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Was the WW2 memoir "Death Traps" by Belton Cooper historically accurate? Death Traps

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    It would be helpful if this question included at least a couple of examples of issues that are in doubt. The link is not guarantee to persist, not everyone has already read the book and I doubt that many will read it simply to be able to understand the essence of the question. – mickeyf_supports_Monica Sep 14 at 14:34
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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 As a historical reference, though...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.

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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.
  • Okay this old, but I thought one of the main factors deciding the Sherman design was fitting them in transport ships for crossing the Atlantic. Not sure there would have been a great difference on the beaches, as it was tylically one craft per tank? – Tomas By Sep 23 at 20:16
  • By "the beaches" do you literally mean "the beaches"? Tanks were unloaded by larger vessels after the beaches were secured; the battle of Arracourt was 3 months after D-Day. First search result about the number of Shermans an LST could carry: "The LST could carry cargo on both the tank deck and weather deck. With its special "tank" deck, it had the ability to carry any of the following: 20 Sherman tanks..." – Amorphous Blob Sep 24 at 17:06
  • @AmorphousBlob apart from the "swimming tanks" of course – bigbadmouse Sep 30 at 8:34
  • @AmorphousBlob: Incorrect. at least two battalions of duplex-drive amphibious tanks were deployed on Omaha and Utah beaches scheduled to arrive ahead of the infantry - though the rough seas resulted in most sinking before reaching shore. link Equivalent tanks on the British and Canadian beaches had greater success, particularly Hobart's specially modified funnies – Pieter Geerkens Sep 30 at 13:17
  • Sure... but most of those American tanks sank. I think I extrapolated from that disastrous American experience to the British/Canadian beaches too, sorry. – Amorphous Blob Sep 30 at 17:12
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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.

  • I recently read a point about the 75mm gun... US tankers fired... was it about 9? high-explosive rounds against softer targets for every armor-piercing round they fired. I can't locate the composer of the quote, but a while back I read on some forum that "For every fight when a Panther or Tiger outclassed a Sherman there were fifty fights where a Sherman outclassed a German infantry squad.", which was only possible given its relatively light weight. – Amorphous Blob Sep 30 at 17:16
  • Quite true... especially in the case of a Tiger, which was a very rare sight on the western front. I was reading the memoirs of a German soldier, who noted when he was taken prisoner and being marched past a battery of mobile 105's blasting away... that's the way to fight a war. Just paste them with artillery and air attacks, so your soldiers don't get shot up so much. – tj1000 Oct 30 at 1:29
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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.

  • The U.S. 3rd Armoured was part of U.S. First Army for all of the period from D-Day until May 1945 - and thus is included in the statistics for First Army armoured losses through that period. These statistics clearly rebut Cooper's claims. – Pieter Geerkens Sep 24 at 23:00
  • @PieterGeerkens: Can you give me some numbers to use in revising this answer? – John Dallman Sep 25 at 6:38
  • Read para 2 of my answer above and the link to a review of Dupuy's analysis of all armoured losses in First U.S. Army from June '44 to April '45. Crew losses were just under one per tank loss (including both light (crew size = 4) and medium (crew size = 5, mostly Shermans) tanks – Pieter Geerkens Sep 25 at 8:46
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Yes, one has simply to check Cooper's and 3rd AD's records. Most objections are by Sherman Revisionists who simply can't get around his account of the Sherman and its failings.

We're looking for long answers that provide some explanation and context. Don't just give a one-line answer; explain why your answer is right, ideally with citations. Answers that don't include explanations may be removed.

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    Answers should generally be more than a couple sentences and in particular should include links to more detailed supporting evidence. (See the help center). For instance, it would be good to provide links to those records, the objections, and details as to why the objections aren't worthy. – Gort the Robot Sep 12 at 17:28

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