Wednesday, July 1, 2020

The 1st of July, 1944 - D + 25, Five Pyres

Panzerkampfwagen IV of the 9th SS Panzer Division
(Source)

Their vehicle was well concealed, SS-Scharführer Friedrich Engel, the commander, had made sure of that. Recently promoted, this was his first time in command of his own panzer. His crew were fairly experienced, but very young, they had all served on the Eastern Front, most recently in the attack at Tarnopol to breakthrough to Hube's encircled 1st Panzer Army. The division had been successful but had suffered heavy casualties.

They had only arrived in Normandy a few days ago, though they had begun the trip west on the 12th of June. Allied airpower had harassed the division along the route and they had lost a number of tanks, many had broken down. Engel had heard at least 50% of their vehicles had broken down. But word of reinforcements in the form of seventy-plus Panthers and an SS heavy tank battalion of Tigers had boosted everyone's spirits.

They had been sent to attack British forces in the vicinity of Caen but had to be diverted when British armor managed to force a crossing over the Odon River southwest of Caen. Their division, 9th SS Panzer Division "Hohenstaufen," were thrown into the mix, just barely arrived from the East, they had to fight or perish.

Wisely, their commanders had decided to await the Tommies from ambush. Engel had heard that the Sherman tanks were easy meat for their 7.5 cm cannon.

"Scharführer, do you think we'll get a chance to do some sightseeing while we're in Normandy?" SS-Schütze Josef "Sepp" Horn was the youngest man in the crew, he was barely 17 and had actually been drafted into the SS from the Labor Corps. As assistant driver he operated the bow machine gun and made sure the radio worked.

SS-Sturmmann Wilhelm Ziegler, the loader, started laughing, "Seriously Sepp, do you think the Führer sent us to France for a rest period? Haven't you heard the Amis and the Tommies have landed? We're here to throw them back into the Channel!"

"At ease boys, stay alert. We're expecting company any minute." Engel admonished his crew, they were so young and knew so little of life. As he eased his head out of his cupola and brought his field glasses up, two big single engined aircraft¹, with black and white stripes painted on their wings and fuselage blasted overhead, headed west. Involuntarily he ducked back down into the turret, the enemy Jabos terrified him.

British Sherman VC
(Source)

James Fitzhugh held tight as his driver, Thomas Ginns, drove their Sherman VC over a low spot in the hedgerow. They were getting closer to open country and while the mobility was great, he felt a bit naked out there after so many weeks in the closed in country of the Bocage.

He turned to watch the rest of his troop, which Chapman and Seckington (his gunner and loader) continued to refer to as the Lambs, as in sacrificial, regardless of how many times Fitzhugh had told them to stop. They were smart enough not to use the terms around the chaps manning the Sherman Vs with their short 75 mm cannon. A useful weapon but nothing like the 17-pounder gun they carried.

Over the radio Fitzhugh ordered the troop to wedge formation. "Move to the next field, sharply now!"


Engel couldn't believe his eyes, five Shermans in the open. He chose the vehicle on his right as he was on his platoon's right flank, his men knew to target their opposite numbers in situations like this.

Eye pressed to the sight, SS-Rottenführer Hans-Dieter Vogt yelled out, "Target acquired!"

"Feuer!"

The round left the tube and drilled straight into the Sherman's lower hull on the driver's side. The enemy vehicle immediately slewed right into a ditch near an old barn.

Knocked out Sherman
(Source)

The driver was screaming in agony, the enemy round had hit the transmission which had shot fragments into the man's legs.

"Tommy, help John!"

The commander could smell something burning, the shot had gone straight through the vehicle, destroying the transmission and the engine. Fuel was spilling onto the hot engine, he knew that they only had seconds to get out.

"Tommy!" He turned to look at his loader, or what was left of him. The German anti-tank round had ricocheted from the transmission and right through Corporal Thomas Jensen. His gunner was struggling to get out of his position to try and get to John Parsons, the driver.

He noticed that Parsons was no longer screaming.

"He's a dead'un Sarge! We need to get out of the bloody tank, she's on fire!" the gunner, Lance Corporal Burt Johnson screamed at his tank commander.

"Let's go!"

Sgt Winston Montgomery and LCpl Burt Johnson got out of the tank just as the engine compartment burst into flame. His bow gunner, Pvt Kenneth Wilkins was already on the ground, away from the tank. "Sarge, Burt, over here!" Montgomery noticed that the man had his Sten gun with him. The kid was thinking.


