“Good Enough” Tanks Won WWII

By Jeremy Hsu | October 16, 2014 8:00 am
Brad Pitt plays the commander of a five-man crew in a U.S. Sherman tank near the end of World War II in the film "Fury". Credit: Courtesy Sony Pictures Entertainment

Brad Pitt plays the commander of a five-man crew in a U.S. Sherman tank near the end of World War II in the film “Fury”. Credit: Courtesy Sony Pictures Entertainment

Sometimes a “good enough” military technology can achieve victory over better military technologies. Such a fact probably gave very little comfort to the five-man crews of U.S. Sherman tanks who faced an uphill battle against more powerful German tanks during World War II. British tank crews gave Sherman tanks the unflattering nickname “Ronson” — a grim reference to the Ronson cigarette lighter’s ad slogan “lights first every time” and the unfortunate fact that Sherman tanks often burned after taking just one hit. But that did not stop the U.S. from supplying tens of thousands of Sherman tanks to U.S., British, Canadian and other Allied forces, tipping the scales against the smaller numbers of elite German tanks on World War II battlefields.

The armchair historian debate over the Sherman’s war legacy could blaze up once more with the new war film “Fury”, starring actor Brad Pitt as a U.S. tank commander leading a five-man Sherman crew deep within Germany in the closing days of World War II. Some historians and military history enthusiasts still scoff at the capabilities of Sherman tanks when compared with the German Panther and Tiger tanks that carried both more armor and more firepower. But the U.S. strategy of mass-producing a reliable tank in large numbers should not be underestimated, according to the book “Armored Thunderbolt: The U.S. Army Sherman in World War II” by Steven Zaloga, a military historian and senior analyst at the Teal Group Corporation. The tale of the Sherman tank’s road to victory represents a history lesson with implications for the future of warfare.

“In battle, quantity has a quality all its own,” Zaloga writes. “Warfare in the industrial age requires a careful balance between quality and quantity.”

The idea of overwhelming an enemy with quantity rather than quality may seem at odds with a U.S. military that has usually emphasized having the best weapons and vehicles since World War II. But finding a balance between quantity and quality could prove a useful lesson for the modern U.S. military that is considering whether to invest in swarms of unmanned drones and robots that could supplement or replace more expensive manned aircraft, vehicles and ships, according to a new report by the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), a military research institution in Washington, D.C.

“Overwhelming adversaries through greater numbers is a viable strategy for technology competition, and was used successfully by the United States in World War II,” writes Paul Scharre, a fellow at CNAS,  in a preview for the new report titled “Robotics on the Battlefield Part II: The Coming Swarm.”

Quality vs. Quantity

In the case of the Sherman, the U.S. generally struck a good balance between quality and quantity despite the tank’s relative weakness in firepower and armor, Zaloga notes in his book. Sherman tanks were well-designed for mass production and engineered with a rugged reliability that allowed them to keep rolling and fighting far longer than their German counterparts without breaking down. By comparison, “overengineered” German tanks such as the Panther — Germany’s main battle tank during the later phase of the war — were expensive to produce and difficult to maintain under battlefield conditions. The cost and complexity both limited production and led to a high rate of mechanical breakdown on battlefields, which limited the impact such elite tanks could have on the war.

Troops of the 60th Infantry Regiment advance into a Belgian town under the protection of a Sherman tank. Credit: Sgt. William Spangle, September 9, 1944 / Courtesy U.S. National Archives

Troops of the 60th Infantry Regiment advance into a Belgian town under the protection of a Sherman tank. Credit: Sgt. William Spangle, September 9, 1944 / Courtesy U.S. National Archives

That situation only became more desperate for Germany as Allied airpower bombed factories and disrupted supply lines. A growing wartime shortage of materials such as molybdenum — combined with steel to give tank armor its durability — led to more brittle protection for German tanks. Slaves working in German tank factories deliberately sabotaged the oil and fuel lines of armored vehicles. German mechanics also had to deal with a growing shortage of spare parts to repair the tanks.

By mid summer 1944, the Allied forces had 4,500 Sherman tanks in France, representing more than three times the size of the German panzer (tank) force facing them. That numbers advantage meant that the Allies had enough tanks to support infantry attacks against enemy defenses and additional tanks to act as a mobile armored force ready to exploit breakthroughs in the German battle line. By comparison, German infantry rarely had enough tank support and relied more on a wide array of armored vehicles such as assault guns and tank destroyers with fixed guns that lacked turrets to turn.

“The Sherman offered a better balance than the Panther, which, because of its cost and complexity, could be built in enough quantities to equip only one of the two panzer battalions in each panzer division,” Zaloga writes. “In contrast, there were so many Shermans that they not only filled out the U.S. and British armored divisions, but also were plentiful enough to provide each U.S. infantry division with a tank battalion.”

