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German tactics US tactics

Greyhound vs. Tiger at St. Vith

The Story

At 0400 hours on 16th December, 1944, men of the German 18th Volksgrenadier Division began to leave their positions and make their way towards the American lines. This moment marked the beginning of the famous Battle of the Bulge, Germany’s last major offensive on the Western Front in World War II. Out of this grand battle would come a too-good-to-be-true story symbolic of the stiff American resistance put up against the German offensive, that of how an M8 Greyhound armored car destroyed a Tiger I heavy tank.

The story begins on the 18th of December 1944, two days after the start of the German offensive. An M8 Greyhound armored car of Troop B, 87th Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron was lying in a concealed position just northeast of the vitally important crossroads town of St. Vith, Belgium.

Google Maps image showing St. Vith’s location in Belgium.


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The M8 Greyhound was a small, 7.9 tonne American armored car with 6.4 mm to 25.4 mm of armor, only enough to protect against rifle caliber bullets, and armed with a 37 mm M6 main gun, a ‘peashooter’ at this point in the war. The M8 was used mostly as a reconnaissance vehicle for scouting.

American M8 Greyhound armored car Source: Hunnicutt.

It was around 1200 hours and all was quiet when suddenly a German heavy tank was spotted slowly approaching the American line, a Tiger I. The Tiger I was a 57 tonne German heavy tank that has become one of the most famous tanks in history. Protected by armor between 25 mm to 145 mm thick and armed with a fearsome 88mm KwK 36 L/56 main gun, the Tiger I was arguably the most feared tank of World War II by Allied soldiers.

The German Tiger I tank. Source: Jentz and Doyle.

The lumbering heavy tank continued moving towards the American line before turning north towards the town of Hunningen, Belgium, passing the armored car. After the Tiger I had passed, the armored car then slipped out of its concealed position and began accelerating towards the tank in an attempt to close the gap between the two. The Americans knew that their only hope in doing any sort of damage to this beast was to get as close as possible to it and shoot its weaker rear armor. However, just as the Americans began their pursuit, the Germans noticed them and began traversing their turret to face them. It was a race between the Germans who were desperately trying to bring their 88 mm gun to bear and the Americans who were trying to get as close as possible to the Tiger I’s rear. Rapidly, the M8 advanced to within 25 yards (23 meters) of the Tiger I and quickly pumped three rounds into its rear. The German tank then stopped dead in its tracks and shuddered; there was a muffled explosion, followed by flames which billowed out of the turret and engine ports.

What a fantastic real-life story… or is it? This story has gained a good deal of attention in recent years, especially on the internet thanks to videos such as The Tank Duel at St. Vith, Belgium by Lance Geiger “The History Guy: History Deserves to Be Remembered”, which has garnered hundreds of thousands of views. And why would it not? It is a classic David versus Goliath tale straight out of World War II that features American heroism. However, once a closer look is taken at this story, cracks begin to appear, and soon enough one begins to wonder whether or not this story really is too good to be true.

The American Side

An appropriate start for the investigation of this action is to identify contemporary American accounts. The earliest known mention can be found in the December 18th, 1944 morning report and record of events entry of Troop E, 87th Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron which briefly states that an “M-8 atchd [attached] to A Tr [Troop A] knocked out one Tiger tank”. There are a few notable issues raised by this morning report and record of events entry, the most obvious one being that the M8 Greyhound is reported as being from Troop A of the 87th, not Troop B of the 87th, as it is in the contemporary story. Not only does Troop E’s version of the story involve a different unit than the ‘original’ story, it also takes place in a different location, note the following map.

Map of 7th Armored Division unit positions around St. Vith at 2000 hours on the 17th of December 1944. The positions of Troop B of the 87th are highlighted in red and the positions of the rest of the 87th (including Troop A and Troop E) are highlighted in blue. Source: Boyer.

Then there is the issue of the entry’s ambiguity in regards to the Tiger tank that was knocked out. The entry only states that a Tiger tank was knocked out. This is an issue because there were two distinct types of German Tiger tanks, both of which took part in the Battle of the Bulge: The Tiger I and the Tiger II. The Tiger II, also known as the King Tiger, Royal Tiger, Königstiger, and Tiger Ausf. B, was an enormous, 69.8 tonne German heavy tank. Clad in armor between 25 mm and 180 mm thick and armed with deadly 88mm KwK 43 L/71 gun, the Tiger II was one of the deadliest tanks of the Second World War.

