Gen Lesley J. McNair’s Folly (Woody Turnbow)


, Gen Lesley J. McNair’s Folly (Woody Turnbow), EUCMH Knowledge BasePreface

While serving as an armor officer in the US Army during the cold war, the author had access to considerable amounts of intelligence information about Soviet towed antitank guns. Minute details about the physical characteristics and capabilities of the guns were available, but nothing could be found concerning the tactics one might potentially be encountering. A quest was begun, both as a matter of curiosity and one of potential self preservation, to learn more about towed antitank guns. The field proved to be a fascinating one.

My interest was further stimulated by an incident that happened while I was serving as a project officer in TRADOC (Training and Doctrine Command) and (then) Brig Gen Donn Starry made a comment about the M-60-A1E2 (later M-60-A2). This tank saw the 152-MM gun Shilleigh missile system mounted on an M-60 hull. Starry claimed that this thing is not a tank, it is a damned tank destroyer.

This situation had major Flap! potential written all over it. I consequently ordered copies of FM-18-5 from Army archives, studied them, and prepared a short paper basically combining Tank Destroyer tactics with standard tank tactics. The flap never happened; the Army received only 300 M-60-A2’s; and they, like many bad ideas, eventually went away quietly.

This brief study taught me of the very existence of towed tank destroyers and the idea of them hung enticingly just out of reach like forbidden fruit. My curiosity slumbered for years, but retirement and the Internet’s putting most of the world at my fingertips eventually permitted this work. Hopefully the reader will find it both enlightening and entertaining.

, Gen Lesley J. McNair’s Folly (Woody Turnbow), EUCMH Knowledge BaseBackground or … The US Army recognizes the tank threat.

The US Army, like the other victorious forces of the Great War, had been permitted to atrophy during the years of peacetime and economic depression. It, unlike some less fortunate armies, was allowed some reaction time by not being drawn into combat until after the attack on Pearl Harbor and the Philippines in December of 1941. While outbreak of the war in Europe stirred the beginnings of rearmament, American officers enjoyed the luxury of observing and studying the conflicts in Poland, France, Russia, and North Africa without the incurring risk of defeat.

Many unemployed officers from the defeated armies sought new forms of livelihood by sharing accounts of their experiences with the anxious audiences to be found in the States. While the cynical among us might suspect a certain amount of exaggeration used as justification and apologia, a former French officer, trained in an antitank doctrine expecting a density of 10 guns per kilometer of front yet having found himself actually having only 4.7 guns per kilometer might, in all honesty, not believe he was exaggerating at in the least after he had been confronted by Guderian’s 29th Panzer Corps which concentrated over 800 tanks along the 8 to 10 kilometer front. He truly believed he had faced bunches of Krauts, hordes of Huns, and a plethora of Panzers.

, Gen Lesley J. McNair’s Folly (Woody Turnbow), EUCMH Knowledge BaseThe French army, one of, if not the most respected army in the 1939 world, had collapsed in mere days in the debacle of 1940 ! American officers were shocked. They, who had an antitank doctrine of passive, static, linear defense that, had antitank guns actually been available, would have duplicated that of the French, had nightmares about massed tank attacks. They obviously had to do something.

The doctrine of linear antitank defense was in need of some very serious improvement. In April 1941, a near panic-mode conference focused on the future of antitank operations and had the immediate effect of creating a fairly conventional antitank battalion in the infantry divisions. This capability, organic to divisional level, was still considered insufficient. The conference gave broad support to the idea of creating mobile antitank assets controlled by corps or army commanders which could be deployed to meet an armored attack.

Other armies seized upon a twofold, evolutionary, solution. First, they began increasing the size and effectiveness of AT guns, and secondly, they increased the number of antitank guns throughout their force structures. Essentially, foreign armies reacted to the threat of tanks by increasing AT firepower. While these other nations had AT organizations in their army, those units reinforced or were organic to divisions; and the divisions fought the anti armor battle. In the USA, the Army chose to create a new, revolutionary, uniquely American system for AT defense – tank destroyers.

The American concept developed a defined doctrine to counter tanks and created special organizations to implement the doctrine. The fall of France appeared as proof that neither Infantry, AT guns, nor Tanks, used statically in a linear defense, could withstand the deep envelopment by armored spearheads. American doctrine therefore visualized fighting tanks behind the line held by divisions with units under corps or army control. Visualizing doctrine and putting in into practice was very much two different things as such doctrine raised the question of which arm would have proponency for AT combat.

