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Most military histories of the war in North Africa, and especially those produced from a British point-of-view, emphasise the greenness of the American troops which landed there in 1942. There is a tendency to compare them unfavourably with the battle-hardened Germans (and British) who'd already been fighting for three years. The Americans had a lot to learn in 1942 (though everyone agrees they did learn quickly).

Yet those same histories will also suggest one of the keys to the British finally defeating Rommel in Egypt and Libya in late 1942 was the arrival of large quantities of the excellent American Grant and Sherman tanks. British tanks like the Valentines and Mathildas used in the region between 1940 and 1942 don't seem to have been anything like as good.

So my question is, how was the United States able to produce such good designs and such well built tanks so early in the war (early from a US point of view)? Without experience of war and with an isolationist mentality up until 1941 where had these excellent tank designs sprung from? Why weren't their tank designs as green as their troops?

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"The Americans had a lot to learn in 1942 (though everyone agrees they did learn quickly)." An earlier generation of British soldiers experienced this in 1776 (and shortly thereafter). –  Tom Au May 12 '13 at 18:53
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"Without experience of war and with an isolationist mentality up until 1941" - incorrect. The USA (albeit reluctantly) was very actively engaged in WWI, and was regarded as an international power from the time of the Spanish-American War in 1898. Theodore Roosevelt, a war hero of the Spanish American War and POTUS from 1901-1909 was anything but an isolationist and was highly critical of Woodrow Wilson's isolationist/pacifist leanings. –  user2590 Jul 22 '13 at 7:20
    
Weren't the German tanks around excellent too? –  Rohit Feb 9 at 13:14
    
I think the tanks themselves do not deserve full credit for the success of American armor in World War II. Training and tactics developed during the war were used effectively to overcome physical deficiencies in the tanks themselves. –  Bruce James Feb 9 at 20:45

5 Answers 5

  • Good? No. Lots of them? Yes.

  • The Americans were leaders in mass-producing large durable goods at low cost - cars, especially. This translated to mass-producing medium cruiser tanks (the M4 Sherman) almost as quick as they could roll a Buick off the assembly line. What's more, these were brand new machines, they had not spent months and months slogging through the desert and one pitched battle after the next, and the Americans brought plenty of spare parts for them.

  • They were designed to be easily repairable and incredibly reliable, and they could move a lot quicker than the German armor. In a stand-up fair fight, the Sherman loses every time. Monty and Patton didn't do stand-up fair fights, they left that to the Russians.

  • The Americans chose to incrementally improve and upgrade the Sherman, eschewing clean-sheet designs. This meant the Sherman kept getting better and better, while retaining its low cost. At the beginning of the war they were called Ronsons by German tankers - a brand of cigarette lighter who's motto was "Lights on the first strike". The design was so extensible that not only were they a credible threat to heavy German tanks by the end of WWII, they were used to good effect against modern Soviet armor in the Six Day War.

  • It's not how you start, but how you finish.

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Great answer. +1 –  Felix Goldberg Mar 27 '13 at 6:19
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good answer indeed. Though in the Six Day War they weren't that effective as tanks, the brunt of the fighting was done by Centurions and other more modern tanks. Where they were effective is in slowing down the Arabs, buying time with their death to allow other units to get to the fight. –  jwenting Mar 27 '13 at 6:49
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@jwenting - Here is a great forum post on the operational history of the Israeli "Super Sherman" I ran into while googling around for something else: ww2incolor.com/forum/showthread.php/… –  RI Swamp Yankee Mar 27 '13 at 14:26
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I hope all recognize the origin of the Ronson nickname: each tank lit up on the first strike (ie shot) fired at them because of the thin armour. –  Pieter Geerkens Jan 13 '14 at 0:37
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You had my +1 on "Good? No. Lots of them? Yes." :) –  Michael Jun 19 '14 at 16:03

There are at least three criteria for "good" tanks: combat effectiveness, ease of production, and mechanical reliability.

The Americans produced "good" tanks that excelled in the latter two categories. That's because they were the world's best producers of automobiles. To take off on U.S. civil war cavalry doctrine, American generals regarded tanks as a form of transportation.

