Weaknesses of Allied Tanks in the West, 1944-45

One of the main causes of the difficulties the Allied armies faced in the invasion of Western Europe was the weakness of their main battle tanks versus the tanks of the German army. Allied tankers began the invasion believing that their machines were the best in the world. The forces of the Western allies invaded Normandy on June 6, 1944 with the expectation that the war would be over well before Christmas. North Africa had already been taken back, Italy had been knocked out of the war, German industries and homes were being pounded day and night from the air, and a resurgent Soviet Union had ground up the best of the German army and was poised to shatter the Eastern front all over again. Nazi Germany was being pushed back on all fronts and was dwarfed by the combined economic and military might of the allies. Instead to win the war in Europe took almost a full year from the time of the Normandy invasion, Allied causalities were severe, and Allied armies suffered many reverses.  This paper will show that one of the main causes of the delay was that Allied tanks were deficient in the critical factors of armour, mobility, and most of all armament.

Armour protection was the first drawback of Allied tanks, as it tended to be too thin and had poor sloping compared to the latest German designs. The main Allied tank, the American M4 Sherman, had armour thickness not exceeding 51 mm in the front, and the British equivalent, the Cromwell, was not much better with 76 mm. The tank destroyers, which had the main task officially of seeking out and destroying German armour, had even thinner armour, only 12 mm on the M 18 Hellcat. On the other hand the main German tank in 1944-45, the Panther, had armour up to 110mm thick, which furthermore was frontally very well sloped, making it even more effective at deflecting shells. The heavy counterpart to the Panther, the Tiger II, had sloped armour of up to 180mm in thickness.  Therefore allied crews turned to adding additional armour plate, sandbags, logs, even concrete to the front of their tanks,  despite the fact that this was often ineffective, with shots penetrating layers of sandbags, the armour plate, and then exploding inside the crew compartment. A hit on an Allied tank usually meant a penetration instead of a ricochet, even at ranges of 3000 yards, something that was very discouraging for the crews. The fact that the heavier sloped armour on the front of a Panther normally deflected Allied tank shells in a head to head meeting made this doubly discouraging,  and Allied commanders were shocked by the first reports of tank losses in Normandy.

Surprisingly despite the fact that due to less armour Allied tanks were generally smaller and lighter than their opponents, their mobility was somewhat inferior due to suspension and track designs that had high ground pressure. When tracked vehicles traverse soft ground, the pressure under the track rises and falls as the bogie wheels of the track run over the track itself, as in effect a tracked vehicle is a continuous track-laying device. The average of the peaks of ground pressure, the MMP, is determined by factors such as vehicle weight, track width, track pitch, and the number and size of bogie wheels, with the lower the MMP the better. Due to experiences with soft ground in Russia and the adaptation of large diameter overlapping bogie wheel suspension for axle loading and suspension travel concerns, German tanks such as the Mk V Panther and Mk VI Tiger had low MMPís of 150 and 230 respectively. Even the Tiger II, weighing over 65 tonnes, had a MMP of only 184. Therefore this would appear to give these tanks huge advantages in soft going over tanks such as the M4 Sherman at 282 and the Cromwell IV at 352.   This was born out in practical experience where, especially in snowy or muddy conditions, Allied tankers repeatedly found that Panthers and Tigers could drive where their own tanks would risk bogging and immobilization.

The greatest deficiency of all was armament. Allied tankers repeatedly complained about the inability of their main armament to punch holes in the opposing armour. The most common gun that Allied tanks possessed, a short 75 mm, simply did not have enough punch to tackle a Panther frontally at anything but point blank range. A new longer and more powerful 76 mm gun that was being introduced was not much better. Neither gun was any comparison to the long 75 mm gun of the Panther, whose higher muzzle velocity gave it not only higher penetrating power, but also a flat trajectory and therefore excellent accuracy. Compounding these difficulties German sights had greater magnification and clearness, and the gunpowder used was lower in flash and smoke.  Therefore Panthers and Tigers developed tactics in which they would often sit in open terrain, daring Allied tanks to show up, then knocking them out with accurate long-range gun fire that could not be replied to.  Incidents would happen in which Allied tankers bounced numerous rounds off their German counterpart, only to be knocked out immediately if they were hit once.

The net result of all of these deficiencies was that advancing was much slower and more expensive in terms of tanks and infantry than it otherwise would have been. Five hundred burning British tanks at the end of the failed operation Goodwood made dramatic testimony to the disadvantages that inferior tanks brought on to the Allies. Total Allied armour causalities in Normandy were running at three times the German total.  The tankers kept fighting but costs were extremely high and the men were losing confidence in their tanks, despite usually having superior numbers.

"As we go now each man has resigned himself to dying sooner or later because we donít have a chance against the German tanks. All of this stuff that we read about German tanks being knocked out makes us sick because we know what prices we have to pay in men and equipment to accomplish this."

Eventually the Allies blasted their way out of Normandy with the aid of 3300 planes dropping a total of 14,000 tons of bombs in three hours, literally obliterating anything in the path of the advance with a tonnage of bombs only exceeded by Hiroshima.  Advantages in numbers, a willingness to take losses, and massive advantages in artillery, air support, fuel and supplies made it possible for the Allies to advance in Western Europe and eventually win.  However the inability to produce a tank that could take on the panzers on even terms and the terrible causalities that this caused in men and machines is something that should not be forgotten.


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