The M4 Sherman, Part 2

In this post, I am going to discuss the British Sherman Firefly. And to tell you about that, first I need to tell you some things about some other tanks, the Crusader, the Panzer IV, and the M3 Lee/Grant.

A Panzer IV E of the Afrika Korps. Later models would feature an upgraded, larger 75mm cannon with superior performance. The short 75 was still a powerful gun, however.

A Panzer IV E of the Afrika Korps. Later models would feature an upgraded, larger 75mm cannon with superior performance. The short 75 was still a powerful gun, however.

 

The Crusader was an excellent tank, certainly, but it was unprepared to face off against Germany’s new main battle tank, the Panzer IV. The Panzer IV had better armor, better performance, and an armament that had a drastically superior effective range against the Crusader than the Crusader’s main gun did against the Panzer IV. Even the later models of the Crusader, which mounted a much more powerful cannon, still stood little chance against an aggressive and aware Panzer.

A Crusader Mk III, with 57mm cannon.

A Crusader Mk III, with 57mm cannon.

The M3 Lee and Grant tanks were some of the first to mount a cannon which could reliably engage Panzers. There is little practical difference between the “Lee” and “Grant” variations, and mostly consisted of slightly different turret construction.

The M3 Lee. My understanding is that the commander's cupola on top of the 37mm turret could rotate independent of the turret, to an extent. Also note the cast, rather than welded or bolted hull.

The M3 Lee. My understanding is that the commander's cupola on top of the 37mm turret could rotate independent of the turret, to an extent. Also note the cast, rather than welded or bolted hull.

They were somewhat unusual tanks, featuring a full range 37mm light cannon turret on top of the hull like a normal tank (though this was the time at which engineers were settling on what the future would even call a “normal” tank.) However, mounted on the front of the hull and off to the side was a much larger cannon. Interestingly, while they did not have similar ammunition, this new gun shared a round diameter of 75mm with the main gun of the Panzer IV. The M3 was far better armored than the Crusader, and the hull cannon could engage a Panzer IV reliably at the same distances a Panzer IV could engage the M3.

The M3 Grant. Note the heavier top turret with no command cupola. Note the different hull construction. Some Lee variants had this hull, as well.

The M3 Grant. Note the heavier top turret with no command cupola. Note the different hull construction. Some Lee variants had this hull, as well.

The Grant/Lee, however, was only in production for a short time, as they were intended to be an intermediary measure leading up to the M4 Sherman. After the introduction of more capable British and American tanks, most M3s were moved to the Pacific front to act as infantry support tanks.

The British used a slightly different nomenclature for the base Sherman variants. The M4 was the Sherman Mk. I. The M4A1 was the Mk II, the A2 was the Mk III, and so on and so forth.

This brings us to the Sherman Firefly. By 1943, the North African front was plagued by Germany’s feared, respected final boss of the battlefield, the Panzer VI Tiger. The Tiger outgunned anything the allies could throw its way, and was heavily armored enough to easily survive most tank-on-tank engagements.

Tiger 131. It was captured by the British in North Africa and brought back to England in secret. Nowadays, it stars in movies.

Tiger 131. It was captured by the British in North Africa and brought back to England in secret. Nowadays, it stars in movies.

The Tiger was not completely invulnerable, however. The British responded to it with the 76.2mm 17-Pounder cannon. This heavy gun could penetrate even the thick front armor of the Tiger, from over a kilometer away.

Vaguely phallic, highly effective.

Vaguely phallic, highly effective.

The next issue, of course, was mounting the massive thing on a tank. The Cromwell, Britain’s main tank in 1943, simply couldn’t fit it, so they turned to the Sherman.

Cromwell, I charge thee. Cast away ambition. Aww... don't be sad. We love you anyways, even if you can't carry the 17-pounder.

Cromwell, I charge thee. Cast away ambition. Aww... don't be sad. We love you anyways, even if you can't carry the 17-pounder.

