Tank Busting – Blowing Up the Myth of the Mighty M4 Sherman

The M4 Sherman is remembered as the tank that won World War Two. But as a fighting machine, it was easily outclassed by most of the German tanks it went up against. (Image source: WikiCommons)

“The Battle of the Bulge exposed deficiencies in the M4 so glaringly obvious, what became known as the Sherman Tank Scandal would be splashed across front pages all over the Allied world.”

By Christian M. DeJohn

THE SHERMAN TANK — who hasn’t cheered it in Hollywood epics like A Bridge Too Far, Band of Brothers, or The Pacific? Just when all hope seemed lost, a column of Shermans arrives in the nick of time to save embattled American soldiers. Great cinematic moments like these are spot on, aren’t they? The Sherman was the tank that won the war, right?

Well, not exactly.

According to British historian Sir Max Hastings, “no single Allied failure had more important consequences on the European battlefield than the lack of tanks with adequate punch and protection.” The Sherman, he added, was one of the Allies’ “greatest failures.”

How could American and British industries produce a host of superb aircraft, an astonishing variety of radar equipment, the proximity fuse, the DUKW, the jeep, yet still ask their armies to join battle against the Wehrmacht equipped with a range of tanks utterly inferior in armour and killing power?

The distinguished American historian Dr. Russell Weigley* made a similar argument.

“Perhaps the most questionable element in American ground fighting power was the American tank,” he wrote. “[The Sherman] was inferior to the German Panther as well as to the heavier Tiger in always every respect save endurance, including armament and defensive armour.”

Almost as soon as it appeared on the battlefields of North Africa, the Sherman’s many deficiencies became evident. (Image source: WikiCommons)

The U.S., Dr. Weigley noted, went all through the Second World War refusing “to develop, until too late to do much good, heavier tanks comparable to the German Tigers and Panthers, let alone the Royal Tiger or the Russian Stalin.”

After debacles like Sidi-bou-Zid, Kasserine Pass and El Guettar, General Dwight Eisenhower admitted in a private February 1943 letter to U.S. Army Chief of Staff General George Marshall, that “we don’t yet know exactly how to handle the Mark VI [Tiger] tank.”

But the doctrinal muddle over the role of tanks, unresolved for decades within the U.S. Army, continued. Were tanks to focus on “soft” targets in the enemy’s rear, like trucks and light armor, using hit and run tactics? Were they slow rolling pillboxes, used to support infantry assaults? Or should American tanks go looking for a fight, boldly seeking out the enemy’s heavy armour to slug it out one-on-one?

In November 1943, even after disasters in North Africa and Tunisia, Chief of Army Ground Forces, General Leslie McNair insisted that the Sherman would deliver victory.

“I see no reason to alter our previous stand…that we should defeat Germany by use of the M4 series of medium tanks,” he wrote. “There have been no factual developments overseas, so far as I know, to challenge the superiority of the M4 Sherman.”

But tank crews actually fighting in the Sherman knew better.

Sherman crews were less than enthusiastic about their tanks than the generals were. (Image provided by the author)

The Battle of the Bulge exposed deficiencies in the M4 so glaringly obvious, what became known as the Sherman Tank Scandal would be splashed across front pages all over the Allied world.

“Whoever was responsible for supplying the army with tanks is guilty of supplying material inferior to its enemy counterpart for at least two years or more,” one an angry armoured cavalry lieutenant told the New York Times in March 1945. “How anyone can escape punishment for neglecting such a vital weapon of war is beyond me.”

The young officer didn’t stop there.

I am a tank platoon leader, at present recovering from wounds received during the Battle of the Bulge. Since I have spent three years in a tank platoon doing everything, and at one time or another held every position and have read everything on armour I could get my hands on during this time, I would like to get this off my chest. No statement, claim, or promise made by any part of the Army can justify thousands of dead and wounded tank men, or thousands of others who depended on the tank for support.

