The tank destroyer force of World War Two was a one-time stop gap measure. Between the two World Wars, American battle doctrine held that tanks would accompany infantry to assault and demolish strong points like trenches and bunkers. The role of artillery was the destruction of enemy tanks and not that of the main battle tank. Lessons learned through the German blitzkrieg victories in Poland, France, and North Africa between September 1, 1939 and Pearl Harbor demonstrated this doctrine fatally flawed. The consequence, the American army stood unsuited and ill equipped to fight the Germans on the eve of its entry into the conflict. Something had to be done quickly. To fill this fissure between doctrine and reality, came the inception of the unique tank destroyer force. This allowed American strategists to consider the U.S. Army had something that could defeat the ‘Blitzkrieg’ tactics that dominated the conflict and using available hardware.
The birth of the U.S. tank-killer battalion, its doctrine and supporting organization and equipment came shortly after the experimental mock battles of 1940- 1941 The primary purpose of the much publicized Louisiana and Texas maneuvers, or ‘war games’ was to complete the final testing a consequential hypothesis:
Mobile antitank gun units, offensively employed, could defeat armor
With the hypothesis confirmed, came the formation of the tank destroyer force.
TD Battalions were organized separate from armored and infantry divisions. They would then be assigned to divisions as dictated by Army or Crop Commanders. The original battalions were equipped and organized with armored personnel carriers mounted with flat trajectory artillery guns. From inception to stand-down, the TD doctrine evolved and changed along with its primary weapon, the tank destroyer. The central concept remained the same however. TDs were lighter and faster while their guns were larger than the main battle guns on contemporary American tanks. The mission: Defeat enemy armor with weapons specifically designed for long-range encounters. While a TD could knock out the enemy, it lacked protection against accurate return fire from anything other than small arms fire. For example to minimize weight, the TD turret lacked a top, exposing the crew to mortar fire and even a lobbed grenade. In the hell of the Hurtgen forest, the U.S. First Army commanders misused tank destroyers. Unlike the better armored Sherman, airborne tree bursts destroyed TDs and their crews. Stealth, by using the terrain, as well as its mobility was its protection. Thin skinned TDs were unable to absorb punishment.
After the North African experience of 1942 – 1943, the Army decided to replace most self-propelled TDs with towed guns, such as the 57mm anti-tank cannon. But the Army recommitted itself to self-propelled TDs again in 1944 when the towed gun strategy proved flawed. General Patton was unenthusiastic about the TD concept from the start. He argued that effective TDs would evolve until they became just another tank. This is what happened when the new main United States battle tank, the ‘Pershing’ proved itself against German armor in the final days of the war.
The US Army employed 60 battalions of tank destroyers during World War II. The TD force was abolished shortly after the war without a fight from Army leadership to retain this distinctly American armored force that had served its nation with honor in the conflict.
Source: Barry M. Stentiford, Grambling State University, The Journal of Military History: July 2005, page 869-870
Tank Destroyers Armored Weapons
The first Tank Destroyer Battalions entered combat in the North African campaign in November 1942 equipped with the M3 Half-track mounted with an exposed 75mm gun. This clumsy expedient was quickly replaced by the M10 Tank Destroyer. The TD was purpose built as a fully tracked tank armed with a flat trajectory long barrel 3 inch main gun. Using the American M10A1 motor carriage, the M10 went into production in 1942. This was the same chassis used in the M4 Sherman tank. Mounted on this chassis was a fully traversable open-top turret housing this 3-inch high-velocity gun. Over 6,000 were built in the USA by war’s end. The British version was called the Wolverine. In 1944 the 3-inch gun was replaced by a more powerful 76mm gun. This improvement made the weapon capable of destroying late model heavily armed German tanks like the Panther and Tiger.
The M10 weighed 33 tons, had a maximum speed of 30 miles (50 kilometers) per hour, and could travel 200 miles on a load of fuel. It was operated by a crew of five. Its armor ranged in thickness from a maximum of 37 millimeters (1.5 inches) to a minimum of 12 millimeters.
The new, equivalent to the German 88, 90mm cannon was tailored along with a new turret to mount on the hull of the M10 TD. Before-hand, the US Army attempted to up-gun the M10 by mounting a 90-millimetre gun in the existing first production turret. This effort failed. A new turret was designed to accommodate the lethal 90mm gun. Baptism by fire for the up-gunned “Jackson” or the “Slugger”, the TD M36B GMC M36, known as the M36 Tank Destroyer came in France, September 1944. The M36 was the sole American weapon capable of defeating the latest Königstiger King Tiger and Jagdtiger tanks while maintaining a comfortable stand-off distance.
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This platform was also used effectively in an untraditional and unusual way. When forced to storm the Siegfried Line’s Maginot fortress at Simserhof, the TD crews of the 776th Tank Destroyer Battalion were successfully employed like a high powered ‘sharp-shooter’ protected in a mobile bunker. The mission: Blind the fortress with pinpoint shots into its eyes, the fortress apertures. Once the defenders were blinded, a combined arms assault to capture the world’s most powerful fortress worked to perfection.