The Tiger and the Sherman: A Critical Look

A British Sherman in action in Normandy shortly after D-Day. Photo source: Wikipedia.

A British Sherman in action in Normandy shortly after D-Day. Photo source: Wikipedia.

Among the best known tanks of the Second World War, the German Tiger and the American Sherman tanks have since become icons of armored warfare and the subject of many a heated argument between enthusiasts of the subject.

By Seth Marshall

                During the Second World War, dozens of tank designs were developed by all of the major combatants in the conflict, but few have been so readily identifiable with that war as the American Sherman medium tank and the German Tiger heavy tank. Both tanks have figured in multiple American films over the years; Kelly’s Heroes, Saving Private Ryan, and most recently, Fury, to name a few. Yet despite the many comparisons and arguments over these two vehicles, they could not have been more different. This article will attempt to separate the discussion of these two vehicles.

                What would eventually become the Sherman medium tank had its origins in the 1930s with the development of the M2 and M3 medium tanks, which had been accepted by the US Army in 1939 and 1941 respectively. The M2 was an ungainly design that featured a 37mm gun mounted in a turret atop a pyramidal hull. Though unorthodox by contemporary standards, the M3 was a medium tank armed with a 75mm gun mounted in a side sponson built into the hull, and a 37mm gun mounted in a turret. While the M3 was reliable and easy to produce, its configuration was unorthodox- the gun mounted in the sponson soon proved to be too archaic, and the gun mounted in the turret proved to be too light to penetrate the armor of most contemporary medium tanks.

                In 1940, the UK found itself short on tanks. Most of its heavy equipment had been abandoned in France during the German invasion, and British production was slow to compensate for the losses in armor. Consequently, the British found themselves receiving armor from the US via the Lend Lease Act. Around the same time, the US Army decided to redesign the M3 as a result of monitoring the Wehrmacht’s invasion of Western Europe. The new design shared many components with the older M3, a result of the Army’s design to keep as many components interchangeable between the designs as possible. The main gun from the M3, a 75mm L/40 was, placed in a rounded turret on the top of the hull. Space for the storage of 90 rounds for the main gun was made. Additionally, a Browning M1919A4 .30 caliber machine gun was mounted coaxially in the turret. A second .30 caliber machine gun was mounted in a ball mount at the front of the hull. There was storage for 4750 rounds, split between both guns. Providing anti-aircraft protection was a Browning M2 .50 caliber heavy machine gun, mounted on top of the rear of the turret-  400 rounds were provided for the M2. Powering the new tank was the Continental R975, a radial gas-powered engine originally designed for use in aircraft which produced 400 horsepower. The new tank had a range of approximately 120 miles. The main difference between the new tank, designated the M4 Sherman, was its upper hull, which deleted the sponson and featured a redesigned turret to accommodate the new gun.[1]

An M2 medium tank. Much of the Sherman's design was drawn from experiences with this tank. Photo source: Wikipedia.

An M2 medium tank. Much of the Sherman's design was drawn from experiences with this tank. Photo source: Wikipedia.

An M3 Grant medium tank, another tank that the Sherman traced its roots to. Unlike the M2, the M3 did see combat, though it had very limited success owing to design limitations. Photo source: Wikipedia.

An M3 Grant medium tank, another tank that the Sherman traced its roots to. Unlike the M2, the M3 did see combat, though it had very limited success owing to design limitations. Photo source: Wikipedia.

                The first Shermans produced were built by the Lima Locomotive Works, located in Ohio. These early Shermans featured a rounded upper hull, and many were delivered to the British and sent immediately to North Africa. Initially, M4s were produced at a rate of 1000 per month, though this quickly increased to 2000 a month.[2] Shermans in North Africa quickly proved their usefulness as a medium tank; at the Battle of El Alamein, some 400 Shermans were involved in the offensive, along with 650 other tanks. These tanks were pitted against some 400 Panzer IIIs and Panzer IVs.[3] Against these tanks, the Sherman proved successful. It was more than a match for the Panzer III, which was armed with a smaller gun and lighter armor, and was evenly-matched with early versions of the Panzer IV. However, the Sherman, with its 76mm thick front glacius plate, soon proved that it was incapable of withstanding shots from both the 75mm and 88mm German anti-tank guns.[4] The Sherman’s high profile made more visible to the German gunners, particularly in the deserts of North Africa. Nonetheless, the Sherman was destined to be a mainstay among the Allies.

                Over the next two years, numerous variants of the Sherman were developed in an effort to improve its capabilities. The M4A1 was quickly superseded by the M4A1(76)W, armed with a improved 76mm gun, and perhaps more importantly, a damage control feature referred to as wet ammunition storage. Previous model Shermans were commonly known as “Ronsons” by the British and as “Tommy Cookers” by the Germans for their propensity to burn and explode when hit, owing in part to their vulnerable ammunition storage. The wet ammunition storage feature on M4A1(76)Ws  included double-walled storage containers. The space between the walls were filled with water and ethylene glycol, to prevent freezing in cold weather. When penetrated by shellfire or shrapnel, the water between the walls would douse fires, preventing the tank from burning.[5] The M4A1(76)W was later replaced by the M4A3, the most common variant of the Sherman, and the one which would serve in the highest numbers in Western Europe. The M4A3 received a new engine, a liquid-cooled Ford V8 engine, providing 500-horsepower and a top speed of 30mph. Additional improvements included armored glass blocks added to the driver and bow gunner viewport.[6] However, these upgrade still left the tank vulnerable to high-velocity gunfire from German anti-tank guns and armored vehicles, among which was the Tiger I.

An M4A1, showing the rounded hull that was standard with early-model Shermans. Photo source: Life Magazine.

An M4A1, showing the rounded hull that was standard with early-model Shermans. Photo source: Life Magazine.

                Initially, the Wehrmacht focused its efforts for tank design on the Panzer III and Panzer IV, both medium tanks thought to be suitable for the battles ahead. Despite this concentration, German work on heavy tanks began in 1937. The Henschel firm produced a number of prototypes, known as Durchbruchwagen (DW) I, II, and Versuchsfahrgestelle (VK) 3001(H), VK 3601 and VK 6501. Additionally, the Porsche firm developed the VK 3001(P). None of these prototypes were put into production, but they gave both firms experience in producing larger tanks. Consequently, when the Wehrmacht invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941 and began encountering the T-34 medium tank and the KV-1 heavy tank, both of which were superior to the Panzer IV that was then fielded by the Germans, it became apparent that something more substantial would be required to defeat Soviet armor. [7] A requirement for a 45-ton tank was issued before the invasion, but combat added urgency to the design process. On April 19th, 1942, the Henschel and Porsche prototypes were presented to Adolf Hitler on his 53rd birthday at the Wolf’s Lair in East Prussia. A month following his birthday, Hitler issued a number of new requirements for the heavy tank- it had to have a frontal armor thickness of 100mm, and side armor of 60mm. Additionally, the new tank had to be armed with an 88mm gun.[8] Two months later, both designs were sent to testing grounds, where it was found that the Henschel design had superior maneuverability, and it was decided to put this prototype into production. Curiously, owing to numerous design changes put into effect by Hitler, Porsche had built 90 chassis to meet his requirements. When the Porsche design was turned down in favor of the Henschel, the 90 chassis were converted into Panzerjager- tank destroyers. These vehicles featured a large casemate-style superstructure housing an 88mm gun.[9]

The final form of the Porsche prototype. Ultimately the Porsche turret would be used on the Tiger I, while the chassis was built by Henschel. However, the Porsche design was built in limited numbers- many of these chassis were later converted to Elefant tank destroyers. Photo source: Wikipedia.

The final form of the Porsche prototype. Ultimately the Porsche turret would be used on the Tiger I, while the chassis was built by Henschel. However, the Porsche design was built in limited numbers- many of these chassis were later converted to Elefant tank destroyers. Photo source: Wikipedia.

An early-production Tiger I in service in Tunisia. Photo source: Bundesarchiv.

An early-production Tiger I in service in Tunisia. Photo source: Bundesarchiv.

                The final Henschel design, which went into production in August 1942, featured an 88mm KwK 36 L/56 main gun which fired a variety of shells at high velocity. This gun had a maximum range of 6km, and its advanced optics gave it an effective combat range of 1.2km. The Tiger I had enough storage capacity to hold 92 rounds, including the Panzergranate 39 (PzGr. 39) which was an Armor-piercing, capped, ballistic cap (APCBC) round containing an explosive filler, the PzGr. 40, Armor-piercing, composite rigid (APCR) round containing a tungsten core for extra penetrative power, and the High-explosive Anti-tank round (HEAT) round. [10] The APCBC round was capable of penetrating 90mm of armor at ranges up to 2km, and the APCR round could penetrate 171mm of armor at short ranges and up to 110mm at 2km.[11] Armor thickness varied from 100mm on the front of the hull, superstructure, and turret, to 80mm on the sides of the turret and superstructure, to 60mm on the side of the hull. The rear of the tank was relatively unarmored.[12] Powering the Tiger was Maybach HL 210 P45, a V-12 liquid-cooled engine producing 650 horsepower. This would later replaced by another Maybach V-12 engine producing 700 horsepower. The Tiger’s maximum performance was 38km/h on the road and 20km/h cross-country, though these figures were hardly practical on a long-term basis. Despite the immense weight of this new tank (57 tons), the Tiger was to prove surprisingly mobile. This was owed to its very wide tracks (755mm), which distributed the tanks weight across terrain at 15psi.[13]

                Despite all of these perks, the production of the Tiger came at quite a cost. The average cost for a Tiger I ran between 250,000-300,000 Reich Marks (RM); if a Tiger I in 1943 had cost 300,000RM, it would cost just over $1.2M in USD. By comparison, a Sherman in 1942 cost $33,000 to produce- adjusted for inflation, it would cost just over $500,000 in 2017 USD to build.[14] This meant that the Tiger cost six times what it cost to build a single Sherman- it was even far more expensive than other German tanks. The Panzer III cost 96,000RM, the Panzer IV cost 103,000RM, and the Panzer V “Panther” cost 117,000RM.[15] What was more, the mechanical complexity of the Tiger and the constant aerial bombardment of German industrial targets by Allied bombers meant that production of German armor, and the Tiger in particular, was stunted. It reportedly took 300,000 man hours to produce a Tiger I, twice the amount of time required to build a Panther.[16] Kassel, Germany, a site of Tiger production, was attacked 40 times over the course of the war by Allied bombers- on one occasion in October 1943, an RAF raid caused substantial damage to Henschel’s facilities and killed a large number of workers, delaying production.[17] Production of the Tiger maxed out in April 1944, with 105 tanks produced that month. Final production of the Tiger I totaled 1,347 vehicles.[18] This paled in comparison with the Sherman, production of which averaged over 1,200 tanks per month- eventually over 49,000 Shermans were built. [19]

An assembly line for Tiger Is. Frequent bombing by Allied aircraft meant that production would ultimately be decentralized, further delaying the rate at which these complex tanks could be produced. Photo source: Bundesarchiv.

