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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
"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

4 Answers 4

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
"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
@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
  • 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
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
@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
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
You had my +1 on "Good? No. Lots of them? Yes." :) –  Michael Jun 19 '14 at 16:03

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

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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