Inasmuch as the Field Service Regulations stated that antitank defense was primarily the concern of the Infantry, yet the antitank guns were organized as part of the divisional artillery.

, Gen Lesley J. McNair’s Folly (Woody Turnbow), EUCMH Knowledge BaseThis division of authority between Infantry and Field Artillery had paralyzed the development of American AT capabilities just when the need reached critical mass. The most serious problem was the continued division of branch authority over AT matters.

Neither Infantry nor Field Artillery had fully embraced the AT task as its own, meaning that there was no one agency to pursue doctrinal developments or provide training guidance to the field units, yet each of the traditional branch chiefs wanted proponency for the new AT units. Even the Cavalry, looking for another reason to exist put in a bid for the new weapons.

Curiously, the newly formed Armored Force was alone not interested in claiming any responsibility for the role of AT defense. Finally, in May, Gen George C. Marshall declared AT units to be important enough to rate designation as a combined arms organization and formed an Antitank Planning Board to be headed by LCol Andrew D. Bruce and ordered Gen Lesley J. McNair to immediately organize some AT units for testing. Three AT groups (regimental-sized organizations of 3 battalions) were rapidly formed by combining AT battalions taken from infantry divisions. They were tasked with speedy and aggressive action to search out and attack opposing tanks before they deployed.

Speedy and aggressive action was a rather tall order for units equipped with the 37-MM towed guns and the M-1897 French 75’s, but in an attempt to foster an offensive spirit, they were called tank killers.

, Gen Lesley J. McNair’s Folly (Woody Turnbow), EUCMH Knowledge BaseBruce, newly promoted to brigadier general, envisioned as yet non-existent self-propelled guns of great mobility, but McNair favored the towed guns such as were then being used by German AT units. Marshall tended to agree with Bruce and favored experiments with self-propelled mounts, McNair acceded, but continued to advocate towed guns at every opportunity.

Gen Lesley J. McNair – Army Ground Forces

, Gen Lesley J. McNair’s Folly (Woody Turnbow), EUCMH Knowledge BaseLesley James McNair was a rising star in the US Army. He was serving in the very important and influential assignment of Chief of the Army Ground Forces, the organization responsible for the organization and training of all the army ground units. When only 35 years old, McNair had been promoted to become the youngest brigadier general in the army; highly decorated for his staff work during World War One. He was known to be quite imaginative and innovative. He had published several forward thinking articles in military magazines including, as a matter of interest – if not importance, use of the auto-gyro by artillery observers. McNair was among those killed by a short striking bomb run while in Normandy to observe the breakout as part of operation Cobra. He was posthumously promoted to lieutenant general.

, Gen Lesley J. McNair’s Folly (Woody Turnbow), EUCMH Knowledge BaseMcNair had several pet theories that failed to endear him with many of those who were in command of the organizations that he, as head of the AGF, organized and trained. Among them were the reduction of times allocated to both basic and individual specialty training, the individual replacement system, and some ideas that doubtless became a major part of the Tank destroyer concept.

McNair detested the concept of specially equipped and organized – his favorite term was Trick – divisions, and organized US infantry divisions on a very simple and basic, no frills, pattern. Any and all assets beyond the very basic were to be attached only if needed. This idea of streamlined units, drawing assets from a pool on an as needed basis, has, in theory, considerable merit, but in practice, was not so happily accepted by those who would be commanding these divisions.

As an example, all infantry divisions going to the European theater needed extra AT assets while those going to the Pacific had little such need. These attached units, of any form, would lack a clear-cut chain of command and often suffered lack of adequate logistical support and of combined training.

, Gen Lesley J. McNair’s Folly (Woody Turnbow), EUCMH Knowledge BaseMcNair had formed the opinion quite early on in the quest for an AT solution, that antitank assets should be concentrated into battalion-sized units and committed at the point of armor attacks.

McNair was strongly opposed to the idea of using tanks to fight other tanks. He commented during one conference, it certainly is poor economy to use a $35.000 medium tank to destroy another tank when the job can be done by a gun costing a fraction as much.

McNair was also an old artilleryman and constantly resisted pressure from Marshall and Bruce for self-propelled guns in lieu of towed ones. He insisted that the self-propelled gun was more difficult to conceal, was a less stable firing platform, was less dependable, and was more expensive than a towed gun.

