General George S. Patton and the War Winning Sherman Tank Myth .pdf
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General George S. Patton and the War-Winning Sherman Tank Myth
Nicholas D. Molnar
This chapter analyzes Patton's defense of the Sherman in the face of scathing criticism following the Battle
of the Bulge. It argues that the general's advocacy on behalf of the tank salvaged its reputation both at the
time and for generations to come. It shatters Patton's defense of the Sherman, and unhesitatingly
demonstrates that all too often the men assigned to America's premier tank “were slaughtered because of
the use of such an inferior” weapon. Patton, who understood all too well the Sherman's myriad flaws,
rushed to defend the tank because he knew that it would remain the armored division's workhorse and
that public criticism would only hurt the morale of his tankers and in turn the war effort. The chapter
concludes that Patton's defense of the Sherman inadvertently contributed to a host of postwar studies that
championed the tragically flawed weapon and played a role in fostering contemporary popular culture's
depictions of the Sherman as a war-winning weapon.
Thirty years after World War II, General Isaac D. White, the highly respected former commander of the
U.S. Army's 2nd Armored Division, was asked to write the introduction to Sherman: A History of the
American Medium Tank, the seminal work on the most famous American tank of all time. Contrary to
what would be expected from a reminiscing former general writing on what was one of the primary
instruments of his military success, White pulled no punches and scathingly disparaged the tank. “To
those of us who pitted our outgunned Sherman against German armor,” he wrote in 1978, “the book does
not entirely indicate the seeming insensitivity on the part of those responsible for the design and
procuring of our fighting vehicle.” White added bitterly: “Some of us, even at the time, were aware of the
bureaucratic and often ignorant wrangling and delays that occurred before our medium tanks were fitted
with a tank gun that gave us a reasonable degree of equality against our enemy.”1
General White's postwar complaints echoed those of many tankers who fought in the Sherman during the
war. One tank crew sergeant, after several months in combat, was totally demoralized: “As we go now
every man has resigned himself to dying sooner or later because we don't have a chance against German
tanks.” The disheartened tanker went on to say, “All of this stuff we read about German tanks knocked out
by our tanks makes us sick, because we know what prices we have to pay in men and equipment to
accomplish this. … Our tanks are no match for the Panther and Tiger tanks, and it is just suicide to tackle
them.”2 The nickname that American tankers gave the Sherman was equally revealing of their con-tempt
for it. While German panzers were nicknamed after ferocious jungle predators—the Panther and the
Tiger—the Sherman's alias was the(p.130) Ronson, after a cigarette lighter, because of the tank's
propensity to burst into flame as soon as it was hit.3
Paradoxically, the Sherman, despite all the derisions and dark-humored nicknames the combat tankers
had for it, was celebrated during the war as a symbol of American military might. The government, the
media, and the advertising industry had all continually eulogized the Sherman throughout the conflict.
Acclaim for the tank filled the pages of countless newspapers and popular magazines across the United
States.4 Reporters and correspondents had no qualms about portraying the Sherman as “the best tank in
the world” because many in the profession saw giving such high praise as performing a public
service.5 The Popular Science 1942 article on the tank, entitled “America's Tank Family,” described the
Sherman as “the Army's most versatile tank. … It's 360-degree turret, high-velocity cannon, and low
silhouette make it a powerful weapon.”6 Another article from the same periodical in 1943, entitled “Why
America's Tanks Are the World's Best,” praised the Sherman as, “Heavily gunned, fast, and mechanically
dependable, … more than a match for anything the Germans, Japs, or Italians can send against it.”7 The
harshest disparagement of the Sherman came from a Collier's article that described the tank as
“pathetically ugly, … like a fat woman in a hoop skirt.”8
When the Sherman's powerful image came under fierce attack by combat tankers who were not afraid to
make their feelings publicly known after the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944, General George S.
Patton, Jr., the celebrated leader of American armored forces and commander of the victorious U.S. Third
Army, threw all his weight into maintaining the tank's mythical stature. Although flawed, Patton's defense
of the Sherman was effective in stopping public criticism of the tank. Inadvertently, his statements had a
much longer-lasting effect. Patton's defense shaped how the Sherman would be remembered by scholars
and laymen in the postwar world. Despite evidence from American tankers suggesting that the Sherman
tank was an inferior deathtrap, Patton's defense contributed to the tank's being remembered primarily as
a war-winning weapon. This essay examines Patton's contribution to the creation of that myth and its
reproduction in popular culture.
General Patton was the perfect figure to defend the Sherman. The media portrayed him as a legendary
figure throughout the war, first beginning when articles on his exploits appeared in Life magazine.
Patton's landing in North Africa was described as a mythical knightly charge into (p.131) the heart of the
enemy: “Patton himself had had his landing boat destroyed just as he was about to step into it and, riding
in a tank, had personally led his troops through snipers and artillery fire.”9 Patton often played on this
medieval warrior image, telling Life that if he ever encountered General Erwin Rommel, commander of
the German forces in North Africa, “We could make it like the old knightly combats. The two armies could
watch. I'd be on one tank, Rommel in another. I'd shoot at him, he'd shoot at me. If I killed him, I'd be the
champ. If he killed me—well, he won't.”10The New York Times wrote of Patton: “He hit Tunisia like a
whirlwind, amazing men who had never served under him, not to mention the Axis army he attacked. …
He rages through his command like an indignant lion.”11 Patton was seen as a contemporary knight in
shining armor, worthy of commanding the Sherman tank, America's modern-day warhorse, in combat.
