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Sherman Tank Pt 2: Improvements From D-Day To V-E Day 1944-45
by Blaine Taylor

Photo: A fleet of Shermans in action. The latest book on them is For Want of a Gun: The Sherman Tank Scandal of WW II by Christian M. DeJohn, Schiffer Publishing, PA, 2017. (LC.)


Stated noted British World War II revisionist author David Irving in his 1981 work The War Between the Generals: Inside the Allied High Command, “The superiority of the Nazi tanks was nothing new to the Allied commanders. It had been reported by tank crews on the Anzio beachheads.

“C.L. Sulzberger of the New York Times had tried to expose the scandal: that the Sherman tank’s armor was inferior to the Tiger tank’s, that its gun was outranged by the guns of the Mark IV special and the Tiger, and that the new German anti-tank gun had twice the velocity of the best American weapon.

“Instead of demanding instant corrective action by the American ordnance authorities, Gen. Jacob Devers---the American theater commander in Italy---ordered it against correspondent Sulzberger.

“…Montgomery acted identically when similar unrest began almost simultaneously in the British sector” of the various D-Day beaches in June 1944 “…Sir James Griggs telephoned…to say that he anticipated trouble in the Guards Armored Division regarding ‘the inadequacy of our tanks compared with the Germans.’

“…There was no doubt that, in Normandy---as at Anzio---the Americans were finding that their weapons were inferior…For the Americans, too, however, the most serious headache was the superiority of the Panther…

“Maurice Rose, who would take over in August as commander of the experienced 3rd Armored Division, confirmed to Eisenhower that the American M4 and M4A3 tanks were inferior to the Mark V and Panther. The inferiority was outweighed only by better American artillery, air support, and maneuvering, and by better American gunnery.

“’I have,’ wrote Rose, ‘personally observed on a number of occasions the projectiles fired by our 75 and 76 mm guns bouncing off the front plate of Mark V tanks at ranges of about 600 yards.’…

“A tank commander with nine month’s experience added his voice: ‘Jerry armament will knock out an M4 as far as they can see it.’ Then there was Pvt. John A. Danforth…a gunner with nine months, who had had two tanks shot out from under him. ‘I think we don’t have enough gun,’ he said.

“’The people who build tanks I don’t think know the power of the Jerry gun. I have seen a Jerry gun fire through two buildings, penetrate an M4 tank, and go through another building.’”

That really said it all.

“There was no answer. The enemy tanks could be attacked only indirectly…For the rest of the war, the Allied soldiers had to face the terrifying sight of a Panther bearing down on them inexorably, knowing that---except in special circumstances---it would be likely to have its deadly way with them.”

Pilot production on the Sherman tank began in November 1941, just before the US entered World War II, and the very next month the official design was approved. The Medium Tank M4 was the designated hull version, with the Medium Tank M4A1 the cast hull model, and with both models entering quantity mass production by the early summer of 1942.

At the epochal Battle of El Alamein against German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s famed Afrika Korps, the British 8th Army deployed 400 Shermans and 650 other tanks, versus the enemy’s 200 Mark IV-Fs and 200 Mark IIIs.

Noted one source, “The Sherman proved far superior to both of these types and---although the enemy was aware of the Sherman before Alamein, and knew the British had some----they completely underestimated the Sherman’s potential, and the results of their poor judgment proved disastrous.”

Following their victory over the Germans, the ecstatic British claimed that the Sherman was “The best in the world, and it was also they who gave it its name---General Sherman, ala the earlier General Grant---but soon shortened by the Tommy tankers to Sherman alone.

It was also following that famous Rommelian defeat that the vaunted combat vehicle received its first close reexamination. “Overall, armor was rated as good, and front armor especially good. One improvement in its armor that was recommended was the welding of one-inch-thick reinforcing plates on the outside of the hull, where they would protect drivers and the ammunition supply.

“The applied plates became a very distinctive feature of the Sherman from then on.”

This same post-combat examination revealed but one serious weak point overall: that it caught on fire too easily when hit. In addition, if the floor escape hatch was open, that acted as a chimney effect, thus making the fire itself far worse.

Thus---even before the end of the North African campaign---most tankers welded the escape hatch shut, and the US Army gave the Sherman---too soon, as it later developed---it seal of approval.

In late June-mid-July 1944, the US Army Ordnance Corps accepted a limited run of 254 M4A3E2 so-called Jumbo Shermans with extremely thick armor and the new 75mm gun in the also new and heavier T23-type turret to be used in attacking fortifications. It was also the first to be factory-produced with the new HVSS suspension with extra wide tracks for lower ground pressure.

Stated one account, “The smooth ride of the HVSS with its experimental E8 designation led to the nickname ‘Easy Eight’ for Shermans so equipped.” Among the later developed Sherman special attachments were the bulldozer blade, the Duplex Drive for “swimming” tanks, the R3 flamethrower for Zippo flame tanks, and the T34 60-tube 4.5-inch Calliope rocket launcher for Sherman turrets.”

The Sherman chassis also undertook many other roles, such as for mine-sweepers, self-propelled guns, etc.

M93 Hypervelocity Armor Piercing HVAP ammunition was standardized for the 76mm gun by July 1944, a new projectile that could pierce the turret of the Panther tank at longer ranges than the more standard Sherman ammo, but its distribution was limited to US Tank Destroyer units only.