Evolution of AT Guns

The warring forces began, in 1939, with towed guns ranging in caliber from 25-MM through 47-MM. The most prolific was likely the German designed 37-MM and its clones. The guns were, depending to a great extent upon the economic well being of the nation fielding them, either horse drawn or towed by trucks. These guns were all light enough to be manhandled short distances. Their crews could shift them from primary to alternate firing positions even under fire. They were as powerful as existing tank guns and could be realistically expected to penetrate the armor of most tanks that might be found on the battlefield. Some nations used World War One field pieces as a rather poor substitute standard until such time as enough more modern pieces could be made available.

Even before the first shots were fired, the more forward thinking of the armies had larger guns on the drawing boards. Gun size grew to 50-MM and 57-MM caliber with both penetrating ability and weight also increasing correspondingly. Tank design responded with thicker armor to create the need for yet larger guns. 75-MM and 76.2-MM guns were being replaced with 88-MM and 128-MM guns at war’s end. Even greater monsters were in the experimental stage. Gun weight had far exceeded the abilities of their crews to move them without assistance from some form of prime mover.

Even before gun weight had begun to demand power well beyond the physical abilities of gun crews, armies had begun mounting guns portee on various trucks. The French reported some success with their ancient M-1897’s mounted on 5-ton trucks during the final days of their resistance of the German invasion.

, Gen Lesley J. McNair’s Folly (Woody Turnbow), EUCMH Knowledge BaseThe British were mounting their QF-2 pounder (1.575 inch – 40-MM) on various trucks in North Africa. The Germans had started mounting guns on the chassis of captured and obsolete tanks. Yet another factor to be considered in the growth of AT guns was the price that had to be paid when digging the guns in. The gun pit for the legendary German 88-MM was 12’/12’/6’ (3.6/3.6/1.8-M) and it took from 12 to 15 hours to dig in the British QF-17 pounder (3 inch – 76.2-MM). Both cover and concealment became exponentially more difficult to attain.

The legendary German 88-MM had escaped these problems being too heavy, being too high in silhouette for most of the war because it could out range its targets. It was consequently very well adapted for the over watch role in both offense and defense. These days were numbered as tanks began to be armed with 85-MM and larger guns.

Evolution of Antitank Gun Tactics

The problems encountered when increasing the size and weight of the guns directly influenced their degree of vulnerability. When the crews could no longer shift them into alternate and supplemental firing positions the guns were more easily located and brought under fire. Tactics became to shift them to alternate positions under cover of darkness.

, Gen Lesley J. McNair’s Folly (Woody Turnbow), EUCMH Knowledge BaseProblems also came in the form of increased danger from their targets. Tanks began to be armed with larger guns that could fire high explosive rounds at greater distances. Tank unit leaders began to call indirect fire, preferably air burst, in an attempt to clear out AT gun crews in their path. As the gun shields on antitank guns were mostly a matter of wishful thinking and the gun and crew’s actual protection came from digging them in. The larger the gun, the deeper the hole required. This taxed the crews both in the time to achieve safety and with a deeper drain on their endurance.

A density of 10 guns per kilometer had become up to the 29.8 per kilometer found out during the Battle of Kursk in Russia. Guns earlier had sought long fields of fire and would engage at longer ranges in order to have more time and more rounds to stop the tank before being overrun. Now they would attempt to ambush and destroy the tank before its commander had the opportunity to spot the gun.

While earlier, the individual gun commander would select his crew’s target independently from the other guns, it rapidly developed that a single AT gun, or a group of them operating independently, was quickly discovered and eliminated. For this reason a new method of engagement was developed, which the Germans called the Pakfront. Groups of up to ten guns were put under the command of a single individual, who concentrated their fire by engaging a single target with simultaneous fire. Guns were now working together. Groups of antitank guns, thus welded into one unit, were organized in depth and spread all over the defended area.

, Gen Lesley J. McNair’s Folly (Woody Turnbow), EUCMH Knowledge BaseThe goal was to draw the attacking tanks into a web of enfilade, mutually supporting fire. Fire discipline was of the utmost importance for to open fire prematurely was the most dangerous mistake that could be made. More and more, AT guns had to seek out the thinner armor to the tank’s flanks. To do so demanded either better positioning or more mobility and often both !

The motorized AT battalions once would either serve as a bounding over watch or would else be used to screen the flank of an advancing unit. Larger, heavier guns, requiring larger, heavier prime movers, lacked the agility to be able to adequately perform such missions. It now took entirely too much time to unlimber the guns and find positions for them. The tactics of the towed AT gun had become : A fusillade of enfilade fire from defilade positions !

