One of the unique characteristics of WW2 era tanks is the hull machine gunner position. This crew position was assigned a variety of names in different armies, being referred to as the assistant driver, radio operator, or bow gunner to name a few. A large majority of the tanks designed and used during the war had this position as part of their crew layout, although it quickly disappeared from tank design in the post war period.
In the 1920’s and early 1930’s, tank design was still in its formative stages and vehicle crew and component layout varied dramatically. However, by the late 30’s a consensus starts to emerge in regards to crew layout. In Germany, the Panzer III and IV established the layout that would be most common during the war, a five man crew with three in the turret and two in the hull, a driver and the hull machine gunner. The Soviet Union, USA, Czechoslovokia and Japan also adopted the hull gunner concept, although their early war tanks typically had two men in the turret (T-34, M2 and M3 light tank, LT vz 35 and 38, Type 97). The two major exceptions to the move toward bow gunners were the United Kingdom and France. French tank design was fairly unique, relying primarily on smaller vehicles with 2 man crews (Renault and Hotchkiss infantry tanks) or larger tanks such as the Somua S35 or Char B1 Bis which had a radio operator position but did not give him a machine gun to operate. British pre-war tank design varied. The Matilda II (A12) infantry tank had a very modern crew layout of driver in the hull and three in the turret. On the other hand, the Cruiser Mk I introduced into service in 1939 had two hull machine gunners, each with his own turret!
As the war progressed, the hull machine gunner became the norm, as did the five man crew. The British adopted this layout in their Cromwell, Churchill and Comet tanks. The US Sherman tank featured a five man crew with bow gunner as well. The Soviets adopted such a layout with the T-34/85 as well as the earlier KV heavy tanks (the KV had the odd feature of a machine mounted on the back of the turret as well.) Every German tank from the Panzer III all the way to the Tiger II had a five man crew with bow gunner. By the end of the war, tank designers were starting to question the need for the bow gunner. The first move in this direction is the Soviet IS-2 heavy tank (although curiously enough, it retained the machine gun on the back of the turret.) The next country to move away from the bow gunner were the British with the very early versions of the Centurion tank. The German Maus and E-100 super heavy tanks lacked bow gunners, although its hard to say how much either of those vehicles represented future trends in German tank design. The Japanese stayed loyal to the bow gunner concept, going so far as to give the bow gunner a 37mm cannon in the Type 5 Chi-Ri heavy tank prototype!
In the post war period, the bow gunner quickly faded away. With the appearance of the Soviet T44 and T54 and the British Centurion in the late 40’s, the writing was on the wall as far as bow gunners were concerned. The last tank to be introduced into service with a bow gunner was the American M47 Patton. This tank was a bit of an oddity, being a combination of the existing M46 hull with a turret from the T42 prototype (the T42 hull did not have a hull gunner, although fender mounted remote controlled machine guns were considered for the vehicle) The M47 had the dubious distinction of the being the standard medium tank for the US Army for a shorter time than any other tank. Within a few years of its adoption, it was replaced by the M48, a design which omitted the hull gun in favor of a four man crew. While the hull gunner was widely considered an anachronism in the post war period, not everyone shared in that opinion. For a dissenting view, lets take a look at the article “Let’s Keep the Bow Gunner” from the July-Aug 1951 issue of ARMOR magazine.