Interview with David Willey: curator of the Tank Museum
What did the allies use before the Sherman? How much were these tanks an update from World War One models?
The Americans weren’t involved in the war until December 1941. The American army in the interwar period was tiny. They only made a few hundred tanks in the interwar period and were what’s called a ‘cadre military’. Their forces were only a basis for an expanded army if war happened to arrive.
They sent engineers to monitor developments in Europe in 1939 to see what European tanks were like. They looked primarily at what was considered the best tank of the age, a French tank called the Char B. The idea for the precursor to the Sherman, the M3 General Lee tank, came from copying features of the Char B such as a howitzer in the hull and a high velocity gun in the turret. When war was declared, these French tanks were wiped out by the Panzers due to their tactics rather than the quality of the technology. After the British evacuation from Dunkirk, the British appealed to the Americans for tanks. Massive tank plants were constructed using the New World’s economic and industrial might.
How did it compare to the USSR’s T-34?
In a way, they were not dissimilar design philosophies. The T-34 however was much cruder in many ways such with much poorer crew conditions. This is mainly because it was under the Stalin dictatorship. The Russian’s thought of their tank as a hand grenade. They were made in large numbers and were ready to be disposed of whenever necessary to meet the military aim.
How effective was it?
At the start, very effective. As the war continued, axis tanks often superseded it in one on one quality but Sherman’s rarely made solo attacks. It was made sure that there were always plenty of Sherman’s in an attack to make up for a lack of quality.
It’s important not to look at tanks as a game card in top trumps. It’s all down to tactics rather than who has the more powerful gun or better armour.
The Sherman wasn’t a bad tank but it was the mass production and sheer amount of numbers that made it work against the Germans. Even though many of their Panzers were better, they simply couldn’t replace their losses in the same way as the Americans could.
What were its pros and cons? Much has been made of its reputation as a ‘tommycooker?’
You have to be careful of myth. Often it was fire from damage to ammunition rather than the engine that set the tanks ablaze. Later on in the war, armour was bolstered so this happened less and less frequently in later campaigns.
What was the best version of the Sherman?
Sherman’s were consistently improved on throughout the war. It really depends on what you wanted it for. If it were a one on one fight, it would be the British built ‘Firefly’ which had a 17-pounder gun, which was superior in armour penetration to the 88mm German equivalent. Also, the British modified many of the tanks for special roles. These were known as ‘Hobart’s funnies’ and were adapted for mine clearance, bridging, bulldozers and famously for D-Day, floating tanks.
How did they work? How did they supplement the infantry and work alongside tank destroyers etc?
The war began with different tanks used for different roles. Faster tanks were used for scouting ahead while heavier versions were designed to break through enemy ranks and attack enemy emplacements. By the end of the war, the idea for a universal ‘all-rounder’ tank was created. The Sherman, almost by accident, fitted these roles although it was officially classed as a medium tank. It had reasonable speed, range and weaponry and great reliability.
Was the Sherman used after the war?
The Sherman was used in Korea by the Americans and passed to other nations to build up their armies in the post-war world. As there were so many, it was cheap for other nations to acquire and maintain. Tanks are very labour intensive so its reliability, low cost and abundance appealed to many other countries.
How much, in your opinion, did it contribute to the allied victory?
In terms of the western allies, it is the key tank. It was made in such vast numbers; it served not only the Americans but the British, Russians and commonwealth armies in all theatres of war.