A Poor Defense: Sherman tanks in WW2

Contributed by Nicholas Hopkins

A Glimpse of the lives of American soldiers constructed with materials of the 3rdArmored Division Archives, housed at the University of Illinois Archives Research Center.

“Sherman Tank” RS 26/20/70, MMischnick Sherman, Germany, February, 15-26, 1945.

“Sherman Tank” RS 26/20/70, MMischnick Sherman, Germany, February, 15-26, 1945.

Experiencing WWII from the inside of a M4 Sherman tank was famously dangerous. Henry J. Earl retells his experience with the Sherman in a 1983 letter to Lt Colonel Haynes Dugan, one of the G-2 intelligence officers for the 3rd Armored Division.

The hit was low on the side. The interior of the tank was lit by a ball of fire caused by the terrific friction of the penetration. A white hot eighteen pound projectile entered the empty ammunition rack under the floor. The earlier modes of the M-4 “Sherman” medium tank did not store ammunition under the turret floor. The steel walls of the compartment prevented the molten metal from striking the interior of the hulland ricocheting throughout the tank. This saved the crew.”[i]

Unfortunately, many Sherman operators of WWII were not this lucky. The M4 Sherman was the primary tank utilized by the United States army during World War Two. It also became the main tank of the other Allied countries, except for Russia. The popularity of the Sherman was not due to its superior design, but its availability and mass production. On the contrary, this tank suffered from serious design flaws. Perhaps it is more appropriate to say that it was the soldiers within these tanks that bore the brunt of the Sherman’s problems.

Sherman tanks first saw action in North Africa in 1942. At the time they fared well against the German equivalent tank, the Panzer IV. It was for this reason that the Army thought the Sherman would be able to hold its own during the invasion of Normandy and into Europe. This was not the case. Death Traps, Belton Cooper’s aptly name book about American armored divisions in WW2 evidences this fact.

“The 3rd Armored Division entered combat in Normandy with 232 M4 Sherman tanks. During the European Campaign, the Division had some 648 Sherman tanks completely destroyed in combat and we had another 700 knocked out, repaired and put back into operation. This was a loss rate of 580 percent.”[ii]

Tiger Tank

“German Tiger Tank” RS 26/20/76 MMischnick , France, Aug.27-Sept. 2, 1944.

Sherman tanks were not nearly as efficient or as armored as the primary German tank, the Panzer IV. This was a fact even before the upgrading of Panzer gun barrels and armor in 1943. Shermans were under-gunned when fighting German Tiger tanks and out-maneuvered when facing German Panther tanks. These disparities are shown in an account of the famous Lt. Colonel William B. Lovelady, commander of the 3rd Armored Division’s 2nd Battalion, retold by Lt. Colonel Haynes Dugan.

“One of his Shermans turned the corner of a house and got off three shots at the front of a Panther, all bounced off. The Sherman then backed behind the corner and was disabled by a shot penetrating two sides of the house plus the tank.”[iii]

Because of their insufficient armor, the insides of Sherman tanks were prone to catching fire during combat. This problem was compounded when fires ignited shells and other munitions inside a tank. Sherman M4’s were jokingly referred to by British soldiers as “Ronsons”, a brand of lighter whose slogan was “Lights up the first time, every time!”[iv] Polish soldiers referred to them simply as “The Burning Grave”.

In the course of the war, tactics of coordination, as well as better ammo storage systems, were implemented to reduce the tank’s many deficits. Armored divisions also kept very efficient repair crews.[v] The faults of the Sherman were also balanced by the sheer number that could be manufactured and the speed of this production. Regardless of the reasons for the Sherman’s problems, individuals of the Third Armored division dealt with them in their daily lives. The Sherman M4 medium tank proved to be both a “death trap” for American soldiers and a poor defense against German tanks. However, its use by almost all of the Allied Forces was crucial to their ultimate success in WWII.

Clearly, the 3rd Armored Division Archives can lend perspective to both the heroic, and dangerous, actions of WWII and the most frustrating aspects of quotidian Army life. By utilizing the archives’ many personal stories of soldiers and the wide range of supplementary documents, one can find an answer or discover a brand new set of questions within the 3rd Armored Division Archives.

