The Life of a Sherman Tanker: The Crew the Tank, and How They Lived With it, Babied it, Loved and Hated it.
This post will be about the crew of and life in the Sherman tank. It will cover the responsibilities of each crew member. It will try and cover what life was like as a tank crewmember. No man facing war in the modern world has it easy, and the men who fought the Sherman fit this category. Tankers faced dangers regular infantry didn’t, but overall, being a tanker was more comfortable, and less likely to get you killed then being grunt, the real myth is that being in a Sherman tank meant you were in a Death Trap.
Now let’s go over what each man of a Sherman’s crew did.
The commander sat in the back right side of the turret directly behind the gunner. His job was to command the tank. This meant he took the orders from the platoon leader or company commander, and made his tank perform the tasks he’d been given to accomplish the mission. He had the radio in the bustle of the turret to his rear to help him. To do this he could stand on his seat with his head and shoulders out of the tank, and direct the crew over the intercom. Only he could transmit on the radio, but the others could listen. They could all talk to each other on the intercom. On early M4s, when ‘buttoned up’ or when the tank was all closed up with its hatches closed, the commander only had his rotating copula periscope. Later version of the Sherman had an all-around vision cupola, discussed earlier, that provided a much better view around the tank for the commander. As some of the charts show in the data section, this was the most dangerous crew station. The commander spent a lot of time with his head stuck out, when the rest of the crew was buttoned up, it made him a prime target for basically anyone and anything being shot at the tank.
His job in combat was to call out directions to the driver, and call out targets for the gunner. He had a site vane mounted on the roof of the turret to use outside, by using it and his turret override; he could put the gunner roughly on target by rotating the turret. If he was the platoon leader or company commander, he would be calling out directions to the other tanks and trying to sort what everyone was doing out, and keep things under control, or in the company commanders case as much control as he could over the tanks in his company. He would be depending heavily on the platoon commanders to run their platoons and keep him informed of what was going on.
He was responsible for the tank up to a point, and had to make sure the crew kept up on all the required maintenance to keep the tank in proper running order. He was also responsible for the wellbeing of his crew. The commander was for obvious reasons, the most experienced man in the tank in most cases in most cases as well. Crews that had that belonged to the platoon, company and Battalion commanders were often short a man on tank maintenance, since the officer would be off doing officers stuff, like planning and thinking.
The gunner was usually the next senior man in the tank. He sat right in front of the commander, and used the commander’s hatch to get in and out. He had his own set of turret controls, and only he could control the guns elevation. Along with the gun controls, he had all the controls for the stabilizer in front of him. In early Shermans, he only had a periscope with a reticle, it had a fixed 6x power zoom, but also could be looked through with no zoom. Later gunner’s had the periscopes and a direct view scope. He was dependent on the commander to get him near a target, and then took five to six seconds for him to pick up the target. This took a much longer time on German tanks like the Panther, with gunner target acquisition times in the minutes, not seconds.
The gunner controlled the main gun, and the coaxial mounted M1919A4 .30 caliber machine gun. Each was fired with a foot pedal on the gunner’s foot rest. You would think the gunner would have the best view out, but in tanks, most of the time, at least in the older models, their view was very limited, but for the era, the Sherman was better than most other tanks. A good gunner working with a good loader in the 75mm armed Sherman could get off, two or three aimed shots in very short time if they had a good gunner and loader.
A Tank gunner also had to be able to shoot, like all other WWII tanks, the Sherman lacked any kind of kind of aiming aid for the gunner, other than his scope and periscope. Limited range finding could be done with the reticle in the sight, based on the known height of something, but it was not very exact. The gunners brain was really the tool that did the correcting based on experience and skill, and innate ability. Modern tankers have it much easier in this area, with most modern tanks have laser ranger finders, and sensors to check for windage, temperature, and barrel wear, and computer to use all the data to complete the aiming corrections for the gun. That was something that probably couldn’t even be dreamed of by a WWII tanker. Better range finders were right over the horizon though.
The loaders job was to service the 75mm M3 gun, and the co-ax .30 caliber machine gun. The commander or gunner would call out the ammo type for the main gun, and the loader would load the gun and yell “Up!” and the gunner would know the gun was ready to fire. (A good gunner would hear the breach closing and know before the loader spoke) The loader was supposed to watch the belt on the co-ax, and make sure the gun didn’t run dry. He was also supposed to be trained on how to clear a problem with the main gun or machine guns. Even canons can have duds, or shell problems, or even just break.
