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Myth Buster: The Sherman

Discussion in 'The Tanks of World War 2' started by Ricky, Mar 2, 2006.

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  1. Ricky

    Ricky Well-Known Member

    May 10, 2004
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    Luton, UK
    via TanksinWW2
    The most persistant myth about the Sherman is its vulnerability to enemy action, specifically its habit of catching fire very easily – even when not penetrated by enemy anti-tank weaponry. Known nicknames such as ‘Ronsons’ or ‘Tommy Cookers’ have helped perpetuate this story (But were these nicknames actually given? See here).

    When the M4 Sherman was first introduced to the armies of the Western Allies it was a much-heralded piece of equipment. In one package it had better armour than the British cruiser tanks, better speed than their Infantry tanks, and a bigger gun than any Western Allied – and most Axis – tanks. With the exception of the handful of Tiger I’s (and arguably the Pz.IV ‘Specials’) that the DAK received, the Sherman was without question the best all-round tank in the North African theatre. However, the Sherman did have some drawbacks, notably its tall height, which made it an easier target for German Anti-tank gunners – who had not only long perfected the art of luring Aliied armour into areas covered by anti-tank weaponry, but also possessed weapons capable of defeating even the 78mm armour on the Matilda II tank. The explosive filler in standard German anti-tank rounds meant that there was a high chance of any tank penetrated by German anti-tank shells catching fire.

    Many works will cite the fact that the M4 series used petrol (or gasoline) as fuel made them more likely to catch fire. The only issue there is that most tanks were not penetrated in the engine compartment. Furthermore, if fuel combusting was a major problem then one would imagine that the designers of the Sherman would try to solve the problem – possibly by adding armour plating to the fuel tanks.

    As it was, many early Shermans had applique armour fitted covering the ammunition stowage areas, and later models had wet stowage introduced – the only vehicle in WW2 to have this (wet stowage is a system where ammunition is stored in lockers that have a layer of water or fire-retardant liquid sandwhiched between the inner and outer surfaces of the locker. The system is still standard in all modern MBTs, and its presence in a Sherman is designated by a (w)). According to studies undertaken by the Americans, cases of Shermans catching fire after being hit decreased by 75% after the introduction of wet stowage.

    So, most fires on the Sherman tank do appear to have been down to the ammmunition being hit. So why was this such a problem for the Sherman? The answer is simple – it was not. At least, not compared to any other tank in service in WW2. Allied tanks were more prone to being shot at by enemy guns, simply because there were more Allied tanks than German tanks, and for much of the war the Germans were fighting on the defensive – and the use of an explosive filler in the common German anti-tank shells greatly increased the risk of internal fires when penetrated. Possibly the most damning nail in this particular coffin is that Belton Y Cooper - whose book 'Death Traps' is one of the most anti-Sherman works published - states several times that German anti-tank gunners would often repeatedly fire at disabled Shermans until they caught fire, thus preventing their recovery and repair.

    It should also be pointed out that later Sherman models had thicker armour and less ‘shot traps’ than the earlier examples, and thus, coupled with their wet stowage, were arguably the safest Allied tank to be in on the Western Front.

    Interestingly, there was actually a ‘Ronson Sherman’ – a Sherman fitted with a flamethrower designed and built by the Ronson Company. A few were produced and supplied to the USMC.

    The other persistant myth about the Sherman is the ‘5 Shermans to kill 1 Tiger’ statistic, where it is repeatedly stated as fact that the Allies needed to send 5 Shermans in order to kill one Tiger I.

    Again, this appears to be a myth arising from the first actions of the Sherman in North Africa, when the 75mm gun (designed to provide close support for the infantry) proved unable to penetrate the Tiger I’s armour except from the side and rear, at close range. Typical conditions in North Africa (flat and open) favoured the Tiger I, with its ability to kill the M4A1 at long range.

    By the time the two tanks met again, in Normandy, things had changed. Newer Sherman models, with thicker armour and the 76mm gun with good amour-piercing qualities, were in service (although various marks of the Sherman 75mm were still in wide-spread service). The much more ‘crowded’ terrain of Western Europe was also in the Sherman’s favour, forcing closer combat ranges, and negating the long-range advantage of the Tiger I’s gun.

    More importantly, there are few, if any, reports of a single, unsupported Tiger "cornered" by a group of unsupported Shermans on the Western front. Such an action would be most remarkable, as unsupported tanks on any side contitutes a tactical error, while unescorted tanks on both sides simultaneously represents a really bad day all round. In addition, by this point in the war the Allies had a whole host of weaponry that could knock out a Tiger, including the 76mm gun (already in service on M10 Tank Destroyers, also on later models of the Sherman), the 6dpr (57mm) gun (standard Allied Anti-tank gun, and standard gun on most British tanks), the 17pdr gun (the Allied ‘heavy’ anti-tank gun, also mounted on the Archer & Achillies Tank Destroyers, and the Challenger and Sherman Firefly tanks), the 90mm gun (mounted on the M36 Tank Destroyer and later on the M26 Pershing), bazookas, PIATs, or literally any artillery piece. And, of course, the humble mine.

    In conclusion, therefore, while the Tiger I was undoubtedly a superior tank to the M4A1, stories of large numbers of Shermans being required to knock out a single Tiger I are much exaggerated.

    It should further be noted that the Sherman / Tiger comparison is very unfair, as the Sherman is a medium tank, and the Tiger I a heavy ‘breakthrough’ tank. The Sherman was equal or superior throughout the war to its German peer – the Pz.IV.

    For discussion of this myth-buster, see this topic:

    For a discussion of the Sherman's reliability, see this topic:

    For a discussion about the 'Ronson' and 'Tommy Cooker' nicknames, see this topic:
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