing chassis went seriously awry.

New programmes were, if anything, even worse. Design work on the replacement for the M60 started in 1965 with the German–US MBT-70 collaborative programme. After that programme had collapsed, however, and with numerous bureaucratic adventures (particularly with the US Congress) en route, the first M1s did not reach operational units until 1982 – seventeen years later. In the UK, consideration of a Centurion replacement began in 1951 and the first production Chieftains started to enter service in 1967, just one year fewer than the US M60 replacement, and without the complication of an ill-fated collaborative programme, although the new tank was not really satisfactory until well into the 1970s.

The fielding of a new type of tank was by no means the end of the story, however. Not only did design problems have to be sorted out, but in-service tanks were constantly being modified to incorporate such features as a new gun, additional armour or updated electronics. If the type was still in production, such improvements were incorporated into new builds, but they were also retrofitted into existing tanks, frequently at maintenance depots, in an effort to keep the design up to date. The British army, for example, fielded no less than thirteen major versions of the Centurion and ten of the Chieftain, while versions of the US M48 reached M48A5. One of the significant features of such retrofits was that they usually appeared in defence budgets under headings such as ‘maintenance’, while only new production vehicles appeared under the named tank programme, making it virtually impossible to ascertain the total ‘cradle-to-grave’ costs of a long-serving tank such as the M48, M60, Chieftain or Leopard 1.

ASSESSMENT

Design

The NATO and Warsaw Pact tanks of 1990 were immediately recognizable as lineal descendants of the tanks of 1949. All had a single main gun mounted in a rotating turret atop the hull, and the chassis was generally similar, with the driver at the front and the engine at the rear. There had, however, been some diversions on the way. The US developed the 152 mm combined gun and missile launcher, which served in the M551 Sheridan and the M60A2 but was then abandoned, whereas the Soviets perfected a similar system using a 125 mm barrel. The British experimented with liquid propellant for the tank round, which would have both simplified and reduced the stowage inside the tank and greatly improved safety, but this failed owing to difficulties in measuring the precise amounts needed. In the Soviet T-64 and T-72 the use of an automatic loader enabled the crew to be reduced to three men – a radical reduction which most Western armies considered at one time or another, but which was always rejected, even though it would have helped to ease their manpower shortages.

The Swedes aroused considerable interest in many armies with their S-tank, which had no turret, the gun (a modified version of the British 105 mm L7) being fixed instead in the glacis plate. The gun was trained in line by rotating the vehicle on its tracks and elevated by using the adjustable suspension system. The British were sufficiently interested to lease a company’s worth of S-tanks for a year of trials and exercises in West Germany, and they also built a prototype of a similar vehicle. But the British project was dropped in favour of the traditional rotating turret, while the Swedes, having praised the virtues of the S-tank for many years, replaced it with the German Leopard 2, which had a conventional rotating turret.

One problem designers were always wrestling with was that of the overall height of the vehicle. Taking three typical 1960s tanks as an example, the Soviet T-62 was lowest at 2.4 m and the US M60A1 the highest at 3.26 m, with the British Chieftain in between at 2.9 m. There were two limiting factors: the height of the sitting driver dictated the height of the hull, while the height of the standing loader dictated the height between the floor and the turret roof. Various solutions were found. The French and Soviet armies placed a maximum height limit on selection for tank crews, while the British introduced a semi-reclining position for the driver. The main problem, however, was that of the loader, who had to stand to perform his job, and the only effective solution was to get rid of the task altogether by installing an automatic loader. It was for this reason, rather than economy of manpower, that Soviet tanks from the T-72 onwards were fitted with autoloaders.

Some unusual solutions were tried, although few ever progressed beyond range testing. The West Germans, for example, tested a tank with two 105 mm guns, in an effort to increase the firing rate, but that proved a dead end. In a different approach in the quest for ever greater tank-killing power, the British used one Centurion chassis to test a 183 mm gun in a boiler-plate turret and another for trials with a 180 mm gun in an open mount with a concentric recoil system and an automatic rotary loader. Neither progressed beyond the prototype stage.

