Saturday, 8 February 2014

World of Tanks History Section: M7 Priest

The United States of America got lucky with their geographic location. After defeating Spain in 1898, they became the dominant state in the New World, and the Atlantic Ocean presented a mighty barrier for any European aggressor. For twenty years, America maintained a policy of voluntary isolationism, feeling perfectly safe from external threats. The USA only left this state of mind by the end of WWI.

When WWII was starting in Europe, Americans could not sit aside and relaxedly observe the war's progress. It was also obvious that material aid alone will not be enough. America had to take up arms, at least against Japan, which was seriously determined to cause trouble in the Pacific.

In order to fight, the US needed a proper army, including proper armour. On July 10th, 1940, the Armoured Forces of the United States were officially created. At the same time, engineers started work on new vehicles.

The military needed a proper self propelled gun. Existing T19 halftracks and M3 cars were unsatisfactory both in armament and mobility. In October of 1941, Major-General Devers ordered the creation of a SPG with a 105 mm howitzer. The M3 Lee tank, in production since the summer of 1941, served as the chassis.

Americans can work quickly when they have to. In November, Baldwin Locomotive received two orders for prototypes, and in December, the vehicles were completed and shipped to Aberdeen.

In 1942, based on the test results, the US Army Tank Committee made a list of changes that needed to be made in the new SPG. Mostly, the armour was to be reduced from 19mm to 13mm, and the howitzer moved to the right, in order to increase the horizontal traverse. Additionally, the SPG must be armed with a machine gun. By April, the new SPG went through another round of tests and was accepted for production under the name 105-mm Howitzer Motor Carriage M7. The vehicles were mass produced by American Locomotive Company, Pressed Steel Company and Federal Machine and Welder Company.

The M7 was immediately improved and modernized. First, extra fuel tanks were discarded. Second, it received a special front armour plate without a sponson hole (recall that the M3 Lee had a gun mounted in the hull).

The name Priest was given by the British, who received M7s through Lend-Lease. The reason for this was the shape of the machine gun turret, which reminded them of a priest's lectern.

The M7 first saw combat in November of 1942, during the Algiers-Morocco operation, and the Tunisian campaign. The Priest performed so well that it was made the main vehicle of light self propelled field artillery. The British, after receiving the first Priests in September of 1942, included them in the 5th Royal Mounted Artillery Regiment attached to the 8th Tank Division. This unit had a significant impact on the battles at El-Alamein.

At the end of 1943, it was decided that the Priest should be produced with the M4 hull, instead of the obsolete M3. Aside from the new hull, the SPG received new side armour screens and a cast front plate. The new SPG, named M7B1, started production in March of 1944.

Most M7 SPGs fought in Italy and Western Europe. Here, Priests performed very well. They could maneuver even on soft ground, could be deployed from landing craft into deep water, and begin fire support immediately after deployment.

High effectiveness of SPGs was reached as a result of coordination between air recon and special fire control centers, capable of quickly shifting many SPGs to one key target.

Few Priests were used in the Pacific. Jungles and swamps were poor hosts to any armoured vehicles. Priests did not have a very large impact here.

Aside from the United States, many other countries fielded Priests. Britain received most of them, over 800 units. British Priests fought in North Africa, Italy, at Normandy, and in Burma. France received about 200 SPGs, used in the 2nd and 5th Tank Divisions. Britain and France were the only countries that received Priests as a part of Lend-Lease. Later, small amounts made it to Canada and the People's Liberation Army of Yugoslavia.

Before WWII ended, the Americans decided that the M7 should be replaced with the more modern M37. However, they did not have the time to accomplish this, so Priests remained in use after 1945, but mostly in reserves or the National Guard. The only post-war conflict the Priests could be found in was Korea.

After the war, M7s were distributed to America's allies: China, Pakistan, Belgium, Norway, Argentina, and many more. As of 2012, Priests still exist in the Brazilian army.

There were attemps to create vehicles based on the M7, but the only mass produced one was the Kangaroo, of which around 100 units were made. In this modification, the gun was removed, and seats were installed for infantry. Several M7s were converted to observer vehicles. In these, the infantry seats were replaced with observation devices and radios. The French tried to make the M7 into a self propelled mortar, but the project did not achieve anything interesting.

In conclusion, the Priest was a good vehicle, which could effectively provide artillery fire while attacking and while retreating. It had its downsides, as any vehicle does. It was very tall, which complicated concealment. Several specialists consider the gun to be too weak for the chassis. The choice of a 105 mm howitzer was probably caused by a rush to get Priests into production. The light gun did not overload the suspension, resuling in a very reliable vehicle, so it is not entirely fair to say that the small caliber was a disadvantage.

4316 Priests were built from 1942 to 1945.

Original article available here.

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