War Stories for Memorial Day
The picture above is one of my favorite wartime pics. In the background is a Soviet JSU-122 heavy assault gun/tank destroyer. The man in the foreground left is the driver, Guards Lieutenant N. N. Orlov, while the woman on the right is his wife, Guards Lieutenant V. P. Orlova, who was the vehicle (and hence his) commander. I guess that shows who ran the show in that household! As the Red Army became increasingly stressed for manpower in 1944, the age of conscripts was lowered (down to 17 in 1944 and to 16 in 1945) while women in larger numbers were incorporated in the Soviet armed forces. By war’s end women made up about 10 % of the total Red Army strength, albeit mostly in non-combat roles.
One of the many hats I wear (if you’ve not noticed) is that of a military history aficionado. People in the West have been deluged with stories of the excellence of World War II German armor, such as the famed Panther, Tiger and King Tiger tanks—perhaps not surprisingly, as when we encountered them we had to fight them in battle with our underarmored and undergunned Shermans. But most people do not know of the situation on the Eastern front, where the biggest tank battles of the war were being fought, where the Germans and the Soviets were engaged in an arms race to improve their tank quality. The Soviet T-34/85 has been cited by many experts as the best tank of WWII: it was faster than any other tank of its class, it was able to move through snow or mud or difficult terrain that would mire most other tanks, its gun and armor protection were almost as effective as that of the original Tiger in a package weighing only half as much, it was easy to produce and repair, and reasonably reliable—for a tank, that its; ALL tanks are unreliable compared to commercial vehicles.
Even less known in the West is the JS series of heavy tanks and heavy assault guns/tank destroyers, which were the best heavy armored vehicles of WWII, superior to their more famed German adversaries, the Tiger and King Tiger. The JS-2 heavy tank and the JSU-122 heavy assault gun/tank destroyer packed a 122 mm/L46 gun which fired a huge 25 kg projectile at 2560 ft/sec, a crude but effective weapon capable of taking out any armored vehicle by the weight of its projectile alone. When the 122 mm was field-tested against a captured German Panther at the range of 1500 m it penetrated the Panther’s hull and went through the German tank, exiting the back! This performance, with a few exceptions, was repeated on the battlefield. A Soviet tanker in an American Lend-Lease Sherman, Dmitriy Loza, recounted seeing a JSU-152 (a variant with a 152-mm howitzer) in battle in the streets of Vienna against a German Panther. The impact of the hit blew the Panther’s turret off and knocked the whole tank backwards 4-5 feet. Loza reported that the concussion of the hit also shattered the windows in the buildings aligning the streets, raining glass shards down on everyone.
Even the famed massive 70-ton King Tiger was not immune from the JS-2, as these two links show:
A report of the 71st Independent Guards Heavy Tank Regiment Regiment (in a battle vs. King Tigers):
And a Soviet assessment of a captured King Tiger. If you ever wondered what goes on with testing and evaluating captured enemy vehicles, this is an interesting read. They shot the heck out of it.
The armor protection of the later versions of the JS-2, at least, was also superior to all of its German counterparts save the King Tiger. German crews were shocked to see their famed 88-mm rounds, which had ruled the battlefield, bounce harmlessly off the JS-2 at medium or long range. Even at point-blank range, the JS-2′s upper hull of later versions was immune to an 88 mm/L56 hit. As a result German Panther and Tiger tanks were warned not to engage any JS-2s they encountered, except in extreme circumstances, as tactical instructions required them closing to a lethally close range to have any chance for a kill. Even the King Tiger with its 88 mm/L71 and thick (150-185 mm) armor wasn’t much better off; it still had to close to medium ranges (closer than 1500 m) to have a realistic chance. One King Tiger crew reported seeing seven hits bounce off a JS-2 before they took it out at 700 m. As cited above, the JS-2′s 122 mm gun could take out a King Tiger, even if it didn’t penetrate the King Tiger’s armor; the concussion of the impact would generally break something and disable the tank—that is, if it didn’t crack the armor and send lethal metal shards flying everywhere inside the interior. While US and British tank crews in their Shermans calculated that they would lose five of their tanks before taking out a German Panther or Tiger, most Americans don’t know the Soviets had a tank that Panther and Tiger crews were being warned “If you see one, don’t engage!”. The superior armor protection afforded JS-2 crews a survival rate three times higher than that of other Soviet tank crews; like the German Tiger, the Soviets crewed them with hand-picked crews.