During the period of the Cold War, tanks certainly increased in capability, with bigger guns, thicker armour, more powerful engines and ever more sophisticated command-and-control systems, but one major consequence was that the weight grew inexorably. In the British army, for example, the initial version of the Centurion, which entered service in the mid-1940s, weighed 49 tonnes, while the final version, the Mk 13, weighed 52 tonnes. The successor, the Chieftain (1960s) weighed 55 tonnes, and the next tank, the Challenger (1980s), a massive 62 tonnes. Even the Soviets, who believed very strongly in keeping tank weights down, suffered from similar problems: their T-34/85 (1940s) weighed 32 tonnes, while the T-54 (1950s) came in at 36 tonnes, the T-62 (1960s) at 37 tonnes and the T-72 at 43.5 tonnes.

Costs

The true cost of a tank is difficult to discover, not least because the various nations involved use differing criteria to arrive at a final figure. With these provisos in mind, a careful analysis of the unit costs of US tanks at 1972 prices arrived at the following figures:

M47 $207,300

M48 $203,400

M60 $185,200

MBT70 $1,058,200

M1 $570,000

Prices steadily escalated, and the hull, turret, gun and most components cost more as the Cold War progressed; the British Challenger 1, for example, cost £3 million at 1985 prices. Most components increased in cost, but by far the greatest cost escalation was in the electronic devices, such as fire-control systems, sensors, engine controls and radios.

Antitank Warfare in the Spanish Civil War

German Artillerymen of the Condor Legion prepare to fire a Flak 18 88mm cannon onto Republican lines at the Battle of Amposta during the Spanish Civil War; Catalonia, Autumn 1938.

Italian 47mm M-35 antitank guns were supplied for the use of the Italian Volunteer Corps only.

Spanish troops with a proto-Molotov.

“Out-gunned, out-maneuvered, and hard-pressed, the Spanish had no effective answer to the tank, in desperation they resorted to hand-to-hand fighting”

JOHN WEEKS, MEN AGAINST TANKS: A HISTORY OF ANTI-TANK WARFARE, 1975

The Spanish Civil War was the war which produced the “Molotov cocktail,” but Spain also witnessed the first widespread use of antitank weapons, especially guns and most notably the German Rheinmetall 37mm Pak 35/36 and its Russian copy, the Model 1932 45mm antitank gun. These weapons, when skillfully used, proved very effective against tanks. The light tanks were extremely vulnerable to them, and learning from this lesson, production of medium and heavy tanks began in several major European armies. Combat in Spain proved that better armor was needed, even if the main tank contributors—Germany, Italy, and the USSR—did not initially show much haste when it came to making new and more effective tanks.

Since the early days of armored warfare, improved artillery was seen as the quickest solution for antitank defense. In Germany, the Rheinmetall corporation commenced the design of a 37mm antitank gun in 1924, and the first guns were produced in 1928 as the 37mm PanzerabwehrkanoneL/45, later adopted by the Wehrmacht as the Pak 35/36. It made its first appearance during the Spanish Civil War, and the Soviet Army soon upgraded the design to a higher-velocity L/45 Model 1935, while also making a licensed copy of the German gun. However, the Red Army was taught several hard lessons about antitank warfare when many tanks sent to aid the Republican Army were destroyed in combat engagements with German guns.

At the time, the predominant ammunition used against tanks was the armor-piercing kinetic energy shell that penetrated armor by direct pressure, spiking or punching through it. In Spain, the antitank defense of the Nationalists was organized by German Condor Legion officers. The antitank guns were incorporated into a system of obstacles created to stop an armored attack, slowing tanks down, isolating them from the supporting infantry with machine-gun and mortar fire, and forcing them to conduct deliberate head-on assaults with engineer support or to seek a less-defended area to attack. The time thus gained for the defenders meant that Nationalist field artillery could also engage the Soviet tanks.

The only change to German World War I antitank tactics was that an effective antitank weapon was now available to support the defending infantry. However, the Soviet tanks armed with 45mm guns easily destroyed the German light tanks in Spain, establishing an urgent need for antitank guns to be included in mobile tank-led units due to the strong possibility of encountering enemy tanks. To many analysts, the Spanish Civil War reconfirmed the importance of defense over the offensive and of antitank weapons over tanks.

Poorly trained Spanish tank crews among both Nationalist and Republican forces proved undisciplined and prone to attacking heavily defended positions even when equipped with antitank weapons. Tank attacks occurred with little prior reconnaissance and without coordination with supporting infantry and artillery. Too often, tanks made themselves vulnerable to destruction by moving on their own through village streets or remaining on open roads. It was the poor tank tactics that made antitank warfare so successful.

