Tuesday, June 16, 2020

The 16th of June, 1944 - D+10, Dieser schmutzige Buschkrieg

Sherman Firefly¹ in the Bocage
British Army Photo

Sergeant James Fitzhugh and his crew were still trying to get paint to camouflage their main gun. A chap Fitzhugh knew from another brigade had indicated that Jerry was keen to spot and kill the Sherman VCs² first. The long barrel of the 17-pdr was pretty obvious at bocage ranges. Solution was to paint part of the barrel in a gray dazzle scheme. His contact said it seemed to work.

But as they had no paint, they used foliage. Of course, if you spread it about right, you could disguise most of the tank as well. They did have to change it frequently as the leaves and such tended to dry out, not matching the surrounding foliage still on the trees and hedges.

While they had yet to run into any serious German armor, Fitzhugh didn't consider the three Nazi armored cars they had destroyed three days ago serious, they did have intelligence that Jerry was out there, with Mark IV panzers and Panthers. The Mark IV had a serious cannon, nearly as nasty as the Panther's main gun. He didn't fancy being surprised by either, though the Firefly could knock out either, the armor on the VC wasn't any better than a standard Sherman V. The armor wasn't really up to dueling with the heavier German tanks. Like the Panther or the Tiger.

"So Sarn't Fitzhugh," the Lowland Scot that had ridden with them the other day and was with them again today said, "so the rest of your troop, the lambs, where are they?"

Fitzhugh grimaced at that, true enough, the Sherman Vs with the standard 75 mm gun were sent ahead to draw the Germans out. He didn't like being reminded of that, after all, as the de facto troop leader, their leftenant had been killed shortly after coming ashore, those chaps in the "lambs" as the insouciant Scot called them, were his men, his responsibility.

He heard the rumble of tracked vehicles coming up the track behind him, his lads were right on time.

Waffen SS Pzkw V "Panther" and SS Panzergrenadiers of 12th SS Panzerdivision 'Hitlerjugend'

SS-Oberscharführer Helmut Sommer turned to his tank commander, SS-Obersturmführer Klaus Schumacher, and asked, "So how old do you think these kids are Helmut?"

"Good question Klaus, the youngest looks 16, the oldest, maybe 18. They're just babies."

"Well, our new division is aptly named, Hitler Youth. They look like they were wearing short pants just days ago. Now they're Panzergrenadiers?"

"Panzer Meyer says they'll fight like demons. They look eager."

The crew of Panther 121 and its parent platoon had belatedly followed their battalion into the Caen area some 10 days late. Sloppy organization, lack of timely fuel resupply, and the air being filled with Allied aircraft every moment of the day had made their trip to the front tedious and slow. But now they were ready to move in. Reconnaissance elements had located the British to their front and their orders were to attack and drive the Tommies into the sea. Dunkirk part two, is how Sommer thought of it.

"English bastards," Sommer said aloud.

His gunner said nothing, they had been on the Eastern Front fighting the Russians with the SS-Leibstandarte when a British raid had leveled a large area of Hamburg, including the area where his tank commander's family lived. They were all dead, his grandparents, his parents, and his young wife and little son. Schumacher knew that his friend Helmut couldn't wait to start killing Englishmen. Having been transferred from SS-Leibstandarte to this new division, to give it a healthy seasoning of veterans, Klaus was sure that they would soon get their chance.

Corporal Billy Wallace could hear the sound of a tank approaching from their front, it didn't sound English. "Wait for it," he told his Bren gun crew. "Kill the infantry if they got 'em. If it's just tanks we'll scarper back to our lads."

He heard the squeak of the tank's tracks, the rumble of its engine, they weren't moving very fast. Smart fellows not to rush in too soon. There, he saw a gun barrel emerge from the foliage, "Ha, looks like a mobile shrub! Jock, do us a favor and peel those infantry lads off that beast, looks like the tank commander and one of his crew have their heads up as well. Pot those bastards."

The first burst came in a little high, they couldn't hear the gun over the noise of their tank, but the tracers got their attention. The gunner was good, he adjusted his fire and the laddies on the back of the tank took it in the teeth, from what Sommer saw before he got his head down, at least five of them were hit. Stripped from the back of his Panther like nobody's business. That's when he noticed.

