American Shermans and Nazi German Tigers Faced Off At this Devastating Battle
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Sergeant Nicholas Mashlonik watched closely how the heavy tank Panzerkampfwagen (PzKpfw) VI Tiger raced through the village of Elsdorf in Rhineland-Westphalia on February 27, 1945. The 57-ton steel monster was equipped with a long 88-mm cannon that resulted from a massive turret on the block-like, angular mass of its hull.
The Tiger I was a formidable opponent for any Allied tank crew in World War II. Mashlonik's job that day was to turn it off. If he had commanded the M4 Sherman medium tank that day, the task would have been almost impossible without support or reinforcement, but now the chances would be equalized due to the new tank he would be fighting against the Germans. His crew awaited him in the T-26E3, designated No. 40, a new American heavy tank weighing 46 tons and a 90 mm cannon.
Mashlonik had quickly explored the village from where he had discovered the tiger. The tiger crew had entrenched their vehicle, which made it a more difficult target. But Mashlonik still believed he could destroy it.
The young sergeant returned to his T-26E3, which was hidden in a small valley, and drafted a plan. He would act as a shooter for the mission while his normal shooter, Corporal Carl Gormick, took over as a loader. Driver Ernest Cade pushed the tank forward until just enough of the vehicle was exposed for them to shoot. Mashlonik ordered his crew to prepare two armor-piercing grenades and a highly explosive round. He hoped the armor-piercing rounds would shut down the tank and kill the enemy crew. Immediately after the third shot, Cade should turn the tank over to avoid another fire.
Cade stepped forward slowly and crept where the American occupation could get an opportunity. Mashlonik saw the tiger move. Leaving his cover, the Tiger's driver exposed the belly of his tank, where the armor was much thinner. Mashlonik fired one of the new T-30 grenades at high speed from a distance of 1,000 meters. With a fiery flash and a sonic boom, the weapon of the T-26E3 crashed into the tiger. The round smashed the transmission and drive assembly and immediately stopped it. The second round bored directly into the tiger's thick cannon mantle and bounced off the fuselage, causing the German tank to catch fire. The tiger crew tried to get out of their battered vehicle, but Mashlonik ended it with two instead of one highly explosive round.
During the long morning, the T-26E3 crew discovered three PzKpfw IVs operating west of the destroyed tiger. Mashlonik hit two of them, each tank receiving an armor-piercing projectile, followed by a highly explosive round. The remaining PzKpfw IV has apparently made a hasty retreat.
The three tanks destroyed brought Mashlonik's record of 15 tank killings since Normandy, three of which were carried out in his T-26E3. His skills and experience as a tank commander were the reason why he received the number 40 just a few days earlier. The technical designation T-26E3 would soon be supplemented by the name of the late US Army General John Pershing when he was christened Pershing and given the designation M26.
At the beginning of Operation Barbarossa in 1941, the Germans faced massive Soviet tanks such as the medium tank T-34 and the heavy tank of the KV series, which prompted the Germans to develop powerful medium and heavy tanks that these fearsome tanks in the Could defeat fight. So the Germans got into a vicious circle in which they designed and set up larger tanks with thicker armor and stronger cannons when they fought against the Red Army on the Eastern Front. In response to the Soviet threat, the Germans introduced the PzKpfw V Panther medium tank and the Tiger I heavy tank. The Germans also deployed a number of powerful tank destroyers with direct firearms.
American tank crews, first used in North Africa during the Operating Torch in late 1942, fought most of the Second World War in the Sherman. The M4 was a good tank in 1942, but as the war progressed, the United States lagged behind in developing armored vehicles. The Sherman was designed to be built by the thousands in American factories, shipped to ports by rail, and loaded on Victory Ships for transportation to battle areas around the world. It had to be reliable and easy to maintain. The Americans shipped spare parts with the Shermans to keep them running.
When the battle for Germany intensified in late 1944, the M4's 75mm cannon could not pierce the thicker front armor of enemy vehicles, and its own armor was too thin to withstand the heavy grenades of German cannons. The Sherman was a great tank for the generals who needed thousands of reliable tanks to feed into far-reaching campaigns. Their virtues were valued for tank crews, but they knew they were vulnerable to enemy fire. They also knew that in a tank battle they couldn't expect to win head-to-head confrontations.
The young Americans who made up the Panzer Force were not afraid to admit these problems, and eventually the complaints came out on top. The army had actually developed an improved medium tank since 1942, but bureaucratic clashes and confusion over whether a new tank was needed delayed production.
