Panthers in the Snow I

COUNTERPUNCH by Nicolas Trudgian

On 24 December 1944 at Hèdrée, Belgium, General Rose of the 3rd Armored Division put out the warning: there can be no retreat from the German onslaught “or there will be a war to be fought all over again”. His “Spearhead” tankers of Easy Company, 32nd AR, took the message to heart.

With this message ringing in their ears, they went on the offensive, cutting the N4 road and buying time for reinforcements to reach the Battle of the Bulge. The Allied counterpunch also continues in the skies above as P-38s of the 370th FG as they to hunt their targets.

3rd Armored Division under Maurice Rose

Be careful what you wish for. Despondent over the bloody impasse in and around the West Wall, Lieutenant General Omar Bradley wanted the Germans to quit ducking and covering and defending every ramshackle pillbox to the last man. Come out and play. Come out into a mobile scrum in more open terrain where American firepower could tear them up.

At 5:30 a.m. on December 16, 1944, the Germans obliged.

“Well, Brad, you’ve been wishing for a counterattack,” said Lieutenant General Walter Bedell Smith, Eisenhower’s SHAEF chief of staff. “Now it looks as though you’ve got it.”

“A counterattack, yes,” replied Bradley. “But I’ll be damned if I wanted one this big.” The Twelfth Army Group commander got it anyway, courtesy of Adolf Hitler, no less. A winter offensive employing almost every viable mobile unit the Germans had left—no rational top commander would undertake such a massive gamble. But a megalomaniacal Austrian-born lance corporal? Why not?

The Germans struck hard against the First Army. Shielded from the Allied air armada by foul “Hitler weather,” the foe slammed into the southernmost 99th Infantry Division of the ill-used V Corps—still ensnared in the Hürtgen Forest—and tore up the strung-out VIII Corps: the brand-new 106th Infantry Division and the Hürtgen-ravaged 28th and 4th. The four U.S. divisions thinly outposted an eighty-mile front, the same Ardennes region that Bradley told himself wasn’t suitable for tanks. Poor Bradley. The map done him wrong again. Now three German field armies, a thousand panzers and a half million men, were on the move. The enemy envisioned going all the way to the just-opened port of Antwerp. Cut up the Americans, cut off the British, and possibly, at least in Hitler’s febrile mind, force the Allies to the bargaining table. Based on the thunderclap opening, Hitler’s troops might pull it off.

What now, Brad?

A book man to his bones, and fortunately not prone to panic, Bradley thought back to what he’d learned at West Point, Benning, and Leavenworth. Contain the breakthrough. Hold the shoulders. Block the foe’s leading panzer outfits at the major road junctions. Anchor on the high ground and rivers. And when the skies cleared—if that happy day ever came—tear ’em up. To do these things, Bradley needed more forces.

Here the Allied broad front approach, the U.S. 90-division force cap, and the British manpower shortage left the cupboard rather bare. Eisenhower had very little to offer his classmate Bradley. The SHAEF reserve consisted of XVIII Airborne Corps with the 82nd Airborne and 101st Airborne divisions. Both divisions were refitting after the September “bridge too far” operation in Holland. Although composed of well-led, hand-picked, highly trained volunteers, the airborne outfits were small (authorized 8,596 soldiers vs. a standard U.S. Army infantry division’s 14,253 men) and undergunned, with no tanks, no tank destroyers, and no standard field artillery. They’d have to pick up reinforcing units en route and make do. That was something at which the paratroopers and glider men excelled.

With the airborne troops en route, Bradley had to reconfigure his other chess pieces. Twenty-First Army Group to the north probably had nothing to provide; Monty had been borrowing U.S. divisions all through the fall of 1944. Sixth Army Group to the south had their own fish to fry and nothing to spare. So Bradley turned to his own three armies: the Ninth north of Aachen, the First with a gaping hole in its south end, and Patton’s Third Army fighting in the Saar. Bradley tapped the Ninth for the 7th Armored Division to speed toward the German penetration; the Ninth later sent the 30th Infantry Division, the 84th Infantry Division, and the 2nd Armored Division as well. Patton’s Third Army also received word to cough up the brand-new 10th Armored Division. Being Patton, and having already divined the German counteroffensive before it launched, the Third Army commander prepared to pivot his forces 90 degrees and attack into the south flank of the German forces. When the time came, Patton would be ready.

What about Hodges? His forces had taken it right in the teeth. But two-thirds of his First Army lay north of the German push. A good general would immediately march to the sound of the guns, moving right to the point of crisis to see and be seen, to steady the line. Not Hodges. The First Army commander did what he did best. Nothing. The fateful 16th of December passed calmly at the Hotel Britannique in Spa. The maps looked OK, and the bulk of the reports weren’t too alarming. The fact that a great many updates from the embattled VIII Corps were missing raised some eyebrows—that obviously wasn’t a good sign. Even so, the First Army commander didn’t stir from his headquarters. Indeed, Hodges kept his normal office schedule, to include hosting military visitors from SHAEF and going to bed on time. The general was nursing a head cold.

When looking at transcripts of fragmented radio messages from American headquarters in the Ardennes, Hodges told staff officers that the German offensive thrusts “were only what the General called ‘spoiling attacks’—to take the pressure off the important V Corps drive towards the Roer River dams.” The general assessed the German advances as being “in large patrol strength and others in battalion strength.” As a precaution, after calls from Joe Collins and the other corps commanders, Hodges consented to put the 1st Infantry Division, regrouping off-line, on six-hour alert for possible movement to the Ardennes. Hodges thought he might send a regiment off to backstop the hard-pressed 99th Infantry Division on the critical northern shoulder of the enemy offensive. The First Army commander was “neither optimistic nor pessimistic.” He was just Hodges. In later years, some would point to all of this as evidence of Hodges’s phlegm, resolution in the face of peril. Could be. Inertia became him.

Along with notifying the 1st Infantry Division to prepare to truck south, Hodges also sent an order putting the 3rd Armored Division on six-hour notice to go, too. It appears that the directive to ready the 1st Infantry and 3rd Armored divisions represented the First Army commander’s personal decision. Hodges picked the 1st Infantry Division because it was behind the front and available. He picked the 3rd Armored Division because of Maurice Rose.

Four days earlier and a lifetime ago, before the German onslaught, Hodges invited Major General Maurice Rose to the VII Corps command post near an abandoned segment of the West Wall. Joe Collins was there, of course. With hardly any preliminaries, the reticent First Army commander genuinely surprised Rose with an impromptu presentation. As a junior officer read the citation, Hodges stepped directly in front of his taller subordinate and pinned on the Distinguished Service Cross, America’s second-highest valor award. Only the Medal of Honor stands higher. The citation referred to Rose’s “extraordinary heroism” and “intrepid actions, personal bravery and zealous devotion to duty” from September 6 through September 9, 1944, during the advance across Belgium. As Hodges’s aide wrote afterward, Rose was “one of his [Hodges’s] favorite generals.” That constituted a very exclusive set given Hodges’s dour demeanor and disinterest in most of those he outranked.

The unexpected honor meant a great deal to Rose, as it would to any soldier. United States Army generals collect many medals, and in World War II that certainly held true. Most generals received the Distinguished Service Medal, prestigious no doubt, but presented for carrying out demanding responsibilities, not for valorous acts. Wiseacre G.I.s referred to it as the “generals’ good conduct medal,” the star-level version of a medal normally given to an enlisted soldier with a clean disciplinary record. Some World War II generals were awarded Silver Stars. Then Brigadier General Rose had one from Sicily to go with the two he’d received as a colonel in North Africa. He’d earned all three of them. Others seemed a bit gratuitous. Bradley, for example, received a Silver Star for “gallant actions” in 1945, although it’s not clear exactly what he did. Bravery comes in many forms.

The Distinguished Service Cross, though, came from a different category. That one resonated up and down the ranks. Hodges earned the award in 1918, and the First Army commander never approved a recommendation lightly. You could argue, as some Spearheaders did, that Rose deserved the medal more for the Rânes fight, or the contested Aisne River crossing, or Mons, or the bloodletting at the West Wall. No matter. Hodges signed what someone put on his desk, and did so without a second thought. With Maurice Rose, soldiers from general to private could vouch for his battlefield presence. They might not—indeed did not—know the man. But they knew where to find him.

Now with flotillas of German panzers crawling all over the floor of the Ardennes Forest, Rose got the call. It came late and garbled, transmitted from First Army through VII Corps. At 5:30 p.m. on December 18, 1944, Combat Command A moved out. They had orders to motor southwest and take up positions south of Eupen, Belgium. The Spearheaders hadn’t been in that neck of the woods since September. If the intelligence analysts had it right, enemy panzers were headed that way to link up with a German parachute drop.

Combat Command A’s Brigadier General Doyle O. Hickey asked a reasonable question. For whom did he work? The answers, and non-answers, spoke volumes.

First Army Headquarters initially claimed direct authority, but that didn’t last long. With reports of German SS panzers only seven miles south of Spa—and those frantic messages weren’t that far off—First Army command post troops began a hurried withdrawal to a secure location near Liege. Although later writings downplayed the degree of panic, the departure proved precipitate. Liaison officers from subordinate units who arrived at the deserted Hotel Britannique saw classified papers strewn about and marked maps on the wall. Telephones remained active. Even a fully trimmed Christmas tree had been left behind. Apparently, with his staff packing up and his forces in disarray, a dispirited, sick (and sick at heart) Hodges spent some time with his head on his desk. At least he got something useful done that day.

None of that helped Hickey and CCA. Hickey checked with V Corps headquarters, an organization busy with German infantry and panzers trying to overwhelm the north goalpost of what G.I.s had begun to call “the Bulge.” Weeks later, that became the name American soldiers used to refer to the bitter Ardennes combat. For CCA, there’d be no confrontation on the rim of the Bulge. Not yet. Their role involved hunting down German paratroopers dropped overnight on December 17–18. With that mission from V Corps, Hickey’s troops went to work.

The German airborne task force included officers and NCOs who’d fought at Carentan way back on June 13. There were other experienced men in the ranks, and some of the Luftwaffe Ju-52 transport pilots showed ability. Most of those doing the delivering and making the jump, however, were neophytes. Nazi Party fervor only took them so far. Buffeted by winds and dumped out by unsure pilots, 1,200 German jumpers scattered all over the north side of the Bulge. Some were put out as far to the east as Bonn on the Rhine River. After the botched assault, at least 125 enemy paratroopers gathered near Monschau and tried to cause some mayhem. Their ambuscades unnerved American rear echelon troops and headquarters staffs, including those at Hodges’s First Army. So Hickey’s CCA got told to sort it out.

A few bands of enemy airborne men ended up in the forests near Eupen. There CCA infantrymen and tankers made short work of the Germans. The Americans spread out, seeking parachutes draped in the trees along the main road running south from Eupen. Combat Command A patrols gathered up mis-dropped enemy ammunition, mortar, and machine gun cannisters, limiting the German airborne men to their shoulder arms and a few hand grenades. After a few brief clashes, a good number of the Germans raised their hands. The more enterprising melted into the woods, presumably heading for home.

