Friday 31 March 2023

American Generals in King George's Court

The British found themselves in an undesirable situation in North Africa by 1941. Matilda and Valentine infantry tanks were quite modern and often vulnerable only to 88 mm AA guns, but cruiser tanks did not measure up to their opponents. Even the Crusader, the most modern vehicle of its class, was armed with the same 2-pounder gun as its predecessors. The armour was a little bit thicker than the last generation, but still only resisted the 3.7 cm Pak from long ranges. These tanks were outmatched when German Pz.Kpfw.III and Pz.Kpfw.IV tanks hit the battlefield in 1941. With the British “heavy cruisers” still in early stages of development, salvation came from the Americans with their Medium Tank M3.

Picky guests

The British first asked the Americans for tanks in the summer of 1940, after a large percentage of the British tank force was lost in France. The initial proposal was to build British tanks under license at American factories. This offer was rejected. The British would receive the same tanks as the American army used. However, the USA still had no modern medium tanks, and the British still had some influence on their creation. One of the aspects was the volume of production.

Assembly of the Medium Tank M3.

Wednesday 29 March 2023

Pz.Kpfw.II Weaknesses

 "To Chemistry Chiefs of the 29th and 65th Rifle Corps, 21st Mechanized Corps, 46 [cut off]
July 28th, 1941

The most vulnerable locations on the German light tank are:

1. The open vision port on the right side of the fighting compartment (driver's port). It is fairly wide, but there is no triplex glass in it. The port on the right (the commander's port) has triplex glass.

2. The hatch under the turret next to the commander (on the front left part of the tank's fighting compartment) does not seal well.

3. Slits between the engine deck and engine deck hatches on the engine deck (in the rear).

Give your instructors that organize the use of Molotov cocktails these instructions to ensure more effective combat against tanks.

Chemistry Chief of the 27th Army, Colonel Novoselov"

CAMD RF F.957 Op.1 D.46 L.89

Friday 24 March 2023

Panther's Ins and Outs

The Tiger tank no doubt holds the title of the most famous German tank of WW2. The tank is often mentioned as an example of the idea of “quality over quantity”, Tiger aces widely known, and the tanks and battles they fought in are often recreated in movies and video games. However, a more dangerous opponent appeared on the battlefield in July of 1943. The Panther tank had more effective front armour, a more powerful gun, and most importantly the odds of running into a Panther was much higher. The Allies spent a lot of time and effort on finding out its weaknesses. This article will cover the results of British investigations.

A mysterious enemy

Panthers first appeared on the Eastern Front. The Western Allies found out about it pretty quickly from the July 24th 1943 edition of the Red Star newspaper. The information contained in this article was imprecise, but the information exchange continued. More or less accurate information was available by September, and in December of 1943 the British came across a treasure trove. A notebook belonging to a scout from the 26th Reconnaissance Battalion that contained notes on the tank’s characteristics fell into the hands of the 8th Army in Italy. The British discovered that the tank fired three kinds of rounds: armour piercing, subcaliber, and high explosive. The armour piercing rounds were effective at a range of up to 2000 metres, but in some cases it was permitted to fire at a range of 2500 metres. The armour piercing shell penetrated up to 138 mm of armour at an angle (the angle was not noted). Subcaliber shot could be used to engage heavily armoured targets at a range of under 2000 metres. It penetrated up to 194 mm of armour. The high explosive round had a range of up to 4000 metres. The scout noted that the HE shell could not deal significant damage to an enemy tank but could still jam the turret of a Matilda or T-34 tank with a good hit.

 Panther Ausf.D tank #443. The British received a tank from the USSR for testing long before they found one on their own.

Thursday 23 March 2023

Porsche and Militarism

It's no secret that the same people often build tanks and peaceful vehicles. For instance, the Kirovets K-700 tractor was designed by the same people who designed heavy tanks at the Kirov factory (including the IS-7). The same designers also produced the KT-12 skidder immediately after the war, and they were pulled off of military projects to do so. Harry Knox, the creator of American light and medium tank chassis, was a successful car designer before going into tanks. Even the famous John Walter Christie worked on (and drove) race cars as well as fire engines before building his tanks. There are plenty of examples where the same person created military and civilian vehicles.

Ferdinand Porsche reaching to touch his Tiger tank.

Ferdinand Porsche is perhaps the best known German tank designer. He is usually remembered for the Tiger (P), Maus, and other fighting vehicles that never made it into mass production. He is also well known for the "Beetle" (also known as the kDF-Wagen or Porsche Typ 60) and sports cars. While the former category of vehicles was unsuccessful, the latter is tremendously popular. Because of this, some claim that Porsche intentionally sabotaged the Third Reich. Let's take a look at what kind of pacifist Ferdinand Porsche turned out to be.

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.