Recently the debate started again on the Sherman tank and the ‘Ronson(German)’ or ‘deathtrap(US?)’ smear that has gone on apparently since the war about the deficiencies of the M4 medium tank. When the smear started is a bit of a mystery, but I’ve seen the smear go right back to when American tanks started to appear in combat in 1942. The defining theme about the US Army was that the Ordnance Dept. Army Ground Forces or Armored Force leadership and all the people in American tank development were idiots for not anticipating the big German cats in France in 1944 and that got a lot of American GI’s killed. I discussed some of that in a previous post here.
Here’s a typical example of the smear.
And another same old, same old.
For the record, most tanks in WW2 were not Diesel powered, because in WW2 Diesel engine technology was not up to producing compact powerful engines that would fit in tanks. See below for videos of German tanks that killed their crews.
In any case the same things keep getting repeated, over and over again, and like the diesel-gasoline engine issue the people that parrot the same crap over and over can’t be bothered to get it right.
Perhaps the most notorious book about the incompetence of the US Army is Death Traps by Belton Cooper.
Death Traps has been around a long time now and whenever a WW2 or tank discussion comes up, the book is almost always brought up. One reason it probably shouldn’t be is here.
From the Editor: Debunking Deathtraps Part 1
The M4 Medium tank hardly deserves that bad rap. The fact is that the tank’s virtues far outweigh its flaws and the tank has proved to have stood the test of time. There is also the fact that rather than being a death trap, the M4 had one of the largest survival rated for its crews of any tank in the war.
I’m going to start with this video from Nicolas Moran.
Now the design of the Sherman tank and it’s immediate ancestors has been the source of controversy in amongst the tank geek people for as long as I can remember. What’s important to remember is that tank design does not occur in a vacuum. A tank is the result of the experience and doctrine development of the country that produces it. The Sherman was no different in that regard.
It also should be remembered that in the period between the wars, the US Army gone back to it’s peacetime role as border guardian against the occasional Mexican bandit incursion and home for people that couldn’t find a job elsewhere.
Tank development was a case of experimentation a small number of vehicles and a lot of pushing various theories around.
It didn’t help that the tank budget was shared between the infantry with their tanks and the cavalry with their “combat cars.”
By the late 1930’s the cult of the machine gun was driving US Tank design and the results look to us, now as rather ridiculous.
The M2 medium was never present in any numbers in the peacetime army. The toy they did play with was its older and smaller brother, the M2 light tank.
Other than that, exercises still played around with trucks, armored cars and yes, horsepower.
The American Army between the wars was a club and testing ground for ideas about fighting the next war. The lion’s share of what little money there was went to the artillery and the army air corps. Tanks were a distant third and mostly experimental. The ordnance department built most of them at the Rock Island arsenal.
And then this happened:
The invasion of Poland and the campaign was a bit of a shock to most of the armies around the world. For the first time, a motorized army showed what it could do in spite of all the efforts of a determined opponent. Suddenly what had been playing games became serious and the US Army knew that it needed to get it’s act together, fast.
Fast meant that the Ordnance people couldn’t mess around with a completely new tank. They had to use what they had if what they had was proven to be reliable. That meant either the Christie suspension or the volute suspension on the M2 medium. The Christie had had issues in testing and the Engine, drivetrain and suspension of the M2 had worked well, so that is what they went with.
As the development of the M2 had continued the Ordnance Dept. had experimented with mounting a 75mm howitzer in a sponson. That had worked so the M3 emerged with it’s odd side mounted main gun.
Here’s some early M3’s being assembled at the Rock Island Arsenal, Along with M2 light tanks and some artillery.
Here’s the chieftain’s walk around of an early M3 medium
The M3 was never really intended to be a final design for the tank that America expected to go to war in. It was at best a deign put together to gain experience at a time when the way tanks were intended to be used was rapidly changing. That being said, The M3 had some virtues because of the way Americans did things. In 1940, there were no factories dedicated to producing tanks in the US. At least not in the quantities that the Army expected that would be needed to win a world war. So the army contracted for factory near Detroit and it was built inside of a year. The factory used all of the capabilities that American industry had developed.