With CCA already gone, the rest of 3rd Armored Division moved out on December 19. Beginning at 1:15 p.m., Combat Command B began heading to Spa to join XVIII Airborne Corps and stop the powerful German panzer force that flushed First Army headquarters. Courtney Hodges’s staff got away OK, but just south of Spa near the village of Stavelot lay an open-air depot containing a million gallons of gasoline. While First Army service trucks scrambled to gather these valuable stores, it proved no quick process. If a Waffen SS panzer column grabbed the fuel, they’d have enough gasoline to cross the Meuse River, no problem. The Allied strategic bombers had gutted much of Nazi Germany’s oil industry. But these Germans were more than willing to settle for gasoline from Oklahoma and Texas. Individual U.S. corps-echelon engineer battalions, displaced antiaircraft batteries, groups of truck drivers, and other orphan units blocked key routes snaking north toward the vital Stavelot gasoline yard. Sent by truck from north of Aachen, the American 30th Infantry Division filtered into the area company by company. Combat Command B rumbled south to join this critical fight.

A few hours after CCB departed, Major General Rose received orders to take his remaining forces (Omaha Forward, Combat Command Reserve, the 83rd Recon, and the Division Trains) sixty miles south and west to Hotton, Belgium, south of CCA’s para-hunting and west of CCB’s evolving Stavelot fight. Rose, too, had orders to report to XVIII Airborne Corps.

The motor march started as the gray day faded to inky blackness. Snow and sleet drifted down steadily all night, coating much of the roadway with a glaze of ice. The frozen moisture made it very tough to see, and the small vehicular telltale markers—in order to disguise the move from Luftwaffe aerial snoopers, headlights were not used—barely showed up a few feet away. The entire armored column of 1,200-plus vehicles extended dozens of miles. An officer described the situation:

The movement was a pure nightmare. Despite the system of guides and sentries the MPs [Military Police] had worked out on short notice, there was still lots of confusion and a stop and start situation all night. The intervals were extremely erratic and often after prolonged stops the vehicles would get stretched out. When this happened, the vehicle in the rear would drive rapidly to catch up, but in the mist and darkness it often came upon another stopped vehicle and banged into the rear of it. If a two-and-half-ton GMC [General Motors Corporation] truck happened to hit a three-quarter-ton weapons carrier, it would simply knock it off the road. If a tank skidded into a jeep it would squash it flatter than a pancake. I made sure I didn’t get in front of a tank that night.

Right in front rode Maurice Rose in his open-topped peep. Darkness and rotten winter weather may have grounded Allied air squadrons. But the unmanned German V-1 buzz bombs kept at it. Several pulsed overhead as Rose and his long column moved south. Liege was a favorite target, and at least one hit near the new First Army headquarters, killing sixteen officers and NCOs and wrecking two trucks. The V-1s added another danger to a night already replete with them.

As Rose’s peep passed Liege, the general’s aide Captain Bob Bellinger heard a buzz bomb’s characteristic putt-putt engine cut out. Not good. Out of the inky wet sky came a whoosh of air then a brilliant blossom of fire and thunderous detonation less than a hundred yards away. The blast wave skidded the peep to a stop, tossing Bellinger out. The aide picked himself up—head ringing, but all parts attached and working. He got back in the quarter-ton truck. Rose mentioned a headache, but nothing else. Off they went toward Hotton. The division’s tanks and trucks followed in fits and starts.

Just before midnight, near Hotton, frigid road guards of the 82nd Airborne Division’s 1st Battalion, 325th Glider Infantry Regiment met what they identified as the “armored ‘point.’” It was Major General Rose leading the way. The glider men weren’t that surprised. Their division commander, Major General James Maurice “Slim Jim” Gavin, was cut from the same cloth.

Gavin’s superior, Major General Matthew Bunker Ridgway, also led from the front. In Normandy in June 1944, both paratrooper generals stalked the hedgerows, rifles in hand. In Holland in the autumn, the pair did likewise. By then, Gavin commanded the 82nd Airborne Division and Ridgway commanded XVIII Airborne Corps. But in Holland the British ran the show; Ridgway was just stopping by to see his men. Gavin remembered Ridgway’s sangfroid under German bombardment. Even for Gavin, it was too much: “You don’t just stand there looking at tree bursts. I told him to go be a hero someplace else.”

Now someplace else was the Ardennes, and Ridgway’s lightly armed airborne forces faced multiple panzer divisions. The paratroopers and glider men needed tank backup. Having been required to ship his 101st Airborne Division off to Bastogne and glory, Ridgway wanted Maurice Rose’s 3rd Armored Division yesterday. The XVIII Airborne commander realized that “the 3rd Armored was far away and coming piecemeal.” In typical Ridgway fashion, late on December 19, the paratrooper general went forward personally to find Maurice Rose.

In a Belgian hamlet not far from Hotton, Ridgway walked through the dark streets. Blowing snow and freezing rain made the going tough, even on foot. The corps commander saw a collection of M8 armored cars and peeps parked at a corner. The helmeted G.I.s aboard huddled against the wind, hands on their weapons. Ridgway and his aide waved. No problem. A gloved soldier in an M8 turret waved back. As Ridgway passed the halted armored car, the general spied a yellow light shining through a slightly open door. He knocked, a wise idea when those inside and out have firearms. The door cracked wider.

In the small room, a few soldiers had a map spread on a wooden table. Flashlights lit up the crumpled sheet. The Americans were from the 83rd Recon. They didn’t seem shocked at all to see a two-star general. They were used to Rose popping up all over. Their lieutenant showed Ridgway the 3rd Armored Division’s route. Ridgway thanked the men and left.

Panthers in the Snow II

M36 90mm Tank Destroyer, 703rd TD Battalion, 3rd Armored Division, near Malempré, Belgium, 16 December 1944, the first day of the Battle of the Bulge.

So the 3rd Armored Division was very close, and arriving just in time, too. There were a hell of a lot of panzers out there. Ridgway hadn’t served with Maurice Rose. But he’d heard of him, and later thought Rose “one of the most gallant soldiers I have ever known.” It takes one to know one.

For the first time during Rose’s command tenure, the Spearhead Division was working for someone other than Joe Collins at VII Corps. These paratrooper generals seemed crazy-brave; Rose could relate to that. Ridgway was Collins’s West Point classmate and like Lightning Joe, the airborne commander missed combat in World War I. Ridgway had sure made up for that in Sicily, Italy, and now in northwest Europe. But he’d been a division commander then. Trying to hold the north side of the Bulge represented Ridgway’s first corps-level operation. Frankly, he’d inherited a mess, with bits and parts of units intermixed with the Germans.

That worked for Ridgway. An airborne assault starts by dumping men and gear out of the sky, often at midnight. In concept, the parachutists and glider teams land right on predetermined targets. In too many cases, drops degenerated into 52-pickup, with little groups of paratroopers improvising, adapting, and overcoming. So the situation in the Ardennes looked a lot like the night jump in Normandy: find American units and stick them together like Legos. Hold that line. That was what Ridgway did, and it’s about all he could do. Later diagrams of the situation on December 20, 1944, depict a neat wall of American divisions, the 9th, 2nd, 99th, 1st, 30th, 82nd, and now 3rd Armored. The reality was much, much more jumbled.

The XVIII Airborne Corps owned only two-thirds of the 3rd Armored Division, as Combat Command A remained glued to the road net south of Eupen chasing German para-ghosts. Given constant reporting about German jumpers, spies, saboteurs, and even hostiles in American uniforms—all of them grounded in some kind of truth—CCA was stuck. To block any German lunge toward the Stavelot fuel stocks or the Meuse River bridges to the north, Combat Command B passed directly to the command of the 30th Infantry Division, their higher headquarters from the Mortain battle back in August 1944. This left Maurice Rose with the 83rd Recon and Combat Command Reserve at Hotton, hanging out in the breeze. There were more U.S. forces on the way. But for now, the only things west of them were more Meuse River crossings.

And soon enough, the Germans.

This would be a tank battle, a big one. The Spearheaders had clashed with enemy panzers many times: Mortain, Rânes/Fromental, Mons, the West Wall. But these encounters usually featured a handful of panzers and dozens of American tanks. Now on the forest roads near Stavelot and Hotton, the odds would be pretty nearly even. That got Rose and his G.I.s thinking.

More than half of the enemy panzers running around the Ardennes were Mark IVs or their turretless assault gun cousins. Those 28-tonners mounted a long 75mm cannon that outranged a Sherman’s shorter 75mm, although not by a lot. At five hundred yards or so, it was a fair fight. The 3rd Armored Division’s forty-eight Shermans with 76mm barrels could ventilate the front end of a Mark IV out to a thousand yards. If only Mark IVs showed up, great. But there were other denizens lurking.

The opposing menagerie’s apex predators were only too obvious, the dreaded Tigers and Panthers. Both overmatched 3rd Armored Division’s tanks. Among the American tank crews, men spoke with respect of Tigers and Panthers, as well they might.

Although the Tiger was often reported, especially by nervous G.I. new arrivals, facts seldom caught up with allegations. Tigers came in two versions, the 63-ton Tiger I and the 77-ton Tiger II, also called the King Tiger or Royal Tiger. These massive, sluggish giants overstressed bridges, cracked pavements, and sometimes struggled in mud. But when they moved out, they struck with power. Both used 88mm cannons deadly to a Sherman at 2,000 yards. Tiger frontal armor could ward off Sherman projectiles, although if it caught an angle just right, the U.S. 76mm gun round might penetrate at about a hundred yards or so. Fortunately for the Allies, the Germans fielded few of these behemoths. Only 1,393 Tiger Is and 458 King Tigers were produced during the entire war, and most went to the Russian front. These monsters could be found in special heavy tank battalions. Only two Tiger battalions fought in the Ardennes. Combat Command B of the 3rd Armored Division met one of these outfits.

Unlike Tigers, Panthers proved all too available in the Ardennes. Spearhead Division units ran into these big panzers in several clashes. The almost unstoppable Tiger might bring on night sweats. But the numerous Panthers offered a more likely threat. They moved in packs, hit hard, and died hard, too.

A Panther weighed just under 50 tons. Although clearly heavier than the 33-ton Sherman, a Panther rode on wide tracks that spread the weight better, a quality known as ground pressure (12.3 pounds per square inch, compared to 15.1 for a Sherman). Panthers employed a long 75mm gun that outperformed the Tiger’s 88mm weapon inside a thousand yards. A Panther main gun round could rip through a Sherman from any aspect. If surviving American tanks returned fire, the Panther’s heavy sloped frontal armor shrugged off both U.S. 75mm and 76mm shots, although those cannons could now and then get a lucky hit inside a hundred yards. American Sherman tank guns had a good chance of penetrating the sides or back even a thousand yards out. Of course, that presumed the Americans maneuvered successfully to gain those advantageous positions. If you manned a Sherman hunting Panthers, these raw statistics certainly gave you pause.

Folk wisdom in the ranks of the 3rd Armored Division said a Panther enjoyed a five-to-one edge over a Sherman. Put another way, Americans expected to trade one platoon per Panther. German panzer men understood the terrible arithmetic. “One of our tanks is better than ten of yours,” they snorted. “But you always have eleven!”  Such metrics might be OK for the ones marking the charts way up at First Army, Twelfth Army Group, or SHAEF. But those getting “traded” certainly didn’t appreciate the exchange rate.

So how did Shermans beat Panthers?