Fitzhugh saw his left flank Sherman lurch to a stop and begin to smoke in his peripheral vision. He didn't have time to ponder the crew's fate as he'd spotted the muzzle blast from an enemy tank to his left front. They were taking fire from the tree line and he'd lost one tank already. But his lads were returning fire.

Cecil Chapman, his gunner, yelled out over the intercom, "Jesus Fitzy, it's a bloody Tiger! I've got him, firing!!"

The round from the big 17-pounder gun flew straight and true.

Knocked out Pzkw IV
(Source)

"Mein Gott!" screamed SS-Scharführer Friedrich Engel as the shot from the British tank penetrated the left side of the gun mantlet on his tank and passed through the turret, hitting the ready ammunition as it passed out the right side of the vehicle. Those were Engel's last words.

The ammunition in the turret detonated, blowing all the hatches open and shredding the skirts bolted to the turret's exterior. The explosion killed all three men in the turret, the shock wave from that explosion killed the driver instantaneously. It had also jammed the bow gunner's hatch as he struggled to open it.

Before Sepp Horn burned to death, another explosion in the stored ammunition under the turret floor killed him and blew the right side of the tank open to the air.


Another tank in Fitzhugh's troop was now burning, but his gunner had killed a second Panzer IV, "Not a Tiger you bloody git," he'd yelled at his gunner. But Chapman was far too busy to pay him any mind as the 17-pounder barked and turned another Jerry tank into a funeral pyre.

Over the radio his number three tank reported a thrown track. As he figured his next move he saw movement in the tree line, the Germans were pulling back. The Sherman VC, what some called the Firefly, had surprised them.

"Hold here! Jonesy get your tank over to that hummock and watch that road. We'll cover Benson while he repairs his track. Any survivors any of you can see?"

Jonesy reported that he could see three survivors from Montgomery's tank. He didn't think that anyone had gotten out of Mitchell's tank. which was burning furiously.

Columns of smoke from five destroyed vehicles rose into the humid air. While the British had come out on top, they had still lost two tanks and seven men from their troop. The Germans had not fared as well, three of their tanks were burning and the fires had spread to the trees they'd been positioned within.

Fitzhugh couldn't have known, but only one German crewman of fifteen made it out of his tank alive. Badly burned he surrendered to Benson's crew just before the troop moved back for the night. He would survive the war but would lose an arm.

The fighting to capture Caen would continue...






¹ They were P-47 Thunderbolts, Jugs.

42 comments:

  1. I looked at the photo of the Sherman with the hole in the bow for some time.
    I really, really, would chose to not die in a fire.

    ReplyDelete
  2. That is a lot of armour south of the line. And, John, I am with you all the way on that sentiment.

    Watch this: https://youtu.be/Ns6l7sCoWX4?t=120

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The Sherman is much maligned. Two officers I have a great deal of respect for, Colonel David Hackworth and Major Nicholas Moran, both make solid arguments for the Sherman being a very good tank.

      As for Belton Cooper, let's just say no one ever asked my opinion of the F-4 Phantom's flight characteristics, I maintained them, didn't fly them. Mr Cooper didn't fight in one, he had to fix them up once they had been damaged.

      From what I've read recently, crew survival rates in the Sherman ran to about 80%. Not bad odds.

      Delete
    2. Stalin's dictum applies to the Sherman: quantity has a quality of its own.

      Delete
    3. Just keep in mind that "survival" rate means "survived but permanently maimed" rate, as well, which is better than "dead" rate. M4 was better than the rest, all in all.

      Delete
    4. Not always but yeah, there is that.

      Delete
  3. Ditto on not wanting to burn to death....regarding the video feeaturing Belton Cooper, I found it interesting in watching some of Major Moran's videos that he was not nearly as negative on the Shermans as Cooper was. Moran pointed out that since Cooper was in a tank recovery unit, he saw a lot of worst case situations which naturally affected his view of the Sherman. Moran also said the Sherman was no more apt to catch fire than other tanks, and that due to its fire suppression system and 'wet' ammo storage, it was actually less likely to catch fire than other tanks. All things considered, Moran's opinion is that the Sherman was one of the more survivable tanks in WWII.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I will go an dig that out after work. I only ever saw the Cooper vid. Makes perfect sense. Like when they pored over damage aircraft to figure out what they needed to armor to get them home again. The damage they looked at was survivable. Fixing that was no fix at all. They had to figure out what wasn't survivable and up-armor that. I can grok that.

