The 601st Tank Destroyer Battalion took part in an impressive selection of the American battles of the Second World War - Operation Torch, the battle for Tunisia, the invasion of mainland Italy, the Anzio landings, the invasion of the south of France, the battles on the German border (in particular the fighting around the Colmar Pocket and the attack on the Siegfried Line) and the invasion of Germany, ending up around Berchtesgaden. During this time they used three of the main American tank destroyers, starting with the M3, an interim design which carried a 75mm gun on the back of an M3 half track. Before the invasion of Italy the battalion converted to the M10, which carried a 3in (76mm) gun on the chassis of an M4A2 Sherman. It used this vehicle in Italy and France before converting to the M36, which used the same chassis, but carried a 90mm gun.
The veterans thoughts on the various types of tank destroyer are interesting. In general they all preferred the original M10, which had thicker armour than the later M18 Hellcat or M36. They didn’t consider the extra speed of the M18 to be worth the loss of armour, and were pleased that their unit didn't convert to the type (although some prototypes were used in combat, making the 601st the only tank destroyer battalion to use all three of the M10, M18 and M36 in combat). The main objection to the M36 was the use of a petrol engine, which made the M36 more likely to catch fire, demonstrating that the unit must have exclusively used the diesel powered M10 and not the petrol powered M10A1, which used the same Ford engine as the M36. The objection to the M18 certainly makes sense when you read the various combat narratives - slow and careful was clearly preferred to fast and dashing and there are only a handful of occasions where the extra speed might have come in handy. The open topped turrets, which are often described as making the tank destroyers vulnerable to infantry attack (in particular when passing through urban areas) generally win praise, mainly for making it easier to escape from the vehicle when it was hit. The author has pulled together the veterans views on the M10 in one of the appendices, and they didn't see the open turret top as a vulnerability. However one of the most telling themes to emerge from this section was that most of the veterans felt that the tanks and tank destroyers were used in very similar ways, with the tank destroyers operating in close support of the infantry, thus rather undermining the rational behind the tank destroyer. Whenever a situation which required armour came up, the nearest tanks or tank destroyers would be used. It is also notable that most of the wartime letters and diaries refer to the M10s and M36s as tanks.
This is an excellent unit history, following a remarkable battalion through most of America's major land battles in the war against Hitler's Germany. The use of a small number of eyewitnesses is effective, allowing us to follow a series of familiar voices through the battalions long series of battles, and on into the post-war world.
1 - Seek, Strike and Destroy
2 - North Africa
3 - Vindication in North Africa
4 - Italian Mud!
5 - Stalemate at Cassino
6 - Anzio: 'Easy at first but tough as hell now'
7 - Push them back into the sea
8 - World War I all over again
9 - Breakout for Rome
10 - Here we go again: Training for the forgotten D-Day
11 - France isn't Italy
12 - Conquerors of the Vosges
13 - Alsace
14 - The other Battle of the Bulge
15 - Germany at last
16 - It finally ends
Author: Victor Failmezger