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