Rather than simply swap like for like, at 5:1, 10:1, or even 1:1, Maurice Rose and his men learned to use all their panoply of armaments. As Rose expressed in a formal report that went to General Eisenhower, “We compensate for our inferior equipment by the efficient use of artillery, air support, and maneuver.” It was the familiar prescription. Send a bullet, not a man. Rose believed in it, taught it, and insisted on it. He was right there to make sure it worked.

But Rose also knew there were things that simple side by side number-crunching missed. Shermans stayed in action; they were fixable and robust, with nine out of ten running most days. Panther crews struggled to keep their elegant machines operational. The strong German panzers often fell off the line of march, burdened by inadequate transmissions and a lack of spare parts. German mechanics counted 29 percent of their Panthers in the shop as the Ardennes offensive began. Of forty-seven abandoned Panthers examined by American technical teams after the Battle of the Bulge, twenty had no battle damage. They’d simply stopped working.

The Americans also stuck to the path blazed by innovators like Eli Whitney and Henry Ford: interchangeable parts and standardization. From 1939 to 1945, the Germans fielded four main battle tanks: the Mark III, the Mark IV, the Panther, and the Tiger (two versions), not to mention a bewildering variety of related and unrelated assault guns, obsolescent Mark I and Mark II models, borrowed foreign equipment, and experimental “wonder weapon” variants. None of these things was much like the other. The Americans, however, went with the Sherman and only the Sherman. In the 3rd Armored Division, the M7 self-propelled howitzer and the attached M10 and M36 tank destroyers all built on the basic M4 Sherman design, and thus shared engines, transmissions, parts, and tools. Even the 17-ton M5 Stuart light tank shared some common items.

This standardization lent itself to fairly fast and uniform fleet upgrades. Stateside arsenals provided the M4A3 Sherman with the improved 76mm cannon and the higher horsepower Ford V-8 engine. Front-line mechanics developed the sharpened metal bow forks that uprooted the Norman hedgerows. With winter coming, divisional ordnance teams also installed mass-produced end connector extenders. Sort of the tank equivalent of snow tires, these modifications widened the Sherman’s treads, reducing the ground pressure to 12.4 pounds per square inch, similar to that of the Panther. The troops called these track growers “duck feet.” They’d come in handy in the snowy Ardennes.

Besides having a more reliable tank, the Americans also had better tankers. Rose certainly thought so. “There is no question in my mind,” he wrote, “but what [sic] our gunnery is far superior to that of the Germans.” While a few wily panzer aces still manned the German turrets, by 1944 most of the enemy’s crews consisted of men who’d driven only a few hours or fired but a few live rounds in slap-dash training. The Spearheaders had no shortage of fuel or ammunition to teach new guys the ropes. Rose realized that experienced G.I. tankers learned to go for side and rear shots at less than 800 or more than 1,000 yards. Sometimes it came down to a face-off on a one-lane farm trail. That sort of thing got very sporty.

See first, shoot first, hit first. So preached the old-hand tank sergeants. A postwar U.S. Army study of armor engagements in 1944–1945, including the Battle of the Bulge, confirmed the validity of this mantra. Tank vs. tank fights tended to exemplify the formula Thomas Hobbes ascribed to life expectancy in primordial times: nasty, brutish, and short. The side that got off the first round won, tending to knock out four opponents for each friendly loss. German hits came at an average of 946 yards out. Americans struck their targets at an average range of 893 yards, pretty much the same. The moving vehicle was at greater risk, as motion enabled detection. Stationary defenders hit first in 84 percent of these brief, violent clashes of armor. Winning such quick smash-ups depended on smart, well-trained crews.

The Americans had them. A Sherman relied on the teamwork of five soldiers. Intercoms in their helmets let the men talk back and forth. Two G.I.s worked the hull: the driver, who kept the tank going in the right direction, and his assistant, who manned the radio and fired the .30 caliber bow machine gun. Three soldiers handled turret duties. The loader found the right main gun projectile—armor-piercing, high explosive, or white phosphorus incendiary/smoke—and placed it in the breech; he also fed ammunition to the machine guns. The gunner sighted on the target and fired both the main cannon and its coaxial .30 caliber machine gun. The tank commander (TC) stood high in the turret, usually with his hatch open. He ran the crew. The TC also fired the big .50 caliber heavy machine gun, a weapon that had no German counterpart. The .50 caliber could tear up dismounted troops, shred wooden and masonry walls, eviscerate trucks, and even hole thin armor plate, as on German half-tracks. In a pinch, you could man a Sherman with but a driver, gunner, and TC. Assistant driver and loader were apprentice positions. When the Spearheaders had to retrain infantry replacements as tank crewmen the newcomers normally started in those introductory roles.

Sergeants formed the vast majority of 3rd Armored Division’s TCs. Running a tank absolutely constituted NCO business—blue collar, hands-on, no-nonsense, life and death. The need for quick reflexes, upper body strength, athletic agility in cramped quarters, and endless endurance made tanking a young man’s game. The 3rd Battalion, 32nd Armored Regiment’s Staff Sergeant Lafayette G. “War Daddy” Pool, twenty-five years old in 1944, was considered an elder. Among the greatest of the many fine TCs in the division, Pool earned the Distinguished Service Cross, knocked out dozens of panzers—258 by one count—and had two Shermans shot out from under him before he finally lost part of his right leg in West Wall fighting on September 15, 1944. War Daddy Pool’s experiences provided plot elements for two Hollywood movies, The Tanks Are Coming (1951) and Fury (2014). Not all Spearheader TCs measured up to Pool. But even aspiring to that level set a high bar.

You couldn’t lead men like Pool by babbling on the radio from a heated tent. The sergeant TCs respected officers who fought from a tank. The NCOs expected their lieutenants and captains to lead by example. So, too, with armor battalion majors and lieutenant colonels like Bill Lovelady and Sam Hogan, who commanded from the turret. As Pool’s experience warned, this was an exceedingly risky business. It explains the many Spearhead Division tank battalion commanders killed and wounded as the war ground on.

Above battalion level, armor colonels and generals rarely led from a tank. They had to work with infantry, artillery, engineers, and service troops as well as tank crews. The U.S. Army’s organizational charts offered such senior leaders the choice of an M5 Stuart light tank, an armored car, a half-track, or a peep, plus affiliated security teams. Maurice Rose chose an utterly unarmored quarter-ton peep. The young tank sergeants knew the deal. They respected Rose’s guts. He went where they went. In armored combat, Rose’s way was like playing in an NFL football game wearing only a T-shirt. No matter your speed or savvy, sooner or later, you will get hit hard. But Rose and the TCs never talked about that, and it’s not likely they thought about it, either. That wasn’t healthy.

What was healthy was focusing on killing panzers. See first, shoot first, hit first. With Panthers, go for the flank and butt end. To do so, Rose’s NCOs and junior officers preferred to find a good site, squirrel away, and then bushwhack advancing panzers. Of course, that tactic worked if you knew the panzers were coming. On December 20, 1944, they most certainly were.

“Initiate intensive reconnaissance in the Hotton-Grandmenil sector, to locate the enemy, and to secure a line running east from La Roche to crossroads 576853 [a military map location southeast of Manhay], and to tie in with the 82nd Airborne Division on the left [east] and the 84th Infantry Division on the right [west].” Thus Matt Ridgway of XVIII Airborne Corps directed Maurice Rose to carry out a series of tasks that would be difficult under any conditions but verged on impossible given the 3rd Armored Division’s strength, disposition, and probable opposition.

Hotton and Manhay—these towns mattered. Hang on to them and the Germans couldn’t blitz north to the Meuse crossings. The enemy still might head west, but that was a long, long way to the Meuse River, let alone Antwerp. The forest thinned out with each mile you drove west. And sooner or later, this cruddy Hitler weather would give way to blue skies full of P-47 Thunderbolts. Rose figured all of that out on the dark, wet ride from Stolberg. When he reached Hotton and assembled the division staff in a hotel borrowed to house Omaha Forward, Rose didn’t ask for clever ideas. He gave orders.

With CCA and CCB busy elsewhere, Rose’s truncated division would be hard pressed to defend Hotton and Manhay, thirteen miles apart. So be it. The book said it couldn’t be done. But Maurice Rose chose to see opportunity. The Germans didn’t know how much, or how little, of the 3rd Armored Division stood in front of them. Rose went at it like a cavalry officer. He attacked.

Four task forces prepared for action on December 20, 1944. Each combined 83rd Recon scouts, tank companies, armored infantry, engineers, and self-propelled artillery. Rose picked the commanders. Lieutenant Colonel Sam Hogan of CCR went to the west, aiming to reach La Roche. Major John Tucker of the 83rd Recon took the center route toward Dochamps. Lieutenant Colonel Matthew W. Kane of CCR drove east toward Manhay. As backup, Lieutenant Colonel William Orr waited near Hotton; his battalion task force stood ready to go where needed. As for protecting Hotton town itself, Omaha Way Forward, a.k.a. “Combat Command Smith,” drew the mission. Along with the headquarters soldiers and the 143rd Armored Signal Company, Company E of the 23rd Engineers helped prepare defenses. Nobody else was left to do the job.

Sam Hogan recounted what he and his men had to go on. “The information of the enemy given to us was zero,” he wrote. “This was only a little less than usual.” This time, though, friendly information “was also zero, and this was quite a bit less than usual.” Hogan and his G.I.s anticipated meeting German units as well as displacing U.S. elements. All the Spearheaders expected panzers.

Task Force Hogan didn’t find any. Instead, when they reached La Roche, they met the division trains of the 7th Armored Division. When a reconnaissance team pushed south, they found a German roadblock. The enemy piled thick timber on a blind curve with a steep hill on one side and a drop-off on the other. A hidden antitank gun set afire the first American M8 Greyhound scout car, wounding the crew. With night coming on, that would do it. Hogan pulled his men into a night defensive coil around La Roche. The trains troops from the 7th Armored Division shared rations and cigarettes, a good end to a long day.

Panthers in the Snow III

Major-General Maurice Rose  

On the central advance, by midafternoon, Major John Tucker and his task force reached Dochamps without a problem. There they met a peep carrying Lieutenant Colonel Andrew A. Miller, Quartermaster Officer of the 7th Armored Division. He had 25,000 gallons of gasoline and 15,000 rations on the ground two miles south in the village of Samrée. German recon vehicles had been sighted. Could Tucker help? Well, he’d been sent to find the enemy. Task Force Tucker advanced toward Samrée in a single file on a narrow road bounded by tall trees.

Tucker’s column ran smack into waiting Panthers. The Germans saw first, fired first, and hit first, taking out six Shermans in a few minutes. The Americans reversed out of there. They didn’t know it yet, but Tucker’s men had found the lead companies of the 116th Panzer “Windhund” (Greyhound) Division. For their part, the enemy gobbled up 25,000 gallons of precious gasoline. Tucker’s task force scuttled north toward the crossroads of Amonines. The opposing panzers had been well and truly found.

To the east TF Kane made it to Manhay and pushed patrols outside town by dusk. That critical crossroads at Baraque de Fraiture, the 576853 map reference, lay three miles out ahead. Kane met Americans in Manhay who told him a unit from the U.S. 106th Infantry Division occupied Baraque de Fraiture. Rather than risk a “blue on blue” firefight among friends, Kane elected to wait until morning.

