For the Allied tankers and infantrymen of the American, British, Canadian, and Free French armies battling German Panther and Tiger tanks in Normandy in the summer of 1944, the Sherman tank’s failures were glaringly evident as their own shells bounced off the hulls of the Nazi armor and they were themselves destroyed at a far greater range by the powerful German tanks.
It was, therefore, somewhat ironic that the outgunned and lighter armored Shermans nevertheless defeated the retreating Nazis by their sheer weight of numbers. Today, more than seven decades after the end of the greatest war in military history, the debate continues. Was the American-designed and -built Sherman M4 medium tank a colossal blunder, a wonder weapon, or both?
Author Philip Trewhitt wrote, “The Medium Tank M4 Sherman used the same basic hull and suspension as the M3, but mounted the main armament on the gun turret rather than the hull. Easy to build and an excellent fighting platform, it proved to be a war-winner for the Allies. By the time production ceased in 1945, more than 40,000 had been built. There were many variants, including engineers tanks, assault tanks, rocket launchers, recovery vehicles, and mine-clearers. The British employed the Sherman extensively, notably at the Battle of El Alamein in 1942. Though outgunned by German tanks and with insufficient armor to compete in the later stages of the war, the sheer numbers produced overwhelmed enemy armored forces. Its hardiness kept it in service with some South American countries until very recently.”
The Evolving M4 Sherman Series
With a crew of five, the Sherman weighed over 66,000 pounds, was 19 feet, four inches long, eight feet, seven inches wide, and nine feet high. It had a range of 100 miles, armor of .59-2.99 inches thick, and a single 75mm turret gun, plus one coaxial 7.52mm machine gun and a .50 caliber machine gun on the turret. The power plant consisted of twin General Motors 6-71 diesel engines that developed 500 horsepower. Its maximum road speed was 30 miles per hour, and it could ford a stream three feet deep, mount a vertical obstacle two feet high, or cross a trench seven feet, five inches wide.
The M4 series entered service in 1941, and was built by American automobile manufacturers Chrysler, Ford, and General Motors. Both hulls and turrets were either welded or cast. The five-speed transmission was a synchromesh with front sprocket drive and a controlled differential, while the vertical volute suspension was changed to horizontal on later models, and its fuel capacity was between 140-175 gallons.
The most refined Sherman model was the M4A3. It differed from the M4A2 primarily in turret and suspension, utilizing the horizontal volute spring system, while its armament was the more effective high-velocity 76mm gun and its armor was thicker in vulnerable areas.
Ford built the M4A3 between June 1942 and September 1943, and later Grand Blanc produced the variant. Other improvements were a vision cupola for the commander, wet ammunition storage, and a loader’s hatch.
The M4A3 Sherman medium tank also had a five-man crew, a weight of 71,024 pounds, and a range of 100 miles. Its length with gun was 24 feet, eight inches, and the hull length was 20 feet, seven inches. Its width was eight feet, nine inches, and its height was 11 feet, 2.85 inches. Its armor plating was up to 3.94 inches, and a single 7.62mm coaxial machine gun complemented the 76mm main weapon. The powerplant consisted of a Ford GAA V8 gasoline engine developing 400-500 horsepower. Its maximum road speed was 30 miles per hour, and its fording ability was three feet. It could surmount a vertical obstacle two feet high and a trench 7 feet, five inches wide.
40,000 Shermans vs 6,635 Panzers
Against those 40,000 Allied Shermans, the Nazis fielded but 1,835 Tiger and King Tiger tanks and 4,800 Panther tanks, for a grand total of 6,635. Some estimates of Sherman wartime production reach an astounding 50,000.
Ironically, the United States entered World War II without an armored fighting vehicle such as the Sherman available. Thus, its new design was developed too quickly and the normal, slow-moving series of developmental stages was cast aside in favor of getting the M4 into immediate mass production. The Allies paid for this hasty decision later on in the summer of 1944 in the fields and hedgerow country of embattled Normandy against far superior German armor.
The enormous production numbers also resulted from this initial strategic decision to produce Shermans in large quantities rather than wait for a heavier armored vehicle, such as the M26 Pershing heavy tank, which finally arrived just before war’s end in 1945.