An assembly line for Tiger Is. Frequent bombing by Allied aircraft meant that production would ultimately be decentralized, further delaying the rate at which these complex tanks could be produced. Photo source: Bundesarchiv.

                The Tiger first entered combat in limited numbers in August 1942, when 4 of these new heavy tanks were sent to the Eastern Front at Leningrad. Owing to a variety of causes, none of the four tanks completed their first day of combat duty successfully, though three were saved for subsequent operations. Additional early Tiger Is were sent to North Africa, though they did not arrive in large numbers and were unable to turn the tide against the Allies there. Thereafter, Tigers would see extensive service along both the Eastern Front and the Western Front following the invasion of Normandy in 1944. Eventually, Tigers were in service with ten Heer heavy tank battalions, three SS heavy tank battalions, and a training battalion.[20] Curiously much less known is the fact that the Tiger was also used or considered for use by a number of foreign countries. Germany’s fascist ally Spain was evidently interested in purchasing Tigers, but never made a transaction. Japan actually bought a Tiger for the remarkable price of 650,000RM in 1943, but without the means of reliable transport, the tank never left Germany. It was leased by Japan to Germany, which employed it in one of its heavy tank battalions.[21] The sole foreign operator of the Tiger was Hungary, which was given 13 Tiger Is in the summer of 1944. These tanks operated with the 3rd Regiment of the 2nd Armored Division and saw action that summer in Galicia against the Soviets. Most of these tanks would ultimately be abandoned due to mechanical difficulties, an issue which plagued the Tiger and will be discussed later.[22]

A Tiger I having its engine serviced along the Eastern Front. Photo source: Bundesarchiv.

A Tiger I having its engine serviced along the Eastern Front. Photo source: Bundesarchiv.

                Allied tankers quickly developed a fear of the Tiger from the outset that created a lasting impression. This is not altogether surprising, given the state of Allied tanks when the Tiger was introduced. The preponderance of Allied armor, the Western Allies in particular, was concentrated in the area of medium tanks, with relatively little thought given to the development of heavy tanks. This was perhaps a secondary effect of Allied tank doctrine developed during the inter-war years, which did not generally devote much thought to tank vs. tank combat. As a result, Allied medium tanks, with lower caliber guns with relatively low velocities and inadequate armor protection, were unprepared to deal with the new Tigers, which could withstand numerous hits from Allied tanks without suffering any apparent ill effects.

A column of Tiger Is on the move in Northern France in the summer of 1944. Photo source: Wikipedia.

A column of Tiger Is on the move in Northern France in the summer of 1944. Photo source: Wikipedia.

Tiger crewmen examine the impact mark left behind from a shell that failed to penetrate the Tiger's armor. It appears that this impact was on one of the sides of the tank. Photo source: Wikipedia.

Tiger crewmen examine the impact mark left behind from a shell that failed to penetrate the Tiger's armor. It appears that this impact was on one of the sides of the tank. Photo source: Wikipedia.

                As a result of their experience with the Tigers, all of the Allies began to develop solutions to combat the Tiger; many of these were interim fixes which modified already existing medium tanks to better survive in their combat environment. The Soviets would eventually develop the T-34-85, equipped with an 85mm gun to combat the Tiger and Panther. In the case of the Sherman, the British and the Americans developed two different versions that were capable of taking on the Tiger I. The first of these was the British “Firefly.”

                The Firefly design almost didn’t occur; at the time, the British Ministry of Supply believed that the Centurion and Comet designs, then on the drawing boards, would be sufficient. However, until those tanks actually arrived on the battlefield, a stopgap would have to be found. The answer came in the form of the Firefly, which mated the Sherman design with the British QF 17-pounder anti-tank gun. This gun, equivalent to a 76.2mm caliber gun, had a muzzle velocity of up to 3,900 ft per second with a APCBC round. Testing would reveal that the gun could penetrate 116.5mm at 1500 yards while firing a APCBC round. The recoil of gun necessitated an extension of the rear of the turret, hence the box on the rear of the turret of all Fireflies. Fireflies quickly demonstrated their usefulness in Normandy; this was also noticed by German tankers, who targeted Fireflies first. As a result, many Fireflies would subsequently have the forward half of their barrels painted with a disruptive camoflauge to make them appear as an ordinary Sherman.[23]

                The Americans were somewhat slower to adapt their primary tank to combat the Germans. An adhoc solution was the Jumbo Sherman- the M4A3E2. The Jumbo Sherman featured an extraordinary amount of additional armor welded to a standard M4A3, bringing the front hull thickness to 101mm and the sides up to 76mm. Jumbo Shermans arrived in numbers in the fall of 1944- some 250 M4A3 Shermans were converted to the Jumbo standard and were primarily used in breakthrough operations where the Jumbo’s armor proved to be more resilient against German anti-tank gun fire. Before the end of the war, a small number would even be upgraded with the newer high-velocity 76mm gun and HVSS suspension.[24]       

A British Firefly in Namur, 1944. With its 17-pounder anti-tank gun, the Firefly was the only tank that the Western allies had capable of penetrating the Tiger's frontal armor. German tankers quickly realized the danger posed by these tanks and would target them first, leading Firefly tankers to camoflauge the barrels of their Fireflies in turn to disguise them as regular Shermans. Photo source: Wikipedia. 

A British Firefly in Namur, 1944. With its 17-pounder anti-tank gun, the Firefly was the only tank that the Western allies had capable of penetrating the Tiger's frontal armor. German tankers quickly realized the danger posed by these tanks and would target them first, leading Firefly tankers to camoflauge the barrels of their Fireflies in turn to disguise them as regular Shermans. Photo source: Wikipedia. 

A M4A3E2 "Jumbo" Sherman, which featured much thicker armor and a 105mm main gun. Thanks to their durability, the Jumbo Shermans were preferred for use in leading assaults. Photo source: Wikipedia.

A M4A3E2 "Jumbo" Sherman, which featured much thicker armor and a 105mm main gun. Thanks to their durability, the Jumbo Shermans were preferred for use in leading assaults. Photo source: Wikipedia.

                The ultimate Second World War version of the Sherman for the Americans appeared in the form of the M4A3E8. This version fielded a number of upgrades and improvements to the existing Sherman design. The M4A3E8, alternatively known as the “Easy Eight,” was armed with a long-barreled 76.2mm gun and a newly-redesigned suspension system known as the Horizontal Volute Suspension System, an improved suspension system that allowed for better ride comfort and quicker reaction time for firing the main gun. Additionally, the new M93 HVAP (High Velocity Armor-Piercing) round was available for use in the main gun in this version, though this type of ammunition was primarily reserved for use by tank destroyer units.[25] The Easy Eight would soldier on in US service following the end of the Second World War, serving as one of the US 8th Army’s primary tanks during the Korean War. Production for the M4A3E8 totaled 4542 tanks.[26]

                In addition to the 40,000+ Shermans which were built during the war, numerous other vehicles based on the Sherman chassis were also constructed during the war. One such vehicle was the M7 Priest Howitzer Motor Carriage. Introduced in early 1942, the Priest mounted a M1/M2 105mm howitzer atop the Sherman chassis with a modified superstructure to accommodate the gun. Some 4400 examples were produced by the end of the war. Another examples of Sherman derivatives included the M10 Wolverine, a tank destroyer adapted from the Sherman chassis. The M10 featured a 76.2mm gun with sloped armor- despite being outdated almost from its inception, the Wolverine saw service through the end of the war, with over 6700 being built. A refinement of the M10 took shape in the M36 Jackson, another tank destroyer that was armed with a 90mm gun. This version began to appear in line units during the fall of 1944- by the end of the war, 1400 had been built.[27] These were but a few models of vehicles based on the Sherman.

A M4A3E8 "Easy Eight" Sherman firing on communist positions during the Korean War. Photo source: Wikipedia.

A M4A3E8 "Easy Eight" Sherman firing on communist positions during the Korean War. Photo source: Wikipedia.

An M7 Priest self-propelled gun, armed with a 105mm howitzer. The Priest was just one example of numerous designs based on the Sherman chassis. Photo source: Wikipedia.

An M7 Priest self-propelled gun, armed with a 105mm howitzer. The Priest was just one example of numerous designs based on the Sherman chassis. Photo source: Wikipedia.

                By contrast, relatively few variants of the Tiger were produced during the war. A few examples of recovery vehicles and assault tanks were produced, but these were not built in large numbers. Making matters more difficult was the inherent complexity of building Tiger tanks which required countless man hours to produce. Additionally, with Allied bombers making concerted attacks on German industry, production had to be dispersed and was slowed accordingly.

                In combat, the Sherman and Tiger developed opposite reputations. While the Sherman was derided for its weaker armor and comparatively light gun, it was found to be highly reliable. Additionally, owing to superior Allied tank recovery capability, knocked out Shermans were more readily recovered and repaired to working order again, barring a hit to a integral component such as the turret ring, which could not be replaced, or the tank burning for a substantial period of time. American and British crews were not alone in praising the Sherman for its reliability. A number of Shermans were exported to the Soviet Union as part of the Lend Lease Act, and Soviet crews generally like their American-supplied tanks. Dmitriy Ioza, a Soviet tank commander noted that the service life of the tracks on Shermans lasted approximately 5000 kilometers, twice as long as the Soviet T-34.[28] By contrast, the Tiger, while known to have armor nearly impervious to Allied guns and armed with a cannon lethal to Allied tanks at extraordinary ranges, was also known to be highly unreliable in the field. The transmission required constant maintenance to prevent failure. The overlapping road wheels had a tendency to freeze together when exposed to mud and the cold harsh Russian winter. The sheer width of the German tank meant that in order to move it by rail, a narrower set of tracks had to be fitted in order to be able to place it on a flat railroad car. Ultimately, many Tigers were not lost to enemy fire but to mechanical breakdown, and since the vehicle weighed so much, those that broke down near or at the frontlines were often unrecoverable because of their tremendous weight.[29]

An early-production Tiger I, showing the overlapping road wheels, which were prone to jamming in winter-time when mud would freeze between the wheels. Photo source: Wikipedia.

