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  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.
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.
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.
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