Hollywood And Tanks

The promotional material for the Brad Pitt movie Fury dramatizes an encounter between a platoon of Shermans and a Tiger 1 in where the Shermans get the worst of it.  It exemplifies the by now well known line that it took five or six Shermans to take out a single Tiger.

I was somewhat surprised in later life to learn that this might not be true, which was shocking.  While there is no doubt that a Tiger or a Panther was much better armored and gunned vehicle than the average Sherman, some scholars have argued that as a weapons system the Sherman was the superior of either armored fighting vehicle.  Steven Zaloga is probably the most well known advocate of this point of view.

In his book Panther vs Sherman Zaloga looked at the record and found that on average  the Shermans killed more than their number of Panthers or Tigers.  Now how could that be?  Given the Sherman's automotive inferiority the question was why this should even be possible. Examining 98 engagements in the Ardennes, Army researchers discovered something rather interesting.

The study concluded that the single most important factor in tank-versus-tank fighting was which side spotted the enemy first, engaged first and hit first. This gave the defender a distinct advantage, since the defending tanks were typically stationary in a well-chosen ambush position. ...

The side that saw first and hit first usually had the advantage in the first critical minute ... the overall record suggests that the Sherman was 3.6 times more effective than the Panther ... popular myths that 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 in historical records. The outcome of tank-versus-tank fighting was more often determined by the tactical situation than the technical situation.

Since the Shermans were more numerous and mechanically reliable, they typically got to the key terrain first. They kept going whereas the Panthers and Tigers could only road march short distances from their transporters and railheads. Thus, in most engagements the Shermans could get set up because there were so many of them and they tended to run reliably.

If there was a hill to be grabbed, a road to be blocked, the Shermans would get there first. By contrast, the German tanks were mechanically fragile.  For all their power they were on average, late to the party. Therefore, on a fluid battlefield the Shermans would almost always arrive first on the key terrain and bushwhack the panzers.  Zaloga's conclusion was astounding. And yet it may be true.

The Shermans ambushing Tigers scenario was precisely how panzer ace Michael Wittman met his end. Wittman was a Panzer legend. In Normandy he had destroyed an entire British mechanized column. He was the greatest warrior of the Panzer corps. Yet he was killed -- his tank completely blown up -- by a Sherman ambush.

On 8 August 1944, Anglo-Canadian forces launched Operation Totalize. Under the cover of darkness, British and Canadian tanks and soldiers seized the tactically important high ground near the town of Saint-Aignan-de-Cramesnil. ... Kurt Meyer, of the 12th SS Panzer Division, ordered elements of his command to counterattack and recapture the high ground. Wittmann decided to participate in this attack, as he believed the company commander – who was supposed to lead the attack – was too inexperienced...

Wittmann led a group of seven Tiger tanks, from the Heavy SS-Panzer Battalion 101, supported by additional tanks and infantry. His group of Tigers, crossing open terrain towards the high ground, was ambushed by tanks from A Squadron 1st Northamptonshire Yeomanry, A Squadron the Sherbrooke Fuisilier Regiment, and B Squadron 144 Regiment Royal Armoured Corps. During the ambush, anti-tank shells – fired from either the British or Canadian tanks – penetrated the upper hull of Wittmann’s tank, igniting the ammunition resulting in a fire that engulfed the tank and blew off the turret

Four Tigers died in the massacre, the shells penetrating their side armor, including Wittman's. It was just like Zaloga said:the more mobile tanks got to the high ground and dug in and waited for the slower reacting Tigers to show up and walk into a crossfire of shells. To this day nobody knows whether it was the Canadians or the British that killed Wittman. One of the possible conquerors of Wittman, British tanker Joe Elkins, had only fired five rounds previously at the range. But it didn't matter. The point is that Wittman, tank ace supreme in a Tiger 1 had no chance, from statistical point of view.

Of course the Tigers would sometimes get set first and on those occasions the dug in Tigers would massacre the Shermans, just like in the Fury movie. But this was a comparatively rare event. On average, over the entire campaign the Shermans were far more likely to get the drop on the Panthers and the Tigers because of their numerical superiority and mechanical reliability.

Antoine de Saint Exupéry famously wrote that "what is essential is invisible to the eye". Often what is important is not obvious either. It turns out that what was most important for a tank was being there first.  Now it is doubtful whether the US Army in World War 2 consciously understood why they were beating the German Army, but they were happy enough to be doing something right and  enough that they did.

In those less 'educated' days people more were open to learning from experience  than they are today.  Trial and error was acceptable then. Success was the thing.  How you got there was less so. If it worked, it worked.

Heuristic (/hjʉˈrɪstɨk/; Greek: "Εὑρίσκω", "find" or "discover") refers to experience-based techniques for problem solving, learning, and discovery that find a solution which is not guaranteed to be optimal, but good enough for a given set of goals.

Heuristics succeed when you are willing to work with a hidden teacher. It succeeds when you can stand in the position of attentive learning to reality and listen carefully to what it teaches. There's an passage in Isiah which talks about learning from things we still don't fully understand.  Cyrus, you don't know Me, but it don't matter, cause I know you. There was a big Out There we were all willing to listen to.

Thus says the Lord to his anointed, to Cyrus ... I will go before you and level the exalted places ... will give you the treasures of darkness and the hoards in secret places ... For the sake of my servant Jacob, and Israel my chosen, I call you by your name, I name you, though you do not know me.

Today, there's no more Out There.  It's been replaced by Inside the Beltway where infallibility resides.  It's an age where every public official of consequence has a graduate degree, or several, and is presumably capable of getting anything right the first time.  If he doesn't then he has to cover it up. We live in a world where prior perfection is assumed. We're no longer humble enough to admit we don't know.

Thus Michael Gerson believes the most important question in the Federal government's response to Ebola is whether "it can learn from its mistakes."  Can it admit to fallibility? Can the gods in Olympus confess to perplexity?

The real questions are: Can government learn from its mistakes? And will it be allowed to? ... our Ebola debate must be an exercise in learning lessons. ... In any health-care setting, it is wise to listen to the nurses, who see all. ... reading a protocol off a website is one thing. Implementing a protocol, with perfection as the only acceptable standard, is another. It is the distance between reading a book on batting and taking a pitch in the major leagues.

There an interesting possibility that learning heuristically is more productive in the long run than waiting for the perfect one; that the Sherman solution from men on the spot is better than the Tiger or Panther solution being hatched in the White House. Perhaps the M4 tank from the School of Hard Knocks will prove more successful than the theoretically perfect excellence of the Ivy League. Not individually better, you understand, but statistically better.

Which is a roundabout way of saying that the Tiger onslaught in Fury is good cinema, but it probably didn't happen in real life enough to save the Third Reich.


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