Enter the Tank Destroyer Corps

Farther study and experimentation led to the removal of the AT battalions from the infantry divisions and their reassignment to independent Tank Killer Battalions. The old combat arms, Infantry, Cavalry and Artillery each wanted proponency in the development of these new units. Curiously enough, the new Armor Force made no such bid. Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall put an end to this squabbling by appointing Lt Col Andrew Bruce to develop such units.

, Gen Lesley J. McNair’s Folly (Woody Turnbow), EUCMH Knowledge Base

, Gen Lesley J. McNair’s Folly (Woody Turnbow), EUCMH Knowledge BaseThen Gen McNair, as Chief of the AGF was to have a rather heavy input into the organization of these new Tank Destroyer Corps units. Enough units were formed for testing and in September then in November 1941 the Army pitted its new armored divisions against experimental AT forces in the course of maneuvers held in Louisiana and the Carolinas. The AT units were judged to have passed their tests with flying colors despite grumbling from the armored forces that the tests were rigged.

McNair, one of those charged with creating the tank destroyer establishment, served as the maneuver director, leading to legitimate questions of impartiality. Indeed, the 37-MM guns and the .50 Cam machine guns of the AT forces were assigned very generous abilities while the tanks were required to physically overrun AT positions to be credited with kills ! The Armored Force commander Gen Jacob L. Devers disagreed. He publicly declared, we were licked by a set of umpire rules.

, Gen Lesley J. McNair’s Folly (Woody Turnbow), EUCMH Knowledge BaseOn November 27, Marshall authorized the establishment of a Tank Destroyer Tactical Firing Center at Ft Hood Texas under Col Andrew Bruce’s (soon to be a brigadier general) command. Fifty-three new AT battalions were authorized and given the name Tank Destroyers as it was deemed more likely to encourage aggressiveness and offensive action than the more passive sounding term antitank. This name was to be used from this point forward.

, Gen Lesley J. McNair’s Folly (Woody Turnbow), EUCMH Knowledge Base, Gen Lesley J. McNair’s Folly (Woody Turnbow), EUCMH Knowledge BaseThe new combat arm was given an insignia of a magnificent black panther, crushing one of the hated Panzers in its teeth surmounted by the motto : SEEK STRIKE DESTROY. On December 3, all existing AT battalions were reassigned to General Headquarters and converted to tank destroyer battalions.

The infantry divisions were to be left with their 37-MM organic AT guns (later 57-MM) in platoon strength at battalion and in company strength at regimental level that were to protect them from all but the masses of tanks envisioned after reports from the French defeat were digested. These organic assets were intended to be towed guns, but later many after action reports recommended that even they be given self-propelled capability. The non-divisional Tank Destroyer units were all originally intended by Andrew Bruce to be self-propelled. McNair favored towed guns, but both agreed on the need for mobility.

The concept of semi-independent battalions attached only as an as needed basis to the infantry divisions fit quite nicely into McNair’s ideas about minimally equipped divisions.

, Gen Lesley J. McNair’s Folly (Woody Turnbow), EUCMH Knowledge BaseDoctrine Developed

The concept was for Tank Destroyers to be a highly mobile force that, deployed in at least battalion strength would identify the path of the enemy’s tank spearhead, rush ahead of it to occupy dominant terrain, and firing from protected positions, destroy the threat. They were not to be parceled out into smaller defensive strong points. The new tank destroyer doctrine was formally stated in FM-18-5 There is but one objective of tank destroyer units … the destruction of hostile tanks. Vigorous, offensive action was repeatedly stressed, demanding great mobility. This need for mobility would cause designers of future tank destroyer vehicles to give priority to speed and power over survivability, and to a certain extent, even firepower.

The doctrine was flawed because of later developments. Firstly, through no fault of the doctrine, the need to plug deep armored penetrations ceased to exist by the time TD units reached the battlefield because the German Army no longer enjoyed the number of tanks required to do so. Secondly, tactics had evolved into combined arms teams of tanks supported and protected by infantry and vice-versa. There was no longer the case of unaccompanied tanks running around behind the infantry’s positions. Also, the commanders of the units that would have been penetrated tended to take a rather dim view of suffering a penetration while the combat power to prevent such a penetration was being held in reserve behind them. Lastly, there was no weapon in the inventory that could actually perform such a mission.