His gunner, and long time friend, Klaus Schumacher, had not gotten down fast enough. He had been sitting in the rear hatch when the enemy machine gun had opened fire. He was now splayed over the back deck of the tank, most of his face gone. He was between two infantrymen, one was dead, the other was dying, noisily.

Ordering his loader to take over the gunner's position, his hull gunner, SS-Sturmmann Willi Pfeiffer squirmed into the loader's position. As he did so, it struck Sommer that he had no one on the bow machine gun.


"Right lads, back ya go. I think we got Jerry's attention!"

Wallace and his Bren gun team shifted positions quickly. They moved back to the right and towards the position of their own tanks. He had seen what he needed to see and had given the Germans pause.

Sommer was watching through the periscopes in his cupola, he saw a brief flurry of movement, it could only be English infantry. Damn it! Who's idea was it to use tanks in this damned dirty bush war. (Dieser schmutzige Buschkrieg.) Almost as bad as fighting in a damned town.

"Reverse, reverse, get us back around that bend in the track."

As the tank reversed, Sommer was ordering the rest of his platoon into the fields. "No way am I driving down this leafy damned tunnel to find out what else the English have up their sleeves."

The tank ran over one grievously wounded infantryman, and crushed the leg of an unwounded man. Sommer was out of infantry to support his vehicle.


Bit by bit, the war grinds both sides down.

Attrition is a game the Germans can't win.

¹ During the war, the name Firefly was not official, nor was it in common use. Some diaries called it the Firefly, another name used by the British tankers was "Mayfly." The name comes from the bright muzzle flash from the 17-pdr gun. British tank commanders and gunners were actually advised to close their eyes at the moment of firing in order to not be dazzled by the very bright flash from the gun.
² Pronounced Five-C, Roman numeral designates the model, the C indicates that it deploys a 17-pdr gun. Basically a Sherman M4A4.


  1. There’s something to be said for being able to rip a hole in whatever tank you come across, but there’s also something to be said for not losing all situational awareness and going blind when you pull the trigger. Tanks often have friends....

    Or, as David Fletcher put it, regarding the various foibles:

    “None of this did anything to diminish the popularity of the Firefly...”

    1. The loss of situational awareness is but a second, tanks don't move that fast. Not sure what it would be like at night!

      There are missiles fired from aircraft where the pilot has to "avert his eyes" momentarily due to the rocket motor. I can see that as a bigger problem but I'll let juvat and Lt Fuzz (Dave) address that if they like.

      A tank gun which can kill damned near anything at any range would be popular with tankers.

    2. For the "Firefly" variant, it was more than a second or two. Unless there was a good breeze blowing, it could be closer to 15-20 seconds loss of vision forward from all the dust kicked up. Of course, the 17-pdr had quite slow reloading times due to the larger shells and very cramped turret, so maybe it wasn't so big a disadvantage. I'd still rather be in a working and well-supplied Panther which really had no problems knocking out any but the "Jumbo" Shermans at long ranges, let alone bocage ranges. Operative words being "working" and "well-supplied".

    3. It wasn't the smoke and dust that was the problem, a problem which most tanks have, it was the flash from the gun. It could dazzle you!

    4. It could dazzle you, for sure, but with purely optical sights, trying to see through a dust cloud raised by those high velocity rounds was pretty awful, by all accounts (between muzzle blast and effective muzzle brake redirecting said blast to the sides and). That wasn't really a problem in June and most of July 1944 where there was lots of grass and it rained regularly, but after a few says without rain, it got pretty bad. That muzzle flash was really bad, though, especially at dusk.

    5. And tell everyone in a visual distance who exactly was firing a 17-pdr. Blam, blam, blam, FLASH, blam.... Oh, 3 regular Shermans, a VC and another regular Sherman.

      Plus, supporting infantry really really didn't like the direct effects of the blast upon... the supporting infantry. Some negative effects upon the people in front (much like, well, standing on deck of a heavy ship while it's guns are going off.) Not too bad in open fields, but rather negatively affecting in close quarters like city fighting and the Bocage.

      Something about the hot powder charge the 17-pdr was loaded with, vs the powder used in the American 76mm or 90mm guns. Almost like they were using Navy flash powder (naval powder, in most navies in WWII, consisted of 'hot' flash powder and 'not-so-hot' flashless powder. Sure the flashless powder produced a fireball, just a significantly less fireball than the flash powder. Very critical to control your flash when firing at night or in tight quarters or when outnumbered, as the flash of flash powder was easy to see on the high seas, especially at night, and also very bright and damaging to the eyes in close quarters.)