Sherman tanks were inferior to the better, heavier, Russian T-34s, not to mention the German Tiger and Panther tanks, in combat power. The latter were, however, hard tanks to produce, which is to say that the Germans didn't produce many of them. On the whole, the Shermans were a match in combat power for the Mark III's and Mark IV's that the Germans did have in common use, and were superior in mobility, mechanical reliability and producibility. Put another way, the Americans won World War II because they succeeded in mass producing a lot of "good enough" tanks that were a more than a match for similar German tanks, and also overwhelmed the handful of great tanks that the Germans produced.

The British "Waltzing" Mathildas were slow, clumsy, undergunned tanks that were competitive with the German tanks only in the weight of their armor. The American Sherman tanks represented a clear improvement over that standard.

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well said. American tanks were individually terrible as weapons, but won out due to sheer pressure of numbers. A Tiger in France could take out 5-8 Shermans in a typical engagement before being rendered combat ineffective, but would typically encounter them in groups of 10 or more per Tiger. Same situation existed between T-34s and Tigers on the east front (and the T-34 was in some ways superior to the Sherman, especially armour protection). Shermans were only superior to many British tanks, and then mostly in armour and reliability, not firepower. –  jwenting Mar 27 '13 at 6:47
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"inferior to the better, heavier, German Tiger and Panther tanks, (not to mention the Russian T-34)" - possibly this sentence should have opposite order "inferior to T-34 not to mention Panther and Tiger". T-34 was a medium tank. Panther and Tiger were heavy tanks. T-34 was much inferior to Panther and Tiger (although also much cheaper). –  Anixx Mar 27 '13 at 7:02
    
@jwenting - Interesting to note that the French Char B2 could take out 5-8 Panzers, it was a real monster tank, but the mobility, reliability and sheer numbers of German armor overwhelmed them. The Nazis then went ahead and made the same mistake - slow, expensive vs. quick and cheap. –  RI Swamp Yankee Mar 27 '13 at 11:51
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@RISwampYankee the Char could take out 5-8 Panzer I or II, yet when up against the few Panzer III and IV that were available they quickly fell. The Germans never initially intended to use the Is and IIs for combat operations, but had no choice in the matter when Hitler started the war before sufficient numbers of IIIs were available (the I and II were designed mainly to train crews and familiarise units in combined arms operations). –  jwenting Mar 27 '13 at 12:01
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The T-34 was not heavier, they were about the same weight with similar amounts of armor. What made the T-34 so much better than the M4 was its 76mm (later 85mm) high velocity gun compared to the M4's 75mm low velocity gun (later 76mm high velocity), sloped armor, and that it existed in 1941. In many ways the T-34 was an inferior tank with a bad transmission, poor ergonomics and bad optics (mostly fixed in the T-34-85). –  Schwern Feb 9 at 1:24

The build up of the US army from a small, backwards, underfunded, isolationist peace-time army in 1939 to a six million person world conquering colossus in 1945 is one of the under-appreciated triumphs of WWII. Much can be attributed to the cadre of professional, forward thinking officers like George Marshall the US maintained. When it comes to tanks, it was a devotion to automotive quality, focusing on a single design, and "leapfrogging" the enemy in guns and armor.

Let me lay out some ground rules. This answer is in the context of 1942, later war tank developments do not apply. The US tanks will only be compared to their intended and actual opponents, Soviet tanks may be great but the M4 wasn't designed to fight them.

In WWII the main purpose of tanks was not to fight other tanks, it was to support the infantry, either in the infantry support role (infantry / heavy tanks like the Matilda or early Panzer IV) or cavalry role (medium and light / cavalry / cruiser tanks like the Crusader). Good WWII tank design considered these elements.

