Tastes Great! Less Filling!
|A late-model Sherman M4A3, the mainstay of U.S. forces in Korea, moves down a road past a knocked-out North Korean T34/85,|
|The Chrysler Detroit Tank Arsenal.|
|Soviet Sherman tank in Romania.|
Did the Soviets View American Tanks As Superior In General
|An M3 with its Soviet crew. The one fellow can practically put his hand around the barrel, try that with a late-war tank!|
The M3 Stuart and Lee
First off, the Soviets did not like all American tanks in terms of battle-worthiness (though they were undeniably more comfortable than Soviet tanks). The Allies rushed to send whatever tanks it had in 1941, with the British sending the Matilda and the US sending its M3 Stuart. The Soviet hated that the M3 used gasoline (made it a fire trap, plus diesel was much more plentiful there) and the pitifully weak 37mm main gun. The Stuart was the main US tank at the time (it only began production in March 1941, the Lee later in the year), though, so the Americans sent 1,665 Stuarts and about the same number of Lees while they worked up other designs. Regardless of your view of the Sherman, note that the M3 came along after the T-34 (first produced in September 1940) and still is viewed today as being vastly inferior by virtually everyone.
The Soviets were desperate, so they used these weak tanks strategically. They put the Stuart and the Lee in secondary theaters, i.e., away from Moscow and Leningrad, such as at the Black Sea amphibious landings in the Caucasus during 1942. As always, the Soviets used what they were given (this may seem like a fine point, but the purpose of Lend Lease was not to help the Soviets, but to help the United States). The Soviets' own evaluation, though, was that the M3 tank was an inferior design even after the installation of a 75mm gun in the M3 Lee. Their conclusions about the M3 Lee:
- Periscope that was adequate but basic, i.e., nothing special;
- Limited traverse of the 75mm gun;
- Lack of sights for machine guns;
- Reliable engine, but with a design that led to an undesirable high profile;
- Reliable transmission;
- Good radiator design;
- Good rubber-metallic track;
- Good suspension;
- Poor tracks for mud;
The Soviet evaluation of the M3 begins ringing themes that are common to M4A2s as well. But, admittedly the M3 was no Sherman M4A2, we'll get to those below.
The M4A4 also got the big thumbs down from the Soviets. When a Soviet delegation visited Chrysler in late 1942 - a time of great crisis for the USSR - they reviewed the M4A4 and found it wanting. While clearly superior to the M3, which required higher octane gas and was not water cooled, the Soviets considered the M4A4 worse than the M4A2 tank for the following reasons:
- No improvement over the M4A2 in terms of armament and other factors;
- No improvement in suspension;
|M4A4 Sherman tanks.|
That leaves the M4A2, or "Sherman III" as it is known in England, as the only competitor to the T-34. We will do a comparison below. First, though, let's address the Guards unit argument.
Use in Guards Units
Fans of the Sherman tank like to point out that the Soviets used Shermans in their Guards units, and that this means they viewed the Shermans as "superior" to their homegrown tanks. The Soviets liked to differentiate certain units with honorifics or evocative designations such as "Shock" Armies; on 18 September 1941, they began calling some units that had fought well "Guards" units, along with a related place name. The "Guards" designations were given to formations that distinguished themselves in battle, such as at Stalingrad, but they were not composed of either picked troops or equipment. The term Guards became a synonym for "elite," and even Hitler began to use the term, but that is a misleading association. Hearkening back to Imperial Russian formations, the term was useful as part of the Soviet strategy to motivate troops to fight for "Mother Russia," which was popular, as opposed to fighting for the Communist government, which was not quite as stirring. The clear implication and the perception of some later historians are that these units, therefore, had "better" armor. That is not accurate.
|1st Guards Mechanised Corps rides one of its Sherman tanks into Vienna.|
|Men of the 1st Guards Mechanized Corps gets off its tank a1-01 and take Maria Theresia Platz, Vienna.|
|M4A2 (76) Sherman tanks of 1st Battalion, 46th Guards Tank Brigade, 9th Guards Mechanised Corps, in Vienna.|
In other words, pointing to the use by "Guards" units of certain equipment is a red herring if you are using that to say the weapons they used were somehow better.
