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Tank Destroyer Forces

by Robert Capistrano and Dave Kaufman

© 1998 by authors

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Confirming the rule that armies always prepare to fight the previous war, the idea of tanks fighting tanks was an anathema to the U.S. Army of the 1930s, just as it had been to the combatants of the First World War, who used tanks supported by infantry to assault positions held by infantry, not to fight other tanks. Defense against massed enemy armor was just that - defense. Aggressive anti-tank tactics was a doctrine forced on the American army by the Wehrmacht's romp across Poland in September 1939. Within nine months of the Polish campaign, German armor had breached the antiquated defenses of the Low Countries and France, rolling up their forces and precipitating the British withdrawal to, and evacuation from, Dunkirk. The German triumph owed much to the Wehrmacht’s successful application of the heretofore discounted theories of Fuller, de Gaulle and others, combined with the lessons learned by panzer leaders over years of maneuvers. The German’s success forced the Americans to build from scratch an anti-tank capacity, which culminated in the formation of the Tank Destroyer Forces.

Pushed by Army Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall and Lt. General Leslie J. McNair, head of General Headquarters, each a proponent of the concept of anti-tank forces, the U.S. Army's response to blitzkrieg was the formation of separate battalions specially trained and equipped to fight tanks. Three months after the partitioning of Poland, the U.S. Army constituted the 94th Infantry Anti-tank (AT) Battalion at Ft. Benning, Georgia. Expansion of the nascent tank destroyer force, however, proceeded at a snail's pace. By June 1940, on the eve of the fall of France, only two other battalions had been formed: the 93rd, at Ft Meade, Maryland, and the 99th, at Ft. Lewis, Washington. Mobilization of the National Guard added battalions 101 through 105 in January and February of 1941.

Although these units were assigned to the infantry, in keeping with their fundamental mission of supporting the foot-slogger, many of the cadre for these formations were drawn from field artillery units orphaned by their elimination from the new triangularized regular army divisions or by the conversion of National Guard cavalry regiments to field artillery. Their initial armament, after all, was the 37-millimeter gun used by the two types of AT organizations: those that used towed guns and those that used self-propelled guns. This artillery background was commemorated in the red shields of the coats of arms of many tank destroyer (TD) battalions.

Tank Destroyer Command

After being tested in the Fall 1941 maneuvers, the anti-tank concept won a certain independence from the infantry and field artillery. This independence was limited due to a continuous and rancorous debate of the doctrine and use of AT forces. While there was agreement on the necessity of such formations, the head of each of the existing combat arms, except Armor, wanted responsibility for these new units.

In early December 1941, putting an aggressive spin on the "anti-tank" function, the battalions were renamed Tank Destroyer, and a Tank Destroyer Tactical and Firing Center was activated at Ft. Meade, Maryland. The Center was moved shortly thereafter to Camp Hood, Texas, where it was enlarged in March 1942 to form the Tank Destroyer Command, whose mission was to coordinate the creation and training of the new units.

The existing anti-tank battalions adopted the new title and a new numbering scheme. Since future tank destroyer battalions would be numbered in the 600, 700 and 800 series, the 93rd, 94th, and 99th Infantry Anti-tank Battalions became the 893rd, 894th, 899th Tank Destroyer Battalions; and the 101st through the 105th Infantry Anti-tank Battalions became the 801st through 805th Tank Destroyer Battalions.

Enamored with the practice of the German army of attaching an anti-tank battalion to each infantry division, the U.S. Army toyed a similar structure. This began in 1941 with the assignment 3rd and 5th Infantry Anti-Tank Battalions (Provisional) to, respectively, the 3rd Division at Ft. Lewis, Washington, and the 5th Division at Ft. Custer, Michigan. The new Tank Destroyer battalions were activated with this structure in mind, and renumbered 601 through 609 if based on the same posts as the 1st through 9th Divisions of the Regular Army. Those attached to the mobilized National Guard divisions were numbered 626th through 645th. These battalions, however, were not organic division units, and in most cases the early division associations were soon lost. Still, infantry and armored divisions at the front lines in the European Theater almost always had a tank destroyer battalion attached, and in some cases, the associations lasted through multiple campaigns.