An early-production Tiger I, showing the overlapping road wheels, which were prone to jamming in winter-time when mud would freeze between the wheels. Photo source: Wikipedia.

In spite of its poor mechanical qualities, Tiger units established tremendous kill-to-loss ratios. Three battalions established kill rations greater than 10 kills for every Tiger lost, including Schwere Panzer-Abteilung 502 (13.08 kills per loss), 13./Panzer-Regiment Grossdeutschland (16.67 kills per loss), and Schwere SS-Panzer-Abteilung 103 (12.82 kills per loss). The overall ratio for kills-to-losses for all Tiger battalions is 5.74-1.[30] Many German tank commanders amassed large numbers of kills. Among the well-known Tiger tank commanders were Sergeant Kurt Knispel, the highest-scoring tank commander in military history with 168 tank kills, First Lieutenant Otto Carius, who destroyed over 150 tanks, and most famously, Captain Michael Wittmann, who destroyed 138 tanks and 132 anti-tank guns on both the Eastern Front and in Normandy. Wittman became most famous for a single-tank action in which he took part during the campaign in Normandy. On June 13, 1944, Wittmann was reconnoitering terrain near the village of Villers-Bocage when he spotted a stationary column of British armor. Instead of waiting for reinforcements, Wittmann decided to mount a one-tank attack. After knocking out the front and rear vehicles, Wittmann advanced down the column and proceeded to destroy vehicles at point blank range. By the end of the battle, Wittmann had destroyed over a dozen tanks, a dozen personnel carriers and armored vehicles, and a small number of anti-tank guns. [31] Wittmann would be killed two months later on August 8th by a round fired by a Sherman Firefly of the 1st Northhamptonshire Yeomanry.[32]

Kurt Knispel, the highest-scoring tank commander in military history. Knispel was killed shortly before the end of the war. Photo source: Wikipedia. 

Kurt Knispel, the highest-scoring tank commander in military history. Knispel was killed shortly before the end of the war. Photo source: Wikipedia. 

Michael Wittmann, another high-scoring tank ace who scored the majority of his kills in Tigers. Photo source: Wikipedia.

Michael Wittmann, another high-scoring tank ace who scored the majority of his kills in Tigers. Photo source: Wikipedia.

The remains of Wittmann's Tiger in which he was killed. Wittmann was killed in August 1944, likely by a British Firefly. Photo source: Wikipedia.

The remains of Wittmann's Tiger in which he was killed. Wittmann was killed in August 1944, likely by a British Firefly. Photo source: Wikipedia.

Owing to the sheer numbers of Shermans produced and relatively few German tanks built in comparison, Sherman tankers were never going to achieve a similar number of tank kills. However, the Allies had tank aces who used Shermans as well. Perhaps the most well-known US tank commander was then Staff Sergeant Lafayette G. Pool of the 3rd Armored Division. In less than three months, Pool and his crew were credited with destroying 258 enemy vehicles, including 12 tanks. Pool was knocked out of the war on September 21, 1944 when he was badly wounded when his Sherman was hit twice by a German Panther medium tank. He ultimately had a leg amputated but would remain in the Army after the war until 1960- he died in 1991.[33] Another Sherman ace was Syndey Valpy Radley-Walters, a Canadian who had destroyed 18 tanks by the end of the war, making him the top Allied tank ace. Radley-Walters would also stay in the military after war, remaining in the Canadian Army until he retired as a Brigadier General in 1974. He passed away in 2015.[34]

Lafayette Pool, who served with the 3rd Armored Division. Pool was likely the highest-scoring American tank ace in the war, and scored all of his kills in a three month period before he was removed from combat after losing a leg. Photo source: Wikipedia.

Lafayette Pool, who served with the 3rd Armored Division. Pool was likely the highest-scoring American tank ace in the war, and scored all of his kills in a three month period before he was removed from combat after losing a leg. Photo source: Wikipedia.

With the huge numbers of tank kills claimed by German tank commanders, one may assume then that the Sherman suffered heavily at the hands of the German Panzers. However, analysis after the war shows that this was not necessarily the case. According to a report compiled by Fort Knox from reports of 100 tank commanders, engagements with other armored vehicles, especially tanks, were relatively rare-an estimated 15%.[35] This was even more evident on the Western Front, which at least initially did not see an abundance of German armor. A German estimate puts the number of tanks and armored vehicles in France on D-Day numbered 2,000-2,400 vehicles, though postwar figures put that number at 1,200 tanks and 800 assault guns.[36] These numbers were not equal to those deployed on the Eastern Front- as a consequence, Allied tank casualties were not caused primarily by tanks but by anti-tank guns. A postwar survey of US, British and Canadian tank losses during the war found that of the 12,140 destroyed or knocked-out tanks sampled, 54% were lost to gunfire from tanks or anti-tank guns.[37] Of those tanks lost to gunfire, 86% were lost to 75mm and 88mm guns.[38] The survey also notes that of the losses inflicted by 88mm guns, most were caused by dual-purpose guns operating in the anti-tank gun role- not by tanks. The report further notes that 88mm guns armed only a limited number of vehicles.

“The preponderance of damage done by the 88mm gun was undoubtedly caused when this gun was on its antitank or dual-purpose mount. German production figures clearly indicate that only a limited number of tanks mounting the 88mm gun, or 8 percent of the total, were being produced in the summer of 1944.”[39]

If these figures are true and the survey accurate, why then was there such a stigma attached to the Tiger by Allied troops? The Tiger appeared more commonly on the Eastern Front, and even then was never present in anything even approaching the numbers of its nemesis, the T-34 and Sherman. It seems likely that the tank acquired its reputation as a result of anecdotes of the Tiger’s seeming imperviousness and Allied inability to destroy them with anything less than overwhelming numbers. Coupled with this was the Tiger’s ability to destroy targets at much greater ranges than its adversaries with its 88mm gun. Such was the fear of the 88 that the survey notes that US soldiers believed that “every heavy-caliber flat-trajectory weapon that fired at him was an “88”…” This was in spite of evidence that 75mm guns in the ETO caused 40% of the destruction of the surveyed tanks.[40]

A scene that became all-to-familiar to Allied soldiers in Europe- a Sherman ablaze. Photo source: Wikipedia. 

A scene that became all-to-familiar to Allied soldiers in Europe- a Sherman ablaze. Photo source: Wikipedia. 

                Data on German tank casualties is more limited. The same survey as mentioned previously attempts to expound on German losses, though the report authors themselves note that reports on the subject are incomplete and do not provide a full picture. The survey estimates that of the German tanks inspected, 44% had been lost to “miscellaneous causes, of which non-enemy causes accounted for over 98 percent. Mechanical or terrain causes knocked out about 10 percent of the miscellaneous total.”[41] Coming in just below losses to miscellaneous causes is losses to Allied gunfire, which amounted to 43%. Though greatly feared by German tankers, USAAF and  RAF fighter-bombers are estimated to have caused only 8% of armor losses, and these were mainly due to direct hits from rockets.[42] While these records are not complete, they do seem to substantiate German accounts of being forced to abandon vehicles to mechanical losses.

This Tiger met the same fate as many of its fellows- it was abandoned after becoming immobilized in a pile of rubble. Photo source: Wikipedia.

This Tiger met the same fate as many of its fellows- it was abandoned after becoming immobilized in a pile of rubble. Photo source: Wikipedia.

                Production of both tanks ceased with the end of the war, but for the Sherman, the war’s cessation did not mean an end to service. The Sherman saw extensive service in the Korean War alongside its larger replacements, the M26 Pershing and the M47 Patton. Following the Korean War’s end, the Sherman was taken out of US service. However, various versions of the Sherman would see extensive combat service with the Israeli Army beginning in the 1950s. After obtaining a small number of wrecked Shermans from European junkyards, the Israelis were forced to improvise in restoring them to working order, even installing old World War I-era 77mm German field guns on a few.[43] Eventually, a larger supply of old Shermans was found and the Israelis began modifying them in to the M-50 standard with French support. The M50 Sherman mounted a French CN 75-50 75mm main gun, improved HVSS suspension, and in some cases a diesel Cummins engine. Roughly 100 Shermans were upgraded to the M-50 standard.[44] In the early 1960s and in response to increasingly better-armed hostile neighbors, the Israelis again turned to France for upgraded Shermans. This time the product was the M51 Isherman, produced by Atelier de Bourges, the same company responsible for the M50. The M51 featured a new turret which housed a 105mm gun, a 460-horsepower Cummins diesel engine, and a new hydraulic system and wider tracks to accommodate the increased weight of the modified tank. About 200 of Israel’s Shermans were modified to the M51 standard.[45]

                Israeli Shermans saw service in the 1956 Suez Crisis, the 1967 Six Day War, and the 1973 Yom Kippur War. During the Six Day War, the Israeli army used the Sherman on all three fronts, including  on the Syrian Front where, curiously, the Sherman faced off against modified Panzer IV and Sturmgeschutz IV tanks and assault guns, the same vehicles it saw combat with twenty years earlier. The Israeli army also used Sherman chassis as self-propelled guns, fitting French 155mm guns to the superstructure. Following the end of the Yom Kippur War, the M50 and M51 Shermans were gradually withdrawn from active service as they were replaced with more modern tanks.[46]

An Israeli M51 Super Sherman, alongside an early M50. Photo source: Wikipedia.

An Israeli M51 Super Sherman, alongside an early M50. Photo source: Wikipedia.

                Incredibly, the Sherman continues in limited service in the present day. As of 2014, Paraguay has reactivated three Shermans which had been in storage with refurbished engines and new machine guns. These tanks were obtained from Argentina in 1980, and are likely being used for training purposes. Oddly, Paraguay also has a small number of M3 Stuart light tanks, which it also planned to restore to use for training.[47] In addition, there are numerous examples of Sherman tanks preserved around the world as they appeared during World War II. Many have been restored to working order and are in civilian hands, frequently appearing in reenactments. The Tiger has not been so fortunate. The vast majority of Tigers which were not outright destroyed during the war appear to have been scrapped since then. As a result, only a small handful exist today. A total of six Tiger Is of the original 1,300 are preserved in museums or as war memorials. Only one, Tiger 131 at the Bovington tank museum, remains functional.

