American and German gun penetration against armor at 30 degrees obliquity at 500 to 2,000 yards (in millimeters)
Americans were also finding that German tanks had better “flotation” in the muddy terrain of the Roer Plain and the Hürtgen Forest. German tanks had wide tracks that enabled them to maneuver in the boggy terrain. The Shermans, with their narrow tracks designed for speed on good surfaces, no longer had a maneuverability edge over the panzers. Additionally, the Germans had long since figured out American flanking tactics and positioned their tanks so that only the virtually impenetrable front was exposed to any avenue of approach.
The U.S. Army felt the full power of a determined German panzer attack when on December 16 Hitler launched his assault in the Ardennes, spearheaded by 1,500 tanks and assault guns. Any lingering faith in the M4 vanished in the face of the determined German attack. American tankers, writing home to their families and friends, told how their tanks could not stand up to German panzers. They were right—between June and December 1944 the Twelfth Army Group had lost more than 2,000 medium tanks.
In January 1945 American newspapers were asking for answers. Hanson Baldwin, the distinguished New York Times correspondent, wrote some of the most critical editorials and urged a congressional inquiry. The Army leadership closed ranks, and a flurry of articles appeared in February lauding the quality of American equipment generally and the M4 tank specifically. Major General Levin H. Campbell Jr., the chief of ordnance, released a letter that General Eisenhower had written to him to defuse further criticism. In it, Eisenhower wrote that “the mobility of our ordnance enabled us to exploit our first successes in the drive across France, into Belgium and Germany.” Campbell also cited two other popular American generals, Devers and Patton, “who made their reputations in tanks.” While General Devers indicated that he was satisfied with American equipment, General Patton was more effusive in his praise: “We’ve got the finest tanks in the world! We just love to see the German Royal Tiger [Tiger II] come up on the field.” General Campbell concluded that “our commanders…still prefer the ‘more mobile’ lighter and earlier M-4 model for general tactical action.”
Still, the press would not leave the tank issue. Even when the War Department announced the deployment of the new M26, correspondents nagged Eisenhower. On March 18 he wrote to Brigadier General I. D. White, commander of the 2d Armored Division, and Major General Maurice Rose, commander of the 3d Armored Division, that he kept finding newspaper stories in which reporters purportedly quoted noncommissioned officers as saying that American tanks were inferior to German panzers. Eisenhower doubted the truth of these accounts and cited his own conversations with armored soldiers as evidence:
Our men, in general, realize that the Sherman is not capable of standing up in a ding-dong, head-on fight with a Panther. Neither in gun power nor in armor is the present Sherman justified in undertaking such a contest. On the other hand, most of them realize that we have got a job of shipping tanks overseas and therefore do not want unwieldy monsters; that our tank has great reliability, good mobility, and that the gun in it has been vastly improved. Most of them feel also that they have developed tactics that allow them to employ their superior numbers to defeat the Panther tank as long as they are not surprised and can discover the Panther before it has gotten in three or four good shots. I think that most of them know also that we have improved models coming out which even in head-on action are not helpless in front of the Panther and the Tiger.
Eisenhower concluded by asking for White’s and Rose’s personal opinions on the quality of American tanks and for their assessment of the potential of the new M26 tank to cope with the Panther. He also asked for a sampling of their soldiers’ views on the two issues.
White and Rose were quick to respond to Eisenhower’s request. Within two days, White and his staff queried more than 150 officers and enlisted men and prepared a 76-page packet for Eisenhower. White’s comments on his division’s equipment were balanced. He believed that the M4A3E8 with a 76-mm gun was an improvement over earlier models, particularly with HVAP ammunition. Unfortunately, HVAP ammunition remained in short supply, and his tanks had less than four rounds each. Nevertheless, lest Eisenhower conclude wrongly that the HVAP shortage was his central concern, White stressed that “the 76mm gun, even with HVAP ammunition, is not effective at the required ranges at which we must be able to effectively engage enemy armor.” He was concerned that the M26, without HVAP ammunition (none of which had been fielded), would be as disappointing as the M36 tank destroyer, which mounted the same 90-mm gun. White believed that “the most important point, and upon which there is universal agreement, is our lack of a tank gun and anti-tank gun with which we can effectively engage enemy armor at the required range…. The correction of this deficiency has made progress, but the problem has not as yet been satisfactorily solved.”