A report presented in Berlin on September 12, 1936, by Lieutenant Colonel Walter Warlimont pointed out that antitank defense was one of the main weaknesses of the Nationalist Army. Consequently, the first German antitank guns came with the first tank shipment the following month, comprising 24 Pak 35/36 37mm guns. An antitank company with 15 guns was formed immediately, with the remaining nine guns kept for training purposes under the supervision of the Drohne group at the German base in Cubas de la Sagra.

A further 28 guns of the same model arrived with the second shipment of tanks in November. With these new guns and four more from the Drohne group, making a total of 32 guns, the Nationalists organized their first three antitank companies. At the end of May 1937, another shipment of 100 37mm Pak 35/36s arrived at Vigo’s harbor for the Nationalist Army, which organized 10 antitank batteries with 10 guns each within the artillery branch, while 50 more guns were delivered in August. On April 14, 1938, the last shipment of antitank guns was received by the Nationalists, with 100 more Pak 35/36s delivered at Cubas de la Sagra, making a total of 352 Pak 35/36 antitank guns supplied to the Spanish Nationalist Army by Germany.

A problem arose when it was established that the antitank gun supplied by the Germans to the Nationalists had a maximum range of 900 meters, whereas the guns in Russian tanks could engage targets at up to 3,000 meters. The Nationalists, under German guidance, were forced to attach at least five antitank guns to each light tank company to provide some effective protection against Soviet tanks. However, the effect was minimal as understanding and coordinating the new tanks and antitank guns proved extremely difficult for the Nationalist forces. Despite much training, and to the dismay of German instructors, Nationalist troops often began shooting wastefully at targets far over 1,000 meters away.

The Condor Legion also made extensive use of the excellent 88/56mm Flak 18 antiaircraft gun in the civil war, where its usefulness as an antitank weapon and general artillery gun exceeded its antiaircraft role. The first four of these guns came to Spain even before the formal organization of the Condor Legion on August 6, 1936, landing with the first shipment of aviation equipment from the Usaramo cargo ship at Seville. They were part of the first heavy air defense artillery battery and arrived with a full complement of men and accessories. The battery was under the command of Luftwaffe First Lieutenant Aldinger, and the guns were to be used in Spain for the first time. The battery was soon combat-ready and was deployed at Seville’s military airfield as protection against Republican raids.

The air defense artillery unit of the Condor Legion was named Flak Abteilung 88 and was commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Hermann Lichtenberger, with Lieutenant Colonel Georg Neuffer as second in command and chief of staff. All air defense artillery personnel belonged to the Luftwaffe and not to the Army. Initially, four batteries—16 guns—of Flak 18 88/56mm guns were sent to Spain as air defense artillery for the Condor Legion in 1936, but they were soon used in antitank, antibunker, and even antibattery roles. Further guns were sent later, and more 88mm guns were also supplied to Spanish units. At the end of the war, the Spanish Army took over five batteries— 20 guns—from the total of 71 Flak 18 guns sent for the Condor Legion.

Soviet tank superiority was clearly shown in combat around Madrid, where, by the end of November 1936, the Nationalists lost a total of 28 Panzer Is plus several Italian L3s, resulting in a stalemate. Here, the Spanish People’s Army made the major mistake of not going on the offensive but remaining in a defensive posture. It was here around Madrid where the Nationalist forces employed for the first time in an antitank role, and with great success, their Flak 18 88mm guns. Such was their effectiveness that the Germans later turned the “88,” with some modifications made for ground-to-ground combat, into one of the most dreaded weapons of World War II. The “88” gun literally obliterated T-26 tanks in Spain at the first hit. Luckily for the Republicans, the 88mm guns were not supplied to the Nationalists in large numbers.

Not much is known about the first combat actions of Flak units in Spain, but unconfirmed reports point at 88mm guns entering combat in early 1937 during the fighting around Malaga, when a battery of Flak 18s was assigned to support an infantry column. Bad weather had grounded the main bomber force, but the assault succeeded, mainly because of the concentrated and accurate fire of the supporting 88mm guns.

The Flak 18 guns were deployed mainly to protect airfields and bases used by the Condor Legion. However, the nature of war in Spain, with its wildly fluctuating front lines and the presence of Russian tanks, forced the Germans to employ the Flak 18 guns in a direct-fire role against ground targets. Furthermore, the initial scarcity of Nationalist Spanish artillery and the general low proficiency of its crews soon forced the use of the Flak 18 gun as a direct-fire infantry support weapon. The Flak 88 group fought at the battle of Jarama, in February 1937. The following month, the unit moved northwards and took part in all the battles along the Northern front, where their tasks were divided between antiaircraft duties and field artillery employment. Flak 18 guns took part in the assault against Bilbao’s line of fortifications, the so-called “Iron Belt” (Cinturon de Hierro), and following the battle of Brunete, went north again to contribute to the Santander and Asturias campaign.

