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.

        • Fred Flint

          nice reply. in addition the e8 version of the sherman stood up well againstthe t34 in korea

    • KazuakiShimazaki

      The T-34 is praised while the Sherman is lambasted b/c the T-34 got similar concepts (except for the three-man turret) into service over one year earlier. Remember in 1941, the best American tank was the M3. By the time the M4 got into service, it is in clear second place chronologically to the T-34. Just as important, because it was a trend-setter, the T-34 got a real period of invulnerability that made them threats despite the lack of everything down to *armor-piercing shells* and sufficient *fuel*.

      By the time the Sherman got into combat, the counters to the T-34, such as PzIVs equipped with long guns, 88mm antiaircraft guns being pressed into antitank roles … etc are coming on line. The Soviets were also more decisive in getting a gun that would be somewhat effective against Tiger and Panther in place for 1944 – while the Americans are debating the merits of a 75mm field gun and 76mm antitank gun, the Russians took the plunge to a 85mm gun so they don’t have to choose. While they are still disadvantaged, it is rare to hear of a Russian speaking the Anglo-American laments of complete ineffectiveness against Panthers and Tigers.

      • ButlerianHeretic

        First, nearly all sources report that the Soviet 85mm tank gun had almost identical penetration to the US 76mm gun. The assumption most sources make it that Soviet armor piercing ammunition was not up to the same standard as US and German AP shot. Obviously it was a better support gun though thanks to a heavier HE shell.

        Comparing horizontal armor and penetration of the M4A1 (early production with 75mm gun)
        and the PzIVG (late production with improved armor and 75mm L/48 gun)
        Both of these are the most modern medium tanks of each army in late 1942.

        Neither can penetrate the mantlet and front turret of the other at any range.

        PzIVG glacis is 50 mm @ 9 degrees = 51 mm
        M4A1 penetrates 50mm at 2000m
        M4A1 glacis is 51mm @ 55 degrees = 89mm
        Pz1VG penetrates 96 mm at 500m
        and penetrates 85mm at 1000m

        So it looks like the M4A1 can defeat the PzIVG glacis at about twice the range that the PzIVG can defeat the M4A1.

        The original T-34/76 has similar results against the German tanks. The T-34’s armor is a bit stronger 47 mm @ 60 degrees = 94mm horizontally, but its gun is a bit weaker and can only penetrate the PzIVG at 1000m instead of almost 2000m. Still it can penetrate the PzIVG at twice the range that the PzIVG can penetrate it.

        Neither the Sherman nor the T-34 can penetrate the other frontally at any range (at least, not without precisely targeting weaknesses in the armor).

  • Colin Kelly

    Wow this is a shoddy article.

    “Experiencing WWII from the inside of a M4 Sherman tank was famously dangerous.”

    Famously dangerous compared to what exactly? Certainly not compared to being an infantry man. US infantry divisions, with few exceptions, suffered casualties of 100-200% their entire strength over the 11 months from June 1944 to May 1945. In comparison not a single US Sherman unit in WWII suffered 100% their strength in human casualties, even the ones that first saw action in Tunisia and saw combat for 2.5 years.

    Certainly not compared to German crews. Many German units in 3 months in Normandy saw 33% losses in their crews. And as German tanks ran out, many tank crews were forced into the infantry which drastically reduced their odds of survival

    So famously dangerous compared to what? Those not fighting? Those not in front line roles? The M4 certainly had its defects, but it was a much safer vehicle to fight in than many other combat occupations..

    “Sherman tanks first saw action in North Africa in 1942. At the time they
    fared well against the German equivalent tank, the Panzer IV.”

    Fared well? It was much superior to any German tank in wide spread service in North Africa. Even the Germans commented that it was the best tank on the field other than the handful of tigers that arrived. German crews in Mark III tanks especially felt unease dealing with Sherman tanks at ranges over 800 meters and from the side.

    Its quality had no doubt evaporated by 1944, but in 1942 and 1943 it was better, then equal to the tanks it was facing beyond a handful of tigers in use.

    “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

    The 3rd Amored Division is by far, and I mean by far, the worst tank casualty unit in the US army in WWII. The next is the the 7th AD with 360 total write offs (55% the losses of 3rd AD), followed by the 4th AD with 313 total write offs (48% the losses of 3rd AD), and followed by 2nd AD with 276 write offs (43% the losses of 3rd AD) etc. Indeed 3rd AD makes up 20% of total Sherman losses in US Armored Divisions that served in Europe, despite being 1 of 15 that saw service.

