Subjugated Shermans: Sherman tanks captured and used by the Nazis
Sometimes a tank crew can get spooked and bail out of a functional tank. Or a tank can be left disabled on the battlefield and be repaired by the bad guys. The Germans were so desperate for tanks they happily used any Shermans they captured, and unlike the T-34 they didn’t feel the need to modify the tank in any way. The Germans managed to capture Shermans from the Russians, UK, and Americans. The Japanese never captured an intact Sherman. I don’t think the Italians managed to capture one either.
Depending on the crew quality, little things can cause them to abandon the tank, and it seems to be a universal problem since I’ve read of just about all of the warring nations having crews bail out from fright when the tank had sustained only minor or cosmetic damage. In other cases, the tank takes real damage, like a lost track, an engine problem or a hit that took out an internal fixture, but an experienced crew might stay in the tank. The crew has a duty to destroy the tank before leaving it behind. There is a whole procedure covering how to do it, and what to destroy if you only have a short amount of time, including many methods. The methods range from blowing the tank up with special grenades to just destroying the machine guns, main gun, and radios. This is covered in FM17-67 Crew Drill and Service of the Piece Medium Tank M4 Series.
There are many reasons why a crew might not be able to destroy their tank. If the crew is killed as they bailed out or after, or captured, if they are under fire while they get out, the tank falling into enemy hands isn’t going to be on a soldier’s mind in most cases. In some cases, the green crews could panic and bailout, and not bother even checking the tank over heading for the rear, but this was not a common thing for American tank crews once North Africa was done. I’ve read of many cases of German crews just leaving the tank, hatches all open, without booby traps and walking off when their Panther inevitably broke down or ran out of gas. I’ve read cases of them bailing out after the tank was hit a few times but still technically functional. Unlike for the American and Allied tankers in General, as the war went on, German tanks, like all their troops, declined in quality, and by late 44 Tank crews got very little training in their vehicles.
The Sherman was an automotive masterpiece the Germans could only dream of producing, they were still capable of keeping them running, it was that good. A German tank mechanic would find even the A57 a breath of fresh air in ease of troubleshooting and reliability. They also liked to use the captured Shermans as ARVs, often with the turrets removed. Having a very tough powertrain and a reliable and robust motor is a very nice thing in an Armored Recovery Vehicle, and the Shermans were just that. It must have been terribly frustrating for the Germans to get a Bergepather in place to try and tow a broken down Panther, only to have it break down too!
Now onto the photos, sorry, but the Germans seem to be as bad at photography, at least of captured Shermans, as they are at tank design, so many of the images are small and blurry. The captions have been updated in great extent to the efforts of Roy Chow, who sent in a very nice comment correcting my many mistakes. Thanks again, Roy!
Most of the images for this post came from WorldWarPhotos.com and many others came from Waralbum.ru. Both excellent sources for high-resolution images from the war.
The Firefly: The Best AT Gun Installed On The Sherman, But Maybe Not The Best Overall Version Of The M4 Series.
The Sherman Firefly is often touted as the best version of the Sherman. This is a very shallow view of the tank; a tank is not just about AT performance alone. Let’s talk about the name, the Firefly was just a nickname, some say given by American testers because there was so much flash at the breach of the gun on firing, some claim it was just based on muzzle flash. Much like the Sherman naming mystery, it doesn’t really matter, it’s the commonly used name now, and if you just called them the Sherman IC, Sherman IC Hybrid, and Sherman Vc, no one but a total Sherman geek would know what the hell you were talking about. But everyone with a little Sherman history or WWII history under their belt should have heard of them called a Firefly so that’s what we will do here while explaining the nomenclature and how to identify the various models.
The Firefly came about because the British wanted to get a 17 pounder into a tank, and the homegrown ones planned to have it, were having issues. The 17 pounder, a 76mm anti-tank gun, had to be extensively redesigned to work in the Sherman 75mm turret, the AT gun versions recoil system was too long to work in a 75mm gun turret. They redesigned it, putting the recoil mechanism on both sides of the gun instead of the top. The gun was also rotated so it could be loaded from the left. The firefly version of the 17 pounder gun was specific to the Sherman gun mount and could not be used on an AT gun or vice versa.