  • Cost
  • Speed of manufacture
  • Ease of manufacture (simpler parts can be made by more factories)
  • Mechanical reliability
  • Ease of maintenance
  • Fuel consumption
  • Road performance
  • Cross-country performance
  • Silhouette
  • Ergonomics (how well can the crew can operate the tank)
  • Armament vs infantry (machine guns & high explosive rounds)
  • Armament vs armor
  • Armor vs high explosive (artillery)
  • Armor vs kinetic (anti-tank guns)

This can explain a lot of apparently odd decisions on the part of US tank designers. They liked the 75mm gun because it fired an excellent high explosive round, very effective against infantry, whereas the 76mm gun with better anti-tank performance had a less effective HE round. They considered maneuverability and mechanical reliability more important than heavy armor and anti-tank performance, because the US army was a very aggressive and wanted to make sweeping attacks and avoid slogging matches.

On to the question. The US had a huge advantage over Britain and Germany in 1940-1942, an enormous, underutilized and experienced automotive industrial base. This meant US tank designs would be mechanically well-designed and reliable. Better engines and transmissions can carry more armor at better speed. Their excess of productivity meant the designs could also be lavish, especially relative to the extremely overstretched British.

The US had another advantage. Prior to the war they had almost no tanks to speak of and a very small army. This meant they had no prior stock of parts and ammunition to consider. They didn't have to rush half-finished designs into combat either. They could sit back and watch the development in Europe and stock their new army with the latest and the greatest. While the US Army had little experience in armored warfare, and budgets were miniscule, they knew a war was brewing and had laid the ground work for armored tactics and design.

Rather than working on a whole bunch of different tank chassis (the Germans had at least six in production in 1942, the British were probably as bad) they focused on one. Starting in 1935, they gained experience with the M2 Light Tank, which developed into the M2 Medium Tank or "the tank that proved you can have too many machine guns". But it was fast, reliable, and pretty easy to build.

When a layman considers a tank, they see the gun and armor and that's it. It cannot be overstated how important it is for a tank to have a good drive-train, and how many otherwise excellent tanks were crippled by bad transmissions and weak engines overloaded with too much armor. Tank engines have to move 30-70 tons at 30mph, and their transmissions have to transmit 400-700 horsepower at high torque. It doesn't matter how good your tank is if it breaks down or gets stuck in the mud every 50 miles. It doesn't matter how thick your front armor is if I can drive around behind you. The Tiger never solved their drive-train problems. The early Panther production was crippled by them, in the Battle of Kursk nearly as many were lost to breakdowns as to enemy action. The KV/IS series of tanks was, in some ways, Soviet engineers learning to make decent transmissions.

The Americans avoided all that by using the same Wright/Continental radial aircraft engine on the M2, M3 and early M4. It was a compact, reliable, existing engine, with an existing production line. It had the torque and power necessary to drive a well armored tank at a good speed giving it a better power/weight ratio than the PzIII or IV). When they couldn't produce enough engines, they grabbed another existing aircraft engine, the Ford GAA V8. This had the trade-off of using gasoline, more flammable than diesel, but the Americans thought the extra power was worth it.

The invasion of Poland and France showed the M2 was under-gunned, under-armored, poorly laid out, and too tall, but the British army, having littered France with much of their heavy equipment, needed tanks RIGHT NOW, so the US went about designing an expedient tank. It was known that the 37mm gun was inadequate. Everyone else was incrementally upgunning, the US wanted to leapfrog everyone with a 75mm gun (a huge gun in 1940, the Soviets had the same idea earlier with the T-34), but designing a new turret takes a long time. The M3 Lee/Grant used the same chassis, drive train and 37mm turret as the M2 Medium taking advantage of a known good design and existing production lines. It deleted most of the machine guns, added some armor, and, most obviously, stuck the 75mm out the side of the tank.

The M3 was awkward, but it did the job, and it was quite a surprise at the Battle Of Gazala. The 75mm was far superior to the 2 pounders the British were fielding and could out-range most of what the Germans and Italians had. The best the Germans had was the Panzer III with a 50mm gun and thin armor. Its armor was flawed (the rivets had a tendency to become projectiles), but adequate. It was also fast, as fast or faster than most tanks at the time. In some ways, the M3 was the first Main Battle Tank (ie. it could cover both the infantry and cruiser tank role) fielded by the Western Allies (the Soviets already had the T-34).