The only functional Tiger I in the world resides in the Bovington Tank Museum in England. Photo source: Wikipedia.

The only functional Tiger I in the world resides in the Bovington Tank Museum in England. Photo source: Wikipedia.

                As described in this article, the Sherman and Tiger I tanks were completely different vehicles intended for entirely different purposes. In spite of this, they are frequently compared against one another. This comparison overlooks what army planners envisioned for both tanks. The Sherman was intended from the start to be a reliable, easy-to-mass-produce medium tank which could both face off against enemy medium tanks and provide fire support to infantry. In this role, the Sherman functioned well- apart from its main gun, it was comparatively similar to the Panzer IV, its opposite number. Later versions of the Sherman would prove superior to the Panzer IV and could take on heavier tanks. Shermans were built in massive numbers, which meant that tanks that were destroyed could be readily replaced with new ones. What’s more, knocked-out Shermans were frequently repaired and sent back to the front to fight again. Underlining the Shermans’ utilitarian design is the fact that numerous other armored vehicles utilized its chassis. The Tiger on the other hand was designed in response to Soviet tanks to be capable of being used as a breakthrough tank, and later used as a kind of mobile bunker to stop Soviet armored thrusts. In this role, it was quite successful. However, as it was manufactured in small numbers, it was unable to reverse the tide of the war. The design was also plagued with mechanical and operational difficulties which affected its readiness at the front. Ultimately, it must be understood that both of these tanks were in general successful for the roles they were built for, but because of their distinct differences, it is not possible to compare one to the other.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sources

1.       B., David. “Medium Tank M4 Sherman.” Tank Encyclopedia, 19 Aug. 2017, www.tanks-encyclopedia.com/ww2/US/M4_Sherman.php.

2.       Taylor, Blaine. “M4 Sherman: ‘Blunder’ or ‘Wonder’ Weapon?” Warfare History Network, Sovereign Media, 15 Nov. 2016, warfarehistorynetwork.com/daily/wwii/m4-sherman-blunder-or-wonder-weapon/.

3.       Conners, Chris. “Medium Tank M4A1 Sherman, Early production1-8.” Medium Tank M4 Sherman, 20 July 2017, afvdb.50megs.com/usa/m4sherman.html.

4.       “Panzerkampfwagen VI Tiger Ausf. E Sd. Kfz. 181.” Achtung Panzer RSS, Weider History Group, www.achtungpanzer.com/panzerkampfwagen-vi-tiger-ausf-e-sd-kfz-181.htm.

5.       Hamby, Alan. “The Story of the Tiger I .” Tiger I Information Center - Tiger History, www.alanhamby.com/history.shtml.

6.       Prado, Fabio. “History of the Tiger I.” The Life and Times of Germany's Tiger Tanks: PzKpfw VI TIGER I, The ARMOR Site!, 2009, www.fprado.com/armorsite/tiger1.htm.

7.       “M4 Furious – 11 Essential Facts About the Sherman Tank.” MilitaryHistoryNow.com, MilitaryHistoryNow.com, 31 Mar. 2016, militaryhistorynow.com/2014/10/22/furious-11-essential-facts-about-the-m4-sherman-tank/.

8.       B., David. “Panzer VI Tiger.” Tank Encyclopedia, 27 Sept. 2017, www.tanks-encyclopedia.com/ww2/nazi_germany/Panzer-VI_Tiger.php.

9.       B., David. “Sherman VC Firefly.” Tank Encyclopedia, 29 Aug. 2017, www.tanks-encyclopedia.com/ww2/gb/Sherman_Firefly.php.

10.   Pawley, A. J. “M4A3E2 Jumbo Assault Tank.” Tank Encyclopedia, 18 Apr. 2017, www.tanks-encyclopedia.com/ww2/US/m4a3e2-jumbo-assault-tank.

11.   Loza, Dmitriy. “Dmitriy Loza.” Я Помню. Герои Великой Отечественной Войны. Участники ВОВ. Книга Памяти, Federal Agency for Press and Mass Communication, 21 Sept. 2010, iremember.ru/en/memoirs/tankers/dmitriy-loza/.

12.   Reynolds, Michael. “Disaster at Villers-Bocage: Wittman's Tigers vs. the Desert Rats.” Warfare History Network, Sovereign Media, 25 Jan. 2017, warfarehistorynetwork.com/daily/wwii/disaster-at-villers-bocage-wittmanns-tigers-vs-the-desert-rats/.

13.   Miskimon, Christopher. “Site Navigation.” Warfare History Network, Sovereign Media, 17 May 2017, warfarehistorynetwork.com/daily/wwii/the-death-of-michael-wittmann-panzer-ace/.

14.   Fong, Dan. “3rd Armored Division History Foundation [ 3d / Third ].” 3rd Armored Division History Foundation [ 3d / Third ], Www.3AD.Com, 2003, www.3ad.com/.

15.   Mantle, Craig, and Larry Zaporzan. “The Leadership of S.V. Radley-Walters: The Normandy Campaign Part Two.” The Leadership of S.V. Radley-Walters: The Normandy Campaign ~ Part Two of Two, Government of Canada, National Defence, Canadian Defence Academy, 15 Oct. 2009, www.journal.forces.gc.ca/vol10/no1/09-mantle%20zaporzan-eng.asp.

16.   “Israeli Shermans: The Most Powerful Shermans Ever to See Action.” The Sherman Tank Site, WordPress, 20 Dec. 2015, www.theshermantank.com/tag/hvss/.

17.   Majumdar, Dave. “WWII Sherman Tanks: Back in Action in 2016.” The National Interest, The National Interest, 30 Dec. 2015, nationalinterest.org/blog/the-buzz/wwii-sherman-tanks-back-action-2016-14768+.

18.   Miskimon, Christopher. “Sherman Tanks of the Israeli Army.” Warfare History Network, Sovereign Media, 14 Sept. 2016, warfarehistorynetwork.com/daily/military-history/sherman-tanks-of-the-israeli-army

 

[1] http://www.tanks-encyclopedia.com/ww2/US/M4_Sherman.php

[2] http://www.tanks-encyclopedia.com/ww2/US/M4_Sherman.php

[3] http://warfarehistorynetwork.com/daily/wwii/m4-sherman-blunder-or-wonder-weapon/

[4] http://www.tanks-encyclopedia.com/ww2/US/M4_Sherman.php

[5] http://afvdb.50megs.com/usa/m4sherman.html

[6] http://www.tanks-encyclopedia.com/ww2/US/M4_Sherman.php

[7] http://www.achtungpanzer.com/panzerkampfwagen-vi-tiger-ausf-e-sd-kfz-181.htm

[8] http://www.alanhamby.com/history.shtml

[9] http://www.tanks-encyclopedia.com/ww2/nazi_germany/Panzer-VI_Tiger.php

[10] http://www.fprado.com/armorsite/tiger1.htm

[11] http://www.achtungpanzer.com/panzerkampfwagen-vi-tiger-ausf-e-sd-kfz-181.htm

[12] http://www.fprado.com/armorsite/tiger1.htm

[13] http://www.fprado.com/armorsite/tiger1.htm

[14] http://militaryhistorynow.com/2014/10/22/furious-11-essential-facts-about-the-m4-sherman-tank/

[15] http://www.alanhamby.com/history.shtml

[16] http://www.alanhamby.com/history.shtml

[17] http://www.alanhamby.com/factory3.shtml

[18] http://www.tanks-encyclopedia.com/ww2/nazi_germany/Panzer-VI_Tiger.php

[19] http://www.tanks-encyclopedia.com/ww2/US/M4_Sherman.php

[20] http://www.alanhamby.com/history.shtml

[21] http://www.achtungpanzer.com/panzerkampfwagen-vi-tiger-ausf-e-sd-kfz-181.htm

[22] http://www.tanks-encyclopedia.com/ww2/nazi_germany/Panzer-VI_Tiger.php

[23] http://www.tanks-encyclopedia.com/ww2/gb/Sherman_Firefly.php

[24] http://www.tanks-encyclopedia.com/ww2/US/m4a3e2-jumbo-assault-tank

[25] http://warfarehistorynetwork.com/daily/wwii/m4-sherman-blunder-or-wonder-weapon/

[26] http://www.tanks-encyclopedia.com/ww2/US/M4_Sherman.php

[27] http://www.tanks-encyclopedia.com/ww2/US/M4_Sherman.php

[28] http://iremember.ru/en/memoirs/tankers/dmitriy-loza/

[29] http://www.alanhamby.com/history.shtml

[30] http://www.fprado.com/armorsite/tiger1.htm

[31] http://warfarehistorynetwork.com/daily/wwii/disaster-at-villers-bocage-wittmanns-tigers-vs-the-desert-rats/

[32] http://warfarehistorynetwork.com/daily/wwii/the-death-of-michael-wittmann-panzer-ace/

[33] http://www.3ad.com/

[34] http://www.journal.forces.gc.ca/vol10/no1/09-mantle%20zaporzan-eng.asp

[35] Survey of Allied Tank Casualties in World War II, p. 44

[36] Survey of Allied Tank Casualties in World War II, p.80

[37] Survey of Allied Tank Casualties in World War II, p.2

[38] Survey of Allied Tank Casualties in World War II, p.4

[39] Survey of Allied Tank Casualties in World War II, p.25-27

[40] Survey of Allied Tank Casualties in World War II, p.24

[41] Survey of Allied Tank Casualties in World War II, p.89

[42] Survey of Allied Tank Casualties in World War II, p.87-89

[43]http://www.theshermantank.com/tag/hvss/

[44] http://warfarehistorynetwork.com/daily/military-history/sherman-tanks-of-the-israeli-army/

[45] http://warfarehistorynetwork.com/daily/military-history/sherman-tanks-of-the-israeli-army/

[46] http://warfarehistorynetwork.com/daily/military-history/sherman-tanks-of-the-israeli-army/

[47] http://nationalinterest.org/blog/the-buzz/wwii-sherman-tanks-back-action-2016-14768

Tools of War: USS LST-325

USS LST-325 visits Clarksville, Tennessee in September 2017. Photo: author.

USS LST-325 visits Clarksville, Tennessee in September 2017. Photo: author.

During the Second World War, the Allies found themselves in need of large numbers of amphibious transport capable of navigating the world’s oceans and delivering heavy equipment to beachheads. The Landing Ship, Tank, or LST, was developed to meet this demand. Today, the USS LST-325 remains one of the last LSTs in existence, and is a fully operational museum ship.