The Chrysler tank factory on video.
Of course it was fairly obvious that what was required was a turret mounted 75mm gun. But at the time the tooling did not exist for a turret ring that could handle a turret that large. I suspect that they could have worked around that and the Ordnance people probably did for the first few M4/T6 that were assembled.
Here’s the Chieftain’s walk around of an early M4A1.
The T6 was put together amazingly quickly because it had to be. The US Army had run out of time and needed an effective tank almost immediately. That being said, the Ordnance people did a remarkable job of leveraging some key American technologies and taking advantage of them, for instance, the ability to create large steel castings. That was a technology that the Germans never, for all their metallurgical skill, never seemed to apply to their armored vehicles.
The second Sherman.
Here are some videos of American tank factories.
A video of ordnance crews dealing with tank and artillery repair.
The M4 was an immediate success. It served on every front and performed better than just about every tank out there. Right up through the middle of 1944 the 75mm gun M4 was dealing with everything that it encountered. The intelligence community certainly knew about the Panther and Tiger 1, but nobody in the West had encountered either in mass.
Armored force and the ordnance branch had been going back and forth about up gunned M4’s almost from the time that the M4 had been in production but the quick fix 76mm had a lot of problems and when the tankers saw the test reports they turned it down flat.
This look at the Sherman Firefly demonstrates some of the issues.
And the Bovington Firefly.
In any case Armored Force tested the ‘quick fix’ 76mm turret and said, go back and improve the turret. Ordnance was ahead of the game thanks to the T20 development program and the fact that the T20 series used the same turret ring as the M4 and that meant that the T23 turret was a drop in. With some other improvements the upgraded gun variants became the e6 M4’s.
One thing is clear. The Armored force had designed and had in production 76mm M4’s starting in early 1944. The Armored forces at the time of operation overlord had at least some of them, but the full replacement envisioned hadn’t happened for logistical reasons and SHAEF probably felt that there were adequate tanks in the inventory already in Britain was adequate for Overlord and none of the commands were screaming for something better. The big German cats had not at that point been encountered in numbers enough to raise a high degree of concern.
Then in June 1944 the allies invaded France in Normandy. The invasion was a success. The slogging match of attritional warfare that followed was a nightmare. The reason was the kind of landscape that the Normandy campaign was fought in, the bocage.
The problem was that the terrain was crisscrossing rows of hedges with stone walls at their base interspersed with small clumps of trees, perfect for hiding machine gun nests, anti tank guns and light artillery. Add to that, the numerous towns and cities and it is hardly the kind of country that is friendly to a maneuvering army.
This series of videos sort of shows some of what it was like.
A blog post about Normandy.
D-Day and After: Battling Through the Bocage
The close in hedgerows of the bocage meant that all too often when a tank encountered another tank, it was front to front at close range, exactly where the relatively less maneuverable Panthers and Tigers had the advantage. American tankers and gunners complained that the German tanks were essentially invulnerable and Senior command demanded that somebody look into it. As the Cheiftan explains here, the ordnance people did. They pulled three Panther tank out of the junkpile and shot at them with everything they could think of.
The results backed up the perception that the 75mm gun and even the 76mm gun were at a disadvantage against the German big cats. Measures were taken to provide the experimental tungsten HVAP ammunition and 90mm equipped M36 tank destroyers to the units on the front. They also deployed the 76mm Shermans sitting in England. At that point the 76mm had become the standard for Sherman production in any case.
Unfortunately, by the time the test were conducted and the measures suggested the Panther panic had disappeared, along with the Panthers themselves. By the end of August 1944 the ten panzer divisions of Army group B had less than one hundred tanks or armored vehicles between them.
The fact is that every panther or other German armored vehicle left on the side of the road was as much of a loss to the Germans as if it had been destroyed outright. Once a Panther ‘s crew left a tank, the German army wasn’t getting that tank back. More than likely that tank, if it wasn’t destroyed by it’s crew was going to end up at Isigny or starting its long journey to Aberdeen.
The chieftain looks at the Panther and says, “I wouldn’t want to go to war in this tank.” See why in the video.
A German training film.