Outgunned in a Duel

The numbers advantage gave the Allies a strategic edge, but it didn’t make Sherman tank crews feel any better when they had to face heavier German tanks on the battlefield. Most Sherman tanks had 75mm and 76mm cannons that usually failed to penetrate the thick front armor of panzers such as the Panther or Tiger tanks at most ranges, whereas German 75mm or 88 mm cannons could penetrate the thinner armor of Sherman tanks from the front at long ranges. The sense of being outgunned and vulnerable led many U.S. tank crews to call every German tank they faced a “Tiger” and every anti-tank gun a dreaded “88”, even though German combat records showed that U.S. tanks in those specific encounters were usually facing weaker types of German armored vehicles and anti-tank guns.

Sherman tank crews paid the price in blood to learn how to deal with the German Panthers and Tigers by using the Sherman’s mobility to maneuver into a position where they could fire upon the weaker side and rear armor of the German tanks. But they still encountered frustrating scenarios such as the one faced by Sgt. Francis Baker, commander of Sherman tank with an improved 76mm gun, during a battle with German Mark V Panther tanks on Nov. 20, 1944, as recounted in Zaloga’s book.

“Ordering my gunner to fire at the closest tank, which was approximately 800 yards away, he placed one right in the side which was completely visible to me,” Baker wrote. “To my amazement and disgust I watched the shell bounce off the side. My gunner fired at least six more rounds at the vehicle hitting it from turret to the track. This German tank, knowing that I possibly would be supported by a tank destroyer, started to pull away. I was completely surprised to see it moving after receiving seven hits from my gun.”

U.S. tank crews also couldn’t help but feel cynical and discouraged when some U.S. commanders continued to boast of the Sherman being the best tank in the war, Zaloga writes. That sense of confidence and complacency among senior Allied commanders only began to change during the Battle of the Bulge in Dec. 1944, when the desperate Germans launched an armored counterattack led by Panthers and Tigers in the Ardennes region of Belgium and Luxembourg. While the Battle of the Bulge raged on, Hanson Baldwin, a New York Times war correspondent, wrote an influential story published on Jan. 5, 1945, titled “New German Tanks Prove Superior to Ours — Inquiry by Congress Urged.”

“Why, at this late stage in the war, are American tanks inferior to the enemy’s?” Baldwin asked. “That they are inferior the fighting in Normandy showed and the recent battles in the Ardennes have again emphatically demonstrated. This has been denied, explained away and hushed up, but the men who are fighting our tanks against much heavier, better armored and more powerfully gunned German monsters know the truth. It is high time that Congress got at the bottom of a situation that does no credit to the War Department.”

Tank Evolution

Why did the U.S. mostly fail to build better tanks beyond the Sherman to deal with more powerful German tanks during World War II? The answer provided by Zaloga represents a complex stew of misguided military doctrine, a relative lack of U.S. combat experience against German tanks, and the failure to use available intelligence to predict future battlefield threats.

Soldiers of the 55th Armored Infantry Battalion and tank of the 22nd Tank Battalion, move through smoke filled street. Wernberg, Germany. Credit: Pvt. Joseph Scrippens, April 22, 1945 / Courtesy U.S. National Archives

Soldiers of the 55th Armored Infantry Battalion and tank of the 22nd Tank Battalion, move through smoke filled street. Wernberg, Germany. Credit: Pvt. Joseph Scrippens, April 22, 1945 / Courtesy U.S. National Archives

First, U.S. military doctrine emphasized the idea that tanks should act as a mobile, armored force capable of racing through holes in enemy lines to wreak havoc on infantry, artillery and other softer targets as they outflanked and encircled the enemy. The doctrine suggested that U.S. tanks should never actually fight enemy tanks — a dangerously unrealistic assumption — and should instead leave enemy tanks to be dealt with by a separate group of “tank destroyers” consisting of vehicle-mounted or towed anti-tank guns. That institutional attitude was biased against creating U.S. tanks with more armor and more powerful guns capable of taking on new generations of German tanks. (U.S. tank destroyers also performed poorly against the improved German tanks until the U.S. Army belatedly equipped some with more powerful guns.)

U.S. military doctrine also neglected the critical battlefield role of tanks supporting infantry assaults against enemy defenses. The U.S. Army initially preferred to keep its tanks grouped in large divisions as armored cavalry ready to exploit breakthroughs by charging into the enemy’s rear — a role that was well-suited for the mobile and rugged Sherman tank. By comparison, the Germans, British and Soviets all developed a second class of heavier infantry-support tanks separate from the first class of cavalry tanks. Such infantry-support tanks, such as the German Tiger tanks, required heavier armor to survive direct assaults against enemy defenses consisting of anti-tank guns.

At the same time, the U.S. Army was lulled into a sense of complacency by its early World War II combat experiences in North Africa and Italy. That’s because the Germans deployed relatively few Tiger and Panther tanks in those theaters of war from 1943-1944 — they were pouring most of their best tanks and troops into their increasingly desperate struggle against the Soviet Red Army on the Eastern Front. Both the German Panther and Tiger tanks were developed as part of an arms race against new generations of Soviet tanks such as the excellent T-34. (The latter also represented the most widely-produced tank of the entire war.)

