MARK R. HENRY, MIKE CHAPPELLTHE
A major mission of the combat engineers was dealing with mines. Both the US anti-tank (M1A1) and anti-personnel mine were considered adequate but underpowered. The Hawkins mine was a light device capable (just) of blowing the track off a tank, and was used primarily by Airborne troops in Normandy. For mine location and lifting the SCR 625 mine detector was used; this could find metal mines buried up to 18 inches deep. It was fragile, however; not waterproof; and required the operator to stand exposed while using it. Probes or bayonets carefully shoved into the earth at a 30-degree angle, by GIs inching forward and making a finger-Up search of the ground ahead, were a common if nerve-racking expedient.
Belgium, winter 1944: 90mm anti-aircraft gunners of the 11th AA Group firing furiously in an attempt to bring down a German V-1 flying bomb on its way to Antwerp or London. Several belts of US and British AA units were set up to try to counter this new threat.
The Japanese rarely used buried mines but the Germans frequently employed them. For anti-personnel work the German 'S' mine or 'Bouncing Betty' was commonly encountered; once set off by a 71b foot pressure the initial charge blew the mine about 4ft into the air before the bursting charge sent the shrapnel filling scything in all directions. The smaller 'Schu' mine was made of wood and thus difficult to detect; its ½lb to 2lb charge was capable of shattering a man's leg and blowing off his foot. The Teller mine was the powerful German anti-tank pattern. Many of these mines were booby-trapped when laid to prevent their extraction. The GIs did not envy the combat engineer his job.
In addition to mine detection, engineers also used explosives themselves. The British-developed 'Bangalore torpedo' was a 5ft long, 2in diameter pipe filled with 8.51bs of ammonium nitrate explosive. Bangalores were pushed ahead on the surface of the ground to clear obstacles; as well as cutting wire entanglements - their primary purpose - they could set off concealed enemy mines by sympathetic detonation. (A disadvantage was that nearby mines which were not set off by the explosion would commonly become 'tenderised', i.e. very sensitive and hazardous.) Sections of pipe could be fitted together to lengthen the charge; a larger version called a 'snake' was also used. Other explosives used by combat engineers included 'primacord' (detcord), and ½lb or 1lb blocks of TNT.
Bridging was another primary function of engineers. Pneumatic raft pontoon bridges were common, as was the use of the British-developed prefabricated steel girder Bailey bridge with a 40-ton loading capacity (i.e. capable of carrying tanks). The Bailey was quick to put in, but erecting it was found to be a difficult and dangerous task for the engineers; the US Army was slow to embrace the Bailey, although it revolutionised the deployment of tactical bridges. It should be noted that the Army accepted the Corps of Engineers requirement that tanks have a limited width and weight (30-35 tons) to match existing tactical bridging capacity. This limitation further slowed the development of a heavier modernised tank.
Mine-clearing, Trier, Germany, March 1945: engineers from the 10th Armored Division pay the price of getting it wrong. The nearer casualty has a chance, and the medics are dressing his badly injured face, left arm and left leg (note that the left-hand medic has his own serial number stencilled on top of his helmet). The casualty lying ignored in the background seems to be dead already from massive head injuries.
The development and characteristics of US tanks in World War II is a vast subject covered in detail in many other publications (for two, see the inside back cover). The following brief notes are intended only as a very basic introduction.
The majority of US vehicles of the 1940s were gasoline (petrol) powered and mechanically very reliable. Unfortunately, tanks using gasoline (as opposed to diesel fuel) are more likely to burst into flames when hit. The German and British nicknames for the M4 Sherman, 'Tommy Cooker' and 'Ronson' - after a popular brand of cigarette lighter - were significant: over 60 per cent of knocked-out Shermans burned. (The greatest factor in the initial detonation was loose or unprotected stowage of main gun ammunition, however.) Nevertheless, the Sherman series was the best tank available to the Western Allies in early 1942; and faced by the vast task of outfitting not only US but also Allied armies, America kept the Sherman in production throughout the war. It weighed between 30 and 35 tons, mounted a short 75mm gun and two or three machine guns, and had a crew of five; maximum armour thickness was 50mm (hull) and 75mm (turret).
In the constant race with German designers, US tanks rapidly fell behind in both armour protection and main armament. By the time of the Tunisian campaign the Sherman was already being outclassed by the new long 75mm gun mounted in late models of the German PzKw IV, but US tank losses were written off as due to poor training and tactics, soon to be corrected. The Sicilian and southern Italian campaigns saw minimal tank-vs-tank action: and the US Army landed in France in June 1944 expecting the Sherman to do well against the opposition. The actual experience of the crews - at first trapped in the tight country of the Normandy borage, where the defending Germans had all the advantages - soon produced a 'Tiger psychosis'. US tanks were unable to inflict or survive significant damage in straightforward confrontations with the German 75mm PzKw V Panther at most battle ranges, or at virtually any range against the massive 88mm PzKw VI Tiger.
Comparatively speaking, the .Allied types were both under-gunned and under-armoured - sometimes chronically so - throughout the war. Thin armour on tank destroyers and Stuart tanks, and barely adequate armour on the Sherman, is evidenced in many photos by the piling of sandbags and extra track plates on the hull fronts. This was nothing more than a 'bandaid' to make the crew feel better; the provision of extra plates welded to the sides over the ammo stowage areas was of more help, as was the water-jacket 'wet stowage' Fitted to some Shermans. The M4A3E2 Jumbo which appeared in autumn 1944 was a Sherman with frontal armour protection essentially doubled; placed at the front of tank columns to act as an anti-tank fire 'magnet', it was successful, but only 254 were built.
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