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Sherman Tank Myths - The Sherman's 75-mm gun was the Best Gun of the War

It isn t uncommon to hear the comment that the Sherman tank with its 75-mm
gun was one of the best tanks of the war, a real world beater. This can even be
supported by comments from officers like Patton. Said comments are taken out of
context, though. And said officers made numerous blunders when it came to equip
ment. And in the end the Sherman tank with a 75-mm gun was a world beater idea is
pure romance.
The reality of what happened is not romantic and thus many people avoid
it.
The US Army constantly made the mistake of planning for future campaigns
based on experiences in past campaigns. For example, it was shown in the desert
s of Tunisia in 1942 and early 1943 that motorized anti-tank guns like the 37-mm
M-6 and 75-mm M-3 gun motor carriages were far harder to dig in and conceal tha
n towed gun. Thus, General Leslie McNair, commander of the US Army Ground Forces
(an artilleryman who harped on the idea that a towed anti-tank gun was a far ch
eaper way to kill tanks than any motorized type), ordered the adoption of the to
wed 3-inch anti-tank gun and also ordered the conversion of various tank destroy
er units that had been equipped with the M-10 gun motor carriage to be converted
to using towed 3-inch M-5 anti-tank guns. Neither Italy nor Europe was the dese
rt. And combat experiences in Tunisia as well as pre-war exercises had shown tha
t towed anti-tank guns were the least effective type available. The successes of
the German anti-tank guns against the British in Africa were a testament to the
poor quality of British tactics, for example. The British Army was poorly equip
ped to deal with anti-tank guns until they received US Lee/Grant and Sherman tan
ks mounting 75-mm guns because they neither recognized the threat nor realized t
he answer.
McNair s decision hindered US ground forces by hindering their anti-tank d
efenses and getting US troops killed for no good reason.
Combine this with a We are winning the war, so why change? mentality and y
ou begin to realize what was happening.
In Italy in 1943 US forces did not encounter many heavily armored German
vehicles and could deal with them well enough when they did. Standard 75-mm arm
or piercing ammo worked well for most of the armored vehicles they encountered.
As such, the main role of US tanks during those periods was general infantry sup
port and taking out anti-tank guns with high explosive shells. The 75-mm had a g
ood rate of fire, good ammunition capacity, and good HE shell, so they liked it.
But more so, there is the unspoken and usually undiscussed role of the U
S tank destroyer units in what happened. Regardless of the controversy over the
Tank Destroyer Doctrine hindering US ground forces, it did put armored units int
o the field that had a better anti-armor weapon than the Sherman. In Tunisia tan
k destroyer units had make-shift 37-mm armed M-6 gun on a truck and 75-mm gun on
a halftracks which were poor weapons. But early in 1943 they began to receive M
-10 tank destroyers with the 3-inch gun.
In Italy these units were used in their intended role to counter enemy a
rmor (and also as tanks, mobile artillery and so on). They did a pretty good job
and were successful in helping overcome Panthers and Tigers when they were met.
And other hostile armored vehicles.
This likely fostered the idea that between the M-10s and Shermans, the g
round forces were fairly well equipped to deal with panzers. US Generals, though
, were ignoring the lessons learned in Italy: Italy had shown that the 3-inch gu
n simply could not take a Panther or Tiger out with frontal shots except at clos
e range and usually only by hitting a weak spot. In Italy, heavy German armor wa
s dealt with using clever tactics and the notorious flank shots. Nothing that ha
ppened in Europe in 1944 was new; it was just a repeat of Italy under new circum
stances.
And the US Army did not realize that until it occurred!
The battle for Italy began before the invasion of France and the battle
to free Europe in general. With success under their belt, US ground forces did n
ot see a big need for a better weapon as far as the campaign in France was conce

