Belmont Club

History Thread

Steven Zaloga makes the bold claim in his short book Panther vs Sherman (Duel), that the M4 Sherman came off relatively equal in actual tank vs tank combat with the dreaded German Panther. He relies mostly on records from the US 3rd and 4th armored divisions which he treats as a representative sample of the the performance of other US units. Analyzing 98 engagements including many from the Battle of the Bulge Zaloga comes to the conclusion that while even the poorly built and degraded Panthers at the war’s end were far better tank than any model of Sherman it didn’t matter. Tactical advantages, not AFV design advantages were the determining factor in the outcome of any typical engagement.

The single most important factor, Zaloga argued, was who shot first. Whoever fired first, whether they were on the attack or the defense, inflicted 4 times more casualties than those on the receiving end. But who fired first was in turn determined by which side saw the other side first. In that regard the Shermans had two crucial advantages over the Panthers.

They had more eyes and they were there.

Most fights were small unit action, not giant battles of hundreds of AFVs. And in these small unit fights there were typically more Shermans than Panthers, 8:5 in most averages. Fast turret traverse and the provision of two sighting systems for the commander and gunner meant the Shermans could lay on faster. But it may have been their mechanical reliability which mattered most.  They were simply “present” on the battlefield — to the front, to the side and to the rear — in situations where only a fraction of the Panther strength could show up.

The mobility of the Shermans enhanced their ability to set up the tactical situation, which in turn was the prime determinant of which side won the small unit action. For as Heinz Guderian put it, mobility is a weapon. “The engine of the Panzer is a weapon just as the main-gun”. And the poor old M4, so deficient in guns and armor, could get around pretty reliably even after a 1,000 miles on the road.

That gave it two unappreciated weapons systems whose importance was not fully understood in previous analysis: better situational awareness and the tactical advantage of being able to get around.  Zaloga claims that these two factors allowed the Shermans to do much better on the battlefield than a paper comparison with Panthers would suggest. In aggregate you were better off with a lot of working Shermans than a few cantankerous Panthers.

This ratio was probably not typical of all Sherman-versus-Panther exchanges during the war and may also be due to inadequate data collection. Nevertheless, the popular myths that Panthers enjoyed a 5-to-1 kill ratio against Shermans or that it took five Shermans to knock out a Panther have no basis at all in the historical records. The outcome of tank-versus-tank fighting was more often determined by the tactical situation than the technical situation.

… in the end, a mediocre crew in a mediocre tank sitting in an ambush position had an advantage over an excellent crew in an excellent tank advancing forward.

It was all about bushwacking and getting the drop on the other guy. And by that stage in the war the German crews could no longer count on average superiority.  The reason for this decline was again logistical: German army crews lacked the fuel and the vehicle uptime to practice.  Some drivers had as little as two hours of road time before meeting a chugging M4.  As Guderian also put it, “logistics is the ball and chain of armored warfare” and the Panthers in northwestern Europe in late 1944 were crippled by logistics even to the extent of their training.

I have no idea whether Zaloga’s analysis is correct but one of his throwaway lines sounded a chord. He argued that armies in decadence focused on expensive, gold-plated but ultimately defensive weapons. By contrast the burgeoning powers — Nazi Germany in 1941, and the Soviets and Americans in 1944-45 — had weapons systems which were subordinated to their offensive strategy. The superweapons of the dying Third Reich, like the Tigers and the Panthers, with their immobility and lack of range, were an admission of weakness.  By contrast, the M4s and the T34s were the weapons of powers who intended to go places.

That observation seemed to capture the essentially passive ethos of the declining welfare state. Today politics seems all about keeping union jobs going, preserving ‘gains’, ensuring ‘fairness’; making certain giant transnational organizations rumble on long after they’ve run out of funding fuel. There is an air of the Panther about whole clanking bureaucracy; as if it were able to slow,  but never quite defeat the insistent probing of the Shermanesque developments from outside its accustomed boundaries.

Invincible quality has not done as well as should of late. Whether it is the badged media practicioners vs the bloggers; the Romneys and Gingriches vs the Palins or the Cains; or the credentialed vs the bitter clingers — the bigger gun and the thicker armor does not always win the day when the attacker can get in behind you. So maybe Zaloga is correct. Maybe the reviled Shermans were in practice not that much worse than the Panthers. At any rate they were on the side that won the war.

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