By Seth Marshall

                In May-June 1940, the BEF was evacuated from the shores of Dunkirk by a variety of small craft, destroyers, and requisitioned steamers. While the evacuation successfully removed over 300,000 soldiers from France, nearly all of their heavy equipment was left behind, including artillery, vehicles, tanks, etc. This event, along with subsequent operations, demonstrated the Allied need for amphibious vehicles that could effectively deliver both troops and vehicles directly to the beachhead. Additionally, it became soon apparent that a craft delivering heavy vehicles would also need to be capable of traversing the world’s oceans. What resulted was the Landing Ship, Tank (LST), an amphibious vessel capable of navigating both deep and shallow water in order to deliver tanks straight to a beachhead.

                The first LSTs were actually converted tankers. The three ships, the Bachaquero, the Misoa, and the Tasajera, were medium-sized tankers in use in Venezuela and specifically designed to safely pass over shallow sand bars. All three ships had originally been built in the late 1930s in Britain by Furness Shipbuilding. Bachaquero and Misoa were sister ships and both displaced 4,193 tons, while the Tasajera displaced 3,952 tons. Following their requisitioning by the Royal Navy in late 1940 and early 1941, they were sent on to Belfast, Ireland for conversion into landing ships. Their original bows were removed and replaced with a bow that featured a ramp, and much of the interior deck space was cleared to make room for vehicles. The conversion process was completed by the end of 1941, upon which the ex-tankers were capable of carrying two Landing Craft Mechanized (LCM), or 22 25-ton or 18 30-ton tanks, or 33 3-ton vehicles, along with 210 soldiers.[1] These converted vessels eventually saw action during Operation Torch, the invasion of Morroco, in November 1942. However, they were more of a proof-of-concept rather than a final product. Purpose-built designs would quickly overtake these ships.

                In 1941, following an agreement between President Franklin Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill, a group from the British Admiralty arrived in the United States to collaborate on the design of landing vessels with the US Navy’s Bureau of Ships. John Niedermair, a member of the Bureau of Ships, is credited with originating the basic outline of what would become the mass-produced LST- a ship capable of moving through both deep and shallow water, equipped with a ballast system that would allow the landing ship to pump water in and out for beaching operations and ocean travel. The design, approved on November 5, 1941, called for a ship 280 feet in length. This was modified several times over the coming months and eventually was settled at a length of 328 feet, with a 50-foot beam and minimum draft of three feet 9 ½ inches. The LST could accommodate 2100 tons worth of tanks which would enter and exit via a clamshell-type door at the front with a 12-14 foot ramp. The tank deck was ventilated, allowing the vehicles to run their engines without fear of asphyxiation. Model testing of the design began in early 1942.[2]

                Following testing, construction of LSTs began in earnest in mid-1942. The first LST was laid down on June 10, 1942 at New News, Virginia- by the end of the year, twenty-three were in commission. Owing to the priority of coastal shipyards for building warships, a large portion of LSTs were built at inland shipyards along rivers, which the shallow-water going LSTs could navigate. The first production LSTs entered combat in the Solomon Islands in 1943.

The USS LST-942 underway in late 1944. Photo source: Wikipedia.

The USS LST-942 underway in late 1944. Photo source: Wikipedia.

                Not long after the first LSTs began entering service, they began to be modified for missions apart from ferrying tanks and vehicles to beaches. Some LSTs were converted into landing craft repair ships, and featured additional cranes, booms, winches, and workshops necessary to repair damaged vessels. Thirty-eight LSTs were converted to small hospital ships, a number of which ferried wounded troops back from the beaches of Normandy to England. Fifteen LSTs were converted to move railcars to France. Locomotives and heavier rolling stock were moved on larger ships, leaving boxcars and flatcars to be carried by the LSTs.[3] Late during World War II, several LSTs were modified to be able to launch and recover light observation aircraft. Initially, LSTs were give a plywood runway 197 feet long, which allowed Piper L-4 observation aircraft to take off. In this configuration, ten aircraft could be carried. Later, Lieutenant James Brodie of the Office of Strategic Services developed a trapeze system in which an L-4 or L-5 could be launched and recovered from an LST. A bar with a hook above the cockpit was used to hook onto a trapeze bar suspended by two gantries over the side of the ship. This version of the LST could actually carry out normal transportation operations. The Brodie system was developed late in the war, and saw action only during the Battle of Okinawa.[4]

Navsource_02.jpg
A side view of USS LST-325 equipped with a Brodie system. This photo was likely taken in 1945 around the end of the war. Photo source: lstmemorial.org. 

A side view of USS LST-325 equipped with a Brodie system. This photo was likely taken in 1945 around the end of the war. Photo source: lstmemorial.org. 

A view from the deck of an LST converted for use as an "aircraft carrier". The aircraft in this picture are Piper L-4 observation aircraft, frequently used for artillery spotting. 

A view from the deck of an LST converted for use as an "aircraft carrier". The aircraft in this picture are Piper L-4 observation aircraft, frequently used for artillery spotting. 

One of the most iconic images of the war, this photograph shows numerous LSTs offloading men and vehicles at the beaches of Normandy not long after D-Day. Photo source: Wikipedia.

One of the most iconic images of the war, this photograph shows numerous LSTs offloading men and vehicles at the beaches of Normandy not long after D-Day. Photo source: Wikipedia.

                During the course of the war, production time of the LST was drastically reduced from four months to two months. Armament was increased as the war progressed and additional anti-aircraft armament became a priority in the Pacific.[5] By the end of the war, 1,051 had been produced. Of these 113 were given to Britain under the terms of the Lend Lease program. An additional four were given to the Greek Navy. A further 116 were converted to other missions and given different hull designations.[6] Though derisively referred to as “Large Slow Target” by crew members and soldiers in reference to its top speed of 11 knots, LSTs were surprisingly durable and relatively few were lost during the war. Twenty-six were lost to enemy fire, and another thirteen were lost to weather or accidents.[7] Following World War II, LSTs continued to see service in the US Navy during the Korean War and the Cold War. As these ships were decommissioned from the USN, many were given to foreign navies. Though the war that was the impetus behind these ships ended over seventy years ago, a few LSTs still remain in service to this day.

USS LST-325 beached at Slapton Sands in January 1944 during one of the exercises rehearsing the invasion of Normandy. Photo source: navsource.org. 

USS LST-325 beached at Slapton Sands in January 1944 during one of the exercises rehearsing the invasion of Normandy. Photo source: navsource.org. 

USS LST-325 beached off the coast of Normandy at low tide on June 12, 1944. Photo source: navsource.org. 

USS LST-325 beached off the coast of Normandy at low tide on June 12, 1944. Photo source: navsource.org. 

                The USS LST-325 is a fully functional LST which has been restored to its World War II configuration. LST-325 was laid down on August 10, 1942 at the Philadelphia Navy Yard and launched on October 27, 1942. She was commissioned on February 1, 1943 with Lieutenant Ira Ehrensall in command.[8] Her compliment included thirteen officers and 104 enlisted personnel. In addition to her vehicle-carrying capability, had accommodations for sixteen officers and 147 enlisted personnel. LST-325 was equipped with two twin 40mm gun mounts with Mk. 51 fire control directors, four single 40mm gun mounts, and twelve 20mm gun mounts. [9] Not long after her commissioning in February 1943, Lt. Ehrensall was transferred to the USS LST-391 and replaced by Ensign Clifford E. Mosier, who would remain the commanding officer until June 1945. Upon completing her shakedown cruise, she was sent to Algeria, where she spent three months practicing loading and beaching operations. She was then sent to the Bay of Tunis to prepare for Operation Husky, the invasion of Sicily.[10] On July 13th, LST-325 unloaded soldiers and vehicles of the 1st Armored Division at the Bay of Gela. The LST made five more trips between Africa and Sicily, bringing back Italian prisoners on two of those trips.[11]

German prisoners debarking USS LST-325 in England following the invasion of Normandy. Photo source: navsource.org.

German prisoners debarking USS LST-325 in England following the invasion of Normandy. Photo source: navsource.org.

                LST-325 first came under fire on September 6th at Bizerte, Tunisia, when the ship came under attack by enemy aircraft. Four crew members were injured in the attack. A week later, the LST took part in the invasion of Salerno, Italy by offloading part of the 40th Royal Tank Regiment. During this operation, the LST again came under air attack during an attack by German fighter-bombers. Another four crew members and four British soldiers were wounded during the attack. After further supporting the invasion of the Italian mainland, LST-325 formed up with a large convoy in November 1943 bound for England. On November 21, the convoy came under attack by German bombers using Fritz X glide bombs, which sank a number of ships. One passenger aboard the LST was wounded by shrapnel from a nearby explosion.

                After reaching England, the LST spent the next several months engaged in exercises along the English coast, preparing for the invasion of France. On June 5th, 1944, members of the 5th Special Engineer Brigade were loaded aboard as part of a backup force supporting the main force landing at Omaha Beach. The LST unloaded her cargo at Omaha Beach on June 7th. She would spend the next nine months making 43 trips between England and France for supply runs. On December 28, 1944, LST-325 assisted in the rescue of 700 survivors of the torpedoed transport Empire Javelin; Mosier, now a Lieutenant Commander, was awarded a Bronze Star for his efforts. On May 11, 1945, LST-325 formed up with a convoy to return to the United States. The next day, the ship was badly damaged in a storm after striking a large wave bow first, which caused a large crack to develop across the main deck. Steel plates were welded in place onto the damaged hull, which allowed the LST to limp back to the US for repairs. She arrived in Norfolk, Virginia on May 31, 1945.[12]

                After arriving in the US, LST-325 moved to New Orleans to receive repairs. While in New Orleans, she was also fitted with a “Brodie” system to launch light aircraft. It was assumed the ship would move to the Pacific Theater for operations against Japan, but the war ended before the LST could move there. She was decommissioned at Green Cove Springs, Florida on July 2, 1946. She was reactivated in 1951 and became part of the Military Sea Transport Service, where she was tasked with assisting in the construction of radar sites along the eastern coasts of Greenland and Canada, which would provide the US with early warning against a Soviet bomber strike. In 1961, LST-325 was decommissioned a second time. Two years later, the ship was transferred to the Greek Navy and named Syros (L-144). She would remain active with Greece until December 1999, when was decommissioned a third and final time.

USS LST-325 in 1964, not long before she was transferred to the Greek Navy. Photo source: navsource.org. 