rned. Never mind that France was neither Italy nor Tunisia . . .
Intelligence had convinced them that the Panther, for example, was likel
y just another heavy tank used sparingly. The US Army did not foresee any threat
from better armored German vehicles in France. Not until the Intelligence depar
tment began to back-track around May 1944 and begin to warn that perhaps they we
re wrong and the Panther might be encountered in larger numbers than expected.
The field Generals were not to blame all on their own. A crucial element
is that the Ordinance Department did not necessarily help with the situation. T
he main alternate to the 75-mm on the Sherman was the 3-inch gun on the M-10. It
was too heavy for US commanders (albeit the British stuffed their 17-pounder in
to Sherman tanks, and it was much the same size). By mid-1942 the ordinance Depa
rtment had developed the 76-mm M-1 as a possible alternate
it was lighter and be
tter for the Sherman tank.
The problem was that 76-mm and 3-inch guns had an inferior high explosiv
e shell and heavy muzzle blast, interfering with seeing where a shot hit. At lea
st that is what the ground force commanders were told; it is hard to discern if
they were given any side-by side test firings to see for themselves whether the
differences mattered that much.
Given said warning, ground forces did not like sacrificing ground fire c
apability for an increase in armor penetrating power that they usually did not n
eed.
There were 76-mm armed tanks available before D-Day in June but (again)
ground force commanders did not want them for the given reasons. Thus, Patton an
d other officers were not saying that the M-4 tank was the absolute best tank; r
ather it was far better than any alternate they had available!
Indeed, one issue is that the Officers in charge of procuring and accept
ing equipment discouraged the ordnance department from endeavors to upgrade the
tanks. For example, the US Army thinking is that the Ordnance Department had (se
eing the need for a far better weapon than the 75-mm, 3-inch or 76-mm) designed
the M-36 tank destroyers with a 90-mm gun
which was little more than the M-10 wi
th a new turret and gun. These were ready for D-Day but initially rejected becau
se ground commanders didn't see a need for them.
Which boggles the mind. The whole Tank Destroyer Doctrine was based on t
he idea of giving anti-tank gun units a better gun than tanks, and when presente
d with such a machine they rejected it!
The British had been fighting the war for years. They had fought in Fran
ce in 1940. They knew what the Germans were doing and they were refurbishing the
ir own lend-lease Shermans with 17-pounder guns (one of the best anti-tank guns
of the war) in a slow and steady upgrade program. They offered to upgrade some t
anks for the USA even if it meant slowing their own conversions down. The US tur
ned them down because - again - they saw no need for it and the tests they witne
ssed did not please them.
Starting mid-1944 and climaxing in December during the Battle of the Bul
ge (Ardennes Offensive), US ground forces began to meet heavily armored German v
ehicles in greater numbers. Things did not go easy for them; battles were lost,
men were killed; all because ground forces were equipped with inferior tanks wit
h inferior guns.
The conditions were different than they had been in Italy. The Germans w
ere fighting with large forces using different tactics in different terrain and
clever tactics only go so far in those situations.
The USA learned the hard way that France was not Italy. Nor Tunisia. McN
air s decision to convert M-10 units to towed 3-inch guns was proven to be pure fo
lly, as the US Army s inability to think ahead.
As a result the ground force units began to demand better guns than the
75. The most readily available weapon for the tankers was the 76-mm. The 3-inch
had proven to be mediocre against Panthers and Tigers in Italy in 1943; the 76-m
m was just as mediocre in France in 1944. The US Army had failed to accept the l
esson of Italy that US ground forces needed a better gun than the 3-inch and 76mm.
Once ground forces began routinely fighting German tanks with heavy armo

r, there was an immediate cry for fielding as many M-4s with 76s and M-36s with
90-mms as they could. They demanded tanks with 90-mms. If nothing else ground fo
rces wanted the M-36 turret put on M-4 hulls or the T-26/M-26 turret with its 90
-mm gun.
The British had made an earlier offer to upgrade tanks to the 17-pounder
for them. The USA accepted this but it was too late. The British needed 17-poun
der armed tanks themselves and the war ended before it could be done. Although s
ome were converted and issued to US tank units after the war.
If the Ordnance Department had issued a good HE shell for the 3-inch/76mm and if all of said guns had entered service with a muzzle brake to tame the b
last, ground forces likely would have accepted them much earlier. If the M-36 ha
d been accepted wholesale starting in mid-1944, things would have been better.
But the US ground forces were slow to learn. By the time the need arose,
the war was almost over and there just wasn't time to do better.