A photograph of a German Tiger II tank Source: Jentz and Doyle.

Due to the lack of detail in Troop E’s entry, it is impossible to tell which Tiger tank is the one being referred to in the account.

On top of the contradictions and ambiguity of Troop E’s entry, there is also the curious fact that Troop A does not make any mention of this event in its morning report and record of events entry for the 18th of December, 1944. Furthermore, the 87th Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron’s After Action Report (AAR) for the month of December 1944, written by Lieutenant Colonel Vincent Laurence Boylan, the commanding officer of the 87th Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron at the time, makes no mention of this event either. Lieutenant Colonel Boylan also makes no mention of this event in a 1946 letter he wrote to Major General Robert W. Hasbrouck, the former commanding general of the 7th Armored Division, which details the actions of the 87th Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron at the Battle of St. Vith. One would think that Lieutenant Colonel Boylan, or at the very least Troop A, would make some sort of mention of this fairly notable engagement. With all of these contradictions, ambiguity, and lack of supporting documentation and evidence surrounding Troop E’s entry in mind, it is safe to conclude that this is not the most reliable account of what really happened on the 18th of December, 1944 at St. Vith.

The next version of this story can be found in a 1947 book by Major Donald P. Boyer of the 38th Armored Infantry Battalion titled St. Vith, The 7th Armored Division in the Battle of the Bulge, 17-23 December 1944: A Narrative After Action Report. This version of the story, which is paraphrased in the introduction, will be referred to as the ‘original’ version of the story. It is stated as being reported to Major Boyer by one Captain Walter Henry Anstey of Company A of the 38th Armored Infantry Battalion, who is said to have been a witness to the event. Captain Anstey’s version lacks supporting documentation. Besides the previously mentioned absence of any recountings of this event in several notable documents that should have contained it, and most peculiarly, Captain Anstey himself makes no mention of the engagement when he discusses and documents the events of the 18th of December 1944 in a combat interview he gave on the 2nd of January 1945, just over two weeks after the event supposedly took place. This is puzzling, to say the least.

The next notable version of this tale comes from a 1966 book by the US Army Armor School titled The Battle at St. Vith, Belgium 17-23 December 1944: A Historical Example of Armor in the Defense. This version is also attributed to Captain Anstey and is nearly the exact same as his ‘original’ version of the story as well as being plagued by the exact same issues. However, this version of Captain Anstey’s account has one key difference: it was not a Tiger I that was knocked out, but rather a Tiger II, almost analogous to the fisherman whose fish gets bigger each time he tells the tale of his catch.

Claimed casualties inflicted on the Germans by Combat Command B (which Troop B of the 87th Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron was a part of) between the 17th and 18th of December 1944 Source: Battle at St. Vith.

Not only does this change Captain Anstey’s version of the story, but this also confirms the possibility that Troop E’s entry could have been talking about a Tiger II. Thus, there are four different versions of this story circulating: Troop E’s version with a Tiger I, Troop E’s version with a Tiger II, Captain Anstey’s version with a Tiger I, and Captain Anstey’s version with a Tiger II. But if four versions was not enough, there is potentially another version of this tale contained in a combat interview given by Lieutenant Arthur A. Olson of Troop D, 87th Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron on the 8th of January, 1945. Olson states that, on the 18th of December 1944, “one of the armored cars opened fire with its 37 mm gun on a German tank at range of 800 yards [732 meters]. Two hits were scored on the enemy tank in the rear, and its crew evacuated”. The event that Lieutenant Olson recounts does bare a resemblance to the M8 Greyhound versus Tiger story, with both events taking place at or near St. Vith on the 18th of December 1944 and involving an American armored car from the 87th Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron knocking out a German tank by shooting it in the rear. However, it cannot be definitively stated that this is another version of the M8 Greyhound versus Tiger story due to its ambiguity. It can be safely assumed that the armored car that Lieutenant Olson is talking about in his story is an M8 Greyhound due to the fact that the only armored cars that the 87th Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron fielded were M8 Greyhounds. However, it cannot be safely assumed that the tank killed in this engagement was a Tiger I or a Tiger II. It is possible (if unlikely) that this event was completely unrelated to the M8 Greyhound versus Tiger story. Lieutenant Olson’s version of the story would be the most contradicting version yet. Instead of the M8 Greyhound firing three shots into the Tiger’s rear, the M8 Greyhound in Lieutenant Olson’s version of events fired two shots. The most startling difference however is the range at which this engagement occurred, with Lieutenant Olson’s version having the engagement take place at 800 yards (732 meters), compared to the ‘original’ story’s 25 yards (23 meters)!

