A Sherman tank in action in North Africa, 1943.
Building the Sherman Tank
In 1940, in the light of the successful use of panzers in the European war, the US Army decided to start a rapid tank-building programme. Rather than adapting existing engineering plants, the President of Chrysler suggested constructing a brand new Tank Arsenal just outside Detroit, the home of the US car industry.
Adopting the mass-production techniques used for making cars, this huge new factory was, by 1942, turning out 750 tanks per month on three massive assembly lines. First came the M2 Light Tank, soon modified into the M3 Medium Tank; these were known as the Grant and the Lee. But production soon moved up to the M4 Sherman tank. It had a turret with a 360º traverse on a gyro stabiliser built by Westinghouse.
The tank had 60mm armour-plating that was sloped at the front. Early versions had different engines, but this was standardised to the rugged and reliable Ford V-8 cylinder petrol engine, giving the 32-tonne tank a maximum speed of 26mph. The main gun was a 75mm high-velocity weapon, although there were later modifications, and the British preferred to equip the tank with a 17-pounder gun.
The first Sherman tanks arrived in North Africa in time for the Battle of El Alamein (October 1942). They soon made most other Allied tanks obsolete. Sherman tanks took part in every European campaign from that point on. The armies of the Americans, British, French, and Poles, as well as the Australians and the Chinese, all used Sherman tanks. An incredible 48,000 were built, more than double the number of every type of German tank produced during the war.
The Sherman Crew
The Sherman had a crew of five. The commander was stationed in the rear of the turret, and would open the hatch to spend most of his time looking out when the tank was not under fire. The gunner was seated below and in front of the commander, and had the use of telescopic sights. The loader sat to his left, and was also the radio operator. The driver sat in the left bow of the tank. His assistant sat on the right bow, and operated the front machine-gun.
Each tank had an external radio and an internal audio loop for crew communication. Steering was by levers, which operated brakes on both sides of the tank. The closely bonded crews often lived together in their vehicle for weeks on end, and slept alongside or even under it.
Impressive though they looked, the Sherman was vulnerable to a hit from a high-velocity shell which, if it penetrated the armour, could explode or ricochet inside the steel structure causing carnage of metal and flesh. If the ammunition or fuel was ignited, a Sherman would go up in flames in an instant. The British called this ‘brewing up’. Sometimes, Shermans were called ‘Ronsons’, after the cigarette lighter that was supposed to ‘light first time’.
This information appeared in issue 55 of Military History Monthly.