Canada in the Second World War

Arms & Weapons

The Sherman Tank

 

Sherman tank in Sicily, 3 August 1943.

Sherman tank in Sicily, 3 August 1943.
Photo by Dwight E. Dolan. Department of National Defence / National Archives of Canada, PA-136670.

Selected as the Western Allies’ standard battle tank in the summer of 1943, the Sherman had been designed in the United States and was produced from February 1942 in several variations. In Canadian armoured formations, it replaced the Canadian-built Ram tank. The 1st Canadian Armoured Brigade was equipped with Shermans in time for the invasion of Sicily in July 1943. These tanks were armed with the standard 75-mm gun, although some also mounted a 105 mm howitzer. The 2nd Canadian Armoured Brigade, and the 4th Canadian Armoured Division, training in Britain for Operation Overlord, had their Canadian-built Ram tanks replaced with Shermans in the months leading up to D-Day. Special “duplex-drive” (DD) tanks had been developed for the assault landing. This model featured a collapsible canvas screen which inflated around the hull of the tank, displacing enough water to allow it to float. Two propellers were fitted at the rear of the tank for use in water; once on land, it used its tracks for propulsion. The four squadrons of 2nd Canadian Armoured Brigade assigned to support the 3rd Division’s landings on Juno Beach-“B” and “C” Squadrons of The Fort Garry Horse and “A” and “B” Squadrons of The First Hussars-“swam” ashore in DD tanks on June 6th, 1944. Other “Funnies” had also been developed for the invasion, including the Sherman “Crab”, a mine-clearing tank equipped with a large flail.

Sherman flail tank near Thaon, France, 6 August 1944. Mines are exploded as chains attached to a rotating drum hit the ground.

Sherman flail tank near Thaon, France, 6 August 1944. Mines are exploded as chains attached to a rotating drum hit the ground.
Photo: by Ken Bell. Department of National Defence / National Archives of Canada, PA-131366.

As the Battle of Normandy developed, it became obvious that the Sherman was seriously outgunned and inadequately armoured compared to the German Panther and Tiger tanks. The range of the 88-mm gun mounted in the latter, for example, was on average four times greater than the Sherman’s 75-mm. To compound the problem, the Sherman’s high profile silhouette made it a more visible target. A match for the powerful German tank guns was found with the conversion of British and Canadian Shermans to mount the 17-pounder, but it could not fire high explosive (HE) rounds and only about 25% of tanks were thus equipped during the Battle of Normandy. The US Army developed a 76.2-mm gun, but it proved inadequate. Such technological disadvantages had unfortunate consequences in battle.
The Sherman’s saving grace was the fact that it was more mechanically reliable than its German counterparts, thus requiring less down-time for maintenance. If it could avoid being hit, it was thus able to spend more time in the field than the vastly outnumbered German tanks. Allied numerical superiority became a decisive factor as the campaign wore on: while the Germans were unable to replace their losses, the Allies had no such difficulty.

Armoured Fighting Vehicles in the Second World War fell victim to anti-tank mines and projectiles fired from anti-tank guns. Aside from striking crew members, the projectile would frequently ignite the fuel and ammunition carried inside the tank…What happens to a tank when hit?

Sherman V (M4A4)
Crew 5 (commander, gunner, loader/wireless operator, driver, co-driver/machine-gunner)
Dimensions Length 6.06 m
Height 2.74 m
Width 2.62 m
Weight 31,600 kg
Armour Hull front: 50 mm; sides: 38 mm; rear: 38 mm
Turret front: 75 mm; sides: 50 mm; rear: 50 mm
Armament one 75-mm gun (97 rounds AP, HE, and smoke ammunition)
two .30-calibre Browning machine guns, one mounted in the bow for the co-driver, the other mounted co-axially in the turret beside the main armament (4750 rounds)
.50-calibre anti-aircraft gun could be mounted on top of the turret
Engine Chrysler A57 multibank 30-cylinder gasoline engine, essentially five 6-cylinder engines working together, 425 horsepower at 2850 rpm. Other variants had diesel engines.
Range 160 km
Maximum Speed 40 kph

What Happens When a Tank is Hit?

Armoured Fighting Vehicles in the Second World War fell victim to anti-tank mines and projectiles fired from anti-tank guns. Most of the latter relied upon kinetic energy to penetrate a tank’s armour. As such, the velocity of the shot was of crucial importance and methods were evolved throughout the war to raise a projectile’s muzzle velocity, some by modifying the projectile, some by modifying the gun. When a tank was hit by any of the variety of armour-piercing rounds, much of the kinetic energy of the shot would be converted to heat upon penetration, raising the internal temperature of the tank. Aside from striking crew members, the projectile would frequently ignite the fuel and ammunition carried inside the tank, causing it to catch fire, or “brew up”. Historian Donald Graves states that crew members had, on average, about 15 seconds to get out once hit. The destruction of their tank did not remove them from battle, however, as it was “common practice on both sides to fire at tank crews who evacuated shot-up vehicles” (Donald E. Graves, South Albertas: A Canadian Regiment at War, 1998, p. 104).

Larger tanks with heavier armour led to more powerful anti-tank guns, as well as the development of a new type of projectile. Instead of kinetic energy resulting from high velocity, shaped- or hollow-charge projectiles relied on explosive chemical energy. When such a projectile struck, “a fuse detonated explosive at the end remote from the shaped cavity at the front of the round and . . . created a jet of molten metal that would penetrate armour plate and spray a mass of flame and melted metal fragments into the interior of a tank. Hollow charge projectiles were ideal for low-velocity, hand-held anti-tank weapons” such as the British PIAT (Projector, Infantry, Anti-Tank), the American bazooka, and the German Panzerfaust and Panzerschreck (Graves, p. 365).

Suggested Reading:

  • “Sherman Tank”, Canadian War Museum Fact Sheet No. 15, edited by Fred Gaffen.
  • R. P. Hunnicutt, Sherman: A History of the American Medium Tank (Belmont, CA: Taurus, 1978)