Even then, few involved in the project were convinced that the Sherman could mount the 17-Pounder, any more than the Cromwell. An engineer by the excellent name of Kilbourn, who worked for Vickers, managed this difficult feat, and spectacularly. He designed a breech and recoil system that would let the massive gun be mounted on a Sherman turret, possibly with the assistance of black magic. Of course, to make the design work, he had to remove a crewmember position entirely, and rearrange most of the secondary equipment such as the radio, to fit even his condensed 17-pounder turret.

Once again, all of these in-profile renditions are brought to you by http://www.tanks-encyclopedia.com

Once again, all of these in-profile renditions are brought to you by http://www.tanks-encyclopedia.com

 

Once fielded, the Firefly became just the monster needed to fight the Tiger and Panther tanks. It could engage and destroy both from over a kilometer. Once a Firefly started putting rounds out, German armor had little opportunity to retaliate.

The Firefly had problems, of course. Some of them are very Britishly summarized by Ken Tout of the 1st Northamptonshire Yeomanry:

“The Firefly tank is an ordinary Sherman but, in order to accommodate the immense breech of the 17-pounder and to store its massive shells, the co-driver has been eliminated and his little den has been used as storage space. ... The flash is so brilliant that both gunner and commander need to blink at the moment of firing. Otherwise they will be blinded for so long that they will not see the shot hit the target. The muzzle flash spurts out so much flame that, after a shot or two, the hedge or undergrowth in front of the tank is likely to start burning. When moving, the gun's overlap in front or, if traversed, to the side is so long that driver, gunner and commander have to be constantly alert to avoid wrapping the barrel around some apparently distant tree, defenceless lamp-post or inoffensive house.”

Ken Tout, author of numerous works, including A Fine Night for Tanks.

Ken Tout, author of numerous works, including A Fine Night for Tanks.

 

German units quickly made any Firefly tanks their priority targets. An interesting way of disguising a Firefly among other Shermans was devised because of this. The front half of the cannon was painted with a wavy pale pattern on the lower part of the cannon, which masked the distinctive appearance of the 17-pounder cannon to distant observers.

Thanks to the camouflaged barrel, not even this man and his kids realize the impending danger to their Panzer division.

Thanks to the camouflaged barrel, not even this man and his kids realize the impending danger to their Panzer division.

We’ll see the Firefly again in a later post, when I discuss the different types of ammo used by tanks in WWII (and present day).

From here, we will move on to the more irregular applications of the Sherman.

The M4 Sherman, Part 1

The US military has a reputation for making their equipment last a very, very long time. The A10 Thunderbolt II was first introduced in 1977. As of the time of me writing this, 2016, it is expected to stay in Air Force service until 2040. Since its introduction, the most significant change of any kind to the A10 has been the addition of enhanced avionics and a targeting system.

A lot of people say this plane is ugly. They are wrong.

A lot of people say this plane is ugly. They are wrong.

 

Both the M1 Abrams tank and M3 Bradley Armored Fighting Vehicle were introduced in 1980 and 81 respectively. They show no signs of being phased out within the next decade.

 

My point is that we get a lot of damn use out of our equipment. Far more than other nations, which undergo significant military modernizations every decade or so. And yet, US equipment remains some of the best in the world.

 

Before the Thunderbolt II, before the Abrams, before all that, was the trend setter: The M4 Sherman tank.

You may recall this from my previous entry. This is a Sherman from the 761st tank battalion, crossing a bridge.

You may recall this from my previous entry. This is a Sherman from the 761st tank battalion, crossing a bridge.

I can’t say that the Sherman was the greatest tank of World War II. That title goes to either the Panzer V Panther, or the USSR’s T-34. I can, however, say that the Sherman was easily the most versatile tank of the war.

So you can scoop while you scope and shove while you shoot.

So you can scoop while you scope and shove while you shoot.