Maurice Rose did not. The general sifted through the results of the day’s fighting. He’d only seen his tanks and half-tracks moving today, having just missed both Hogan’s dustup south of La Roche and Tucker’s unhappy meeting engagement at Samrée. Rose did the mental math, and thought through his lineup. Sam Hogan was good to go. He’d sort out whatever showed up. Matt Kane had more work to do but seemed to be on the right track. John Tucker in the middle found real trouble; he needed help. Although he didn’t have much to commit, Rose peeled off Lieutenant Colonel Bill Orr’s 1st Battalion, 36th Armored Infantry Regiment to strengthen the center task force; Orr would take over, too. As Rose’s reserve, Colonel Bobby Howze’s CCR consisted of a Sherman tank company, a half-track infantry company, and an engineer company. It wasn’t much to react to whatever the Germans tried next.

The enemy tried something all right. At 4:30 a.m., prior to first light on December 21, soldiers hidden in roadside outposts southeast of Hotton heard vehicle noises, throaty engines, steel clanking. A radio check to TF Hogan reported no action there. Had the Germans gotten around Sam Hogan’s men?

They certainly had.

At 7:30 a.m., with the day as bright as it would get, German artillery and mortar rounds began falling in Hotton. German infantry appeared to be moving in the woodline southeast of town. Panzer sounds, metal on metal, motors racing, echoed through Hotton. Omaha Forward and 23rd Engineer troops raced to their foxholes, all hands on deck. A stranded U.S. Sherman and a Stuart, both in Hotton for minor repairs, joined the effort.

Two Panthers appeared right on the edge of Hotton. The Sherman shot first, but this time a Panther shot better. With that, Hotton’s defenders resorted to the tool of desperation, the bazooka. Engineers have secondary roles to fight as infantry. At Hotton, they did. In close, Sergeant Vern Sergent and Private Hugh Lander whacked the first Panther, setting it ablaze.

The partner Panther responded by drilling a hole in the M5 Stuart light tank. That American vehicle represented no problem to the Panther. But engaging the Stuart left the Panther crew unaware of another bazooka team, Corporal Phillip Popp and Private First Class Carl Nelson. They scored a close-in hit on the side of the Panther’s turret. Scratch the second panzer. In the distance, the German panzergrenadiers dropped to ground in the tree line. They had no idea they were fighting a scratch bunch of staff officers, engineers, clerks, and signalmen. To the east, at Maurice Rose’s order, Colonel Bobby Howze committed a platoon of Shermans and a platoon of half-track infantry to bail out Hotton. They arrived at 11:25 a.m.51 The 3rd Armored Division’s Combat Command Reserve amounted to part of a tank company, part of a rifle company, and a company of the 23rd Engineers. Margins were getting razor-thin.

Both sides paused.

The Germans awaited reinforcements, more panzers, to be exact. But one of the Windhund Division’s tank/infantry columns banged into TF Hogan. Colonel Bobby Howze ordered Sam Hogan to drive north to break up the hostile thrust on Hotton. But Hogan only got as far as Marcouray, seven miles southeast of Hotton. Germans stopped TF Hogan, then cut the roads both north and south, surrounding the Americans. But they couldn’t budge the tough Texan and his 400 or so troopers.

In the center, TF Orr also held up part of the 116th Panzer Division. Orr’s soldiers attempted to advance south to retake Dochamps—an aggressive act that threw off the Germans, even though the push failed and Orr had to withdraw back to Amonines. German Panthers and infantry threatened to push out Orr’s outnumbered task force. But Orr and his guys owned good high ground, and the German panzers needed to move up the roads one vehicle at a time. That favored the defenders.

To the east, TF Kane made it to the much-mentioned Baraque de Fraiture, map grid reference 576853, “X” marks the spot. The crossroads turned out to be atop an open hill with three small houses, the second-highest ground in the entire Ardennes Forest. No wonder XVIII Airborne Corps wanted it held. Kane found that as he’d heard, several 106th Infantry Division units guarded the vital junction: three towed 105mm howitzers, three antiaircraft half-tracks, and perhaps two hundred Americans. By Battle of the Bulge standards on December 21, 1944, that constituted a major force. Kane couldn’t stay. With Hotton in peril and TF Orr pressed hard, Rose told Kane to attack west toward Dochamps to cut off the German panzers menacing TF Orr. It did not work. But it confounded the Germans, and that counted for something.

Rose spent December 21 shuttling back and forth between embattled Hotton, TF Orr at Amonines, and TF Kane to the east. At 3:30 p.m., welcome news came that Combat Command A was on its way back. But CCA wouldn’t arrive until the next morning. Doyle Hickey’s combat command was returning with strings attached. Rose had to place them to the west, toward Marche, to make a firm link with the 84th Infantry Division as that new outfit showed up. Rose negotiated with Ridgway to spring loose Lieutenant Colonel Rich Richardson with a tank company and a half-track rifle company. Task Force Richardson had to go to Manhay. But that wouldn’t be possible until December 22, if all broke just right.

In Manhay as he moved through en route to TF Kane, Rose ran into Major General Jim Gavin of the 82nd Airborne Division. Gavin wasn’t happy. His division’s western end hung loose, too loose even for a paratrooper. Why wasn’t TF Kane holding Manhay? Why were they attacking west, toward Dochamps? Rose, literally down to a few uncommitted platoons, assured Gavin he’d juggle his tanks and infantry and get something to block the road at Baraque de Fraiture. Rose was thinking TF Richardson. But that battalion-size organization might be twenty-four hours away at best. Both generals wondered if the German panzers would get to Baraque de Fraiture and Manhay first. The 2nd SS Panzer Division “Das Reich”—brutal bastards, heavily armed, fresh—had dropped right off the American intelligence overlays.55 What about them?

As the sunlight faded on December 21, thick dark low clouds promised snow on the morrow, a lot of it.

While Rose and his subordinate commanders shifted forces back and forth to frustrate German attacks, the high commanders gathered at the Twelfth Army Group’s rear headquarters at Verdun on December 19. There, just-elevated General of the Army (five stars) Ike Eisenhower brought together the major actors, with Bradley and Patton prominent in the group. Monty, as he often did, pleaded ongoing business and, in true passive-aggressive style, sent his chief of staff. Nobody invited Hodges. Nobody missed him, either.

The situation review described a huge penetration, sixty miles wide and already twenty-five miles deep. Bad stuff, but not all bad. The Ultra code breakers in England had missed most of the German buildup; inside the Reich, Hitler’s generals used German telephones, not radios, and those phone wires hadn’t been tapped. Now, with the enemy in motion and radios transmitting, Ultra again offered insight. The Germans had planned to be across the Meuse River by December 20, 1944. It didn’t look like they’d get there.

The two stanchions, up north (99th, 2nd, and 1st Infantry divisions) and down south (4th Infantry Division and part of 9th Armored Division), held up. The inexperienced 106th Infantry Division suffered horribly, with two regiments, 8,000-plus men, surrounded; they’d surrender by day’s end. The Hürtgen-bloodied 28th Infantry Division fell back in relatively sound order. The XVIII Airborne Corps with the 82nd Airborne and 3rd Armored divisions would shore up the north. The 101st Airborne Division had the task of holding the road nexus of Bastogne at all costs even as enemy contingents closed off exits from the city. The Germans drove deep. But the Meuse, not to mention Antwerp, lay far away.

In this meeting, Ike ratified two undertakings already in train. Every available force, to include brand-new divisions, sped to the front. The 75th Infantry Division, the 87th Infantry Division, and the 11th Armored Division (just arrived on December 17) all headed to the Bulge. Along with the divisions came separate artillery battalions, engineer outfits, tank destroyer units, antiaircraft batteries, and every other kind of combat power. Allied air groups stood ready to strike as soon as the weather broke. The meteorologists promised a “Russian high” in the wake of the predicted December 22 blizzard. Temperatures would plummet—agony for G.I.s in the Ardennes. But clear conditions augured success for the deadly Allied fighter-bombers. Soon.

Eisenhower also approved George Patton’s counterattack. Patton stunned the gathering by announcing he’d attack with a three-division corps on December 22. All present knew he’d do it, too, the old cavalryman riding to the rescue of the encircled 101st Airborne at Bastogne. As a subsequent newspaper headline blared: PATTON, OF COURSE.

Ike’s most important decision didn’t come during the meeting. Eisenhower recognized that Omar Bradley located his Twelfth Army Group headquarters in Luxembourg City, south of the Bulge. Bradley hadn’t seen Hodges face-to-face since the German offensive began. Communications to First Army near Liege were adequate for Bradley. But Ike didn’t give much credence to electronic encouragement. Hodges deserved more. And he was definitely going to get it.

No doubt swallowing very hard, Eisenhower turned to Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery. Effective noon on December 20, 1944, Monty gained command of the American Ninth and First armies. Bradley retained Patton’s Third, the star player, to be sure, but only one army for an entire American army group HQ to look after. Monty, of course, could barely contain his glee. Bradley felt betrayed by his West Point colleague. Ike ignored these dramatics. Somebody needed to get a grip on Hodges. Nobody gripped like Monty.

The bird-like little British field marshal arrived at First Army headquarters promptly at 1:30 p.m. on December 20, 1944, “like Christ come to cleanse the temple.” Monty found conditions not to his liking: “divisions [including the 3rd Armored] in bits and pieces all over the place,” “a complete muddle,” “no reserves anywhere,” and, of course, “no grip.” Monty judged Hodges out of his depth, having not gone forward to see his subordinates. Monty asked Eisenhower to sack Hodges. As an American general noted, Hodges was “too old and too frail.” (He was two years younger than Patton and the same age as Montgomery.) In any event, Ike refused to let Montgomery get rid of Hodges.

So Monty did what Bradley and Ike did. He worked around Hodges. To lead the counterattack from the north, Montgomery asked for Lightning Joe Collins. Monty would only get VII Corps headquarters; Collins’s remaining divisions, less the 1st Infantry and 3rd Armored, stayed in place on the hard-won Roer River line. For his part, Collins gave his druthers. To lead Monty’s counterpunch, Lightning Joe requested the U.S. Army’s two heavy hitters, the 2nd Armored Division and, of course, Maurice Rose’s 3rd Armored Division. An impressive array—but first, the Germans must be stopped.

For Maurice Rose, counterattacking under Joe Collins was off in the distant future. Dealing with rampant Germans came first. Did it ever.

From west to east, Rose’s division faced enemy pressure. Hotton held with its small pickup team, backed by artillery fires that kept the Germans at bay. A defiant panzergrenadier battalion held part of the road east to Soy, where Colonel Bobby Howze’s Combat Command Reserve had found its meager ranks bolstered by the full-strength 1st Battalion, 517th Parachute Infantry Regiment, courtesy of XVII Airborne Corps. Howze and the paratroopers had the mission of clearing the Germans off the Soy-Hotton road—easier said than done. The heavy snowfall on December 22 made advancing on foot akin to slogging through knee-deep sand. It also kept the U.S. tanks road-bound. Howze’s tankers and the airborne troops stayed at it all day and well into the night. Nothing worked, except the American medics. They stayed plenty busy.

