America's M4 Sherman Tank, a WWII War Machine

Black and white photograph of soldiers riding on a Sherman tank down a street in Germany during WWII.
8th Armored Brigade soldiers riding in a Sherman tank in Germany in March 1945.

Hutchinson (Sgt), No 5 Army Film & Photographic Unit/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

The iconic American tank of World War II, the M4 Sherman was employed in all theaters of the conflict by the U.S. Army and Marine Corps, as well as most Allied nations. Considered a medium tank, the Sherman initially had a mounted 75mm gun and had a crew of five. In addition, the M4 chassis served as the platform for several derivative armored vehicles such as tank retrievers, tank destroyers, and self-propelled artillery. Christened "Sherman" by the British, who named their U.S.-built tanks after Civil War generals, the designation quickly caught on with American forces.

Design

Designed as a replacement for the M3 Lee medium tank, the plans for the M4 were submitted to the U.S. Army Ordnance Department on August 31, 1940. Approved the following April, the goal of the project was to create a dependable, fast tank with the ability to defeat any vehicle then currently in use by Axis forces. In addition, the new tank was not to exceed certain width and weight parameters to ensure a high level of tactical flexibility and permit its use over a wide array of bridges, roads, and transportation systems.

Specifications

M4A1 Sherman Tank

Dimensions

  • Weight: 33.4 tons
  • Length: 19 feet, 2 inches
  • Width: 8 feet, 7 inches
  • Height: 9 feet

Armor and Armament

  • Armor: 19-91 mm
  • Main gun: 75 mm (later 76 mm)
  • Secondary armament: 1 x .50 cal. Browning M2HB machine gun, 2 x .30 Browning M1919A4 machine gun

Engine

  • Engine: 400 hp Continental R975-C1 (gasoline)
  • Range: 120 miles
  • Speed: 24 mph

Production

During its 50,000-unit production run, the U.S. Army built seven principle variations of the M4 Sherman. These were the M4, M4A1, M4A2, M4A3, M4A4, M4A5, and M4A6. These variations did not represent a linear improvement of the vehicle but rather changes in engine type, production location, or fuel type. As the tank was produced, a variety of improvements were introduced, including a heavier, high-velocity 76mm gun, "wet" ammunition storage, a more powerful engine, and thicker armor.

In addition, numerous variations of the basic medium tank were built. These included a number of Shermans mounted with a 105mm howitzer instead of the usual 75mm gun, as well as the M4A3E2 Jumbo Sherman. Featuring a heavier turret and armor, the Jumbo Sherman was designed for assaulting fortifications and aiding in breaking out of Normandy.

Other popular variations included Shermans equipped with duplex drive systems for amphibious operations and those armed with the R3 flame thrower. Tanks possessing this weapon were frequently used for clearing enemy bunkers and earned the nickname "Zippos," after the famous lighter.

Early Combat Operations

Entering combat in October 1942, the first Shermans saw action with the British Army at the Second Battle of El Alamein. The first U.S. Shermans saw combat the following month in North Africa. As the North Africa campaign progressed, M4s and M4A1s replaced the older M3 Lee in most American armor formations. These two variants were the principle versions in use until the introduction of the popular 500 hp M4A3 in late 1944. When the Sherman first entered service, it was superior to the German tanks it faced in North Africa and remained at least on par with the medium Panzer IV series throughout the war.

Combat Operations After D-Day

With the landings in Normandy in June 1944, it was learned that the Sherman's 75mm gun was incapable of penetrating the front armor of the heavier German Panther and Tiger tanks. This led to the rapid introduction of the high-velocity 76mm gun. Even with this upgrade, it was found that the Sherman was only capable of defeating the Panther and Tiger at close range or from the flank. Utilizing superior tactics and working in conjunction with tank destroyers, American armor units were able to overcome this handicap and achieved favorable results on the battlefield.

Operations in the Pacific and Later

Due to the nature of the war in the Pacific, very few tank battles were fought with the Japanese. As the Japanese seldom used any armor heavier than light tanks, even early Shermans with 75mm guns were able to dominate the battlefield. Following World War II, many Shermans remained in U.S. service and saw action during the Korean War. Replaced by the Patton series of tanks in the 1950s, the Sherman was heavily exported and continued to operate with many of the world's militaries into the 1970s.