Sherman Vs. T-34
So far, we have established that the Soviets viewed the M4A2 as the best American tank. It had a 75 mm M3 L/40 gun and GM6046 twin 6-cylinder diesel engine. The Soviets took to replacing the 75 gun with their own 76.2mm F-34 gun of the T-34 medium tank to create the M4M, though ultimately they figured it wasn't worth the effort since the Americans were supplying the ammunition for the 75mm gun as well. The Sherman main gun was comparable to that of a Panzer IV in 1941/1942, good but not exactly awe-inspiring by the time they began reaching Soviet units in 1944.
|An M4A2 with a 76mm gun in Berlin.|
|From left: M47 Patton, M4 "Sherman"A3E4, Soviet T-34/76B at the Aberdeen proving grounds.|
|Sherman Firefly tank of 2nd Irish Guards, 31 August 1944 (© IWM (BU 302)).|
|The M4A2 Sherman design obviously is from an earlier generation.|
|This Sherman has seen a better day.|
If you’ve seen movies where the people come out of the tank all aflame—I saw that. The German tank had an 88-[millimeter gun] and it just blew the General Sherman tank to pieces until there was nothing left but smoke and fire.While it might be overstating things to say that the Sherman tank was a death trap - a lot of soldiers felt that way.
|Gasoline was not always plentiful - or desired - on the battlefield, so General Patton is said to have had many Shermans converted to run on synthetic fuel.|
The Sherman Advantage
With all that said... the Sherman tank did have one big advantage over the T-34. This advantage is not apparent to the naked eye or by comparison of things like gun size or armor thickness.
Here, we go for some indirect evidence. In early August 1942, the Germans were blasting toward the Don River and the Soviet forces there were in full retreat. Stalin himself issued an order of unusual detail which stated:
Our armored forces and their units frequently suffer greater losses through mechanical breakdowns than they do in battle. For example, at Stalingrad Front in six days twelve of our tank brigades lost 326 out of their 400 tanks. Of those, about 260 owed to mechanical problems. Many of the tanks were abandoned on the battlefield. Similar instances can be observed on other fronts.
Since such a high incidence of mechanical defects is implausible, the Supreme Headquarters sees in it covert sabotage and wrecking by certain elements in the tank crews who try to exploit small mechanical troubles to avoid battle.This Stalin Order does not specify the tanks involved, but one may surmise that the majority of those broken-down tanks must have been T-34s. While Stalin was a suspicious, paranoid, brutal man who instinctively felt that the problem was sabotage, the very evidence that he sets forth in his order actually supports another, more obvious interpretation.
|Late model Russian T34 with 85 mm gun compared to German Tiger 1 fitted with the 88 mm.|
The point is that the US tanks may not have been elegant or up to the highest standards of the Russian Front - but they ran. Americans knew how to make reliable engines and drivetrains, the greatest problems with armor on both sides. Their quality was of the highest standard, being built in undisturbed and brand new factories by a well-rested and well-fed labor force. The Americans also had access to raw materials that were difficult to come by in Europe, and their production standards were acknowledged by everyone to be top-notch. The Soviet inspectors never had any issue with the quality of Sherman construction - only with their overall design and outfitting.
|Russian T-34 tank production in Chelyabinsk.|
A wry Russian joke about American tanks is that they were better - in peacetime. They were more comfortable and gave you fewer problems. Despite design faults, the Shermans were reliable, plentiful and could be counted upon. And, in warfare, that counts for a lot, especially when you are dealing with very large numbers of tanks and your main advantage is quantity.
