Matira and Irwin: An Experienced Sherman Crew
With World War II in Europe nearing its conclusion, the Pershing tank displayed one last example of its battlefield prowess. On April 21, 1945, near the town of Dessau, Germany, at the junction of the Mulde and Elbe Rivers, a tank versus tank contest occurred. It was truly a heavyweight bout. An American Super Pershing slugged it out with a German King Tiger.
The U.S. tank was manned by an experienced crew under the command of Staff Sergeant Joseph Matira of Massachusetts. The brave and capable noncommissioned officer had one weakness. He was severely claustrophobic, and during any fighting he usually stood up in the turret of his vehicle firing the tank’s .50-caliber machine gun. Although this habit exposed him to enemy fire, it allowed him a better view of his surroundings. His gunner was Corporal John “Jack” P. Irwin of Norristown, Pennsylvania. Matria had been in combat for nine straight months, while Irwin dropped out of high school to enlist in the U.S. Army in 1944. The 18-year-old Irwin was sent to Fort Knox, Kentucky, qualifying as a tank gunner. While at that station he worked on some of the 20 new Pershing tanks sent there for testing.
Matira and Irwin were with Company I, 33rd Armored Regiment, 3rd Armored Division. After joining Matira’s M4 Sherman crew in March 1945, Irwin experienced a sustained string of combat actions. After driving 12 miles out of the American bridgehead at Remagen on March 25, Irwin’s tank was hit in the turret by enemy fire. As part of Task Force Welborn, on the 26th Irwin’s Sherman dueled with German 88mm antitank guns in the fight for the town of Altenkirchen. Moving 90 miles on March 28 to the town of Paderborn, Company I fought a vicious battle against German soldiers from the SS Panzer Replacement and Training Center located nearby. There Matira’s Sherman got stuck on a heap of rubble and had to be abandoned. On March 30 near the town of Etteln in the Ruhr Valley, Irwin’s tank was struck by fire from an enemy self-propelled gun. The entire crew bailed out, but the tank was not seriously damaged.
On April 1, Matira and Irwin were again fighting near Paderborn when their crew encountered a German Tiger I tank. The hits Matria’s tank scored merely ricocheted off the Nazi tank. Finally, a high explosive shell forced the enemy crew to abandon the Tiger due to the concussion.
Arrival of the Super Pershing
After the fight at Paderborn, Task Force Welborn sped on to the Weser River, reaching it on April 7. Three days later the Sherman was disabled by panzerfaust fire in the village of Espchenrode near the Harz Mountains. That afternoon they received a replacement tank, a Super Pershing (T26E4). This machine, which had been in action before, was one of only two deployed to Europe during World War II. Additional armor protection had been installed, and it was equipped with a new long-barreled T15E1 90mm gun that was designed to outperform the high-velocity 88mm cannon found on the German Tiger I and King Tiger.
The 90mm gun could successfully penetrate 8.5 inches of armor sloped at 30 degrees from a distance of 1,000 yards. The gun had a muzzle velocity of 3,850 feet per second, 600 feet per second faster than the 88mm gun used by the German Tigers. The new gun was also found to be extremely reliable and accurate with good range. The tank’s large tracks helped it move almost effortlessly through rough fields and muddy terrain.
By April 12 a score of German villages and towns along Task Force Welborn’s advance had been fought over, captured, and left behind as the Americans moved eastward. In many of these actions Madira’s tank had been hit, but the Super Pershing had sustained little damage. On April 14 Task Force Welborn crossed the Saale River heading for the Elbe River. As it rushed forward, Task Force Lovelady advanced to its south. The next objective for both combat teams, as well as the entire 3rd Armored Division, was the city of Dessau. Nearing Dessau Matria’s tank was ordered to backtrack five miles and clear the American supply route, which had been interdicted by marauding German units. Using high-explosive and white phosphorous shells, the Super Pershing cleared the way and reopened the supply line.
From the 18th to the 20th, Task Force Welborn stood down while bitter fighting occurred in the villages south of Dessau. On April 21, the 3rd Armored Division initiated a four-pronged attack on Dessau. The Americans advanced from several directions, Task Force Hogan from the west, Task Force Boles and Task Force Orr from the southwest, and Task Force Welborn from the south. At the time the city was defended by soldiers of the Wehrmacht School of Combat Engineers and some SS units.
Task Force Welborn’s approach to Dessau was blocked by concrete antitank barriers, which the U.S. tanks were not able to break through or climb over. Instead, the Americans used their guns to demolish the barriers, which proved to be a slow process. Once over the concrete obstacles, the tanks of Task Force Welborn, closely followed by the halftrack-mounted soldiers of the 36th Armored Infantry Regiment, fanned out along the city streets.
The 20-Second Duel
Matria’s Pershing reached an intersection and began to round the corner. Waiting in ambush just 600 yards away stood a German King Tiger tank. The German fired at the M26 but missed its mark as its shell went high. John Irwin reacted immediately, firing a high-explosive round at the enemy vehicle, which merely bounced off the German tank and then exploded in the air. The Pershing cannon had been loaded with high-explosive ammunition since the crew expected to be conducting combat against infantry rather than enemy armor within the city.
Irwin shouted for his loader to put an armor-piercing round in the gun. Before he could shoot, the American tank was hit by antitank fire, which did no damage to the Pershing. It was never discovered if the shot that hit Matira’s tank had been fired by the Tiger or some other German weapon. The latter was most likely the case since a hit at that range from a King Tiger would likely have destroyed the U.S. tank.
Irwin then got off his second shot, which hit its target as the Tiger slowly moved forward over a rubble heap, exposing the German’s thinly armored underbelly. The 90mm round hit near the enemy tank’s ammunition hold resulting in a tremendous explosion, which blew the Tiger’s turret loose and killed the crew. The contest between the American and German behemoths lasted only 20 seconds.
The next morning, the Super Pershing participated in repulsing a German counterattack in Dessau’s center. The American encountered a Tiger tank that fired its 88mm gun. A German shot passed between the M26’s tracks! Another German tank came on scene as Matria backed his vehicle into an entrance way that overlooked a road. As the German Panther approached, Irwin fired, disabling the Panther’s drive sprocket and left sponson. A second shot slammed into the enemy tank’s two-inch side armor, igniting gasoline and ammunition. The Panther became a flaming torch, its wreckage blocking the Pershing until it was towed away later. Within seconds, another German tank appeared, but before Irwin could get off a shot at the newcomer the Nazi crew, out of ammunition, abandoned its tank and surrendered.
The Battle for Dessau did not conclude until April 24. It was the last combat action the Pershing took part in during World War.
20 Fighting Pershings on the Western Front
By mid-April 1945, a total of 185 new Pershings had arrived in the European Theater. Of these, 110 served with the 2nd, 3rd, 5th, 9th, and 11th Armored Divisions by war’s end. There were 310 M26 tanks in theater on May 8, 1945 (VE-Day), of which 200 were actually delivered for frontline service.
It is safe to say that due to the difficulties involved in transporting the machines and training their crews, the only Pershings that could have seen sustained action were those 20 experimental models introduced in February 1945. As a result, since the Pershing arrived so late and in such small numbers, it had no major impact on the fighting on the Western Front.
This article by Arnold Blumberg originally appeared on Warfare History Network.
This article first appeared last year.
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