    The 3rd AD was also a very hard fighting unit. It took 76.000 Germans POW (equivalent of ~5 German divisions, and 5x the divisions strength) not including those in the Rhur pocket, and claimed the destruction of 1500 tanks and SPGs (probably too high given they are unverified claims, but gives a good idea of how much tank combat its units saw).

    So its losses are not representative of most tank units, and its feats can explain the high losses, because it was also inflicting heavy losses on the Germans.

    “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

    It hardly proved a poor defense against German tanks. While it was arguably a less formidable tank that it could have been due to faulty US tank doctrine, it was a major threat to German tanks. This is evidence by post war interrogations where the German tank crews rated allied Tanks and Tank Destroyers their greatest threat.

    However there can be no doubt US tankers had a rather low opinion of their armor. US Army questionnaires asking soldiers to rate their weapons are interesting in this regard. US Infantry felt their infantry weapons, almost without exception, as equal or better than what the Germans have. They felt their artillery was absolutely superior to the German stuff. However, US tankers by and large felt their tanks were inferior. Indeed, it says much about the fearlessness of the Allied Tanker who continued to fight day in and day out in a tank they felt was outclassed by the enemy.

    The Sherman was not the best tank in WWII, it was probably barely adequate by 1944-45. Still it worked as part of an excellent combined arms team which usually negated its flaws. It was available in such numbers, separate tank battalions could be attached to almost every US infantry division, meaning most US infantry divisions had more tanks available to them then German panzer divisions. US infantry more often then not went into battle supported by Sherman tanks, which blew Germans out of strong points and blasted to pieces MG pits.

    • John Barker

      Colin- A very well thought out and worded response, I applaud you. I’d like to once again point out that the M4 was a superb tank throughout the war, from intro to the end. Those that evaluate and criticize the Sherman make a number of errors, first being to think only of the most common Sherman, the 75mm variants seen at its introduction in Africa and serving later in Italy and Europe (and elsewhere.) This extremely versatile tank was equipped with a 75mm gun, a 76mm and a 105mm howitzer. Our British allies fielded some of their Shermans with a very high velocity 17 pounder. To add to its versatility the tank could have been outfitted with the turret and 90mm gun of the Pershing M26, this was not done as it was not seen as being advantageous over getting the M26 to Europe. All the guns that the M4 was equipped with served very well. Further the tank went through various engine upgrades, transmission upgrades, suspension upgrades, armor upgrades and modifications throughout the hull and turret. One version of the M4, the Jumbo, had extremely thick armor for use as a breakthrough tank.
      Secondly the fault that so many fall into is to compare the tank to other armor as if WWII was a tank versus tank slugfest and the main purpose of a tank was to fight other tanks. It was not. A tanks main purpose is to create breakthroughs in the line and exploit enemy territory behind the lines, wreaking havoc on communication, supply, HQ and reinforcing infantry. When Germany fielded the Panther, a tank which is designed around tank killing, it was a recognition that the war was lost for them as they were not creating an offensive weapon but a defensive one.
      Keep in mind that interviewing US soldiers about their tanks is hardly an interview of an unbiased source. Many politicians had started beating the drum of the “inadequacies” of the M4 and reporters were jumping in to the act with this “story.” The true value and performance qualities of a weapon are rarely appreciated by politicians, reporters and even the average tanker. The M4 excelled because it was reliable, versatile and durable and could do its job well. When an armored commander needed a job done he knew he was going to have the tanks to do it in the numbers he needed. This is what wins wars and this is how the M4 helped to win WWII.

      • Steve S

        For those that think the German Tiger tank was superior to the Sherman I recommend reading Tigers In The Mud by Otto Carius. Carius was a tiger tank commander in Russia during World War II. He details numerous mobility and maintenance issues with the Tiger. For example it was too wide to fit on a train without having its tracks removed and a transport set installed. It was so heavy that multiple tank retrievers had to be used to retrieve a damaged or inoperative tank and then it frequently tore the transmissions out of the tank retriever. The engine overheated at high rpm. the driver had to be very careful because the transmission in the tank was too weak and frequently was damaged by rough handling. The tiger could go about 56 miles on 150 gallons of gas. It was built to go 45 km/h but in reality the operators held it to about 25 km/h on the road because it would be damaged otherwise. Many tigers were lost because they became stuckk or broke down and could not be retrieved simply because they weighed too much

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  • Kno Wan

    1. The Sherman was more efficiently armored than the Panzer IV, and significantly better protected overall.

    2. The ‘Lights up first time, every time’ slogan was invented in the 1950s, so the Sherman could not possibly have been nicknamed ‘Ronson’ during WW2.
    That nickname is a post-war invention.

