The M4 Sherman medium tank was America’s main tank of WWII, and the most widely used tank of the Western Allies during that conflict. They were mechanically reliable, easy to maintain, durable, easy and cheap to produce, and thus available in great numbers: about 50,000 were built during the war. They had a large turret and roomy interior, a good gun traverse rate and excellent stabilization system, and routinely managed to get off the first shot in tank-vs-tank confrontations.
They were also relatively safe by WWII tank standards, and crews on average suffered only one fatality for every Sherman destroyed: the tank might be lost, but most crewmen lived to fight another day, helped by a plethora of large escape hatches. A US First Army study of losses suffered by its 456 available Shermans from June to November of 1944 revealed 129 killed and 280 wounded, for a Sherman crew loss ratio during 6 months of intense combat of only 0.3% killed, and 0.6% wounded. On the downside, early Shermans were notorious for brewing up when hit because of inadequate fire prevention measures in ammunition storage – a problem that was remedied in later models.
When Shermans entered service in 1942, they outclassed the German tanks then in service, being more heavily armored and better armed. The standard antitank gun of the Panzer III was 37mm, whose shells the Sherman shrugged off, and when Panzer IIIs were upgunned to 50mm, they still had to get very close to inflict damage. In the meantime, the Sherman’s 75mm gun could kill anything the Germans fielded until the arrival of the Tiger. Shermans got an unfair rap for being poor tanks, mainly because they did not perform well when fighting the heavier Tigers and Panthers that were introduced later in the war. However, Tigers and Panthers represented only a fraction of German tanks, and fighting other tanks represented only a fraction of the Shermans’ workload – a fraction the Shermans had never been intended to perform.
American combined arms doctrine when the Sherman was designed held that tanks were not intended to fight other tanks – that was the task of tank destroyers armed with high-velocity guns. Shermans with bigger guns, such as the Firefly Sherman equipped with a 17 pounder, matched or exceeded the Tigers’ and Panthers’ firepower, but most Shermans kept their standard 75mm general-purpose gun with its effective high explosive shell. That was because the Shermans’ primary mission was to support infantry to achieve breakthroughs, then race through the breach and wreak havoc in the enemy’s rear. The Sherman, mechanically reliable and armed with a 75mm that fired a highly effective high explosive round, was excellent in the role for which it was designed.
The breakout from Normandy in 1944 and the ensuing rapid sweep through France and Belgium that only came to a halt at Germany’s border for lack of fuel, was the kind of performance that only an armored force equipped with mechanically reliable and easily maintained Shermans could have pulled off: other countries’ armored forces would have halted because their tanks broke down long before they reached the line where the Shermans halted because they ran out of fuel.
Shermans were outclassed by Tigers and Panthers 1-on-1, but they almost never had to face them 1-on-1. American tanks prevailed against German armor because they were part of a combined arms system that operated more smoothly than that of any other combatant. Panzers had to worry not only about American tanks – and nearly 50,000 Shermans were manufactured vs only 1300 Tigers and 6000 Panthers – but also about American infantry who were usually nearby, tank destroyers that were seldom far away, artillery, or tactical bombers that frequently circled the battlefield in taxi ranks, only a radio call away from any American tank platoon commander who found himself in trouble.