Popular Myth and the M4 Sherman Tank

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TezTor123's avatar
By TezTor123
Popular Myth and the M4 Sherman Tank

OK ... after passing on some previous ideas for journal articles which were on politics and reporters again .. I decided to come back to one of my favorite topics - Military History - and use that to illustrate the difference between popular perception and fact.  I started working on this on July 24, 2009 but it got deferred for various reasons, including my having lent one of my reference books to a friend.

During WWII - American propaganda portrayed the Sherman tank as being a wonder of modern machinery but - in later years, revisionist historians ... and makers of simplistic documentaries ... portrayed the M4 Sherman as a "Bad Tank".  Neither was true.

There is an utterly excellent book by Belton Cooper entitled "Death Traps" (a title no doubt chosen by the publisher to sell more books ...) about his experiences as the salvage officer for the 3rd Armor Division in WWII.

In this book, Cooper discusses the failings of the Sherman but - you have to read what the man actually says - rather than have it all slanted by the title of the book. What he says - is that the Sherman was outclassed and fared poorly against the German Mk V Panther and Mk. VI Tiger tanks - which is true.  The thing is here - that these particular German tanks - were Great Tanks, not just Good Tanks (the Sherman was a Good Tank) but Great Tanks.  So - yes - it was outclassed when going against those vehicles.  However true that may be - there is a lot more to the story but like everything else (such as electrons) it is complex.

For example, when the Shermans were first used by the British in North Africa, against the tanks the Germans had then, Mk. III's and Mk. IV's, - it fared well.  It was still outclassed by the Tiger but - the Germans didn't have any Tigers in the desert at the time - so that wasn't an issue.  When they first got them, and the Grants before them, the British loved these American Tanks.  They even loved the Stuarts and called them Honey's - largely because British Tanks were fairly mediocre.  They either didn't have good weaponry or they couldn't go very fast or - worst of all - they broke down a lot (a failing the German Tanks all had when compared to the Sherman).  So - in 1942 - there was no perception of any problem with the Sherman.  The thing that gave it a reputation as a bad tank - was the introduction of the Panther in 1943 and it's presence on the battle field in 1944 in large numbers (large numbers by German standards that is).  The Tiger was rarely an issue.  If you ran into one - you were in real trouble - but the Germans built so few of them that running into a Tiger was simply a matter of really bad luck.

Now - the American's were aware of the Panther when they landed in Normandy, after all the tank had come out a year earlier - but they made the mistake of thinking that there wasn't a serous issue with the Sherman in that they believed the Panther would be produced in numbers similar to the Tiger - that is - not enough to worry about unless you were unlucky enough to run into one.  However - they were wrong about those numbers in that Panthers came to make up about half the strength of the German tank units - the other half being the aging Mk. IV's (the Mk. III's having all been turned into assault guns).  So, even though they were aware of the Panthers strengths and also aware of the Sherman's weaknesses - the didn't choose to expedite doing anything about it.  Then they landed - ran into a lot of Panthers ... and started trying to play catch up.

Now - the reason the Germans had such a good tank - was that the Germans had been fighting Russian Tanks since 1941.  The Soviet T-34 and KV (later Stalin) models were the most advanced tank designs in the world when they came out.  The problem the Russians had - was that they didn't have enough of them in 1941 (they had just hordes of crappy tanks ...)  - and - Russian tactics were really bad.  Later on, as the Russians built on success and made 50,000 T-34's (not counting all the other tanks they made such as the KV/Stalin's) the Russians still had crappy tactics.  That and there were certain things about Russian equipment that caused it to perform poorly in a unit.  Russian optics weren't as good as the Germans - so their targeting was poorer but - the real problem  was that they only had radios on the Company level - and that was a receive only model in the Company Commander's Tank.  The purpose of that radio was for him to get orders from Battalion - not to have a conversation with his CO.  Communications between individual Russian tanks and their Company Commander were done (as with their aircraft) with hand signals and Semaphores ...   You can imagine how well that worked ...   Of course ... the other thing about this was that - unless the Russians put dummy antennas on all their tanks - the very presence of a radio antenna flagged their command element for immediate destruction. If the Germans saw a tank with a radio antenna - they killed him first.  Here - the Russian unit lost not only their communications - but the unit commander as well - never a good thing.