    3. Death Traps is an exceptionally bad source, as it is full of mistakes, factual errors and outright inventions by the author.

    • John Barker

      Kno Wan- Good points. I just wanted to point out that studies showed that the burn up rate in an M4 was similar to comparable tanks, caused by the propellant in the ammunition cooking off. The U.S. remedied this by coming up with a wt storage bin for the ammunition…one of the advantages of the M4-the industry behind it.

      • Fred Flint

        concur veterans dont know the big picture. by the way the panzer vi was not the weapon of the blitz. german victories were won with tanks less capable then the sherman against foes with technically better tanks.

        • sikanni

          Blitzkrieg (1939+) was won because of the tactics developed by the Germans, not because they had superior tanks. Most the Panzer divisions were mostly equipped with Panzer IIs III’s with a smattering of IV’s (with the short-barrelled 75) … some even had the Czech T38’s. But its the tactics and the air superiority of the Luftwaffe that made “Lightning War” so effective … that and the fact that their opponents were totally unprepared for this.

      • sikanni

        Oh, goodness gracious, tactical air support in Normandy! Making movement impossible to suicidal except at night? What about the Falaise Gap? I don’t think those Tiger IIs were flipped upside down by their own crews, do you?

  • Mr. History

    Here is the truth and nothing but the truth from Mr. History.
    1. The M4 Sherman used early in the war was effective against German tanks at that time (1942-1943).
    2. The Sherman had good FM radio system that operated generally better than AM comm radios in German tanks, especially in rugged, uneven terrain, or where obstacles were present.
    3. The M4 was reliable, with 2 x 6 cyl Cadillac engines.
    4. Later German tanks brought havoc on Shermans, which had generally, in most cases not been upgraded.
    5. Weaknesses of Sherman- low velocity 75 mm gun. Thin frontal armor (less than 75 mm). Gas power plant, subject to explosion.
    6. Strengths of M4 Sherman- reliability, numbers, radio, speed.
    5. British lend-lease M4 Shermans fitted with the upgraded, retrofitted 17 pounder cannon (76.2mm) were considerably more effective against German panzers (tanks). These US built/UK upgraded tanks became known as Sherman Fireflies, and could engage German armor successfully.
    6. American tank crews that had learned to attack heavier panzers from behind attained much more success killing German tanks.
    7. M4 Shermans that were struck by 88 mm German shells were usually destroyed or badly damaged. Some M4s were cleaned out and put back in service after US crew’s body parts removed.
    8. German panzer crews feared the Sherman…if they encountered them en mass.
    9. Tank crews operating the M4 Sherman could be taught to lower risk by attacking German panzers from behind, where armor was thinner, and where tank was more vulnerable.
    10. M4 Shermans were used after Second World War in Korea (1950-53) and in Israel against Arab armies.

    • Nem

      At the end of the day, who can say which tank is the best.
      Personally if it was a 1v1 in open country I’d choose a Tiger.
      If I was fighting a campaign it would be Shermans.
      It really comes down to what are your requirements. Just my opinion btw.

      • dracopticon

        And if I had unlimited fuel and engineering material and staff close by, I’d choose the Tiger tank in a jiffy. One-on-one against a similarly supported Sherman, it would be a push-over for Tiger, every time.

    • dracopticon

      Mr John Barker, sir, you are poor excuse for a person wanting do discuss WW2 knowledge about the Sherman tank. It so shines through that you cannot take these informations solely on the fact it would belittle the American main tank during world war 2, and by that would belittle the whole of USA. While that is not true, because it only shows how bad the decision makers were during these days, it does in your eyes, and that you cannot allow yourself to believe. And to bad mouth Mr. Louch and his extensive research on the matter is so utterly childish it stinks. Please grow up Mr Barker.

  • Chris Prom

    Closing this thread.

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