Imagining battle in a Sherman tank
Uvalde, Texas — There is nothing elegant about atank.
I am currently seated in an M4 Sherman, workhorse of the Allied army. Just over 49,000 of these were made from 1942 to 1945, rolled off the assembly lines at the General Motors plant in Grand Blanc, Mich., and the Pullman plant in Hammond, Ind., and elsewhere. Thirty-three squat tons of welded steel cycling through the sand outside El Alamein, or mowing the jungles on Tarawa, or rumbling up the Komodienstrasse in Cologne, with five men — driver and assistant driver up front, commander, gunner, and loader in back — fitted into position like pegs. On top, scanning the horizon, is a 76-millimeter main gun, which will fire a 14-pound projectile round at 2,600 feet per second, or 1,773 miles per hour. This is a clenched fist of a vehicle, a monument to brute machine force.
There are operational Sherman tanks scattered across the United States, but this particular tank — an M4A2E8, or “Easy Eight,” a late-in-the-war upgrade of the standard M4 — is the only functional E8 left in the world, and it is in a garage about two and a half hours due west of San Antonio, alongside six other tanks, two German anti-tank guns, a World War II howitzer, and several dozen machine guns, infantry weapons, and handguns, modern and period, from as early as World War I, almost all operational and available to be fired by you, reader, for a modest price. God bless Texas.
You will find them at DriveTanks, launched last year by Todd DeGidio, a former Houston cop and Green Beret. Cut out of the 18,000-acre Ox Ranch is a rugged course around which clients can drive any of DriveTanks’ nine vehicles (seven tanks, a converted German Sd.Kfz. 251 D-model armored half-track, and a German Kettenkrad Sd.Kfz. two-tracked motorcycle) and a 200-yard firing range for all manner of things explosive, up to and including the Sherman’s main gun. DeGidio & Co. are wrapping up construction of a garage extension, which will house seven more vehicles.
Neither amusement park nor historical gallery exactly, the operation is a sort of “living museum.” The modern-vehicle collection features a Soviet BMP-1, an “infantry fighting vehicle” that combined the deadly elements of a light tank with the transport capacities of an armored personnel carrier; a West German Leopard 1A4 Main Battle Tank; and three British vehicles: a FV101 Scorpion Light Tank, which served in the Falklands and Gulf wars; a Vietnam-era Abbot FV433, technically classified as a “self-propelled gun”; and a FV4201 Chieftain Mk.6 Main Battle Tank, widely considered the most formidable armored vehicle in operation when it was unveiled in 1966. But it’s the World War II vehicles that crown the collection: besides the German half-track and motorcycle, the Sherman and a Soviet T-34-85 Medium Tank, an unsentimental piece of Stalin-era engineering.
People from across the country come to drive and shoot. History buffs and gun nuts, of course, but also parents and kids and the occasional corporate retreat. Choices range from time on the gun range with, among other options, an AK-47, an M3 “grease gun,” or an M4 carbine (today’s standard U.S. infantry weapon), to a variety of all-day, all-you-can-shoot packages. There is no bonding experience quite like blowing something up. Most people come for the Sherman, of course, particularly since the 2014 film Fury, starring Brad Pitt as an “Easy Eight” commander in the Second Armored Division, “Hell on Wheels,” which during the course of the war rolled across North Africa, Sicily, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and, finally, Germany.
I am sitting in the driver’s seat of the Sherman, feet on the clutch and accelerator, hands on the steering levers — one for the right track, one for the left. Driving a tank is not like driving a Toyota, but it’s not terribly difficult. DeGidio will let children as young as twelve at the levers. The instrument box is at left, at eye level, transmission on the floor in the center. The assistant driver, low man on the totem pole, would sit at right, not actually assisting in the driving — he had no controls or instrument to hand — but operating a .30-caliber machine gun. In front of each of us is a periscope, the extent of the driver’s and assistant driver’s vision, provided they were disinclined to peek their heads out of the hatch. Beyond that, the only sight is the sloping metal of the front hull, two inches thin in the original Sherman, beefed up a bit in the E8.
Needless to say, this is not a place for the claustrophobic. Turn around and there is the hulking apparatus of the turret, where the other three members of the crew were positioned. Head out the hatch, shouting into the intercom radio, would be the tank commander, the senior-most crewmember, coordinating the whole operation: directions to the driver, targets to the gunner, instructions to other tanks if he was also a platoon leader or company commander. Seated in front of him was the gunner, in control of a .30-caliber coaxial machine gun and the main gun (originally a 75mm, in the E8 a more powerful 76mm). If he was good, he could pick up a target in a few seconds, but the quality of the shot was entirely dependent on skill; Sherman gunners had a limited view of the battlefield and no aid for aiming. And whether he could pull the trigger depended on the competence of the loader, seated opposite, in charge of keeping a belt in the .30-cal and of heaving ammo into the main gun. When the long gun was ready, he would shout: Up!