 

Most tanks had a singular role. Light tanks like the M22 Locust were primarily used as fire support for foot soldiers (and occasionally rolling cover).

The M22 Locust, a good example of a light tank.

The M22 Locust, a good example of a light tank.

Medium, or Main tanks, like the T-34 and Panzer IV, were armored fighting vehicles used as weapon platforms for use against enemy infantry, fortifications, and other tanks.

A T-34-85. It mounted a bigger cannon than the average T34, but you can get a good sense of scale here.

A T-34-85. It mounted a bigger cannon than the average T34, but you can get a good sense of scale here.

 

Heavy tanks, like the Tiger and IS-2, were functionally mobile fortifications, able to endure direct engagement with other tanks and fixed positions in either an attacking or defending capacity, and usually mounting a heavier cannon than its smaller peers.

Tiger 131. Captured by the British in WWII and moved back to England in total secrecy. It stars in the movie  Fury . No, really.

Tiger 131. Captured by the British in WWII and moved back to England in total secrecy. It stars in the movie Fury. No, really.

There are other classes of armored fighting vehicles, but we’ll stick with those basic 3 for now.

 

The Sherman was an oddity. Its main function was that of a main battle tank, but it rapidly became so much more. By the end of the war, the Sherman had been used as a main battle tank, a tank destroyer, a flamethrower system, a rocket launcher assembly, a recovery vehicle, an amphibious recovery vehicle, an amphibious tank, a modular bridge system, a heavy tank, a bulldozer, and a mine flail.

Sherman BARV Beach Armored Recovery Vehicle. Amphibious.

Sherman BARV Beach Armored Recovery Vehicle. Amphibious.

 

What’s a mine flail? It’s the craziest, yet most effective way to clear a mine field. I’m not joking.

 

Furthermore, a combination of lend-lease and practicality made the M4 Sherman a contender for the World War II tank used by the most nations at once. Even after the war, various models of it saw use in Korea and Israel.

 

During World War II, there were several base models of the Sherman produced, around which all those various uses were further developed. I’ll frame my explanation of the different production variants around the designations (M4A#, 75 or 76 or 105, VVSS or HVSS, W or non-W, Assault kit). All models were used from the time of their introduction to the end of the war and beyond.

The M4 was the first production model, and all the first batches were delivered to Britain through Lend-Lease. This first model’s hull was built from cast-plate panels, with the plates bolted together from the inside. This would be among the first things changed in later models. For simplicity, I’ll just cover the American models and sub-variants, and save the lend-lease and irregular models for a second post.

M4. Thanks to http://www.tanks-encyclopedia.com

M4. Thanks to http://www.tanks-encyclopedia.com

The M4A1 was the first advancement, and the most immediate noticeable change was the hull. It was now constructed from a single cast piece of rolled composite steel. In addition, it was powered by a modernized engine compared to the M4.

M4A1. Thanks to http://www.tanks-encyclopedia.com

M4A1. Thanks to http://www.tanks-encyclopedia.com

The M4A2 was built with a welded, rather than cast hull. The rear section of the hull, around the engine, was notably different from previous models. The engine itself was now a diesel-powered engine built by General Motors. Diesel was the preferred fuel on the pacific front, owing to a lack of other readily available fuels for ground vehicles.

M4A2(76)W HVSS. Thanks to http://www.tanks-encyclopedia.com

M4A2(76)W HVSS. Thanks to http://www.tanks-encyclopedia.com

The M4A3 featured a new liquid-cooled engine, and special armor augments around various internal components.

M4A3. Thanks to http://www.tanks-encyclopedia.com

M4A3. Thanks to http://www.tanks-encyclopedia.com

After the base designation, there is often a number contained in parentheses. This number indicates the type of cannon mounted on the tank. (75) was a 75mm cannon , firing the 75x350mm cannon ammunition. [Most of the above images show the 75mm cannon]

(76) was the improved 76mm cannon, which had better ballistic and armor piercing performance than the 75. I can’t find the ammo dimensions for the 76, and that’s kind of bothering me. [The M4A2 above is mounting a 76mm]

 (105) indicated a tank that had its cannon replaced with a 105mm howitzer. Most 105mm mounted Shermans were intended for direct infantry support and mobile artillery operations, rather than full tank operations.

