Back in the fearful days when General Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps threatened the Suez Canal, tanks of The 2nd Royal Gloucestershire Hussars made a vital contribution to defending the Middle East against the Nazis. Reaching Egypt in October 1941 as part of British 7th Armoured Division / 22nd Armoured Brigade, the unit took part in many of the key battles in Operation Crusader. In subsequent engagements 2RGH suffered many casualties and was re-equipped on two occasions. 2nd RGH fought its final action at Battle of Alam el Halfa, on 31 August to 5 September 1942. Expecting to be re-equipped the regiment was instead disbanded with ‘F’, ‘G’ and ‘H’ Squadrons transferred to the 4th Hussars, Royal Wiltshire Yeomanry and the 8th Hussars respectively. HQ Squadron was divided and sent to the 5th Royal Tank Regiment and the 3rd Hussars. In their year of service however 2RGH sustained 257 casualties, gained six battle honours and saw 40 of their Yeomen decorated for valour.
To commemorate their sacrifice, The Black Swan public house in Southgate Street, Gloucester, was renamed The Yeoman in 1969 when it became the city HQ of the Gloucestershire Hussars Old Comrades Association. Its new sign featured a picture of a tank commander wearing goggles on his forehead and holding a pair of binoculars whilst peering into the distance from his turret. And not just a composite, idealised tank commander either – but a gentleman named Charles A’Bear who played rugby for Gloucester before World War II. He was commissioned in the field whilst serving with the Gloucestershire Hussars in North Africa and later won the Military Medal. After the War he became a solicitor in Retford, Nottinghamshire.
During the 1990s, the pub on the corner of Southgate Street and Commercial Road changed names back to “The Black Swan” but the sign showing Charles A’Bear has been preserved in the nearby Soldiers of Gloucestershire Museum. Pictured above is one of the few Allied tanks of the early Second World War that could withstand most German guns apart from the deadly 88mm. Also known as the Matilda, the 1938 vintage Infantry Tank Mark II however was only equipped with a 2 pounder gun ineffective against the more heavily armoured German tanks. Matilda T 10245 is now preserved in London’s Imperial War Museum as is is the American built M3A3 Grant tank used by Lieutenant General ( Later Field Marshall Lord ) Montgomery while in command of the British Eighth Army. Like its cousin the Lee – used by American forces – the Grant’s main gun was mounted on the hull rather than the turret. However, in this case the turret gun is a wooden mock-up used to make “Monty’s” tank look like all the other Grants under his command. The space normally occupied by the breech mechanism and shells was taken up by command radio equipment.
Despite its distance from the embarkation ports used by Operation Overlord, Gloucestershire played a vital role in the preparations for D-Day on 6 June 1944. As well as the GRCW produced Churchills, Sherman tanks were a common sight around Tewkesbury.
The Royal Army Service Corps moved out of its base at Ashchurch ( only built in 1940 and now a British army vehicle depot once again) in July 1942 to make way for the US 3025th, 3026th and 3043rd Ordnance Units as well as the 622 Unit Ordnance Base Automotive Battalion. Within a year, over 2 000 GIs were stationed there – some being billeted at Tewkesbury’s Royal Hop Pole Hotel while others found digs with local families.
More US service personnel took over Mythe House, which had previously been occupied by the Healing Family who owned Borough Mill in Tewkesbury. The fine country house became a military hospital, with wounded soldiers being brought to Ashchurch by train and transferred to Mythe House by ambulance. However, such was the damage that the Americans had inflicted on Mythe House by VE Day that it was too expensive to repair and was finally demolished in 1955.
A similar fate almost befell Cheltenham’s Pittville Pump Room, where both interior and exterior embellishments were used for target practice and a large stuffed anaconda from a glass case in the Pump Rooms ended up in Pittville lake. The Queen’s Hotel, meanwhile, became the American Officer’s Club – and played host to such visiting entertainers as Bob Hope – and Imperial Gardens became a truck park. At Ullenwood, the 110th US General Hospital was built to accommodate 2 000 wounded: with every brick, pane of glass, length of timber and bag of cement being imported across the Atlantic.