, Gen Lesley J. McNair’s Folly (Woody Turnbow), EUCMH Knowledge BaseThe armed half-tracks were almost a sad joke; the M-10 and M-36 guns were on the M-4 Sherman tank chassis and represented precious little more mobility than their ancestors. The M-18 Hellcat, actually a real, purpose-built, tank destroyer featuring the tremendous mobility necessary for these missions, but, by the time fielded, faced German Mark V Panther, Mark VI Tiger and even Mark VI-II Koenigstiger tanks with an inadequate 3 inch AT gun (76.2-MM).


The new branch was created before a weapon was available for its use. There was no vehicle with the mobility and the firepower needed to operate as described in the Tradoc doctrine. Indeed, none would actually become available until late in the war. As a makeshift, obsolescent World War One field guns were mounted inside half tracks and sent to war as the M-3 Mobile Gun Carriage. Even worse, obsolescent 37-MM infantry AT guns were mounted in the bed of ¾ ton trucks and christened the M-6 Mobile Gun Carriage.

Upon landing in North Africa, US TD crewmen, infused with aggressive spirit forgot their doctrine and went tank hunting with their high profile, thin skinned, poorly armed M-3’s. Supported division commanders, unaware of or disagreeing with the doctrine of deploying in battalion strength, broke the TD units down to platoon level and assigned them to support infantry companies. Heavy casualties resulted. So did a loss of enthusiasm for the TD doctrine.

, Gen Lesley J. McNair’s Folly (Woody Turnbow), EUCMH Knowledge BaseOn one occasion, the battle of El Guettar saw a tank destroyer battalion break up an enemy attack that was supported by 57 tanks. Unfortunately, the lack of proper equipment proved quite costly as two thirds of the battalion’s M-3 were lost. As a matter of farther interest, this battle was the only one during the war wherein a TD battalion was deployed as an entire battalion and used in accordance with approved doctrine in open terrain.

This rarity can be explained by the more restrictive terrain of Europe and the German switch to the defensive served to prohibit the mass attacks of armor that had been envisioned.

The seven tank destroyer battalions participating in the North African campaign in November 1942 suffered a rude shock when the Rommel’s Panzer-Divisions behaved quite differently than in the manner of the enemy described in the stories told by the veterans of France’s 1940 rout.

Rather than masses of light tanks operating at top speed, the Panzers in Tunisia were sophisticated combined arms teams, characterized by artillery and infantry operating in close support of the tanks while being protected by deadly AT fire coming from the dreaded 88-MM guns in hidden over watch positions.

, Gen Lesley J. McNair’s Folly (Woody Turnbow), EUCMH Knowledge Base

, Gen Lesley J. McNair’s Folly (Woody Turnbow), EUCMH Knowledge BaseFor the lightly armored, poorly armed, tank destroyers, slugging it out with German tanks under these conditions was nothing less than suicidal. It quickly emerged that the best way to meet attacking German tanks was from concealed dug-in positions – hardly the valiant Seek, Strike, and Destroy that they had envisioned. This fact also doomed the idea of tank destroyers being held back in reserve, to dash fire – brigade style to the scene of a German attack. If the antitank units were not on hand when the attack began, they would have to join the battle under fire and possibly have to fight exposed from unprepared positions. In any rate, they were unlikely to arrive in time. They also demonstrated an unfortunate tendency to disrupt communications by running over and cutting all phone lines in the area.

Both, British and German towed, dug in, well camouflaged AT guns – deployed by experienced commanders and manned by experienced crews appeared much more likely to survive on the battlefield. Many lost faith in the original TD doctrine. Gen Omar N. Bradley suggested that towed antitank guns be re-introduced to infantry divisions.

These developments and the experimental battalion of 3 inch guns were heartily embraced by Gen Lesley J. McNair.

, Gen Lesley J. McNair’s Folly (Woody Turnbow), EUCMH Knowledge BaseThe 3 inch Gun

Army Ordnance began, in 1940, efforts to create an expedient 75-MM gun as a potential replacement for the substitute standard M-1897 French 75’s that were left over from the Great War and pressed into service. The 3 inch gun had its beginnings as a coastal defense weapon and as a submarine armament. It had been adapted for AAA use and had served in that role during the inter-war period. While it was no longer in production because the 90-MM had been selected as its replacement, the tools, dies, and other production equipment were already on hand. Shells had already been developed and proven. The 2600 (FPS) (792 M/S) muzzle velocity would provide the flat trajectory and armor penetration needed in an antitank round.

