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Sunday, March 13, 2016


Steve Cole discusses an interesting way to analyze World War II: Steven Petrick and I, as do many historians, often spend a quiet dinner discussing various what-if scenarios for various wars and battles. In a recent thought exercise, I said I would offer him a number of changes to the US Army in World War II and he could pick any one of them, but he had to defend his choice.
1. MORE TRUCKS: I offered him 25% more trucks, which would be useful during the fall of 1944 to bring supplies to a front line that was rapidly moving farther from the beaches. He turned these down because the logistical burden of the extra vehicles would reduce the value of the extra supplies.
2. MOBILE DIVISIONS: I said he could use the extra trucks to turn three or four infantry divisions into motorized divisions able to move much faster. He turned this down, again citing the logistical burden and that such divisions would really have been useful only for the few weeks of the breakout and pursuit phase in August 1944. He also noted that the Americans could and did turn infantry divisions into motorized divisions any time they needed them so extra trucks to make a few such conversions permanent would have little benefit.
3. MACHINEGUNS: I offered to replace the Browning Automatic Rifle with a real machinegun, something like the German MG34 or the much later US M60. This was ultimately his second choice, but he thought another option would be more effective. The US was the only power in WWII that tried to use massed rifles as the squad's firepower, when everyone else gave the squad a true machinegun which then became the squad's firepower. (The riflemen of those other armies were just ammo bearers, close-range guards to protect the machingun crew, and spare gunners.)
4. REPLACEMENT BATTALIONS: A favorite "change" of mine was to give every US division a replacement battalion like the ones in the German Army. New men arriving at the front would spend their first day or two in the replacement battalion being given very realistic training by men from the squads they would join in a day or two. This greatly reduced the number of casualties for the Germans. The US Army lost tens of thousands of men who were put into front-line foxholes with a no real effort to have veterans teach them how to avoid getting killed. Steven Petrick felt that the idea would be sound but that division commanders would not use it. They would simply order the new replacements into front-line foxholes an hour or two after their arrival, even if regulations insisted that every replacement must spent 24 hours at the replacement battalion in the company of someone from the squad they were about to join. The regulations would have provided a "combat emergency loophole" which would have been invoked every day by every division.
5. HEAVY TANKS: I offered to accelerate the production of the M28 Pershing tank with its 90mm gun and replace very M10 in a tank destroyer battalion with an M28 (renaming those units heavy tank battalions). Steven noted that the M28 was much heavier than the M10 and would have required more shipping and fuel. He also felt that the heavy tank battalions would simply be absorbed into the tank divisions (which already had too many tanks) leaving the infantry without support.
6. BETTER TANKS: This was the one he picked. I proposed to replace every M4 Sherman and every M10 or M18 tank destroyer with the "Easy Eight" Super-Sherman. These would have a much better gun and somewhat better armor. He felt (as I do) that the concept (used in the real history) of Shermans that attacked enemy infantry and artillery and unarmored tank destroyers that attacked enemy tanks was not workable, but that the Super Sherman could handle both jobs. With better guns and better armor, fewer American (and British, Polish, and French) tanks would be destroyed, few tank crewmen would be killed (perhaps saving a sizable fraction of the lives my replacement battalions could not save), and the same number of German tanks that were historically killed would be killed faster. Needing fewer replacement tanks and crews would simplify cross-ocean shipping. As stockpiles of replacement tanks built up in France, a few US armored divisions could sail across the Atlantic without tanks, picking up Super Shermans on arrival. That would leave more shipping for other things.