Patton's popularity only picked up as the war went on, with major periodicals praising his adventurous
exploits. In the process, he earned the reputation as the Army's most successful armored force
commander.Newsweek described Patton as: “the Army's top tank expert. Fearless and blasphemous, he is
loved by his men, who call him ‘Old Blood and Guts.”’ 12The New York Times gave him its stamp of
approval: “When the American tank corps was formed during the last war [World War I], young George
Patton was the first officer assigned to it. … In other words, General Patton is not a man who suddenly has
had to learn about tanks. Now that these great engines of destruction form an important element in a
modern army, there is every reason to believe that the right man is in the right place.” 13 Because of these
flattering portrayals in the media, Patton, in the eyes of the American public, was seen as the most
credible authority on tanks and tank warfare.
Patton was sorely needed to fulfill his knightly duties when the Sherman tank came under a series of
devastating attacks throughout the media in 1945. By the last year of the war, combat tankers returning
home from the battlefront began to openly deride the Sherman as an inferior weapon of war. Hanson
Baldwin, Pulitzer Prize recipient and military correspondent for The New York Times, led the charge
against the war-winning image of the Sherman. In his columns, Baldwin shared some of the harshest
condemnations that the combat tankers had for the tank: “We're just out-tanked and outgunned, that's
all. We don't mind the lack of armor on our tanks as much as the lack of firepower. But it's mighty
aggravating to let (p.132) fly with everything you've got and just have the shells bounce off the front of
the Jerry tanks.”14 Another tanker bluntly damned the Sherman and the bureaucratic branches that
created it: “German tanks have more firepower and more protective armor than any American tank ever
used in combat. … It is criminal for a nation to permit its supporting weapons to be inferior to those of the
enemy.”15 Baldwin even included an attack on how the Sherman was reported to the American public:
“You know, our morale would be a lot better if there weren't so many cock-and-bull stories in the papers
about how our tanks are world beaters. You see, when the layman reads that we've knocked out twice as
many Jerry tanks as they have of ours, he doesn't realize that it's not our tanks alone that did the job. It's
tanks plus artillery, plus planes—plus guts.”16
Baldwin's acidic criticisms created a ripple effect throughout the American media. Periodicals were no
longer afraid to voice anxieties about the Sherman. Major media outlets followed Baldwin's lead, attacking
with full force the tank's war-winning image. Time wrote of the Sherman: “Toe to toe, the Shermans never
could [engage Tiger tanks]. They had to count on getting around on the Tigers' flanks, where the Germans
are more vulnerable. In the kind of confined infighting the U.S. Army ran into four months ago [in the
Battle of the Bulge], end runs were seldom possible. The smaller Shermans were badly
battered.”17Life sarcastically dismissed the Sherman as the worst tank in the world: “[T]he Sherman is
simply not in the same company with the Russian and German heavy tanks, nor is it supposed to be … It is
a useful tank, the best in the world after the Russian and German.”18Newsweek wrote that German tanks
were “the Sherman's masters” and candidly asked its readers, “Must we defeat Germany with inferior
Patton immediately rushed to the Sherman's defense, using his stellar reputation to defend the tank's
war-winning image. In March 1945, Patton wrote a letter on the virtues of the Sherman to one of his highranking Third Army officers, General Thomas T. Handy. Interestingly, much of this personal letter found
its way onto the pages of The New York Times and the Army and Navy Journal only a week after it was
written. The letter was quoted in dozens of influential newspapers and periodicals soon thereafter.
Patton accused those who attacked the Sherman as unpatriotic: “It has come to my knowledge that certain
misguided or perhaps deliberately mendacious individuals, returning from the theater of war, have
criticized(p.133) the equipment of the American soldier.”20 Patton then began a long tirade in defense of
the tank: “It has been stated at home that these tanks are not comparable with the German Panther and
Tiger type tanks. This statement is wholly incorrect for several reasons.”21 As evidence of the Sherman's
superiority, Patton compared German and American tank casualties: “Since … August 1944, when the
Third Army became operational, our total tank casualties have amounted to 1136 tanks. During the same
period we have accounted for 2287 German tanks, of which 808 were of the Tiger and Panther variety,
and 851 on our side were M4 [Sherman].”22
Patton continued his defense of the Sherman by praising the tank's reliability: “Had the 4th Armored
Division been equipped with Tiger and Panther tanks and been required to make the move from the
Saarguemines [France]… to Mainz [Germany] it would have been necessary to rearmor it twice; and
furthermore, it would have had serious if not insurmountable difficulty in crossing rivers.” 23 Patton cited
mobility as another asset of the tank: “We must remember that all our tanks have to be transported on
steamers and the difference between 40 tons and 70 tons is very marked. The 70-ton tank could never
have been brought ashore in landing boats as many of our medium tanks were. Nor could they have
marched from the Cotentin Peninsula [France] to the Rhine [River] as practically all of our tanks have
been required to do.”24 To cap off the Sherman defense, Patton praised the tank's technological
superiority: “In mechanical endurance and ease of maintenance, our tanks are infinitely superior to any
tank in the theater of war. The outstanding advantage which our tanks possess over the German tank is
the mechanical traverse and stabilizer, through the use of which we get most of our kills.” 25
At first glance, Patton's defense of the Sherman seems foolproof. How could the Sherman be an inferior
tank if the Third Army used the tank to achieve its victories? There is no denying that Patton's Third Army
was extremely successful. The role of the Sherman in achieving that success is another matter. Patton,
with a classic sleight of hand, linked the success of the Third Army with the image of Sherman tank. When
one scrutinizes the evidence, it becomes obvious that the success of the Third Army's Shermans can be
attributed to a variety of circumstances that had nothing to do with the tank itself.
One of the most obvious anomalies was that the Third Army was activated in France after the heavy
hedgerow fighting in Normandy, during which the First Army's Shermans, already in France, sustained
massive (p.134)casualties. It became almost impossible for the armored divisions of the First Army to
recover their combat effectiveness because of the poor replacement system. This did not happen to the
Third Army's 4th Armored Division, widely considered to be the most successful armored division in
military history. In addition to missing the hedgerow combat, the 4th uniquely trained its enlisted men
not only in their own duties but also in the responsibilities of soldiers one or two ranks above
them.26 Green replacements new to the unit received the same rigorous training. When the division began
to take casualties, its Shermans could maintain their combat effectiveness.
