October 2003 | Volume 54, Issue 5
Overrated In modern military scholarship, the Sherman tank is notorious for being both undergunned and too lightly armored to face its German antagonists. The early models had a maximum of 75 millimeters of armor, later raised to 100, and a 75-millimeter gun; the German Panzer Mk IVs, however, had a maximum of 80 millimeters of armor, and the first Tigers had 100 (the Tiger II, 150) and mounted the famously excellent 88-millimeter gun.
As one German POW put it, Shermans were “Ronsons. . . .our gunners could see your tanks coming . . . and they say to one another, ‘Here comes another Ronson.’ Why do Americans do this for us? Bang! And it burns like twenty hay stacks. . . .Those funny tanks with the little guns, and so high and straight we can see them a long way in our gunsights. Those square sides, and thin, the armor. We know if we hit one, it goes up. Why does the county of Detroit send their men out to die in these things?” By one (American) calculation, killing a Panzer was worth losing four Shermans; a Tiger II, eight. The most overrated American tank? Read much of the current literature, and you will conclude that it is surely the Sherman.
Underrated The most underrated American tank of the Second World War? The Sherman. Since accounts of its deficiencies have become so familiar, its strengths have slipped from view, along with an understanding of the choices made by its designers.
When conceived, the tank offered a good compromise between mobility and reliability, protection and hitting power. It had been scrupulously designed to duplicate the feats of what were then the best tanks in the world: the Panzer Mk III and Mk IVs, which had just executed devastating blitzkriegs. The Shermans equaled or outmatched those tanks when they met in North Africa but they were not up to the task of fighting duels with the subsequent Panzers and Tigers, especially when the latter were employed in defense, as mobile pillboxes. U.S. doctrine called for fighting tanks with tank destroyers —high-velocity antitank guns mounted on swift, lightly armored vehicles—while our tanks did what tanks do best: claw through an enemy’s line and get into his rear. The decision to rely so heavily on tank destroyers for antitank warfare is often seen as a mistake; nowadays the best antitank weapon is widely assumed to be a tank. But American tank destroyers got better, and American skill at combined-arms operations steadily increased, so that our artillery, fighter-bombers, and tank destroyers shattered German armor in the Ardennes. And while the Shermans did badly in one-in-one tank duels against the German tanks, Shermans did not generally fight one-on-one. They often fought five-on-one, and they won.
It is crucial to remember that the Shermans had to be transported across oceans. This put a premium on their reliability& more tanks had to be operating more of the time—and they were supremely reliable. This same concern also meant that they had to fit on existing naval tank transports, one reason they were smaller and lighter than German latewar armor.
A basic question rarely considered by the Sherman’s critics is the economic concept of opportunity cost: What did Germany give up to achieve the Tiger’s strengths? A Tiger I took 300,000 man-hours to build, and in the tank’s first two years, Germany made only about 1,340 of them. In 1943 alone, Germany built 5,966 tanks of all types, while the U.S.S.R. produced an estimated 20,000 and the British 7,500. That year the United States built 30,000 tanks, most of them Shermans.