The Sherman tank was comparatively fast and maneuverable, mechanically reliable, easy to manufacture and service, and produced in many special-purpose variants, whose capabilities differed greatly. It was effective in the infantry support role.
The Sherman performed well against World War II Japanese tanks, Italian tanks, and the German standard tank of the time, the Panzer IV medium series which was a pre-war design. However, the typical Sherman was significantly inferior in both armor and armament to the German Tiger heavy tanks, Panther “medium” (heavy by US standards) and some of the tank destroyers fielded by the Germans in 1944.
The majority of losses of Shermans were not from tanks, but from mines, anti-tank guns, and infantry anti-tank weapons. Although American tanks were less powerful than the heavy German tanks, US armored forces won because of numerical superiority and superior combined arms tactics, with Allied air superiority being the biggest danger to the lines of supply for German tank units.
The anecdotes from Allied tank crewmen about the inferiority of the Shermans to late model German tanks has to be balanced against other considerations. Firstly, the Germans were invariably fighting defensively, usually from prepared positions—which tended to made tank casualties disproportionate. On rare occasions when German armored forces had to move against Allied prepared defenses, the Germans had similar complaints. Secondly, there is only so much capability that can be built into a tank of a particular weight; the Pzkw V and the Tiger were larger and heavier (at 42 tons and 56 tons) than the 32 ton Sherman. Finally, the Sherman could be built, deployed, maintained and repaired in large numbers balancing out the tactical advantages of the better German tanks.
According to Belton Cooper’s memoir of his 3rd Armored Division service, the Shermans were “death traps”; the overall combat losses of the division were extremely high. The division was nominally assigned 232 Sherman medium tanks; 648 Sherman tanks were totally destroyed in combat, and a further 1,100 needed repair, of which nearly 700 were as a result of combat. According to Cooper, the 3rd Armored therefore lost 1,348 medium tanks in combat, a loss rate of over 580%, in the space of about ten months. Cooper was the junior officer placed in charge of retrieving damaged and destroyed tanks. As such, he had an intimate knowledge of the actual numbers of tanks damaged and destroyed, the types of damage they sustained, and the kinds of repairs that were made. His figures are comparable to those given in the Operational History of 12th U.S. Army Group: Ordnance Section Annex. Some World War II Army officers made similar arguments during the war. Other officers disagreed with the negative assessment and Gen. George S. Patton argued that the Sherman tank was overall a superior tool of war. One of Cooper’s other major points in his book, that Gen. Patton was primarily responsible for blocking development of the M-26 Pershing tank, is unsupported by historical facts; Patton did not have the authority to make such decisions – it was Gen. Lesley McNair who opposed the M26.
The only other Second World War tank produced in comparable numbers to the Sherman was the Soviet T-34 series. The Soviets used some Shermans to supplement their own T-34s while Shermans would be pitted against T-34s in Korea. The later 76 mm versions had superior anti-tank power capabilities to the Soviet 85 mm. The T-34’s advantages were its low profile, wide tracks which made crossing muddy terrain easier, speed and superior mobility to the Sherman. Both tanks excelled in reliability. Though the Sherman was the final evolution of its design family, while the T-34 would form the basis for postwar Soviet tanks, each was a medium design that served as the primary battlefield tank of its respective country in World War II, was upgraded, served into the Cold War, and outfitted allies.