#38 The Shermans Flaws:  What Was Wrong With The Tank, and Stayed Wrong.

The Shermans Flaws:  Yeah, I know the Sherman Had Flaws. It Just Had So Many Fewer Than Any German Tank!

The Sherman tank, like anything man produces, was series of compromises to meet the US Army’s design specifications. The Sherman was also designed by a country with little tank making experience.  The British, who were already at war, helped a great deal with the Sherman design with feedback from their combat experience. Some of the lessons learned about the Lee/Grant design did not come in time to affect the very early Sherman design, but improvements made it into the production line fairly fast.

Let’s start with the early Shermans, and by early I mean all small hatch hull tanks. The automotive systems on all the early Shermans were good. All the major issues with the four major power plants had all really been resolved in the Lee.  This is true of on the early VVSS, it was replaced with the heavy duty VVSS used first on the M3A4. The narrow tracks were a flaw, in soft terrain and mud the Sherman with VVSS, and 16 inch tracks, was at a disadvantage compared to the Pather, but this flaw was resolved in two ways before the end of the war. The first was duck bill end connectors on the 16 inch tracks, lowering ground pressure, and then HVSS came along in late 44, with 23 inch wide tracks that resolved the problem completely, the HVSS Sherman could go anywhere a Panther went, without risk of breaking down constantly.

The Powertrain was so good it remained largely unchanged throughout the Sherman production run, I would say it was pretty close to flawless.  The very early Shermans had direct vision ports, this was solved pretty quickly on the production line in most cases, and the tanks produced with the DV ports had upgrades that could be installed in the field to solve the problem of them being a weak point in the frontal armor. The complicated multi piece front plate was not great, since the welds took extra time to manufacture, and they were ballistic weak spots as well; it was simplified on late production small hatch tanks by reducing the number of plates and was replaced by a single plate when they updated the hull with the large driver and co drivers hatches.

The 75mm M3 gun was good; though some would argue it was a flaw, based on its lack of ability to pen the front of the Panther and Tiger tanks.  For the first year or more the Sherman saw combat its gun was very good for both anti-tank work, and infantry support. German tanks, even in the mid part of the war were relatively rare compared to AT guns, and the 75 M3 was a much better gun for taking those out.  The US Army did see a need to improve the AT performance and began working on installing the M1 76mm gun into the Sherman, and they began this process before the Tiger or Panther showed up. By the time the Panther showed up in large numbers, Shermans with 76mm guns were showing up in large numbers as well.  So this flaw was addressed as well, though, not fully, since the M1A1 gun was not all that it was cracked up to be. The truth is, by the time the US was facing Panthers on a regular basis, the crews in them were so green, and the tank itself so complicated and hard to fight, even Sherman 75s had little trouble handling them.

Yes, its early ammo storage was a flaw, storing ammo in the sponsons, and all around the base of the turret basket made it easy to brew the tank up with an ammo fire. They figured this out, and changed the ammo configuration and put it all in armored boxes. Most tanks already issued received these changes in kit form.  When the large hatch hull went into production, for the most part, these tanks got wet storage in the hull, under the turret basket, with water jackets. This location proved to be a very good place for the ammo, and fires in penetrated Shermans went down drastically. The location was far more important than the wet part of the storage, and it was dropped post war.  Some crews objected to the changes in ammo storage, a pre quick fix Sherman with 12 to 14 ready rounds within easy reach of the loader could pump out a very large volume of fire for a fairly long time, the new ammo layout really slowed the rate of fire down in a sustained fight. Because of this, some crews ignored the new ammo regulations, and stored as much loose ammo as they could in the turret basket.  These crews were willing to risk the higher chance of catastrophic fire, to keep that higher sustained rate of fire.

Some like to say it’s reliance on gas engines was a flaw, most of the people who like to point this out don’t understand that the Sherman had a diesel version, and American gas powered tanks were no more likely to burn than anyone’s gas powered tanks, and were much less prone to fire than German tanks like the Panzer IV, it was the worst of the war, all  German tanks were gas powered as well. Hell for most of its life, the Panther didn’t need any help from the allies to light itself on fire. I do not call the US Armies reliance on gas a flaw, it was a choice, the US Army could have kept all the A2s if they wanted diesel tanks.  In fact, from the automotive standpoint all the motors the Sherman used, even the A57 multibank, were more reliable than any motor the Germans produced for use in a tank.

The armor, here you can make a pretty good argument the tank was flawed. It had better armor than all other mediums in its weight class, but that of course won’t save it from guns like 75mm L70 or the 88mm L71 guns. No tank in its weight class could, nor could the heavier German tanks like the Tiger or Panther for that matter. In most cases medium tanks don’t have enough room left in their design to take much more weight of armor. This is one of the things that ruined the Panther, all the extra weight from armor, but no upgrades to the powertrain.