All in all, the only things that the American claims concerning the famed M8 Greyhound versus Tiger engagement can agree on are that on the 18th of December 1944 an M8 Greyhound from some unit of the 87th Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron killed some sort of German tank in or around the town of St. Vith. Given that the American accounts do not give a consistent account of what happened that day at St. Vith, the other side of this story must also be investigated.

The German Side

Out of the 1,467 tanks the Germans brought with them to the Battle of the Bulge on the 16th of December, 1944, 52 of them were Tiger IIs and 14 of them were Tiger Is. Were any of these Tiger Is and or Tiger IIs knocked out on the 18th of December, 1944? While no Tiger Is were lost on the 18th of December, 1944, four Tiger IIs were lost that day. Three of these Tiger IIs belonged to Schwere SS Panzer Abteilung 501 (Heavy SS Tank Battalion 501); Tiger 105 was abandoned in the town of Stavelot, Belgium after getting itself stuck in a building, Tiger 332 was abandoned near Coo, Belgium as a result of mechanical damage, and Tiger 008 was abandoned at a farmhouse near Trois Ponts, Belgium. The last Tiger II belonged to Schwere Panzer Abteilung 506 (Heavy Tank Battalion 506) and was lost to enemy fire on the Lentzweiler road in Luxemburg. Which specific Tiger II this was is unknown.

Tiger 105 abandoned in Stavelot, Belgium Source: Collins and Albertson.
Tiger 332 abandoned near Coo, Belgium as a result of mechanical damage Source: Collins and Albertson.
Tiger 008 abandoned at a farmhouse near Trois-Ponts, Belgium Source: Collins and Albertson.

None of these Tiger IIs were lost at St. Vith and from photographic evidence at least three are recorded to have no burn damage and/or holes in the rear. There are no German records or histories which indicate that, on 18th December 1944, a Tiger I or a Tiger II was knocked out in or around St. Vith. Given the unreliability of the American accounts of this supposed event and the lack of any supporting documentation from the Germans, it is safe to say that neither a Tiger I nor a Tiger II was knocked out by an M8 Greyhound on 18th December 1944 in or around the town of St. Vith.

The Ballistics Side

Could an M8 Greyhound’s 37 mm M6 gun even penetrate the rear hull armor of a Tiger I? Yes – in theory. According to British penetration diagrams from 1944, the 37 mm M6 gun firing its standard round, the 37 mm APC M51, could, under ideal conditions, penetrate the 80 mm thick rear hull armor angled at 9 degrees when firing at an angle of 0 degrees, albeit just barely.

Cross section of 37mm APC M51 Source: War Department Technical Manual TM 9-1904 Ammunition Inspection Guide.
British penetration chart showing the effectiveness of attacks by the 37mm APC 51 against the German Panther and Tiger I at various angles Source: Attack on Panther Pz.Kpfw V and Tiger Pz.Kpfw VI.

How about a Tiger II? According to the British, 37 mm M6 gun’s APC M51 can only penetrate around a maximum of 65mm of rolled homogeneous armor plate (RHA) at 30 degrees under V50 ballistic standards. This means that 50% of shots fired will penetrate this amount of armor. Given that the rear hull armor of a Tiger II is 80 mm of RHA angled at 30 degrees, it is essentially impossible for the M8 Greyhound’s 37 mm M6 gun to penetrate the rear hull armor of the Tiger II. This is before you take into account that the manufacturing process for German armor allowed for a tolerance in plates which often left plates 2 to 5 mm thicker than ordered.

British penetration chart showing the penetration of the US 37mm APC M51 at 30 degrees at various ranges Source: Armour Plate Porforation [sic: Perforation] of Tank and Anti Tank Guns.
Armor specifications for the Tiger II with the Serienturm (Eng: Production Turret) Source: Jentz and Doyle.

What It Could Have Been

If neither a Tiger I nor a Tiger II was killed on 18th December 1944 in or around the town of St. Vith by an M8 Greyhound, what was? There are two likely candidates, the first being a Panzer IV. Developed in the 1930’s, the Panzer IV was one of the mainstay German armored fighting vehicles of the Second World War as well as Germany’s most-produced tank of the war, with over 8,500 produced.