The German Mk IV Tiger (seen here) was more than a match for the M4 Sherman, as many Allied tank crews discovered. (Image source: WikiCommons)

To Corporal Francis Vierling of the U.S. Second Armored Division, “the Sherman’s greatest deficiency lies in its firepower, which is most conspicuous by its absence.” He continued:

Lack of a principal gun with sufficient penetrating ability to knock out the German opponent has cost us more tanks, and skilled men to man more tanks, than any failure of our crews- not to mention the heartbreak and sense of defeat I and other men have felt when we see twenty-five or even many more of our rounds fired, and they ricochet off the enemy attackers. To be finally hit, once, and we climb from and leave a burning, blackened, and now useless pile of scrap iron. It would yet have been a tank, had it mounted a gun.

Yet for top Allied commanders, the official position was that the M4 Sherman was the right tank at the right time. It seemed that at the highest political and military levels, the fix was in.

“We have nothing to fear from Tiger and Panther tanks,” insisted British general Bernard Montgomery, even as Allied troops in the summer of 1944 were stricken by the “Tiger Terror” in Normandy. “We have had no difficulty in dealing with German armour.”

Initial coverage of the Sherman over-hyped its combat capabilities, as this World War Two-era illustration shows. (Image provided by the author)

Later, when the Ardennes Offensive led by German Panzers forced the Sherman Tank Scandal onto the front pages of the nation’s newspapers, the U.S. Army’s Chief of Ordnance, General Lewin Campbell, doubled down on the whitewash.

“We need not only have no apology for any item of American ordnance in comparison with that of the enemy,” he stated in February 1945, “but we’re leading them all the way.”

At Aberdeen Proving Ground, Colonel George Jarrett, one of the U.S. Army’s most respected ordnance experts, was often in “hot water” for his refusal to “toe the line” and lie to the civilian press about how American tanks stacked up against the enemy’s. Privately, he damned the army bureaucracy’s “refusal to realistically face tank facts…our blind refusal to face the truth of the situation,” in spite of what he called an ongoing “sales program” of propaganda.

“We are little better off than at El Alamein,” he wrote in early 1945.

While German tank technology had advanced as the war progressed, to Colonel Jarrett, the U.S. effort was “always the same story.”

“I’ve seen this day by day,” he fumed. “We never beat Jerry, but catch up to last year’s model, next year.”

Quantity vs. quality — Allied factories produced nearly 50,000 Shermans during World War Two. By comparison, Germany manufactured just 6,000 Panthers, 1,300 Tigers and just 500 Tiger IIs.

Certainly, the Sherman was a decent design, simple to build in large numbers and maintain, easily transported, adaptable to multiple roles and mechanically reliable. But in the three most basic requirements of a decent tank — firepower, armour protection, and mobility — it fell down in two out of three.

But the sanitized legacy we have is of the Sherman as a war-winner, a triumph of Allied technology. Although thousands of soldiers — both tank crewmen and the infantry who depended on the Sherman tank for support — were killed and wounded as a result of the M4’s shortcomings.

Yet surprisingly, the Sherman emerged from the war with a veritable halo – a case of quantity trumping quality.

“We were never able to build a tank as good as the German tank,” recalled General Lucius Clay, “But we made so many of them, it really didn’t matter.”

 

German troops survey the wreckage of a Sherman in Normandy’s bocage country. (Image source: German Federal Archive)

James Jones was only too happy to dispel the myth of the mighty Sherman.

An army sergeant who survived the Pearl Harbor attack and Guadalcanal, would go on to write two of the greatest novels about the war, From Here to Eternity and Whistle.

Far from your typical ivory-tower historian or academic, as far back as the 1970s Jones predicted (and condemned) today’s sugarcoated cult of “the Greatest Generation.” He considered it an insult to the sacrifices of veterans by whitewashing the obstacles they overcame. But we all like to cheer the cavalry charging to the rescue in the Hollywood epics; it’s safer than asking embarrassing questions about the wartime Allied political and military leadership. As Jones observed:

The truth is, the years have glossed it all over, and given World War Two a polish and a glow that it did not have at the time. The process of history makes me think of the way the Navajos polish their turquoise. They put the raw chunks in a barrel half filled with birdshot, and then turn the barrel, and keep turning until the rough edges are all taken off, and the nuggets come out smooth and shining. Time, I think, does the same thing with history, and especially with wars.