The concept came from BGen Gladeon M. Barnes, head of the Ordnance Department’s research and development, who had, with great vision, ordered the gun converted to the antitank role in 1940. He suggested that it would be a quick and economical replacement for the M-1897 French 75 if it were mounted on the 105-MM howitzer carriage. He ordered one made up, saying, this combination might make an AT gun of great power.

The result promised major improvement over all attempts being tried to upgrade the M-1897 to useful status. One hundred pieces were cobbled together and given to the Field Artillery Board for testing in 1941. After some relatively minor tinkering, the gun was ready for service. This gun, on the 1940-1942 battlefield, would have reigned supreme had it been used as the British, the Russians or the Germans would have done so, but by this time the concept of a mobile tank destroyer had gained foothold in the US Army and none of the branch chiefs expressed any interest in it.

The Chief of Infantry was particularly vehement, saying that there was no need for any AT material of such great weight and poor mobility. He had a point; at five thousand pounds, the gun was five times heavier than the 37-MM gun with which the infantry was currently armed; was extremely difficult to manhandle and would have proven quite vulnerable to both small arms and artillery fire. In May 1942 the combat arms consequently requested cancellation of the 3 inch gun project, but the Chief of Ordnance and the Chief of the Army Ground Forces pressed for continuation.

, Gen Lesley J. McNair’s Folly (Woody Turnbow), EUCMH Knowledge Base

, Gen Lesley J. McNair’s Folly (Woody Turnbow), EUCMH Knowledge BaseIn August 1942 an order was placed, over the objections of the head of the Tank Destroyer Force, Gen Andrew Bruce, for 1000 guns. On August 22, 1942 McNair ordered a re-test of the gun. McNair, an old artilleryman, claimed that the towed guns had proven superior in North Africa and that they could be unloaded in ports lacking the facilities for tracked vehicles.

Bruce tried to point out that they, and their prime movers, took more shipping space and a battalion required 300 more men than a self propelled battalion. McNair prevailed, as rank tends to do, and in November 1943 ordered that half of all existing battalions be converted to towed units. McNair’s vision was for all battalions attached to divisions be towed, while those with corps and higher would be self-propelled.

Opinions of the gun vary considerably. The prolific and respected military writer, Steven Zaloga believes it to be a poor creation and, indeed, refers to the gun itself as McNair’s Folly. While the equally prolific and respected Ian Hogg claims it to be surprisingly useful to have been, essentially, thrown together from a collection of parts. Hogg claims that its deficiencies in performance were more the fault of the ammunition. Army after action reports also vary, but are unanimous in their wish that the guns were self-propelled.

The gun achieved, according to Hogg’s work a penetration of 100-MM at 1000-M with 0 degree deflection of armor plate. Granted, this was not the best, but it was fairly competitive against guns of similar size fielded by other nations. This gun also shared complaints with its contemporaries – its too bulky – its too heavy – it takes too long to get into action. These complaints against guns of this size are commonplace, are valid, and are warranted. Zaloga also reports that 2500 of them were produced during the war.

, Gen Lesley J. McNair’s Folly (Woody Turnbow), EUCMH Knowledge BaseThe 3 inc (76.2-MM) gun battalions, when not being used in an antitank role were welcome additions to the divisional artillery to supplement indirect fire missions. This was not unique to the towed units. All TD battalions were subject to such missions, as commanders will scarcely permit any of their assets to sit idle during a battle. The 3 inch HE rounds proved to be quite useful. These guns had a maximum indirect fire range of 14.780 yards (13.500-M) and were reportedly quite accurate. This longer range permitted harassing, interdiction and reinforcing fires and sometimes freed the 105-MM howitzers for fire missions for which they were better suited. The higher velocity of the 3 inch gun meant the shell was better for harassing fires because its approach couldn’t be heard before impact. The HE rounds had a bursting radius fairly close to the 105-MM howitzers and, being lighter, required marginally less labor to resupply. (Maj Ralph W. Lang, Tank Destroyers, AOAC Monograph, Ft Knox, 1947).

The story of the prime movers serves as a final irony – the M-3 half-track served, but plans were afoot to replace them with the M-39 armored utility vehicle. The M-39 was basically made up of the chassis of the M-18 Hellcat self propelled tank destroyer.

What Actually Happened

Tank destroyer doctrine was based upon inaccurate assumptions about the ways in which the nature of armored warfare would evolve during the war. The tank destroyer’s innovators envisioned, based on reports from the German conquest of France, that their creations would combat masses of enemy tanks operating independently of the other arms. If this were ever the case, it was sadly untrue by the time US forces were deployed. The self-propelled tank destroyer battalion was virtually a pure antitank force designed to meet and defeat a pure tank force. It was, however, reasonably well adaptable to some other missions.

