Category Archives: falsehoods

#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 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 duckbill 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 things, 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 they were 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 its combat record is not, if you read accounts not written by Nazis. The first losses on the eastern front were 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 reinforces 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.