Development continued during the bureaucracy debate, developing from a prototype called T-20 to T-26E1, which carried a 90mm cannon, four-inch front armor (equivalent to a Tiger I) and a Torqmatic gearbox, to save weight. Nevertheless, the T-26E1 weighed more than 40 tons and was therefore classified as a heavy tank. In early 1944, a team of armaments experts was called in to investigate the need for a better tank. They concluded that the new heavy tank would have to be able to defeat enemy armor because the Germans would always counter armored invasion with their own armor. So the Americans had to deploy a tank that was superior to the enemy’s best tanks.
Further tests followed, with more arguing about what constitutes the best design. The T-26E3 was finally approved for production in November 1944. But the army bureaucrats worried about his fighting worthiness. This was partially triggered by rework reports from the Ardennes Offensive, which found that American tanks were vulnerable to downtime when they were most needed. After some more agony, the army sent 20 T-26E3s to Europe for field tests.
The T-26E3 came to Europe as part of the zebra mission, the purpose of which was to introduce a number of new weapons. In addition to the T-26E3, other new weapon systems that came under the program were the self-propelled 155 mm cannon and a new type of 90 mm anti-tank gun. Army combat weapons specialists participating in the mission solved the initial field problems of the T-26E3. The zebra mission was assigned to Omar Bradley's 12th Army Group. Bradley sent the T-26E3 to Lieutenant General Courtney Hodges' first army because the Hodges units had the most contact with the Tigers.
Major General Maurice Rose's 3rd Panzer Division and Major General John W. Leonard's 9th Panzer Division each received 10 tanks. The tanks arrived in Antwerp and were quickly transported to a maintenance facility near the recently occupied city of Aachen on February 17, 1945. Each division sent 10 crews to familiarize themselves with the new vehicles.
To get the most out of the new tank, 3rd Armored sent its best tank commanders and crews with the idea of assigning a T-26E3 to each of the 10 tank companies in the 32nd and 33rd tank regiments. Most controls on the new tanks were similar to those of the Sherman, so the training went smoothly. The Pershing had a different gear, so the crews spent extra time learning how to use it. Each crew fired 28 rounds of the main ammunition, which they got used to the larger flash and smoke of the 90 mm cannon.
Panzerkanonier Corporal Clarence Smoyer remembered his first look at the Pershing in Stolberg east of Aachen. Smoyer was part of a tank crew led by Staff Sergeant Robert Earley, which was proven not to have knocked out the tank. Earley's 2nd platoon tanker, Company E, 32nd Panzer Regiment, was instructed to hand over her Sherman because they were to be trained on a top secret tank that the US Army was rolling out.
Smoyer was sitting on a fighter's shooting range named E7 on the fender. Despite his experience as a shooter, he was nervous. His practice with the new 90mm was a demonstration for his entire regiment. Earley sat behind him in the tower and soon made the situation worse by revealing that Rose was only 50 feet away. Despite the barrel, he was to the left of the tank.
From the commanding position, Earley ordered Smoyer to go right. The gunman looked into his sight and turned his grip to the right, causing the massive turret to rotate. The loader slammed a three-foot armor-piercing round into the breech. A damaged farmhouse was 1,200 meters away. Smoyer was directed to aim the chimney and the fire when it was ready. He pushed the crosshairs onto the target and prepared to shoot. The Sherman had an ignition button on the floor that was operated by the shooter's foot. In contrast, the Pershing had a trigger on the same handle that was used to cross the tower.
Smoyer took a deep breath and pulled the trigger. The flash of lightning blinded him, the noise deafened him and the muzzle thrown Rose and his entourage from their feet. The chimney exploded in a brick shower. All of the teams watching were impressed by the shot, but hid their laughter at Rose's predicament. Smoyer switched to another chimney that was 1,500 meters away. He hit that chimney and another.
When Smoyer got out of the tank, the assembled men cheered and clapped, including a rose spattered with mud. The new tank inspired the tankers, who finally saw an American tank that could keep up with the best German armor. "Our shootout is far superior to that of the Germans," Rose told Army General Dwight D. Eisenhower. For his part, Smoyer couldn't stem his exuberance. "The army has to bring a lot of it here," he told his tanker colleagues.
Despite the necessity, the Pershing's presence in Europe initially amounted to a few dozen tanks, which were however used by the crews. In late February, the U.S. First Army prepared for Operation Lumberjack, the primary objective of which was to clear and conquer the west bank of the Rhine.