Now, the Sherman design is a special case, the powertrain, and suspension were so well designed; they could take the extra weight of more armor, without compromising reliability.  The Jumbo, and all the field mods, including the field mod Jumbos like Thunderbolt VII, an M4A3 76W HVSS tank, that had extra armor cut from knocked out Shermans onto its hull and turret, prove it. The Army was aware it could take these upgrades, as the Jumbo program, and their toying with add on armor kits shows.  Even the Jumbo couldn’t stand up to the 88L71 for long, and more armor than the jumbo tanks had, would have compromised the tanks automotive bits.  So the armor was good enough, because armor that could stop the big AT guns it was facing was not practical, and would have caused automotive problems. But the basic Sherman could have had significantly thicker armor without affecting the Shermans reliability or producibility. This would have made an already good tank better, but there also may be reasons why they couldn’t, the War Production Board always had a say in these thing, maybe they didn’t want to shift over more steel production when they were desperate for it in the Landing Craft/Ship program, when talking about American War production, you can never consider just that item, because they didn’t every program fought for priority in the system.

No, to really get into the Shermans flaws, you have to look at the things that could not be addressed with simple upgrades. The tanks height, front drive, and sponsons, and all these had to wait until the T20 series ended in the M26.  The front drive, and suspension from the M2/M3 series got carried over to the M4 series because they hadn’t even solved the turret ring problem, so they really hadn’t spent much time looking into rear drive. Men and women were designing these tanks, and their parts on drafting tables using slide rules. The Greatest Generation and the one before them was so good at math it’s mind boggling. The tanks designed to replace the Sherman all used rear drive, with the motor, tranny as one big unit in the rear of the hull.  These designs also eventually got torsion bar suspension, but it was deemed so little of an improvement in the M4 series as to not be worth changing production lines, but it was good for the newer tanks. There is some debate about torsion bars being the best way to go, the US Army said yes, and every tank up until and including the M1 Abrams use torsion bars. This was not the only choice, the British used improved, but very Sherman like Bogie systems on the Centurion and they upgraded that tank for decades. The torsion bar system takes up space in the hull, bogie type systems don’t and bolt on suspension is easy to repair, torsion bar systems are notoriously not easy to fix on any tank that has them.  I’ve read M48 repair crews in Vietnam would use C4 to blow the axle stubs out of the hull, instead of doing it the normal way, to save time.

Tiger II and it's better, a M4A3 76 w Sherman tank, the best tank of the war.
Tiger II and M4A3 76 W Sherman side by side, that Tiger may not run, but the Sherman surely does. They share the same design flaw, the powertrain in the front, the motor in the back, with a drive shaft running through the fighting compartment. This forces the turret basket up and the whole tank to be taller. Also note that both tanks have sponsons, these were largely eliminated from future tank designs by everyone because they add volume to the hull the dilutes the overall armor thickness. Final note, that Sherman has all its ammo stored in the floor in wet ammo racks, the Tiger II has its ammo in the sponsons and rear of the turret. In dry unarmored racks. Making the Tiger prone to catastrophic ammo fires, it seems like Nazi tank designers didn’t learn that lesson very well. The Tiger II may look impressive, but it’s combat record is not, if you read accounts not written by Nazis. The first losses on the eastern front was to the humble T-34-85, and they killed several of these silly beasts without loss. 

The Shermans tallness, one of its real flaws, though one that’s always exaggerated, was also caused by the Shermans front drive layout. This was because this layout required a drive shaft from the motor, to the tranny to run through the fighting compartment, thus forcing the turret basket up and making the tank taller, and in the Shermans case the first engine choice the R975 was a big motor, and forced a large tall engine compartment on the design.  There was not much that could have been done to solve this problem short of putting one of the T20 series into production, but they wouldn’t have produced a tank that was really much better.  This was a design flaw all the German cats, and pretty all German tanks had. They don’t have the R975 as a reason, they were just bad at engine layout and cooling systems and wasted a lot of space there.

The final flaw is a minor one, the hull having sponsons added area that had to be protected with armor. Had they been eliminated, their weight in armor could have been added to the front of the hull and turret making for slightly more armor, but a much more cramped tank. This is a pretty minor flaw overall, and the Sherman would be the last US tank design to have them.

So overall all, the majority of the Shermans flaws were solved over its production life. The ones that couldn’t be were resolved in the next tank design. I have to say, all in all, that’s a very small list of serious flaws and it is far outweighed by the Shermans pluses.  This does nothing but reinforce my view that the Sherman tank was the best tank of the war.

If you came by this article from that terrible Cracked article, 5 Things about War you thought were true because of War movies, forget the garbage you just exposed yourself to and stick around and read up on the  most important allied tank of the war, the M4 Medium Tank, AKA the Sherman.

Start here:   The Conclusions: Was The Sherman Good Enough? Hell Yes It Was!