Of course, this leads to the main focus of this article: the human element. From the outside, a tank looks formidable, rugged, and intimidating. On the inside, the perspective is entirely different: you’re encapsulated in a closed shell, with hatches closed, greatly reducing visibility, and you know that outside unseen enemies are lurking threatening you with a most horrible death.
Here I’m going to suggest the book of Beltron Cooper, a maintenance officer who repaired US Shermans in the 3rd Armored Division: Death Traps: The Survival of an American Armored Division in World War II. Cooper’s job was to repair knocked-out Shermans of the US 3rd Armored Division, and his job was grisly. If the tank was not completely burned out (which tempered the armor and made it a total loss) one had to go in and literally scrape out the crew, or what’s left of them. Blood and brains and body parts are scattered throughout the tank’s interior, they get in the equipment and electrical wiring, all of which has to be ripped out and replaced and the tank repainted. Cooper says that even then, to him at least, you couldn’t get the lingering smell of death out of the tank. Combat losses sometimes mandated re-crewing tanks with green crews with little combat know-how and thus poor survival chances. The results could be discouraging: Cooper once recounts fixing 17 Shermans which were then re-crewed with green crews. The very next day, 15 of those same tanks were returned to maintenance with dead crews for Cooper to begin his grisly work all over again. I’ve seen Cooper talk about this on TV, and needless to say, he has a hard time keeping his composure when talking about this.
The Soviets had a similar experience. From memory, I think the casualty rates among Soviet tankers ran almost 70 %; the Soviets called all tanks “coffins on tracks”. To give you an idea about both tank casualty rates and tank (un) reliability, the rule of thumb for maintenance on Soviet tanks was that after 500-600 hours of operation, the tank needs a complete overall, with the engine and transmission taken out and rebuilt. Then it’s good for another 250 hours or so of operation, after which the tank is scrapped. This doesn’t sound like a lot, and indeed, it’s not. But in combat operations, the Soviets really didn’t consider it a problem, as most tanks don’t even make it to their first scheduled overhaul before being irrevocably destroyed in combat. And if the hardware itself isn’t surviving that long, what does that say for the survival chances of the crews? A tank can often be patched up and re-crewed and sent back into action several times during its lifespan, serving as a “coffin” for multiple crew members.
If you’re thinking that this does not make serving as a member of a tank crew look like a very enticing job opportunity, you’re exactly right. So how do armies deal with this? The simple fact is: they hide the reality. Cooper writes that it was categorically forbidden for anyone in maintenance to allow any Sherman crew members to get a peek at the inside of any knocked-out tank. As much as possible, the survival rates and likely fate of combat participants are hidden from them by all armies. James Dunnigan in How to Make War tells us that trainees for the infantry for all armies are told that serving as an infantryman is the noblest service they can perform for their country. This is true, Dunnigan notes, if getting killed or maimed is the noblest service you can perform, as the casualty rates for the “poor bloody infantry” average like 65 % in three months continuous combat. Of course, in the course of their indoctrination and being “pumped up” for service this likely fate is withheld from the trainees. Nor is the fact that in most cases their agent of doom will be something that they can’t even fight back against: analysis of combat casualties reveal that the vast bulk of all casualties are caused by artillery, lending weight to the aphorism that “artillery does the killing, and infantry does the dying”.
Not only do the armed forces of various countries gloss over the ugly facts of combat, so do we in the popular culture. Our war movies and video games, even those not which are not overt wartime propaganda, make combat seem largely deterministic and heroic, whereas in real combat the violence is frighteningly senseless and random. Real life soldiers, like professional athletes, can become very superstitious, as they realize than any one bullet or piece of shrapnel can “have your number on it”, no matter how much experience or combat smarts you have. Their superiors know it too. This is why Baron von Richthofen’s superiors tried to get this WWI fighter ace to stop flying, as they figured he was worth more alive for propaganda purposes and they knew that, despite his recognized skill, that each time he went into the air he was rolling the dice one more time (the “Red Baron” died in fact because he refused this special treatment). In WWII the Allies pulled their fighter aces and surviving bomber crews from combat after their tour of duty, quite deliberately both for morale purposes and because they figured that they were worth more then as instructors than as future combatants.