They also had to cut a hole into the back of the turret, to mount the radios, in a new armored box, because the gun still had to recoil into the radio bustle at the back of the turret. The armored box also worked as a counterweight for the longer barrel. They also eliminated the co-drivers position and put a cast armored plug over the gun port. The co-drivers space was filled with ammo since the 17 pounder ammo was longer than the 75mm ammo it took more space. They also had to eliminate the gun stabilizer to fit the gun.
The 17 pounder gun had excellent armor penetration, in particular with APDS rounds, standing for armor piercing discarding sabot, but these rounds had very inconsistent accuracy. The problem that caused it was not worked out until after the war. At the combat ranges in the ETO and MTO, the APDS, worked ok, but the closer the better. The gun also lacked a decent HE round until after WWII ended when they came up with a system that used a smaller propellant charge for the HE rounds and a new set of marks on the tank’s sight for the lower velocity rounds.
The Firefly in a generic sense is easy to identify, you look for a 75mm gun turret, with a much longer gun with a ball-shaped muzzle brake. The turret will also have a loaders hatch and an armored box on the rear. From there, you have to look at the details, but it’s easy enough.
Sherman Ic Firefly: The Rarest Firefly
This is the Firefly based on the Sherman I or the M4. The lower case C after the Roman numeral designates the tank is armed with a 17 pounder. An M4 is a welded hull tank powered by an R975, so you look for the grate free engine deck, with the big armored flap covering an air intake. Or, if the tank is welded, and does not have large spaces between the bogie assemblies, then it’s an Ic Firefly.
Sherman IC composite hull firefly: The Second Rarest And Most Comfortable
This version is based on the M4 composite hull; the version had a cast front hull, and a welded rear hull. It looks almost like an M4A1, but the rear and sides of the tank are all flat surfaces, just like a regular M4, the other difference is these tanks had the improved large hatch hull. They would be the most comfortable version of the Firefly for the driver. These tanks were probably the last firefly’s built as well since the composite hull tanks were some of the last 75mm Shermans produced. The British were not given any of the 75mm M4A3 tanks so none were converted. One final advantage to this version from an ease of conversion point of view is the composite hull tanks came with a loaders hatch already built in, so it saved time because they didn’t have to cut and fit one. Some of these tanks also had all around vision cupolas, so it’s possible a few made it onto fireflies.
Sherman Vc Firefly: The Version Powered By The A57 Motor, and Also the Most Common Firefly, But The Motor Makes It The Coolest.
This version was based on the M4A4. These tanks are the “long hull” Shermans with the wide gaps between the bogie assemblies, and it has the distinctive bulges to the engine deck and lower hull. These hull features, with a firefly turret and gun, is more than enough to identify it as Vc. This Firefly type was powered by the mighty A57 multibank. The Wiki on the Firefly is trash; don’t go crawling around trying to see if the lower hull has rivets when most of the M4A4 production run had welded lower hulls. This may have only been a dubious way to identify an M3A4, you know if you missed it being almost a foot longer with huge gaps between the wheelsets and the bulges on the top and bottom.
This was the most common version of the Firefly since it was the Brits most numerous lend-lease Sherman. They got refurbished training A4s from the US and took as many of these them as they could because the production of 75mm Shermans had been drastically cut back and production of the M4A4 had been suspended.
Demand for the Firefly dropped off late in the war. They had produced enough that just about all the commonwealth nations the British supported received them. The Brits were able to put two Fireflies into most of their tank platoons, just as German armor became so scarce they didn’t really need them. By the end months of the war, the Firefly may have been more of a liability, than useful.
If you compare the Firefly to the upgraded M4A1 76w, you will see it really isn’t the best Sherman by any measure but raw gun penetration. We’ll use the composite hull Ic in the comparison since the same motor powered these tanks, and the composite hull had a very large casting for its front hull, making this as close to a second gen Sherman as the Firefly could get. Yet the composite hull tanks were produced early enough, they did not get wet ammo racks. They did get the armored ammo racks, but they really only offered protection against fragments lighting the ammo off.
This fix did not work nearly as well as the wet ammo racks on the M4A1 76, and other fully second gen Sherman tanks got. The main advantage was having the ammo lower in the tank, below the bottom of the sponsors, and encasing it in water jackets. It was found the most benefit came from the change in location, and the liquid part was discontinued post-war. The wet ammo rack second gen Shermans were amongst the safest WWII tanks to be a crewman on.
