During the Second World War, the most famous and most feared tank of the conflict was surely the Panzerkampfwagen VI Tiger Ausf. E. Better known to us as the Tiger I. The Tiger was the German militaries main heavy tank, and it stoked up fear wherever it fought. Armed with an 88 mm gun and with surprising manoeuvrability for a tank of its size, the Allied forces soon found that they had basically nothing in their arsenal that could easily but a stop to this fearsome tank, although the Tiger’s own reliability issues did a lot of that for them.
The most widely used Allied tank was the M4 Sherman, a medium tank built in the United States and one that saw plenty of notable service during the war. But it wasn’t really capable of taking on the Tiger tank. That was until the British came along and created the Sherman Firefly. An upgraded version of the M4 Sherman, the Firefly would be able to take on the mighty Tiger, and the later Panther tanks, head on and return some of that fear back to the German’s. Firefly’s became so effective, that the German’s would try to knock them out first before any other tank.
Development Of The Firefly
The basic idea of the Firefly was simple. The British had got a lot of Sherman tanks, but of course its 75 mm gun was not up to effectively taking on the Tiger tank and latterly the Panther. Britain needed a tank with a bigger gun, and had begun developing tanks such as the Cromwell and the A30 Challenger. But there were those in the British Army who wanted to see a 17-pounder gun on the Sherman. They knew this gun would be able to take on the Tiger tank. Luckily, the Sherman Firefly had plenty of allies.
Major George Brighty of the Royal Tank Regiment had attempted to fit the 17-pounder into the Sherman’s turret. He did this by removing the recoil system, locking the gun in place. However, this was not an ideal solution, as the whole tank would now absorb the gun's recoil. While he was at the Lulworth Armoured Fighting School, he was joined by a colleague, Lieutenant Colonel George Witheridge. Witheridge had been discharged from active service after sustaining wounds when his M3 Grant was blown up in the Battle of Gazala. He joined Brighty in his quest to fit the 17-pounder into the Sherman, and they were able to get the project to become an official ministry project after initially being told to cease their efforts.
The Firefly’s Final Design
The Firefly would ultimately be transformed into an effective, fighting unit by W.G.K Kilbourn of the Vickers company. The 17-pounder was too long for the Shermans turret, hence the recoil system issues, so Kilbourn redesigned the recoil system entirely. The gun breech was rotated 90 degrees to allow loading from the left and the right, and a new barrel was designed for the 17-pounder gun. Various other issues were also solved before testing began in February 1944. Ultimately, the Challenger program suffered numerous delays, and the Cromwell’s turret ring was not side enough for its new high velocity 75 mm gun. The Firefly was thus given the highest priority by Winston Churchill.
The tank would be ready just in time for the 1944 Normandy Landings. This was almost perfect timing, given the Allies knew the German’s now had a reasonable number of Panther’s in service. However, out of the 2,300 German tanks deployed to Normandy, only around 126 were Tigers and Panthers. This left Panzer IVs and Sturmgeschütz III tank destroyers as the Firefly’s main rivals, and its 17-pounder could easily penetrate their armor. The Firefly would prove invaluable, as the British tactics meant they encountered some 70% of the German armor seen during the Normandy invasion.
The Firefly Proves Its Worth
Before too long, the Firefly had proved its worth in British hands. It was the most valued tank by British and Commonwealth commanders, and was the only tank in the British Army that could penetrate the Tigers and Panthers armor at a standard range. Tactically, they were used very well, backing up the standard Shermans from further back and using the extra range of the 127-pounder to good effect. On June 9th, 12 Panthers of the SS Panzer Regiment moved to attack the village of Norrey-en-Bessin. Lt G.K. Henry was commanding a Firefly, backed up by a few Canadian standard Sherman tanks. When the Panther’s “lined up like ducks in a row”, he opened fire with his Firefly and knocked out five of the Panther’s with just six round, and ultimately the German’s withdrew having lost seven of their 12 Panthers.
The Only Tank That The Tiger Really Feared
The Firefly soon become target number one for German tank commanders, to such an extent that Firefly commanders would camouflage its 17-pounder gun to make it look shorter. It was really the only tank you would fear if you were in a Tiger, and a Panther too, and the battle at Norrey-en-Bessin really did show how fearsome the Firefly could be. Alongside the Churchill, the Firefly was probably the most famous British tank of the Second World War.
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