If you would like to listen to 3rd Armored Division Staff Sergeant Anthony Hufnagel describe his experience with the Sherman M4, listen to these two audio files:

audio file 1 

audio file 2


[1] Letter to a Mr. von der Weiden from Henry J. Earl (1983). Haynes Dugan Papers, Record Series 26/20/76, Box 1, Folder, Jan-June, 1985.

[2] Cooper, Belton. Death Traps. Random House, 1998. xii.

[3] Correspondence from Haynes Dugan to Walter Stitt. Book Review, Record Series 26/20/76, Box 10, Folder 1998, January-September, p. 2.

[4] Correspondence from Haynes Dugan to Walter Stitt. Book Review, Record Series 26/20/76, Box 10, Folder 1998, January-September, p.4.

[5] Cooper, Belton. Death Traps. Random House, 1998. xiii.

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  • Glenn Pence

    Given the Wehrmacht’s technical abilities, it is a good thing they couldn’t win the race for the atomic bomb. They had technically superior weapons systems on many fronts (the Tiger tank, the jet airplace, V2 rockets, and the M34 machine gun just to name a few). Thankfully, they did not have the natural resources (men, oil and manufacturing) to make war in the time frame they pursued. If they had remained “non-aggressive” for another 2-3 years (while building their arsenal) it might have been a very different world!

  • John Barker

    I am amazed that in the year 2013 such ignorance still prevails, especially at the University level. A few points for you to research. Armored warfare was dangerous for just about everyone, no matter what tank they were in.Your comparison of the PzIV and M4 is incorrect.The M4 is almost a dead on equivelant of the Russian T-34 which seems to garner all sorts of accolades while the M4 is beat to death for being overly dangerous.Belton Cooper’s book is an example of one man’s view of the war and is full of errors.Any historian of WWII worth their salt wouldn’t touch it.Understanding armor in WWII means first understanding logistical, tactical, operational and strategic considerations.The M4 was a great tank because it was able to be easily produced by the thousands, was easy to modify because the US could do so, and was reliable.Getting tanks to the battlefield is one key element in winning a war; Panthers that break down or Tigers that run out of gas are worthless to the war effort.This ignorance is inexcusable…try reading more than one book before you write a paper.

    • nhopki2

      Woah John. This is only a blog post. I don’t claim to be a military historian. I am an undergraduate researcher for the Third Armored Archives. Had I wanted write a historical essay I would have used more than one secondary analysis. However, I do stand by the general premise of what I wrote. Many of the personal accounts of WWII veterans stress how dangerous the M4 was, specifically because of what they characterized as poor engineering. That it is not say that Russian, French, British, and German tanks were vastly superior. I’m sure there were a number of fatalities caused by tank malfunctions in other tanks too, but the evidence that I have come across acknowledges a high number of problems with the M4 while characterizing German tanks as superior(see citations and give the linked audio a listen).

    • THartung

      Wrong on the Sherman being comparable to the T34. Panthers didn’t break down once the bugs were worked out. The Tiger and all other vehicles were in danger of running out if fuel because it was in short supply. If the Americans produced paper tanks in the thousands, would that have made it a great tank? No. You comments are totally flawed. Sorry but you should do some research before making ignorant comments.

      • John Barker

        1.)Sherman protection is comparable to T-34.Guns are comparable, M4 is superior due to 5 man crew vs 4
        2.)Panther continued to have problems through the war.The final drive was too fragile and often gave out requiring days to be replaced.The engine overheated after a short time at battle RPM’s.As late as Jan. ’45 Guderian was reporting to Berlin that the tank crews were reporting a lack of faith in the mechanics of the Panther.
        3.)The combat range of a Tiger is short due to the fuel consumption, not fuel availability.Can’t move 60 tons of steel without burning a lot of gas.
        4.)Plain and simple wars are won with numbers.The M4 was made, like the T-34, in big numbers and the M4 was reliable and often required little maintenance.Maintenance could be done quickly and easily compared to tanks like the Panther and Tiger.This translates to more tanks on the battlefield.WWII was not a war of huge tank vs tank duels.Tanks more often were fighting against soft targets.
        If you feel you can provide me with well researched proof of your claims, please do so.My assertions come from having read Hunnicutt, Zaloga, Yeide, Jentz and Spielberger (to name a few.)I’m guessing your knowledge comes from the history channel.

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