, Gen Lesley J. McNair’s Folly (Woody Turnbow), EUCMH Knowledge BaseEven more difficult, the towed tank destroyer battalion was tasked with performing most of the mobile missions for which the self-propelled units had been designed, and, lacking this mobility was even less adaptable for other missions. The towed tank destroyer battalion demonstrated significant handicaps almost immediately. The results of maneuvers in Louisiana and Tennessee in 1941 and 1942 indicated that towed antitank guns could not be saved if infantry had to make a rapid withdrawal. This merely confirmed the already prevailing attitude that the emphasis on a mobile reserve held in readiness to meet enemy penetrations required a self-propelled gun. Instruction was a problem. Instructors at Camp Hood found that towed units required a completely new program of both tactical and technical instruction.

The towed gun was simply a much less versatile weapon, and it appeared at a time when the versatility of the self-propelled tank destroyer was proving to be about the only bright spot of the entire program.

The landings in Italy added to the questions about the suitability of the towed units. Upon entering combat in Italy, towed battalions demonstrated that they compared unfavorably to self-propelled tank destroyers. The first 3 inch AT guns arrived in Italy in October 1943 with the 805th Tank Destroyer Battalion. They were first used in combat on the Volturno-Cassino front, and later during the Anzio and Rome campaigns.

, Gen Lesley J. McNair’s Folly (Woody Turnbow), EUCMH Knowledge BaseAs would be the case in France, infantry divisional commanders were very unhappy about using the towed guns rather than self-propelled battalions. It was generally agreed that the towed gun was easier to conceal than the self-propelled gun but it was harder to man and fire in the forward areas and that it was not readily adaptable to the secondary missions that made self-propelled tank destroyers so valuable. In November, 1944 a Gen Mark W. Clark 5-A conference was held in Florence and reported back to Washington : The conference is unanimous in the opinion that the towed battalion was unsatisfactory and is grossly inferior to the self-propelled gun. It cannot be manned effectively in the forward combat area. Men cannot and will not stay with the towed guns as they will with the M-10 or M-18.

As a result, the number of towed battalions remained small and by the end of the campaign there was only one towed unit still in Italy. Some sense of the relative importance of the different types of guns can be garnered from the loss data. The number of AT guns lost by the 5-A from September 9 1943 to May 9 1945 was 167 37-MM guns, 259 57-MM guns and 58 3 inch guns.

The planners for the Normandy invasion envisioned the assignment of a towed battalion to each infantry division and the retention of the self-propelled battalions under the control of higher echelons for employment in the vintage tank destroyer role. Tests were made and it was decided that the towed battalions would be too vulnerable during the actual landings and as a consequence only one towed battalion actually made the landing.

, Gen Lesley J. McNair’s Folly (Woody Turnbow), EUCMH Knowledge Base

, Gen Lesley J. McNair’s Folly (Woody Turnbow), EUCMH Knowledge BaseOnce on the shore, and especially after encountering the hedgerows, both troops and leaders developed a vast preference for self-propelled guns. Self-propelled tank destroyers could be sent directly to the front to respond to a void in fire power. The towed tank destroyers proved to be of little use. They could not fire over the hedgerows, could not be pushed up among the forward positions, and could not displace once they disclosed their positions. When they did displace, they needed to wait for darkness. Their crews were vulnerable to small arms fire. Among the tank destroyer battalions assigned to the 1-A during the Normandy fighting, towed battalions on the average accounted for 5.8 enemy tanks and 4.0 pillboxes each, whereas the average self-propelled battalion in Normandy destroyed 22.5 panzers and 23.2 pillboxes.

Conclusion – What Should Have Happened

Obviously the towed tank destroyer battalion would have had a very difficult time of gaining acceptance without the strong-arming by McNair. It is doubtless a bad situation when events force weapons upon commanders who have little expectation of succeeding with them and the towed battalion was doomed to fail not only because of this mindset, but also because they were given the unachievable goal of being expected to function as self-propelled units. Fielding towed Tank Destroyer units was a mistake … a folly.

