The Fury of Hell on Wheels: Tank Warfare, April 1945

This post was written by Criss Kovac. Criss is the supervisor of the National Archives Motion Picture Preservation Lab. 

Ten months after the D-Day invasion, Allied forces were sweeping through western Europe. Germany in April 1945 is often depicted as the Allies capturing scattered Axis soldiers and liberating citizens from the clutches of the Third Reich. Small offensives, cutting supply lines, and rounding up fractured German units was far from the reality of the situation, however. American troops encountered some of the most tenacious and ruthless fighting of the war and faced the cruelest and vilest of human nature as they liberated concentration camps throughout the region.

The culmination of the war in Europe brought with it the most mechanized force the planet had ever seen with the sheer firepower of the United States military. In spite of Allied superiority in weaponry, divisions often had to fight in close quarters with hand-to-hand combat. Limited maneuverability in small German towns resulted in heavy losses. The men fighting in Germany were either battle-hardened or green recruits, but all of them were sleepless and racing to end the war at breakneck speed. The new feature film, Fury, depicts the last month of the war in these startlingly real terms.

tank-2

Allied tanks in the German city of Koblenz. (Still from Universal News)

Fury’s fictionalized account of events at the end of the war focus on a small platoon within the 2nd Armored Division. The 2nd Armored Division was created in July 1940 under the command of then Colonel George S. Patton. Parts of the division were among the first U.S. military armored divisions serving in North Africa when they landed at Casablanca on November 8, 1942. After nine months the division moved on to Sicily in July of 1943. On June 9, 1944, the 2nd Armored Division landed on Omaha Beach in the invasion of the Normandy. There the division known as “Hell on Wheels” fought the Germans near Avranches and then crossed through France as part of the Third Army before reaching Germany in September 1944. The 2nd Armored Division was the first to reach the Elbe River in mid-April 1945, which is where the Fury story begins.

During their period of service in World War II, the 2nd Armored Division took 76,963 prisoners of war, liberated tens of thousands of Allied POWs, and destroyed or captured thousands of enemy tanks, including Panzers and Tigers. Between 1942 and 1945, the 2nd Armored Division lost 1,160 men in battle.

To get a sense of what the men of the Armored Divisions experienced as they fought to end the war, we can look to the Universal Newsreel Collection and see the stories the public was shown at the time. While there may not be specific footage of the 2nd Armored Division, these Universal News stories feature tank warfare in Germany during April 1945.

The Sherman Crab (aka Sherman M4 with Mine Flail) clears mines. Sherman tanks and infantry take Koblenz. [From 3:10 to 5:00]
Release date: April 5, 1945

 

Tank warfare, taking German POWs, and rocket attacks by The Third Army. [From 3:57 to 5:36]
Release date: April 9, 1945

 

Allied troops taking cities in West Germany, trying to keep the peace in conquered cities, and liberating work camps. [From 2:14 to 5:32]
Release date: April 23, 1945

The tank battles in Fury feature face-offs between the M4 Sherman and German Tiger tanks. Tank warfare was an integral part of the war in Europe and mechanization for the war effort occurred rapidly. At the start of the war, U.S. forces had only a handful of tanks in use even though light tanks had been in production since 1940. Medium M2 and M3 tanks, among others, soon went into production, first to supply to Britain, and later for use by the U.S. Army.

The new M4 Sherman rolled off the line in 1942 and was first employed in North Africa. Until the German Panzers up-gunned to 75mm L/48s in mid-1944, the M4 Sherman was clearly superior. New tanks introduced by Germany were a significant threat: the Panther and Tiger tanks had stronger armor and a longer firing range with more penetrating power and higher accuracy. The Shermans were not back on equal footing with German tanks until 76mm guns were added in December of 1944. While the Shermans were not as well armored as the German tanks they were much easier to maneuver and more adaptable so that tanks could be fitted with bulldozer blades (Sherman Dozer), rocket launchers (T34 Calliope), flame throwers (M4A3R3 Flame), and mine flails (Sherman Crab).

What is captured by Fury, that isn’t included in the Universal Newsreels is how horrific the conditions were that men faced at the end of the war. The Volkssturm protecting the towns in Germany, mainly made up of older men and Hitler Youth, were relentless and fanatical in their attempt to hold out against The Third Army. While the Allies won the day in the long run, they paid dearly for the honor in men, minds, and morale.