The 3rd Panzer Division attacked Duren on February 23. Initially, the mud caused more delays than the enemy. Many of the local German anti-tank guns were knocked down by artillery or abandoned by their crews. The division's Task Force Welborn, named after its commander, Colonel John Welborn, turned northeast three days later towards the railroad junction of Elsdorf, which is 30 miles west of Cologne. The task force reached the southern end of the city in the late afternoon and quickly conquered about 15 houses before dark.
German grenadiers, artillerymen and Volkssturm defended Elsdorf. The Volkssturm was a militia-like organization of very old and very young taxes that were scraped together to defend the fatherland. The Volkssturm was armed with deadly bazookas.
Lieutenant General Fritz Bayerlein, Commander of LIII. Army Corps, which controlled German armor in the region, knew that the Americans would try to conquer Elsdorf because it was a railroad junction. He ordered a small combat group from the 9th Panzer Division into the city. This force included PzKpfw IVs and at least three Tiger Is. They arrived after dark and the local German defenders told the tank crew members that there were Americans at the southern end of the city. One of the tigers, Tower No. 201, went forward until his crew heard tank engines drive ahead.
Nearby were two American tanks, both from F Company, 33rd Panzer Regiment. One was a Sherman and the other a T-26E3, nicknamed Fireball. They were on the street behind an anti-tank barrier, a block wall that was designed as a tank obstacle and was used to block roads and intersections. The tiger crew managed to sneak their tank to 100 meters, which was not too difficult as tank engines drowned each other on both sides. At 9:00 p.m., the Sherman burst into flames, either through German artillery or through a well-placed bazooka round. The flames framed the fireball's tower and showed the Germans its exact location. They took this opportunity and opened fire.
The first 88mm round went through the cannon mantle on the front of Fireball's turret and killed gunner Corporal John McGraw and loader Private Francis Rigdon. A second shot hit the muzzle brake on the Pershing weapon. This jammed the barrel and detonated the loaded 90mm cartridge. A third and final round bounced off the coat and tore off the commander's open hatch. It was a short operation, but it proved the saying that the crew that first spotted and fired on the enemy had a decisive advantage over their opponent in tank warfare. After their victory, the German crew attempted to take cover for their vehicle, a normally sensible move that aimed the tank's heavier front armor at the enemy. That night, however, the Germans retreated to the rubble of a house and the tiger got stuck and forced them to give it up.
In response, the Americans hit the area with artillery and waited for daylight. The next morning tanks and infantry penetrated deeper into southern Elsdorf, where they came across more German armor. After a tiger and two PzKpfw IV had been destroyed that day, the remaining German tanks withdrew from the city. A few days later, while advancing to Cologne, Mashlonik's crew rejected another PzKpfw IV and made No. 40 with four tank kills to pershing the war with the highest score. The Americans recovered Fireball, which was eventually repaired and put back into action.
While the tankers of the 33rd armor fought in Elsdorf, a few miles south of Smoyer and the crew of his Pershing, along with the Shermans of Company E, advanced towards the village of Blatzheim. A group of M5 Stuart light tanks had been fired from a nearby farm complex that knocked out one of them. The tank company attacked and moved in three rows with the pershing in the middle to protect their firepower. It was raining as they crossed a field and took positions around the burning Stuart.
The leading Shermans aligned their weapons on the farm on their left, and the enemy soon opened fire with a 75mm anti-tank gun. A green marker from the armor shot buried itself in the soaked ground near the tanks. There was a violent exchange of firepower. The Sherman crews fired several rounds into the farm buildings. Suddenly more green tracers from Blatzheim came to their front. The Americans confirmed that they were standing in front of impressive 88mm anti-aircraft guns that served as tank killers. A Sherman was hit and two others suffered mechanical problems when the American tank company hastily withdrew from the killing zone.
The F Company came in from the flank and cleared the farm so that the E Company's 2nd platoon could continue its attack on Blatzheim and lead the rest of the company. As they advanced, one tank was hit and another threw a trail. Another got stuck in a crater, leaving a Sherman and a Pershing to move forward. Suddenly a green marker popped into the Sherman's tower and he stopped. Earley's tank was alone, approaching at least one 88mm enemy cannon. Smoyer searched for a target on his website, and the loader, Corporal John DeRiggi, reached for a grenade ready to reload. Smoyer was looking for a destination but couldn't find it.
