Monday, 20 March 2023

Prime Minister on the Front Lines

In 1941 it became clear to British tankers that the Churchill I armed with a 40 mm 2-pounder and 3” howitzer won’t remain competitive for long. Due to difficulties with developing a new weapon, the Churchill III armed with the more powerful 57 mm 6-pounder only entered production in March of 1942. These tanks gradually forced out the Churchill II, but some units kept the Churchill I as close support tanks. The low reliability of these tanks did not allow the British to test them in the desert, but an opportunity for a trial by fire soon arose.

If at first you don’t succeed…

The Churchill tanks first went into battle on August 19th, 1942, during the infamous Dieppe raid. A raid against German coastal defenses was risky, but after a series of raids including the famous raid on Saint-Nazaire, Lord Mountbatten’s Combined Operations Headquarters had all but carte blanche when it came to planning.

A Churchill II tank used in a practice amphibious landing.

Wednesday, 15 March 2023

Tanks Worth Their Weight in Gold

Ways in which Germany could have been victorious in WW2 are still a popular topic of discussion in some circles. One can often hear the claim that the war on the Eastern Front would have ended in 1941 with the fall of Moscow if not for the timely appearance of Lend Lease tanks, issued to the USSR free of charge. As common as this argument is, it has little basis in the truth. Let us see what Western tanks appeared in the USSR and when, and what effect these vehicles had on the course of the war.

Before Lend Lease

For starters, let us clarify what Lend Lease actually was and what it had to do with military assistance to the USSR. The Act to Promote the Defense of the United States was signed into law by the 77th Congress of the United States on March 11th, 1941. It gave the president of the still neutral country the ability to supply weapons, transport, tools, raw materials, agricultural or industrial machinery to any nation whose protection was considered vital to the defense of the United States. The term “lend lease” was derived from the ability to “sell, transfer title to, exchange, lease, lend, or otherwise dispose of” any of the aforementioned items to these nations granted by this act. While the president of the United States had the power to give them away for free, that was far from his only option.

Matilda tanks earmarked for the USSR.

Monday, 13 March 2023

Anti-Aircraft Lizard

The British began to build SPAAGs after the start of the Second World War. As soon as it became clear that the Light Tank Mk.VI was obsolete as a tank, it was converted to take a new turret with four AA machine guns. The same thing was done to the Crusader tank, but with two 20 mm Oerlikon autocannons. This armament upgrade did not resolve other issues with these tanks, namely thin armour and poor reliability. Finding spare parts for these out of production vehicles was not the easiest task either. It was clear that a SPAAG based on a chassis still in production was needed. Since Canada was just setting up production of the Grizzly tank, a variant of the American Sherman, this vehicle was chosen as the chassis. This was the start of the Skink AA tank, which was built and even saw battle, unlike the tank that it was based on.

Born to crawl

Work on mechanizing the 20 mm AA gun began in December of 1942. The AFV Users Committee suggested building an AA tank on the chassis of either Ram or Sherman tank for escorting armoured units on December 19th. The committee required the vehicle to be equipped with either two or four 20 mm guns, carry 600 rounds of ammunition, and be able to fire at targets moving at a speed of up to 350 mph (563 kph) at a height of 100 yards (91 meters). This required the turret to rotate a full 360 degrees in 4.8 seconds. The vehicle’s armour was required to withstand a hit from a 40 mm aircraft cannon at a range of 100 yards.

Development of this new vehicle began on March 19th, 1943. The initial variant called for a new turret welded together from 25-50 mm thick armour plates. The turret contained a quad Hispano-Suiza gun mount. Each gun was fed with a 50 round belt. The mount could be aimed vertically at a speed of 45 degrees per second and horizontally at a speed of 55 degrees per second. Production of such a vehicle was pitched to the Angus Shops and Montreal Locomotive works as well as the American General Motors company, but all three declined this project.

Skink AA tank with an early cast turret. This tank still has Hispano-Suiza guns.

Friday, 10 March 2023

How to Kill a T-34

Tank design is an endless battle not just against existing enemy tanks, but also prospective ones. No tank can stay at the top of the food chain forever. Even a vehicle with the most powerful gun and thickest armour will sooner or later face a weapon capable of penetrating this armour or an adversary that proves too tough for its gun to crack. Barring that, the enemy will come up with some clever tactics to overcome the tank’s technical advantages. This is what happened with the legendary T-34 tank that the Germans ran into in the summer of 1941.

