To the average person, this vehicle looks like a tank, but it’s not. It’s an artillery piece. One key difference is the main gun, a 105 mm Howitzer. Compare this to a 75 mm gun on a Sherman tank. Also on the M7 the crew is riding on top of the vehicle in the open unlike a tank crew tucked away safely inside the tank. So the men on the M7 had no armor plating protecting them in combat. But the track gave this gun the mobility to advance alongside tanks and infantry into the thick of battle.
My father-in-law served on an M7 in the 276th Armored Field Artillery Battalion. When his son asked him what he did in WWII, the veteran told him he was on a tank, rather than trying to explain to him about the track-mounted artillery piece. So as a boy my husband proudly proclaimed to his friends that his father served on a tank with Patton. As he grew older my husband learned more about the war and he continued to ask his father questions. Although reluctant to talk about his WWII experiences, the ex-GI explained that the vehicle he manned was actually an M7 105 mm Self Propelled Gun, also called an M7 Priest. (The British dubbed it “Priest” due to the .50 caliber machine gun mounted in a drum-like ring on the front that resembled a priest’s pulpit.)
The former soldier rarely relayed stories about the war. When he did, he told of experiences during the Battle of the Bulge, Remagen Bridge and the invasion of Germany as part of Patton’s Third Army. GI’s on the front didn’t know the big picture. He said that as long as they were moving, they figured things were going good.
Reading the history of the 276th AFA BN put their role in the war in perspective. I learned that these artillery pieces were assigned to whatever front or division needed their support. So, like other artillery units, the 276th was not included in the combat records of any particular division, which makes research for specific details much more difficult. Fortunately we have a copy of the official account printed immediately after the war and given to each soldier in the unit.
Last summer while visiting relatives in Michigan, my brother-in-law took us to a VFW outside Flint where an M7 Priest is on display. For the first time my husband saw, in person, a gun like his father’s. Having served in an armored unit himself, my husband has been around many tanks, but seeing and touching this vehicle thrilled him. He even climbed up on top in the rain to gain perspective on his Dad’s experience riding atop the powerful gun. That day we both made a connection to his Dad and his experiences during the war, experiences that changed a 19-year-old forever.
If you are interested in the history of action aboard the M7 during the second world war, read “Longneck, A History of the 274th AFA BN” by Jack K. Morrison or “Payoff Artillery – WWII” by Frank H. Armstrong. Both these veterans give fascinating accounts of their service in these unique units.