Had they been permanently assigned to the infantry divisions in the European Theater and used, as Omar Bradley had suggested, as antitank battalions used to reinforce divisional antitank assets like British, German, and Soviet units were, they would most likely have met with much greater success. Granted, the British and the Germans were converting divisional antitank units to self-propelled as rapidly as their industrial capability permitted, but one fellow with a bit of a reputation in armored warfare thought they might not be all bad : If we can give the infantry divisions first fifty, then a hundred, then two hundred 75-MM AT guns each and install them in carefully prepared positions, covered by large minefields, we shall be able to halt the Russians. The AT guns can be quite simple; all that is necessary is that they should be able to penetrate any Russian tank up to a reasonable range and at the same time be usable as an infantry gun.

, Gen Lesley J. McNair’s Folly (Woody Turnbow), EUCMH Knowledge BaseNow, let us suppose that the Russians attack in a heavily-mined sector where our anti-tank guns are forming a screen, say six miles deep, then – for all their mass of material – they are bound to bog down in the first few days and, from then on, they’ll have to gnaw their way through slowly. Meanwhile we shall be installing more anti-tank guns behind our screen. If the enemy makes three miles’ progress a day, we’ll build six miles depth of anti-tank screens and let him run himself to a standstill. We’ll be fighting in the cover of our positions; he’ll be attacking in the open. We’ll lose guns and he’ll lose tanks. To move the guns we can use Russian horses or any other makeshift we can lay our hands on. That’s what the Russians do and we must adopt their methods. Our last chance in the the East lies in equipping our army thoroughly for an unyielding defense. (Feldmarschall Erwin Rommel/

In addition to earning this rather high endorsement, towed antitank units persisted in the Soviet army and in its client states’ armies as well as in the Russian and Chinese armies to this day. An explanation as to why is to be discovered in the writings of Victor Suvorov : (1) Easier and cheaper to make, more idiot proof to maintain. (2) Lower silhouette; easier to hide and harder to hit. (3) Units were used in two situations, a. in offense to protect the shoulders of a penetration and b. in defense to stop an enemy penetration. In both situations higher command would prefer them to be unable to withdraw and to be forced to stop the enemy at all costs.

, Gen Lesley J. McNair’s Folly (Woody Turnbow), EUCMH Knowledge Base

While the crewmen of these guns might be somewhat less than enthusiastic about the unable to withdraw and to be forced to stop the enemy at all costs part, it might possibly go far in explaining why Soviet antitank guns were uniformly so well dug in and so well camouflaged. Well deployed towed guns were indeed feared even by crews of the heavy Mark VI Tigers as evidenced by a passage from German Panzer commander Otto Carius’s (Tigers in the Mud) : The destruction of an antitank gun was often accepted as nothing special by lay people and soldiers from other branches. Only the destruction of other tanks counted as a success. On the other hand, antitank guns counted twice as much to the experienced tanker. They were much more dangerous to us. The antitank cannon waited in ambush, well camouflaged, and magnificently set up in the terrain. Because of that, it was very difficult to identify. It was also very difficult to hit because of its low height. Usually, we didn’t make out the antitank guns until they had fired the first shot. We were often hit right away, if the antitank crew was on top of things, because we had run into a wall of antitank guns.

Still, it would probably be best if the 3 inch gun had been left to the M-10s and the towed battalions never organized. Failing this, and increasing the folly, was the wastage of 2500 already produced guns and the dismantling of already trained battalions. Would it not have been better to give the Artillery Branch proponency for towed antitank units and assign the existing battalions to division artillery commanders ? This would have permitted division commanders the opportunity to assign the units either pure antitank missions or else use them to augment the fire support from his 105-MM howitzers as dictated by the situation. This solution would have precluded the towed units being further subjected to a doctrine that they were not organized or equipped to practice. It would also have prevented the waste of functional guns and training time.

Arguments will endure; the Tank Destroyer concept in general and the Towed Gun Battalions in particular, remain a fascinating concept well worth our study. Opinions will vary, but one opinion must rise above all others : The men who bravely and selflessly served in these units are worthy of our greatest respect and admiration! They served our country well and made us proud !

, Gen Lesley J. McNair’s Folly (Woody Turnbow), EUCMH Knowledge Base

, Gen Lesley J. McNair’s Folly (Woody Turnbow), EUCMH Knowledge Base

For all purposes :
European Center of Military History
Gunter ‘Doc Snafu’ Gillot
rue des Thiers 8
Francorchamps 4970
Email : gunter [at]

, Gen Lesley J. McNair’s Folly (Woody Turnbow), EUCMH Knowledge Base

Thank You for your support !

(NB : Published for Good – September 2019)


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