world war ii: armor

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Captain Billotte’s Wild Ride,

When one typically envisions German tanks of World War II, one typically thinks of giant steel behemoths such as the Tiger tank or perhaps the Panther tank.  However, German heavy tanks weren’t really all that common until later in the war, in fact they really weren’t all that common at all.  In the beginning of the war, German tanks were heavily outclassed by their Allied counterparts, especially by French and later Soviet heavy tanks.  During the Invasion of France, most German tanks were either Panzer I, II, or III models, the heavier Panzer IV and Panzer 38(t) not being fielded in large numbers.

Overall Allied tanks tended to have thicker armor and bigger guns. The Germans were able to defeat Allied tank forces through superior tactics and war doctrine, the radio being a more potent piece of equipment than guns and armor., something which Allied tanks woefully lacked. However there were instances when the weaknesses of German tanks became glaringly obvious.  

One such incident occurred on the 16th of May, 1940 at the village of Stonne during the invasion of France. Stonne was an important strategic point on the way to Sedan, thus over the past few days heavy fighting had occurred over the village, resulting in the town changing hands no less than seventeen times.  On the morning 16th the French conducted a counterattack against German positions with infantry attacking from the south and tanks attacking from the west.

At the head of the French tanks was Captain Pierre Billotte, in command of a Char B1-bis heavy tank nicknamed “Eure”. The Char B1-bis was one of those monster tanks that gave the German’s much grief during the invasion of France, with 60mm frontal armor, a 47mm gun mounted in the turret, and a 75mm gun mounted in the chassis, it pretty much outclassed everything the Germans had in their tank arsenal.

When facing larger Allied tanks German tanks would typically try to outmaneuver and outflank their opponents, attacking the weaker side and rear armor. However the German’s had their tanks lined up in a row along the main street of the town, and thus were trapped.  Captain Billotte and his crew charged right into the town, blasting each tank one by one as they charged down the street. The German tanks opened fire, but each and every round bounced of the B1′s thick frontal armor.  Capt. Billotte and his tanks exited the town to the east, popping two German anti tank guns on the way out. When the smoke had cleared, Capt. Billotte and his crew had destroyed two Panzer IV tanks, eleven Panzer III tanks, and two anti tank guns.  During the battle, the Char B1-bis “Eure” had sustained 140 hits.  

The German’s eventually took Stonne on May 25th, bring forth larger anti tank guns to drive off the French tanks.  Capt. Pierre Billotte was captured by the German’s, though he later escaped and served with the Free French forces throughout the remainder of the war. After the war he became Assistant Chief of Staff of The French Army, and later headed the French Military Mission to the UN.  In his post military career he served in many political positions.  He passed away in 1992.  

dailymail.co.uk
British war heroes come face-to-face with German Tiger tank drivers
British tank men Ernest Slarks and Dr Ken Tout have met two of their former enemies, Wilhelm Fischer and Waldemar Pliska (pictured together), after they fought against each other 72 years ago.

The Bovington Tank Museum’s new Tiger exhibit opens today, and the museum has brought together veterans of both sides to talk about and share their experiences from their vehicles. 

I don’t usually post stuff by the Daily Mail, but this was a good article to read. 

By the way, they are still in discussion with the Panzer Museum in Munster, Germany, about borrowing their Sturmtiger. For now though, War Gaming has stepped in to digitally recreate the Sturmtiger for people to view with VR. 

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The Bob Semple Tractor Tank

During World War II New Zealand was on the far edge of the British Empire, and a low priority to the British.  As a result few arms were sent to defend the islands.  However the people of New Zealand felt very threatened by the possibility of a Japanese invasion.  With little armaments and no support from Britain, some in New Zealand felt that they needed to take the matter of national defense into their own hands.

 At the beginning of World War II, New Zealand’s Minister of Works Bob Semple commissioned a project to manufacture a tank for New Zealand’s defense forces.  There was one problem, New Zealand had little heavy industry and no indigenous arms production.  As a result the new “Bob Semple Tank” was produced from unorthodox materials like something from an episode of “The A-Team”.

The core of the “Bob Semple” tank was the Caterpillar D8 tractor, a common vehicle among New Zealand’s farmers.  To create the tank a simple superstructure was fabricated and mounted over the tractor.  Armor consisted of 8 to 13mm corrugated iron. Armaments consisted of six Bren Light Machine guns; one on a turret, one on the left and right sides, one at the rear, and two at the front.  Put together with ingenuity and improvisation, the Bob Semple tank was hastily constructed by hand in small workshops using no formal plans or blueprints.  The tank was designed to be operated with a crew of eight.