South of Hotton, Sam Hogan’s task force defended Marcouray. Even though they were only five miles from Hotton, they couldn’t move. Throughout that snowy day, Germans cut the road north and south and kept the perimeter under desultory small-arms fire. If the Germans wanted to take Hotton, they’d have to excise the hard knot of TF Hogan. Hogan had good radio communications, and so he made fine use of supporting artillery. Marcouray sat in the center of open fields. All-round defense worked well:

We had a regular turkey-shoot knocking out several [German] trucks and jeeps. One of the knocked-out jeeps apparently had a map or something of value in it because the Germans kept trying to get something out of it. Every time they would approach it we would lay in a round of tank fire. Later, one of our artillery pieces was laid in with the jeep as a base point and an occasional round kept the jeep clear until dark. Even then, we lobbed one in now and then for luck. The combination of moon and light snow enabled us to shoot up several German patrols which probed at us during the night.

Good stuff, and Hogan had a lot of ammunition, too. But Hogan’s vehicles, especially his Shermans, averaged about a third of a tank of gas. Task Force Hogan needed to go but five miles to reach an American position. They had enough fuel. But they had too many Germans.

East of TF Hogan, Bill Orr’s task force tried again to take Dochamps. The 116th Panzer Division had brought up infantry reinforcements from the 560th Volksgrenadier Division. Orr’s men floundered in the snow. It was TF Hogan’s situation in reverse, and again, the attacking side suffered. Orr pulled back to Amonines. He’d sustained so many infantrymen wounded or badly frostbitten that he dismounted tankers to hold key foxholes. Half-track drivers and cooks, too, helped hold the line.

East of TF Orr, Matt Kane’s tankers and infantry also attempted attacks on Dochamps. Two attached companies of the 509th Parachute Battalion joined the effort. Even though the airborne men tried two night attacks, the Germans didn’t budge.

Maurice Rose spent the day working back and forth between the two Dochamps efforts. At Rose’s order, mindful of the 82nd Airborne’s worries about Baraque de Fraiture, Rose told Kane to send something to back up that stitched-together defensive team. All Matt Kane spared, and even this hurt, amounted to two Shermans. They joined the three howitzer crews, half-track antiaircraft platoon, and Company F, 2nd Battalion, 325th Glider Infantry. In the morning, Rose promised more.

Although Rose and his beleaguered G.I.s didn’t know it, their stubborn, continuous resistance convinced the commander of the 116th Panzer Division to give up on routes to the Meuse through Hotton or Dochamps/Amonines. Days behind schedule and many miles from the Meuse, the Germans thought they confronted a much larger opponent. A few tanks here, a few tanks there, dug-in infantry, local counterattacks at Dochamps, and continuous fatal dosages of American artillery—an all-weather brand of firepower—made the foe hesitate. The 560th Volksgrenadiers stayed in contact. But the 116th Panzer Division began to pull out. They’d try their luck to the far west.

Panthers in the Snow IV

December 23, 1944, dawned biting cold but clear. This would be a day of retribution for Allied pilots. The sunshine scattered the Germans into the woods, who knew well what P-47 Thunderbolts and P-38 Lightnings did. The Germans between Hotton and Soy melted into the trees. But they didn’t give up the road or their wooded high ground. Combat Command Reserve kept at it all day, backed by air strikes. Hotton, though, remained firmly in American hands.

Sam Hogan’s personal Lone Star flag still flew at Marcouray. His task force occupied the hole in the doughnut. Well-hidden German volksgrenadiers persisted in their choke hold. But now Hogan’s wounded, more every few hours, needed key medical supplies. His vehicles were running on fumes. The entire thing started to smell like that famous 1836 Texas stand at the Alamo. That one hadn’t ended well.

Maurice Rose let his cannoneers try firing bandages and blood plasma into Marcouray inside hollow 105 shells normally used for propaganda leaflets. What landed looked like cold pizza, a mess. An airdrop later in the day also failed. The Germans picked up the bundles and the U.S. Army Air Forces lost cargo planes. The outlook for TF Hogan appeared bleak.

The 560th Volksgrenadier Division continued to press TF Orr at Amonines and TF Kane east of Dochamps. Wary of the roaming American aircraft, the Germans settled for attacking by fire, mortars mainly, plus an occasional antitank gun round. The Germans waited for darkness. The Americans waited for more troops.

At last, Rose had some to give. Combat Command A returned to the fold, closing in an assembly area north of Manhay at 1:30 a.m. on December 23. While most of CCA moved west to Marche to gain a firm handshake with the incoming 84th Infantry Division, Lieutenant Colonel Rich Richardson’s task force came under Spearhead Division control. Richardson came with more than expected, his usual cast, built around his own 3rd Battalion, 32nd Armored Regiment and Company I of the 36th Armored Infantry Regiment. Most of Richardson’s tankers and infantry moved to backstop Manhay, equal to embattled Hotton as the other anchor of Rose’s thin green line. The Germans hadn’t pushed there . . . yet.

About noon, Rose directed Richardson to send a Sherman tank platoon and a half-track rifle platoon south to Baraque de Fraiture. The infantry got hung up at a roadblock—ominously, Waffen SS there—but the five Sherman crews closed their hatches, shrugged off the German small-arms fire, and clanked onward. They got to the critical crossroads at about 1:00 p.m. American glider men there told of a failed SS attack that morning. Evidently the 2nd SS Panzer Division had made its appearance. There’d surely be more.

There was.

About 4:00, as the sun set—and the American airplanes went away—German artillery and mortars commenced a twenty-minute concentrated bombardment. The bare hill at Baraque de Fraiture offered no cover other than the trio of farmsteads. The Germans methodically shredded those. American glider troops crouched in their foxholes. Tank crews rode it out with every lid shut. Hot fragments rattled on the Sherman hulls.

Right on cue, the way they taught you in any good infantry school, the SS panzergrenadiers came running from the south and west, hop-scotching from dim hummock to barely seen dip, almost touching the last few shell bursts, coming on the American infantry holes just as the last German mortar bombs deonated. Mark IV Panzers appeared. Two Shermans flamed. So did two Panzers. The 106th Infantry Division howitzer crews knocked out two more Mark IVs. So far, so good—then the Panthers showed up.

The Panthers immediately blew away two more Shermans. A third American tank tried to use the foundation of the Belgian house as cover. The G.I. crew edged out and shot twice at a Panther, but the 75mm rounds hit the Panther’s sloping front plate and zinged away, “like throwing peas at a plate glass window.” The Panther nailed the Sherman, and then two more. Meanwhile, the SS panzergrenadiers pawed through the wreckage of the three buildings. The enemy overran the position. Only a few Americans made it out. The glider infantry company reported seventy-one men missing. The crews from 3rd Armored Division never came back. The Germans had grabbed the vital crossroads at Baraque de Fraiture. Next came Manhay. Then the Meuse.

The moment of crisis had arrived. Everything Maurice Rose had was in the fight. The 82nd Airborne had no more to loan to the Spearheaders. This battle had to be won with what the 3rd Armored Division owned—not much, maybe not enough. Rose knew it, too.

And it had to be the 2nd SS Panzer Division “Das Reich,” notorious slayers imbued with Nazi propaganda. The Americans heard the stories, bad ones. The Waffen SS had already murdered eighty-six American prisoners at Malmedy, and Bill Lovelady’s task force in Combat Command B reported slain Belgian civilians at the tiny village of Parfondruy. There a Waffen SS unit shot an old man in bed, drilled another elder in the street, killed a family, including a six-month-old baby, and murdered six more children. Lovelady’s men took SS troops captive who freely admitted the slaughter. The enemy officers encouraged them to “fight in the old SS way.” No prisoners. And now an entire panzer division of these Nazi zealots drove on Manhay.

Rose didn’t hesitate. He’d spent days in and around Manhay, thinking about how to defend the place. The village itself wasn’t the key. No, the high ground to the northwest near the hamlet of Grandmenil formed a bow that also ran athwart the highway to the Meuse. Hold that ridge, from just past Grandmenil around to the north end of Manhay. Hold it with tanks, infantry, engineers, and pounding artillery and the Germans weren’t going anywhere, Waffen SS or not.

It’s of interest that Field Marshal Montgomery also grasped the importance of these crucial heights. In his traditional efficient style, on December 20–23 Monty made daily whirlwind tours of his new American corps headquarters, seeing and being seen, and offering bon mots—“see him off with a bowl,” “hit him for a boundary”—incomprehensible and vaguely condescending to non-cricketeer Americans. Monty quickly sized up conditions and commenced his tidying thing, making straight the ways in the spirit of the approaching Yuletide. Effective December 23, 1944, Matt Ridgway’s XVIII Airborne Corps stopped at Manhay, to be held by the battered 7th Armored Division and the rump of the 106th Infantry Division. Joe Collins’s VII Corps inherited everything west of Manhay, starting with Maurice Rose’s 3rd Armored Division at the vital Grandmenil heights and on west through Amonines to Soy, to Hotton, to Marche, and out to the Meuse crossings at Dinant. Behind the designated American line, rather clean on Monty’s map board, British armored brigades moved into position at the crucial Meuse bridges: Dinant, Namur, Huy, and Liege, sticky wickets all. Neat, clean, and gripped up; so ruled Monty.

But the mixed-up situation on the ground did not so swiftly unsnarl itself, especially with the 2nd SS Panzer Division pushing north toward Manhay. And Monty wouldn’t run this fight near Manhay. Rose would.

Overnight on December 23–24, Rose’s orders went out: Howze and CCR must clean up Soy-Hotton once and for all. Orr and Kane need to hold the center: Orr at Amonines, Kane at Grandmenil. Richardson had to tie tightly into TF Kane and defend the heights north and west of Manhay; he also must cooperate with the hodge-podge gathering there from the 82nd Airborne and 7th Armored divisions. And Hogan? One more day, one more airdrop, then pull the plug. Whatever that might really mean. Rose couldn’t dwell on it. The weather people presented good news for Christmas Eve, another good flying day, with Christmas likely the same. The fighter-bombers would be active. Rose’s artillery chief, Colonel Fred Brown, promised eighteen battalions in range and on call. Air and artillery, big hammers—and the Spearheaders had need of them.

Rose insisted on one more action. Overnight on December 23–24, Rose told Richardson to get a force, as much as he could scrape up, down toward Baraque de Fraiture to make contact with the Waffen SS. The Germans would probably wait until night before renewing their attack toward Manhay. Richardson sent Major Olin Brewster with a swept-together task force of seven tanks, four half-tracks of armored riflemen, Company A of the 509th Parachute Infantry Battalion, and Company C, 1st Battalion, 290th Infantry, 75th Infantry Division. That last unit had just shown up for duty. They had no prior combat experience, and now had to stand in the face of the 2nd SS Panzer Division. Brewster’s makeshift battalion made it as far as a defile at Belle Haie. They felled trees and blocked the road, then dug in for a 360-degree fight right on the main enemy axis of advance. Brewster’s orders came from Rich Richardson, who’d gotten the word from Maurice Rose: “hold at all costs.”80 With Baraque de Fraiture gone, by first light on December 24, TF Brewster formed the early warning outpost and a breakwater on the highway to Manhay.

