Around the advent of World War 2 the United States was claimed a manufacturing superpower. This young nation was ready to prove the claims as the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor drew it into the war. The country would produce tanks, airplanes, weapons, and vehicles in numbers never before seen in history.
By the year 1845 the United States would produce over 46,000 aircrafts, 60,000 tanks, 12,500,000 rifles, and 2,400,000 vehicles in total. A major contributor to these numbers were the auto manufacturers such as General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler. The War Production Board halted all manufacturing of commercial vehicles in order to meet the demands for the war in which the country was about to enter. Each manufacturer was given a quota which they contracted to. General Motors, the oldest car manufacturer in the United States, would come to exceed many of these quotas and greatly contribute to the war effort.
When the U.S. was introduced to the war a division of General Motors, Buick was tasked which such orders as Tanks, ammunition casings, bomber engines, cylinder heads, and tank destroyers. Throughout the war the demand for each of these things became greater and the amount demanded per month would increase or Buick would simply exceed the minimum. Buick initially talked of producing 500 B-24 bomber engines a month, by 1944 they were producing 2,000 a month. They were also tasked with producing cylinder heads which required an aluminum foundry to be built. The initial target production was 25,000 a month, they would later be producing 125,000 a month demolishing the original expectations.
One challenge that World War 2 presented was the heavily armored tank. Infantry soldiers could carry weapons which were capable of destroying these war machines, but that would put them in vulnerable positions and added weight to the already heavy load soldiers carried throughout the war. In order to combat the tank, a tank destroyer was introduced into the equation. It began in Flint, MI. William Knudsen, tasked by President Roosevelt to direct industrial production, would task the engineers in Buick city (The name given to the Buick production plant in Flint, MI) with designing a diesel powered, light weight, and fast tank. This tank would be tasked with destroying other tanks, it was officially known as the M-18 and would later be dubbed the “Hellcat”. The division would build 2,507 of these machines before the end of the war and would continually modify them in order to fit the demands of the war.
When the war began contracts were being sold to every different car manufacturer in order to ensure maximum production was being met. On November 5th, 1941, a year prior to the United States entering World War 2, the Chicago Tribune reported that 25million dollars were being put into a tank plant in Michigan. 5 million of which would be used for land and buildings while the other 20million was used for machinery and equipment. This was the beginning of a production craze involving one of the most effective tools in World War 2, tanks. With its peak being in January 1944 at 250 M-18s being produced per month, the total production of the M-18 would reach 2,507 by the end of the war.
When Buick was tasked with producing the M-18 they were given guidelines to work with and a date to finish by. Buildings were reconstructed and assembly lines were quickly adjusted to fit the needs of the tank destroyer’s production. Many of the systems that were utilized in the M-18 had to be specially developed in order to meet the specifications requested by the military. The final product weighed 5 tons less than the weight of the 25-ton Panzer IV and was only protected by .13mm of steel plating. This was very thin as compared to the Panzer IV which was fortified with .80mm steel plating. The original idea for the Hellcat was also to have a diesel engine since it would be more rugged reliable and require no spark. This was changed by the engineers in order to speed up production and produce more tank destroyers by the end of the war. Buick engineers used a torsion bar suspension which provided a stable ride which provided positive results when travelling upwards of 40 miles per hour. The power that came from the Hellcat was supplied by a nine cylinder, 450 horsepower aircraft engine paired with a three speed 900T Torqmatic transmission.
M-18 Hellcat Tank Destoryer (From buickman2.com)
The tank destroyer was originally fitted with a 37mm cannon which had the ability to destroy German tanks of the battlefront, the first vehicle developed for the purpose of destroying other tanks. The Hellcat would later be fitted with a 57mm cannon, this saw in increase in German armor and soon the M-18 would be due for another weapons upgrade. The tank destroyer would see itself fitted with a 75mm cannon by the end of the war. This cannon was capable of destroying the stronger German tanks such as the Panther and Tiger I which were heavy, slow moving tanks. An advantage the Hellcat had over the heavier tanks was its speed. Mounted with less armor it could outmaneuver the enemy tanks and it is still the fastest accelerating tank in the United States arsenal. With a cannon capable of punching through 140mm armor and speed incomparable to its enemy the tank destroyer would see success in the battle field.
