US Army Sherman Tanks Were No Match For German Panther and Tiger Tanks
January 1943. “New M-4 tanks, which will soon be hurling their might against the Axis, in the Schenectady, New York, plant of the American Locomotive Company.” Photo by Howard Hollem for the Office of War Information.
To the puzzlement of military historians, the US failed to keep pace with the Germans in upgrading, up-gunning and up-armouring their tanks. By the time of the Normandy invasion, the M4 Sherman tank was no match for the German Panther tank–probably the best tank of the war–or against the massive Tiger tank and certainly not against the even more massive Royal Tiger, of which only a few were made.
Inventive as always, American tank troops added cement to the front of their tanks to increase their protection if hit. What was so horrible about tank warfare in World War Two was this: a tank fired and hit another tank in a vulnerable place such as the turret. If the round penetrated the armor into the interior of the tank, then a molten ball of steel bounced around the inside of the tank and killed most or all the crew.
Tanks were relatively easy to fix, as long as their gasoline tanks did not explode and set the tank on fire. The Americans, Germans, and British had well trained tank recovery teams which dragged disabled tanks off the battlefield, often under fire and had them in the repair shop before the shooting had stopped. Strangely, everyone used gasoline powered engines including the Germans who developed the diesel engine. Gasoline packs more punch in terms of octane per gallon than diesel but still…Gasoline is very flammable as I think we all know.
Unfortunately, tank repair teams had to remove the remains of the brave men inside the tank who had been killed. Once that melancholy task was done, it was a matter of repairing any system damage to the tank and welding an armor plate over the hole where the round had struck.
Being in the tank corps, especially in Western Europe was not a safe assignment. M4 Shermans had an unfortunate tendency to “brew up,” as the Brits said, when hit anywhere close to the gasoline tank–that is, burst into flames. Tankers had a terrible and justifiable fear of burning to death.
The men who crewed Allied tanks, especially when they knew German tanks could take them out, were very brave men indeed. However, in fairness to the US Army planners, M4 Sherman tanks were not designed to go mano y mano with German tanks.
US Army combat doctrine specified that special tank destroyers which did have heavier guns were to provide support to the infantry not the M4 Sherman tanks.
M-10 US Army tank destroyer firing near Saint Lo, June 1944.
(US Army photo)
M4 Sherman tanks were supposed to act more like cavalry by raiding the enemy’s rear areas et al. This is one of the reasons Sherman tanks could traverse their turrets and fire while moving whereas German tanks had to stop. (The Royal Tiger could not even traverse its turret. The crew had to aim by pointing the entire tank at the target). American M4s were also faster (30 plus mph) than German tanks such as the Panther (29 mph) and the Tiger (24 mph). Sherman tanks could usually make 35 or miles an hour if they had received proper maintenance.
The mph figures for German tanks are maximums and could often not be obtained because of the inferior quality of German gasoline. Nazi Germany experienced fuel shortages throughout the war which often curtailed operations or forced them into expedients such as seizing a portion of the French wine production each year and distilling it for alcohol. That alcohol was then mixed with gasoline but alcohol has a lower octane than gasoline so this lowered the quality of the fuel.
The Germans also seized the acorn harvest throughout occupied Europe since acorns can be pressed for their oil which can be mixed with gasoline. Many such expedients were used. Because the improvised fuel itself often had impurities, there were times in battle when one of the German crewmen in the tank did nothing but repeatedly clean the fuel filters so his tank would not stall.
While German tanks ran well on Allied gasoline, they wouldn’t run at all on Soviet gasoline which was only 40 octane vs 80 plus octane for American/British gasoline. While the Germans captured large amounts of Soviet gasoline, they had to ship it back to Germany in tank cars and re-refine it to add benzine to bring the octane up.
While the Soviets produced all the fuel they required, they did not have the capability of refining oil into high octane fuel. Thus during WW Two, all of their high octane fuel came from the Americans and the British shipped in tankers in perilous convoys to Russia.