“Logistics is the ball and chain of armoured warfare”

Perhaps the kindest thing you could say about the M4 Sherman tank is that it was a tremendous improvement over its predecessors… but it still wasn’t a particularly good weapon.

The Americans were ill-prepared when the Second World War broke out. The US Army budget for tank research in 1939, for example, was just $85,000. The state of the art in American tanks at the time was the M2 Medium Tank, a comical, ungainly thing that was festooned with machine guns. Fortunately, it was never permitted into combat. Including the somewhat improved M2A1, just 112 were made.

The M3 was a stop-gap measure, with design commencing when the Blitzkrieg of 1940 taught the free world some hard lessons about mechanised warfare. It wasn’t a very good tank either, retaining the very high profile of its predecessor, and the rivets that bounced around on the inside of the vehicle with lethal effect even when the armour kept out an enemy shell.

With the M4, at last, came a turret capable of mounting a reasonably powerful gun, and better armour… but it was a compromise design, selected for its simplicity. Features of the M3 chassis and hull were retained, including the Continental R975 engine, which had always been an odd choice as it was originally an aero engine. Worst of all, the M4 Sherman still had a high profile, and was slab-sided at a time when most nations were starting to slope their armour to deflect shells.

Outmatched… and flammable

Early Sherman tanks acquired a reputation for burning when hit. The Germans called it the Tommycooker; British crews called it the Ronson, which was a reference to a popular cigarette lighter (slogan: lights up the first time, every time). General Patton had to forbid his troops from piling sandbags on their tanks in an effort to improve their protection, as the increased weight was causing breakdowns.

It really wasn’t a very good armoured fighting vehicle. It proved useful in North Africa in 1942, but by the time the fight moved to mainland Europe, advances in German tank design rendered it obsolescent. Still, the Western Allies chose to concentrate on producing the M4 in volume, rather than seeking to make a change.

Opposing the M4 Sherman, the greatest threat came from the tanks that the Germans introduced from 1943, largely as a result of experience gained in the conflict in Russia. A quick idea of the mismatch between the contenders can be seen from their weights: the Sherman weighed a little over 30 tonnes, whereas the Panther, Tiger and Tiger II came in at 45, 54 and 68 tonnes respectively. In just about every respect, these later German tanks outclassed the Western Allies’ equipment. They often had to accept losses of five to one, and Cooper [1988] describes how the Third Armoured Division arrived in Normandy with 232 M4s, but ultimately suffered 648 lost in combat, with another 700 knocked out but returned to service after repair – an overall loss rate of 580%. One can only imagine the bravery of men who had to go into battle in the face of such wastage.

Destroyed M4

This Sherman has burst open – the result of an ammunition explosion.

The Germans had developed some very good tanks, but this brings us to the quote that is the title for today’s artcle: “Logistics is the ball and chain of armoured warfare.” Heinz Guderian wrote the book on armoured warfare, quite literally: his 1936 work ‘Achtung – Panzer!’ was the blueprint for the combined arms operations that were to follow.

Where the German Approach Failed

The later German tanks were brilliantly engineered, although Overy (1995) says that the constant “improving” of designs made logistics, field repair and training much more difficult. Among others, Ferdinand Porsche was involved: that’s Porsche, as in sports cars… and designer of what would later become the Volkswagen Beetle. (And if you’re shocked that a major European brand came to prominence under the Nazi regime, it’s probably best not to inquire too closely about Hugo Boss, official supplier of uniforms to the SS…) Porsche constructed about a hundred tank chassis, but ultimately contributed little more than the name, Tiger: his design proved too complicated and the rival Henschel version was accepted. Even this had problems, however, including a tendency for the cleverly interleaved roadwheels to become gummed up by ice.

Tiger II

The Tiger II wouldn’t have looked out of place on a battlefield decades later.

The Tigers were too heavy for most small bridges, so they had to be waterproofed and fitted with equipment to permit fording. They were too wide to fit on railway cars, in an age when this was the normal way to transport tanks. Tigers had to be supplied with a special set of ‘transport tracks’: if travelling by rail the outermost set of roadwheels would be removed, and the special tracks fitted, to reduce the vehicle’s width by 400mm – because getting stuck in a railway tunnel is always embarrassing. Then there’s the fuel consumption of these 54- and 68-tonne monsters, at a time when the Germans were losing access to the oilfields they had occupied.

Above all there was the disruption to German industry, caused by Allied bombing. Tiger tanks were hard to make. After producing 1,347 Tiger tanks, production switched to the fearsome Tiger II. 1,500 were ordered, but only 492 were ever completed, due to Allied bombing. Meanwhile those smaller, lighter Shermans were easily shipped over the Atlantic (or sent elsewhere) and into the fight. The Americans built almost fifty thousand M4 Shermans, keeping forces supplied with spares and replacements in a way that the Nazis never could be. Furthermore, they were supported by P.L.U.T.O., the “Pipe-Lines Under The Ocean” that supplied the European theatre with hundreds and eventually thousands of tonnes of fuel per day. Numerous Tigers were abandoned due to mechanical breakdowns, or simply running out of fuel.