With the M3 in production, and the British reporting painful lessons back, the US got down to the business of designing the M4. They chose the simplest. It kept the good parts of the M3 (suspension, transmission, chassis and 75mm gun), fixed the layout, and added a new turret. Like the M3, the M4 was designed to do it all. It had the armor and HE round to support infantry, it had the speed, reliability and cross-country performance for breakthroughs and cavalry dashes, and at the time it had the gun and armor to defeat anything in the Axis arsenal. This was all true until it met the Tiger (and later Panther).

There you have it. A cadre of professional, pre-war officers made sure to keep the US Army up to date and in practice with tanks despite a miniscule budget. They used their extensive automotive industry and experience to design a fast, reliable drive-train and chassis which they continually improved and upgraded. They observed events in Europe (particularly the battles of Poland and France) and altered their plans accordingly, only committing to their final design (the M4) in 1941.

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Such an effort +1 pal –  Rohit Feb 9 at 13:23
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I learn a lot when I research these. :) –  Schwern Feb 9 at 19:22
    
The US also had superior training programs. The all-black 761st Tank Battalion, "Patton's Panthers," had two-years of training, due to the reluctance to send blacks to the front lines. But once deployed they excelled, causing 130,000 casualties to the enemy, and earning a Presidential Unit Citation. –  Bruce James Feb 9 at 20:44
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@BruceJames I'm sure they were great, but 130,000 casualties seems quite high for 700 men and 70 tanks in action for only a half a year. That's more Germans than were killed, wounded, missing or captured in the Battle Of The Bulge. Here is the actual Presidential Unit Citation which is very impressive. –  Schwern Feb 9 at 21:13
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I meant to cite the source for that number, which I see was not referenced: thehistoryreader.com/modern-history/… –  Bruce James Feb 9 at 21:37

I think the writers mean excellent tanks compared to the crappy British tanks rather the German tanks in 1942. British failed to produce a world beating tank throughout WW2 and had lots of unsuccessful tank programmes. Probably the best "British" tank used in wide numbers in WW2 was the Sherman Firefly although the Comet which was about as good as a Panther was coming into service at the end of war.

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Of course the Brits had most of their industry producing destroyers and Spitfires, so it made no sense to duplicate effort with the Yanks on tank design or production after Pearl. –  Pieter Geerkens Jan 13 '14 at 0:39
    
German tanks in 1942 were not impressive either. PzI, II and Pz38s were obsolete. PzIII had done well earlier, but was now under-gunned and its armor was becoming inadequate. PzIV was an anti-infantry tank with a very short 75mm gun. The Tiger in late 1942 was a shock, but they were expensive, few were available, and had enormous mechanical problems. The Panther was still being designed. It wouldn't be until the PzIV was upgraded to Ausf G that the Germans had a good all-rounder tank. –  Schwern Feb 9 at 1:40

Actually the M3 Sherman was considerably undergunned and in the battle of Villers Bocage Michael Wittmann with just one tiger tank destroyed 14 Shermans in succession.

The British up-gunned the Shermann to a 90mm gun and called it the Firefly at which point it was more evenly matched gun wise, but not in terms of protection.

The Sherman had a radial aircraft engine for propulsion therefore used high octane fuel. For this reason the Germans nicknamed it the "Ronson Lighter" for its ease to set alight.

The Cromwell British tank was far superior to the Sherman and led to the Post war Centurion, so other than being able to produce the Sherman in large numbers I don't see the question is all that valid.

British Tanks used in the desert campaign were "Infantry tanks" the product of 1930s philosphy. The Lee Grant and Stewart light tanks were not much different.

The Sherman arrived late in the north Africa campaign developed from lessons learned by mistakes. USA was able to implement changes to the Lee Grant with a new turret and hull quite quickly. It was still only developed to take on the German Mark IV. When it met the Tiger it was outclassed.

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The OP is asking about 1942. It's the M4 Sherman. Villers Bocage happened in 1944. The Cromwell came into service in 1944. The M3 Lee/Grant was not a light tank, it was a medium (and pretty big for a medium). –  Schwern Feb 9 at 1:43

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