Patton cites the success of the 4th Armored Division of the Third Army as evidence of the Sherman's
superiority. He fails to point out that a major factor in the 4th's success was how it was employed. As the
spearhead of the Third Army, the 4th Armored Division was launched against weak points in the enemy's
defenses. After it penetrated those points, the division wreaked havoc throughout the rear echelons of the
German forces. The mind-set of the combat tankers in the 4th reflected this type of mission. Because they
operated behind enemy lines, tank commanders were ordered to keep their tank hatches open in combat
so that they could better understand the terrain and enemy around them. One of the most famous tank
commanders of the 4th Armored Division, Colonel Creighton Abrams, sometimes threatened to weld open
the hatches of inexperienced tank commanders when he caught them buttoning up (closing the tank
commander's hatch) in action.27
Unlike the 4th Armored Division, other tank units in the Army were forced to use their Shermans as
sledgehammers against static German defenses. The independent tank battalions, often attached to the
infantry divisions, had a very different function: that of mopping up. Cleaning up the pockets of enemy
resistance was truly the dirty work of the Army's advance, which satirical author Kurt Vonnegut accurately
described as “the divinely listless loveplay that follows the orgasm of victory.”28 The Shermans of the 712th
Independent Tank Battalion once had the job of mopping up in the wake of one of the 4th Armored
Division's victorious drives. Tankers in the 712th were ordered to not peek their heads out of their tank
turrets because snipers from prepared defenses often fired on and killed those who did. In one instance,
after a tanker had been warned to button his hatch, a sniper's bullet immediately struck him, killing the
man in-stantly.29 In a mopping-up action, Shermans played by a totally different set of rules in order to
(p.135) Compared with other tank units, the 4th Armored Division had a number of other advantages
that contributed to its success. The division's employment in the enemy's rear areas ensured that its
Shermans had room to outmaneuver German tanks, a necessary requirement for them to have a chance in
tank-to-tank combat. In open terrain, the Shermans could employ their principal advantage over German
tanks: sheer numbers. A platoon of five Shermans would often engage one German tank, doing everything
possible to try to outflank and encircle it. The Shermans would then fire on the German tank's vulnerable
side and rear areas, places where even the shells of the 75mm cannon would not ricochet. Outflanking
tactics somewhat compensated for the Sherman's inferior armament, but not totally. One sarcastic tanker
put it best: “A tank gun should be able to destroy its opponent frontally. While it is desirable to hit a tank
on the sides, no tank fights or advances sideway.”30
Tank crews in other Army units knew all too well that outflanking tactics were not employable in every
encounter with the enemy. In such situations, Shermans had to slug it out head-on against prepared
defenses, handcuffed by their inadequate armament and poor armor protection. A tanker in the 2nd
Armored Division described one such encounter: “We were moving down the road in a Sherman… firing
all weapons, when we saw a German Mark IV tank twenty yards away back off to permit a German Mark V
[Panther], thirty-five yards away, to fire on us.”31 What happened next was truly terrifying: “We fired… at
the Mark V [Panther] and hit him on the front slope, left side, and it bounced off. He then hit us twice.
The first shot hit just below the driver's hatch, went through two layers of sandbags, the armor plate, and
exploded inside. The second shot hit slightly below the first with the same effect.”32 The Panther was not
done. Targeting another Sherman in the tank column: “The tank behind us, a Sherman, … fired upon the
Mark V [Panther], hit him on the front part of the turret and the … shell bounced off. The Mark V
[Panther] then hit the … tank on the front plate, just to the right of the driver, went through a single layer
of sandbags and pierced the armor plate.”33 Even though the Shermans had got off the first shots at pointblank range, they were still destroyed because they were no match for a German tank in a frontal
encounter. Combat tankers forced into fighting confined battles such as these found no solace in being
told by their superiors that they should have outflanked the enemy.
(p.136) Without a doubt, the 4th Armored Division's unique advantage was its overwhelming air support
from the XIX Tactical Air Force. These two units had a unique bond and a mutual respect for one another,
unlike anything ever seen before in the Army. General Otto Weyland, commanding general of the XIX,
had great admiration for the division: “4th Armored became one of our favorite outfits. They took
immediate and full advantage of friendly air power and didn't whimper if they got a bloody nose in an
engagement. Air-Ground teamwork was terrific.”34 One day, when a XIX pilot was shot down ahead of one
of the 4th Armored Division's columns, tanks unhesitatingly fought ahead to rescue the downed pilot.
Heroic acts such as these were paid back in kind with devastating aerial assaults from the Thunderbolt (P47) fighter-bombers that made mincemeat out of German tanks unlucky enough to be caught in their
crosshairs.35 Combat tankers loved the support they received from the Thunderbolts, with one
enthusiastically declaring: “Our best weapon, and the boy that has saved us so many times, is the P-47.”36
The XIX performed more than just tank busting for the 4th Armored Division. Patton used the XIX to
protect the flanks of the Third Army's advances. Patton often told his troops: “Forget this goddamn
business of worrying about our flanks. … Some Goddamned fool once said that flanks must be secured
and since then sons of bitches all over the world have been going crazy guarding their flanks. We don't
want any of that in the Third Army. Flanks are something for the enemy to worry about, not
us.”37 Although conservative commanders became distressed about protecting their flanks with ground
forces, Patton used aerial reconnaissance from the XIX to ensure that advance units of the Third Army
could operate well behind enemy lines without worrying about organized counterattacks. Patton
wholeheartedly trusted the XIX with this vital role, once telling its commander during an operation: “You
guard my right flank. … You hit it with the air and watch it; we are going straight east.” 38
All these advantages resulted in unparalleled success for the 4th Armored Division, and the Third Army
greatly benefited from having such a unique unit as its spearhead throughout the war. When Patton
defended the Sherman, he used the best example of armored warfare to make his point. Most other tank
units would not be so lucky as to engage the Germans under these conditions. Patton's argument for the
Sherman falters if examples outside the Third Army are used to illustrate the tank's battle prowess.
