Combat Performance: It Killed Stuff Pretty damn well.
When Sherman went into combat in British hands in the North African desert in October of 1942, it was bar none, the best tank in the world. It had a better gun and more armor, along with good or better mobility than all the axis tanks it faced. It wouldn’t have a German peer until the Panzer IV was up-gunned and even then, the best version of the Panzer IV was barely a match for a 75mm armed Sherman and totally outclassed by the later 76mm armed tanks. The Sherman tank was designed, and the design improved to maximize how easy it was to produce, while also improving the reliability, crew fighting efficiency, safety, and comfort. This was fairly unique to U.S. Tank design and can be attributed in many ways to the automotive production experts who came out of Detroit and the US Auto industry.
The basic small hatch Sherman was found to be fine for the job all the way through the invasion of Italy and Normandy. The introduction of the Tiger and Panther as specialized tanks that were rarely seen. In the Tigers case, they were right. It was a rare and more or less useless waste of German resources. The Panther would become much more common after the break out from Normandy, but if you really look at its performance, it was not that great of a threat. In most cases when they met in Europe, the Sherman won. The 75mm M3 Armed Sherman was very well equipped to deal with infantry and AT guns, the main threat they would face, and this was part of why the US Army didn’t want to jump to the available at the time of Normandy, 76mm armed Shermans.
The US Army tried the M1 gun out on the Sherman just about when the Sherman 75 hit production. The Sherman Minutia Site has images and covers the history, as do various books, the M1 gun fit, but was a tad long, so they just chopped off more than a foot from the barrel. It worked well enough they ordered 1000 Shermans armed with the gun, but then the order was canceled because the turret was too cramped. Later, they would adapt the T23s turret to the Sherman hull for a much better solution to the problem of up gunning the tank. After the war, the many 75mm Shermans were up-gunned with the M1A2 gun and then given to allies as military aid. A fun way to see a few of these tanks in action is to watch the 70s movie, Kelly’s Heroes, the Shermans in that are all up-gunned 75mm turreted M4A3 tanks.
The Sherman, even the version armed with the 75mm gun, could still deal with the heavier Nazi German tanks, as long as it had room to move around, and knew where it was. Much noise has been made about how it was a death trap after the D-Day landings and the Panther and Tiger tore it up in the bocage. This is a myth. There is pretty good evidence the US Army only faced maybe two or three Tiger I tanks, in Europe, ever. The Panther was more common, but also got roughly handled in just about every battle it faced Shermans in.
The German’s rarely used the Panther in the bocage country because its long gun made it hard to use in the tight quarters and reliability problems were ever-present with this tank. The tank the Sherman faced in US hands was the Panzer IV and various Stug assault guns, neither of which outclassed the Sherman in any real way. But they did have the advantage of being on the defense.
Post-war studies by the US Army showed the Sherman was more effective than German armor at this point. The claims of the Sherman being a death trap were false. Even early Sherman tanks were no more likely to burn than any other tank and the later war wet ammo rack tanks were the safest tanks of the war. German tanks used gasoline and gas was not found to be a major cause of fires in destroyed Shermans, ammo fires were. See the links in the data section for info on this. Most Sherman losses were due to anti-tank guns, infantry AT weapons and mines, and not so much tank on tank action.
When Operation Cobra was kicked off, the first use of a large hatch hull, wet ammo rack, 76mm armed Shermans took place. The M4A1 76 being the model used first followed by A3 76 tanks within weeks. These tanks were not well received across the board, with some units preferring the 75mm armed tanks because facing armor was rare even then and the 75mm gun was better at taking out anti-tank guns and infantry, and could still deal with any German armor they encountered. Some units welcomed the better anti-tank capability even if it wouldn’t kill a Panther from the front unless at very short range.
By the battle of the bulge, the M4A3E8 and M4A3E2 Jumbo were showing up for combat use. The Jumbo had much thicker armor and were loved by their crews. By the close of the Bulge, German armor would become very rare, but even so more and more 76mm armed Shermans would be issued. By the end of the war, the ratio would be near 50%. The Army also wanted to stop production on the 75mm gunned M4s in 1945, but the USMC and the British still had requirements for the 75mm gun tanks so it stayed in limited production.
There was a bit of a scandal about the Sherman being no good in the press back in the States about the time of the Bulge. The reality was, the Sherman was having its shining moment during that battle and performed very well against German armor that was supposedly better. Bad movies aside, the Sherman more than held its own in the Battle of the Bulge, also known as the Ardennes Offensive. This is covered in Steven Zaloga’s Armored Thunderbolt, in much more detail.
By the time the next generation replacement showed up, the M26, the war was all but over, and only a handful would see combat. In many ways, the M26 was inferior to the M4. Due to its slightly shortened development and testing time, it had a few reliability problems. It was still so reliable that it would have put any German tank to shame though. The motor, though stressed more in the M26, was the GAA, and it was solid and reliable. The very early tanks had some transmission issues, that were resolved, and some minor things like bracing the final drive housings and changing the drive sprocket configuration were the only major changes. It was never as reliable as the Sherman, but it was close enough to be adopted for use by the Army and Marines.
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 Gilbert’s, Marine Tank Battles in the Pacific, WWII Armor, Ballistics and Gunnery by Bird and Livingston, M4 Sherman tank at war by Green, the Lone Sentry, the data in the data section