Tough nut to crack

The Germans already had experience successfully fighting “invincible” tanks by the summer of 1941. The outcome of their first encounter with Matilda tanks in France was not what one would predict from looking at the order of battle on paper. Failure of communications resulted in British tanks going into battle without proper organization or infantry support. The German 3.7 cm Pak was of little use against these new tanks, but there were other weapons available. Some tanks ran into 8.8 cm Flak batteries that had no issue with the Matilda’s thick armour, others were immobilized by field artillery and had to be abandoned. British infantry arrived too late and could not hold ground without support from their tanks. As a result, no evacuation could be organized and the tanks were lost.

The first encounters of the German army with the T-34 tank were not too different in outcome, but left a different impression. German tank ace Otto Carius met these tanks in July of 1941 and remembered them like this:
“Another event hit us like a ton of bricks. The Russians showed up for the first time with their T-34s! The surprise was complete. How was it possible that those at the top hadn’t known about the existence of this superior tank?

The T-34 with its good armour, ideal shape, and magnificent 76.2 mm long-barreled cannon was universally feared and a threat to every German tank up until the end of the war. What were we supposed to do to these monstrosities that were being committed in quantity against us? We could only knock at the door with our cannons, inside the Russians were able to play an undisturbed hand of cards. At that time, the 37 mm Pak was still our strongest armour defeating weapon. If lucky, we could hit the T-34 on the turret ring and jam it. With a whole lot more luck, it became combat ineffective. Certainly not a very positive situation!

Our only salvation was the 88 mm Flak. Even this new Russian tank could be effectively engaged with it. We thus started paying the utmost respect to the Flak troops who previously had sometimes received a condescending smile from us.”
88 mm AA guns were indeed an effective weapon against the T-34. German instructions suggested firing the AP shell (Pzgr.Patr.) at the T-34’s turret from 1000 meters and at the hull from an even closer range: 100-800 meters. Other instructions suggested firing at 500-600 meters to be sure. 105 mm Flak 38 and Flak 39 guns could fire at the turret from 1200 m and at the hull from 800 m. The 105 mm leFH 18 howitzer and Kanone 18 gun could fire HE shells from any range. Smaller caliber guns had only a small chance to penetrate the turret armour and were only useful for suppressing inexperienced crews. 75 mm HE or larger had a chance of disabling the running gear.

Guide on dealing with a T-34 tank. Guns smaller than 88 mm in caliber could do little against its armour.

Monday, 6 March 2023

Video: IS-2 vs Panther, Math and Reality

I've frequently seen the claim that the front of the Panther tank was nearly invulnerable to the IS-2's 122 mm D-25T gun if correctly angled. Indeed, penetration equations suggest that would be the case, but reality is a lot more complicated than that. In this video I go into detail about how line-of-sight armour thickness doesn't tell the whole story.

Friday, 3 March 2023

A Firefly with a Stinger

Several variants of mechanizing the powerful 76 mm 17-pounder gun were developed by the end of 1943. One of them involved installing the gun on various types of Sherman tanks. The new Sherman Ic and Sherman Vc tanks passed trials at proving grounds in early 1944, but had yet to prove their worth on the battlefield.

Live and learn

To start, let us make a small note about the name of these tanks. The Sherman Ic and Sherman Vc (also stylized IC and VC) are commonly known under the name Firefly. This nickname did not come from official documents. Just the opposite, British commanders tried to fight it and mandated that these tanks be called only by their proper names. No one knows where the nickname came from, but it appears to have been British in origin. New Zealanders who used these tanks in Italy did not seem to ever use this name. These tanks were also called Sherman C and Sherman 17-pounder in official documents. Although unofficial, the name Firefly will be used in this article to refer to Sherman tanks equipped with 17-pounder guns.

A stowage sketch showing the tank’s official designation: Sherman V.C

Thursday, 2 March 2023

Book Review: Surviving D-Day Tanks in Normandy

The scale of the D-Day landings was truly epic, with Allied forces landing on a front some 70 kilometers wide. This introduced a considerable problem for the Germans 79 years ago, but also for visitors today, as  artefacts and battlefields are scattered across a large distance. Fortunately, a tourist armed with Surviving D-Day Tanks in Normandy by Craig Moore will be able to make the most of their trip.