Thus, though the hull and turret designs of Soviet tanks were the best in the world, their tactical employment was abysmal and the Germans were able to kill thousands of them.  The Germans problem was that the Russians had thousands of tanks and the soldiers in them to lose.

Even when it came to design though - the T-34 had failings.  Even though it's turret had a good ballistic shape, it only had room for two men in that turret - which meant that the gunner had to double as the tank commander.  Now ... this was not that uncommon an arrangement at that time - but it does not work as well as having dedicated gunners and tank commanders.  Later, with the advent of the T-34(85) - they had a larger turret that could accommodate, in addition to the loader, both a tank commander and a gunner.

Now if you look at a Panther tank - it is a German version of a T-34.  It has a large, high velocity main gun, broad tracks for good flotation and well sloped armor to aid in deflection.  Of course - they also all had radios and superior optics to let them take advantage of that excellent gun.  Copy or not - the Mk. V Panther was the best tank design of the war to see wide spread service.

In defense of the Shermans designers, even if they were slab sided and fairly tall, they had well slopped armor up front long before they ran into any Panthers.  The original German designs were all vertical armor with no appreciable slant, relying almost entirely on the armors thickness, rather than it's design to deflect enemy shells.  The American design is an evolution of the designs of earlier American tanks - whereas the Germans - copied the Russians.

So, the sequence of events was -

1) Russians have best tank design.
2) Germans encounter Russian tanks
3) Germans modify their designs
4) Americans encounter new German tanks
5) Americans modify their vehicles

When the American's and British showed up in Normandy they got a rude shock to find so many of the best tank design of the war there to greet them.

The American tank designers had not been idle.  The problem was that ... for one thing ... they'd already made so many Shermans that there were a large number of the older models still in service. Efforts were made to upgrade these tanks but field upgrade kits could only do so much and not all of them got them.  

As to the introduction of newer tanks, partly that was a production decision.  They didn't want to slow production down to either begin producing the excellent T-26 but also, before Normandy, they didn't feel they wanted or needed a new tank.

Of those field upgrade kits, there had been some real thought and research put into them reflecting not the popular but the actual cause of some of the Sherman's problems.  One of the biggest misconceptions of the Sherman's flaws - was that it used a gasoline as opposed to a diesel engine.  The tag on the Sherman came from a commercial for Ronson Cigarette lighters that went "It lights the first time, every time."  This was a reflection of the Sherman's tendency to catch fire and blow up the first time it was hit.  This however had nothing to do with it using gasoline fueled engines.  The Sherman did in fact have a number of different engines being produced for it since it was made by so many different manufacturers - including diesels (which mostly went to the Marines in the Pacific).  But that wasn't the problem anyway.  There were also gasoline fueled German as well as any number of other tank builders tanks.  The real problem for the Sherman was that in the early designs - those big sponsons over hanging it's tracks had looked like a nice place to store the ammunition for it's main gun ...  A hit in one of those sponsons - went right into the ammunition storage - and yes - that blew the thing right up.  The upgrade kist attempted to ameliorate this problem by putting thicker armor around these shell storage spaces.  In later models, the ammunition was stored in the floor, some of them having wet storage to further protect that ammunition.  These versions of the Sherman had a much lower incidence of blowing up when hit.  Also, it should be noted as a point of comparison - Panthers stowed their shells in their sponsons too and while their frontal armor was excellent - they were vulnerable from the flanks.

The thinness of the Shermans armor (in comparison to the Panthers) was addressed in a model they called the Jumbo - which had very good armor protection indeed though there weren't that many of these produced.   One odd fact was that the Jumbo version of the Sherman with all that armor - was equipped with a short barreled 75mm ...  This however could, however, be replaced in the field by one of the 76mm's.

The Sherman's short barreled 75 mm that compared so poorly to the two long barreled German 75's (they were different guns) on the  Mk. IV and Mk. V was replaced by a long 76mm gun in the American tanks and an excellent long 17 pdr. in the British Fire Fly Shermans.  Theses two guns improved the Shermans effectiveness against enemy armor a good bit.

Now though, we are getting into an element of the Sherman's design that was influenced by American Armored doctrine.  One of the reasons that the short 75 was retained so long was that it had a superior High Explosive shell to that of the long 76 mm.  The gun had in fact been chosen by the artillery experts during the tanks design who wanted a gun that would have a long tube life.  The fact that few Shermans Tanks had a life time long enough to take advantage of that characteristic was something that had not been foreseen - and - when it was chosen - this was not a bad gun.  It was certainly superior the the 50mm weapon the Germans had on the Mk. III still in use when the Sherman was introduced.