Now on to the turrets, the M4A1 76 tank has the improved T23 turret. These turrets came with the all-around vision cupola, a loaders hatch, and the 76 M1A1 gun, with a 30cal co-ax. The turret was designed around the gun, and was nice and roomy, offering relative comfort and ease of movement to the crew, allowing the gun to maintain the 20 round a minute rate of fire the 75mm gun had. It had better armor than the 75mm turret. The fireflies all used a modified 75mm gun turret, and even after redesigning the gun, the 17 pounder took up a lot of space and recoiled into the bustle, where the radio used to be. This made for a cramped turret, and a slower reload time. The T23 turret is better, and it’s a shame the Brits would have had to redesign the 17 pounder gun again to fit one into it.
At first glance, most people when they compare the M1A1 gun and the 17 pounder conclude the 17 pounder is ‘better’ based on its armor pen. This doesn’t take into account the other factors that make a good tank gun. In WWII, tanks faced other threats far more often than tanks. For the forces facing the United States in particular, tanks were never overly common and got rarer as the war went on. What Shermans faced most often, and what killed them most often was AT guns and infantry with AT sticks. The 17 pounders lack of HE round during the war, along with its lack of a bow machine gun, really hindered the Firefly in the infantry support role. The M1A1 didn’t have the best HE performance, but it was still adequate. It had enough AT performance to handle the PIV, Stugs and various TDs it would face. Including the cats, the M1A1 did not have the best balance of AT/HE performance, but it would get the job done, and as the war came to a close HVAP ammo, that really helped the guns AT performance, become increasingly available. The M1A1 also had a very big performance lead in rate of fire; double that of the 17 pounder.
When you take all these factors, it is clear the 76mm T23 turreted second gen M4A1, A2 and 3s were all better tanks than the Firefly, of any model. The reasons for this are the second gen Shermans all had wet ammo racks, and along with all the other minor improvements that came with the second gen Shermans. The 17 pounder gun would eventually get a good HE round, but not during the war, so the dual purpose us M1A1 gun is clearly a better choice for a general use medium tank.
I won’t go so far as to say the British should not have produced them. Since the Brits faced the majority of the German heavy armor in Normandy, a pure AT tank was more useful for them, and that’s why they built them. I’ve read in more than one place that the Germans always tried to kill off the fireflies first, and the firefly units used a cool paint scheme on the gun barrel to make it seem shorter to help hide the fireflies, but I’ve never seen it confirmed from the German side. These tanks were potent enough, killing the famous Nazi tank “Ace” Michael, the Nazi punk, Whitman, when he foolishly trundled by himself into their guns.
I find it amusing the most mechanically complicated Sherman was turned into the best pure AT Sherman by the Brits and was still more reliable than any Nazi tank. It may be a tad overrated, but it did exactly what it was designed to do, without compromising the reliability of its base platform. That makes it a smashing success and it gave the Brits a capability their American cousins lacked until much later in the war. It did so well, the Brits offered to convert some, and there was an abortive program that petered out because army ordinance thought the M1 gun would be good enough. During bulge hoopla, the program was revived, but this was short-lived, and none of the American Firefly tanks were issued to troops.
Sources: Armored Thunderbolt by Zaloga, Sherman by Hunnicutt, various Chieftains Hatch posts, The Sherman Minutia Site, M4 Sherman tank at War by Green, WWII Armor, Ballistics and Gunnery by Bird and Livingston
Shermans Of the United Kingdom: Or, Let’s Confuse People Even More With An Odd Designation Systems!
The British took the Lee and Sherman into combat for the first time and they offered a lot of input into both tanks design. They even had a specific version of the Lee never used by US troops the M3A5 Grant. The Sherman and Lee tanks saved their bacon at El Alamein. As we saw in an earlier section of this document, the US produced a lot of Sherman tanks, and the British received more than 17,000 Shermans. It would become the backbone of their tank force and remain so until the end of the war. The British had a unique way of using tanks and preferred to send them into battle without direct infantry support. This coupled with their tendency to stuff every nook and cranny of the tank with ammo resulting in much higher Sherman losses than the US Army did.