A photograph of a Panzer IV Ausf. H Source: Chamberlain.

According to two combat interviews given by men of the 87th Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron, the 87th Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron’s After Action Report for the month of December 1944, and Lieutenant Colonel Boylan’s 1946 letter, on 18th December 1944, the Germans attacked the 87th Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron (minus Troop B) with infantry and tanks. These German tanks would later be specified to be Panzer IVs or “Mark IVs”.

On top of attacking the 87th Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron (minus Troop B), a Panzer IV can be easily misidentified as a Tiger I.

A silhouette of a Panzer IV. Source: Jentz.
A silhouette of a Tiger I. The two vehicles share a bulky rectangular shape with a mid-mounted turret and a long gun. Furthermore, if Schürzen is present on the Panzer IV, its size is even closer to that of the Tiger. Source: Jentz.

The silhouettes of the Panzer IV and the Tiger I are quite similar, especially due to their rectangular shapes and rounded turret (rounded through the later use of a curved armor plate around the otherwise angular turret). Furthermore, late-war Panzer IVs equipped with Schürzen additional armor would look bigger, even closer to the size of a Tiger and this is before consideration is made on the stress of war, camouflaging materials applied to vehicles, the weather, and level of knowledge of the crews. The similarity in appearance between the Panzer IV and Tiger I is often cited as a reason to why there are so many claims made by soldiers during World War II of battling Tiger Is, despite Tiger Is being a fairly rare encounter.

The fact that there were Panzer IVs attacking the 87th Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron (minus Troop B) and the similarity in appearance between the Tiger I and Panzer IV would account for both Troop E’s account and Troop D’s potential account of this event. Not to mention that the M8’s 37 mm M6 gun is more than capable of penetrating the rear hull armor of the Panzer IV, which was only 20 mm thick angled at 10 degrees. However, there is one major issue with this explanation, Panzer IVs were not attacking Troop B. This leads to a second candidate, the StuG III.

The StuG III was a turretless assault gun based on the Panzer III. Much like the Panzer IV, the StuG III was a mainstay of the German army as well as Germany’s most produced armored fighting vehicle of the war with over 9,400 produced.

A photograph of a StuG III Ausf. G Source: Jentz and Doyle.

According to Hugh M. Cole, an American historian and army officer,

“The attacks made east of St. Vith on 18 December were carried by a part of the 294th Infantry [German], whose patrols had been checked by the 168th Engineers [US] the previous day. Three times the grenadiers [German] tried to rush their way through the foxhole line held by the 38th Armored Infantry Battalion (Lt. Col. William H. G. Fuller) and B Troop of the 87th astride the Schönberg road”.

The 294th Volksgrenadier Regiment was a unit of the larger 18th Volksgrenadier Division. After 1200 hours on 17th December 1944, the 18th Volksgrenadier Division was reinforced by a mobile battalion. The mobile battalion consisted of three platoons of assault guns, a company of engineers, and another of fusiliers. The 18th Volksgrenadier Division would use these assault guns in small probing attacks on the American lines east of St. Vith that same day.

It is possible that, as part of the attacks on the line held in part by Troop B of the 87th Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron, a lone StuG III was used to probe out the American line, as had been done on the previous day, and was subsequently knocked out by an M8 Greyhound. The unit attacking Troop B, the 294th Volksgrenadier Regiment, had StuG IIIs and had been using StuG IIIs the previous in small probing attacks east of St. Vith where Troop B would end up being positioned. Additionally, the M8’s 37 mm M6 gun is more than capable of penetrating the rear hull and rear casemate armor of the StuG III. The StuG III explanation also accounts for why Troop B makes no mention of it in their morning report and record of events entry for 18th December 1944 and why Lieutenant Colonel Boylan makes no mention of it his 1946 letter or in the 87th Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron’s After Action Report for the month of December 1944. The event simply was not that notable.

Conclusion

The only known witness to the supposed event, Captain Walter Henry Anstey, died on 26th October 2003 at the age of 90, taking the truth of the events that day to his grave. However, after careful analysis, it can be said with certainty that neither a Tiger I nor a Tiger II was killed by an M8 Greyhound from any troop of the 87th Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron on 18th December 1944 near St. Vith. It is certainly possible that the tank destroyed in this engagement was a Panzer IV or a StuG III but in the absence of new evidence coming to light it can only be concluded that either the Greyhound crew knocked out a completely different tank or were otherwise exaggerating some action.