M4 with 105mm Howitzer and HVSS. Thanks to http://www.tanks-encyclopedia.com

M4 with 105mm Howitzer and HVSS. Thanks to http://www.tanks-encyclopedia.com

 

VVSS or HVSS indicated either Vertical Volute Spring System or Horizontal Volute Spring System.

VVSS was the more common type of suspension, but it wasn’t always as reliable as crews would have liked. It provided steadfastly mediocre stability, and occasionally got tanks into trouble they couldn’t maneuver out of, like mud, and anywhere else where traction was sparse.

HVSS was not all *that* much different, but was better at weight distribution and stability while the tank was moving.

 

A W in the designation indicated Wet Stowage. This requires me to explain something about Germany’s guns first.

The most common round used by German tanks and field guns was thePzgr (panzergrenate). This was an armor piercing high explosive round. Basically, the Pzgr was a hard metal casing designed to go through armor, surrounding a fuse and explosives. After hitting a solid enough target, the fuse activated after a millisecond delay and detonated the round. The delay was such that there was very little time between a successful penetration and the detonation, and would ideally detonate the round in the middle of the target’s hull. A penetrating hit from a panzergrenate was devastating. If such a round were to pierce a Sherman by the ammo rack, it stood a good chance of igniting the ammunition being stored there, setting off a chain reaction and completely destroying the tank and anyone in or around it.

Thanks to MI5 or the OSS.

Thanks to MI5 or the OSS.

To prevent this, some Shermans were outfitted with Wet Stowage. A special casing was built around the ammo rack and filled with water. If a round penetrated the rack, it would flood the ammo with water, rendering it inert, even when the Pzgr detonated.

Finally, the Assault Kit. Though no one often called it that. Some Sherman tanks were outfitted with a secondary layer of armor around the hull and turret. These M4s were generally classed as “Jumbo” Shermans, and had E# after the M4 in their designation (M4A3E#). This augmented armor kit allowed a Sherman to withstand a direct frontal hit from a German 88mm cannon, the main gun of the feared and respected Tiger tank.

M4A3E2. Note how the ball turret in the hull appears "shrouded" by the armor plate. Thanks to http://www.tanks-encyclopedia.com

M4A3E2. Note how the ball turret in the hull appears "shrouded" by the armor plate. Thanks to http://www.tanks-encyclopedia.com

 

Just to give an example of how one of these Sherman’s full designations would go. An M4A3 with wet stowage and a 76mm cannon, as well as a Horizontal Volute Spring Suspension, would be designated M4A3E2 (76) W HVSS. It looks complex, but it’s just made up of a standard set of indicators.

 

I’ll go into the more unusual and lend-lease variant Shermans in my next post.

Ruben Rivers of the 761st

I realized the other day that October is Black History Month. Well, except it isn’t. Black History month was back in February. But it’s Black History Month in Europe. Look it up. Personally, I think black people and black history are important year-round, but society seems to disagree. Why else would they dedicate a month explicitly to it except if they wanted to get it over with quickly? In any event, I’ve apparently started studying a particular piece of black history right around the turn of the month, so maybe it’s…. magic?

Because of racism, it took us ages to discover how good blacks looked in the Army dress uniform. Here's Rivers, highlighting my point.

Because of racism, it took us ages to discover how good blacks looked in the Army dress uniform. Here's Rivers, highlighting my point.