White’s subordinate officers were more openly critical of their tanks. All believed that the M4 placed a poor second behind the German Panthers and Tigers. Brigadier General J. H. Collier, commander of Combat Command A, wrote that “all personnel in the 66th Armored Regiment” believed that German tanks and antitank weapons had better flotation and mobility than the American models. Furthermore, German gunners had crucial advantages in any engagement since they had better sights, higher-velocity guns, and smokeless powder. Additionally, the “better sloped armor and better silhouette” of the German panzers made them much less vulnerable than American tanks. Collier’s despair over the equipment his men had to fight with must have emboldened him, because he contested some of Eisenhower’s principal rationalizations:
The fact that our equipment must be shipped over long distances does not, in the opinion of our tankers, justify our inferiority. The M4 has proven inferior to the German Mark VI in Africa before the invasion of Sicily, 10 July 1943.
It is my opinion that press reports of statements by high ranking officers to the effect that we have the best equipment in the world do much to discourage the soldier who is using equipment that he knows to be inferior to that of the enemy.
The other officers in the division echoed White’s and Collier’s frustrations with their tanks. For example, Lieutenant Colonel Wilson M. Hawkins, commander of the 3d Battalion, 67th Armor, stated bluntly: “If such a choice were possible, I would prefer to fight in the present German Mark V or VI tank against the present U.S. medium tank and tank destroyer with the 90mm gun.” Colonel S. R. Hinds, commander of Combat Command B, although concurring with the M4’s technical deficiencies, also attacked doctrine: “In spite of the often quoted tactical rule that one should not fight a tank versus tank battle, I have found it necessary, almost invariably, in order to accomplish the mission.”
The comments from the 2d Armored Division’s citizen soldiers were even more damning than those of their officers. Sergeant Chester J. Marczak left little doubt about how he felt:
The German’s high-velocity guns and souped-up ammunition can penetrate our thickest armor. At a range where it would be suicide for us to shoot, they shoot. What we need is more armor, higher velocity, not necessarily a bigger gun, souped-up ammunition, and a means whereby we can maneuver faster, making sharper turns. I’ve seen many times when the air force was called out to wipe out scattered tanks rather than letting our tanks get slaughtered. All of us know that the German tanks are far superior to anything that we have in combat. They are able to maneuver on a space the length of their tank. How can we outflank them when all they have to do is pivot and keep their frontal armor toward us? Their frontal armor is practically invulnerable to our 75’s, except at exceptionally close range—and they never let us get that close. We’ve got a good tank—for parades and training purposes—but for combat they are just potential coffins. I know! I’ve left them burning after the first few rounds of German shells penetrated our thickest armor.
Sergeant Joseph O. Posecoi agreed with Marczak and asked a probing question: “If our tanks aren’t out-armored and out-gunned, why does every outfit that has ever been up against a German Mark V tank use 100 to 150 sand bags for added protection?” Almost every one of the more than 150 respondents recounted his own bitter experience of watching well-aimed rounds bounce off German tanks and of seeing friends die trying to maneuver for a side or rear shot to compensate for the inadequacies of their tank guns.
The soldiers also told how they had been able to contend with the superior German panzers. Sergeant Nick Moceri said it well: “The only reason we’ve gone as far as we have is summed up in ‘Quantity and Co-operation of Arms.‘” Sergeant Harold E. Fulton was even more explicit: “Our best tank weapon, and the boy that has saved us so many times, is the P-47 [fighter airplane].”
Rose’s March 21 response to Eisenhower, although only five pages long, echoed White’s views on American tanks. Rose wrote: “It is my personal conviction that the present M4A3 tank is inferior to the German Mark V.” He told Eisenhower that the soldiers compensated for their “inferior equipment by the efficient use of artillery, air support, and maneuver.” Nevertheless, the burden was clearly on the tank crews, “the individual tanker and gunner, who maneuvers his tank and holds his fire until he is in position most favorable to him.” Rose also told Eisenhower that he had personally seen “projectiles fired by our 75 and 76mm guns bouncing off the front plate of Mark V tanks at ranges of about 600 yards.” This undesirable head-on approach was often unavoidable “due to the canalizing of the avenue of approach of both the German and our tank, which did not permit maneuver.”