Risking air attacks, the Germans spent the daylight hours on Christmas Eve slipping forces up toward Manhay to set up for a decisive night attack. As a result, Brewster’s men battled small bands of SS panzergrenadiers all day. The rookies from the 75th Infantry Division got a faceful of Germans, a steep learning curve, all right. Brewster’s tanks held their own. The Waffen SS weren’t mounted in half-tracks, nor backed by panzers. Odd that—Brewster didn’t realize it, but the Germans lacked gasoline. They’d siphoned and scrimped to fill up the lead vehicles in their Panther column. And that element didn’t dare drive right up a defended defile road with Sherman tanks in ambush, artillery zeroed in, and quartets of P-47 Thunderbolt aircraft wheeling overhead hunting for prey.

One of those Waffen SS panzer columns wriggled through the woods west of TF Brewster and moved north toward Grandmenil. Two Panther companies pushed north with SS panzergrenadiers riding the panzers to economize on scarce gasoline. Just after 8:00 a.m. at a hamlet called Freyneux, two miles southwest of Grandmenil, the Germans clanked into an open field. The dark Panthers contrasted nicely as they waddled through the sunlit snow.

Freyneux was defended by a team from TF Kane including five American M4 Shermans (one with the new, larger 76mm cannon), four M5 Stuarts, and forty-five 83rd Recon scouts. The Americans waited in carefully chosen concealed firing positions as the Germans blithely approached. German officers up in the turrets noticed nothing unusual. And then . . .

Sergeant Jim Vance opened fire with his tank’s 76mm cannon, whacking a Panther on its vulnerable side. He then hit another Panther in its belly as the German vehicle crested a bump. Another American Sherman damaged a third Panther. The Germans backed into the trees. See first, shoot first, hit first—exactly like training at Fort Knox.

Vance and the other TCs then sprayed the withdrawing German Panthers with .50 caliber heavy machine gun fire. That unceremoniously unloaded the onboard panzergrenadiers. The four M5 Stuarts and dismounted recon men opened fire. The Stuart’s puny 37mm main gun did nothing much to panzers. But against scurrying German ground troops, it more than filled the bill.

The German Panthers hit one Sherman and a Stuart, too. When four more Panthers attempted to cross the snowy meadow, TC Sergeant Reece Graham spotted them at 2,000 yards (more than a mile away), dark silhouettes on the white carpet, broadside to Graham’s standard-issue 75mm gun. Sherman tankers loved Panther side shots. Graham engaged, quickly knocking out two of the distant Panthers; their stricken crews probably had no idea where the kill-shots originated. The surviving Waffen SS panzers backed away, retracing the dirt trail they’d used to get to Freyneux. Vectored in by alert forward air controllers with TF Kane, American fighter-bombers found them and set a Panther afire. Five Panthers gone, three damaged, numerous panzergrenadiers killed, wounded, or wandering in the trees. Clearly, this attack didn’t work for the SS. Kane’s men saw to that.

Along the Hotton-Grandmenil road, greatly aided by U.S. airstrikes and fearsome artillery concentrations, Rose’s task forces established a solid line for the first time since December 20. Combat Command A linked in with the 84th Infantry Division in Marche. Combat Command Reserve with another regiment of the 75th Infantry Division strongly held Hotton and Soy. Task Force Orr guarded Amonines. Task Force Kane just south and TF Richardson just north held the high ground west of Grandmenil. Matt Kane placed four attached tank destroyers inside the village itself. When the 2nd SS Panzer Division main effort came, Rose’s men dominated the good ground.

While the 2nd SS Panzer Division commanders reassessed their efforts to get around TF Kane and TF Brewster, Sam Hogan also met the Germans. One of his Sherman sergeants reported a German officer approaching alone on foot. The man carried a stick with a white flag. A lieutenant blindfolded the enemy leader and took him on a magical mystery tour—no need to let the German gain intelligence. After a reasonable length of time, the German came face-to-face with Hogan and his Lone Star flag. The U.S. escort removed the eye covering. In good English, the German officer told Hogan that three panzer divisions surrounded the American battalion. Surrender now, he said.

Hogan emphatically refused. A battlewise veteran by now, Hogan could see by his foe’s uniform that this was no panzer man, but a regular infantry officer. Panzers or not, the Germans certainly outnumbered the Americans and held most of the cards. But as Hogan told his unwelcome guest, the Americans had orders to hold, and they would. The German was again blindfolded and escorted back to whence he came. A similar scene near Bastogne brought everlasting fame to the 101st Airborne Division. But unlike the 101st, no Third Army divisions were driving to succor TF Hogan. Sam Hogan and his G.I.s stood alone. Maurice Rose had nothing to send them.

That afternoon, Army Air Forces C-47 Dakota transports again dropped supplies by parachute. The encircling Germans again enjoyed the American largesse, and shot down at least one airplane, too. Two airmen parachuted into TF Hogan’s defensive position. Two more mouths to feed, thought Hogan, and with almost no gasoline left and ammunition shortages, too.85 Defiant words aside, TF Hogan was nearly spent.

Christmas Eve night brought not peace, but pain. In Manhay, both the 7th Armored Division and the 82nd Airborne Division troops began the Montgomery-ordered realignment. By happenstance, a Waffen SS column of Panthers bearing panzergrenadiers stormed into town about 9:00 p.m., catching several American outfits by surprise just as the G.I.s loaded up to pull out. In a running gunfight, the Americans lost dozens of vehicles and sustained hundreds of casualties.

The Germans grabbed the town as U.S. trucks, tanks, and foot troops scattered. For good measure, Waffen SS Panthers also chucked out the four TF Kane tank destroyers in the village of Grandmenil. All bad, all ugly—and all tactically irrelevant, as the Americans absolutely controlled the key terrain. Daylight would bring more rampaging P-47s. The Germans had taken Manhay. Merry Christmas. But Manhay didn’t matter anymore. The 2nd SS Panzer Division was out of fuel and out of options.

So were two of Maurice Rose’s exposed task forces. With the 3rd Armored Division fought out after the slugfest along the Hotton-Manhay line, and unrelenting German pressure up and down that front, no viable force remained to rescue TF Hogan or TF Brewster. What would become of them?

Maurice Rose had been pondering TF Hogan’s state for days. At midday on Christmas Day, Rose authorized Sam Hogan to destroy his vehicles and withdraw on foot under the cover of night. Lacking gasoline and engineer demolition charges, Hogan’s men drained all the oil reservoirs and resorted to the preferred method of teenage vandals, pouring sugar into the gas tanks and then racing the engines until they seized up. Gunners collected breech blocks from howitzers and tank guns; these went down a well in Marcouray. Men with hammers and wrenches bashed radios to pieces, then for good measure cracked up gunsight optics. Battalion surgeon Captain Louis Spiegelmann volunteered to stay behind with the dozens of immobile G.I. wounded, some captured Germans, and the remains of the one American killed in the Marcouray perimeter. The walking wounded went out with Hogan.

At twilight, the Americans discarded their heavy, noisy metal helmets, rubbed ashes on their faces, and set out in disciplined platoons, no panic, all business. A recon team had found a gap in the German lines. “Hogan’s 400” used it. The last man in the march turned out to be Sam Hogan himself, not due to any bold gesture—though he had guts aplenty—but because the task force commander wore fur-lined Royal Air Force flight boots, excellent for hours standing in a cold metal tank and thoroughly awful for tromping through deep snow. Even so, the Americans got cleanly away and reached American lines near Hotton on the bright morning of December 26.

When he met up with G.I. defenders, Hogan was packed into a peep and sent to Omaha Forward. Rose greeted him, congratulated him on his stalwart defense, and praised Hogan for getting most of his men out. When the general asked why Hogan walked in last, the Texan eschewed a chance to say something heroic, and instead offered, “My feet hurt.” American newspaper reporters and radio broadcasters told and retold the story of Hogan’s 400. These soldiers epitomized American grit.

A different experience awaited Major Olin Brewster. His stitched-together battalion-strength task force at Belle Haie still held the place “at all costs,” as ordered by Maurice Rose. But once Manhay fell to the Germans, that no longer made sense. The Waffen SS had gone from Belle Haie. But they’d be back. Brewster talked by radio to Rich Richardson, who OK’d a withdrawal in the wee hours of December 25. “Get out now if you can,” Richardson said, “but don’t use the road you went up on. Try east.” Bring out all vehicles and soldiers. Go toward the 82nd Airborne Division’s area. Avoid Manhay.

Brewster tried the eastern road. It didn’t go well. At about 3:00 a.m. on Christmas morning, the vehicle column slowly chugged down a tight one-lane farm track. Concealed German antitank guns nailed the lead tank and then the trail tank. German machine guns opened up from the south, not effective at first, but getting there. In a snap decision, fight or flight, Brewster opted for the latter. He ordered all his troops to dismount and head north through the dark woods. The Americans moved out with a purpose. It was not a bug-out, but an organized tactical effort, taking advantage of the darkness and German confusion, some of it caused by TF Brewster’s previous stand at Belle Haie. The U.S. task force left behind a half-track, a peep, a two-and-a-half-ton truck, and five intact Sherman tanks. Men said they’d disabled the vehicles, and no doubt did what they could under German fire. But the need to break contact took priority.

By dawn, Brewster’s soldiers met with friendly paratroopers. Like Hogan, the major was trucked to 3rd Armored Division headquarters. Brewster met a reception as cold as that Belgian winter morning. Maurice Rose sat silently behind an olive drab wooden field desk. His posture suggested judge, jury, and executioner. So did his tone.

“Brewster, what happened?”

Exhausted, unshaven, filthy, Brewster did his best to explain. He emphasized that he had Rich Richardson’s approval to withdraw. Rose didn’t buy it. He asked if TF Brewster still had fuel and ammunition. The major answered affirmatively.

“And you quit fighting?”

Brewster tried to reply. Rose cut him off.

“Brewster, you are under arrest for misbehavior before the enemy.”

Rose dismissed the shocked officer.

Maurice Rose was as well-accoutered as ever that morning. But the general had gutted out a week on little more than an hour or two of sleep a day. He’d been going, and going, and going, roadblock to roadblock, Hotton to Manhay and all the nasty points in between, day and night. Rose had seen too many of his men dead, too much blood on the snow. Unlucky Brewster caught both barrels.

Once Brigadier General Doyle Hickey, Colonel Tubby Doan, and Lieutenant Colonel Rich Richardson intervened, and Rose got some sleep, the matter went down the memory hole. Olin Brewster went back to Task Force Richardson and served with distinction until wounded badly on January 8, 1945. Yet G.I.s talked to one another about what happened to Brewster. It wasn’t fair, they said. And it wasn’t like Rose. Apparently the crushing stresses of the Bulge got to him, too.

“The operation was a bluff,” Rose explained afterward, “because on occasions the enemy had enough strength to overrun the division.” In that decisive first week in the Ardennes, “the division succeeded in its mission because it attacked instead of passively defending.” Rose referred to this period as the most critical five days of his entire military service. Indeed it was.

The Spearheaders successfully fought off four German formations: 1st SS Panzer Division (Combat Command B’s opponent from December 20–25), 2nd SS Panzer Division, 116th Panzer Division, and 560th Volksgrenadier Division. Except for the last one, those outfits constituted elite enemy troops, and the 560th proved themselves more than able, too. Maurice Rose’s men had done as much as any American division to blunt the great German offensive of December 1944.

That achievement came at a high price. Rose’s division lost 187 men killed and 1,386 wounded. German gunners took out 125 Sherman tanks—more than half the division’s assigned fleet—38 light tanks, six self-propelled howitzers, and 158 half-tracks, armored cars, and trucks. No other single battle levied such a toll.