Flak 18 batteries were also employed by the Nationalist Army in the Aragon offensive and at the battle of Ebro in 1938, being used for direct fire against pillboxes and indirect fire in the advance towards Barcelona during the final campaign in Catalonia. During the battle of Ebro, Flak 88 batteries took up positions in the neighborhood of the main bridgehead as direct support to the ground forces.

By the end of the war, the 88mm guns had performed far more missions as an antitank and direct-fire field artillery gun than as an antiaircraft gun. In total, German 88mm guns were involved in 377 combat engagements, and only 31 were against enemy aircraft. On the other hand, the use of the 88mm guns in close vicinity to the enemy made them vulnerable to infantry fire. Casualties among the Legion’s 88mm gun batteries in the Spanish Civil War were second only to those of bomber pilots and crews. According to two different sources, which provided information to U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel Waite, the Germans alone manned their antiaircraft weapons. No one was allowed within a few hundred yards of them, especially the Spanish soldiers. The French War Department verified that “great secrecy surrounded the operation of these weapons.”

In May 1939, the Flak 88 unit returned to Germany, leaving practically all its equipment in Spain for the Nationalist Army. After the civil war, in 1943, more improved Flak models were sent to Spain—almost 90 88/56mm Flak 36s—and in the same year they were manufactured under license by the Spanish artillery factory at Trubia, near Oviedo, under the name FT 44. These remained in active service with the Spanish Army until the early 1980s.

Italy also sent various antitank guns to Nationalist Spain; however, these were only used by the Italian Volunteer Corps. They were mainly the Breda 47mm Model 35 antitank gun, but there were also some 37mm Models 36 guns, a copy of the German Pak 35/36 made in Italy under license from Rheinmetall.

The Republicans used a similar antitank gun to the German Pak 35/36, the Russian Model 19323 45mm gun. The first shipment of these guns took place on April 29, 1937, when the Republicans received just 15 guns. However, they later received 100 additional guns in May that year, and another 20 in December. In January 1939, the Republicans received through France the last three Soviet guns. The total number of Model 1932 guns delivered to the Republican Army was 138; however, throughout the war, the Republicans received a total of 494 guns of various calibers capable of antitank use. The Soviet Model 1932 45mm gun was a copy of the German Pak 35/36 after the Soviet Union purchased the rights for production from Rheinmetall in 1930 and began a small-scale procurement for the Soviet Army. However, the Soviet General Staff wanted a more “universal” gun able to fire both antitank and high explosive rounds, so the gun was scaled up to 45mm, entering production in 1932, created by Soviet artillery designer Loginov. Towards the end of 1937, the Model 1932 was pushed out by the Model 1937 45mm antitank gun. The new gun had better ballistics, a higher rate of fire, and was more reliable. The new wheels were also made of metal rather than wood (the Model 1932 also received metal wheels in 1937). However, due to insufficient armor penetration against the newest German tanks, it was subsequently replaced by the long-barreled Model 1942.

The Italian M35 47mm gun was a dual-purpose gun able to fire a high explosive round as well as an antitank projectile. It was originally an Austrian artillery piece produced under license in Italy. It was used both as an infantry assault gun and antitank gun, proving to be very successful, especially when equipped with HEAT (High Explosive Antitank) rounds. Due to its shape, the 47mm gun was commonly called the “elefantino” (little elephant) by Italian troops.

The British Major General Fuller wrote an interesting letter published in the London Times following a visit to Spain:

I have referred to the antitank gun several times. On the Nationalist side, the German 22mm gun, mounted on a small wheeled vehicle, has proved to be very useful. It is the gun that I saw in use with the German Army. Other German models are also reported to be in Spain, a 37mm and an Italian 47mm. From all the information that can be gathered, the German antitank gun is a very efficient weapon.

In May 1937, U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel Lee quoted an article by Liddell Hart, who said that “the defense against tanks has been developed and perfected more quickly and more effectively than the tank itself.” The antitank weapons used in Spain were clearly a threat to the tankers. As Colonel Fuqua, the U.S. Army attaché in Madrid, concluded, an infantryman with an antitank gun had no need to fear tanks.

