EXPLODING A FEW MYTHS ABOUT WORLD WAR II ARMOR
Including a Comparison of Lafayette Pool
and Germany's Michael Wittmann
By Stephen 'Cookie' Sewell
Museum Ordnance Magazine
Sitting at a table on behalf of The Ordnance Museum Foundation,
Inc., here at Aberdeen Proving Ground on Armed Forces Day 1993,
I noticed that a great number of people are believers in myths
that surround the German Army of World War II. Many of the people
who stopped by had a number of negative comments about the perceived
"lack of interest" by the museum in their favorite
German tanks and the reasons they were so significant. (It must
be noted that the charter of the ordnance Museum is to preserve
the history of the development of American ordnance and armored
vehicles, and to include significant foreign developments where
I believe it was Abraham Lincoln who is credited with the
quote. "It is easy to defeat a lie with the truth; it is
much harder to kill a myth." Of the many comments that were
made to us about the mythology surrounding the German armored
vehicles, I would like to address certain issues from other points
of view in this short article.
The Greatest Tank of the Second
World War was the Tiger I.
Oh? Why? Maybe the best KNOWN overall, and the most notorious,
but far from the greatest. This tank was designed as a 30-ton
tank (later upgraded to 45 tons) but still came in between 56
and 62 tons; it was underpowered and poorly suited for any kind
of mobility battle. Tanks are weapons of the offensive; this
tank was not equipped for that type of warfare (remember Blitzkrieg?),
nor was it well suited for "cornfield meets" at 500
meters or less.
The Russians were very respectful of the Tiger, but they were
also under no illusions as to its combat potential. Their tactics
- charge until you are inside the 500-meter range where the T-34's
76mm gun could penetrate the sides or rear of the Tiger - were
born out of the desperation of having many more tanks than the
enemy but with a less powerful cannon (until 1943) that forced
them to adapt. Once the T-34/85 and the IS series of tanks appeared,
the Tiger was treated as the dinosaur that it was.
Tanks like the Tiger were designed to combat tanks like the
Soviet KV series. Were it not for the KV, it is doubtful the
Tiger, as we know it, would have ever developed.
The Panther was the Best All Around
Tank of the Second World War.
Strike Two. The Panther only came about because the German
leadership suffered a bout of "NIH" syndrome (Not Invented
Here) and ignored the pleas of commanders like Guderian to simply
reverse-engineer and adapt the T-34 for German production. As
a result, it had a higher silhouette than any Soviet tank, a
gasoline engine, and a very weak running gear system that plagued
the tank during its combat career.
To give the Panther its due, it carried the hardest hitting
75mm gun of the Second World War; this weapon contributed heavily
to French thinking after the war and was the basic weapon chosen
to be developed into the 75mm autoloader cannon in the EBR 75
and AMX 13. Its armor was thicker than the T-34 and the Sherman,
but it was not well designed; D and A models had a marvelous
shot-trap beneath the mantlet that was used to ricochet AP shells
down into the thin roof where they would kill the driver and
Reliability was poor - the vehicle was not noted for its ability
to conduct long road marches, and the Soviets enjoyed the fact
that they could not get captured models to make a simple 200-kilometer
road march without breakdown. This was partially due to the poor
suspension design (interleaved road wheels) and partially to
the conditions under which the tank was used. This tank was also
over its targeted weight limit and to the Soviets was a joke
- a medium tank that weighed only one ton less than their heavy
tanks and did not have the mobility, reliability, or overall
useful firepower of the IS-2.
Tanks excel based on balance: the Panther had superior firepower,
good armor protection, and poor mobility. That's not balance.
The Tiger II was the Most Influential
Tank of the Second World War.
On what and by who? The Tiger II was a desperate design of
overkill that combined the design of the Panther with the concept
of the Tiger and wound up with a 68-ton tank that had the worst
deployability of any tank of the war (one has to keep things
like bridges and roads in mind when designing tanks!!).
If the Tiger II was so influential, then what was its legacy?
Surely no tanks were designed to copy its features. It used the
classic German balanced layout of transmission front-engine rear
which all other countries ditched for either cross drive or "guitar"
transverse engine and transmission layouts. It used massive weight
of armor for protection which only added to its troubles; being
"Sherman-proof" from the front does you no good if
you can't catch the little devils.
The Tiger II was also a victim of the late war German economy.
It had no real reliability due to the fact that its rubber-hubbed
wheels tended to flex under load and, placing uneven strain on
the tracks, tended to snap links at the hinges. Like the Tiger
I before it, this is a desperation defensive weapon that did
not give them advantages.
Finally, even the Soviets had no fear of this tank. The first
one they encountered in combat during 1944 was immediately knocked
out by a T-34/85; the Soviets made capital over the fact that
one of Porsche's sons was the commander of the vehicle and was
killed instantly by the shell. (They felt at the time he was
most responsible for the Tiger series; it was only after the
war when the captured the Nibelungenwerke that they found out
Edward Anders of Henschel had more to do with heavy tanks design
than Ferdinand Porsche.)