The G-2 counters credited the 3rd Armored Division with killing 1,705 Germans and wounding 545. Despite the precise figures, those were estimates, of course, but within reason. The division took 2,510 prisoners by actual head count. Division troops claimed 118 panzers, 31 of them Panthers, by physical inspection of the wrecks.93 Some of those probably represented double counts for Allied airpower or the 82nd Airborne and other units. More important than any roll-up, the Germans never crossed the Meuse River. The people of Antwerp never saw a single panzer.

Australians at D-Day


On the night of 5/6 June Bomber Command conducted precision attacks on ten German coastal artillery batteries near the beaches where Allied troops were to land. Each battery was targeted by approximately 100 heavy bombers, and all four Australian heavy bomber squadrons took part in the operation. No. 460 Squadron dispatched 26 aircraft, which were evenly split between attacking the batteries at Fontenay-Crisbecq and St Martin de Varreville. No. 466 Squadron provided 13 aircraft to the raid on batteries at Merville-Franceville Maisy, 14 aircraft from No. 463 Squadron struck Pointe du Hoe and No. 467 Squadron dispatched 14 against batteries at Ouistreham. The RAAF squadrons did not suffer any losses. Many Australian aircrew posted to British units also participated in this attack, and 14.8 percent of the 1,136 Bomber Command aircraft despatched were either part of RAAF squadrons or were flown by Australians.

Australians posted to RAF units also landed paratroopers in Normandy and took part in diversionary operations. On the night of 5/6 June several Australian airmen served in heavy bombers that dropped “window” chaff in patterns that, on German radar, simulated the appearance of convoys headed for the Pas de Calais region of France. Other Australians served in aircraft that dropped dummy paratroopers and jammed German radar. One Australian pilot posted to No. 139 Squadron RAF took part in “intruder” bombing raids against targets in western Germany and the Low Countries that sought to divert German aircraft away from Normandy. Australian aircrew also served aboard the transport aircraft of No. 38 Group RAF and No. 46 Group RAF, which flew the British 6th Airborne Division from the UK to Normandy on the night of 5/6 June. About 14 percent of the transport aircraft in No. 38 Group were piloted by Australians, though the proportion of Australians in No. 46 Group was much lower. There were no completely Australian aircrews in either group.

Australian aircrew supported the fighting on 6 June. No. 453 Squadron was one of 36 Allied squadrons that provided low-altitude air defence for the invasion fleet and landing force. Many of the squadron’s pilots flew several sorties during the day, though they did not encounter any German aircraft. No. 456 Squadron also formed part of the force that provided air defence for the invasion area at night. In addition, about 200 Australian pilots were spread across the dozens of RAF fighter and fighter-bomber units that supported the landings. A small number of Australian aircrew also served in RAF reconnaissance units and 2TAF’s light bomber squadrons, which also saw combat over France on D-Day. The three Australian squadrons assigned to Coastal Command flew only a small number of sorties on 6 June as few German submarines or E-boats put to sea.

About 500 RAN personnel served on board RN ships involved in the operation. While most formed part of the crew of RN warships, several Australian officers led flotillas of landing craft and others commanded individual craft. For instance, Sub-Lieutenant Dean Murray commanded a force of six RN Landing Craft Assault that landed soldiers of the British 3rd Infantry Division at Sword Beach. Hudspeth also took X20 across the channel to mark the edge of Juno Beach during the landings there; he received his third DSC for completing this mission. Some of the warships with Australian crew members that supported the landings were HMS Ajax (which had three RANVR officers on board), Ashanti, Enterprise, Eskimo, Glasgow, Mackay and Scylla. Australian members of the Merchant Navy also participated in the D-Day landings, though the number of sailors involved is not known.

Few of the Australian Army officers attached to British units landed on D-Day. Major Jo Gullett, who was the second in command of an infantry company in the 7th Battalion, Green Howards, came ashore on Gold Beach as part of the invasion force. In his memoirs, Gullett described the landing as “easily the most impressive occasion of my life”. He subsequently led a company of the Royal Scots until he was wounded by German machine gun fire on 17 July. Most of the other Australian officers served in staff positions; for instance Lieutenant Colonel Bill Robertson was the chief of staff of the 51st (Highland) Infantry Division when that unit arrived in Normandy and was later posted to the 50th (Northumbrian) Infantry Division where he served in the same role. Vincent came ashore on 7 June and served with XXX Corps, 7th Armoured and 43rd (Wessex) Infantry Divisions during the campaign.

Due to the lack of a nominal roll or other records listing the Australians who took part in the D-Day landings, it is not possible to determine the exact number involved. However, it has been estimated that about 3,000 Australian military personnel and merchant seamen participated in the operation. The total number of Australians killed on 6 June was 14, of whom 12 were RAAF airmen and two were members of the RAN.

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 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.


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.


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.


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.


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.



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.


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.

The Army of Meiji 3 of 3 Parts

“Aoyama; Kanpeishiki no Zu”. Emperor Meiji holds a military review at army camp in Aoyama.

The Reorganized Superintendency

In May 1885 the army ministry revised the garrison regulations. The commander of each garrison became a division commander while the superintendent controlled two divisions and became a corps commander.48 This was the army’s first step to convert the fixed garrisons to more mobile and modern infantry divisions, but it also required a more thorough overhaul of the superintendency. With Meckel serving as an adviser, recently promoted Maj. Gen. Katsura, chief of the army ministry’s general affairs bureau, and other like-minded general staff officers set to work to reorganize the superintendency to accommodate the command and control requirements of the new division force structure.

Based on preliminary studies, in late 1885 Katsura recommended to Yamagata that the current superintendency be abolished as an operational headquarters and converted to the army’s training command. Simultaneously, the army would introduce a centralized promotion system based on competitive examinations, not seniority, and establish age limits for active-duty service. It would also revise current regulations that made promotion to full general conditional on command of large units during wartime and subsequently on wartime command. These measures were designed to sweep away the deadwood in the officer corps and promote outstanding younger officers by competitive examination based on individual talent.

With Yamagata’s blessing, in March 1886 Katsura established the Provisional Committee to Study Military Systems, a nineteen-member group chaired by Col. Kodama Gentarō, to consider army reorganization. Meckel advised the committee and met with Kodama on a bi-weekly basis to discuss force structure issues and the national army’s mission. Meckel also drafted position papers, including one that addressed the command and control implications of converting the fixed garrisons into mobile divisions.

Meckel saw no need for a wartime corps echelon because the army would be small—only seven divisions —and its strategy defensive: to repel invasion of the home islands. Relying on mobility, individual divisions could quickly deploy to their assigned defensive sectors in wartime and, with attached artillery and technical units, conduct independent operations, much like a small corps in a European army. Thus the division became the army’s operational maneuver element. If a corps echelon was superfluous, so was the current superintendency system, which functioned as a wartime corps command equivalent. According to Meckel, the superintendent could administer two divisions during peacetime, thereby providing unified training at all levels, but would have no wartime role.

In line with previous studies, Meckel further recommended the creation of an inspectorate who would supervise army-wide military training and officer education and report directly to the emperor. The inspector-general would be equal in rank to the chief of staff and the war minister (which replaced the army minister under the newly installed cabinet system, discussed below). Finally, he proposed a personnel section to manage officers’ promotions and assignments. War Minister Ōyama submitted Meckel’s recommendations to the cabinet on July 10, 1886.

Soga, Miura, and their allies adamantly opposed the abolition of the existing superintendency and its replacement by an inspector-general of military education under Yamagata’s control. From their powerful positions—Miura commanded the Tokyo garrison and Soga was vice chief of the army staff—they insisted that neither the general staff nor the war ministry (which had been established in December 1885) had jurisdiction over the regional superintendents because they reported directly to the emperor, and therefore an imperial decree was needed to change their positions. They rejected reforms such as competitive examinations for promotion and drew support from officers whose professional careers were tied to the traditional seniority-based promotion system. Lt. Gen. Tani (agricultural minister at the time but still on active duty) and Chief of Staff Prince Arisugawa likewise rejected the reforms, especially placing the inspectorate functions under the war ministry, which they believed vested excessive power in the war minister’s hands. According to rumors, Emperor Meiji agreed with them and hoped to appoint Miura as chief of staff. Yamagata, however, ignored the emperor’s preference and schemed with Ōyama to undercut Miura by removing him from command of the Tokyo garrison.

After a July 12, 1886, imperial audience with Arisugawa, Emperor Meiji temporarily postponed the initiatives to allow Prime Minister Itō time to broker a compromise. Itō got Arisugawa and Yamagata to agree that the newly established war ministry would manage infantry officer promotions and the inspectorate for all other branches. They also concurred that the general staff would control the new inspectorate based on Itō’s promise that the inspectorate would be subsequently reorganized. The army abolished the superintendency on July 24 and replaced it with the so-called new inspector-general, which was administratively under the war minister.

By moving the inspectorate’s peacetime administrative functions to the war ministry, the army empowered the war minister with the authority to control personnel promotion policies and to issue operational orders to garrison commanders. This change diminished the authority of the regional inspector-generals by converting them from an operational headquarters that issued orders to a training one that took orders. The 1886 revisions also dropped the requirement for wartime command for promotion to flag officer, made selection to full general a matter of imperial appointment, and replaced promotion by seniority with a promotion system based on competitive examination results. For their persistent opposition, Soga was transferred from vice chief of staff to the commandant of the military academy and Miura was transferred to Kumamoto. Miura resigned rather than accept the demotion. Both remained outspoken critics of the army’s direction.

The settlement left unresolved the relationship between the new division force structure and the regional inspectors because the latter still reported directly to the emperor and served in wartime as corps commanders. During the transition period to divisions, the war ministry, as Itō promised, again reorganized the inspectorate. The July 1887 imperial order finally standardized army-wide training by placing it under the new inspectorate general, which was directly subordinate to the emperor and coordinated all military training and competitive examinations. Yamagata, concurrently home minister, was appointed the first inspector-general but served only nine months, apparently to ensure that the new organization got off the ground. The agency was the forerunner of the inspector-general of military education established by imperial order in January 1893 to enforce army-wide proficiency standards.

General Staff Reforms

Regulations issued in December 1885 created ten ministries in the newly organized cabinet. The war minister (formerly the army minister) continued to manage the army’s administrative functions—annual budget preparation, weapons procurement, personnel issues, and relations with the Diet—and reported to the prime minister on such matters. The new rules allowed the chief of staff to report directly to the throne on classified military matters without informing civilian cabinet members. Notwithstanding the chief of staff’s direct access to the throne, the war minister was encouraged to report such occurrences to the prime minister. The chief of the council of state had previously controlled the other ministers and held military command prerogatives; the newly designated prime minister, however, would have no say in matters of military operations or command.

The new cabinet authorized a separate naval general staff under the navy ministry. Two general staffs—one army, one navy—necessitated further reorganization, and in March 1886 the cabinet established a centralized supervisory agency to separate operational military matters from affairs of state. The new agency, in effect a joint general staff, was responsible for joint planning and operational coordination. A neutral imperial family member, Prince Arisugawa, became chief of staff to keep the lid on simmering internal service discord. He had two vice chiefs of staff—one from the army, one from the navy—who directed their respective staffs, and a joint staff to conduct joint planning to enable the services to react quickly to emergencies. This restructuring harkened back to the arrangement under the council of state and reflected the services’ inability to resolve roles and missions. Instead, a compromise imperial figurehead presided over two competitive general staffs that operated independently of each other.