Rose’s subordinates also denounced their tanks. The opinion of Staff Sergeant Robert M. Early, a tank commander with nine months’ combat experience, was clear: “I haven’t any confidence in an M4. Jerry armament will knock out an M4 as far as they can see it.” Corporal Albert E. Wilkinson, an M4 gunner, agreed: “We can’t compare with the Jerry tank. We haven’t the armor nor gun.” Finally, Lieutenant Colonel Matthew W. Kane, commander of the 1st Battalion, 32d Armored Regiment, expounded on the price his unit had paid for being equipped with the M4 tank:
This battalion has lost 84 tanks through enemy action in nine months of combat. In a tank versus tank action, our M4 tank is woefully lacking in armor and armament when pitted against the super velocity 75mm or 88mm gun of the German tank. Greater maneuverability and speed have failed to compensate for this deficiency, and our tank losses in the Belgian Bulge were relatively high, even when we were in defensive positions. Crews recognized the deficiencies in our tanks, and know that success on the battlefield is attributable to our superiority in numbers of tanks, and resolve to sustain heavy casualties in men and tanks in order to gain objectives.
Eisenhower, taken aback by White’s and Rose’s opinions, replied immediately: “I feel that your conclusions…should go at once to the War Department, and I am sending them on to General Marshall without delay.”
Unfortunately, at the end of March 1945, little could be done to redress the technological inferiority of American tanks. The Ordnance Department had already pulled out all of the stops to get the M26 to Europe. Again, its efforts would be too little and too late to have any effect. Nevertheless, that the views of General White and General Rose were apparently so unexpected by General Eisenhower is compelling evidence for why American tanks and the doctrine for their use were inadequate. General Eisenhower, the commander whose authority gave him the most power to demand corrective action, was long unaware of any serious problems.
The obvious question is why, as late as the closing weeks of the war, did Eisenhower remain ignorant of the substantial technological inferiority of American tanks? Surely part of the reason was that he was shielded from the truth. His premier tank officers, General Devers and General Patton, had praised existing American equipment. The Army’s chief of ordnance, General Campbell, had promised even more and better tanks. Poor counsel, although a contributory factor, was probably not the central reason Eisenhower was uninformed.
Perhaps a more plausible explanation for Eisenhower’s continued neglect of the tank problem is that it never became a crisis in and of itself. In the hierarchy of disasters that Eisenhower had to contend with, tank failings were simply overshadowed. In Tunisia, when the 1st Armored Division was outgunned by the new Pzkw IVs, Eisenhower’s attention was riveted on the catastrophe at Kasserine Pass. Poorly trained, disheartened troops and faulty leadership were the problems that demanded action. The introduction of the Pzkw VI Tiger I, with its 88-mm gun, was largely overlooked. Americans had not opposed any of the nineteen Tigers the Germans had in North Africa, and the British reportedly had not been overly impressed by the new tank.
After North Africa, Eisenhower focused on preparing for the invasion of France. In the breakout from the beachhead, the euphoria of the rapid advance toward Germany probably suppressed any anxiety over tanks. Under Patton’s determined direction, American armored doctrine had been immensely effective. During the Battle of the Bulge, when the qualitative disparity between American and German tank weapons became patently obvious at the level of the tanker, it remained invisible to Eisenhower. Faced with the destruction of an Army, tanks were a marginal issue. Only when the press paraded the irate comments of his soldiers before him did Eisenhower turn his attention to tanks. By then, it was too late for significant matériel correction.
In the aftermath of victory, General Marshall tried to explain the American tank failures. In his rationalizations, the heritage of two decades of Army assumptions about tank doctrine and technology became clear:
Another noteworthy example of German superiority was in the heavy tank. From the summer of 1943 to the spring of 1945 the German Tiger and Panther tanks outmatched our Sherman tanks in direct combat. This stemmed largely from different concepts of armored warfare held by us and the Germans, and the radical difference in our approach to the battlefield. Our tanks had to be shipped thousands of miles overseas and landed on hostile shores amphibiously. They had to cross innumerable rivers on temporary bridges, since when we attacked we sought to destroy the permanent bridges behind the enemy lines from the air. Those that our planes missed were destroyed by the enemy when he retreated. Therefore our tanks could not well be of the heavy type. We designed our armor as a weapon of exploitation. In other words, we desired to use our tanks in long-range thrusts deep into the enemy’s rear where they could chew up his supply installations and communications. This required great endurance—low consumption of gasoline and ability to move great distances without breakdown.
But while that was the most profitable use of the tank, it became unavoidable in stagnant prepared-line fighting to escape tank-to-tank battles. In this combat, our medium tank was at a disadvantage, when forced into a head-on engagement with the German heavies.
For want of adequate tanks, the U.S. Army had applied an overwhelming armored bludgeon of inferior machines, complemented by enormous air and artillery resources, against a qualitatively superior German panzer technology. Quite simply, the deficiencies of the tank component did not create a crisis for the whole, and the U.S. Army pushed into Germany.