America Built Some Really Good Tank Destroyers to Fight the Nazis

Sebastien Roblin

Key point: America wanted good tank destroyers to match what the Germans had.

During the 1940s, the U.S. Army developed a special weapon to counter the tanks of the German Wehrmacht. Most of these vehicles had the hull of a Sherman tank and a turret with a long-barrel cannon.

But don’t dare call them tanks. These were tank-destroyers.

After the war, the U.S. Army concluded tank destroyers were a waste of time. Official histories excoriated the failure of the program.

But a look at historical records shows that tank destroyers actually did their job well.

The tank-destroyer force was the Army’s response to the wild successes of German armor in Poland and France in 1939 and 1940. Panzer divisions would concentrate more than a hundred tanks on a narrow front, overwhelming the local anti-tank weapons of defending troops and rolling deep into enemy lines.

In 1941, the Army concluded that it needed mobile anti-tank units to intercept and defeat German armored spearheads. Towed anti-tank guns took too long to deploy on the move and it was difficult to guess where the enemy would concentrate for an attack. Instead, self-propelled anti-tank battalions would wait behind friendly lines.

When the German armor inevitably broke through the infantry, the battalions would deploy en masse to ambush the advancing tank columns.

The Army didn’t intend for its own tanks to specialize in defending against enemy panzers. The new armor branch wanted to focus on the same kind of bold armored attacks the Germans were famous for.

The Army tested the concept out in war games at Louisiana in September 1941. Tank-destroyers performed extremely well against tanks — perhaps because, as the armor branch alleged, the “umpire rules” were unfairly tilted in their favor. Tanks could only take out anti-tank units by overrunning them, rather than with direct fire.

With the support of the Army’s chief of training and doctrine Lt. Gen. Leslie McNair, tank-destroyers became their own branch in the army, just like armor and artillery already were. A tank-destroyer center began training units at Fort Hood, Texas. Fifty-three battalions of 842 men each initially mobilized, with plans to grow the force to 220 battalions.

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