Eventually, combat soldiers—those that survive—see past the indoctrination and propaganda as they face the reality. I think the reality of all battlefields is summed up by the recollections of US Civil War soldiers after a battle: when the combat dies down, you start hearing the cries of the wounded men. Wounded men crying out for water, wounded men threatened by approaching fire with broken backs or legs and who can’t move but can only watch the flames approach closer. Worst of all, I think, are the wounded, who, in delirium, begin to think that they’re little boys again and start crying out for “Momma”. From Borodino to Gettysburg to Stalingrad to Khe San, in all imaginable tongues, that cry for “Momma” has been heard. I can’t think of any antiwar image with more pathos than that. It’s why after a war’s end, the vast majority of combat veterans and the public at large is relieved that the violence has ended and resolve, at least for a while, that this should never occur again.
I am left with two stories to tell you. The first is from John Comer, who served in 25 missions as a engineer manning the top turret of a B-17 Flying Fortress. On one mission, Comer, spinning his turret with its twin 50-caliber heavy machine guns on the lookout for the German fighters that he knew would come, prayed a little prayer: “Oh God, be with me today and keep me from danger”. Instantly, however, Comer, not a terribly religious man, says he got an almost-audible instant response to his prayer: “Right now the German pilots who are rising to meet you are praying the same prayer. How can you be so misguided, and understand so little?”
The second story also involves German fighter pilots and B-17s, but from the other perspective. It’s story of Franz Stigler, a German fighter ace with 11 US bomber kills to his credit. This day, December 20th, 1943, Stigler ran across a lone crippled B-17 limping home alone from a raid from Bremen, Germany. Stigler approached the B-17 cautiously, respecting the firepower that the Flying Fortress could bring on any adversary—Stigler himself was shot down some 17 times during the war, and said that when attacking a B-17 formation, each carrying thirteen 50-caliber machine guns, you always got your fighter holed.
But in this instance there was no gunfire from the crippled bomber. Approaching from the tail, Stigler saw why: the tail guns were out, and the wounded tail gunner slouching over his guns, bleeding profusely. The top turret was also out and the gunner killed. Stigler marveled at the B-17; there were holes everywhere, the nose was blown open, and he had never seen any plane so shot up that was still flying. Stigler then flew up alongside the cockpit, where he saw the pilot, Captain Charlie Brown, struggling to keep the plane aloft. Stigler then tried to signal Brown to lower the landing gear, to surrender his blood-stained plane by landing it on a German airstrip. Brown, to Stigler’s amazement, facing certain death, waved off Stigler’s suggestion.
That left only one course open to Stigler: orders were orders. The rule book said that then he was supposed to shoot the helpless B-17 down. To refuse to do so would risk his being stripped of his rank at the least, to court-martial, even execution at the worst. Besides, Stigler had already shot down two B-17s that day; shooting down a third would earn him the Knight’s Cross.
But he couldn’t: “shooting down these half-dead people would be like shooting at a parachute”. In one of those truly precious moments, Stigler made a decision, one that gives you hope that we as individuals have the power within us to resist the murderous groupthink that our social betters try to impose on all. He said to himself: “To hell with decorations” and flew alongside the crippled B-17, saluting Charlie Brown and his crew, before turning around and heading back to base. Back at their respective bases, the authorities-that-be had to be appeased: Stigler on his part lied about having shot down the B-17; whereas, Charlie Brown and the surviving crew members did report the incident but were ordered never to talk about it. To maintain that murderous groupthink, you can’t admit that your enemy might be a human being too. Decades after the war, Brown (who had always wondered about the German pilot who had spared him and his crew) and Stigler did find one another, and the two old adversaries became friends.
I think wars re-occur time and again because, despite the awful recollections of those who survive them and say “never again”, there is always another “again” because our social betters run a determined ad campaign designed to maximize war’s glory and to minimize its awfulness, and create a false memory of the last war to replace the real one. To combat this, we need to tell the truth about the tragedy of warfare: all of it, especially the most awful and un-heroic parts. Only these stories can provide the inoculation that we need.