 

 

Anyways, today’s post is about Staff Sergeant Ruben Rivers of the 761st tank battalion. In November of 1944, Ruben found himself in France, commanding an M4 Sherman against Wehrmacht emplacements and armor. An antitank mine wounded Rivers’ leg when his tank drove over it on November 16th. Undeterred, Rivers rejected attempts to pull him from combat and continued his command. By November 19th, the leg had gone from wounded to infected, and yet Rivers still refused treatment.

A Sherman tank crewed by the 761st tank batallion, A Company. Taken November 9th, 1944, near the Seille. I don't think it's Rivers' tank, but it's from the same assignment. I'm pretty sure It's an M4A3 model with 76mm turret. No assault kit, though, since you can see the chassis MG isn't shrouded.

A Sherman tank crewed by the 761st tank batallion, A Company. Taken November 9th, 1944, near the Seille. I don't think it's Rivers' tank, but it's from the same assignment. I'm pretty sure It's an M4A3 model with 76mm turret. No assault kit, though, since you can see the chassis MG isn't shrouded.

 

While leading an armored advance on a town near Bougaltroff, Able company (which Rivers was leading) was engaged by Wehrmacht Jagdtigers. The Jagdtiger was a tank destroyer that featured a chassis mounted 128mm cannon. The cannon fired explosive or armor piercing explosive rounds that weighed in at just under 30 kilograms. All of this was built into a reinforced Tiger II chassis, making the Jagdtiger (when it worked) a fire breathing demon from hell.

The gunner and loader could stand up (relatively) comfortably at their positions, and the rounds were so heavy, the propellant had to be loaded separate from the warhead.

Rivers was ordered to fall back, and responded with “I see them! We’ll fight ‘em!”, he promptly charged the anti-tank position and engaged, giving the rest of A company enough time to pull back without falling under the Jagdtiger’s guns. Luck finally caught up with Rivers, however, and a Jagdtiger targeted his Sherman, prompting him to order full reverse. Too late however, two rounds sheared off the top half of his tank, killing him and injuring the rest of the crew.

Rivers would (very posthumously, 1997) receive the Congressional Medal of Honor, if not for his success against everything but Jagdtigers, then figuring out how to fit his massive goddamn balls into the commander’s hatch. The Citation is as follows:

For extraordinary heroism in action during the 15-19 November 1944, toward Guebling, France. Though severely wounded in the leg, Sergeant Rivers refused medical treatment and evacuation, took command of another tank, and advanced with his company in Guebling the next day. Repeatedly refusing evacuation, Sergeant Rivers continued to direct his tank's fire at enemy positions through the morning of 19 November 1944. At dawn, Company A's tanks began to advance towards Bougaktroff, but were stopped by enemy fire. Sergeant Rivers, joined by another tank, opened fire on the enemy tanks, covering company A as they withdrew. While doing so, Sergeant River's tank was hit, killing him and wounding the crew. Staff Sergeant Rivers' fighting spirit and daring leadership were an inspiration to his unit and exemplify the highest traditions of military service.”

Grace Rivers accepting her brother's posthumous Medal of Honor, awarded by the actually respectable half of the Clintons.

Grace Rivers accepting her brother's posthumous Medal of Honor, awarded by the actually respectable half of the Clintons.

Grave markers are too modest for some people. "Yeah, here's Rivers. Medal of Honor, beat down racism at home and abroad. Tank commander. The usual." Still, you'll notice none of his neighbors get a rad star at the top.

Grave markers are too modest for some people. "Yeah, here's Rivers. Medal of Honor, beat down racism at home and abroad. Tank commander. The usual." Still, you'll notice none of his neighbors get a rad star at the top.

Thanks to 761st.com for images directly pertaining to Rivers.

Patton and his Black Tankers

I’ve never felt that we as a society have done a good job at tackling the issue of racism. We always seem to fall into one of two extremes, a call for segregation, or a level of enforced integration that’s outright obsessive or weird. Personally, I find skin color to be a rather secondary characteristic when I evaluate my fellow man. But this article isn’t about me.