Believing that concentrated armor attacks would require concentrated tank destroyer formations, Group Headquarters were formed for the command and control tank destroyer battalions. Experience in North Africa, where battalions were attached to infantry divisions and were parceled out in platoon strength to support small units, led to the abandonment of this concept. Only a few of the Group or Brigade Headquarters served overseas.

The attrition of Germany's armored capacity also led the U.S. Army to scale down the number of tank destroyer battalions. While over 200 TD battalions were anticipated, by 1944 only 78 were active: the rest had been broken up or converted, with many troops assigned as infantry replacements. Many of the first TD units to be converted were those that comprised black GIs.

Arming the Tank Destroyer Force

The aggressive spin that attached to the title "Tank Destroyer" was based on the mobility, speed, and tactics these units possessed in theory. Often, however, the practical function of motorized TD units was reconnaissance, a function inconsistent with two-thirds of their "Seek, Strike, Destroy" motto. Initially, lack of adequate firepower posed an unwarranted liability to the success of these units’ primary mission of combating enemy armor, and the Army's Ordnance Department never ceased its efforts to improve the armament of Tank Destroyer forces. (1)

There were many high-level discussions of "light" and "medium" versions of tank destroyer vehicles and weapons. With their low velocities and small calibers, both the 37-mm and 57-mm rounds were totally inadequate against enemy armor; German armor, in particular, which was specially designed to resist larger-caliber penetrating rounds. Ordnance test results were embarrassing: the tiny 37-mm shells were unable to pierce relatively thin wood even at a range of less than 100 yards, yet 37-mm guns were ordered in large quantities, probably to appease influential congressmen. The 37-mm and 57-mm guns had limited success against Japanese armor. Incredibly, the 37-mm guns were installed in the rear decks of M-6 trucks ("Fargos"), which were little more than stretch Jeeps. North Africa proved how vulnerable and unsuccessful these armed M-6 trucks were. Ordnance even experimented with a 37-mm half-track jeep, but that combination never left the proving grounds. Towed-gun battalions were subsequently armed with 76-mm cannons.

Ultimately, a French 75-mm gun was installed in a half-track. The 75-mm gun was woefully outclassed by the infamous German 88-mm gun, which featured a 28" to 30" high-velocity round. The thinly-armored half-tracks were not as fast as German armor, and they presented very high silhouettes as targets. Additionally, the half-track had to face the target during firing: its gun could not traverse.

Gen. Lucian Truscott, who rose from command of the 5th Cavalry Regiment to command of the 5th Army during the war years, used the Kasserine Pass debacle to underscore the inadequacy of the TD units’ firepower:

"My Tunisian experience also provided me with an outstanding example of how American soldiers can be indoctrinated in training. Our tank destroyer battalions, organized only a few months previous, with no historical prototype, equipped with an improvised weapon - an almost unarmored half-track mounting an entirely inadequate 75-mm gun - had been taught during their training that it was their duty to seek out and destroy enemy tanks. The number of half-tracks which these gallant units left on the Tunisian deserts was mute testimony to the superiority of German armor, and antitank guns. It was also evidence of the efficacy of their indoctrination, a mark that I was to note among these units throughout the war." (2)

The performance of the half-tracks, nick-named "purple-heart boxes" by their crews, forved the Ordnance Department to look for a solution to the problem in the inventory of the Armored Force. Sherman tank hulls and chassis were accordingly used in the development of the M-10 and M-18 tank destroyers. The M-10s were armed with the 75-mm gun; the M-18s were armed with the higher velocity 76-mm gun, and were called "Hellcats" by their crews. The 76-mm gun fired tungsten-carbide-cored HVAP ammunition. The number of guns fielded by both towed and self-propelled TD battalions was also increased, from 24 in 1942 to 36 by 1944. (3)