About Audrey Amidon

Audrey works in the Motion Picture Preservation Lab, which is responsible for performing conservation and preservation work on motion picture records held across the National Archives.
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21 Responses to The Fury of Hell on Wheels: Tank Warfare, April 1945

  1. Phil says:

    Well done Criss!

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  2. Glenn Longacre says:

    Nice article, Criss. Thank you!

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  3. Patrick says:

    Sherman crews would have been quite surprised to hear that the 76mm gun put them on equal footing with Panthers and Tigers. The latter’s 88mm gun still considerably outranged the 76mm. For example, the 76mm Armor-Piercing Capped Ballistic Capped (APCBC) round fired at 792 meters per second (m/s), and could penetrate 30-degree sloped 88mm armor at 1000 yards; the German 88mm APCBC had a 800 m/s velocity and as it weighed 3.2 kg more, could penetrate 99mm armor at 1000 yards. It was only with the introduction of the 90mm gun and the much larger Pershing that American tanks really equaled them. The main advantages of the Sherman were that they considerably outnumbered the P/T tanks, were relatively simple, mechanically reliable, and could usually be repaired in the field. The German heavies were small in number, over-engineered, and if significant repairs were needed had to be taken back to the factory. The 76mm guns could, however, easily dispense with most other German tanks (such as the Mark IV), which were far more numerous than Panthers and Tigers. I am looking forward to seeing “Fury.” Great footage, by the way!

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  4. Criss says:

    Thanks for the additional information on both the US and German tanks, Patrick. I’ll admit that I am not an expert on tanks – just films with tanks in them! I should have clarified by saying that the M4s were on better footing to challenge the Panthers and Tigers once larger guns were added rather than equal footing. Of course, I suppose “better footing” is all relative.

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  5. Tom Gannon says:

    The M4 started out with the 75mm gun, as seen in the Koblenz picture above. The Sherman has been severely criticized for its vulnerabilities (under-gunned, under-armored, and gasoline engine), but it was designed to be light enough to ship overseas in great numbers–a requirement the Axis did not have, except for the North Africa campaign.

    Agree; great videos.

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  6. Glenn Longacre says:

    A couple of additional comments. Here is some great footage of the now famous tank fight by the 3rd Armored Division in Cologne, Germany.

    Also, I was surprised to recently learn that divisions like the 4th Armored had M4 assault tanks that mounted a 105 MM gun.

    Again, thanks!

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  7. Don says:

    I was USMC Tank Commander in Desert Storm, and studied Patton and Romel, I was actually able to visit Bastogne as a kid. Amazing what our troops did during WW 2. I saw Fury, and thought a couple of things were pretty bogus, but the characters of the tank crewman were brought to life, which you dont see very often. Semper Fi

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  8. JM says:

    The movie was bogus in that it implied the platoon had the last few available tanks and undermanned. The wave across the Rhine in March was about 2 million troops and many divisions. Montgomery actually had a D-Day level of men and material in his push.

    The situation was more realistic for the battle of the Bulge in late 1944 when reinforcements were in short supply.

    Tank destroyers with bigger guns and artillery supplemented the Sherman’s abs what made Patton successful D his strategy of tanks, artillery and infantry in a unified force that defeated opponents with superior equipment.

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    • Glenn Johnson says:

      The (2nd Armored Division 66th Armored Regiment) platoon’s residual armor depicted was whittled down over the course of the brief period of time captured by the film. That was as accurate as in all I’ve read. There was not a shortage of tanks and men but seasoned veterans were being replaced with green troops.

      Supporting the enormous numbers of units on the move was brilliantly handled by the supply corp. While the supply “train” of the Allies in France was capable and as amazing as anything (considering the advances, speed, and demands of man and materiel) that is what the Fury tank must defend. It was a dynamic front and pockets of resistance could be formidable, also as depicted. The SS unit, if they’d been allowed to break out, would have made hash out of the rear. That was a really critical risk. The Fury tank recognized the risk of not just loss of life for the rear troops had the SS broken out but particularly the upset to the flow of the supply train.