During the hedgerow fighting in Normandy, the Allies lost a total (p.137) of 2,405 tanks, twice as many
tank casualties as the Third Army during the entire war.39 Patton's example of the Sherman's success
turns a blind eye to the combat tankers who were slaughtered because of the use of such an inferior tank.
After the successes of Patton's most poignant examples are detached from the Sherman itself, arguments
for the tank's technical superiority dissolve into thin air. Patton argues that it would be difficult to ship
heavy tanks from the United States to Europe. For the most part, he is right; heavy tanks like the Panther
(45 tons), Tiger (55 tons), and King Tiger (70 tons) would have been more difficult to ship than the
relatively lightweight Sherman (35 tons). However, there is one glaringly obvious flaw in his argument:
American tankers did not ask, nor did they want, monster tanks like the Panther, Tiger, and King Tiger.
The combat troops wanted their Shermans to have the capability to destroy their heavyweight German
adversaries. Improved versions of the Sherman equipped with the diesel engine and armed with the
90mm supervelocity cannon (two improvements suggested by tankers but never seriously pursued by the
Army's bureaucratic branches) would not have come close to the massive tonnage of the German
behemoths, making it just as shippable as the undergunned Sherman that the combat tankers were forced
to fight with. After arriving in Europe, improved versions of the Sherman would have made the trip across
France and into Germany just as easily as its inferior counterpart.
Patton makes a strong case for the Sherman's reliability, citing the great distances that the Third Army
traveled as evidence. Having a tank that could travel thousands of miles without breaking down is an
undeniable asset. However, serious questions arise as to whether this is an inherent quality of the
Sherman itself or the product of a combination of factors unrelated to the tank.
Constant repairs were performed on the Sherman by maintenance troops that followed in the wake of the
Army's advance. The maintenance troops did whatever was necessary to keep the tank running, whether it
was changing a spark plug in the Continental engine or replacing an entire Ford engine. Maintenance
duties on the Sherman were no cakewalk because spare parts for critical components of the tank were
often lacking. As a result, maintenance troops found it necessary to throw Army regulations out the
window and rummage through the carcasses of destroyed Shermans for usable parts.40 One pragmatic
maintenance officer commented on the necessity of cannibalization: “One tank in combat was a lot better
than two on the dead line waiting for spare parts.”41
(p.138) In contrast, the ability of German maintenance troops to cannibalize their tanks for spare parts
was greatly inhibited.42 In Europe, disabled German tanks with salvageable parts were left in the field by
maintenance troops who were themselves retreating in the face of the Army's advance.43 Also, Allied air
forces enjoyed air superiority and wreaked havoc on the German supply lines, ensuring that the supply of
spare parts would be further diminished.44 The lack of spare parts meant that German tanks with only
minor problems could not be repaired and were rendered useless.45
Proper maintenance is integral to any vehicle's reliability, especially a tank. If a tank is taken care of, it
will have a much longer service life compared with a tank that is run into the ground. The Sherman's
reliability stemmed from the outstanding maintenance performed on the tank, having nothing to do with
its inherent design.
Another factor that contributed to the Sherman's reliability was the in-ordinately high rate in which it was
destroyed in combat. Because of the massive losses taken by tank units, combat tankers were receiving
replacement Shermans at an alarming rate. The maintenance troops of the 3rd Armored Division
calculated that fresh vehicles were sent to the front lines every 25 hours.46 Some combat tankers had five
or six Shermans shot out from under them, each replaced with a brand new tank. Colonel Abrams of the
4th Armored Division, credited with the most tank kills in World War II, went through seven Shermans
before the end of the conflict.47 The Sherman was replaced so often that it never had the chance to wear
Patton's assertion that the Sherman's inherent reliability enabled it to make the trip across France and
into Germany is simply false. The reliability of the Sherman can be attributed to a combination of outside
factors, not to the tank itself.
In his defense of the tank, Patton argues that the Sherman possessed numerous technical advantages over
the German behemoths. One of them was mechanical traverse technology, which enabled the Sherman to
speedily swivel its main armament toward the enemy. German tankers had to slowly hand-crank their
turrets to move them.
According to the combat tankers, mechanical traverse technology did not make a difference in battle. One
tanker declared, “[A]lthough the Mark V [Panther] has a much slower traverse … it had never been their
experience that it was not sufficiently fast enough to track any of our tanks, other than an M4 traveling at
a very high speed.”48 Other tankers in the same (p.139) unit “had no experiences where the speed of
traverse actually affected the outcome of an encounter with a German tank.”49
Tankers on the battlefront disagreed with Patton's assessment that mechanical traverse technology was an
advantage in combat situations. The reason for this difference of opinion is clearly illustrated during an
encounter with a German tank:
A Panther … had its gun turret turned ninety degrees from the forward position. [The Sherman] fired the
first round… and struck the Panther square in the middle of its forward glacis plate … When it was over,
the tank commander realized that the round had ricocheted and not penetrated the tank. He quickly
reloaded, fired the second round, and struck the glacis plate again as the German slowly turned its turret
in his direction. Before the Panther could get its gun zeroed in on the M4, the tank commander got off a
third round, with equal results. The Panther was finally able to fire its high-velocity 75mm, which
penetrated the M4 tank like a sieve.50
In combat, mechanical traverse technology was nullified by the Sherman's technical disadvantage of
inferior armament. Because the Sherman's rounds bounced off the hulls of German tanks, getting off the
first few shots did not decide the outcome of battle. One disgruntled tanker put it best: “We have powerdriven turrets that the enemy doesn't. But because of our gun it's not much of an advantage.” 51
Another technical advantage Patton advocates in defense of the Sherman is gyrostabilizer technology.