Sources

Anderson, Thomas. Tiger. Osprey Publishing, 2013.
Andrews, Frank L. The Defense of St. Vith in the Battle of the Ardennes December, 1944. 1964.
Armour Plate Porforation [sic: Perforation] of Tank and Anti Tank Guns. Ministry of Supply, 1945.
Attack on Panther PzKw V and Tiger PzKw VI. School of Tank Technology, April 1944.
Beevor, Antony. Ardennes 1944: Hitler’s Last Gamble. Penguin Books, 2016.
Bergström, Christer. The Ardennes 1944-1945: Hitler’s Winter Offensive. English Edition, Casemate Publishers, 2014.
Boyer, Donald P. St. Vith The 7th Armored Division in the Battle of the Bulge 17-23 December 1944 A Narrative After Action Report. 1947.
Boylan, Vincent L. After Action Report, Month of December, 1944. 1945.
Boylan, Vincent L. Letter to Robert W. Hasbrouck. 10 Apr. 1946. Maurice Delaval Papers Collection of the Military History Institute in Carlisle, PA.
Chamberlain, Peter, et al. Encyclopedia of German tanks of World War Two. Revised Edition, Arms and Armour Press, 1973.
Clarke, Bruce. After Action Report, Month of December, 1944. 1945.
Cole, Hugh M. The Ardennes: Battle of the Bulge. Office of the Chief of Military History, Dept. of the Army, 1965.
Collins, Joshua, and Erik Albertson. One Day at Stavelot, a Tale of Two Archives The Tiger II vs US Tank Destroyers in the Ardennes.
Griffin, Marcus S. After Action Report, Month of December 1944. 1945.
Hunnicutt, R. P. Armored Car A History of American Wheeled Combat Vehicles. First Edition, Presidio Press, 2002.
Jentz, Thomas, and Hilary Doyle. Panzer Tracts No. 4 – Grosstraktor to Panzerbefehlswagen IV. Darlington Productions Inc., 2000.
Jentz, Thomas, and Hilary Doyle. Germany’s Tiger Tanks D.W. to Tiger I: Design, Production & Modifications. Schiffer Publishing, 2000.
Jentz, Thomas, and Hilary Doyle. Germany’s Tiger Tanks VK45.02 to TIGER II. Design, Production & Modifications. Schiffer Publishing, 1997.
Jentz, Thomas, and Hilary Doyle. Panzer Tracts No. 6 – Schwere Panzerkampfwagen DW to E-100. Panzer Tracts, 2001.
Jentz, Thomas, and Hilary Doyle. Panzer Tracts No. 8 – Sturmgeschuetz s.Pak to Sturmmoerser. Darlington Productions Inc., 2000.
Jentz, Thomas. Panzertruppen Volume 2 – The Complete Guide to the Creation & Combat Deployment of The German Tank Forces 1943-1945. Schiffer Publishing, 1996.
Johnston, W. Wesley. Combat Interviews of the 38th Armored Infantry Battalion, 7th Armored Division: The St. Vith Salient and Manhay, December 17-23, 1944. 2014
Johnston, W. Wesley. Combat Interviews of the 87th Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron, 7th Armored Division: The St. Vith Salient, December 17-23, 1944. 2014.
Schneider, Wolfgang. Tigers In Combat I. First Edition, Stackpole Books, 2004.
Schneider, Wolfgang. Tigers In Combat II. First Edition, Stackpole Books, 2005.
The Battle at St. Vith, Belgium 17-23 December 1944 An Historical Example of Armor in the Defense. Third Printing, US Army Armored School, 1966.
The Seventh Armored Division in the Battle of St. Vith. Seventh Armored Division Association 2517 Connecticut Avenue, N.W., Washington 8, D.C., 1947.
War Department Field Manual FM 2-20 Cavalry Reconnaissance Troop Mechanized. War Department, 1944.
War Department Technical Manual TM 9-1904 Ammunition Inspection Guide. War Department, 1944.
Zaloga, Steven, and Tony Bryan. M8 Greyhound Light Armored Car 1941-91. Osprey Publishing, 2002.
Zaloga, Steven. Armored Champion, The Top Tanks of World War II. Stackpole Books, 2015.
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Effectiveness of Tactical Air Strikes in World War II – “Tank busting”