Then stick around, you can actually learn something from this site.

13 thoughts on “#38 The Shermans Flaws:  What Was Wrong With The Tank, and Stayed Wrong.

  1. The advantages of placing the tranny up front were thought to be:
    It acted as secondary armor. An AT round piercing the Sherman’s 2” thick cast housing would still have to slice its way thru heat treated gears and shafts to enter the crew compartment.
    In the old days the life span of tank tracks was limited, it was thought that as the track traveled along the top rollers imbedded dirt would shake off prior to seeing the drive roller prolonging the life of the track.
    The gear shifter mechanism was simplified. T-34 drivers were issued a mallet to bang the shifter into gear. Not good when trying to shoot a panzers on the move.

  2. There’s some inconsistencies here. I have read from other sources that the jumbo configuration of the sherman overloaded the suspension where you say it was fine here. But the biggest flaw of the sherman is the engine – virtually all of the the other issues with the tank are from the choice of engine. The big problem was that we didnt have a dedicated tank engine, so we had to use what we had at the time which was a radial aircraft engine. Those radial engines are tall and had the drive shaft coming out right through the center of them. The tanks had to be tall to house these engines and this also made it necessary to place the transmission in the front. The driveshaft ran at a downward angle through the middle of the tank to the low mounted front transmission. It would have been difficult to package the engine and trans together because of the height the trans would be mounted at.
    The guns were always an issue as well, luckily, heavy german armor was rare. But the 76mm gun was pretty much in-effective at taking out heavy german armor at any range unless they had ACPR round, which was also rare and still required close range. Sadly, we did have a gun that could in theory take out heavy armor and we did mount it in the sherman – the 105mm howitzer. Unfortunately, the 105mm rounds have quite an arc to them making long range engagements difficult, and for reasons unknown, 105mm shermans didnt have a powered turret traverse mechanism which limited their effectiveness at close range. I am also not clear on the supply of HEAT rounds for the 105, but that round had excellent penetration and could defeat the frontal armor of a tiger. The 105 was also a fast loading gun since the rounds were short and comparatively light.

    1. John,
      I don’t remember reading the Jumbo put much extra stress on the suspension. I’ll poke through Hunnicutt and check there, but if you can remeber that would be great. I do remember reading about complaints on the sandbag and concrete setups putting extra wear on the front volute sprints, and would require their replacement earlier, but as far as suspension repairs go, this was a pretty easy job the crew could do with no special tools.

      The R975 radial did dictate the size of the M3/M4 tank, but the US Army really had no other choice, and it wouldn’t be until war clouds were clearly looming and the M3 was in production they would have the resources to work on better motors. This wasn’t actually a bad thing in all ways, the big size of the R975, and the extra space around it for cooling air flow gave the Sherman a pretty large engine compartment. This made fitting large engines easier, with the GM 6046 and GAA slipping in with no hull size changes and it took the A57, a huge motor, with a just minor hull lengthening. The variety of reliable engine choices kept production of the Sherman steady enough to supply pretty much all the Allies.

      The transmission being in front was a flaw all German tanks shared, and the US fixed in the follow on tank, the T20 series, that ended up being the M26 tank. This tank fixed all the height flaws the M4 series had, by having the powerpack in the rear, a pattern all US tank would follw.

      The Sherman tank with both the 75mm M3 gun and 76mm M1A1/A1C/A2 guns in practice had little trouble dealing with the ‘heavier’ German armor when it made it to the fight. Everyone likes to talk about guns, but no one talks about fire control, and the Shermans was simply better than it’s German counterparts. The Sherman had a better chance of spotting a German tank, and getting off the key first shot, and hit than the German did, in particular by the time the Panther became more common. By that point, most of the time Panther crews were green, and not getting much actual in tank training time due to spare parts and gas shortages. That coupled with low quality armor and bad build quality meant, even a non penetrating hit could wound a German crew and damage the tank. German tank crews were prone to bail from tanks hit with WP smoke as well, since they thought the tank was burning. This is of course all talking about from the front, but from the side and rear, both guns could kill Tigers and Panthers from the side at long ranges.

      APCR rounds for the 76mm gun became common around the time German armor became very rare in tank units. TD units got priority on this ammo. The 105 armed tanks were not meant to be assault tanks in the sense they would get into close combat with infantry around. They could do this, but a regular Sherman was better at it because of the turret traverse and gun stabilizer. They were used in direct fire roles, but mostly to blow up houses or fortifications from outside infantry AT weapon range, with the 105 howitzer. In many cases the three 105 tanks from a Battalions line companies, and the 3 HQ 105 tanks were combined into a battalion controlled 105 artillery battery. In some cases they would wire themselves right into the arty radio network and take fire missions. The removal of the power traverse allowed more room for stowed 105 rounds, and since the tank wasn’t meant to be used as a close combat vehicle, but as a replacement for the M7 Priest, the PT wasn’t considered important. Heat rounds for these guns were rare, but worked well enough, though a standard 105 HE round would ruin any German tankers day if spalling didn’t outright kill him.