Gyrostabilizer technology, in theory, enabled the tank to shoot accurately while moving. Because the main
gun in most tanks wobbled violently while the tank was in motion, tanks usually stopped to fire in order to
increase the accuracy of the shot. Gyrostabilizer technology was invented as a solution to this problem.
Patton obviously failed to read the numerous reports from the battlefront that contradicted his assertion
that gyrostabilizer technology was an advantage in combat. Most combat tankers felt it was useless. One
independent tank battalion declared: “After the first fire, it was never possible to re-adjust the stabilizer
satisfactorily, making it therefore most undependable. None of the men appeared to have had sufficient
training on how to handle this unit. Manuals were issued, but the men still did not master the mechanics
of the stabilizer to adjust it for desired fire. Because of this defect, the gyrostabilizer unit was seldom used
and the ‘stop and (p.140) shoot’ method was generally adopted.”52 Other combat tankers had even more
disparaging remarks, including “not suitable for precision firing, … can fire better with it turned off, …
always stop when firing to give better chances of hitting target, … [and] do not consider it worthwhile to
retain.”53 The most telling example of the combat tankers' feelings for gyrostabilizer technology comes
from the 1st Armored Division, in which it was reported that “the gyrostabilizer units were removed in all
the tanks … and shipped back to Ordnance.”54
Although riddled with numerous flaws, Patton's letter in defense of the Sherman reassured the American
public that the tank was still a war-winning weapon. Those who ridiculed the tank simply could not
muster an effective counter to Patton's argument. The chief of the Ordnance Department, who himself
was facing severe criticism for the shortcomings of the Sherman, expressed his personal thanks to Patton:
“There has been so much talk based upon opinion rather than facts with respect to tanks. … Your letter …
to General Handy has certainly cleared the air with respect to tank characteristics and vicious criticism
which is going around in this country about tanks in the way nothing else possibly could. It is a great
service to the country to send the letter as you did!”55 Criticisms of the Sherman sharply subsided after
Patton's defense of the tank appeared in the media.
Patton's letter was not the only venue in which he espoused his problematic arguments in defense of the
Sherman. He directly manipulated the media correspondents who tagged along with the Third Army
during its operations in Europe. During a press conference the same week in which he wrote the letter, he
forthrightly asked reporters for positive publicity for the Sherman.56 Interestingly, Patton gave them
almost a carbon copy of the arguments he made in his letter. His advocacy work seems to have paid off
because a week later, he declared at another press conference with the same correspondents: “I first want
to thank all of you for helping me out with those remarks I asked you to make about weapons. I read
several editorials from home and while I was not quoted, it was damn well said.”57 It should come as no
surprise that Patton wrote of the media shortly before his death, “I permitted the newspaper
correspondents to question me. I did this weekly during active operations and always had them on my
All of Patton's efforts to defend the Sherman proved wildly successful in stopping criticism of the tank in
the media. Patton waged the propaganda war magnificently, using his personal influence to
drastically (p.141)change the direction of the debate. The fervor with which he defended the tank raises
an important question: What were Patton's motivations in defending such an inferior tank?
Patton believed that media attacks on the Sherman had a destructive effect on the morale of the combat
tankers. He felt so strongly about this point that he often emphasized it to the reporters who followed him.
“We have the best tanks in the world and there is no doubt about it, and it has a bad effect on people back
home when we say otherwise,” he once told them. “Any talk that our army is inferior to the German Army
is not only a malignant lie, but it has a bad effect on the soldier.”59 Troop morale would prove one of
Patton's main concerns as a leader throughout his military career.
To Patton, troop morale went hand in hand with combat success. He strongly believed, “In my opinion we
will only win this war through blood, sacrifice, and high courage. In order to get fighters we must develop
the highest possible Esprit de Corps… To die willingly, as many of us must, we must have tremendous
pride not only in our nation and in ourselves but in the unit in which we serve … [It] is of vital moment to
our ultimate victory.”60 In Patton's mind, high morale translated into superb results in combat. If Patton
admitted that the Sherman was an inferior weapon of war, the morale of the combat tankers would have
Patton defended the war-winning image of the Sherman out of pure pragmatism. He had the foresight to
realize that the Sherman would remain the workhorse of the Army until the end of the conflict. Covering
up the tank's problems seemed a better solution than revealing it as a total failure. Acknowledging that the
Sherman was a deathtrap would have shattered the morale of the combat tankers who would be fighting
with the tank until the war was over.
Although he never revealed his personal views publicly, Patton had many of the same criticisms of the
Sherman as the combat tankers. Patton was well aware of the tank's tendency to burst into flame when hit
by enemy shells. On multiple occasions, he directly contacted the bureaucratic branches voicing his
concerns. In North Africa, he pleaded with the chief of the Armored Force for diesel engines: “The day
before yesterday we knocked out six M-6's [Tigers] at a cost of four of our M-4's [Shermans]. It certainly
looks to me as if we must go to Diesel, as in every case, the tank hit burned.”61 In Europe, he wrote to the
chief of the Ordnance Department complaining that the measures taken to prevent
ammunition (p.142) fires were a failure: “It seems to me that too many tanks burn. I should be willing to
give up 20% of the ammunition space to reduce the number of burned tanks.”62
Patton also realized that the Sherman's main armament was totally inadequate in combat against German
tanks. After being questioned by media correspondents on the subject, he inadvertently blurted out:
“About the tanks, if you had a village 1500 yards long and put a Tiger tank at one end and one of our tanks
at the other, our tank would get licked but any-body that does that is a damn fool!”63 Just as he did with
the fire problem, Patton directly contacted the bureaucratic branches voicing his concerns. In North
Africa, he suggested to the chief of the Armored Force: “If you get some 3-inch guns, place them in M4's
and add another set of armor plate to the front silhouette, we will have a very powerful tank and tankdestroyer.”64
Patton once remarked to an ordnance officer in Europe, “Ordnance takes too God Damn long seeking
perfection at the expense of the fighting men, and you can tell that to anyone at Ordnance.” 65 His
commentary could accurately describe his feelings toward the other bureaucratic branches, because none
of his suggestions to improve the Sherman were ever implemented.