Arisugawa’s appointment as chief of the joint staff attempted to capitalize on the direct link between the army and the throne. The flawed organizational arrangement proved unsatisfactory, in part because army infighting over the nature of the joint staff’s authority continued unabated, in part because the differing expertise of army and navy officers complicated coordination, and in part because Arisugawa, like many of his veteran contemporaries, lacked the formal military education, specialized military knowledge, and technical expertise demanded in a rapidly changing army and navy.

To remedy these deficiencies, two years later—in May 1888—the army again reorganized the general staff, changing the name to the army and navy staff directorate, eliminating the vice chief positions, and replacing them with an army and a navy general staff responsible to a single chief of staff for imperial forces. Arisugawa became chief of staff and served as the emperor’s military adviser on matters of operational planning and national defense. Arisugawa, however, had no staff, only a deputy, and depended on the service staffs for advice. In theory, the chief of staff was the ideal mechanism to coordinate joint planning and large-unit operations, but the services refused to cooperate with each other, joint planning did not materialize, and attempts at unified command again failed.

Articles eleven and twelve of the new Meiji Constitution promulgated in February 1889 formally institutionalized the military’s prerogative of supreme command. Article eleven made the emperor supreme commander of the army and navy, and article twelve established the emperor’s authority to set the peacetime organization of his military forces. Constitutional scholars interpreted the former to empower the general staff to assist the emperor without reference to the cabinet, effectively placing the services beyond the control of the prime minister. This was a major goal of the oligarchs—to keep the army out of politics or, phrased differently, to keep party politicians and political factions from running the army.

Senior army officers also feared that under the new constitution one general officer could in theory control two separate service staffs, a situation that might impinge on imperial prerogatives of command. To prevent this possibility and to retain its dominant position in military affairs, army leaders convinced the emperor to eliminate the chief of staff and place the naval general staff under the new navy minister. The army general staff, however, would be independent of the newly created war ministry and enjoy direct access to the throne. Arisugawa became the chief of the newly reorganized general staff, and the serving army chief of staff moved to the vice chief position. This latest change made the chief of staff the de facto army chief of staff because the navy staff had to issue its orders through the navy minister, who did not enjoy direct access to the throne. The arrangement left the military without an integrated joint staff to oversee operational command and control.

Diehard conservatives like Miura detested the thought of a powerful centralized government, which had already displayed its corrupt nature by promoting regional factionalism within the army. They had devoted most of the decade of the 1880s trying to block the Satsuma-Chōshū monopoly on senior army posts and army reforms, only to see institutional reforms, a new force structure, a reorganized general staff, and a revamped administrative system that strengthened Yamagata, Ōyama, and their respective regional cliques’ grips on the army. Miura claimed that factionalism had led the restoration astray and that Japan’s proper course should be to field a small army tailored to defend the main islands. Together with army Vice Chief of Staff Soga and retired generals Tani and Torio he doggedly opposed Ōyama’s and Yamagata’s attempts to introduce a big army organized in a German-style military system.

Allied with Miura and Soga were an anti-mainstream group of officers, who formed a well-organized opposition centered in the Getsuyōkai, a fraternal organization of army officers established in 1881 by graduates of the military academy’s initial two classes. The Getsuyōkai originally encouraged research into the latest developments in military science to improve army officers’ professional expertise, contribute to national defense, and aid understanding of large-unit operations. Membership soon exceeded fifty officers. Other specialized professional associations for officers—from cavalrymen to veterinarians—proliferated throughout the army.

In 1884 the Getsuyōkai chairman, the Francophile commandant of the Toyama Infantry School, appointed Miura, Soga, Tani (now retired from active duty and director of the Peers Academy), and Torio (also retired and director of the government statistical bureau) the association’s advisers. The French faction of Miura and Soga dominated the organization, using its lectures, newsletter, and later its journal, the Getsuyōkai kiji, to lambaste Yamagata and the army leadership, denounce the army’s Prussian reforms, and promote a small-army, antiexpansionist agenda. Under Soga’s direction, the journal published biting critiques of senior officers, deriding them as superannuated veterans of the wars of restoration living on their past reputations, unaware of the advances in military science, and sitting idly at their desks while real soldiers were maneuvering troops in field exercises.

Stung by charges that they were ignorant of modern military technology and doctrine, top army leaders counterattacked. Maj. Gen. Nogi, a brigade commander, and Vice Chief of Staff Kawakami Sōroku, who had recently returned from a year in Germany, publicly dismissed the critics as irresponsible tyros whose conduct was detrimental to military regulations and undermined army discipline and military order. But the Getsuyōkai would remain a thorn in the army leadership’s side throughout the decade of the 1880s.

Filling the Ranks

The overwhelming majority of conscripts came from farming communities and were overrepresented in the army. Almost 80 percent of the 1888 cohort, for example, was drawn from primary industry (forestry, agriculture, and fishing) at a time when roughly 65 percent of Japanese worked in that sector. Mining, manufacturing, and construction—the second and tertiary sectors—accounted for about 35 percent of all workers but only 11 percent of conscripts in 1888.

In 1887 the army adopted the Prussian system of one-year volunteers to build a reserve officer pool. Instead of facing conscription after their student deferments expired, middle school graduates could volunteer for specialized training designed to produce reserve officers. Candidates volunteered for a one-year specialized active-duty service, at the end of which they were commissioned as reserve second lieutenants. They could select their branch of service, live outside the garrison confines, and were exempt from routine fatigue duties in the barracks. They wore special insignia on their uniforms and were promoted to superior private after six months. With their regimental commander’s endorsement and successful completion of qualifying tests after six more months, they became reserve officers. In exchange for the privileges, the volunteers paid for their clothing, food, and equipment, which the army assessed at 60 yen (80 yen for cavalry to care for a horse). These sums were far beyond the reach of most Japanese, accounting for the tiny number (only 0.7 percent) of volunteers of the total cohort.

About 100 men volunteered the first year of the program, but by 1897 more than 1,000 volunteer reserve officers were enrolled in the program, spurred in part by the 1889 conscription reforms described below.67 Following their year on active duty, reserve officers went into the reserves for seven years, which was better than three years’ active duty followed by nine years in the reserves. They were subject to annual call-ups to active duty to maintain their military proficiency.

Of the more than 35,000 volunteers between 1906 and 1916, almost half chose the infantry branch, but a quarter selected transport or intendance specialties and overloaded branches the army had scant use for. Subsequent reforms created an abbreviated six-month voluntary active-duty training course designed to replace continual student deferments. As the active force gradually grew from about 65,000 in 1888 to 77,000 in 1893, the army simultaneously built a responsive reserve force capable upon mobilization of doubling the size of the force in wartime.

Major changes in 1889 to conscription regulations also followed the Prussian model in order to build a large enlisted reserve that would fill out the wartime divisions. Legislation eliminated deferments and established four categories of service: active duty, first reserve, second reserve, and national militia (territorial reserve), making a clear distinction between active duty and reserve forces.

The new law also delineated induction categories: graded A through E, with A and B being the source of conscripts. In 1899 the B category was subdivided into two groups, identified by minor physical differences. An annual preinduction physical rated 20-year-olds for military duty in this manner: A, fully fit; B, fit with minor deficiencies such as weaker bone and muscle structure, rashes, scars, or tattoos that did not interfere with the execution of military duties; C, those between four foot, eight inches and five feet in height, ineligible for frontline duty but placed in rear service positions; and D, those shorter than four foot, eight inches or suffering from habitual illness or deformity. The “A” candidates were conscripted, served three years on active duty, and then automatically went into the reserves for another four years, available for recall to fill out wartime augmentations. The “B” group usually was placed in the first reserve, and the “C” group went into the second reserve. The first reserve served as replacements and fillers for wartime mobilization whereas the second reserve was assigned to the transport branch to augment the expanded wartime logistics table of organization. Reservists received ninety days of basic training and thereafter were liable for one call-up per year for training, not to exceed sixty days. These remained the induction categories through 1945.

Conscripts, who were forbidden by army regulations from marrying during their first three years on active duty, were separated by year-group (first-, second- , or third-year soldiers) for training purposes. Each year was subdivided into seven training periods. A recruit underwent six months of basic training (periods one through three), followed by six months of unit and field training with second- and third-year soldiers (periods four through seven). Third-year soldiers were less involved in drills and exercises, so their proficiency decreased as their longevity increased. The model stressed technical and weapons proficiency and march-discipline for rapid mobility. After 1889 the army emphasized leadership, the intangible or morale qualities of battle, and tougher discipline.

By the early 1880s, the army had adopted western (mainly French) court-martial regulations for various serious offenses such as mutiny, desertion, disobedience to orders, rape, and mistreatment of prisoners. Caning on the back or buttocks was a standard punishment. Concurrently, a system of harsh, informally administered corporal punishments to deal with minor infractions developed in the barracks. Slapping conscripts was routine, gang beatings were common, and harassment and bullying were constant. The aim was to guarantee absolute obedience to a superior’s orders and instill unquestioning compliance as a reflex or habit in the tractable soldier. Henceforth, a combination of informally administered punishments and officially established courts-martial enforced Spartan discipline, linked to the notion that one’s ability to endure physical hardship and suffering stoically was the essence of the Japanese spirit.

Parallel with the 1889 conscription reform, the army encouraged local jurisdictions with village and city neighborhood associations to honor departing conscripts with neighborhood send-offs and conduct ceremonies to recognize returning veterans. Except for the Imperial Guard, which recruited nationwide, each division was administratively responsible for four local regimental conscription districts (one for each regiment in a division). Because each regiment recruited locally, conscripts knew each other, but more important were known to villagers, neighbors, and local authorities, increasing local peer pressure on conscripts to do well in the army.

The army’s transition during the twenty-year span was remarkable. During the 1870s a hard-pressed, slapdash force had defeated samurai uprisings large and small, ending the warrior threat to the new government. It had crushed peasant uprisings and suppressed the people’s rights movement, eliminating the risk of popular insurrection. By the mid-1890s the army had organized itself into a modern force structure, tested concepts in extensive field exercises, and improved communications and support functions. Its professional officer corps was well versed in tactics and operational concepts, though somewhat weaker in military strategy. A highly trained and well-disciplined NCO corps ensured order and control in the ranks. Conscription reforms in 1883 and 1889 had produced a large, trained reserve force available for mobilization. The army also created a professional military bureaucracy that by 1890 had eliminated French influence in the army and introduced educational and structural reforms to ensure promotion based on merit and ability.

The institution was less successful in the formation of a general staff, which despite several reorganizations still could not coordinate joint planning, much less joint operations. Furthermore, the military’s new bureaucratic processes worked well so long as the civilian and military leaders shared common objectives and respected the informal policy-making apparatus. The gradual appearance of a professional officer class, however, promoted institutionalized processes and mechanisms that undermined the unofficial personality-dependent system. Over time, the emerging military bureaucracy would prove fatal to the traditional dominance of the army’s Chōshū and Satsuma officers because it rewarded professional expertise and education, not personal connections, regional affiliations, or past wartime service.