The loaders station was on the left of the gun, opposite of the gunner. He had a lot of space to move around, and a fold up seat. He also had a fully rotating periscope on the roof above him for his viewing pleasure. In early Shermans the loader had twelve ready rounds around the base of the turret basket, with another eight in a ready rack at his feet. This was the primary reason so many early Shermans burned, anything that penetrated the turret or the hull and hit those exposed rounds would set off a chain reaction explosion, destroying the tank, and often killing most of the crew. This problem was figured out pretty fast and the twelve exposed rounds were deleted and an armored four round ready rack replaced it the eight round one. Later armor was added to the inside and outside of the sponson ammo boxes.
If a lot of firing was taking place, the loader was a very busy guy, on early Shermans the sponson racks, even without all the turret ready ammo, he had a fair number of easy to get to ammo racks for the main gun, but since the turret basket was screened, he could only get to them with the turret at certain bearings. With the switch to all ammo but the ready ammo in the floor of the hull, his job got much harder. On the wet ammo rack tanks, he would have to pull open doors in the bottom of the turret basket, then open an armored box and pull ammo from it. He had to know what was in all the ammo boxes, and was responsible for what got loaded into where.
The loader on some models also had a 2 inch smoke mortar to load and fire at the commander’s desire. It was a short lived feature. It protruded into the loader space and was not well liked by that member of the crew.
After spending some time as a co-driver, a crewmember may be moved up to loader. A good loader was important, the 75mm and later 76mm guns were capable of very fast rates of fire, but only if the loader could keep up. When he wasn’t scrambling around the floor of the turret opening armored doors in the floor to find ammo to feed the gun, he was another set of eyes. On early tanks using his periscope, on later ones he could stick his head out of his own hatch. Many crews mounted extra machine guns to the roofs too, and if there was one on the loaders hatch it would be his to shoot. Some units would put the M2 .50 mount in front of the loader, and put a .30 Cal M1919A4 on a mount in front of the commander.
Early to well into later production 75mm gun armed Shermans did not have a loaders hatch. This meant if the loader had to bail out, he had to get around the main gun to do it. The main gun had a folding recoil guard to help with this. It would be a very hard thing to do if the tank was burning or the loader was wounded and the tank filled with smoke.
The driver and co-driver were separate from the turret crew; they sat in the forward part of the hull. They could only climb into the turret if the turret was rotated to line up the holes in the turret basket, at least on early models, with the drivers compartment. The transmission sat between the driver and co-driver and only the driver had a set of controls. Only the driver had any instruments as well. On early tanks the drivers and co drivers hatches were oval shaped and small, and required the man to twist to get through. On very early tanks he had a rotating periscope in his hatch, and a direct view port with an armored cover. The view ports were removed from production and extra armor was added over them. This was done very quickly when it was found bullet splash could get through even a closed port. They were also a big ballistic weak spot in the armor.
The driver needed to be able to drive the tank, often without knowing what he was driving into, trusting the eyes of the other crew members and commander to keep him out of trouble. He needed to know what his tank could drive over and climb, and what it couldn’t. Getting your tank stuck in the mud was an embarrassing thing to do. If the tank was really stuck, it might require more than one tank to pull it out. The crew would get a lot of heat for that type of thing.
Driving the tank was important, and the driver had to work well with the commander. A savvy co driver could be moved into this spot, or a good loader, would be given a shot. The position was roomy and fairly comfortable as tank positions go. He had a good view forward from a fixed periscope, and rotating one built into the drivers hatch. The seat could also be adjusted up, and the tank driven with drivers head stuck out. In the movie Tank with James Garner, you get a lot of shots of him driving the tank with his head stuck out a small hatch M4A3.
Co drivers position
Co-driver: The co-drivers position was the on the right front of the hull and has its own hatch. The position had no controls or instrument panel. This position had a .30 caliber M1919A4 machine gun, aimed by tracer through the periscopes. This gun had a very limited fire arc and wasn’t very effective, but the extra crew member was nice to have around to help keep the tank up and running.
This was the position most new tankers started in. As they learned how the tank worked they got moved around. Not all crew changes were due to loses. You could have a man transfer out or be sent to rear for a disciplinary situation, to leave, or some other reason. Crew members could be moved from tank to tank. If another Sherman lost its commander and no one in it was ready to replace the man, a really good gunner or driver might get pulled out of another tank to take it over. Crews were kept together for as long as practical though. The co-driver was the closest to the escape hatch built into the floor of the tank; it was right behind the seat, and would be the best way for the driver and co-driver to get out of the tank in some cases, or the only way if the turret was in the wrong place.