Now here, we also come into acquaintance with what should be considered a determining factor in the M4's design, in that according to American Armored Doctrine - the Shermans were not supposed to fight enemy tanks ...

One of the things about WWII for aviation and armor is that there was a tremendous amount of learning that was going on.  For the most part most of the combatants had no idea what they were doing when the war started.  They all had theories but no real experience in using aircraft or tanks.  As it turned out, some of the theories were better than others - though even these tended to be highly modified as the war went on.

Bad ideas were abundant.  They had light tanks, they had heavy tanks, they had super heavy tanks, they had assault guns, they had tank destroyers, they had infantry tanks, they had cruiser tanks - that - and they had tanks that were truly execrable in their design and manufacture.  If you really want to see some BAD tanks - look to some such as those built by the Japanese among any number of other builders of really bad tanks.  Of course ... as the British found out in Malaya ... besides the fact that the Japanese would go through the jungle to circumvent their road blocks - having really bad tanks was a lot better than having no tanks at all ...

According to American Armored doctrine - much of which was created by Generals Leslie McNair and George Patton ... Tanks were supposed to fight infantry and break through to push behind enemy lines - while Tank Destroyers were supposed to respond to break throughs by German Armor and kill it.  Thus - the American's did have armored vehicles with bigger guns on them, later versions of which had some really big guns. These vehicles were in Tank Destroyer battalions.  Tank Destroyers however, lacked as many machine guns as a tank, were open topped to save weight (if you're hunting tanks - they all use direct fire weapons so descending fire is less of a concern) and they relied on speed to shoot and scoot, engaging  the enemy tank and then maneuvering out of the line of fire before it could retaliate if it survived and hence were light on armor.  This was a simply horrible doctrine.

Hunting tanks was not a way of doing business in the real world.  You attacked an enemy position or he attacked yours - and you used whatever armored vehicles you had present for whatever job needed doing.  Thus, you had Tank Destroyers being put into service as infantry support - for which they were very poorly designed ... all enemy infantry units possessing mortars ... which go up and then come down on their targets (remember those open tops?).  Then, you routinely had Shermans engaging enemy tanks with their short barreled 75mm's because - there were enemy tanks coming, the Shermans were there - and the Tank Destroyers weren't.  The shoot and scoot idea was excellent if you were hidden in a hull down position and awaiting an enemy attack.  The American's retained this as a tactic right up through the cold war.  The problem for Tank Destroyers was ... what if you were attacking?  What if the enemy was hull  down and awaiting YOU?  If the enemy started shooting first - he would likely get the first hit - and if your armor wasn't up to snuff ... you were dead.  Speed was really a good thing to have - but not at the expense of your armor.

Another factor that hurt the Shermans performance against German Tanks, was the ammunition with which the 76mm version of the Sherman was equipped.  Penetrating power - is a function of both the design of the gun and she shell it is shooting.  The High Velocity Armor Piercing (HVAP) 76mm shell had superior penetrating capabilities to the standard armor piercing shells the Sherman used against tanks - but - in short supply because of it's tungsten core penetrator - this ammunition was mostly given to Tank Destroyer units which used the same gun.

Additionally, they shortened the barrel of the 76mm which reduced the velocity of it's projectile by 10%.  This was done because the extra length made the turret they were going to use unbalanced and in some terrain, poked into the ground.  Cutting down the length of the barrel was, I assume, a short cut they used instead of fixing the turret and training the drivers to be more careful.

The Americans could have had some of the excellent 17 pounder guns put in the British Fire Fly Shermans - but the American Army turned it down until it was to late to make use of them.

Now, the concept of building a plethora of different tanks, each designed for a different purpose - which was common place before WWII - went by the way side - with only the Medium Tanks being retained as general purpose Armored Vehicles.  Since there were any number of tasks a tank might be asked to perform - and no mind readers assigned to direct the appropriate tanks to the appropriate places in advance - it was learned that a good, flexible design was best.  Since the Sherman was the medium tank the Americans had - it was what was used - and it's flaws were made glaring by having it go up against those excellent German tanks.