Christian M. DeJohn, a United States Cavalry veteran of service in Bosnia-Herzegovina, is a former Abrams tank gunner and the author of  For Want Of A Gun: The Sherman Tank Scandal of World War Two. He has a masters degree in military and American history.

* Historian Dr. Russell Weigley was a mentor of this author and encouraged him to write For Want Of A Gun.

 

 

 

 

Watch the trailer for Christian M. DeJohn’s For Want of a Gun: The Sherman Tank Scandal of WWII

 

21 comments for “Tank Busting – Blowing Up the Myth of the Mighty M4 Sherman

  1. KLD
    12 September, 2017 at 7:54 pm

    As sad as it was, both of the prominent applauders of the tank, Patton and McNair, died soon after the war and during Operation Cobra in ’44. Perhaps karma had something to do with it?

    • Christian DeJohn
      13 September, 2017 at 1:18 pm

      KLD, you know what effected me in researching and writing the book? That GEN Marshall- who tried to address the problem but too little, too late, lost his son in a Sherman tank- it’s like a Greek tragedy! Best, Christian

      • 13 September, 2017 at 8:07 pm

        It was actually his stepson (Allen Tupper Brown), not his son, and he was shot by a sniper whilst standing up out of the turret hatch. Hardly a sign of the Sherman’s alleged deficiencies.

        • Christian DeJohn
          14 September, 2017 at 12:43 pm

          Dom, thanks for your input! The book is 400-plus pages and has over 1300 footnotes, yet the subject of the Sherman’s nicknames has attracted the most attention and debate.

          Notice I said nicknames for US tanks, not the Sherman specifically! I’ve heard the argument that “Ronson didn’t use that slogan until the 1970s,” but readers of the book have sent me advertisements dating back to the 1920s. I think the earliest was in the Saturday Evening Post in 1928 or so…

          Armchair experts and nitpickers can argue over the precise nicknames and their provenance; the fact is, in 15 years of research for the book, I found firsthand testimony from US, British, Canadian, Russian, and German troops on the Sherman’s tendency to catch fire quickly when hit.

          A lot of general readers may not be aware, as the book notes, this problem was partially caused by GIs unofficially storing loose ammo on the floor of the Sherman interior, outside of the stowage bins/racks, and against the regs, thus causing secondary explosions when hit.

          Ironically, the Panther tank had similar problems with catching fire when hit, due in part to crews stowing ammo against the regs, outside the official bins/racks- yet the Panther doesn’t have the reputation of a firetrap!

          Thanks for your feedback, Dom! Best, Christian

          • 14 September, 2017 at 7:37 pm

            I hate to be that guy. But the US specifically tested the ammo fire issues during the war… AP ammo caught fire more often then HE due to its lower flash point in the powder. That being said the M4 was originally designed with safer armored ammo stowage bins but this were dropped although I have yet to figure out when. As to it being a fire hazard… it was no worse then any other tank.

          • 14 September, 2017 at 8:10 pm

            Hey Christian, was the fire issue with the M4 due more to the ammo storage or to the use of gas instead of diesel? I’ve always heard that the low flashpoint of the gasoline played the biggest part.

          • 15 September, 2017 at 7:59 pm

            You’re very welcome, Christian. I’m as interested in getting to the truth about the capabilities of World War Two belligerents and their equipment as you are. We already know that German capabilities were vastly exaggerated during and after the War, in so much as every German tank encountered in Normandy was a Tiger and a Tiger was worth X Allied tanks, etc.

            We also need to avoid the bad habit of comparing the limited numbers of German heavy tanks and Panther mediums with the Sherman. We might compare the Firefly with the Panther and get a favourable result for the former, or we might imagine what would have happened had 76mm HVAP been issued more widely to US tankers. Actually we don’t even need to imagine – a look at the success of M10 tank destroyers illustrates the minimum that could have been achieved with the better armed and armoured Shermans. https://medium.com/war-is-boring/the-u-s-armys-tank-destroyers-weren-t-the-failure-history-has-made-them-out-to-be-ec595d8a433e