Patton's media defense of the tank was therefore far from an accurate reflection of his personal views.
Although most of his public arguments were flawed, ironically, they would become the foundation of the
war-winning Sherman myth.
The first histories of the Sherman after the war stand out because of their portrayal of the tank in such a
positive light, using Patton's media defense as evidence of the tank's superiority. Tanks Are Mighty Fine
Things (1946) had no qualms about wholeheartedly defending the Sherman: “[The Germans] were not
whipped by quantities alone. Our tanks were better and we used them more intelligently.” 66 The ace in the
hole of this argument was, of course, Patton: “No one was more outraged by the critics of the Sherman
tank than was the late George Patton and no one was better qualified to reply. [Patton's letter to General
Handy cited in full].”67Weapons of World War II (1947) used the very same method to make its point:
“[The Sherman] tank was gradually developed into one of the most reliable track-laying tanks in the
world's history. … Praise of the M4 medium tank was universal in all theaters and it would take many
pages to record adequately the performance of this important weapon of war. Concerning (p.143) its use
in Europe, General Patton wrote … [another of Patton's letters praising the Sherman cited in full].” 68
Just like Patton, the authors of these histories had their own pragmatic motives for defending the
Sherman. Chrysler, a major manufacturer of Shermans during the war, commissioned the writing
of Tanks Are Mighty Fine Things. Obviously, it would not be in the best interests of the automobile
manufacturer to deride one of its major contributions to the war effort. Weapons of World War II blindly
praises the Sherman for similar reasons. Written by General Gladeon M. Barnes of the Ordnance
Department, the Sherman was presented as the “best tank in the world” because it was seen as a reflection
of his engineering prowess, as well as that of the entire Ordnance Department. Declarations in Barnes's
diaries that the Sherman was “a waste of Government money” were replaced with heaps of praise for the
tank as a result.69 In both cases, the war-winning Sherman myth was perpetuated to further personal
Unfortunately, the Army's official histories of World War II, popularly known as the Green Books, were a
powerful reinforcement of the war-winning Sherman myth. Although admitting the defects of the tank
more readily than their historical predecessors, Patton's flawed arguments are clearly echoed in the Green
Booksdefense of the Sherman. The Ordnance Department: Procurement and Supply espouses a classic
Patton argument: “The Sherman was more mobile and mechanically reliable than German medium tanks,
and had greater flexibility and rapidity of fire.”70The Ord-nance Department: Planning Munitions for
War points out, just as Patton would, “The Sherman had qualities not even remotely duplicated in any
German vehicle. … In point of reliability, it similarly outshone both the notoriously undependable Tiger
and the Panther.”71
With the major histories of the tank advocating or failing to refute the war-winning Sherman myth, it was
only a matter of time before this premise became accepted as historical fact.72 Eventually, these flawed
arguments permeated what would prove to be most people's contact with the Sherman after the war:
popular culture. Once again, the Sherman became a media darling, a symbol of strength and victory.
The Sherman is often utilized as an image of power within the visual media. In the 1983 movie, Tank, set
in contemporary America, a crazed Army sergeant played by popular actor James Garner blows an
automobile sky high with the Sherman's 75mm cannon and then smashes the tank through a building,
immediately reducing it to a pile of rubble. One of the (p.144) main reoccurring storylines in G.I.
Combat, the long running DC comic book series, is that of a Sherman tank haunted by the ghosts of U.S.
Civil War Generals J. E.B. Stuart and William T. Sherman. On almost every occasion, the crew of the
Haunted Tank encounters some type of German heavy armored vehicle and destroys it with relative
ease.73 More recently, the entire plot of a 2006 episode of the television cartoon series Family
Guy revolves around the main character, Peter Griffin, rampaging around his hometown of Quahog,
Rhode Island, in an antique tank that looks strikingly similar to the Sherman.74
The war-winning Sherman myth is also found in less obvious places. A radio-controlled toy tank, for sale
in 2007, comes in a carton with a caption on it that declares: “The hero of the Detroit Arsenal is back! The
M4 Sherman tank is ready to take your living room the same way it rolled to victory in Normandy,
1944.”75 Post services from countries around the world, including Luxembourg, Belgium, India, the
Marshall Islands, and, of course, the United States, have issued commemorative postal stamps bearing the
image of victorious Shermans.76
The most intriguing place where the war-winning Sherman myth rears its head is within music lyrics.
Successful musicians, such as They Might Be Giants, used the Sherman in this manner in 1986: “Hats off
to the new age hairstyle made of bones/Hats off to the use of hats as megaphones/ Speak softly, drive a
Sherman tank/Laugh hard, it's a long way to the bank.”77 Similarly, The Infected uses the Sherman in
almost the same way in 1990: “You lie and yo breath stank/So bad it makes it hard to think/ You lie and
yo breath stank/Rolls me over like a Sherman tank.”78 The best example of the war-winning Sherman
myth being reproduced in music comes from the band Mr. Shiraz, who titled its 2005 debut album, “I'm
Invincible! I'm Built Like a Sherman Tank. Somebody… Try … And … Stop Me!”79
Popular culture distributes the war-winning Sherman myth to wider audiences than the work of scholars
will ever reach. In September 2006, in a nationally televised college football game, Rutgers fans cheered
on running back Brian Leonard as he smashed through multiple South Florida defenders to gain a first
down. As fans of the home team voiced their disapproval with boos and hisses, all the awe-struck ESPN
sportscaster could remark was that Leonard “looked like a Sherman tank on that run!” 80 With that
remark, made more than a half century after the end of World War II, television viewers were introduced
to the Sherman for the first (p.145)time as a symbol of strength and power. Seemingly forgotten was the
other much-less flattering image that the tank was, as one bitter soldier succinctly put it, a “ridiculous
thin-walled undergunned piece of shit.”81
Although the origin of the war-winning Sherman myth lies with General Patton and with scholars who
utilized his flawed arguments, the myth has taken on a life of its own in popular culture, assuming the
guise of the true history of the tank, discarding reality to the historical wayside. Pat-ton's defense of the
Sherman in 1945 was a success beyond even his wildest imagination, influencing not only how his
contemporaries viewed the tank, but how future generations came to remember it.
