Book Review: Spearhead: An American Tank Gunner, His Enemy, and a Collision of Lives in World War II

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by Adam Makos

New York: Random House Ballantine Books, 2019. Pp. xiv, 382+. Illus., maps, diagr., notes, biblio., index. $28.00. ISBN: 0804176728

Tank Duel in the Rhineland

The best guide to the detailed history of armor combat on the Western front in 1944-45 may be the various books by Steven Zaloga, while you get the visceral feel of intense tank combat by watching Brad Pitt in Fury (2014), or playing the World of Tanks video game. But those who want a dramatic – and true – story about the tankers of both sides, blended with much of the tactical and technical background, should read Spearhead.

Mr. Makos has written a number of accounts of veterans’ experiences in World War II. This one is hard to beat. First off, the story of how this story came to be told is remarkable. It tells of an epic confrontation in Cologne between a classic German Panther Panzer V tank and the new American Pershing, M26 tank, filmed by a combat photographer (stunning stills from which are included). The author learned about that “duel” some 60 years later from a teen’s interviews of veterans for an Eagle Scout project. Makos found other surviving veterans from that tank unit and its supporting infantrymen and in 2013 took one (the American tank gunner, Clarence Smoyer) to the scene at the Cologne cathedral, and introduced him to a German gunner who had witnessed the event from another tank.

The book is named for the Third Armored (Spearhead) Division, in which Smoyer served. It picks up his story in September 1944 near Mons, Belgium, where his 32nd Armored Regiment’s Sherman tanks violently engaged German troops fleeing from Normandy. From there the book interweaves the separate accounts of Smoyer and the German gunner, Gustav Schaefer, until their paths met in Cologne and then follows Smoyer to the war’s end.

Meanwhile, Makos works in explanations of the mainstay Sherman 75mm M-4A1 tank and the opposing German Panther, and their tactical use.

Most accounts of the 1944-45 campaign tell of hapless Shermans bouncing shells off Panthers and then bursting in flame when hit by the superior German gun. Less often told are the counter-measures he describes, which reduced the Sherman’s flammability risk after penetration from 80% to 15%, by changing ammo storage, enhancing armor with field expedients (e.g., welding on armor from totaled tanks, securing steel tracks or sand bags to the hull, etc.), and upgrading the gun to the high velocity 76mm.

The ultimate fix was a new generation tank. That was not, however, as obvious to decision-makers who, like Patton, found the Sherman good enough in 1943, when there was time for a new model to make a difference. The critics, who know now with perfect hindsight what was needed, often ignore the Sherman’s strengths, including its ability to make long road marches without breakdowns (which plagued the heavy German tanks) and burn less scarce fuel than the bigger guzzlers. Shermans could log 2,000 miles without major maintenance and quickly change the engine in the field when needed. Smoyer’s tanks successfully made several such long road marches in the course of his war. A gunner like Smoyer especially appreciated powered turret rotation enabling quick engagement of targets, even from one side of the road to the other.

A new tank did arrive, the Pershing T-26E3 with a powerful 90mm gun, heavy frontal armor and a low silhouette somewhat like the Panzer’s. Clarence Smoyer’s crew got one of the few in the European theater. That turned out to be a good match. Smoyer was a natural gunner, though never formally trained. In tests of the Pershing for the division commander, Smoyer reduced a chimney 1,200 yards away, to rubble in one shot. Asked to repeat the feat, he hit a smaller chimney at 1,500 yards. his sniping coup was somewhat diminished when the Pershing’s muzzle blast bowled over Maj. Gen Maurice Rose, the division commander, standing nearby. General Rose recovered his stance and poise in time to laud the Pershing and the superb gunnery.

The climax, of course, is the tank battle in Cologne. Makos calls it a “duel”, a bit of an exaggeration since one of the “duelists” never fired a shot. The reason is interesting. Smoyer’s Pershing drove into an intersection over-watched by the Panther, whose gun was sighted on the intersection. Smoyer didn’t know where the Panther was until he entered the intersection, which should have been a second too late. However, due to the Pershing’s low silhouette, the German tank commander, never having seen a Pershing, thought it was a Panther and ordered the gunner to hesitate. He did so long enough for Smoyer to fire shells into and through the Panther. All of which was recorded on movie film. Stills from that film show the long muzzle blast from Smoyer’s gun and then the flames erupting from the German tank.

Smoyer’s unit moved on across the Rhine, from where they were sent on another long road march to close the encirclement of the Ruhr industrial area. They accomplished this mission at Paderborn, home of the German tank school; In intense combat with perhaps the best tankers in the Wehrmacht, Smoyer proved once again what he and the Pershing could accomplish.

Spearhead also tells us about the armored infantrymen supporting the tankers, especially against German infantry with the tank-killing Panzerfaust. As with the tankers, Makos found a surviving infantryman who fought alongside Smoyer.

These interlocking accounts are backed up with thorough research, including regimental morning reports and visits to the battle scenes with the survivors. The extensive notes include citations from Steve Zaloga on technical aspects, diagrams of the layout of the Sherman and Panther showing each crew member’s position, and map sketches explaining the one-on-one tank battles. Also included are photos of those named in the story and their vehicles.

One unfortunate omission is that other than a few generalizations, there’s a notable lack of useful information about tank maintenance. Thus, Makos’s accounts of the tankers on both sides misses the opportunity to confirm by way of their experience whether or not the insistence of American logisticians on tight control of maintenance, including the flow of spare parts, kept the Shermans rolling when lack of the of spares and other inefficiencies on the German side left otherwise powerful Panthers abandoned by the roadside. (“For want of a nail….”)

Makos’s style is relaxed and readable, assisted by short paragraphs. It is accessible to the general reader and yet worth the attention of historians and military hobbyists.

While most of the veterans of these events are no longer with us, Makos has made their stories live on.

 
Reviewer: Miles P. Fischer is a New York Military Affairs Symposium member. A graduate of Yale, Teachers College, Columbia University, and Columbia Law School, he was a Fulbright scholar in history at the University of Wuerzburg. He has been an Army Intelligence officer, election supervisor with OSCE in Bosnia, NGO observer of the military commission proceedings at Guantanomo Bay, chair of the Military Affairs & Justice Committee of the NYC Bar Association, and advisory board member of the National Institute of Military Justice. He has contributed to programs at the U.S. Military Academy and the Army War College.
 

Note: Spearhead is also available in audio- and e-editions.

 

StrategyPage reviews are published in cooperation with The New York Military Affairs Symposium

 
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Reviewer: Miles P. Fischer   


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