 

My thesis is simple. Through the interactions of a General George S Patton, Jr, and the 761st Tank Battalion, I believe there is an important lesson in dealing with racial issues that we all too often overlook in our rush for an absolute 100 percent instant solution.

 

Patton was open and unapologetic in his prejudices. One might even say he was honest about it. In a letter to his wife, written from the North African front of World War II, he stated that “The black man does not belong on the modern battlefield.”

 

Ironically enough, when he put out a call for the best available reinforcement tankers to bolster his forces, he received the Black Panthers, the 761st tank battalion. The army was still segregated, and this battalion consisted almost exclusively of black tankers. Patton responded with a wire to Allied Command, stating “I asked for men, you sent me blacks.”

 

However, as the 761st started active combat, a most interesting thing happened. Patton lightened up with his prejudice. In a speech he gave directly to the 761st:

“Men, you’re the first Negro tankers to ever fight in the American Army. I would never have asked for you if you weren’t good. I don’t care what color you are, so long as you go up there and kill those Germans.”

Perhaps he was just making the best of something he considered annoying. But perhaps one of the most stubborn human beings who ever lived actually managed to change his mind. Also of interest is that bits of the speech quoted above were worked into the speech at the start of George C Scott’s Patton.

 

Most retired members of the 761st seemed to remember Patton as being somewhat distant. He never talked down to them, and treated them with the same casual abuse he did anyone else. I have a theory as to a possible lesson here. And that’s that no matter who the subject is, the most effective cure for racism has nothing to do with enforcing equality or segregation. The solution is casual association. I think that after watching the 761st’s (stellar, objectively speaking) combat performance, Patton shelved his prejudices and regarded them as any other people under his command.

In addition, there was at least one occasion where Patton discovered an intrinsic tactical advantage in the black soldiers under his command. I’ll warn you now, this idea is going to look ludicrous by modern standards.

 

According to an account from Floyd Dade Jr of the 761st:

During the Battle of the Bulge, Patton settled on a rather ingenious, if a bit offensive, way to counter German saboteurs.

“Back to Patton again—skipping over a lot—going back down to the Bulge, when the Germans had kept a lot of our soldiers and equipment, they dressed the German soldiers up in American uniforms. They would get on these checkpoints directing the traffic, telling you which way to go, this highway and that way. Where the fighting is this way, and this way they're all done. But they would send the guys down that way, and they would ambush them when they come down. They told Patton about that. "George, man, they got us tricked. They are sending the troops the wrong way." Patton said, "That's no problem. Put a black on there. And if the son of a bitch 'aint black, shoot him." So he solved that problem real quick. They started getting those trucking companies and sending up some black MPs. They put them on the check points. But they did it for a couple of days, and it worked. Going the wrong way. A lot of you heard about that gasoline dump, when the Germans ran out of gasoline. They were trying to get to our depot.”

 

“So they got troops dressed up as Americans on all of these checkpoints.” Patton said, "Put one of them niggers up there, that's one thing they don't have. If he's not black, shoot the son of a bitch."

 

Well, that’s a very Patton solution, and a very Patton way of putting it. But it also worked. My point is that race was only an issue for Patton until he started getting results and actually interacting with the battalion. Well, it was also brought up when he wanted to counter Axis saboteurs. Let’s be honest, though, if the thousands of years our species spent developing into ethnic subgroups tossed a literally flawless plan in your lap, you’d have to at least consider the option.

 

Patton would later defend some of the more racist things he’d said over the years in his biography. Personally, I don’t think that means much. When given an opportunity to actually interact with Black People, the prejudice he expressed was far weaker than the professionalism he acted out.

 

Maybe the secret to equality isn’t to force people to be equal, or even to make them change their minds. Instead of considering those different from us as brothers, let’s make the first step of considering them as real, living people we can work with. We forgot to make that step before trying all the other stuff. I figure if it worked on Patton, it can work on anyone.