The Effectiveness in War
Many historians have concluded that the Hellcat was vital to the war effort with its ability to break German advances. This task would prove difficult with infantry units since the German attacks came very strong and fast. With multiple tank destroyers the enemy armored units could be outmaneuver and flanked exposing weak points in armor and allowing the allies to capitalize on the situation destroying the German capabilities of implementing strong decisive blows on infantry lines. The tank destroyers could move through the battlefield very quickly and deal with enemy tank units quickly. The Germans were forced to adapt and would continually reinforce the armor on their tanks, this would slow them down but create an impenetrable fortress which would initiate the Americans to add larger weapons. With more firepower and speed. The average combat range for the American tank was around 1,000m. The Hellcat could punch through 88mm of armor at 2,000m making it capable of destroying most German medium weight tanks at distances that standard fighting would be obsolete.
On the battlefield, having the ability to “shoot and scoot” proved to confuse and stall the German attack. On December 19-20th the 10th Armored Division would defend Noville during the Battle of the Bulge and would assist the paratroopers in attacking the 2nd Panzer Division. The 1st Battalion along with the M18 Hellcat tank destroyers eliminated of 30 enemy tanks and amassed between 500 and 1,000 casualties. When the M-18s were implemented in battle their speed would prove them an effective force but, their armor would prove them easy destruction if they could not remove themselves from the enemy line of fire.
One of the most notable battles for the M-18 Hellcat was fought near Arracourt, France on September 19, 1944. Lieutenant Edwin Leiper, leading the 704th Tank Destroyer Battalion, spotted the muzzle of an enemy tank in the fog. Lieutenant Leiper’s battalion had knocked out five German tanks of the 113th Panzer Brigade within the first 5 minutes of contact, only losing one tank destroyer. The M-18’s speed was unparalleled to the German’s slow moving tanks which presented the Germans with the issue of flanks and maneuvers which would expose vulnerable side and rear paneling. Sergeant Henry Hartman would destroy six German tanks with a single M-18 under his control demonstrating the abilities these weapons held when used properly in combat.
After the War
When World War 2 ended the United States found itself with a shattered Europe and a surplus of weapons. The M-18 being one of these weapons would now become obsolete since there was very little tank warfare outside of major superpowers being at war. Many of the M-18s were sold to countries which had to regain strength in their military but lacked production capabilities. The M-18s saw use up until the 1990s in small scale wars and discrepancies. The tank destroyer would find itself becoming completely obsolete and in question as to whether it was ever necessary.
The Hellcats have not been in use by the United States military since World War 2 but variants have resulted which resemble many of the characteristics seen in the Hellcat. Many museums and collectors attain M-18s in hopes of restoring or maintaining them since very few still remain in a good condition. These museums and collectors will carry the physical evidence of the tank destroyer than managed to break enemy lines and save allied lives during World War 2.
- Army contract of 36 1/2 million given to buick. (1941, Jan 19). Chicago Daily Tribune.
- Government to spend 25 millions for Michigan tank plant. (1941, Nov 05). Chicago Daily Tribune .
- General motors: Buick turns 110: M18 hellcat remembered on V-E day. (2013, May 08). India Automobile News.
By the Middle of 1942, the T49 GMC (. “M18 Gun Motor Carriage (Hellcat) – Development and Operational History, Performance Specifications and Picture Gallery.” M18 Gun Motor Carriage (Hellcat). N.p., n.d. Web. 16 Oct. 2016.
Zaloga, Steve, and Jim Laurier. M18 Hellcat Tank Destroyer, 1943-96. Oxford: Osprey, 2004. Print.
Carroll, Military.com | by Ward, and By Ward Carroll. “How GM’s Divisions Tackled the War Effort.” Military.com. N.p., n.d. Web. 16 Oct. 2016.