Noted one source, “In the relatively few Pacific tank battles, even the 75mm gun Shermans outclassed the Japanese in every engagement. The use of High Explosive (HE) ammunition was preferred because anti-tank rounds punched cleanly through the thin armor of the Japanese tanks (light tanks of 1930s era design) without necessarily stopping them.

“Although the high-velocity guns of the tank destroyers were useful for penetrating fortifications, Shermans armed with flame throwers also destroyed Japanese fortifications.

“There was a variety of types of flame throwers, differing primarily in the type and location of launcher, and the US used similar devices on other tanks and LVTs, and also used flame-throwing Shermans in Europe.”

Because of its propensity to catch fire, the Sherman soon gained several nicknames: “Tommycooker” (which was a First World War trench cooker), “Ronsons” ala the cigarette lighter that were guarantied in their ads to. “Light up the first time, every time!”), and also what the Free Poles called “The Burning Grave.”

As for the cause, “US Army research proved that the major reason for this was the use of unprotected ammo stowage in sponsons above the tracks. The common myth that that the use of gasoline (petrol) engines was a culprit is unsupported. Most World War II engines and petrol was unlikely to ignite when hit with armor piercing shells.

“At first, a partial remedy to ammunition fire was found by welding one-inch-thick applied armor plates to the vertical sponson sides over the ammunition stowage bins. Later models moved ammunition stowage to the hull floor, with additional water jackets surrounding the main gun ammunition stowage. This decreased the likelihood of ‘brewing up’”

In time, thicker armor was added to both the turret and the hull front, and the troops themselves placed sandbags, spare track links, helmets, wire mesh, and even wood, for better protection against shaped-charged rounds.

Gen. George S. Patton Jr. forbade the usage of sandbags, and instead ordered that the Shermans have extra armor welded to the front hulls taken from destroyed American and German vehicles. He’d been advised by his technical experts that the sandbags actually increased the Shermans’ vulnerability, and also that their chassis suffered from the added on weight.

Accordingly, “Approximately 36 of these armored-up Shermans were supplied to each of the armored divisions of the Third Army in early 1945. The rare M4A3E2 Sherman Jumbo variant had even thicker frontal armor than the German Tiger I. Intended for the assault to break out of the Normandy beachhead, it entered combat in August 1944.”

The Sherman had good speed both on- and off-road; the latter varied. In the desert, the Sherman’s rubber tracks performed well, while in Italy, it could cross hilly terrain that German armor could not. Tankers found that---on soft ground, such as snow or mud---“The narrow tracks gave poor ground pressure compared to wide-tracked second-generation German tanks, such as the Panther.”

Learning from Soviet experience on the Eastern Front, “The US Army issued extended end connectors or ‘duckbills’ to add width to the standard tracks as a stopgap solution. Duckbills were original factory equipment for the heavy M4A3E2 Jumbo to compensate for the extra armor weight The M4A3R8 ‘Easy Eight’ Shermans and other late models with wider-tracked HVSS suspension corrected these problems, but formed only a small proportion of the tanks in service, even in 1945.”

Ironically, the majority of the losses of Sherman tanks were not from inter-tank battles, but, rather, from mines, aircraft, infantry anti-tank weapons, and even friendly fire.

The controversy over the Sherman continues, however. Author Belton Y. Cooper even referred to them as “death traps,” with a loss rate in his own 3rd Armored Division of over 580%, while, conversely, noted one source, “Patton argued that the Sherman tank was overall a superior tool of war.”

Among the many Sherman variants were Lend-Lease tanks, postwar vehicles, British Sherman Firefly tanks, and others. Indeed, vehicles that used the Medium Tank M4 chassis or hull included the 3-inch Gun Motor Carriage M10-Tank Destroyer, the Wolverine; the M32 and M74 TRV recovery tanks, the M34 and M35 artillery tractor prime movers, the M4A3R3 Zippo and M4 Crocodile flamethrower tanks; the T34 Callioppe, T40 Whizbang, and other Sherman rocket launching tanks; and the Duplex Drive swimming vehicles, and other deep-wading Shermans.

There were also the D-8, M1 and M1A1 dozers, M4 Doozit, Mobile Assault Bridge, and Aunt Jemina engineer tank mine clearers; the Jackson 90mm Gun Motor Carriage M36 tank destroyer, the Priest 105mm Howitzer Motor Carriage M7 self-propelled artillery, the 155mm GMC M12 with Cargo Carrier M30, the 155/203/150mm Motor Carriages: 155mm GMC M40, 8”/203mm HMC M43, 250 mm (10”). MMC T4, and Cargo Carrier T30.

Probably the most famous tank encounter between “Shermans and Germans” was the Aug. 8, 1944 battle between Nazi Waffen/Armed SS panzer ace Michael Wittmann, as noted in the 1997 book by Michael Reynolds, Steel Inferno: 1st SS Panzer Corps in Normandy: “It is hardly surprising that Michael Wittmann—the greatest German tank ace in WWII with 138 tanks to his credit---has been ‘claimed’ by British, Canadian, and Polish units, as well as by the Royal Air Force (RAF.)…

“For some time after the war, it was thought that Wittmann had died when his tank was surrounded by a number of Canadian Shermans and shot to pieces. Later in the 1980s,” it developed that a Typhoon rocket may’ve claimed his tank after all. The debate goes on.

© 2017 International Historic Films, Inc. All Rights Reserved.


* Sherman Tank Pt 2: Improvements From D-Day To V-E Day 1944-45


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