      Montgomery had an enormous amount of resources available to him for his grand crossing into Germany but his progress was slow to not existent. That was characteristic of his efforts in his theater of northern Europe. It was not the same as what the American forces were undertaking.

      the film is easily the best and most authentic WWII movie ever made. I accurately depicts the fighting, dying, courage, and randomness of the war in Europe.

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  9. Tommy Todisco says:

    My DAD , Staff Sargent Dominic Todisco 2nd Armored Division was on the back of a half – track with a 50 cal. machine gun in his hands. “HELL ON WHEELS” at their finest. R.I.P. pop…… Your son , Tommy Todisco

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    • My father Ray Rooney was also on a half track 2nd armored all through to the battle of the bulge, I have some pictures if interestedj

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      • Dave Montgomery says:

        My father-in-law was a tank driver in the bulge, blown out of his tank more than once. The last time, he came to laying in freezing mud and stayed there for 3 days while Germans swarmed the area and left him for dead (why they didn’t use him for target practice is anybody’s guess). When relief showed up they found him still alive and carted him off to England and the pneumonia he contracted nearly killed him.

        Every year since 1950 the Second Armored has a reunion somewhere in the US and I went to some of them along with my brother’s in law attending as their father’s proxy. He died many years ago, I suspect, from the toxic effects of going through hell and living to tell about it when his buddies died around him. He rarely talked about it and I never saw him smile.

        In 2006, the reunion was in Herndon, VA and one that we attended. It was very low key and I was unaware of it at the time but they were interviewed by screenwriters. Of course, they took creative license, but I was amazed that eight years later Fury was released and his tank was at the center of the story!

        If interested, here’s their website where everything 2AD is found.
        http://www.2ndarmoredhellonwheels.com/

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  10. Anthony Cole says:

    Wow. I live near Cologne and it’s kinda strange to see all these buildings. Some of them are even still there nowadays, like the Citadel or parts of the “Altstadt”(old parts of Cologne).

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  11. brenda dixon says:

    Have lots of pictures from WWll. Don’t know if interested , would like to sell them, their going to waste.

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  12. Patrick says:

    I just inherited a uniform with 2nd Division hello wheels shoulder patch on it. It belonged to Jack Howard Cullen AKA Mad Jack. I think he was a Sargent, has 6 stripes on left sleeve and three on right in almost new condition. Thinking of selling it.

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  13. Karen EAGLE Moman says:

    My father, Darcie Ray Eagle, 1918-2001 served in the 2nd Armored Div., 44th Tank Batt., Co C. However, all his his time was served in the Asiatic-Pacific Theater of War. I can find no data about them or their missions. I know he was in the Battle of Luzon.

    Does anyone know where I can fined some information about the 2nd in the Asiatic-Pacific Theater of War?

    Thank you

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    • Audrey Amidon says:

      Hi! We actually have a lot of textual records concerning the 2nd Armored Division (click here to see the results in our catalog). You can see what’s available online by clicking on the “Available Online” tab. For more general information and personal stories, there’s a website for the 2nd Armored Division Association that might be helpful. I hope that helps!

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  14. Judy Jarosz says:

    My Dad, Walter Samardak, was a Sherman tank driver. He was part of the “Hell on Wheels, 2nd Armored Division “. I know he was in campaigns in North Africa, Italy and Normandy. In Normandy, his tank sustained a hit while coming through an infamous hedge grove. He was lucky he got out alive. He was very injured. They managed to find a ladder to use as a stretcher and they took him to a French farm house. After getting him back to the States, he was in a VA Hospital for a little over a year trying to save his leg. And they did! When my Dad was in his 80’s and it was just the two of us, we both liked watching anything on tv about WWII and tanks. I loved his narratives. Dad, you are my hero! Your loving daughter-JudyJarosz

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  15. Rob Kujawa says:

    I just met a man that was in Patton’s Hell On Wheels, Elza Tucker. He was just awarded the French Legion of Honor Metal today in a local ceremony. What an honor to meet this man!!!!

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  16. Gaurav says:

    Well done. i have visited this place and i was amazed to see the pictures..

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  17. James Graham says:

    Although Patton was the first commander of the 2nd AD and although they served under him in Sicily in the mainland European war they were in the !st Army under Hodges and in the 9th Army under Simpson

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