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Tank Destroyers

Tank destroyers are self-propelled antitank guns designed to destroy enemy tanks. They were experimented with by most of the major powers in the Second World War, but were employed in large numbers primarily by the Germans and Americans.

Since "self-propelled antitank gun" is a pretty good description of most tanks, the concept of an antitank force distinct from the tank force was and is controversial. In the United States, the Tank Destroyer Force was created in response to the decisive penetration of Allied lines in France by German tank formations in 1940. Tank destroyer battalions were to operate at the corps level or higher as as a mobile "fire brigade" to defeat such penetrations, leaving U.S. tank formations free to create and exploit penetrations of enemy lines. However, the notion of the decisive armor breakthrough was never really applicable in the Pacific, where the terrain was rarely suitable for large tank formations to make sweeping maneuvers.

In accordance with doctrine, U.S. tank destroyers carried relatively powerful armament, but sacrificed protection for mobility and economy. Armor protection was thin at best and the tank destroyers were invariable open-topped to improve their crews' ability to see the battlefield. This left tank destroyers vulnerable to enemy infantry, but it was assumed that the tank destroyers would be defending against enemy tanks that had little or no infantry support. This turned out to be a poor assumption, and many tank destroyer crews improvised armor covers for their open turrets.

Strangely, U.S. tank destroyer crews were trained not only to operate their tank destroyers, but to act as special forces on foot to raid enemy tank units at night and sabotage their vehicles.

American Tank Destroyers


Photograph of M3 tank destroyer
National Archives. Via Yeide (2007)

When war broke out in the Pacific, the only tank destroyers in the hands of U.S. forces in the Philippines were fifty of the M3 SPM. This was a halftrack carrying a 75mm gun that was hastily improvised to hold the line until the M10 could be put into production. The SPM was very thinly armored (0.25 inch or 6mm) and its crew badly exposed when firing the main gun. This gun could not safely traverse more than 21 degrees. The M3 was speedy at 45 miles per hour (72 km/h) on level ground, but it had only a foot (30cm) of ground clearance. A number were employed in the South Pacific through 1943 and some may have seen service as late as the Peleliu invasion.

Photograph of M-10 tank destroyer
National Archives. Via Yeide (2007)

The M10 was built on a tank chassis and resembled a conventional tank, but with an open turret, lighter armor, superior mobility, and a high-velocity 76mm gun. M10s eventually equipped the five tank destroyer battalions that were deployed to the Pacific but saw little combat.

Two of these battalions were later equipped with the M18 Hellcat, which was built on a chassis designed specifically for tank destroyers. The turret mounted an even more powerful 76mm gun and had a remarkably fast power traverse. The M18 was much lighter than the M10, giving it phenomenal mobility (level speed 50 mph or 80 km/h) which was put to good use in Europe, but this came at the cost of very thin armor protection (half an inch or 13mm on the hull front). It saw even less combat in the Pacific than the M-10.

The M36 Jackson, with its powerful 90mm armament, was not deployed to the Pacific prior to the surrender.

Japanese Tank Destroyers


Photograph of Japanese Type 1 tank destroyer
Wikipedia Commons

The Japanese were fearful of the combat power of American tanks and improvised their own tank destroyers to deal with them. The most important was the Type 1 Ho-ni, which put a 75mm gun on a tank chassis with an armored shield. Its gun was adequate but its mobility was limited, it had no machine guns for defense against enemy infantry, and only a few could be produced. A small number saw combat in the second Luzon campaign, but most were reserved for the defense of the home islands.

References

Gilbert (2001)
Yeide (2007)



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