            I haven’t come here to knock the book you’ve written, or to be an apologist for counter-revisionist historians, but I do take issue with the accounts of such authors as Belton Cooper, who besides peddling untruths and inaccuracies throughout his book, had a limited view of the big picture and was exposed to some grim scenes that surely clouded his judgement. I wonder if during your research you saw this article? http://knowledgeglue.com/dispelling-myths-surrounding-m4-sherman/

            Or this one?
            http://www.theshermantank.com/sherman/how-the-sherman-compare-to-its-contemporaries/

            Lastly, although I share your opinion of McNair and the Tank Destroyer Doctrine, it has to be admitted that the primary enemy in Europe after 1943 was the dug-in German infantryman, not the panzer. An enemy for which the Sherman with 75mm gun was a perfectly adequate solution. Once US units had had some combat experience, their ability to handle the Sherman and best their enemies improved vastly. It was poor doctrine and poor tactics that gained the Sherman an early bad rep, which stuck with it, despite being unwarranted for the remainder of the war. If the damn things were good enough for the Israeli Army in1973, I can’t see how they could have been anything like as bad as they’re being made out to be in 1944!

          • 15 September, 2017 at 8:16 pm

            Christian, I believe the Ronson ad you’re referring to says “A Ronson lights every time”, which is not the same quote as that attributed to the Sherman (“A Ronson lights first time, every time”) which is almost certainly a post-war slogan. If you have pictures you can share that will put the doubt to rest, please share them. It might seem trivial and nit-picky, but on such careful foundations are truths established, while careless words create myths.

            There’s now even a myth that suggests M1A1 Abrams tanks were under-armoured and unfit for use in Iraqi towns and cities. It’s all in the telling.

          • Tarjei T. Jensen
            19 September, 2017 at 3:17 pm

            I’ve read some excerpts from “Deathtrap”. I found the comments on the book pretty clueless.

            I think that it is very valuable observations of an army that is running out of people due to bad planning.

            People think that the water jacket were instantly fitted to the Shermans from the very moment they started to fit them. They don’t realize that 1. it takes time to get the tank to the front line and 2. the introduction to the production did not happen at the same time for all models. 3. Tank crews store ammunition everywhere they can.

        • Christian DeJohn
          15 September, 2017 at 5:37 pm

          Dom, you’re correct, it was his stepson. I know this because I did research at GEN Marshall’s home. One word for you….height! That is the deficiency in question. Think about a tank commander having to expose himself to the enemy by having to stand up in the hatch of a tall tank…and how a tank with less height would hopefully expose the crew to less danger…take a look at a Sherman next to a Stuart, T-34, etc…you tracking?

          • Christian DeJohn
            15 September, 2017 at 5:49 pm

            This is why as an Abrams tanker, I was taught to only stand in the hatch at “dog-tag defilade,” i.e., chest height. Same old risk of snipers. The Sherman’s height was a problem that led to TCs getting hit.

          • Christian DeJohn
            19 September, 2017 at 10:01 am

            Dom, thanks for your interest in the book! May I suggest a novel way to learn what’s in it, and what sources have been used…to actually read it? It’s the result of over 15 years of research in archives, museums, Presidential libraries, etc., with over 1300 footnotes- many single chapters in this book have more references and footnotes than appear in entire books. One example, you mention GEN Marshall’s stepson Allen. As well as using tons of original documents, books, letters, etc, from GEN Marshall, I went to his house in VA, which is very moving. He had an oil painting of Allen that he had to walk past, to and from his bedroom.

            As to some sources, I agree with you that Cooper, among my 500-plus sources used in the book, should be taken with a grain of salt. When he writes something like he was the first Allied soldier to see a V-1 or Me 262 overhead, something unverifiable, you take it with a grain of salt. But some of his fundamental points- that the Sherman was under gunned and under-armored, have been substantiated by many other first-hand sources, so to dismiss his book and opinions out of hand would be a mistake.

            My book uses something like 500-plus sources, and is the product of over 15 years of research. I went out of my way to try to find contrary views rather than cherry-pick as many do, because I think the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

            I used many actual first hand documents in dusty files, during some 15 years of research. The book even has some documents discovered at Carlisle Barracks, that have never appeared in print before, by a US COL at the heart of the Sherman Tank Scandal, who kept a notebook on it. It also shows secret cables between Ike and GEN Marshall basically saying, we have a problem with the Sherman tank…even as politicians were insisting all was well.