Because of the design of German armor, the range of their 88-mm gun, and the low velocity of the 13" 75-mm rounds, TD units were as vulnerable as tank battalions. To be effective, the 75-mm and 76-mm guns of U.S. units had to operate at only 200-300 yards - well within the range 3,000-yard range of the German 88. Initially, U.S. tanks and tank destroyer guns fired from greater distances, aiming high and hurling their rounds in looping trajectories. Frontal assaults against German armor were extremely high-risk; consequently, TD units and tank battalions learned to use encircling movements and tactics of distraction, and to rely on first-shot accuracy against the sides and rear of German tanks. One advantage that the tank destroyer crews had over the tankers was that their M-10s, M-18s, and M-36s were diesel-fueled.

The finest contribution of Ordnance, the 90-mm gun of the M-36, was installed on the M-26 tank, which arrived in the ETO in limited numbers during the last weeks of the war. The M-36s were the best weapons supplied to the TD units. A new chassis, wider treads, improved engines and hull designs supported powerful 90-mm guns, which were versions of anti-aircraft cannon and were modeled after the infamous German 88. The guns fired very high velocity rounds in flat trajectories. The M-36s were very popular with their crews.

Due to their appearance, the M-10, M-18, and M-36 tank destroyers were often considered to be "tanks" by friendly forces. Massed German armor attacks never occurred, but because of the success of the TD units, the fear of German armor by GIs was reduced. The TD forces’ ingenuity, courage and success against enemy armor proved, if indirectly, that a tank was the best weapon against another tank. (4)

The War in Europe

Given the limited use of tanks in the Pacific, it can be said that the deployment of Tank Destroyer battalions was relegated almost exclusively in the Mediterranean and European Theaters. TD battalions were first employed in North Africa, where four Tank Destroyer battalions landed with the invading forces at Casablanca and Oran in Vichy-held French Morocco and Algeria in November 1942. Sweeping into Tunisia, the US Army finally went head to head against the Germans. In February of 1943, occupying some of the forward positions at Kasserine Pass, three TD battalions - the 601st, 804th and 894th - were roughly handled and rudely evicted from their positions by Rommel's Afrika Korps. The units learned from the experience, and the next few weeks saw the 601st and 899th battalions blunting German assaults, including one near El Guettar, where these units destroyed 30 enemy tanks. The loss of dozens of towed guns in the battle demonstrated that such units were often as vulnerable as the self-propelled formations.

As the war wore on, Tank Destroyer battalions and companies were only occasionally employed as integral units. Usually assigned temporarily to a division, small teams of four or six tank destroyers were parceled out to battalions, or even to companies, as needed. A good example of their use was the action of a platoon of the all-black 614th Tank Destroyer Battalion (Colored) (Towed) in the Vosges Mountains campaign in France in late 1944.

On the morning of 14 December, as the leading elements of Task Force Blackshear rounded a curve in the road leading into Climback from the south around La Schleife hill, they came under fire by 88-mm dual-purpose guns and tanks of the 21st Panzer Division, arrayed in the surrounding 1,300 to 1,600 foot heights. For most of the day, the gunners of the 614th Tank Destroyer Battalion fought from an exposed position south of the town, sustaining 50 percent casualties and losing three of their four 76-mm guns. While the Germans focused their attention on the American guns, Task Force Blackshear's infantry (from the 411th Regiment, 103rd Division) outflanked the German defenses and, moving forward behind a rolling artillery barrage, seized the town. (5)

This battle, which won the 614th a Presidential Unit Citation, was out of the ordinary in another respect: by this late in the war, most TD battalions - unlike the 614th - had been converted to self-propelled units that used M-10, M-18 or M-36 tracked vehicles. This "penny-packet" type of action was repeated many times throughout the Northern European and Mediterranean campaigns.