The sound that followed was deafening.
A Sherman tank rolls along at a constant noise level around 85 decibels, something like the sound of a subway car. But the main gun fires at a level double that. The sound is cataclysmic, and for much of the war tank crews wore no hearing protection. But it was far from being the most powerful weapon on the battlefield. The centerpiece of Germany’s anti-tank artillery, the Pak 40 (also available to fire at DriveTanks), will set off your car alarm.
Operated by a five-man crew and frequently camouflaged, the Pak 40 was devastating. An experienced crew could fire 14 armor-piercing rounds a minute, with an effective range of more than a mile. By comparison, the Sherman’s main gun was effective only within 600 yards. The Pak 40 had the disadvantage of being immobile without a gun tractor, so Pak 40 crews had high mortality rates; either they were deadly or they died. But they were the former, often.
The pinnacle of German engineering, though, was its heavy tank: the Panzerkampfwagen VI Tiger Ausf. E, or simply the Tiger. Weighing more than 60 tons, outfitted with four inches of frontal armor, the Tiger was effectively impenetrable to the Sherman’s standard 75mm main gun; the Sherman had to be within a few hundred yards to penetrate the two inches of armor on the side. Meanwhile, the Tiger’s 88mm main gun fired a 22.5-pound armor-piercing round with an effective range of almost two miles. On June 13, 1944, at Villers-Bocage in Normandy, Waffen-SS tank commander Michael Wittmann — aided, to be sure, by the element of surprise — destroyed 14 Allied tanks, 15 personnel carriers, and two anti-tank guns in less than 15 minutes aboard a Tiger I. The Tiger II, or King Tiger, which replaced the Tiger I late in the war, was even more powerful.
Complementing the heavy tanks during the last two years of the war was the lighter, faster Panther. That tank, too, outgunned the Sherman. One American officer recorded an engagement between a Panther and a U.S. tank under the command of Lieutenant Colonel William B. Lovelady, who led the Second Battalion of the Third Armored Division: “One of his Shermans turned the corner of a house and got off three shots at the front of a Panther, [but] all bounced off. The Sherman then backed behind the corner and was disabled by a shot [from the Panther] penetrating two sides of the house plus the tank.”
The surest way to dismantle a superior German tank was to hit it in the rear from close range, but that generally required five or six Shermans operating in concert, putting some in the unhappy position of being bait. Moreover, many Sherman tanks, when hit, suffered ammunition fires; the Sherman acquired the grim nickname “Ronson,” after the New Jersey cigarette-lighter brand whose slogan was “Lights up the first time, every time!”
How, then, did the Allies win? There is something to be said for sheer industrial might. The German Tigers were potent, but at a high cost — $100,000 per unit in 1941 dollars, or about $1.7 million today. Production also required enormous manpower. The M4 Sherman was half the price, and it could be churned out quickly. Ultimately, the Third Reich produced only about 1,800 Tiger-model tanks, and just 6,000 Panthers. Meanwhile, in addition to 49,000 American Shermans, the Soviets pushed out 65,000 T-34-model tanks, which were critical in repelling Hitler from the east. Quantity over quality, in short.
Of course, that cannot be said of the tank commanders, drivers, assistant drivers, gunners, and loaders who steered inferior weaponry to victory — men such as Lafayette G. Pool. Over just 83 days of combat in the summer of 1944, Pool, of the Third Platoon, I Company, 32nd Armored Regiment, Third Armored Division, destroyed 258 enemy vehicles, killed more than 1,000 enemy soldiers, and took 250 prisoners, all with three M4 Shermans. On September 19, his tank was knocked out by two German shells; Pool lost a leg. “He rode that tank like a Texas bronc,” his driver told a reporter later.
Pool grew up in Odem, Texas, just a few minutes from my own childhood home. I wonder how he did it, this fellow Lone Star son; indeed, how any of them did it. Conscripted, shipped across the world — then, in the face of fire, dauntless, the sailors at sea, the pilots overhead, the G.I.s in the muck, and the gasoline cowboys, rolling their beasts right into the mouth of hell.
With my hands on the levers, I can almost hear the shout at my back: Up!