The Sherman M4 Was the Little Tank that Could
The Sherman M4 tank is to World War II like roadies are to rock concerts: it did an enormous amount of work, yet it received far less recognition than it deserves. Never intended to go head-to-head with the German Mark IV Panther and Tiger tanks that it would ultimately face, the Sherman nonetheless held its own against bigger and far more capable machines. Perhaps the Sherman’s greatest feature was the speed with which American factories could turn it out. In the later years of World War II, this proved to be the decisive advantage that gave the Allies victory over the Germans and their admittedly superior battlefield armor. US military planners wanted a tank that was mechanically simple, extremely reliable, and able to serve in a variety of combat roles. The M4 fit the bill. Weighing in at just over 30 tons when loadedfor battle, it was powered by a 973 in. nine cylinder gasoline powered engine that turned out 400 horses at 2400 RPM. RELATED: See Photos of the 1970 Ford Mutt Military Vehicle The synchromesh gearbox had five forward speeds and one reverse gear. Its official top speed was 24 mph, though many GIs claimed that it could go as fast as 40 mph after a little judicious monkeying with the engine’s governor. The fuel tank held 175 gallons, giving the M4 a range of about 120 miles, which works out to an MPG rating of .7 miles to the gallon. The Sherman held a 5-man crew: a driver, machine gunner, loader, main gunner, and the tank commander. Rate of fire with the main weapon was remarkably high for a tank of its era: as many as 3 rounds per minute. The tank’s systems allowed for firing while the M4 was in motion, a distinct advantage over German armor. The Sherman could climb a 2 foot wall, cross a stream more than 3 feet deep, and cross an 8 foot wide trench. The British developed a framework for the tank that allowed it to stay afloat in open water. RELATED: See Photos of the Army NASCAR Despite these advantages, the Sherman received more than its fair share of scorn, both from the men who crewed it and from historians who point out its weaknesses, which were its paltry
66 mm 75 mm gun, light armor, and 11 foot profile. These issues did not present serious problems against the German Panzer IIIs US soldiers encountered when they first entered the war.
They became critical, however, when the Germans unleashed the Mark V Panther and Tiger tanks in later years. The M4’s cannon fired a relatively slow 2000 ft./s round that literally bounced off enemy tanks. American GIs grimly joked that the Sherman was a “suicide canister” and compared it to the Ronson, a pocket lighter renowned for its ability to easily flame up.
Fortunately, US forces were able to compensate for these shortcomings with clever battlefield tactics. One maneuver involved distracting German tank crews with a frontal infantry assault. Meanwhile, a Sherman would circle around to the enemy’s rear, which was lightly armored and highly vulnerable. A single shot would take out a Panther’s engine, disabling it and making it easy prey.
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These innovations, along with the sheer number of M4s the American military was able to field, ultimately gave the Allies the winning edge they needed to out-do their opponents. Meanwhile, in the Pacific, the Sherman easily outclassed the smaller and more lightly armed Japanese tanks.By the end of the conflict, M-4s with a high-velocity 76 mm gun and upgraded armor began to replace their battle-weary brethren.
After the war, the Sherman continued to see combat in Korea and as part of the newly formed Israeli defense forces. The Israelis made good use of the Sherman, scoring several victories with it until finally giving it a well-deserved retirement just a few years ago. A solid performer that got the job done, the M4 Sherman tank holds an illustrious place in the history of warfare.
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