The Hawks with Stump Claws

Literature, movies and video games have contributed to the formation and spreading of historical misconceptions and generated a distorted view on tactical air strikes, not so much to the way they were conducted, but rather their effectiveness in eliminating armored, moving targets. In order to better understand the core issue at hand, combat reports, military studies and their respective evaluations allow an insight into the efficiency of destroying AFVs (Tanks in particular) from the Air.The pilots of every nation partaking in the battles of WW2 (particularly in the ETO, European Theater of Operations) grossly exaggerated the effects and accuracy of their sorties. This paved the way for an inflated view, commonly accepted and still present today. It is noteworthy that certain combat performances varied (faction wide), which made the successes of airstrikes situational, influenced by factors such as sub-optimal weather conditions or air superiority.
The main problem for Close Air Support pilots when engaging enemy armor were the inadequacies of the weaponry mounted on their airplanes, especially their low accuracy. Ergo, strikes would result in the tanks being partially destroyed or superficially damaged (occasionally blown off the road) and, after successful retrieval, sent back to the repair shops. Multiple pilots would sometimes engage the same target (every so often, an already destroyed or burned out vehicle), leading to an even greater disparity between actual losses and claimed tank “kills”. Identifying targets would cause another problem, e.g. the pilot’s ability to distinguish between tanks and APCs.

ETO, Normandy 1944

The Allies possessed air supremacy, coupled with a substantial ammunition, fuel and overall logistical advantage. Airbases were plentiful and accessible, the enemy concentrated in a relatively confined area. The main workhorses of the CAS squadrons were the American Thunderbolt and the British Typhoon.
P-47 Thunderbolt of the 404th Fighter Group in flight over Belgium, March 1945
P-47 Thunderbolt of the 404th Fighter Group in flight over Belgium, March 1945
The P-47 was a robust fighter with a solid high altitude performance dedicated for heavy bomber escort duty. It went through a long list of improvements with later versions being up-armoured and geared up for close air support.
The Hawker Typhoon was initially developed as a high altitude interceptor and as a replacement for the Hawker Hurricane, but several flaws caused the RAF to employ it as a fighter bomber. Armed with four 20mm Hispano cannons (which could only do serious damage to the engine compartment of a tank) it could carry two 500 lbs (227 kg) or 1000 lbs (454 kg) bombs or alternatively, eight unguided type RP-3 rockets.
These recoilless projectiles consisted of a propellant filled steel tube with an armour piercing (or high explosive) shell screwed into the warhead. Four fins stabilized the rocket’s trajectory. The range and armor piercing capabilities were sufficient for anti-armor duties, but a trial conducted by the RAF under best possible conditions revealed the low precision of unguided rockets: In two attack runs, four Typhoons fired all of their 64 rockets on a stationary, pre-painted Panther and only three managed to hit the marked tank.
A Hawker Typhoon armed with rockets and 20 mm cannons
A Hawker Typhoon armed with rockets and 20 mm cannons 

All bark, no bite

In August 1944, the RAF claimed to have destroyed 135 tanks in the Goodwood area (Battle for Caen). In order to analyze the weapons and tactics employed and to evaluate the damage that was done on given targets, a small team of researchers was usually dispatched to the corresponding battleground, a common practice in most armies of that time. The British “Office of Research and Analysis” conclusion was eye-opening and contradicted the RAF pilots’ over enthusiastic display: Of the 300 examined vehicles, only 10 were actually hit and damaged by the Typhoon’s RP-3 rockets.
Mortain is another candidate of such over-claiming, between the 7th and 10th August, the 2nd Tactical Air Force of the 9th USAAF claimed to have destroyed 120-140 tanks, yet of the 46 Axis tanks lost, only 9 of them could be attributed to aircraft. In fact, in the entire Normandy campaign, the Germans lost no more than 100 tanks to Allied sorties. 13 Tiger tanks were affected, however seven of them lost to massive high altitude bombing on the 18th of July and only 6 of the German heavy tanks could be attributed to the low altitude air raids of the Allied pilots.
A salvo of RP-3 rockets, as seen from the gun camera of a Hawker Typhon, heads towards some German petrol wagons
A salvo of RP-3 rockets, as seen from the gun camera of a Hawker Typhon, heads towards some German petrol wagons
Another noteworthy case would be Falaise: The tactical and operational conditions in the pocket constrained the German units to “forced march” during daytime. This, along with optimal weather conditions, amplified the RAF’s and USAAF’s chances of success, which resulted merely in a minimal increase of destroyed tanks. In retrospect, traversing open fields did not necessarily result in a high tank loss ratio.
Ironically, low altitude attacks could become very dangerous for the attacking aircraft, especially if the strafed tank formations were protected by a serious amount of Flak/AA guns. The 2nd Tactical Air Force lost 829 aircraft and the 9th Fleet lost 897 throughout the whole Normandy campaign, the majority of the casualties being close support fighter-bombers.
Field Marshall Rommel contributed to a further solidification of these myths. In one of his memoirs, he stated:
“ For the first and most serious danger which now threatened us -was from the air. This being so, we could no longer rest our defence on the motorised forces used in a mobile role, since these forces were too vulnerable to air attack. We had instead to try to resist the enemy in field positions which had to be constructed for defence against the most modern weapons of war”
His personal experience may have clouded his view. On the 17th July 1944 a low attacking plane strafed his limousine and injured Rommel near Sainte-Foy-de-Montgommery.