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These five men were responsible for keeping the tank running. This meant keeping up on a long list of daily chores from checking track tension and adjusting it, to tighten the bolts on the each end link on both sides of the track run, to checking the oil and radiator fluids, or the batteries. There were also numerous things that had to be hit with a grease gun, others that had to be adjusted. Depending on the motor type various engine maintenance tasks had to be done. Plus cleaning and maintaining the main gun, and all the machine guns, loading ammo and fuel. Getting food and eating, and other person chores all had to be done as well. Many tanks ended up piled with extra gear to help make the tankers lives easier. They only had to keep the tank up to a point, if it needed major work, like a new transmission or engine; a company or battalion level maintenance crew would come and help, ideally, or a replacement tank would be issued.
Daily life at a major base or rear area base in a combat theater would be similar to the infantry or the other combat arms. On a major base they would be living in heated barracks, their tanks in a tank park somewhere, with an area set aside for maintenance. They would be living in barracks organized the same way as their units, though if in the US some men could be living off base. There would be mess halls, and bathrooms with plumbing and hot water. Daily life would be drilling, cleaning and maintaining the tanks, drilling on the tanks. Practicing on the tanks, driving it around, using the weapons, fixing it when it broke, or getting it unstuck when it got stuck. Generally learning how the tank worked and how to use it, with training in bigger exercises mixed in. There would also be a lot of cleaning, the tank, the barracks, the area around the barracks and probably KP duty and other watches or duties. Tankers probably didn’t spend as much time running or doing calisthenics as the infantry either.
In a combat theatre rear area, life would be like a stateside base with more tents, and less amenities and worse food. They would also be spending more time training on the tanks and later in the war, training with the infantry they would be working with. They would be spending their time training new people or replacements, and getting ready for their first combat or going back in.
Once out operating things would be different, though much time would still be spent not fighting, working on the tanks eating and generally being bored. The living conditions would be tarps hung from the sides of the tanks as makeshift tents, and sleeping on the ground or another tarp on the ground or cots if they could steel them somewhere and they didn’t get shot up while fighting, since they would be tied down somewhere on the tank. Once free of the daily grind that base life was, free from junk on the bunk, or tarp in the tanks case inspections, tanks start to look more like something out of the movie Mad Max than tanks. Tankers collect all manner of junk to haul on their tank, logs were common, maybe for the added stand-off armor value against AT sticks, or for there value in getting the tank unstuck from deep mud.
Tanks crews like any other soldiers look for things to make their life easier when stuck out in the field and at war. Tankers have the advantage of being able to stuff things in the nooks and crannies of the tank, or just strapping it on the outside. Things including extra food, and small arms ammo, water, gas and oil cans, stuff pilfered from abandoned homes or occupied ones once the Army made it into Germany. It’s really no surprise the US Army liberated goods from the Germans, after having to fight them, and seeing what they did in the camps, it seems no one really cared. Tankers could haul a lot more loot than an infantry grunt could.
Another key difference is, in anything but the most desperate situation, Army or Marine Corps tanks withdrew to the rear, not far, but far enough to not be in the line, at night. Tanks are blind during the day, at night they are almost cripplingly so and tanks were rarely used in night attacks, no countries experimental night vision systems were good enough for that. Holding the line was left to the grunts, at night the tanks were spend their time getting their tanks reloaded, refueled, and repair any damage, on top of all the normal day to day maintenance a tank still required. This was done before eating, and sometimes under harassing artillery fire. In the few cases tanks were forced to be part of a line at night and an attack happened, they often ended up alone since they had little chance of noticing their infantry pulling back without them. They left the tanks very vulnerable to infantry close assault.
Infantry always had mixed feelings about Armor. They complained about it when it drew artillery fire, and it often did. When the ground pounders ran into something really dug in, even something like a light machine gun, if their ability to maneuver to flank and take it out was hindered, they really liked tanks. If there was even a hint, or rumor of enemy armor in the area, the infantry loved the tankers and their steel mounts. A tank infantry, team, working together like a well-oiled machine, was hard to beat, as Germans and Japanese found out.
Sources: Armored Thunderbolt by Zaloga, Yeide’s TD and two separate tank battalion books, Sherman by Hunnicutt, Combat Lessons, The Rank and file, what they do and how they are doing it 1-7, and 9. Archive Awareness, Oscar Gilberts, Marine Tank Battles in the Pacific, M4 Sherman tank at war by Green, Tanks are a Might Fine Thing by Stout, the Lone Sentry, TM9-731b, TM9-752, TM9-754, TM9-759