They came up with their own naming system for the tank:
The M4 was named the Sherman I in Commonwealth use, if it had a 105mm gun it was an Ib if it also had HVSS it was an Iby. The British received 2096 75mm Sherman Is, and an additional 593 105 armed Ib tanks, or M4 105 tanks. These numbers are not broken down further into submodels, so all the Ic Firefly tanks produced came from 2096 they received, and this number would include the composite hulls too. This version was the preferred US Army version, and many of the ones the Brits received came as replacements stripped from US Tank Divisions before the battle of El Alamein. They became much rarer because the US sent M4A2 and M4A4s as replacements.
The M4A1 was named the Sherman II and in most cases just that. It wasn’t until late in the war the Brits took some M4A1s with 76mm guns, and those they gave to the poles or other commonwealth allies. An M4A1 76 would be called a Sherman IIa, or an IIay for an M4A1 76 HVSS tank. These M4A1 76 HVSS tanks made it to depots in Europe during or just after the war ended, but none saw combat. The M4A1 was also the US Army’s preferred version because it was basically the same tank as the M4, and the Brits only received 942 75mm M4A1 Shermans. Something I found a bit of a surprise, the British received more M4A1 76 w tanks than 75mm tanks, 1330 total.
M4A2 was named the Sherman III and this was their second most common Sherman type. They received 5041 M4A2 75mm Sherman IIIs, far more than the Soviets got. They also received 5, M4A2 76 W or Sherman IIIa tanks as well, yes, that’s not a typo, five tanks. I wonder if the M4A2 76 HVSS or Sherman IIIaytank used in Fury was one of them?
M4A3 was named the Sherman IV in British use, but they only received 7 seventy five millimeter tanks and no 76mm tanks of this type. This became the US Army’s preferred model, and once they got it in numbers, they probably started sending more M4 and M4A1s to the Brits after this tank became common.
M4A4 was named the Sherman V in British use, and was by far the most common British Sherman; they received 7167 M4A4s, or Sherman Vs, almost the whole production run. Chrysler really went to bat for this version of the tank and sent tech reps to Europe with the tanks to help manage the complicated, but less trouble than anyone could have expected, motors. There were no subtypes of the Sherman IV other than the Firefly since it was never produced with a 76mm gun or HVSS suspension. The Sherman Vc was the most common version of the 17 pounder Shermans, and a wide variety was probably converted to fireflies, and many of the A4s they got later in the war had been through a remanufacturing process, that made sure the tanks had turrets updated with all the late improvements, and all the hull upgrades like armored ammo racks and raised arm rollers and improved skids, along with a travel lock, on the front plate, for the gun.
The British had their own set of modifications for the Sherman that they received through LL. They added sand skirts, racks for jerry cans, and an armored box on the back of the turret in some cases. They installed their own radios as well, the British wireless set no 19, and this went into the armored box in the back of the turret on Firefly’s, or just replaced the US radios in their normal location in regular models. Legend has it they installed some sort of stove to cook tea. The only Sherman Mk I and Mk IIs they got was because Churchill practically begged Roosevelt for more Shermans just before El Alamein.
As the war progressed, the US Army put a priority on the M4 and M4A1; the British had to settle for M4A2 and the M4A4. Then when the Russians refused to take any Shermans but M4A2s, the Brits really had to rely on M4A4s. From what I’ve read they didn’t want the nightmare that everyone feared the A57 Multibank motor to be, in service it proved to be reliable enough, and more so than its British counterparts. The M4A4 was by far the most common Sherman type, and the Brits like them enough they took a batch of refurbished M4A4 and would have taken more if production hadn’t been stopped.
This presented a problem for the British, they did not like the M1A1 gun, and the T23 would not take the 17-pounder without major modifications to the gun or turret. The US did end production of 75mm tanks and when stocks of 75mm gun tanks ran low, they were forced to take M4A1 76 tanks these tanks would be designated Sherman IIB. The British sent most of the IIBs to their forces in the MTO or gave them to the Poles.
Sources: Armored Thunderbolt by Zaloga, Sherman by Hunnicutt, The Sherman Tank in British Service 1942-45 by John Sanders