However, Cheltenham was by this time even more cosmopolitan than usual with uniformed men from the Netherlands, Poland, Belgium, Denmark, France, Latvia, Lithuania, New Zealand and Australia and many of these visited Cheltenham Services Club in Regent Street. This was founded by local philanthropist Cyril Bird ” for the moral welfare of Cheltenham as well as the pleasure and well being of the forces.” The club was run jointly by Cheltenham Corporation, church groups, the WVS and YMCA.
Moreton-in-the-Marsh on the Worcester-Oxford railway line meanwhile became home to the Super Sixth Armoured Brigade. This included Sherman tanks. Like its Soviet opposite number the T-34, the strength of the M4 Sherman was the sheer numbers in which it was produced for American, British and other Allied armies. As such, it continued to serve around the World for many decades after 1945. Although armed with a 75mm gun in the turret rather than in the hull – like the Grant illustrated above – the Sherman was relatively lightly armoured with a high profile and a vulnerable fuel tank – hence the popular German nickname “Tommy Cookers”. At H-Hour on D-Day some specially adapted Sherman tanks also came to grief. The Duplex Drive ( or DD) Sherman differed from the usual Detroit product by having propellers as well as tracks. These were to power the armoured fighting vehicle as it floated toward Normandy disguised as a rubber raft. The tank itself was almost totally submerged and relied on a tall inflatable ring attached to its upper surface to keep both the water out of the turret and to stop it sinking. The idea was that the tank would drive up onto the beach, drop the hooped canvas ring and immediately offer supporting fire to Allied infantry. Apparently this procedure worked well in training exercises and most of the time on D-Day itself. However, all but two of the DD Shermans at Omaha beach sank because in heading for a landmark church tower they encountered cross currents, which effectively capsized them. Sadly, not all the crewmen were able to escape as the water poured in to their tanks and they plummeted to the bottom of the sea where they have remained for over 60 years. Those that did make it to the surface of the water then faced being mown down by other incoming invasion vessels. In either case, American troops were to land on Omaha beach without tank support or even bomb craters to shelter in ( Allied aircraft had bombed inland by mistake ) and the devastating effect of German defensive fire was chillingly re-created in the opening sequence of Steven Spielberg’s film “Saving Private Ryan”
Also on strength with the Super Sixth were Willy’s jeeps, Chevrolet half-tracks and the DUKW amphibious vehicles to take supplies direct from ships off the invasion beaches to points several miles inland. Based on the US Army’s ubiquitous GMC truck, the DUKW was invaluable in supplying the D-Day invasion forces as they fought their way inland. To keep up with demand as supply lines lengthened however, the Mulberry Harbours – including bridging sections built by the Gloucester Railway Carriage and Wagon Company – were needed to offload vehicles direct from ship to beach.
ENTER THE TIGER
While the Churchill was a throwback to the tank strategies of the Great War however, the blitzkrieg tactics of Nazi Generals Von Runstedt and Guderian favoured faster fighting vehicles for use with shock troops and air power. The Panzer Mk IV – used against Poland in 1939 and stopping just short of Dunkirk in 1940 – reflected this, although at Rastenburg on 20 April 1942 Adolf Hitler received an unusual birthday present – the choice of two new heavy tank designs offered by Porsche and Henschel. Both were built to a Wehrmacht specification for a 45 ton vehicle mounting a modified version of the 88mm anti-aircraft gun which was also a lethal tank-buster. Despite being 11 tons overweight, the Henschel design involved no new building techniques and so was selected for production. The first “Panzerkampfwagen VI Tiger Ausf. H” was outshopped in August 1942. Its hull and superstructure were made of one unit using thick sheets of armour plate welded together in interlocking comb joints. The top of the hull was also formed of a single sheet, pierced by a turret ring over six feet wide to allow a turret big enough to take the breech of the muzzle braked electrically fired 88mm gun – as well as a second MG34 machine gun, fired by the gunner using a pedal.
At the front of the Tiger were compartments for the driver – who turned a wheel operating a differential steering unit rather than pulling levers to change direction – and a radio operator / machine gunner. Separating them was the gearbox connected to the engine at the rear beyond the central fighting compartment. This was originally a 21 litre Maybach V12 petrol engine although a more powerful 24 litre version was substituted from December 1943. A typical ammunition load weighed ¾ ton and comprised 92 rounds, half being armour piercing shot and half high explosive shells.