For completeness sake, here is the tour of the t34.
More Sherman links than you could ever want.
Some Sherman tank training films
The US auto industry in WW2.
To end this, even the supposedly superior Tiger II’s had their bad days.
The German’s big problems were far deeper than tactical issues. The issue goes right back to how the Germans produced and deployed tanks. John Parshall discusses production issues in this video.
What the scandal mongers never seem to take into consideration is that much of seeming inadequacies of the M4 were the results of decisions made by the armored division commanders before the action even started in France. They were the ones who decided to leave the 76mm M4’s in England for reasons that they thought were perfectly good at the time. It turned out to be a mistake, but based on the best intelligence they had, the mistake was logical.
The early M4’s did have issues, but they were resolved fairly quickly and the issues sent back to the states and production changed to address the issues and make improvements. The problem was that it took about six months for those improvements to make it into the logistical stream and when they did, another set of problems had arisen.
The scandal mongers continue to produce books and articles constantly going over the same tired ground here’s another one, published last year.
Here is a rather devastating review from reddit.
With a post with the actual statistics.
One thing to remember is that armored division killed and wounded statistics did not necessarily mean that the killed and wounded were all inside tanks. In fact the majority of the soldiers in an armored division were mounted infantry and they took most of the casualties. Also the tanks listed as lost were not necessarily lost, but damaged enough that they had to be sent back to the depot for repair.
On the German side the tendency for the writers is to think of German tanks like this:
Sorry, but I’ve seen too many pictures of German tanks as flaming wrecks to believe that. The truth is that the German tanks had more than their share if failing and those failings cost the Germans heavily. Those heavy tanks were difficult to maneuver, frequently were ambushed.
What I find interesting is that most of the Sherman’s bad rap comes from Third armored, which also seems to have had far higher tank losses than the other armored Division.
The third Armored did seem to be at the pointy end of things all too frequently and that may have distorted the viewpoint of its soldiers.
That doesn’t mean that they are correct, especially about things they did not see themselves or extrapolate about. War is chaotic and things are often not what they seem. As far as I can tell the ordnance department did it’s best to anticipate potential developments in opposition armor. They evaluated Tiger and an Panther tanks as well as other German tanks and AFV’s as soon as they could and attempted to prepare and develop new vehicles to meet the threats. The problem was that the tanks that went to Europe for Normandy and stayed in Europe through the winter of 1944/45 were, by necessity the tanks stockpiled in the buildup to the invasion. There simply was not enough shipping to get the improved Shermans to Britain and deal with the priorities of feeding Britain, the Soviet Union and providing the supply needed to conduct Overlord. The best tank in the world doesn’t help you if it can’t be supplied. As Pieper’s tigers proved, tanks that cannot operate because they are not truly battleworthy or supplied can cost you the battle. It doesn’t matter how thick the armor or how big the gun, if in the end, the tank ends up in a field abandoned in the snow by its crew because it broke down, ran out of gas or ran out of ammunition.
By those standards, even the 75mm M4 Shermans did the job in the end.
As a bit of an extra in this post I have always wondered why the US army so rapidly abandoned volute suspensions for Torsion bar. I think I found the answer to that mystery. The Torsion bar suspension for American tanks was developed by Buick as a result of work by General Barnes, the mad scientist of the ordnance department and a result of a report on the PZKW 3 tank that Buick started from. I found this article from Armor magazine.
The road to the torsion bar suspension started with the Christie suspension. The Christie suspension had large road wheels that were mounted on arms that were connected to large springs.
The US army had a long experience with the Christie and declined to deploy tanks using the suspension for whatever reason.
The torsion bar story starts with the t49 Gun motor carriage project for the tank destroyer branch. The project was run by Buick.
The t49 led to the T67 and finally the M18 Hellcat as successive upgunning occurred.
This was followed by the M24 Chaffee.
Meanwhile a torsion bar version of the M4 medium was developed but not adopted and the T20 series tanks received torsion bar suspensions in the t25 and t26, the T26 becoming the m26 and the army using torsion bar suspension on most of the armored vehicles that it has developed to the resent day.
The US Army did a study.