“The race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong” (Ecclesiastes, IX. 11)… but logistics, you can’t argue with.

 

 

References:

Cooper, B.Y. (1988) Death Traps: The Survival of an American Armoured Division in World War II, New York: Presidio/Ballantyne Books

Guderian, H. (1999) Achtung Panzer!: The Development of Tank Warfare (Duffy, C. translator), London: Cassell Military

Overy, R. (1995) Why the Allies Won, London: Pimlico

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2 thoughts on ““Logistics is the ball and chain of armoured warfare”

  1. It is rather ironic that this post is titled “logistics are the ball and chain of warfare”, yet this post is chiefly focused on tactics. It has been said before, but I’ll say it again, amateurs study tactics while professionals study logistics. While the Sherman might have been tactically wanting (at first), it was a logistical masterpiece, indeed it “was probably one of the most important and versatile tanks of the war”. Its low weight allowed it to cross bridges that other tanks were unable to, and it allowed for damaged tanks to be easily towed by armed recovery vehicles. It was easy to maintain, and it could clock over a thousand miles on its odometer, something no Panther could do without being crippled (Zaloga, p. 189). Unlike the Panther, It also possessed both a periscope and telescopic sight, and its turret traverse did not draw power from the tank’s engine (Zaloga, p. 193).

    True, It had two main flaws, the flammable ammunition storage and the underpowered short barreled 75 mm gun. The ammunition storage was rectified by using water jacketed ammunition, while the firepower was vastly improved by switching the the long barreled 76.2 mm gun. The British mated the tank with the outstanding 17-pounder anti-tank gun to produce the Sherman Firefly. Then the Sherman “was able to fight Germany’s heavy tanks at long range.” (Ludeke, p. 132) The main reason that this switch did not occurs earlier was that the 75mm gun had exceptionally high performance against “soft” targets such as towed antitank guns and infantry equipped panzerschreck rocket launchers, which the 76mm guns did not possess (Zaloga, p. 99).

    Returning to the importance of logistics, the chassis of the Sherman tank, along with that of the British Churchill tank, played an important role in Hobert’s Funnies, a collection of vehicles that played a key part in the Normandy landings. Among them were the amphibious Sherman Deuplex Drive, the mine clearing Sherman Crab, and in addition to this it served as the basis for the M10 and M36 tank destroyers. There was even a version modified to serve as a rocket launcher platform (the T34
    Calliope) (Ludeke, p 108-9).

    In one instance the Shermans of the 2nd Armored Division ambushed a column of six Tiger tanks, with a single Sherman slaughtering three of them (Zaloga, p. 96). Similarly, in the Battle of Arracourt the attacking Panthers were massacred by the Shermans despite starting out with a significant numerical advantage. When the fighting ended, the Germans had lost 86 AFVs (with a further 114 damaged or broken down) while the Americans had lost only 41 M4s and 7 M5A1s (Zaloga, p. 191-3).

    It is worth noting that almost fifty thousand M4 Shermans were produced throughout the war (Ludeke, p. 133). More then 2000 Shermans per month were produced in 1943. In comparison, the peak of Panther production was a mere 350 per month in 1944 (Zaloga, p. 96).

    Not only that, but the Germans themselves made use of captured Shermans, while the Allies rarely bothered to use the intact German tanks they came across.

    “The characterization of the Sherman of a death trap and the task of its crews as suicide missions is the most easily dismissed.” (Zaloga, p. 327)

    Sources: Ludeke, Alexander, Weapons of World War II, Parragon Books, (February 1, 2012), Zaloga, Steven, Armored Thunderbolt: The U.S. Army Sherman in World War II, Stackpole Books

    And really, anybody who cites Cooper’s rag as a source has pretty much destroyed any credibility they once had. There’s a truly excellent debunking of it at knowledgeglue (dot) com (slash) dispelling-myths-surrounding-m4-sherman

    • Thanks for your message, and the detail therein. I’ve had a look at that link, knowledgeglue.com/dispelling-myths-surrounding-m4-sherman and it seems I’ve been misled by the Cooper book – as have others. Elsewhere, though, I don’t think we disagree: the Sherman was flawed in some key areas, but as a machine that could be made in quantity, brought across the ocean and turned loose to clock up significant mileage, it more than redeemed itself. I dispute the idea that the focus is tactical, but there we are. It’s always nice to hear from a reader!

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