Then he spotted her. The weapons were hidden under some trees, where the nearby road led into the city. The gunman pleaded with Earley to stop the tank so that he could take an accurate shot. Earley followed when Smoyer asked DeRiggi to load a white phosphor round. Enemy shots hit the ground around the Pershing as Smoyer carefully aimed and fired. The highly explosive round smashed a tree and lit a fire around one of the 88s. Earley ordered the driver to reverse when DeRiggi reloaded. A lap hit where they had been seconds before. Smoyer's second round hit another tree and sank another 88 anti-tank cannons in a sea of flames. Earley moved the tank between shots to drop the enemy gunner's target, while Smoyer shot more shots into the enemy entrenchment.
The American tank crews managed to switch off the enemy cannons. Then the Pershing rumbled to Blatzheim with the six remaining Shermans. The crew began to replenish their ammunition. A couple of Sherman tankers joked that the Pershing had crossed the field slowly - it was a bit slower than a Sherman. "I never saw any of you try to get past us," replied Smoyer. That silenced her.
When the Americans crossed the German border during the Rhineland campaign in the late winter of 1945, they noticed that the resistance was gradually breaking down. At this point the Germans had deployed all of their reserve forces on the western front. The rapid advance of Rose's 3rd Armored Division, VII Corps, U.S. First Army in late February, kept the remaining elements of the 9th Armored Division in the sector out of balance and forced them to deploy their armored resources piece by piece.
In the night of March 3rd to 4th, Roses Avantgarde marched into Worringen directly north of Cologne on the banks of the Rhine. The 2000 year old city spanned the Rhine. There was a double-pointed cathedral that had survived countless air raids by the Allies on Germany's fourth largest city. The cathedral stopped despite 14 hits, while the surrounding city blocks were flattened. The urban debris offered the German tanks excellent defensive positions. When the Americans reached Cologne, it was defended by the remains of the 9th Panzer, 3rd Panzergrenadier and 363rd Volksgrenadier divisions.
E Company sat in front of an overpass on March 5, waiting for the infantry to clear the way. The Pershing tank was at the top, a somewhat dubious honor after the tank and crew's performance in Blatzheim. Smoyer peered through the sight of his 90mm cannon and searched for targets. Despite the heavier armor of the Pershing, it was still vulnerable to a single German with a bazooka. The Royal Air Force had bombed Cologne only three days earlier. Smoke was still rising from the fires burning in the city. The heat and smoke from the many Allied air strikes on the city had blackened and charred the towers of the old cathedral.
More infantry in half lanes was waiting behind the American tanks. The infantry needed the support of the tanks, and the tankers needed the infantry to sweep away looting enemy soldiers and protect the tanks from threats they couldn't see. It was a symbiotic relationship; because in urban combat the infantry would evacuate houses and kill anyone who tried to sneak into a tank with a bazooka. In return, the tanks delivered firepower against bases that the infantry had to conquer and eliminate.
The delay tactic worked that day. The Americans were held for four hours before the order to move in at 4:00 p.m. The Pershing lurched and led one column of the task force, the other on a parallel path to the left. The Pershing advanced on a road that led to the cathedral.
Each tank had a colored plaque on the engine deck to mark it as a friendly vehicle for allied aircraft flying around. The tensions were high. Any window or door could have an enemy ready to fight for the empire. Instead, the streets seemed empty and scary with no life. When Smoyer peeked through his sight, he saw something. A flash of light reflected something on a bell tower that was almost a mile away. Concerned that it might be an enemy artillery watcher staring at her through binoculars, he asked Earley to stop so he could make sure. The tank commander followed, and Smoyer placed a high-explosive round directly in the middle of the dial. The tower collapsed in a rain of bricks.
The tanks fought alongside the infantry for the rest of the day. The tanks blew gaping holes in buildings so that the infantry could penetrate and shoot German soldiers with machine guns. The next morning, unknown German tanks - a mixture of PzKpfw IVs and Panthers - were around the cathedral. The enemy's situation around Cologne was desperate, and maybe two dozen tanks were left to defend the cathedral city. The Germans fought with great despair. Snipers tried to pick up Americans, and young soldiers, some of whom were just boys, tried to get close enough to fire a bazooka or throw a grenade at the Americans. The Americans pushed unwaveringly from the fanatical resistance towards the city center.
The Pershing led the advance at noon with three Shermans behind. The cathedral was on its front and the Rhine immediately behind, where a bridge was still intact. Your order was to get to that bridge and cross it. It was a daunting task. The Germans would most likely be anchored on the other bank.