      In my opinion, the M3 75 was a better gun for the later war ETO Sherman, since nazi armor was nearly extinct, and the main threat they faces was poorly trained German kids with Panzerfausts, the common AT gun and mines. The M3 75mm gun was a much better people and AT gun killer than the M1A1/A2 gun and 17 pounder. Now, if they could have gotten the M3 90mm on there, it would have been great, but it just wasn’t possible, 90mm gun was a bottleneck and they barely had enough for M36, AA gun and M26 tank production.

    2. The Jumbo was mainly used to lead armored columns along roads. It’s extra armor could absorb hits that would’ve knocked out a standard Sherman and caused crew casualties. It was significantly less mobile and most likely less reliable off road due to the added weight. As statistics point out concealed anti tank guns caused a large percentage of tank losses and with each tank lost on average one crewman was killed and another wounded. The Jumbo was an attempt to reduce these losses and worked pretty well. Basically the Jumbo would take the first hit and the rest of the force would get off the road and deploy for battle.

    3. “Those radial engines are tall and had the drive shaft coming out right through the center of them.”
      Pity they didn’t try to mount the radial horizontally, would had made for a really low profile.
      Besides didn’t oil build up in the lower cylinders when the engine wasn’t running?

  3. You say the M4 has better armor than any medium tank in its weight class. The T34 hull side armor is IIRC 7mm thicker and is sloped. The T44 (predecessor to T54 &T55)weighed slightly more but was very well armored. BTW I love the site.

    1. James
      Good points, I think I would give the Sherman the overall edge in armor even so, but I always like to point out, I’m just a well read amature, so I’m always up for a discussion on it.

      On the T-44 and the tanks developed from it, I was thinking more in WWII time brackets and should probably clear that up, the 44 was clearly a very big step ahead in tank design, and really a much better tank than the M4. The Shermans replacement the M26 would be much more comparable to them. I would also say the upgunned Shermans used by Israel were a threat to the later Soviet tanks, but were at a big disadvantage in many ways.

  4. Sherman was built to be good enough. Nothing more. It was otherwise nasty. They could have improved it but nobody wanted to interupt the production lines so they kept churning out endless numbers of these obsolete death traps. And anyway GI lives were cheap…. Interesting that after the war the US eventually worked out the folks back home would no longer tolerate substandard armaments for their sons in future and switched to tank designs that put crew survivability higher up the list of priorities.

    1. Ben,
      You clearly have not read the information on this site. The standard early Sherman was no more or less safe to be in than a Panzer IV, and the later shermans with upgraded ammo racks were safer than even the panther or tiger. The Sherman was continuously updated throughout the war, and was in fact a very advanced tank. So advanced it’s a fact the Germans could not copy it, hell, they couldn’t even make a good copy of the T-34. Can you you say Stabilizers and Huge Armored Castings? Why you ask? Cause Germany could do neither.

      The Sherman served with the US Army into the 50s, and was used in Korea, where it was arguably a better tank than the M26 that was supposed to replace it. GI lives were never cheap, there was a Republican Congress back in the states waiting to use anything they could against the Roosevelt Administration. There was a scandal in the press about the Sherman after the battle of the bulge, but Patton of all people came to the tanks defense.

      If you read current works like Steven Zaloga’s Armored Thunderbolt, he concludes, the Ardennes was the Shermans shinning moment of the war. Clearly you haven’t read the book, I highly recommend it.

      It’s funny you think the US Army got it’s act together after WWII, the US didn’t have a main battle tank any better than the Soviets until the M1 Abrams…

    2. “Obsolete death traps”

      Get the fuck out of here, If you’re actually dumb enough in this day and age to buy into Belton Cooper’s money grab of a book (and here I thought people were getting wiser with so many now finally debunking so many pop history myths) instead of reading about the actual history of the Sherman and the war overall, you’re far too much of an idiot to actually discuss with.

    3. Oh also, since I know you’re not actually going to leave anyway but just waste everyone’s time with annoying bullshit, explain why Sherman crewman had statisically one of the best crew survivability rates when penetrated of any tank in the war, and contrary to the “DEATH TRAPS!” shit, They actually caught fire LESS then most German tanks when penetrated? (Then again, German AFVs were known to be fire prone even when not in combat, like doing the grueling tasks of going up a slight hill or having their engines simply overheat due to bad design), I guess the US basically didn’t care about “disposable GIs” based on your evidence provided of:

      Or if they just wanted to “keep production lines going”, Why did the Sherman have more variants produced and fielded then any tank in the war which if anything would actually complicate production lines? please enlighten me.

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