A number of fully functioning Bob Semple tanks were constructed, however most production was geared in manufacturing the hulls alone.  The idea was to disperse the hulls all over New Zealand.  If the Japanese did invade, the locals could mount the hulls onto their local farm tractors within two hours, creating a working tank on demand.  

Unfortunately the Bob Semple tank was nothing more than a rolling piece of junk.  Poorly designed using substandard materials, the tank was very slow, under-armored, and featured several flaws.  The tank had to come to a complete stop in order to shift gears.  Vibrations from the tank made shooting from it difficult and inaccurate.  Finally due to the shape and design of the tank, one of the forward gunners had to lie prone on a mattress over the engine in order to fire his machine gun.

The New Zealand Army rejected the Bob Semple tank for military use.  Most were converted back into farm tractors, with the tanks hulls being used for scrap metal.

Two Americans of the 2nd Armored Division guarding German prisoners near the bridge over the Bega river in the town of Lemgo, North Rhine Westphalia, Germany. 4/5th April 1945.

(This could be the 66th Armored Regiment, 2nd Div)

Lemgo was taken by the Americans on the evening of April 4th.
27 German soldiers died in the towns fighting and 603 soldiers were taken prisoner.

(Colourised by Richard James Molloy from the UK)

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Fun History Fact,

During World War II US Major Charlie “the mad major” Carpenter was a reconnaissance pilot who flew light unarmed observation planes to track enemy movements.  Growing bored with his non-combat role, he mounted three bazookas to each wing of his plane so that he could strafe any enemy he encountered.  He is credited with destroying six enemy tanks and number of other armored vehicles.

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A Tiny Widdle Tank of World War II — The M22 Locust

One of the major challenges of airborne warfare, even to this day, is how to equip paratroopers with enough gear and weaponry to make a formidable assault force, yet still be light enough to be taken into the air and dropped onto a drop zone.  Often, airborne forces must make a compromise by being only equipped with the lightest of weapons while lacking in the area of heavy firepower.

During World War II, Allied forces attempted to bridge the gap between airborne forces and armored forces by creating a new class of tanks called “airmobile light tanks”, which were intended to give airborne troops some measure of armor support.  Among a handful of tank designs, one American creation was the tiny little M22 Locust.  These little tanks were only 7.4 tons in weight, 13 feet long, 7 feet in width, and 6 feet high.  Think about that for a second, it was only six feet high, about as tall as a somewhat tallish American person today.  I myself, am 5′11′’.  It had to have been extremely cramped in that tiny little war beast for its three crewmen (gunner, driver, and commander).  The M22 was lightly armed for tanks of the day, with a 37mm cannon as a main gun and a M1919 machine gun as a secondary weapon.  At its thickest it only had 12.5mm of armor.  Top speed was around 40 MPH.

Obviously the M22 Locust was designed with compactness and lightness in mind for airborne operations.  Typically they were loaded into gliders which were towed to the battlefield.  

After testing it was found that the M22 had several flaws.  It was underpowered and mechanically unstable.  The puny 37mm gun could do little even against lightly armored German vehicles.  Most importantly, it’s thin armor made it vulnerable, as even a .50 caliber machine gun could riddle the tiny tank with holes.  A few American “airborne tank companies” trained with the M22, but none saw combat in American hands.  Most of the 830 M22′s produced were shipped Lend Lease to British forces.  In British hands they were used in some minor operations during the invasions of Madagascar, North Africa, and Sicily.  Later they were used by the British during the Normandy invasion, and in Operation Varsity towards the end of the war.  It didn’t take long for the Brits to realize that the M22 couldn’t go toe to toe with German armored units.  So for the most part the M22 was used to support the paratroopers against other infantry, or used as reconnaissance vehicles.  After World War II most M22 Locusts were sold to the Egyptian Army.  Several company sized units of Locusts were deployed by the Egyptians during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War.

Cpl. James Gordon and Pvt. L.C. Rainwater of the US 2nd Armored Div., inspect a Panzer V ‘Panther’ of 2.SS Panzer Division “Das Reich” deserted near the village of Grandménil in Belgium.
Sometime after the of Battle 25 - 27 December 1944.
When the 2.SS Pz Div., pulled back form Grandménil on 26 December 1944, seven Panther tanks were left behind for various reasons. One of them still remains as a memorial of the bloody winter day in late 1944 when this village with barely three hundred inhabitants became a focal point in the great Ardennes Battle.