All that said - the American's did fairly well for several reasons.  First off, while the Germans had more Panthers than we had thought they would - they really didn't have that many tanks.  In addition to all those Soviet T-34's the American's built 50,000 Shermans too.  That and of course, we had all those Tanks Destroyers.  

The other thing was - and you never see this mentioned - the Germans had a lot of really crappy armored vehicles.    

The Germans had lots of assault guns.  

Assault guns were popular because they were cheaper to make since they didn't have a turret - the problem being - they didn't have a turret.  While the gun had a minor traverse to it for fine aiming purposes, to bring the gun to bear you had to turn the entire vehicle.  

Besides the fact that they were cheaper to produce, they could take an obsolete vehicle which couldn't fit a larger gun in it's turret and fit that larger gun by dispensing with the turret.  If it didn't have to traverse much you could strap a decent late war gun to the top of even the earliest tank hulls.  While some of these vehicles were purposely designed many of them were simply attempts to make some use out of existing tank chassis's by a Germany desperate for vehicles.

Germany and Russia's Assault Guns ranged from a few that were really very good to lots of really crummy conversions of early war tanks.  When comparing the Sherman to enemy armor - it should be remembered that the Sherman Tank compared very favorably with the vast majority of these obsolete tank conversions.

Additionally - the Shermans could climb better than the German tanks, had better road speed,  had a power traverse to their turret which was much faster than the manual traverse in the Panther and had rubber coated tracks and suspension which greatly improved track life.

Another issue was reliability.  Both the Sherman and the T-34 had fewer mechanical problems than the Panthers.  The Sherman was a good, reliable machine whereas the Panther, despite the best points of it's design - wasn't.  The end result of that - was that the average American tank unit had a higher percentage of it's tanks available at any one time than it's German counterpart.  Given the already great disparity in numbers of vehicles alone this just made a bad situation for the Germans even worse.

Thus, the American's seldom had to face equal numbers of German tanks and those that they did have to face were not always very good tanks.  Unlike the poor Russian tankers in their excellent tanks with no radios - the American's in their Shermans had excellent radios on the worlds best radio net.  

That radio net could bring in not only air strikes but massed Time On Target artillery barrages with proximity fused shells.  Thus, any American with a radio - whether he was in a tank or not - could if he had a good enough target or a severe enough need - call in hundreds of artillery pieces - each of which could fire in a timed pattern so that all their shells arrived at the target simultaneously - giving the enemy no warning of what was coming.  With the use of proximity detonating fuses - the shells could be set to detonate as air bursts raining shrapnel down into the fox holes of the troops beneath them and onto the weaker tops of German Tanks.  All this from Artillery Batteries supplied by the worlds largest industrial power in massive numbers and with vast quantities of ammunition.  Germany's leadership had been informed by it's leading generals prior to the war that their nation couldn't supply an army the size of the one that leadership was building.  Despite production efforts that exceeded anything those pre-war generals thought Germany could produce - it never had enough ammunition for it's army.

In post war interviews some German soldiers were asked which they would rather fight - the Russians or the Americans.  Given the horror stories commonly told about the Russian front it was somewhat surprising to the American interviewers to hear it said the Germans were more afraid of the Americans.  When asked why the German's responded:

"The Americans shot ALL DAY!  If we got shelled like that on the Russian Front - we knew were about to be attacked!!!"

Of course - this question pertained to who they'd rather fight .... not who they'd rather be captured by and didn't address that weather issue ...

An additional issue here - was also the combat experience of the different armies.  When the Allies landed in France in 1944, many of their units were inexperienced and going up against experienced German Veterans.  As these German Veterans were killed and the American units gained experience things changed.  The Americans still had to contend with an enemy that had better frontal armor and a more powerful gun - but they had learned that they had to flank these tanks, call in air strikes or artillery if they were to take them out.  That wasn't always easy to do - but the American Veterans knew they needed to do it.  Also, some had figured out that the White Phosphorus shells American Tanks were often equipped with to help spot targets for Aircraft, could knock out even a King Tiger when that tanks fans sucked the fumes into the crew compartment.  The Tiger was almost undamaged but their crews often thought their tank was on fire and abandoned it.  In any case, the fumes were poisonous so unless they had their gas masks ready at hand ... they'd have to leave it even if they knew what had happened.

The German practice of putting much of their Panther production into brand new units - which in their ignorance still had high morale - created a high casualty rate amongst these units when facing American Veterans.  Having a better tanks ... but not knowing how to use it ... didn't do green troops any good.

