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Book Review: Armored Thunderbolt: The U.S. Army Sherman in World War II


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#1 JCFalkenbergIII

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Posted 02 March 2009 - 10:15 PM

Book Review: Armored Thunderbolt: The U.S. Army Sherman in World War II

Zaloga's comprehensive knowledge makes this book one of those rare “should not be missed” volumes that come along from time to time.


Book Author: Steven Zaloga
Publisher: Stackpole Books
Reviewing Author: Doug McLean
The M4 Sherman medium tank occupied a special place in the tank forces of the western allies. Remarkable US production allowed this tank to be not only the mainstay of the US Army, but also the British Army and all the commonwealth and Allied forces that fought under the British. The result was that Sherman tanks were a main element of all battles between the western allies and the Germans in the second half of the war – from late 1942 on. This widespread presence on the battlefield ensured the Sherman a prominent place in history. Whether that place should be as a war winner or as a deathtrap, however, has been disputed many times over the years.
Steven Zaloga knows his subject, and is a prolific author of technical histories. His comprehensive knowledge makes this book one of those rare “should not be missed” volumes that come along from time to time. He addresses the problem of whether the Sherman was a war winner or a deathtrap by covering the development of US tank policy from its origins in the First World War through its rapid development in the early part of the Second World War and uneven success as the war progressed to its conclusion. While covering tank development he provides snapshots of the key institutions and individuals involved in the process, as well as the evolution of tank and anti-tank doctrine. Finally, the actual evolution and use of the Sherman in all theatres is covered. The hundreds of photographs supplement the concise prose perfectly – the author has expertly selected them to illustrate all the many, many points he makes as he progresses to his conclusion.
The arguments Zaloga makes are notable not only for their persuasiveness, but for the broad perspective he employs. He is well aware that many readers of his book will be knowledgeable regarding various technical aspects of the Sherman. Consequently, he goes beyond the data to explain why certain factors resulted in the problems or virtues that are often well known, if not well understood. For example, the propensity of early Shermans to burn when hit by anti-tank fire is often attributed to the tank’s gasoline driven engine. Zaloga explains the real problem – ammunition stowage – thoroughly, and then goes on to describe the various measures that were taken to minimize the risk of fire, which ultimately did reduce the problem substantially. He also notes that all tanks risked fire when penetrated, even the gasoline driven German ones such as the Pz IV, providing statistics that back his arguments up well.
This is a minor example and focuses on one narrow technical aspect of the Sherman. A better example of the breadth of Zaloga’s approach might be the way in which he addresses the development of US operational doctrine during the war. He notes that the US Army Air Force was extensively resourced as part of a deliberate policy to ensure air superiority by US ground forces, and that German complaints about their inability to operate effectively because of constant interference by ‘jabos’ (fighter bombers) fails to grasp that the US Army deliberately set out to make their life difficult in this way. This argument is probably not all that revolutionary, but I was surprised by one little fact that he brought out to indicate just how significantly aviation was resourced as compared to tanks by the US Army – approximately six times as much was spent on aircraft as on tanks (36 Billion as compared to 6 Billion). Insights such as this are throughout the book, making it a very interesting read for even those reasonably well versed in the history of the Second World War.
The general conclusion – that the Sherman was a very successful armored fighting vehicle that had problems when engaging German tanks in the second half of 1944 and in 1945 – is hardly surprising. However, the book provides an excellent explanation of ALL the strengths and weaknesses of this tank, as well as the reason these conditions came to exist. This makes the book more nuanced than some will appreciate, perhaps, but it makes the book a very worthwhile read for those who wish to understand this tank – and the war as a whole – better.
One of the author’s decisions may not please academic readers, although general readers will probably neither care nor notice. There are essentially no references in the text, aside from the identification of quoted individuals. The author provides a good bibliographic essay that would assist those seeking to replicate his research, but precise indication of his references will not be found anywhere. Photo credits are also a little loose, with non-credited photos coming from the US Army, while credited photos having a more specific source, although seldom specific enough for the photo in question to be found without a lot of effort on the part of a researcher. As the bibliographic essay makes clear, there are vast amounts of material on this topic in various archives, principally NARA. This book does not provide researchers with much direct assistance. However, since the vast majority of readers will take Zaloga at his word – and he is clearly very knowledgeable – this issue will not matter in most cases.
There have been many books discussing the Sherman since the end of the Second World War. This one volume is as good a summary of all aspects of this tank as can be found anywhere, and has photos that are the best cross-section of any in print, period. Those with any interest in this tank are recommended to get this book.

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