USS LST-325 in 1964, not long before she was transferred to the Greek Navy. Photo source: navsource.org. 

USS LST-325 in service with the Greek Navy. Photo source: navsource.org.

USS LST-325 in service with the Greek Navy. Photo source: navsource.org.

                Following her final decommissioning, LST-325 was acquired by The USS Ship Memorial, Inc. in 2000. A small crew was sent to Greece to bring the LST across the Atlantic- it arrived in Mobile, Alamaba on January 10, 2001. It spent the next few years being restored to its World War II appearance. In 2004, following the completion of the restoration process, the LST arrived in Evansville, Indiana, where it would be home-ported. Evansville was the site of one of the inland LST production facilities, and had produced 171 LSTs during the war.[13] 

USS LST-325 moored at its home port in Evansville, Indiana in April 2017. Photo: author.

USS LST-325 moored at its home port in Evansville, Indiana in April 2017. Photo: author.

                Today, LST-325 is open to the public as a floating museum. Most of the year she can be found moored in Evansville, not far from the downtown area. One month out of the year, the LST travels many of the rivers in the Upper South and Midwest areas, stopping at cities and towns to give tours to local residents. According to members of the crew, the ship undergoes one-month maintenance periods twice a year, once in the spring and once at the completion of their late summer river tour. Despite being 75 years old, the LST is in very good condition, and appears to be an accurate representation of World War II LSTs. While for the most part the ship has been returned to its World War II configuration, a number of modern additions have been made to make operations more practical. Newer engines have replaced the originals, which were not as reliable. A modern bridge has been added to the top of the superstructure, allowing much better visibility while cruising rivers. Modern generators have been added to provide power, and new radar systems have been mounted. Nonetheless, the LST definitely retains a wartime appearance. Having visited a number of museum ships in the past, LST-325 differs from others in that it has a sense of life about it- crew members are routinely seen moving about to operate systems or conduct routine maintenance. The LST has the sounds and smells of active ship, as opposed the smell of cleaners and the silence of a long-stationary ship. The tank deck houses a number of displays which discuss the history of LSTs, including the 325, and a number of artifacts donated by former LST crewmen can be seen in various locations around the vessels. Volunteer crewmen are generally friendly and are happy to answer questions posed by visitors. LST-325 is an excellent example of a preserved vessel, and will provide a unique museum dedicated to the LSTs for years too come.

The tank deck of USS LST-325 looking aft from the bow. Much of the tank deck is currently used as exhibit space. Photo: Author.

The tank deck of USS LST-325 looking aft from the bow. Much of the tank deck is currently used as exhibit space. Photo: Author.

Another view of the tank deck, closer towards the aft of the ship. Photo: author.

Another view of the tank deck, closer towards the aft of the ship. Photo: author.

One of the troop berthing areas located in the sides of the ship. A standard LST was capable of transporting over 100 combat-loaded troops in addition to tanks and vehicles. Photo: author.

One of the troop berthing areas located in the sides of the ship. A standard LST was capable of transporting over 100 combat-loaded troops in addition to tanks and vehicles. Photo: author.

One of the hallways in the officer cabin area. These cabins are located in the superstructure of the ship. Photo: Author.

One of the hallways in the officer cabin area. These cabins are located in the superstructure of the ship. Photo: Author.

The interior of the original bridge. Today, the USS LST-325 has a modern bridge mounted on the top of the superstructure to meet current requirements for operation. Photo: Author.

The interior of the original bridge. Today, the USS LST-325 has a modern bridge mounted on the top of the superstructure to meet current requirements for operation. Photo: Author.

The superstructure of the LST as viewed from the deck. Photo: author.

The superstructure of the LST as viewed from the deck. Photo: author.

Film Review: Dunkirk

Dunkirk_Film_poster wikipedia.jpg

By Seth Marshall

Christopher Nolan, director of the Dark Knight Trilogy, Inception and Interstellar has turned his attention on the miraculous evacuation of the Allied forces from Dunkirk in late May and early June 1940.

 

                On May 10th, 1940, the so-called Phoney War, a period of relative inactivity along the Western Front in Europe, came to a sudden and dramatic end when the German Army invaded France and the Low Countries. Over the course of the next several weeks, the Wehrmacht would conquer the Netherlands, Belgium, and ultimately France. Fall Gelb, Case Yellow, called for Army Group A under the command of General Gerd von Rundstedt to advance through the Ardennes, break through French defenses along the Meuse River at Sedan, and ultimately advance to the Channel coast, with the objective of cutting the Allied forces in half. Army Group B, under the command of General  Fedar von Bock, was to drive into Belgium and the Netherlands, with the objective of occupying those countries. [1] After several days of French resistance, the Wehrmacht successfully broke the French lines at Sedan, lead by armor commanders General Ewald von Kleist and General Heinz Guderian. By May 20th, Guderian’s tanks had captured Amiens and Abbeville, bisecting the Allied forces and leaving the entirety of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) cut off from the rest of France. In an effort to stem the German advance and reserve the rapidly deteriorating situation, the commander of French forces, General Maurice Gamelin, ordered French forces in their increasingly poor position to attack towards the south. However, Gamelin was replaced on May 19th, and his replacement, General Maxime Weygand, delaying the counterattack proposed by Gamelin for three days while he inspected the front lines. By the time Weygand ordered the attack forward on May 22nd, the time for an effective counterattack had passed.[2]

                It was in this perilous situation that the BEF found itself in late May 1940. Commanding the BEF was Lord Field Marshal John Gort. Born in 1886 in County Durham, Gort had served with distinction during the First World War and was decorated with the Military Cross, the Distinguished Service Order with two bars, and the Victoria Cross, Britain’s highest military honor. Advancing through the ranks between the Wars, Gort had held various command positions, including Chief of the Imperial General Staff, prior to his promotion to full general in 1937.[3] Appointed as commander of the BEF in 1939, Gort encountered difficulties in working with his French allies. This would become apparent in the wake of the German invasion of France, as the BEF’s position became more and more tenuous. Ignoring calls for reinforcement by the French and London, Gort began ordering his forces to pull back- on the night of May 18-19th, Gort ordered the British I and II Corps to pull back to the Dendre River from the Senne River. On May 21st, tired of the dallying of French forces, Gort ordered the 5th and 50th Divisions, supported by 100 tanks, to attack south from Arras, with the objective of breaking through the German encirclement. Initially, the attack achieved a modicum of success, and the British forces began pushing back the Germans, causing some panic among local German commanders, including then-Major General Erwin Rommel: “Powerful armored forces had swarmed out of Arras, subjecting us to heavy losses in men and equipment. The anti-tank guns that we speedily brought into action proved too light to be effective against the heavily-armored British tanks. Most of them were put of action by the enemy artillery...”[4] The British Matilda tanks, more heavily armed and armored than most of their German counterparts, proved difficult to disable. In the end, only by resorting to artillery guns and 88mm anti-aircraft guns were the Germans able to blunt the British offensive.[5] On May 22nd, Guderian’s tanks began moving again, advancing north into Boulogne. At Boulogne, they encountered stiff resistance and fought for three days before finally taking the city on May 25th. By then, Gort had decided that the only viable option left to him was to evacuate the BEF. On the evening of May 23rd, Gort ordered the BEF to begin withdrawing to the port of Dunkirk, the last major port available for evacuation.[6] Withdrawing from Belgium, Gort ordered the garrison at Calais to remain behind as a rearguard and placed various forces at ideal locations to slow the German advance and buy time for an evacuation to take place. It was at this time that one of the more controversial decisions of the war in 1940 took place when on May 24th Hitler gave an order to halt the advance of the panzers, leaving the final capture of Dunkirk up to the infantry with the support of the Luftwaffe. After the war, various German officers offered their explanations for the delay. Von Kleist said that Luftwaffe commander Herman Goring had lobbied Hitler to give the Luftwaffe the opportunity to finish off the BEF from the air; “Goring had undertaken to settle Dunkirk’s hash with planes alone… He begged Hitler to bestow the honor not on the army but on the Luftwaffe, thereby making the battle of Dunkirk a victory for the regime.”[7] Von Rundstedt believed Hitler had halted the advance to create a more advantageous position for Germany to negotiate surrender terms with Britain; “The Fuhrer had counted on a speedy end to western operations… He deliberately let the bulk of the BEF escape, so as to make peace negotiations easier.” Von Rundstedt’s claim is negated by the fact that his own diary recorded him as having made the suggestion to halt to Hitler himself.[8] In any case, the combination of the delayed advance of the panzers and the stubborn resistance of pockets of BEF forces in locations such as Calais served to buy additional time for the BEF to organize an evacuation. Gort continued to withdraw his forces, forming a defensive perimeter around Dunkirk. In the meantime, the British Navy began preparing to carry out the evacuation.

Lord Field Marshal John Gort's official portrait. Despite Gort's difficult situation as commander of the BEF, he would come under heavy criticism as having perceived to have abandoned the French. Gort would later serve in the Mediterranean as Governor of Gibraltar, as the Governor of Malta, and lastly in the position of High Commissioner for Palestine and Transjordan. Photo: Wikipedia.

Lord Field Marshal John Gort's official portrait. Despite Gort's difficult situation as commander of the BEF, he would come under heavy criticism as having perceived to have abandoned the French. Gort would later serve in the Mediterranean as Governor of Gibraltar, as the Governor of Malta, and lastly in the position of High Commissioner for Palestine and Transjordan. Photo: Wikipedia.

General Gerd von Rundstedt, commander of German Army Group A, which successfully broke through French defenses and swept into France. Rundstedt had retired in 1938 only to be recalled to active service when Germany invaded Poland. Rundstedt would be subsequently be dismissed in late 1941, the summer of 1944, and March 1945- by Hitler each time. An excellent commander, he was recalled to service several times to salvage defensive situations. Photo source: Wikipedia.

General Gerd von Rundstedt, commander of German Army Group A, which successfully broke through French defenses and swept into France. Rundstedt had retired in 1938 only to be recalled to active service when Germany invaded Poland. Rundstedt would be subsequently be dismissed in late 1941, the summer of 1944, and March 1945- by Hitler each time. An excellent commander, he was recalled to service several times to salvage defensive situations. Photo source: Wikipedia.

The campaign in France from 21 May to 31 May, ending with the encirclement of the BEF and elements of the French and Belgian armies at Dunkirk. Source: Warfare History Network.

The campaign in France from 21 May to 31 May, ending with the encirclement of the BEF and elements of the French and Belgian armies at Dunkirk. Source: Warfare History Network.