            Your comments on the M1 Abrams are ironic, as that’s the subject of my second book- I’m an old M1 Abrams tanker.

            Thanks for your your interest and may I suggest, a novel method to learn what’s in a book, what sources were used in it, is to actually read it! Best, Christian

          • 19 September, 2017 at 10:48 pm

            Christian, it will please you to know that I’ve ordered your book. In the meantime, you raise the death of Lt. Tupper Brown as an indication that the Sherman’s high silhouette was a deficiency that directly contributed to his being sniped:

            “Think about a tank commander having to expose himself to the enemy by having to stand up in the hatch of a tall tank…and how a tank with less height would hopefully expose the crew to less danger…take a look at a Sherman next to a Stuart, T-34, etc…you tracking?”

            You must know that this is a straw-man argument. Although the Sherman was tall, commanders were often shot in the hatches of lower height German and Russian tanks too. If you can see the enemy, he can see you. Folks were being shot in WW1 just poking their heads over a trench, for crying out loud. High silhouettes had little to do with it, but a need for tactical awareness (and official encouragement to fight unbuttoned) bore responsibility.

            An extract from Ed Gilbert’s “US Marine Corps Tank Crewman 1965-70: Vietnam” reveals that even in the close country of S E Asia, commanders stood up in the open turret hatches: “In Vietnam the tank commander almost always rode unbuttoned, which of course gave you the greater advantage of visibility, to see what was going on and be able to direct your gunner where to shoot. The disadvantage is that if you’ve got a sniper in the area, he can pot you right there in the turret” (page 24). You could of course use that as evidence in a book called ‘The Patton Tank Scandal of Vietnam’ about how the M48 had a dangerously high silhouette. I for one wouldn’t buy it though.

  2. Jim fleming
    12 September, 2017 at 8:14 pm

    The Germans didn’t called a Ronco for nothing

  3. Christian DeJohn
    13 September, 2017 at 1:23 pm

    Jim, some of the unflattering nicknames that I found for US tanks while researching the book are “Tommy Cooker” (British), “Coffin for Six Brothers” (Russian), and “Ronson” (German), after a lighter that “lights the first time every time!” Best, Christian

    • 13 September, 2017 at 8:34 pm

      Christian, I think you have your nicknames and their provenances muddled up!

      It was the Germans who apparently called ANY British tank ‘Tommy Cookers’ (not the Brits referring to US tanks).

      It was the M3 Lee/Grant tanks that the Russians branded as ‘coffins for SEVEN brothers’ (and with their high silhouettes; low mounted, limited traverse main gun and thin armour, it’s no surprise).

      The Ronson moniker was an American one (how many German, or for that matter, British conscripts even knew what a Ronson was? They were far more familiar with the continental IMCO trademark), and the slogan “lights the first time every time!” has been proven to be anachronistically apocryphal, and only found in post-war adverts.

      • Christian DeJohn
        15 September, 2017 at 5:46 pm

        Dom, a reader of my book was nice enough to send me a Ronson cigarette lighter ad from Saturday Evening Post with the slogan “Lights Every Time.” The date it ran? May 1929.

  4. Tarjei Jensen
    14 September, 2017 at 5:49 am

    The US Ordonance Department tried to replace the M4 in 1943, but was rebuffed.

    • 15 September, 2017 at 6:25 pm

      That’s because the M7, its replacement, was not that much better.

      • Tarjei T. Jensen
        19 September, 2017 at 3:05 pm

        No. They wanted the M27 which was a T23E3 which had torsion bar suspension. It reduced ground pressure by 20% compared to the T23.

        They also wanted the T20E3 as the M27B1.

  5. Jay Pike
    14 September, 2017 at 5:00 pm

    Great article! Thank you. My interest in tank warfare comes from the game World of Tanks. I know the designers and programmers try to keep true to the realities of each tank. Of course reality must have shown the problems with the Sherman as history has shown and the game does justice to this. No way can a single M4 hold its own against a Tiger if both tanks are full health. What I did not know was the cover up. So many good men died in tank battles.

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