Panzers and the Western Allies

To this day, German Panzers of the Second World War enjoy a fearsome reputation and enduring mythology. Much of this has to do with notions of the perceived superiority of German armour over British and American tanks, ideas that took root during post-war military and historical collaboration between the Western Allies and the former Wehrmacht elite. As the story goes, immense numbers of inferior Allied tanks eventually overwhelmed the mighty Panzers and their beleaguered crews.

A 75mm gun being salvaged from a knocked-out Sherman tank at 26th Armoured Brigade workshops in Perugia, 30 June 1944. The entry point for an 88mm shell can be seen on the side of the tank's hull. © IWM (NA 16518)

A 75mm gun being salvaged from a knocked-out Sherman tank at 26th Armoured Brigade workshops in Perugia, 30 June 1944. The entry point for an 88mm shell can be seen on the side of the tank’s hull. © IWM (NA 16518)

In Britain during the late 40s and early 50s, the Army Operational Research Group and Department of the Scientific Adviser to the Army Council published two studies on how the tanks of the Western Allies actually fared against Germany’s Panzers. Available digitally at the LMH Archive, both studies indicate that armoured actions in the West were more complicated than sheer weight of numbers.

The first, Tank Battle Analysis, covers the war from 1942 when the introduction of the 75mm gun to Allied tanks brought the two sides’ armour to near parity. Drawing on the outcomes of approximately 200 small scale engagements, the study measures German and Allied tanks’ relative effectiveness, expressed as an ‘efficiency factor.’ The second report, A Survey of Tank Warfare in Europe from D-Day to 12th August 1944, was written in 1952 with an eye towards a possible armoured showdown with the Soviets. It considers “the supposition that weight of numbers was the deciding factor in tank battles after 1942.”

The AORG considered Allied tanks, self-propelled and towed anti-tank guns mounting 75mm, 6pdr and 17pdr main guns. Opposite them were German Panzers, self-propelled and towed anti-tank guns equipped with either 75mm or 88mm main guns. Although the AORG faced a number of limitations including a relative lack of information from the German perspective, the report managed to control for four distinct factors in the outcome of a tank battle:

A Sherman tank of 24th Lancers, 8th Armoured Brigade, passing a knocked-out German PzKpfw V Panther tank near Rauray, 30 June 1944. © IWM (B 6226)

A Sherman tank of 24th Lancers, 8th Armoured Brigade, passing a knocked-out German PzKpfw V Panther tank near Rauray, 30 June 1944. © IWM (B 6226)

1. Numerical superiority.

2. Type of tank/anti-tank gun.

3. Ranges of effective engagements.

4. Effect of firing first.

While the report admits that this is by no means a comprehensive list of factors some of its conclusions are intriguing in that they chip away at the Panzer’s reputation, and get more to the heart of what decided the outcome of an armoured action. For example, “in tank vs tank engagements, for the chance of success to be equal for either side, Allied tanks would have to outnumber the German tanks by some 30% or one-third.” Since the study begins at a point in the war where the Allies took the strategic offensive, this figure is consistent with the idea that in most actions after 1942 Allied tanks were on the offensive and therefore more exposed than the defending Panzers.

A Survey of Tank Warfare is a closer look at Normandy, with detailed tables of individual engagements. It notes that British armour outnumbered German armour by a larger factor than the wartime average, and that the typical victory for British armour in Normandy occurred with a ratio of two British to one German tanks, though it is unclear whether this was the result of necessity or a by-product of their greater than average numerical superiority. The study also found that British tank crews had more to fear from German self-propelled and towed anti-tank guns than Panzers; the typical ratio of British to enemy in a victorious action was 5:2. In other words, 50% more British tanks were generally required to defeat German self-propelled and towed anti-tank guns than Panzers.

For more insight on armoured actions in the West, click below to read the two reports at the LMH Archive.

Tank Battle Analysis

A Survey of Tank Warfare in Europe from D-Day to 12th August 1944

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