                In command of the evacuation was Vice Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsey, who was the commander of Royal Navy forces at the port of Dover. Overseeing the operations from his headquarters in the catacombs beneath Dover castle, Ramsey ordered Captain William Tennant, the chief of staff to the First Sea Lord, to proceed to Dunkirk to function as the senior naval officer in place and send his recommendations back to Ramsey as to the best means of evacuating the BEF. On May 27th, the day following London’s official order to begin evacuation, Tennant proceeding across the Channel on the destroyer HMS Wolfhound, under frequent attack by Luftwaffe dive-bombers. On his arrival, Tennant made two observations that would prove critical in the evacuation. First, with the bombing of Dunkirk harbor by the Luftwaffe having caused serious damage, Tennant recognized that naval units would be unable to use the docks to embark men. Second, he realized that the harbor’s moles, which served as breakwaters for the harbor, were relatively undamaged and could be used in place of the devastated docks. Tennant tested the moles’ capability by directing the steamship Queen of the Channel to dock alongside one of the moles, which it accomplished successfully. Tennant recommended to Ramsey that he send every ship available to Dunkirk, first asking him to send them to the beaches, then advising that the moles be used as the primary means to extricate the soldiers. [9] Ramsey ordered the 129 ships at his disposal, including fast modern destroyers prized by the Admiralty as convoy escorts, into action to carry out the evacuation. In order to assist the evacuation, a call was put out to owners of private boats in southern England to take their vessels across the Channel and assist the evacuation by ferrying men from the beach to larger ships further out in the Channel, which would in turn take them to Dover. Some 1400 small ships, including fishing trawlers, motorboats, yachts, ferries, and barges, made their way from their home ports along the Channel and the Thames River estuary to Dunkirk to take part.[10]

Vice Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsey, in overall command of the evacuation of the BEF from Dunkirk. Working almost constantly in Dover castle, Ramsey's dedication and ultimate success in orchestrating the operation earned him a visit with King George VI as well as the title of Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath. Photo: Wikipedia.

Vice Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsey, in overall command of the evacuation of the BEF from Dunkirk. Working almost constantly in Dover castle, Ramsey's dedication and ultimate success in orchestrating the operation earned him a visit with King George VI as well as the title of Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath. Photo: Wikipedia.

As the senior Royal Navy officer on the ground, at-that-time Captain William Tenant (later Admiral Sir William Tenant) was in charge of overseeing evacuation efforts at Dunkirk. Photo: Wikipedia.

As the senior Royal Navy officer on the ground, at-that-time Captain William Tenant (later Admiral Sir William Tenant) was in charge of overseeing evacuation efforts at Dunkirk. Photo: Wikipedia.

Among the most famous images captured during the evacuation of Dunkirk was this: the image of thousands of British troops waiting on the sands of the French coast in hopes of being evacuated. Photo source: Warfare History Network.

Among the most famous images captured during the evacuation of Dunkirk was this: the image of thousands of British troops waiting on the sands of the French coast in hopes of being evacuated. Photo source: Warfare History Network.

                By May 28th, the evacuation was proceeding at full speed. Destroyers began picking up boatloads of soldiers from the moles, while small boats ferried teams of men from the beaches to ships waiting further offshore. All the while, German artillery continued to rain down on Dunkirk and the Luftwaffe continued to torment the occupants of the harbor and beaches with constant machine-gun fire and bombing runs, coupled with the sounds of their sirens. The RAF attempted to disrupt the Luftwaffe’s operations by sending fighter patrols across the Channel, but their ability to provide protection was limited by their range, which meant that they could only spend a short time overhead. The RAF also had to provide aircraft for protecting sealanes, which limited the number of aircraft they could commit to the evacuation. As a result, the Stuka dive-bombers merely had to wait for RAF fighters to turn for home to refuel before renewing their attacks. During the day, the Queen of the Channel was sunk by aerial attacks, resulting in the civilian ships being limited to nighttime operations only.[11] Despite these difficulties, the British were able to evacuate 17,804 men on the 28th.

Amidst one of the seemingly endless Luftwaffe attacks, BEF soldiers take aim at attacking bombers with their rifles. Source: Warfare History Network.

Amidst one of the seemingly endless Luftwaffe attacks, BEF soldiers take aim at attacking bombers with their rifles. Source: Warfare History Network.

                May 29th saw a turn for the better for the BEF. A number of French warships arrived to assist in the evacuation, and despite continuing German artillery fire, over 47,000 soldiers were taken off the beaches. Three Royal Navy destroyers were lost on this day to Luftwaffe raids, a U-boat attack, and one by Kriegsmarine E-boat torpedo attacks. The merchant ship Mona Queen was sunk by a mine, while six more ships were sunk by air raids.[12] Losses were such that the Admiralty forbade the use of modern destroyers in order to preserve them for convoy escort duty.[13] By May 31st, so many British troops had been taken off the beaches that the decision was made to remove Lord Gort from his position, as a Corps commander could take over from there. He therefore turned over command to General Harold Alexander.[14]

The Mona Queen, a liner from the Isle of Man Steam Packet Company, sinks after striking a mine on 29 May. Photo source: Wikipedia.

The Mona Queen, a liner from the Isle of Man Steam Packet Company, sinks after striking a mine on 29 May. Photo source: Wikipedia.

The French destroyer Bourrasque sinks after striking a mine on 30 May after having taken on a load of soldiers, who are now jumping overboard. Photo source: Warfare History Network.

The French destroyer Bourrasque sinks after striking a mine on 30 May after having taken on a load of soldiers, who are now jumping overboard. Photo source: Warfare History Network.

                While the evacuation was proceeding, the scene at Dunkirk remained hellish, with artillery fire and Stuka dive bombers incessantly raining down destruction. On the beaches, there were still thousands of men waiting their chance to escape from the advancing Germans. Arthur Devine, the captain of a small boat shuttling men from the beach to larger ships offshore, recalled the scene years later:

“The picture will always remain sharp-etched in my memory- the lines of men wearily and sleepily staggering across the beach from the dunes to the shallows, falling into little boats, great columns of men thrust out into the water among bomb and shell splashes. The foremost ranks were shoulder deep, moving forward under the command of young subalterns, themselves with their heads just above the little waves that rode into the sand. As the front ranks were dragged aboard the boats, the rear ranks moved up, from ankle deep to knee deep, from knee deep to waist deep, until they, too, came to shoulder depth and their turn.”[15]

By the morning of June 1st, 200,000 Allied troops had been taken off the beaches. That day however saw the loss of four more destroyers within a short period, while four more were damaged. Even more civilian vessels were lost or damaged. Despite the ever-present artillery fire and Stukas, 68,000 more men were evacuated to Britain. Among the soldiers evacuated on this day was Norman Wickman, an engineer with the 62nd Chemical Warfare Company. Wickman was evacuated on board the destroyer HMS Worcester.

“Urging the men along the mole, I took a last look around, making sure everyone had gone, and then raced down the walkway. The destroyer was pulling away from its berth. I hesitated. The gap was too wide. “Jump, you silly bugger, jump” yelled a burly sailor at the ship’s rail. So I jumped. Immediately, I realized I had made a big mistake. In mid-air, I glanced down. The foaming water churned wildly where the destroyer’s sharp propeller blades were waiting to chop me to pieces. Leaning far out, the muscular sailor grabbed my shredded epaulette, flapping loosely from my uniform. With a crash, I slammed against the ship’s rail. Using brute strength, the sailor hauled me over, where I fell in a crumpled heap on the deck. Unbridled joy and relief overwhelmed me. I was on the destroyer, safe and on my way home. Then, all hell let loose. “Get up against the bulkhead,” shouted the sailor. Stunned and winded, I stumbled across the deck. As I pressed against the gray metal, I heard the planes. Stukas, 30-40 of them, dived on the Worcester time and time again. Bombs rained down like confetti all around the ship. The destroyer, so filled with troops it was top heavy, heeled over wildly at heart-stopping, stomach-lurching angles to evade the falling bombs. Bombs to the rear lifted the stern clear of the water. The massive propellers screamed until the ship crashed down again. Colossal columns of water washed over the ship. I closed my eyes and tried to make my body disappear into the bulkhead.By some miracle, none of the 100 bombs made a direct hit on the ship. Shrapnel killed 46 and wounded another 180 before the attacks tapered off. As sanity returned, I opened my eyes and looked round. The planes had disappeared. The Worcester, with its crowded decks, was steaming across the channel to the British coast. I may have been exhausted by the day’s events, but I felt exhilarated.”[16]

British soldiers board a destroyer at the mole at Dunkirk. Photo source: Warfare History Network.

British soldiers board a destroyer at the mole at Dunkirk. Photo source: Warfare History Network.

British soldiers crowded on board of a destroyer following evacuation prepare to dock at Dover on 31 May. Photo source: Wikipedia. 

British soldiers crowded on board of a destroyer following evacuation prepare to dock at Dover on 31 May. Photo source: Wikipedia. 

                The following day, June 2nd, Ramsey ordered a halt to the daylight evacuation, fearing disproportionate losses in ships and naval personnel; instead, he planned to continue the evacuation under the cover of darkness that night. Some 4,000 British soldiers remained ashore functioning as a rear guard, while another 50-60,000 French troops continued to hold the defensive perimeter, which was gradually being reduced by the Germans. For the next day and half, ships would continue to make the approach to Dunkirk at night and take even more men. By 11PM on June 2nd, the last of the BEF rearguard had been evacuated; Tennant reported back to Ramsey, “Operation Dynamo complete. Returning to Dover,” before leaving the beach.[17] While the BEF had now been extricated, ships continued to embark French soldiers. On the night of June 3rd-4th, the odd assembly of ships crossed the Channel for the final night of the operation. Over 26,000 French soldiers were taken back to Britain before the operation was finally called off in the early hours of June 4th.[18] The destroyer Shikari, with 383 soldiers on board, was the last ship to leave Dunkirk, pulling away at 3:40AM.[19]

                For an evacuation that was initially estimated to be capable of saving 40,000 men, Operation Dynamo had been an astounding success. Some 198,000 British and 140,000 French and Belgian troops were taken back to England from the pocket at Dunkirk. [20] Some 40,000 Frenchmen remained behind as a rearguard in Dunkirk and were killed or captured. While nearly 200,000 British soldiers were saved, the BEF still suffered heavily- 11,014 killed, 14,074 wounded, and 41,338 captured since the campaign had begun.[21] In addition, the BEF had left nearly all of its heavy equipment- it left behind 2,472 guns, 63,879 vehicles, 20,548 motorcycles, and 500,000 tons of supplies. In the air, the RAF had lost 106 fighters, inflicting a roughly equal number of losses on the Luftwaffe. The Royal Navy had lost six of its destroyers, while 19 more suffered damage. Including the lost destroyers, 243 ships of all types had been sunk.[22] Nonetheless, the manpower of the BEF had in large part been saved. However, for Lord Gort, his command of the BEF would prove to be his last major command. He was appointed to several Governor positions, most notable in Malta while the island was under siege, before his retirement. Gort died in 1946 just shy of his 60th birthday.