A far more influential tank of the war was the Soviet IS-3;
this inspired much more Cold War mythos of its own and was directly
responsible for a number of US and foreign designs, as well as
the US Ml03 and British Conqueror programs to defeat it on postulated
Michael Wittmann was the Greatest Tank
Commander of the Second World War.
This is a subject of even more speculation. Wittmann was no
doubt brave and skillful, and he is given credit for a great
deal of prowess on the battlefield. His score is listed as 138
tanks and 132 anti-tank guns destroyed in a career stretching
from June 1941 to August 1944. While awarded every major German
combat award up to the Swords for the Knight's Cross (Germany's
second highest combat decoration), it should be pointed out that
he was an unrepentant Nazi who had joined the Party in 1937 and
was posted to SS units.
Lacking good Information on Soviet tanks aces (which do not
appear to be many due to a very short life in many units), my
personal counterclaim to the title of greatest tanker of the
war would be an American staff sergeant named Lafayette G. Pool
who, while operating a 76mm Sherman, managed to destroy 258 enemy
vehicles between 27 June 1944 and 15 September 1944. This is
a far greater achievement than Wittmann's, and given the relative
merits of each man's case puts him in a better position to be
the supreme "over-achiever" of the war.
To compare them, they have many things in common and many
things that differentiate them. Both chose armor as a branch.
Wittmann joining the SS Llebstandarte Adolph Hitler Division
in 1939 and Pool the 40th Armored Regiment in 1941. Both men
had taken punishment and it showed - Wittmann, a shell explosion
that sliced up his face and body, and Pool, a few "souvenirs"
as a Golden Gloves champ in Texas. Both were skilled in tactics
and use of their respective tanks, and both were excellent at
small unit leadership.
Wittmann is best associated as a company commander from the
2nd Company of SS Panzer Abteilung 501. Pool was only associated
in combat with the 3rd Platoon, "I" Company, 3rd Battalion,
32nd Armored Regiment, 3rd US Armored Division. Wittmann is best
known in his Tiger I number 805 from the 501st. Pool's tank (he
went through three in his short career) was always named IN THE
MOOD; it was a 76mm M4A1 WSS Sherman. Both men had a personal
hold on their crew members and remained close where possible.
Wittmann kept the same gunner, SS Oberscharfuehrer Balthasar
Woll, through the war. Pool also kept the same crew: CPL Wilbert
"Red" Richards, driver; PFC Bert Close, assistant driver/bow
gunner; CPL Willis Oiler, gunner; and T/5 Del Boggs, loader.
Both men fought their tanks to their best advantage. For Wittmann,
this was using either ambush or a slow advance with the heavy
firepower of the Tiger's 88mm gun and its massive frontal armor
limiting enemy responses. Pool, on the other hand, was noted
for moving right into the enemy and mixing it up. When one considers
that his favorite foe appears to have been the Panther - never
a good choice to take on with any Sherman at any range - the
fact that he only lost three tanks in combat, while racking up
the score that he did, seems all the more remarkable.
However, the two men ended their combat careers in different
ways. Wittmann with a whimper and Pool with a bang. Wittmann
appears to have been killed in a series of Allied air raids called
Operation Totalize; he never had a chance to fight back, and
his company and his tank were destroyed in the bombing. Pool
found out the hard way that "three's the charm" and,
while functioning as the "spearhead" of the Spearhead
Division south of Aachen, Germany, tried to shoot it out with
more Panthers. This time Pool lost and the Sherman backed into
a ditch and rolled over after two 75mm shells hit the tank. The
four crew members survived with minor wounds, but Pool was blown
out of the turret and wounded badly enough to require being medivaced;
he was sent home to convalesce and survived the war.
Wittmann was undoubtedly the best that the Germans had, but
his time in combat (as a tank commander) was something in excess
of 25 months. Pool was only in combat for 80 days (21 engagements).
Based on time, equipment, and accomplishment, Lafayette Pool
is a better call for the best tanker of the war.
McLemore, Dwight C.; The Career of SS-Obersturmfuehrer
Michel Wittmann. AFV-G2 Vol. 2, No. 5, January 1972.
Spearhead in the West: The 3rd Armored Division
1941-45. Reprinted by Battery Press, 1980.
Popov, N.S. (Editor); Konstruktor Boevykh
Mashin (Combat Vehicle Designer). Lenizdat, 1988.
Ibragimov, D.S.; Protivoborstvo (The Opposition).
DOSAAF Publishing, 1989.
von Senger und Etterlin, F.M.; German Tanks
of World War II. Stackpole Books, 1969.
Zaloga, Steven J. and Grandsen, James; Soviet
Tanks and Combat Vehicles of World War Two. Arms and Armour Press,