However, the Tiger’s weight was a problem from the outset. The first 495 examples were fitted with snorkel engine breathers so that rivers could be forded. The snorkels allowed the Tigers to submerge in 13 feet of water for up to 2 ½ hours and so avoid bridges that might collapse under their weight. Two widths of track were also provided – a 20½” version for transport and a 28 ½” combat variant – which wrapped round overlapping wheels on a torsion bar suspension. While this gave a stable and comfortable ride however, the wheels easily clogged with mud which could freeze in cold weather. For this reason the Russians always tried to attack Tiger tanks at dawn when their tracks were likely to be immobilised!
Although Tigers were later integrated into Waffen SS armoured formations, they were initially used in independent battalions – normally going into battle surrounded by a “Panzerkeil” – or tank wedge – of lighter vehicles. In this way Panzer III s or IV s could compensate for the slow forward speed and turret traverse of the Tiger. This was especially true of the Panzer IVs rearmed with a longer barrelled version of its original 75mm gun.
In January 1943 a panzerkeil of four Tigers and eight medium tanks destroyed or forced the retreat of 24 Soviet T-34s trying to re-open supply routes into Leningrad – while in North Africa Free French 75mm artillery shells bounced off the four inch thick armour of Tiger tanks at a range of less than 50 yards. Like the wide-open steppes of the south western USSR, the North African desert was natural tank country but in both landscapes and after both the Battles of Stalingrad and El Alamein – both in late 1942 – Nazi tank forces began the long retreat to Berlin.
By the time that the first of 1350 Tiger Mark 1s were outshopped in August 1942 Germany faced the well – armoured T-34 tank of the Soviet Union on the Eastern Front. Also fitted with an impressive 85mm gun, the T-34 was produced in vast numbers in a factory east of the Ural mountains.
The battle of Kursk also proved that Tigers could be overwhelmed by greater numbers of enemy tanks and as the Third Reich began to run out of fuel for these gas-guzzing behemoths they increasingly fell prey to the spring loaded hollow charged warheads of PIAT mortars. Gloster built Hawker Typhoon aircraft firing 60 lb rocket projectiles also took their toll, as did newer British 17 lb anti tank guns. And had the war dragged further into 1945 Tigers may well have met their match in the British Centurion tank, which went on to serve with a dozen armies in the 1950s.
In the face of continuing retreat across eastern and southern Europe, German designers responded with tanks that sacrificed speed and manoeuvrability for armour and firepower, the Tiger Mark 1 leading on to the formidable King Tiger and Elefant tank-destroyers along with the Jagdtiger with its astonishing 128mm gun.. However, the sloping frontal armour and high velocity 75mm gun of the 1942 vintage Panther took their cue from the Soviet T-34
These proved particularly lethal against the relatively thin-armoured Sherman after D-Day, but like its Russian counterpart the American tank had the advantage of being built in large numbers outside the bombing range of the Luftwaffe. In total war, quantity had its own quality. Nevertheless the Allied saying in Normandy was “If one Tiger is reported send four Cromwells or Shermans and expect to lose three of them!”
T-34: THE BEAST FROM THE EAST
Finally, even a brief overview of the main points of World War II tank warfare would be complete without mentioning the Soviet T-34, which fought alongside Lend-Lease Churchills in the Great Patriotic conflict and then against them in Korea. The 1940 vintage T-34 was not only an advanced tank for its era and produced in vast quantities but its excellent design was the result of two decades of Soviet experimentation and a willingness to embrace worthwhile foreign ideas. In particular the T-34 evolved from the Christie tank – rejected by the US military and bought by the Soviet Union in the 1930s – that combined relatively light yet effective sloping armour with large wheels that gave good cross-country performance at speed. The addition of wide tracks – which were to be a feature of Soviet tank design into the 1990s – also gave the T-34 an advantage over Nazi designs in the mud and snow of the Eastern Front. Such was the performance of the T-34 that the initial reaction of the Wehrmacht was to capture and copy one. However, direct back-engineering turned out not to be possible, although the German Panther was heavily influenced by the T-34 design. Having traded the original 76mm gun for an even more potent 85mm weapon en route from Kursk to Berlin, the T-34 was exported around the Communist regimes of the post War world and also served in Korea. As well as a battle tank, the rough and ready 500 bhp V-12 diesel engined T-34 was also built in recovery, reconaissance and personnel carrier versions.