In this instalment of our 12 part series on Military blueprints we look at the US M4 Sherman Tank.
The American M4 Sherman Tank was the principle tank of the Western Allies during the Second World War. Developed from lessons learnt with the interim M3 Lee and working closely with British experts, American military agencies and designers were able to develop one of the most important tanks in history.
Originally equipped with a 75 mm cannon which provided ample armour piercing (AP) and high explosive (HE) capability. As German armour improved it was urgent to up gun the Sherman. The British developed the Sherman Firefly, with the 17 pounder anti-tank gun crammed into the turret. Although able to tackle any German armour, it lacked a decent HE shell, which limited its role when working with infantry. US designers had been working on a more powerful gun since production began. The resulting 76 mm was a brilliant tank gun, able to provide sufficient armour piercing capability and a decent HE shell.
The need to provide an effective HE round was due to the primary role the Sherman undertook, which was infantry support. Far more high explosive ammunition was used by tankers than armour penetrating types, the ratio being about 70% HE, 20% AP and 10% smoke. The ratio could vary by unit. From August 3 to December 31, 1944 the 13th Tank Battalion fired 55 rounds of AP versus 19,634 rounds of HE.
American design ethos was focused on reliability and mass production. A culmination of US light tank designs in the 1930’s led to the excellent reliability of the Sherman. The standardisation of parts meant that Shermans could be rapidly constructed and repaired. Nearly 50,000 were made, making it the second most produced tank of WW2 behind the T-34. Approximately 20,000 went to US forces, 17,000 to Britain and her Commonwealth and another 4,000 to the USSR.
It is worth noting that the ‘Sherman’ nickname was given by British crews, who named Lend-lease tanks after American Civil War Generals. US soldiers later adopted the British nicknames. Post war American tanks have followed this tradition of being named after famous Generals.
Sherman tanks first saw combat in the hands of British tankers at the Second Battle of El-Alamein. They performed admirably against German tanks and in supporting the Commonwealth infantry. A month later US forces, armed with M4 Shermans, invaded North Africa in Operation Torch. Shortly after the invasion of Tunisia the Tiger I began to appear in North Africa. It’s frontal armour was invulnerable to the Sherman, which could only penetrate the Tiger at close range through the thinner side armour. Following victory in North Africa, the Sherman would fight in the Italian campaign. In the mountainous terrain of Italy they operated largely in the infantry support role against dug in German defences.
For the Normandy invasion special duplex drive (DD), amphibious Sherman tanks were developed. These were able to land on the beaches alongside infantry and provide much needed bunker busting capabilities. At Omaha Beach only 2 made it ashore after the rest sank due to a navigational error. The tanks that were able to land, were instrumental in the early breakout from the beaches. Sherman Rhinos were deployed, these were fitted with metal prongs welded on to the hull. The prongs would lift hedges and vegetation, allowing the tank to then crash through. This allowed allied forces, in the dense bocage of Normandy, to open up the battlefield and avoid falling into ambushes at every crossroad.
As the campaign progressed more and more heavily armoured German tanks were encountered. This increased demand for the up gunned British Firefly and the US 76 mm Shermans. But at the Battle of Arracourt a large German attack, containing many Panthers was thoroughly beaten by a smaller force of 75 mm Shermans with some tank destroyers. The battle highlighted the disparity in training and tactics between German and American forces.
Some Red Army armoured units were standardised to depend primarily on Shermans and not on their ubiquitous T-34. The Sherman was largely held in good regard and viewed positively by many Soviet tank-crews which operated it, with compliments given to its reliability, ease of maintenance, generally good firepower (referring especially to the 76 mm-gun version) and decent armour protection.
In the Pacific, tank combat was not as prevalent, but they still served a vital role. The Sherman was invulnerable to the tanks used by the Japanese. Here the Sherman used high explosive rounds almost exclusively as armour piercing rounds were found to go clean through Japanese tanks. Flamethrower armed Shermans, nicknamed Zippos, were also utilised in the clearance of fortifications.
After the Second World War, Sherman tanks were being rapidly replaced by the US and British with new Main Battle Tanks. The US continued to transfer Shermans to its allies, which contributed to widespread foreign use. Israel took to purchasing Shermans from scrapyards across Europe and rearming them, as more became available they also developed Super Shermans. These were Sherman tanks equipped with post war tank guns in modified turrets, similar to the British Firefly, and would be in service until the late 1970’s.