The Luftwaffe

The Luftwaffe’s tactical capabilities were initially rather limited. The infamous Junkers Ju 87 dive bomber, easily recognizable by its inverted gull wings, was suitable for this task. The final version, the Ju-87G, dubbed the Kanonenvogel (“Cannon bird”), carried twin 37 mm cannons (BK 3,7).
Junkers_Ju_87_G_tank_buster1945Hs129Cannon75
A Ju-87G and a HS-129, the German dedicated tank busters
The Henschel Hs 129 B1 and B2, twin engine aircraft marked an attempt to create a dedicated tank buster, mounted with a 75mm board cannon. The results were unsatisfactory. Paired with the Henschel’s and Ju87’s particularly high vulnerability to AA fire, the Luftwaffe switched to the”Jabo” (“Jagdbomber”, fighter bomber) version of the FW190 single seat, single engine fighter, the F-8 and FW190 G.
A German FW190 pilot explains how low-altitude attacks against tanks were performed:
“Against the enemy tanks and armoured vehicles we usually made skip-bombing attacks, running at speeds of around 485km/h at between 4 and 10 metres above the ground and releasing the bomb just as the tank disappeared beneath our engine cowling. The 250kg bombs used during these attacks would either skip off the ground and into the tank or else smash straight into the tank.
The bombs were fused with a one-second delay to give us time to get clear before they went off. It was a very accurate form of attack and we used it often against tanks caught in open country.”

The OKH (“Oberkommando des Heeres”, German “Supreme High Command” or “High Command of the Army”) was aware of the notoriously exaggerated claims their combat units would report and applied a correction system (i.e. 30-50% for ground units and usually 50% for the Air Forces). Inflated numbers and errors could result in a misjudgment of enemy forces.
From January 1944 to September 30th 1944, the German Army reported to have destroyed 23,070 AFVs (actual, irrecoverable losses for the RKKA amounted to 23,700 AFVs, 29,009 “evacuated”, during the entirety of 1944, around 18,000 up to September). During the same period, the Luftwaffe claimed to have destroyed 1847 tanks and SPGs. Correcting this figure with the given methodology would lead to 923 destroyed vehicles, a number that may be still over-inflated. Assuming that the Luftwaffe destroyed or damaged 80-100 tanks on a monthly basis (depending on the combat intensity, which peaked in the 2nd and 3rd quarter of ‘44), this would indicate that not more than 4-6% of all tanks on the Eastern Front were destroyed by air strikes.