The War in the Pacific

A few TD battalions saw service in the Pacific, where they were used primarily as highly mobile field artillery against entrenched enemy positions. With their ability to bring firepower close to bear on Japanese positions, the contributions of the TD battalions were necessary and successful. Tank against tank operations did not occur until the Americans reached the Luzon plain, where the lightly armored and armed Japanese tanks proved no match for U.S. armor and tank destroyers.

The U.S. Army TD units were armed with towed 37-mm guns, M-10s and M-18s, while the U.S. Marine Corps TD elements were armed with M-3 half-tracks and the towed 37-mm. Unlike their counterparts in the ETO and MTO, Army TD battalions in the Pacific were attached to infantry divisions and, for the most part, remained with the same division for the duration of the war, fighting as integral units.

Although Marine elements employing M-3s and 37-mm guns and drawn from Marine special weapons platoons fulfilled TD roles in support of various Marine operations, there were no Marine TD units per se.

Demise of the Tank Destroyer Forces

With the exception of Lt. Gen. Leslie J. McNair, no senior officer of the Army Ground Forces really understood, supported, or provided tactical leadership and direction for the use of TD forces. This lack of understanding of the objective of TD units (coupled with the inadequate firepower Ordnance provided initially) led to early high losses and to much debate concerning their use. General McNair was the only staff officer who remained firmly committed to the role of TD forces, and he was challenged continually by Armored Force Headquarters. Following General McNair’s death in Normandy in July 1944, a ‘friendly-fire’ victim of a disastrous bombing, one of several, conducted by our own Air Corps, no other high-ranking officer stepped forward to champion the TD forces. By 1946, all TD units had been inactivated.

INSIGNIA OF THE TANK DESTROYER FORCE

Branch Insignia

Befitting their assignment to the infantry, the first anti-tank units wore crossed muskets, differentiated from those of the Infantry by the addition of an "A" and "T" on either side of the angles created by the muskets, or in the lower angle when a unit number was added to the upper angle. (6)  With the change in designation to "Tank Destroyer", the letters "TD" replaced "AT." (8)  There also exists an enlisted man's disc featuring cavalry sabres and the "AT" designation. (7)

In March 1943, the Tank Destroyer Force finally received a new branch insignia. This depicted the profile of a M-3 half-track mounting a 75-mm gun. Although only the version for left-side wear was authorized (M-3 facing to the right, or honorable, side), the insignia were occasionally worn in pairs; more rarely with the unit numbers added. (9)

Shoulder Sleeve Insignia

Approved on September 22, 1942, the authorized shoulder sleeve insignia (SSI) for the Tank Destroyer Force was created by the staff of General Andrew Bruce, its first commanding officer. The colors of the force were black and orange. Hence, the TD patch featured a powerful black panther crushing a tank in its jaws, all on an orange disk. The tank, which in the original version of the patch had eight bogie wheels, typified an American tank, not a German version. Insignia manufacturers had problems breaking numerous needles while completing all the bogie wheels, necessitating the four-wheel variation of the SSI, most common version.

Collectors find many different variants in TD patches, a number of which are shown in the illustrations accompanying this article. In addition to the eight- and four-wheel versions, there are six-wheel types.  One variant has the tank's cannon on the left side of the patch, rather than the right.  There are those that are fully embroidered, embroidered on twill and on wool, and some which feature bullion embroidery.  More than a few vets customized their patches with theater-made unit tabs. Illustrated here are insignia for the 805th, 825th 893rd and 894th battalions. Other patches have the battalion designation added between the panther's ears. Illustrated are patches for the 601st, 607th and 899th battalions.  The 661st had a U.S.-made scroll, authorized and worn at Camp Hood. Surplus 661st tabs were available from the Patch King as late as the 1970s.