I thank Professor John Whiteclay Chambers II for his guidance in the preparation of this essay.
(1.) General Isaac D. White, foreword to R. P. Hunnicutt, Sherman: A History of the American Medium
Tank(Belmont, Calif.: Taurus Enterprises, 1978), 5.
(2.) Sergeant Moore (no first name given), quoted in Brigadier General Isaac D. White to DwightD.
Eisenhower, Report on United States vs. German Armor, March 1945, reprinted in published form as
Major General Isaac D. White, Report on United States vs. German Armor (Bennington, Va: Merriam
Press, 2001), 47.
(3.) Ronson Company History, www.fundinguniverse.com/company-histories/Ronson-PLC-CompanyHistory.html (accessed February 6, 2007).
(4.) Examples of newspapers and popular periodicals that carried articles during World War II praising
the Sherman and American tanks in general are American Magazine, Atlanta Constitution, Business
Week, Chicago Tribune, Collier's, Fortune, Life, Los Angeles Times, Newsweek, New Yorker, The New
York Times, Popular Mechanics, Popular Science, Saturday Evening Post, Science Newsletter, Time,
Washington Daily News, Washington Post, and Washington Times Herald.
(5.) Richard W. Steele, “The Great Debate: Roosevelt, the Media, and the Coming of the War, 1940–
1941,” The Journal of American History (June 1984): 69–92.
(6.) “America's Tank Family,” Popular Science, June 1942.
(7.) Arthur Grahame, “Why America's Tanks Are the World's Best,” Popular Science, March 1943.
(8.) Frederick C. Painton, “Here Comes Gabriel—Fighting with a Yank Tank Crew,” Collier's, July 17,
(9.) John Field, “Patton of the Armored Force,” Life, November 30, 1942.
(11.) Frank Kluckhohn, “Always Go Forward!” The New York Times, April 4, 1943.
(12.) “American Commanders Under General Eisenhower,” Newsweek, November 16, 1942.
(14.) Hanson Baldwin, “American Tanks—I,” The New York Times, March 18, 1945.
(15.) Baldwin, “American Tanks—II,” The New York Times, March 19, 1945.
(16.) Baldwin, “American Tanks—I.”
(17.) “New Tank,” Time, March 19, 1945.
(18.) “The Battle of the Tanks,” Life, March 26, 1945.
(19.) “Must We Defeat Germany with Inferior Weapons?” Newsweek, February 26, 1945.
(20.) General George S. Patton to General Thomas T. Handy, letter, March 19, 1945, quoted in “Tank
Inferiority Denied by Patton,” The New York Times, March 28, 1945; General George S. Patton to General
Thomas T. Handy, letter, quoted in The Army and Navy Journal, March 31, 1945.
(26.) Steven J. Zaloga, US Army Tank Crewman 1941–45 (Oxford, United Kingdom: Osprey Publishing,
(27.) Zaloga, 28.
(28.) Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five (New York: Dell Publishing, 1969), 66.
(29.) O. J. Brock, quoted in Aaron Elson, Tanks for the Memories: The 712th Tank Battalion in World
War II(Hackensack, N.J.: Chi Chi Press, 2001), 147.
(30.) Baldwin, “American Tanks—II.”
(31.) Gunner William J. Marcheski, quoted in White, 71.
(34.) Hanson Baldwin, Tiger Jack (Ft. Carlson, Ky.: Old Army Press, 1979), 65.
(36.) Sergeant Harold E. Fulton, quoted in White, 74.
(37.) Ladislas Farago, Patton: Ordeal and Triumph (New York: Ivan Obolensky, 1963), 447, quoted
in Carlo D'Este, Patton: A Genius For War (New York: Harper-Collins, 1995), 623.
(38.) Polk Oral History, United States Army Military History Institute, quoted in D'Este, 638.
(39.) Steven J. Zaloga, M4 (76mm) Sherman Medium Tank 1943–65 (Oxford, United Kingdom: Osprey
Publishing, 2003), 16.
(40.) Belton Y. Cooper, Death Traps: The Survival of an American Armored Division in World War
II(Novato, Calif.: Presidio Press, 1998), 33.
(42.) General Burkhart H. Mueller-Hillebrand, German Tank Maintenance in World War
II (Washington, D.C.: Center of Military History, United States Army, 1988), 2.
(43.) Ibid., 37–39.
(44.) Ibid., 4, 34.
(45.) Ibid., 44.
(46.) Cooper, xiii.
(47.) “Sum and Substance,” Armor, September–October 1950, quoted in Lida Mayo, The Ordnance
Department: On Beachhead and Battlefront (Washington, D.C.: Office of the Chief of Military History,
1968), 334; Zaloga, 50.
(48.) Lieutenant Colonel John A. Bell, quoted in White, 24.
(50.) Cooper, 176.
(51.) Baldwin, “American Tanks—II.”
(52.) Excerpts of Technical Intelligence Reports on the Sherman Tank, December 9, 1944, Entry 646A,
Box Number A746, Records of the Office of the Chief of Ordnance—Record Group 156, National Archives
II, College Park, Md. (hereafter, RG 156, National Archives).