What Experts Thought
Just looking at specifications never tells the whole story. The literature is full of weapons that had fantastic specs and which failed miserably in their intended role (the Me 163 Komet is a prime example). Let's see what people who actually worked with these weapons one way or another thought.
|The writing says, "Don’t cannibalize, for Okh-Wa.Pru, captured by I/Pz.Rgt.5." Tunisia, 1943.|
The finest tank in the world.Generalmajor Friedrich Wilhelm von Mellenthin, General Hermann Balck's Chief of Staff and later in command of the 9th Panzer Division in the Ardennes Offensive, had this to say:
It was the most excellent example of the offensive weapon of Second World War.The best tank expert in the world was Heinz Guderian; even many in the British military would grant him that. He noted in his memoirs that, as he reviewed the after-action scene on 11 October 1941, when the Soviet 4th Armoured Brigade (Colonel Katukov) first sprang the T-34 on the Wehrmacht:
[T]his was the first occasion on which the vast superiority of the T-34 to our own tanks became plainly apparent.Many historians take the same view of the Sherman tank's inferiority. Belton Cooper in Death Traps" says on p. 35:
The German tanks had a qualitative superiority of as much as five to one over our M4 Sherman.Cooper did not pull that number out of thin air: that actually was the general view within the Wehrmacht. When Michael Wittman was cornered and killed in his Tiger II in August 1944, it was only because he was surrounded by five Sherman tanks.
|M4A2s rolling into Brno, Czechoslovakia with the Red Army.|
These are the best tanks for peaceful times.Conditions on the Russian Front were abysmal. The Shermans did not do particularly well on snow and ice. They also were reputed to tip over due to their high center of gravity whilst traversing rough country.
While Soviet soldiers writing their memoirs generally didn't get into this kind of debate - very political, and in the Soviet Union being political was dangerous - Some Soviets did give some hints at what they really thought. The Soviet commission which examined the new Chrysler plant in Detroit from 3-5 September 1942 (and continued investigating until February 1943) reported negatively about the M4A4. However, in doing so, it also gave some backhanded slaps to the M4A2. For instance, in its conclusions it noted that:
The M4A4 tank is identical to the M4A2 [in pertinent respects]... The M4A2 is well known in the Soviet Union from previously sent documents (high ground pressure, height, insufficient amount of vision devices, difficulty in installation and removal of components, difficulty in service, etc.)... Overall, thanks to a lack of experienced tank designers, the Chrysler factory is building tanks whose design and combat performance does not measure up to the potential of such a first-class tank building giant.With that kind of backhanded "praise," it is a wonder that the Soviets used any Shermans at all. However, there was a war on, and someone was giving them free weapons. The Red Army proved time and time again that it didn't care much about the well-being of its soldiers, just what would accomplish its objectives. The quotes conclusion shows that the Soviets only used the Sherman because it was the best of its poor Lend Lease options.
|An M4 Sherman tank carried aboard the USS Thomas Donaldson. The ship, part of Arctic convoy JW-65, was torpedoed by U-968 near the shore of Kildin Island in the Barents Sea on March 20, 1945.|
The question arises: why? Why was the main United States battle tank so mediocre? After all, the engineering of US tanks was top-notch - as the Soviets themselves conceded above. Well, below is some brief history to show how, standing at a fork in the road, one army takes one fork, and another goes the way less traveled.
|J. Walter Christie with an early tank design. Note the sloping armor?|
|Experimental Christie T3E2 tank, shown here during tests in 1936. You can see the future in this tank (Harris & Ewing collection at the Library of Congress).|
Oh, and the US officer who "got it" in 1928? A fellow who went by the moniker of Lt. Colonel George S. Patton Jr., the top tank expert in the United States military and perhaps the world. Of course, he earned a few stars after that.
Compared to the Soviet T-34 medium tank, the American Sherman M4A2 was inferior in terms of:
- Main Gun;
- Overall design;
Both the Soviets and the Germans recognized that the T-34 was a war-winning tank. Nobody with experience against them ever said that about the Sherman tank. The advantage of the Sherman was that it was available in massive numbers, and, to the Soviets, that it was completely free of charge. While the Soviets did use them in Guards tank formations, that does not prove that they considered the Sherman tanks as being superior weapons to their own tanks. Overall, the T-34 was a better tank than the Sherman tank and the Soviets only used the Sherman because it was the best tank the Western Allies had to offer.
|A Sherman tank converted by the Soviets into a prime mover.|