Additionally, personnel assigned as instructors to the Tank Destroyer School at Camp Hood wore a black felt triangle, point up, emblazoned with skull and crossed bones and the word "Instructor", all in orange.

The only unit with an authenticated shoulder patch separate from the black panther is the 802nd Tank Destroyer Battalion. Designed by Lt. Rupert Macpherson at Camp Shelby, Mississippi, the patch features a winged black skull (with four white highlights), red tongue, and yellow lightning bolt (bordered in black), on tan wool. The patches were locally procured, and were authorized and worn on the crews' overalls. (10)

 Worthy of mention are the two patches illustrated here that are attributed to the 628th and 640th battalions. (11)  The patches, embroidered on felt disks, are believed not to be from the WWII period.  We suspect they may have been produced for veteran's organizations or, perhaps, for the collecting market, which, if correct, significantly diminishes their value in the eyes of many collectors.

It is believed that a Marine battle blaze (SSI) was designed for the Corps' special weapons units, but little documentation exists to support this belief. The blaze, shaped like the 1st Marine Amphibious Corps insigne, is blue with the stars of the Southern Cross constellation in white; a red diamond on which is a white M-3 is at the center. The blazes are extremely rare. 

Distinctive Unit Insignia

Numerous distinctive unit insignia (DI) exist to various TD units of WWII.  We illustrate only four here.  For a more extensive listing of TD unit DI, readers are directed to the unabridged version of this article (The Trading Post, October-December 1998).

Acknowledgments

The authors wish to thank Morton Cohen, Ray Kling, Joseph Massaro, and William Wise for contributing to this article.

Endnotes

1. The new TD crews originated a type of range training that is still in use today. Called "sub-caliber firing", it consisted of fixing a .22 caliber weapon to the barrels of the 37-mm cannons, and then firing on targets. It proved extremely useful tool in  training for accuracy, a characteristic TD crews were noted for in combat.

2. Lucian K. Truscott, Command Decisions, pp. 538-39 (Presidio Press, San Rafael, CA, 1991).

3. Although each had 36 guns, the strength of the two types differed. The self-propelled battalions were authorized 671 men in contrast to the 802 assigned to towed battalions.

4. Allied air superiority bears much credit for insuring that German armor was dispersed and incapable of "massing" armor. The TD crews should get the credit for their success in locating and then destroying enemy armor.

5. Keith E. Bonn, When the Odds Were Even, p. 160 (Presidio Press, San Rafael, CA 1994).

6. William K. Emerson, Encyclopedia of United States Army Insignia and Uniforms, p. 63 (University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, OK 1996). Col. Emerson's excellent reference shows the plain "AT" only on a cloth insignia (Fig. 5-234), and a numbered insignia for the 104th Infantry Anti-Tank Battalion (Fig. 2-233).

7. Ibid., p. 114, Fig. 7-121. Although the identity of the unit that wore this insignia is unknown, a possible candidate is the 101st Infantry Anti-Tank Battalion (later redesignated 801st TD), which was a converted squadron of the 121st New York Cavalry.

8. Ibid. Pinback insignia for the 802nd and 804th Tank Destroyer Battalions are shown (Figs. 5-230 and 5-231).

9. Ibid., p. 373, Fig. 39-64, showing the right side view of an insignia with "899" added to the top of the half-track's bed, behind the gun.

10. There is a German-made reproduction of this insignia, distributed in the early 1970s. It can be differentiated from an original by size and the location of the four white highlights - they are underneath the lightning bolt rather than behind, as on the original. Also, the tip of the tongue is flared on an original.

11. Neither patch appears in ASMIC's patch catalogs of the late 1960s and early 1970s. The patch of the 628th became publicly known to collectors when it was shown in Guido Rosignoli's Army Badges and Insignia Since 1945 (MacMillan, New York, 1973). Nevertheless, the illustrated insignia is the first I've ever seen. Collectors having these insignia are invited to contact the Editor of The Trading Post (see Contact Us page).