Of course the casualties weren't all one sided and as the Americans had not planned on the amount of tank crew losses they would take you often had inexperienced replacements in American tanks getting killed because they were relearning the lessons the American Veterans they were replacing had had to learn themselves.

Still, as the war progressed the Americans in their M4 Shermans were doing better than they had.

Thus, by the end of the war, the M4A3E8 Sherman was a very good tank indeed.  It had broader tracks for better flotation, a better suspension system, the 76mm gun, better armor and - most importantly - it's ammunition for the main gun stowed in water protected spaces in the deck and not in those vulnerable sponsons.  When these tanks engaged Russian tanks in Korea - they had little trouble with the T-34/85s.  The Easy 8 as it was known, was still not as good as a Panther but it was a lot better than the earlier model Shermans.  Here though the Allies suffered from an embarrassment of riches.  They had so many Sherman tanks that it wasn't possible for them all to be upgraded to the Easy 8 or Jumbo standards and you had older, earlier model Shermans serving throughout the war.  Had the war lasted longer these more advanced versions of the Sherman - operating with more M-26's - would have resulted in a better reputation for the tank than the one it ended up with.

So, when you hear about the Sherman being a "bad tank" it simply isn't true.  What was true - is that a flawed armor doctrine dictated that the Sherman not be brought up to the full efficiency of the design until late in the war.  As a testament to the potential of the Sherman - look at the Israeli versions - which for one thing mounted a French Produced version of the same 75mm gun that had been in those Panthers.  Over twenty years after it was first produced, these upgraded versions of that good, sound M4 Sherman tank were still in service.  That would NOT have been the case - if the Sherman was a bad tank.

The Sherman was the product of a horribly flawed Armor Doctrine which because of the basic soundness of it's design was able to rise above the job set for it to become the American Army's General Purpose Tank.

Thus, you have a popular myth which is perpetuated by sensationalized documentaries and book titles - which know that they will sell more advertising space or books by treating the subject as a scandalous outrage than by looking at the facts and trying to understand  what really happened.

The problem wasn't the basic design of the Sherman tank - it was Leslie McNair and George Patton's Armor doctrine - which if you believe Belton Cooper - was also the reason why we didn't have M-26's a lot earlier than we did.

Here - in the last analysis - is my final point.  In judging the M4 Sherman tank - it should be compared to the Mark IV German tank to which it was comparable.  It is the American M-26 that should be compared to the German Mark V and Mark VI.  The failure here - was because of decisions made by the American Army - that the M-26 was not produced as soon as it could have been.  Thus - instead of having their best tank design confronting the Germans best tank design - the Americans were trying to make do with an earlier design.  That earlier design, the M4 Sherman Tank, was a good tank - but it wasn't up to competing against a Great Tank and it's crews paid for that in blood.




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Nice article, although in my opinion, the notion that the Panther was a copy of the T-34 is a myth as well. Other than incorporating sloped armor, the Panther was very much like other German Tanks of the period. The Germans had already incorporated a high velocity gun and wide tracks into the Tiger. The Panther simply took those elements and added armor slope. In other regards, the Panther and T-34 are totally different. Panther, like most other German tanks had a gasoline engine in the back, transmission in the front with a torsion bar suspension. T-34 had a diesel engine in the back, rear mounted transmission and christie suspension. T-34 had a two man turret, the Panther, like other German tanks had a three man turret. The Panther had a much larger and more powerful gun set in a turret with a wide mantlet set back on the hull. The T-34 had a narrow mantlet on a turret set forward on the vehicle. I think it's fair to say that the Panther was a response to the T-34 and the KV, but it was not a copy. That distinction goes to the VK 3002.
Sentinel103's avatar
Very interesting. While I was in I was a 96D and was a specialist in soviet armor and artillery (that was back before....OK way before we got the M1 on line and we still had the M-60....which was an upgrade of the Sherman).

Now someone has has a Sherman is The Wise Duck over on FF. Imagine having your own tank. Sure it's a WWII medium tank which was developed to suport infantry. but still.....
TezTor123's avatar
There's actually a number of people who own M-4 Sherman Tanks. Mostly rich guys obviously. There are also refurbishing companies that will put them back in operation.

I'm sure there's some kind of regulations governing their weapons but there's no problem at all about owning the tank ... other than the money to buy it and maintain it.