The Soviets did share intelligence on the new German tanks with the U.S. and British armies. But U.S. commanders did not demand better armor or firepower for their tanks, failing to envision how the Germans would deploy growing numbers of the next-generation Panther tank in particular. Their complacency about the Sherman being up to the job was fed by the fact that the Germans had not used their best anti-tank guns early on in the North Africa or Italy campaigns. They also failed to anticipate the growing threat from German infantry anti-tank weapons modeled on captured U.S. bazookas — the two-man panzerschreck and one-man panzerfaust — until they confronted many more of those weapons after Allied forces invaded France in 1944.

For a lesson in what the U.S. could have done differently, we only need to look at how the British military reacted to the same pieces of intelligence, Zaloga writes. The British wisely developed more powerful anti-tank guns and also created a new version of their own Sherman tanks, nicknamed the Firefly, with a more powerful gun to deal with the German Panthers and Tigers prowling Western Europe.

Good Enough Tanks

When the New York Times published its Jan. 1945 story about the superiority of German tanks, the U.S. public and Congress were confronted with the unpleasant fact that their boys were outgunned on the battlefield. U.S. commanders suddenly became much more interested in figuring out ways to upgrade the armor and guns of existing Sherman tanks and speeding up development of a more powerful heavy tank, the T-26 Pershing, which wouldn’t arrive until 1945 when most German resistance had already collapsed. Much of this scramble was too little, too late, as Zaloga describes it. But the U.S. Army did upgrade the Sherman tank in smaller ways throughout the war, such as making newer versions of Shermans with better ammunition stowage that didn’t burn so easily, improving the Sherman’s main gun and providing better armor-piercing ammunition, and making a more heavily armored version of the Sherman tank for infantry support missions.

A line of M4 Sherman tanks and M3 Grant tanks at Ft. Knox near Louisville, Kentucky in June 1942. Credit: Alfred T. Palmer / Courtesy Library of Congress

A line of M4 Sherman tanks and M3 Grant tanks at Ft. Knox near Louisville, Kentucky in June 1942. Credit: Alfred T. Palmer / Courtesy Library of Congress

Fortunately, the weakness of Sherman tanks in duels against elite German Panther and Tiger tanks didn’t actually matter much in the grand scheme because duels between large groups of tanks were rare experiences for the U.S. Army during the war. Feared German weapons such as the Tiger tanks and 88mm antitank guns only existed in relatively small numbers. More common German foes such as the PzKpfw IV tank, 75mm antitank guns, the StuG III assault gun, and German “panzerjager” tank destroyers could still kill Shermans from ordinary combat ranges of 1,000 yards or less, but Sherman tanks fought those foes on more equal footing. If anything, Sherman tank crews spent the vast majority of their battles shooting at non-armored targets such as buildings or enemy troops.

The technical superiority of German tanks also did not necessarily guarantee easy victories for the Germans in tank duels. U.S. and British military studies in the later years of the war found that the single most important factor in tank duels was which side spotted the other first, engaged first and landed the first hits. Such scenarios tended to favor defenders, which is why German tanks on the attack suffered about as heavily as Sherman tanks on the attack. But such situations also favored well-trained and experienced tank crews who knew how to ambush or surprise enemy tanks. Even Panther and Tiger tanks could easily fall prey to Sherman tanks striking from the side or rear. (Zaloga also observes that the myth of the U.S. Army needing five Sherman tanks to knock out a single Panther or Tiger tank appears to have no basis in World War II combat records.)

In the end, Zaloga concludes that the Sherman’s good qualities of being mechanically reliable and easy to mass produce outweighed the tank’s disadvantages on the battlefield against the elite German tanks. He also points out that the Sherman tanks represented just one part of a well-honed U.S. war machine that included the hard-fighting infantry, excellent artillery support, and close air support from the U.S. Army Air Force. In fact, the U.S. Army spent almost six times as much on aircraft as tanks from 1941 to 1945 — $36 billion versus just $6 billion — in a successful effort to dominate the skies and cripple Germany’s wartime industry through strategic bombing raids.

“The Sherman succeeded on the World War II battlefield not because it was the best tank, but because it was part of the most modern and effective army,” Zaloga writes. “The U.S. Army did not insist on fielding the best tank, but it did insist on fielding enough tanks that were good enough.”

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Lovesick Cyborg

Lovesick Cyborg examines how technology shapes our human experience of the world on both an emotional and physical level. I’ll focus on stories such as why audiences loved or hated Hollywood’s digital resurrection of fallen actors, how soldiers interact with battlefield robots and the capability of music fans to idolize virtual pop stars. Other stories might include the experience of using an advanced prosthetic limb, whether or not people trust driverless cars with their lives, and how virtual reality headsets or 3-D film technology can make some people physically ill.

About Jeremy Hsu

Jeremy Hsu is journalist who writes about science and technology for Scientific American, Popular Science, IEEE Spectrum and other publications. He received a master’s degree in journalism through the Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program at NYU and currently lives in Brooklyn. His side interests include an ongoing fascination with the history of science and technology and military history.

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