Was the WW2 memoir "Death Traps" by Belton Cooper historically accurate?
From some checking on the Arm Chair General, there seems to be some discussion as to its historical accuracy. A summary of the quotes on the comments from the page basically revolves around inaccuracies in tank structure, maintenance and tactics.
This quote was quite telling:
It's worth reading if one takes it simply as a personal memoir. The daily life of an ordnance liaison officer is something seldom discussed. As a historical reference, though...
I haven't seen any independent military analysis on this yet, but I think with most memoirs what you get is that person's experiences; so you can say that he wrote about what he knew, but in the larger context, there might be some liberties taken with what he knew at the time.
The Battle of Arracourt appears to have been the biggest tank battle of the post-D-Day Western Front, between the Third Army's 4th Armoured Division and two German Waffen SS Panzer Brigades. Despite apparently being outnumbered, the 4th Armoured Division won out after several days fighting with casualties of just 32 AFV's compared to German losses in excess of 200 AFV's.
Trevor Dupuy's detailed analysis of tank losses in the U.S. First Army through the final 12 months of the war looked at all 898 losses to light and medium tanks. The average crew loss per tank loss was just under one man: 0.98. Note that U.S. First Army came ashore in Normandy on D-Day, cleared the Cotentin Peninsula and western half of the Normandy Peninsula, participated in closing the Falais Gap, and formed much of the northern half of the German salient during the Battle of the Bulge. That all amounted to rather heavy fighting against some of the best Western Front German units.
These two results in combination strongly suggest that the Sherman was, in most cases, quite adequate when deployed as intended.
One must remember that all military decisions, like all engineering decisions, are tradeoffs. TANSTAAFL - There Ain't No Such Thing As A Free Lunch. If the U.S. had opted for a heavier tank design for 1944-5 there would have been ripple effects all through the Order of Battle; for starters:
- Fewer tanks built;
- Greater difficulty (and likely greater delay) landing them on beachheads; and
- Reduced flexibility in tank deployment.
One has to put Cooper's observations in the context of his position.
As an ordnance person tasked with recovering and repairing wrecked Shermans, that's what he would spend most of his time looking at. So it's understandable that he would have a very negative opinion of them. If you spent all day in a junkyard, you might develop a less than positive opinion of the wrecked vehicles you were looking at.
The Shermans, and the US, British, and French forces that used them, were attacking, while the Germans were defending. Since the defenders can prepare a defense and wait in ambush, attackers usually suffer more casualties. This is especially true of armored vehicles, with the opponents having both tanks and antitank cannon with which to ambush the attackers.
Shermans, certainly the early ones, had a short barreled/low velocity 75mm cannon that couldn't penetrate German armor at anything but short distances, and a reputation for catching fire when hit.
The fire situation was more related to poor ammunition storage than gasoline fuel. It was the ammunition that would catch fire when the tank was hit. This was partially addressed during the war with a water jacket around the ammunition storage, that would break and extinguish the ammunition fire when the tank was hit.
The weak cannon was later upgraded with either a high velocity 76mm cannon (E8) or British 17 pound cannon (Firefly). It was a Firefly Sherman that killed the premier German tank ace Michael Wittmann in his Tiger 1. Years later, Israel fitted a 105mm cannon to Shermans they had in service during the 6 day war. Ironically, Syria employed some Panzer 4's they had acquired after the war during that conflict - the wreckage of at least one still lies on the Golan Heights.
Also, while the later German tanks had better armor and more powerful cannon, they were heavy and prone to frequent breakdowns. So the Panthers and Tigers not only broke down a lot, their heavier weight made them very difficult to recover for repair.
To fight a mobile war, one must be... mobile.
Belton Cooper makes it seem as though to go to battle in a Sherman meant certain death. What a load of tripe. The Sherman had the second highest crew survivability of any WW2 tank second only to the Mk VII Churchill. Losses of US Sherman crew in WW2 sat at around 8% while infantry at 13%. For every Sherman destroyed crew loss was 1.2 - no one has caused as much false misinformation about the Sherman as Belton Cooper. His book should be listed as a book of fiction.
I bought and read the book. I have not checked all its claims, but the general principles of using personal memoirs are applicable:
- They're usually accurate about things that the author did and saw personally.
- Their analysis of those things may be biased.
- Things they didn't experience personally are not reliable. They may be right, and if not, they may give an idea of what the troops thought was happening - which is often wrong, for things outside their immediate area.
Cooper is probably reliable about the casualty rate of Sherman tanks in 3rd Armoured Division, because that was what his job was about.
He doesn't have statistics about the crew loss rate, but he clearly feels it was far too high, and that this is because the Sherman was inadequate. It's possible that he was biased because of personal issues, like the loss of friends of his. I can easily believe that the rate was higher than anticipated by Army planners, because of the recurring instances in his book of infantry replacements being assigned as tank crews, getting hasty training, and then getting slaughtered in their first actions. It's possible that this is the main reason the loss rate was high, rather than the limitations of the Sherman. It's generally accepted, as far as I know, that the US Army's personnel replacement system during WWII was not good, and caused unnecessary deaths.
Cooper is wrong, to the best of my knowledge, about things like the system for preparing V-2 rockets for firing. He claims those were supplied as three modules that weren't stacked together until they were erected on the mobile launcher. In fact, they were assembled during production, and transported fully assembled.