The U.S. “Sherman” tank wasn’t the biggest tank to see combat in the Second World War. It wasn’t the most heavily armored tank of the war, nor was it the best armed. The Sherman is, however, justifiably thought of as one of the great tanks of that global conflict. It certainly got the job done.
It is an unfortunate fact that nothing accelerates technical development like a major war. The United States entered World War II unprepared in a number of ways. One thing America desperately needed was a main battle tank that could carry a large caliber weapon in a fully rotating turret and stand up to current (and anticipated) weapons in the places it might be used. The Sherman answered that need.
The British began the custom of naming U.S.-made tanks for American Civil War generals. Thus the U.S. M3 light tank became the “Stuart” and the M4 series of tanks was nicknamed “Sherman.” The names stuck and became universal.
The design of any tank involves consideration of many factors. An effective tank is one that combines protection, mobility, firepower, and reliability in just the right amounts. To achieve such a balance, compromises must be made. A tank that is too heavily armored will be slow and will place a heavy strain on engine, transmission, and suspension. Carrying a cannon of adequate caliber, on the other hand, necessitates a vehicle of a certain size, and size means weight. The right balance is hard to find.
The design of the Sherman was influenced by a number of carefully considered factors. The tank was designed with a simple box-like hull with vertical sides that allowed rapid production. The tank’s relatively high silhouette resulted from the decision to begin production using readily available radial aircraft engines to power it; the height of these engines and the tank’s angled drive shaft made for a tall vehicle. Other power plants were later developed, but because of the need to keep tanks coming off the production lines without major interruptions, the Sherman’s tall stance was never altered.
Another consideration was the need to ship Shermans long distances. The capacity of loading cranes at U.S. and foreign ports was considered; Shermans couldn’t be too heavy for these cranes. The weight-bearing capacity of bridges overseas had to be thought of. The width of railroads cars that would carry Shermans was another consideration that dictated size and made vertical hull sides desirable. The Sherman was designed with sponsons that overhung its tracks so that it could accommodate a turret large enough to carry a 75mm main gun.
The initial choice of a relatively short-barreled main gun for the Sherman was a result of the U.S. Army’s particular philosophy regarding the employment of tanks. In this philosophy, tanks were to be used as a maneuvering force to exploit breakthroughs achieved by the infantry. Tanks were not to take on enemy tanks; this would be the job of towed anti-tank guns or U.S. tank destroyers—fast, lightly armored vehicles that resembled tanks with bigger guns and open-topped turrets. This would prove to be a major problem as the war progressed. The Sherman was “king” in the Pacific, where Japanese anti-tank guns, mines, and suicidal infantry were always more of a threat to tanks than enemy armor, but in the European Theater the Germans did not share the idea that tanks should not fight tanks. Under-gunned Shermans in the last two years of the conflict in Europe often found themselves taking on enemy tanks with heavier armor and longer-ranging weapons. The Sherman’s short 75 did have the ability to fire a very effective high-explosive round, but that was small comfort in the tank vs. tank duels U.S. doctrine said would not happen.
If it wasn’t the biggest and the best, what made the Sherman a great weapon? Numbers, first of all, helped make up for the tank’s deficiencies. America turned out more than 49,000 Sherman tanks; only the Soviet T-34 tank was made in greater numbers. German behemoths like the Tiger and Panther tanks rarely faced a single Sherman or even an equal number of Shermans. It became a common tactic for American Sherman tankers to keep a Tiger tank busy from head-on while other Shermans maneuvered to strike the Tiger in its more vulnerable sides and rear. Of course keeping a Tiger, with its powerful 88mm cannon, “busy” was a dicey proposition to say the least.
Modern wars are won by the side that gets to a battle “fustest with the mostest,” as Nathan Bedford Forrest might have said, but probably didn’t. The Sherman was a model of durability and reliability. Shermans didn’t break down often, but when they did, they were often repairable in the field. Sherman tanks thus did not require a lot of specialized support equipment. When they managed to break out into open country, as happened when the Normandy front was finally ruptured, Shermans were the ideal weapon for “hell-bent for leather” drives far into the enemy’s rear.
It is true that Shermans were called “Ronsons” by their crews for their tendency to “light first time, every time” (in part because a lot of crews crammed extra ammo into every nook and cranny of their tanks). It is also true that in some battles in 1944 and ’45 a half-dozen or more Shermans went up in flames for every Panther or Tiger destroyed, but the enormous productive capacity of America’s factories meant those Shermans could be replaced, while the German armored forces were being steadily ground down.
Up-gunning of later models of the Sherman did somewhat alleviate the tank’s technical disadvantage against late-war German armor, but in the end it was the “make it simple, make it work, and make a lot of it,” principle behind the creation of the Sherman that made it great. It was the right weapon at the right time.