The British antitank battery was formed within the International Brigades in May 1937 from 40 volunteers and was issued with three Soviet Model 1932 45mm guns, capable of firing both armor-piercing and high explosive shells that, at the time, represented state-of-the-art of military technology. Well led, trained by Russian instructors, and comprising a high proportion of students and intellectuals, they represented somewhat of an elite unit, and quickly became a highly efficient force in the 15th International Brigade.

After cutting its teeth at Brunete in July 1937, the battery was heavily involved in the battles at Belchite in August, where, according to Bill Alexander, the battery’s political commissar, the antitank guns fired 2,700 shells in just two days. During October 1937, the 15th International Brigade took part in the disastrous operation at Fuentes de Ebro, where the new BT-5 tanks were mauled. Initially, the antitank battery was held back from the main battle until the panicked brigade staff ordered it to advance on the Nationalist lines. None of the guns were able to fire and the battery’s second in command, Jeff Mildwater, was injured before the battery was eventually wisely withdrawn.

During the Aragon front retreat in the spring of 1938, the antitank battery was virtually surrounded and forced to fall back swiftly from Belchite, to avoid being cut off. The battery had to destroy one of its guns that could not be moved, while low-flying Nationalist aircraft destroyed another. With the battery no longer in existence, the men were incorporated as riflemen into the British battalion of the International Brigades.

The remark that antitank weapons had surpassed tank development was perhaps the most important conclusion reached about the use of tanks and antitank weapons in Spain. And if the trend was toward heavier tanks trying to overcome the threat of antitank weapons, there was also a trend for more powerful antitank guns.

In an article sent by American Lieutenant Colonel Lee to the Military Intelligence Division in the spring of 1937, Liddell Hart had argued that light antitank weapons had the advantage of being easily shifted from location to location and quickly brought up to the front lines. Other sources observed that antitank defense needed to be coordinated and that antitank guns were only part of the defensive plan. The U.S. Army attaché in Paris, Lieutenant Colonel Waite, commented that antitank weapons worked most effectively when they were used in combination with obstacles.

All tanks employed in Spain often faced antitank weapons that could immobilize or destroy them at any moment. The tank, that was supposed to return maneuver and offense to the battlefield, was countered with modern antitank weapons that gave the advantage back to the defense. To overcome the threat of antitank weapons, military attachés, observers, and their sources stressed the need for tanks to be employed en masse, not as separate weapons or in small groups. They also recommended that tanks be combined with infantry, which could hold the ground gained, and with artillery and aviation, that could protect the tanks by destroying or suppressing enemy antitank fire.

Although little technical data about antitank and antiaircraft weapons was gathered, there was general agreement on antitank weapons being effective in meeting their enemies in Spain. However, with the trend toward heavier tanks, there was an implied corresponding trend toward more powerful antitank weapons, as has been mentioned. With clouds of war gathering all over Europe, some countries looked to Spain to see what, if anything, they could learn. Unfortunately, most of the lessons were misleading, especially those relating to tanks being defeated. The issue seems to have been that whereas the designers of tanks saw clearly that they had to improve armor and gunnery, those whose specialty was antitank weaponry were quite happy with what they had achieved and took few active steps to improve anything. Such thinking was to work to the detriment of the German Wehrmacht when World War II began, as the Pak 36 was no longer as effective.

Regarding the war in Spain, when expectations about tank performance was not met, it was concluded that circumstances were so specific to the Spanish situation and its kind of war that battles fought there were unlikely to provide useful lessons for most European armies. Others, who had their predictions fulfilled, pointed to specific incidents as evidence that the testing ground of war had proven them right. Nowhere was this more apparent than regarding the efficacy of antitank weaponry. Officers who did not like the tank argued that combat in Spain clearly demonstrated the superiority of antitank guns over tanks. Tanks in Spain had proven themselves as less than the decisive force that some battles of World War I had promised, while antitank weapons now had an advantage in development over tanks.

Yet while the war on the ground was similar in its trenches and infantry battles to World War I, it was also a signal of changes to come in a future European war. Each country was confident that it had in service an adequate antitank defense. Yet, by 1939–40, before a year had passed, each was to find how over-optimistic these predictions had been, how vulnerable troops were, and how poorly the designers had prepared for the onset of the German blitzkrieg.