Fighter pilots often cite, German ace, Oswald Boelcke’s theorum: “Speed is Life.” But, on the ground, armored vehicle designs have not always placed a premium on speed. In World War II, only one armored fighting vehicle (AFV) design met requirements for a fast, light, tank destroyer. That design was the M18 Hellcat Tank Destroyer: the fastest tank of World War II. While most World War II tanks had a top speed of perhaps 25 miles per hour on the road, the M18 Hellcat could go 50 to even 60 miles per hour. In a world full of tanks, the M18 handled like a sports car.
Manufactured by Buick and powered by a 9-cylinder, air cooled, Continental R975 radial engine, that produced 400 horsepower, the 18-ton Hellcat relied on maneuver tactics to attack German tanks from their flanks and from behind. This was a good thing because the American 76 millimeter M1A2 cannon was unable to defeat heavy German Tiger tanks from the front. Plus, to save weight, the crew was only protected by an inch of armor in the front and less in other areas. The M18 Hellcat’s turret even had an open top. While the crew and gunners could get a better view of the battlefield simply by sticking their heads up, the open top also exposed the men to small arms fire and shrapnel.
Despite the vulnerability of the crew, the ability to move quickly, see the battlefield, and respond quickly, helped make the M18 Hellcat very effective on the battlefield. According to Weapons of World War II, “in July 1944, the 630th Tank Destroyer Battalion reported knocking out 53 Tigers and Panthers and 15 StuG III’s with a loss of just 17 M18s. For the entire war, the M18 racked up an admirable record. According to a FourWheeler.com article, “Hellcat crews would claim 526 enemy armored vehicles destroyed, with just 217 Hellcats lost in action.” The operational history of the 100th Infantry division cites the 824th Tank Destroyer Battalion and specifically the M18’s speed and firepower as being a critical asset towards the end of World War II, “at Jagstfeld, Heilbronn, Beilstein, and beyond, the heavy firepower and exceptional mobility of the new M18s-the fastest tracked armored vehicle of WWII-allowed Centurymen to bring the war to the Reich, and quickly and decisively end it.”
After World War II, the M18 Hellcat continued to see use in Yugoslavia and a few other countries where it was sent as part of the lend-lease program. Today, the M18 lives on in museums, private collections, and even video games. The M18 Hellcat also appears in online games such as World of Tanks.
Jim Fetts, “Vehicle Tests: Buick M18 Hellcat Tank Destroyer First Drive” Fourwheeler.com, October 31, 2013.
Ludeke, Alexander. Weapons of World War II, Parragon Press, Bath, UK, 2007.
“1944 Buick M18 Hellcat Tank Destroyer” Sloan-Longway Museum website.
“824th Tank Destroyer Battalion – A Combat History,” 100th Infantry Division Website