      Delete
    2. Tom - Good points. I read Cooper's book shortly after it came out, I admit it colored my view of the Sherman. I'll go with Major Moran's opinion, him being an actual armor officer and something of an expert.

      Delete
    3. STxAR - I read that study on armoring aircraft, the spots that they'd need to armor were on aircraft which didn't come home.

      I highly recommend Major Moran's YouTube channel. I have spent lots of time over there.

      Delete
    4. It was a lot of things. First tank to have a practical gyrostabilizer on the main gun. Was really easy to pull maintenance and repair on. Lots of power. Fast for it's size. Very maneuverable. And overall very safe to be in.

      I think part of the hatred people had for the Sherman was the percieved difference between German and American armor. Germans all had Big Tanks and Big Guns. The Sherman wasn't equipped with a big gun (unless modified) and the perception was the 75mm or the 76mm guns weren't powerful enough. Why? Because the German guns were looong and had muzzle brakes and looked deadly... Was one of the reasons that front-line troops shot the heck out of German tank hulks in order to find weak spots, and were surprised to find that even the anemic 75mm wasn't a bad gun against most of the German armor (not Tigers and not Panthers, from the front anyways. But against the Pzkfw IVs and StuG IIIs? Plenty gun.)

      I think the reputation was more due to the old attacker vs defender adage. That is, the attacker needs 4 times as many troops than the defender to win. As the story above goes, the Germans were prepared and in sneaky positions. Prepared positions, with the tank hull protected (usually the weakest spot) allows defenders to stand up to a much superior force (that is, if the attacker is equal to the defender in equipment. If the attacker is superior, like at 73 Easting (Abrams vs 2nd line Soviet stuff) then the attacker can carry.)

      Thus, in a normal situation, expect the attacking tanks to run into a swarm of anti-tank mines, anti-tank rockets, anti-tank guns, and tanks and assault guns all properly emplaced and hidden, and the result will be lots of attacking tanks knocked out in comparison to a few enemy tanks. Because every hit on an attacking tank, in this case Shermans or Brit tanks, was done by a 'Tiger, OMG.'

      Of course, what wasn't counted was the scores and scores of vehicles destroyed by artillery, or tank destroyers, or by air-to-ground attack. All the tank troops saw was Allied tanks taken out in droves on the ground, and few enemy tanks taken out by Allied tanks. Perception is the key.

      Sucks to be the attacker, it does.

      Delete
    5. The Sherman could also be built in the tens of thousands and shipped anywhere in the world.

      Delete
    6. Another advantage of the Sherman's gun system is that it had a periscopic sight on the top of the turret, enabling the tank to be very low profile when dug in or when cresting a hill and still see what's in front of it. This capability, coupled with the relatively high rate of fire from the 75mm gun, made it very effective in those situations. The main thing the 75mm gun lacked was sufficient quantity of HVAP rounds, which did not get manufactured in high enough quantity due to competition for the resources needed to make them.

      Delete
    7. I have a sight for a Sherman, sitting on my desk. Not the full periscope, but it's got a reticle in it. M38... 1942.... I'd ask it questions if I thought it would answer....

      Delete
    8. If only that sight could have been mounted lower to the ground, Tom. One of the main complaints of the German tanks -- a drive shaft that had to run all the way to the front of the vehicle's hull to reach the transmission and final drive unit. It raised the profile of the entire vehicle. Something the T-34 series got right, but in a wrong way, so to speak.

      Delete
    9. Tank silhouettes are always an interesting topic. One of the Soviet tanks during the Cold War, might have been the T-72, had a really low profile. But they couldn't depress the main gun very far because of it. Low is good for hiding.

      Delete
  4. Good story. The worst thing that could happen in a tank is to be penetrated by a round that doesn't have enough energy to go out the other side, as then it will bounce around inside, very unhealthy for the crew and pieces-parts of the tank. Second worst thing is to have a double penetration yet part of the round or part of the penetrated armor go flying around inside the tank doing what happened to the poor VC crew.