The VVS at Kursk 1943

The VVS (Военно-воздушные силы, Voyenno-Vozdushnye Sily) could rely on the Ilyushin 2 “Sturmovik” for air strikes. A sturdy, single engine, heavily armoured, low wing, two seater (pilot, rear gunner) monoplane, it was dubbed “flying tank” by the troops. Outfitted with two 23mm (or 37mm guns on the Il-2M3) guns, it could carry up to eight RS-82 or four RS 132 rockets. Soviet literature described it as the most effective ground attack plane of World War II. Another option was to outfit the Sturmovik with special designated anti-tank bombs, so called PTABs.
An Ilyushin Il-2 Sturmovik, Fall 1942, Ukraine
An Ilyushin Il-2 Sturmovik, Fall 1942, Ukraine
The PTAB (Russian ПТАБ, which stands for Противотанковая Авиабомба, “Antitank Aviation Bomb”) was a hollow charge bomb filled with 1.5 kg of explosives, capable of penetrating up to 70 mm of armour.
The effectiveness of these bombs proved to be limited. West of Belgorod, the Soviet Air Force claimed to have destroyed over 270 tanks of the 3rd Panzer Division on one single day. The 6th Regiment of the 3rd Panzer Division possessed 90 tanks in total (on the 1st of July). Ten days later, on the 11th of July, 41 operational tanks were reported, a difference of 49 tanks. Similar statements appear about the bombing run on the 17th Panzer Division, which had only one tank battalion with 67 tanks committed to the fighting in the Belgorod-Kharkov area (the only unit not assigned to a defensive role). Here, the VVS stated to have destroyed 240 tanks in just a few hours. German combat reports show a larger concern about concentrated AT positions (and minefields), which caused the majority of AFV losses during Operation Citadel. Air strikes were usually described as “a mere nuisance”.
Between the 5th and 14th July, the 2nd Air Army dropped 69,000 PTABs alongside 7448 RS-82 rockets during the defensive phase of the Battle of Kursk. The Soviet Air forces claimed to have disabled 3147 tanks and assault guns in the same period (actual losses amounted to 849 tanks for the whole month of July). If we accept the Soviet numbers this would still indicate that PTABs had to be dropped in large clusters to cause any significant damage.
A carpet of PTAB bombs launched from a Sturmovik.

Further Examples of “overclaiming”

At Kursk, the Soviet 1st Tank Army lost 648 tanks with 82 breakdowns. German aircraft destroyed only 11 of their tanks.
In the Ardennes offensive, the Germans lost 101 tanks from the 16th December of 1944 to the 16th January of 1945, (39 were abandoned), of these only 6 to Allied sorties.
Consequently, given reports and combat analysis indicate that air strikes were responsible for 2-7% of all tank losses during WWII. It should be pointed out that the Western Allies were probably the most successful at this task. However, it must be also stressed out that the effectiveness of such attacks depended on the circumstances and quantity of planes involved in the respective size of the front. To illustrate the dimensions, it is wise to compare the amount of aircraft available for ground support in proportion to the area and enemy units it had to cover and engage.
During Operation Barbarossa, the Luftwaffe had at its disposal one airplane for every 2500 enemies. Each German plane had to cover an area of 500km² (195 sqmi). In Normandy, the Allied Expeditionary Air Force could field one plane for every 100 enemy soldiers. On average, there was one Allied aircraft for every 1km² (0,39 sqmi).

Conclusions

It should be emphasized that during WWII, tactical air-ground support was still in its infancy. Hitting small, well armored or shifting targets tended to be a difficult task, especially if the attacking plane had only a brink amount of time to aim at the target. Even today for helicopters or “tank busting” aircraft (A10, Su-24, F-16, AH-64, Hind), it can be relatively difficult, despite the availability of guided weapon systems.
World War II aircraft could only carry a limited amount of air to ground bombs or missiles and on sustained fire, the main guns were prone to overheating. Machine guns had trouble penetrating more than 10 mm of top armor. On the other hand, autocannons proved to be rather unreliable, further increasing the plane’s weight, impacting flight characteristics.
Generally speaking, the true nature of tactical, close support aircraft was primarily recon, attacking stationary targets and the ability to wreak havoc on the rear echelons and supply lines. The disruptive effect would ultimately influence the unit’s behavior (forcing it to abandon offensives or to maneuver through woods), decision making, tactics and morale. After all, it was the destruction of bridges and railroads that had the biggest impact on the German Army in France, adding substantially to the already disastrous logistical situation and pre-existing shortages of fuel.
An article by Stiltzkin

Sources

Bundesarchiv
Militärarchiv Freiburg Fremde Heere Ost, IIc, 10.10.1944, BA-MA RH 2/2101
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Kursk 1943: A Statistical Analysis (Soviet (Russian) Study of War), Zetterling, Frankson
Bergström, Christer (2007). Barbarossa – The Air Battle: July–December 1941
Bergström, Christer (2007). Stalingrad – The Air Battle: November 1942 – February 1943
Bergström, Christer (2007). Kursk – The Air Battle: July 1943
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Air Power at the Battlefront: Allied Close Air Support in Europe 1943-45 (Studies in Air Power) Dr. Ian Gooderson
Sovetskie Voenno-Vozdushnye Sily v Velikoy Otechestvennoy Voine 1941–1945
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Artillery Effectiveness versus Armor” by Richard C. Anderson in Volume 1, Number 6 of The International TNDM Newsletter
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H-H. Stapfer, Il-2 Stormovik in action
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