(53.) Colonel George M. Dean to Representatives of the Armored Center, Resume of Report by Colonel
George M. Dean on His Two-Month Tour of Battle Fronts in the European Theater of Operations, April 7,
1945, Entry 7.8, Box Number 6, Records of Headquarters Army Ground Forces, Armored Center—Record
Group 337, National Archives II, College Park, Md. (hereafter, RG 337, National Archives).
(54.) Excerpts of Technical Intelligence Reports on the Sherman Tank, December 16, 1944, Entry 646A,
Box Number A746, RG 156, National Archives.
(55.) General Levin H. Campbell to General George S. Patton, letter, March 30, 1945, Box 34, George S.
Patton Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington D.C. (hereafter, Patton Papers,
Library of Congress).
(56.) General George S. Patton, Jr. to Media Correspondents, transcript of meeting, March 17, 1945, Box
53, Patton Papers, Library of Congress.
(57.) General George S. Patton, Jr. to Media Correspondents, transcript of meeting, March 30, 1945, Box
53, Patton Papers, Library of Congress.
(58.) Diary of General George S. Patton, Jr., September 22, 1945, Box 3, Patton Papers, Library of
(59.) General George S. Patton, Jr. to Media Correspondents, transcript of meeting, March 17, 1945, Box
53, Patton Papers, Library of Congress.
(60.) General George S. Patton, Jr. to General Lesley J. McNair, letter, May 2, 1942, Box 12, Patton
Papers, Library of Congress, quoted in D'Este, 414.
(61.) General George S. Patton, Jr. to General Jacob Devers, letter, July 16, 1943, Box 34, Patton Papers,
Library of Congress.
(62.) General George S. Patton, Jr. to General Levin H. Campbell, letter, March 21, 1945, Box 34, Patton
Papers, Library of Congress.
(63.) General George S. Patton, Jr. to Media Correspondents, transcript of meeting, March 17, 1945, Box
53, Patton Papers, Library of Congress.
(64.) General George S. Patton, Jr. to General Jacob Devers, letter, March 26, 1943, Box 34, Patton
Papers, Library of Congress.
(65.) General George S. Patton, Jr., quoted in Lida Mayo, The Ordnance Department: On Beachhead and
Battlefront (Washington, D.C.: Office of the Chief of Military History, 1968), 337.
(66.) Wesley W. Stout, Tanks Are Mighty Fine Things (Detroit, Mich.: Chrysler Corporation, 1946), 82.
(68.) General Gladeon M. Barnes, Weapons of World War II (New York: D. Van Nostrand Company,
(69.) General Gladeon M. Barnes, Medium Tank T20 Series Diary, February 28, 1944, Entry 646A, Box
Number A744, RG 156, National Archives.
(70.) Harry C. Thomson and Lida Mayo, The Ordnance Department: Procurement and
Supply (Washington, D.C.: Office of the Chief of Military History, 1960), 263.
(71.) Constance M. Green, The Ordnance Department: Planning Munitions for War (Washington, D.C.:
Office of the Chief of Military History, 1955), 283.
(72.) Some historical studies that have recognized the Shermans inadequacies are Charles M. Bailey, Faint
Praise: American Tanks and Tank Destroyers During World War II (Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books,
1983), 118, 146; John Whiteclay Chambers, editor-in-chief, The Oxford Companion to American Military
History(New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 58, 712; R. P. Hunnicutt, Sherman: A History of the
American Medium Tank (Belmont, Calif.: Taurus Enterprises, 1978), 512–13;William L. O'Neill, A
Democracy at War: Americas Fight at Home and Abroad in World War II (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard
University Press, 1995), 350–53, 370–73; and Steven J. Zaloga, Sherman Medium Tank 1942–
45 (Oxford, United Kingdom: Osprey Publishing, 1978), 14–18. Unfortunately, these studies have not
sought answers to the major dilemmas that plague the tank's unfinished history, and when they have,
these inquiries have never been fully answered.
(73.) G.I. Combat (New York: DC Comics, 1957–1987). G.I. Combat is the second-longest–running war
comic book series of all time, with 288 issues published during its long 30-year tenure. Almost all of the
final 94 issues (1978–1987) have the haunted Sherman tank on the cover. Prior to these issues, the type of
vehicle used by the crew was the M5 Stuart light tank—this one haunted by only General J. E. B. Stuart.
(74.) This particular reference to the Sherman occurred in an episode titled “Hell Comes to Quahog” of the
television cartoon series Family Guy, first aired on September 24, 2006, FOX Network.
(75.) Radio-Controlled Sherman Tank distributed
by Hobbytron.com,www.hobbytron.com/130ScaleRemoteControlM4A3ShermanTank.html (accessed
February 6, 2007).
(76.) Sherman commemorative postage stamps in India referenced in Deepkamal Kaur, “Commemorative
Stamps on Defense Forces Released,” Chandigarh India Tribune, March 28, 2006. Sherman
commemorative postage stamps in Luxembourg, Belgium, the Marshall Islands, and the United States
referenced in Patton Commemorative Stamps and First Day Covers, the Patton
Society, www.pattonhq.com/stamps.html (accessed February 6, 2007).
(77.) This particular reference to the Sherman occurred in the song titled “Rhythm Section Want Ad” by
They Might Be Giants in 1986.
(78.) This particular reference to the Sherman occurred in the song titled “You Lie and Your Breath Stank”
by The Infected in 1990.
(79.) Mr. Shiraz references the Sherman in its 2005 debut album, “I'm Invincible! I'm Built Like a
Sherman Tank. Somebody… Try… And… Stop Me!”
(80.) Rutgers vs. South Florida, nationally televised college football game, first aired on September 29,
2006, ESPN Network. The author heard this particular reference to the Sherman while watching the game
(81.) Brendan Phibbs, The Other Side of Time: A Combat Surgeon in World War II (Boston, Mass.: Little,
Brown, 1987), 75.