    Spalling sucks. Which is why riveted tanks went away rather quickly once practical welding came around (rivet heads would get struck by rounds, break off the back of the rivet, back of the rivet goes flying around inside killing and wounding the crew, not fun!) Modern armored vehicles often have matts of kevlar and other 'bulletproof' stuff inside the vehicle as anti-spall linings. Plus they help to deaden some of the excessive sounds generated by the vehicle itself (one of the major injuries suffered by WWII US Tank Destroyer crews was... deafness due to the noise of the gun.)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It wasn't the VC which got destroyed, it was two of the Sherman Vs (standard 75 mm gun). Standard troop had one VC (17-pounder gun) and four Sherman Vs.

      Yes, spalling is bad.

      Delete
    2. 'Artillery ear' was a thing for both tankers and gun-bunnies through Vietnam.

      Delete
    3. Amazing how no one thought of ear protection back in the day.

      Delete
  5. When it came to tank killing, Sherman was partially victim of a doctrime. Early 1940s US Army forged a doctrine of dedicated tank destroyer forces,armed with things like M-10 Wolverine and M-18 Hellcat, and later M-36 Jackson armed with same tiger-killer 90mm gun that armed M-26 Pershing. Reality showed regular tanks had to fight enemy tanks regularily,while the tank destoryers had to perform infantry support etc. often too. End result was post war MBT concept - one tank to go anywhere do anything...
    Brits have latched their excellent 17pdr onto variety of chassis, from Sherman Firefly, to Challenger (development of Cromwell, a very good fast medium tank whose we might yet see in Polish hands if we get to Falaise gap) to Archer, a fixed-mount tank destroyer on chassis of Valentine light tank, to first generation of post-war MBT, the Centurion.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Doctrine is always the driver. Great point Paweł.

      Delete
    2. Doctrine is always the driver.

      Which is why the excellent French Char-B tank (much better than the German Panzer II and probably Panzer III did so poorly in 1940.

      Delete
    3. Funny how good doctrine combined with reasonably good equipment and outstanding leadership can have great results

      Delete
    4. Gotta have realistic training and solid logistics as well!

      Delete
  6. Fun to watch Moran's Sherman and Firefly vids. There are always tradeoffs in tank design and nothing approaching perfection. Stuffing that giant gun in a Sherman worked great in many circumstances but in other circumstances would be a severe disadvantage.

    IIRC Moran pointed to actual combat reports to prove that U.S. tanker survival rates were an order of magnitude better than that of the PBI.

    As always great stuff Sarge. Thanks!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The good Major knows his trade!

      Thanks Shaun!

      Delete
    2. well, having few inches of armor all around tends to improve survival rates on battlefield where shrapnel and small arms were everywhere... it sucked if you got hit by dedicated antitank weapon with punch to get thru, but those were not so common as mg-42s amd artillery barrages

      Delete
    3. The casualties among the infantry were appalling.

      Delete
  7. IIRC the Sherman was intended (by U.S. Army doctrine) as an Infantry support weapon not a tank dueler.
    Boat Guy

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Very much so, as Pawel points out above. US Tank Doctrine was Tanks support Infantry, Tank Destroyers destroyed tanks, Artillery destroyed... everything.

      And, as Pawel pointed out also, that Doctrine was bloody wrong.

      So were the Brits

      And the Germans.

      And the French.

      All of them had designated 'Infantry Support Tanks' and 'Anti-Armor Vehicles' and all found out that if it moved, it would eventually be expected to shoot tanks, buildings, poor bloody infantry, trucks, horses, wagons, guns and so forth and so on.

      Delete
    2. That topic right there has had a lot of ink spilled over it.

      Delete
    3. Beans - It was nowhere near that simplistic.

      Delete
    4. and no one had a perfect tank - too much armor (led to breakdowns and high fuel use), not enough armor (for obvious reasons), too much gun (which negatively impacted crew ergonomics), too little gun (again for obvious reasons), too light, too heavy, too slow, too fast, too hard to produce, etc, etc. The Sherman was a pretty good compromise given the restrictions of production and shipment requirements.

      Delete
    5. Paweł here... Germans quickly developed Universal medium tank Concept in The form of late pz 3 and pz 4 , followed by panther. Soviets responded with t_34. Upgunned Sherman fulfilled rolę reasonably well in western allies hands.

      Delete
    6. The Pzkw III and Pzkw IV were solid designs, able to be upgraded and adapted to other roles.

      Delete

Just be polite... that's all I ask. (For Buck)
Can't be nice, go somewhere else...