      Weird stuff, powder mixes.

    6. Day late but the flash suppressor component of the 16" guns was good old fashioned black powder. The Y and K gun depth charge dispensers also used black powder as a propellant. Old Guns

  2. Sir, you have talent. These vignettes you are writing are outstanding.

  3. Ahh, the inevitable decline of the force resulting in younger and younger replacements. Panzer Meyer claiming they'll fight like demons sounds like some propagandist spin. It's too bad that the leadership continues fighting when the war is so obviously lost. Many of these replacements wind up lost as well.

    1. Indeed!

      (Panzer Meyer, aka Kurt Meyer, was the divisional commander of the 12th SS in Normandy.)

    2. 12th SS Panzer did fight very well, all in all. The Waffen SS did have a reputation of taking excessive casualties, but they were still highly motivated at this point in the war (not yet flooded with conscripts), and had highest priority on the latest and greatest new equipment. There was still some hope the beachheads could be contained, and Operation Bagration had not yet kicked off on the Eastern Front, though Wehrmacht officers with enough access to real intelligence (not personal, but military [maybe both]) knew that their days were numbered. Unless, of course, they could somehow peel off the Western Allies from the Soviets. That was always a forlorn hope, though.

    3. The SS were often described by Wehrmacht officers as tactically inept, they took far too many casualties because of that.

      Not all Waffen SS units were good, many were ragtag outfits, especially those used in the Balkans.

    4. The younger did have loads of aggression and energy. Which is one component of fighting well. What they did not have was the learned caution of older soldiers. In some respects, it got harder to withdraw or not jump the gun, literally, with more and more energetic troops.

      Which is where the strict discipline of the SS came into play. The Jungend either listened to their superiors and elders, or were subject to being shot or punished rather severely.

    5. Yeah, Waffen SS were highly variable. During the first years of the war they weren't all that good, but it was a good way to die volunteering for them. Later, some units got pretty good. 1st SS Panzerkorps was effective in 1943-44 (mostly), 9th and 10th were (at times), Wiking could be, and 12th Hitlerjugend was in June 1944. At least on defense. Units on tertiary fronts like the Balkans were usually pretty bad on tactics and operations, but first-rate on atrocities. I doubt I'd have been inclined to take SS prisoners, myself, but some of the units were pretty tough.

    6. During the first years of the war they weren't all that good, verging on terrible. Though there were some instances of Wehrmacht units breaking under fire, too, during that time period.

    7. Aha, I get it now. Meyer wasn't just speaking about the young ones fighting, the division as a whole.

    8. Yes, he was, they did, and mostly died.

  4. By june 44 germans were stilk holding most of western europe and camped within strike distance of moscow. But that paperfestung was about to fall under twin juggernauts of cobra and bagration... Re: throwing allies back into sea, it was doable only on d-day if rommel was heeded and panzers were close by, and rommel himself was not absent on the day, ironically to try and persuade hitler to keep panzers close to coast.

    1. Rommel knew about fighting in the face of Allied aerial superiority. The Eastern Front generals didn't.

    2. The German High Command and a lot of Eastern Front generals often saw Americans as weak and unskilled. Based on early performances in North Africa and from blissful ignorance and plain stupidity. Obviously forgot our role in WWI. Or how we were doing in the Pacific, or later in North Africa or in Sicily and Italy (the last two, the terrain really really favors the defender, and if it's a prepared defender, jack up the 'reallys' a couple notches.)

    3. Interesting gun duel you are setting up there. Two very powerful guns going against each other.

      The Sherman's gun mantle (big metal casting you mount the gun into) may or may not protect against the Panther or a Mk IV. The side of the turret or the hull, even with sandbag and applique armor? Not so much.

      The VC, on the other hand, can pretty much kill a Panther or a Mk IV as long as they also don't hit the gun mantle, depending on how well the manufacturing went. Anywhere else, pretty much a kill at those ranges.

      Now if this was in late June or early July, when the supply of APDS (armor piercing discarding sabot) was available, then that actually could penetrate the gun mantle, supposedly.

      At the ranges available in the Bocage, it will suck for any supporting infantry if the heavies start firing.