British soldiers, just having arrived at Dover exhausted from their ordeal in France, await a train to take them north. Photo source: Wikipedia.

British soldiers, just having arrived at Dover exhausted from their ordeal in France, await a train to take them north. Photo source: Wikipedia.

Not all soldiers were successfully evacuated from Dunkirk. Some 40,000 French soldiers, left behind as a rearguard to hold off the Germans, were captured when the Wehrmacht finally overran the port. Photo source: Warfare History Network.

Not all soldiers were successfully evacuated from Dunkirk. Some 40,000 French soldiers, left behind as a rearguard to hold off the Germans, were captured when the Wehrmacht finally overran the port. Photo source: Warfare History Network.

                Christopher Nolan’s film is the third film to be released that focuses on the subject of the evacuation at Dunkirk, though the evacuation has appeared in other films as a background. At 106 minutes, Dunkirk is one of Christopher Nolan’s shortest films, particularly in light of his more recent films, Interstellar and The Dark Knight Rises, both of which were well over two hours long.[23] Much of the film was shot on location at present-day Dunkirk, which certainly lends an air of authenticity to the film.  Among the cast are previous actors who have appeared in Nolan films, including Tom Hardy, starring as Spitfire pilot Farrier, and Cillian Murphy, who appears as a distressed BEF soldier. Other members of the cast include: Kenneth Branaugh as Commander Bolton, James D’Arcy as Captain Winnant, Fionn Whitehead as a young soldier named Tommy, and Mark Rylance as Dawsett. In an effort to make the film accurate, Nolan used three Spitfires and a Hispano Buchon painted as an ME-109 to depict the aerial sequences. Additionally, he used the French destroyer Maille-Breze as a stand-in for a period destroyer. While this ship wasn’t commissioned until the 1950s, it is visually similar to destroyers of the period.

Nolan wanted to use as much period-correct vehicles as possible to lend historical accuracy to the film. Pictured is one of several Supermarine Spitfires used in the film. Photo: Wikipedia.

Nolan wanted to use as much period-correct vehicles as possible to lend historical accuracy to the film. Pictured is one of several Supermarine Spitfires used in the film. Photo: Wikipedia.

Though there are a number of ME-109s that remain airworthy, none are the correct version that would have been flying in 1940. As a result, Nolan used a Hispano HA 1112 "Buchon" as a substitute. This aircraft is a post-war design based on the airframe of the ME-109 paired with the engine of the Spitfire. Buchons have been used as ME-109s in film before, most notably in the 1968 film "Battle of Britain." Photo source: Wikipedia. 

Though there are a number of ME-109s that remain airworthy, none are the correct version that would have been flying in 1940. As a result, Nolan used a Hispano HA 1112 "Buchon" as a substitute. This aircraft is a post-war design based on the airframe of the ME-109 paired with the engine of the Spitfire. Buchons have been used as ME-109s in film before, most notably in the 1968 film "Battle of Britain." Photo source: Wikipedia. 

The retired French destroyer Maille-Breze, built in the 1950s, was used as a substitute for British destroyers in the film. Photo source: Wikipedia.

The retired French destroyer Maille-Breze, built in the 1950s, was used as a substitute for British destroyers in the film. Photo source: Wikipedia.

The MLV Castor was one of several ships used to portray a number of minesweepers in the film. Photo source: Wikipedia.

The MLV Castor was one of several ships used to portray a number of minesweepers in the film. Photo source: Wikipedia.

                With all of these efforts to maintain a semblance of historical accuracy then, the film is surely a knockout, right? Well, this is not so easy to say. Readers should be warned that hereafter will be spoilers. The film is presented along three timeframes that eventually converge at the climax of the movie. We are first introduced to the perspective of the soldier Tommy, played by Fionn Whitehead. His story, one of scarcely avoiding death and escape, is told over the course of a week. The story of the crew of a small pleasure boat, captained by Dawson (played by Mark Rylance), takes place over the course of a single day. The third timeline is told from the perspective of Farrier, played by Tom Hardy, a RAF Spitfire pilot flying a hour-long patrol towards Dunkirk. Each of the individual’s stories are very unique and are well-crafted examples of the types of experiences that were had by those who were actually there. Tommy’s story as the soldier frequently alternates be long stretches of boredom interspersed with moments of sheer terror. One of the most striking moments of the film occurs in its opening moments when Stuka dive bombers plummet downwards towards Tommy’s location on the beach. Their howling sirens overwhelm all other sound and we can clearly see the panic on soldiers’ faces. Later, there are moments when Tommy seems safe and everything is suddenly upended by a torpedo strike. With Dawson, the viewer gains the sense of the dedication to sailing across the Channel out of either patriotism or duty, and also of the moments of indecision that suddenly creep up upon the boat captain and his two crew members. Farrier’s story is the opposite of Tommy’s- everything that the pilot does is relegated by time limits and fuel consumption. Eventually, he is decides to set his own personal safety aside by sacrificing his precious fuel in an effort to save ships attempting to make their way across the Channel. These converging personal stories make for a very intricate film- but not one without faults.

                The primary issue that I have with Dunkirk is that the evacuation from Dunkirk was absolutely massive, almost incomprehensibly huge. Over 330,000 men were successfully taken off the beaches, and thousands more remained ashore as a rear guard against the advancing German forces. Yet, despite these numbers of men and the correspondingly large numbers of ships and aircraft engaged on both sides, we never truly get a sense of the scale of the evacuation in this film. Dunkirk the film works well as a microcosm of the evacuation, but fails on presenting the big picture of the operation. Watching Nolan’s film, the viewer hears the number of men taken off the beach, but never sees anything amounting to near that number of people- taking the film at face value, one might be left to conclude that only a fraction of the true number were even involved at Dunkirk. I think that this problem lies rooted in Nolan’s general dislike of computer effects. CGI could have been used to great effect to illustrate how vast the evacuation of the BEF really was, and how many people were involved both in operating the boats that take the men off and in the aircraft attempting to prevent the Luftwaffe from ceaselessly bombing the ships and beaches.

                So how then does the film measure up? I think that Dunkirk works well as both a relatively historically accurate movie and as a well-directed film. Viewers would do well to remember that the movie primarily tells the stories of three people involved in different aspects of the evacuation and not the operation as a whole. It’s worth saying this again- Nolan’s Dunkirk provides a glimpse into this momentous event, a microcosm of Operation Dynamo; it is by no means a panoramic of Dunkirk.             

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sources

1.       Rickard, J. “Operation Dynamo: The Evacuation from Dunkirk, 27 May- 4 June 1940.” History of War, Historyofwar.org, 16 Feb. 2008, www.historyofwar.org/articles/operation_dynamo.html, 17JUN2017.

2.       “Lord John Gort.” History Learning Site, Moocow, 20 Apr. 2015, www.historylearningsite.co.uk/world-war-two/military-commanders-of-world-war-two/lord-john-gort/, 17JUN2017.

3.       Diamond, Jon. “Site Navigation.” Warfare History Network, Sovereign Media, 1 Dec. 2016, warfarehistorynetwork.com/daily/wwii/miracle-at-dunkirk, 17JUN2017.

4.       “The Evacuation at Dunkirk, 1940.” Eyewitness to History, Ibis Communications, Inc., 2008, www.eyewitnesstohistory.com/dunkirk.htm, 17JUN2017.

5.       “History.” Dunkirk 1940 Museum, dynamo-dunkerque.com/en/history, 17JUN2017.

6.       Wickman, Norman, and Pauline Hayton. “Site Navigation.” Warfare History Network, Sovereign Media, 2 Sept. 2016, warfarehistorynetwork.com/daily/wwii/a-royal-engineer-at-dunkirk-tells-his-story, 17JUN2017.

7.       Robinson, Bruce. “History - World Wars: Dunkirk.” BBC, BBC, 17 Feb. 2011, www.bbc.co.uk/history/worldwars/wwtwo/ff2_dunkirk.shtml. 17JUN2017

8.       Dunkirk (2017).” IMDb, Amazon.com, 2017, www.imdb.com/title/tt5013056/. 17JUN2017

 

[1] http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/operation_dynamo.html

[2] http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/operation_dynamo.html

[3] http://www.historylearningsite.co.uk/world-war-two/military-commanders-of-world-war-two/lord-john-gort/

[4] http://warfarehistorynetwork.com/daily/wwii/miracle-at-dunkirk/

[5] http://warfarehistorynetwork.com/daily/wwii/miracle-at-dunkirk/

[6] http://www.eyewitnesstohistory.com/dunkirk.htm

[7] http://warfarehistorynetwork.com/daily/wwii/miracle-at-dunkirk/

[8] http://warfarehistorynetwork.com/daily/wwii/miracle-at-dunkirk/

[9] http://warfarehistorynetwork.com/daily/wwii/miracle-at-dunkirk/

[10] http://dynamo-dunkerque.com/en/history/

[11] http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/operation_dynamo.html

[12] http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/operation_dynamo.html

[13] http://warfarehistorynetwork.com/daily/wwii/miracle-at-dunkirk/

[14] http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/operation_dynamo.html

[15] http://www.eyewitnesstohistory.com/dunkirk.htm

[16] http://warfarehistorynetwork.com/daily/wwii/a-royal-engineer-at-dunkirk-tells-his-story/

[17] http://warfarehistorynetwork.com/daily/wwii/miracle-at-dunkirk/

[18] http://warfarehistorynetwork.com/daily/wwii/miracle-at-dunkirk/

[19] http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/operation_dynamo.html

[20] http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/worldwars/wwtwo/ff2_dunkirk.shtml

[21] http://warfarehistorynetwork.com/daily/wwii/miracle-at-dunkirk/

[22] http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/operation_dynamo.html

[23] http://www.imdb.com/title/tt5013056/