Some of the American tank crews felt they were being sent on a suicide mission. The streets were empty except for the American infantry that was near the tanks. Smoyer recalled being told that the only vehicles on the street were German military personnel. No civilians had gasoline rations. The knowledge made the tank crews fear the appearance of German tanks.
The Americans crept toward the bridge, which was less than a mile away by then. They had no idea that tanks were waiting for them near the cathedral. At 1:00 p.m. an explosion suddenly sounded through the empty streets from the east. Seconds later, a column of smoke rose to the sky. From Earley's position in the Pershing Commander's hatch, smoke rose between the two towers of the cathedral. The driver stopped the tank when the crew found that the bridge they were supposed to cross was being destroyed by the Germans. The entire American force felt that they had just been put off from execution. They stopped and waited for the rest of the company to catch up. Earley emitted headquarters and hoped to receive an order to stop.
An answer came soon and was not what the tank crews had hoped to hear. They were instructed to continue to the Rhine even though the bridge had come down. Again the column moved forward carefully, looking for signs of the enemy. The remaining Germans could not withdraw with the bridge. The Pershing reached a crossroads in four directions and stopped in the shade just before entering the open area. Smoyer peeked through his vision and searched for targets. When he crossed the tower to the right, a German tank suddenly pulled out from behind the building on the left. He swung his turret quickly to the left, but the tank returned behind a building before it could aim at it. Earley looked in a different direction and didn't see it. Smoyer pointed to the building behind which the tank was hiding and aimed at its 90mm if it reappeared.
In the hidden PzKpfw IV, the fuselage gunner Gustav Schäfer opened the fire with his machine gun to a pile of rubble that he believed had hidden from an American Panzerfaust team. Smoyer saw the green traces of the weapon that hurled the debris, but he kept his eyes on the building, fearing that the shootout might distract his attention. There was an armor-piercing round in the 90mm chamber, ready to destroy the enemy tank.
Both tank crews were distracted by a civilian car that suddenly flew into the intersection. The two civilians, a man and a woman, in the vehicle had decided to try to leave the city when the battle intensified. They accidentally drove into the middle of the unfolding tank collision. The Pershing crew mistook their vehicle for a military vehicle, and their 30-caliber machine gun sent orange tracers into the vehicle.
Schäfer, who also saw the vehicle, also shot at it and sent a stream of green tracers to the finish. The car stopped abruptly and the male driver slumped over the steering wheel. The female opened the passenger door and dropped to the floor. None of the civilians would survive the encounter.
Shepherd wondered what civilians were doing to go to battle, but he knew that he had to focus on the American heavy tank threat. A short distance away, Smoyer saw the car stop, but couldn't see who had fallen out. However, he knew that he had seen green traces indicating a German weapon.
The German tank was still behind the building. Smoyer aimed at the building in which the enemy tank was located and fired. A little shower of brick poured out, but there was no other effect. They couldn't tell if the tank was hit, but the stones gave Smoyer an idea. He fired several shots at the already damaged building until the structure finally gave way and the upper floors collapsed in a shower of brick and dust.
The stones covered the PzKpfw IV and blocked the tower. Schafer could open his hatch and push the bricks aside. The tank commander also opened his hatch. He asked a civilian nearby for information, and the person told him that the bridge had been destroyed. Schäfer raged as he thought about how their commander had left the tank crew to their fate on the nearby bank of the Rhine. Furious with the situation, Schäfer pleaded with his commanders to leave the tank. He told the tank commander that further fighting was pointless. Part of the crew preferred to continue fighting. They wanted to use the tank, the turret of which would no longer pass through, like a tank destroyer with direct fire.
While the crew was discussing the matter, Schäfer got out of the tank and ran down the street. Moments later, his commander followed. The rest of the crew set off with the damaged tank. After the war, Schafer said that he had never seen her again.
In the meantime, the Pershing moved to a new position where the crew was looking for more enemy tanks. On another street nearby, several F Company Shermans were slowly driving forward. Your task was to conquer the cathedral, which is visible behind the buildings at the end of the street. The B Company's Stuart tanks were then able to run to the Rhine and complete the battalion's mission.
A large pile of rubble blocked the road and delayed the advance of the Shermans. The lead tank commander, Lieutenant Karl Kellner, was looking for a way around the obstacle. Behind his tank was the US Army war correspondent, Sergeant Andy Rooney, who was to become a famous journalist after the war. Rooney held his camera and waited to see what would happen next.
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