    4. Yeah, the Germans had the combat power available in France to hold the invasion in place, though not to outright through it back into the sea. If they'd been able to keep the Omaha beachhead from linking up with both Utah and British/Canadian beachheads, it might've become simply unsustainable. Especially after the June storms wrecked the Omaha Mulberry artificial port. But those beachhead linkups had to be prevented right off the bat, not a week later. Rommel had the only German plan with any chance of success, though it wasn't all that much of a chance.

    5. They might have been able to hold the invasion in place long enough for the Allies to quit. Almost happened at Omaha. But their defense wasn't in depth, once a breakthrough was achieved, the Germans were screwed. Which is what happened.

  5. I am liking the way the story is developing, Sarge. And evidently the US armored corps had the option of having some Shermans with 76mm guns at Normandy, but they said, "No thanks." They felt the 75mm was more than adequate for what their expected missions were at the time, and they didn't want a separate munitions supply train and other logistics. That decision can be debated with the perspective of 20/20 hindsight, but it made sense to them at the time. One thing that might have made a difference was better availability of 75mm HVAP rounds, but their manufacture competed with other wartime projects for the tungsten used in the projectiles...

    1. If you can simplify your logistics, that's a good thing. But if it costs you tank crews? Sucks to be the tank crew that dies due to that brutal calculus.

    2. it does, very much so - but the Sherman was the most survivable tank in WWII, believe it or not. IIRC, there was less than one death per knocked out tank. Part of that was due to the crew being able to relatively easily exit in the case of "Bugger! The tank's on fire!" and also due to it's 'wet' storage of ammo under ethylene glycol, hence less catastrophic ammo detonation inside the turret.

    3. My first encounter with the opinion of "the Sherman was a good tank" was from Colonel David Hackworth, many years ago. I grew up with the idea that the Sherman wasn't a good tank. That was reinforced when I read Belton Cooper's Death Traps. Looking back on that, the guy was an Ordnance officer, his job was to recover and repair knocked out tanks. He wasn't an operator. The more I read and hear about Shermans, the more I like them.

      I think you're right about the survival rate, I saw that recently, don't quite remember where.

    4. Moreover, armor crews had much higher survival rate than poor, bloody infantry...
      getting to laugh off all shrapnel and small arms is no mean feat even if you are screwed by dedicated at weaponry

    5. Shermans had about an 80% survival rate if the tank was knocked out. Undoubtedly, others were wounded or even maimed, but the rest were usually picking up a new or refurbished tank pretty quickly (refurbished ones were sometimes not as cleaned out as well as they should've been of the blood former operators -- uggh). T-34s were among the worst. Only about 20% of the crew survived a T-34 being knocked out. Don't know what the figures were for the Panther, though I've got them somewhere around here. The torsion bar suspension precluded a floor escape hatch like the Sherman had. The Pz IV had a floor escape hatch, but it might've only been for the radio operator/bow gunner. Pz III had torsion bar suspension, but had two tiny escape hatches on the sides of the hull coming out between the tracks. I might've fit through with some difficulty when I was 18 years old and 120 lbs, but honestly, they look sized for cats or small dogs.

      You should check out what the difference was between repairing/replacing a Sherman's transmission/final drive compared to a Panther's. There's an element of logistics not often considered except by those directly involved with maintenance. The Panther was over-designed, yet under-engineered in some ways, which was caused as much the shifting requirements as the design progressed, something the US military is notorious for.

    6. I've seen quite a bit about the ease of maintenance on a Sherman as opposed to a Panther.

      "Shifting requirements as the design progressed..." - something I am painfully aware of, it's almost my life's work now.

  6. Wasn't the Firefly a British modification that finally was a match (in firepower) to the Tiger? Interesting about the Sherman being the most survivable. Didn't the Germans call them "Ronsons" for their propensity to blow up in North Africa? Not sure I would want to be a tanker.

    I heard years ago in Basic Training that for infantry artillery kills half. It is devastating.

    1. The Germans allegedly called them "Tommy cookers." No one is really sure where the Ronson nickname came from, some think it was a post war fabrication. (Ronson was a British cigarette lighter.)

      There's a reason that artillery is known as the King of Battle.

      And yes, the Firefly was a 17-pdr British gun mounted on various British Sherman chassis, the most famous being the Sherman VC. So yes, a British conversion.


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