I’m sure we’ve all had the pleasure of knowing a guy like Scott. For reasons unknown, Scott was not satisfied with the virtues of the nation of his birth and instead chose another favorite “home” country to champion: Germany. Scott insists on driving the same BMW E30 325i (complete with faux European front number plate and never-used Thule ski-rack) that’s been in a constant state of falling apart since you met. Scott also turns up his nose at the beer in your fridge and insists on bringing his own six of Warsteiner to parties. Not only does Scott carry an H&K, but he’s got a framed print of the “Rainbow Six” USP promo shot in his living room and had his own custom hunting rifle built from a K98 Mauser instead of going down to the store and buying a Remington 700 off the shelf like normal people do. Scott has all the Waffenfabrik armory codes memorized and knows just a little too much about the German military of the 1940s.
And if you were unwise enough go with Scott to see David Ayer’s Second World War tank epic Fury (2014), then you probably got your ear chewed off about the shortcomings of our standard battle tank of the war, the M4 Sherman, especially compared to the mighty steel war machines of the 3rd Reich. Well, I’m here to tell you that Scott is wrong, and that the M4 Sherman was not only not a bad tank, but was a superb tank, and perhaps the best armored fighting vehicle of the entire war.
We’ll give Scott an education in tanks, but first, let’s have a look at the individual weapons of Fury.
Fury is the most detailed, authentic and intimate look at our most common tank of WWII — and the crews that fought in them — that we’ve ever seen. Ayer delivers a thrilling, expertly shot and directed, yet unflinchingly harsh look at armored combat in the closing stages of the war, a film that forces us to examine the morality and methods of what we ask our citizen soldiers to turn into when we send them to impose our nation’s will on other states. The performances are uniformly excellent, but the movie does earn its R rating with gory and shocking violence.
Most of the usual Western Front arsenal is on display here: M1 Garands, Browning Automatic Rifles and K98 Mausers in the hands of infantry and crew-served machine guns like the MG42, MG34 and M1919 (with superb tracer visual effects), but special emphasis is paid to submachine guns and other personal defense weapons. While a lot of the movie is skillfully shot within the claustrophobic confines of the tank, the crew of Fury frequently needs to take care of business outside her steel hull. And much like real 1940s tank crews they’re all packing short, handy guns that emphasize close-up hitting power over long-range accuracy.
Replacement bow gunner and assistant driver Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman) is handed an M3A1 .45 ACP “Grease Gun” by Grady “Coon-Ass” Travis (Jon Bernthal) and given a short familiarization: “See that cover? Open it and now you killin’. Close it up, now you ain’t.”, effectively explaining the M3A1’s dual-purpose dust cover and safety selector. The M3A1 was summoned into production as Thompson was unable to produce enough M1A1s to satisfy the US Army’s appetite for submachine guns for it’s rear area personnel, vehicle crews and special operations. A simplified stamped-steel design, the M3A1 lacked the panache of the Thompson, but was a handier package and eventually outlasted the Thompson in inventory with the last “Grease Guns” seeing service in the 1991 Gulf War years after the last Thompsons had been cut into scrap and parts kits.
Driver Trini “Gordo” Garcia (Michael Peña) also favors the M3A1, but the other two crewmembers, gunner Boyd “Bible” Swan (Shia LaBeouf) and loader “Coon-Ass” are Thompson men. A more elegant and traditional wood and machined steel design, the Thompson was heavier and bulkier than most competing subguns, but made up for it with a faster but still controllable 725 rpm rate of fire and a reputation for reliability. A nice touch how the movies audio work contrasts the slower 450 rpm cadence of the M3A1 with the faster roar of the Thompson. Although the M3A1 was a simpler design than the Thompson, production difficulties and constant refining and streamlining of Thompson production meant that the M3A1 never overtook the Thompson in numbers, with around 1.5 million M1A1s in service by the end of hostilities.
Tank commander Don “Wardaddy” Collier (Brad Pitt) uses a captured German Sturmgewehr (“assault rifle”) 44 when not riding in Fury. A groundbreaking development in small arms, the StG44 influenced all military rifles that came after it. Chambered in a new short 8mm cartridge that split the difference between a short pistol round and a full power rifle cartridge, the StG44 offered the capacity and fully automatic fire of a submachine gun with superior power and range, and much lighter recoil than a full rifle.
The StG44 pioneered other features now familiar on combat rifles, including an optional optics rail, combination fire select and safety lever and comfortable pistol grip. Echoes of the StG44 continue to be seen in all common military rifles to this day.
But the real star of the movie is of course the superbly preserved M4A2E8 Sherman on loan from the Bovington Tank Museum in England. As you may infer from the long model designation, Fury represents the peak of Sherman evolution and was a significantly different creature from the machine that debuted in the Tunisian desert in 1943. Rushed into production and service, early Shermans suffered from brittle armor as the massive steel castings weren’t given the time (months!) to cool properly, and the initial engine used was underpowered for the application. The definitive Shermans rolled into action with an upgraded engine and a 76mm main gun powerful enough to require a muzzle brake, both of which were the product of hard experience gained in battle.
Here’s where Scott would chime in by pointing out the old saw that it took five or six Shermans to beat a single German tank. This is irrelevant nonsense as despite the tense penultimate tank battle in the movie, tanks never fight each other one to one, as if they were mounted knights jousting each other in a tournament. In doctrine and practice, armored fighting vehicles are merely one piece of the puzzle, supporting and supported by their infantry, artillery, and air power. More than a few German veterans bitterly complained about the speed, accuracy and overwhelming volume of American artillery support, especially after the radar fused “VT” shell was allowed to be unleashed.
“But the Germans still had better tanks!” Scott insists. Not so fast! It’s easy to read off a list of dimensions, capacities, speeds and other measurements in column A and compare them to that of another tank in column B. What that doesn’t capture is how the machines actually performed in service, and numerous critical features and faults are totally unmentioned. To say that the Sherman was an adequate tank that triumphed only because it was available in superior numbers is to miss the point entirely. While early Shermans indeed began the Western European campaign trading with German armor at a ratio of 5:1 (which is about what one would expect considering the traditional 3:1 advantage generally given to the defenders in battle), by the end of the war that ratio had improved to 1:1.5.
Not captured in the picture book statistics are several huge advantages the Sherman had over its Nazi counterparts. While the early gasoline engine was poor by American standards, it was mind-blowingly rugged and dependable compared to its German contemporaries. An M4 driven off the boat in France could cruise itself all the way to the Rhine only stopping for fuel and still be fresh for battle. And when the Sherman did require maintenance, not only was it significantly simpler and involved fewer parts than Panzers, but parts were standardized to such a degree that hand fitting was not required, everything just dropped into place. American tank mechanics also benefited from a lack of variants, only a dozen different versions of the Sherman shipped to Western Europe. By comparison the German pursuit of miniscule improvements gave them a hundred varieties to try and stock parts for. Having the right parts on hand for any given tank was a nightmare, and German tanks spent far more time down for maintenance and repair than Allied armor.
This is reflected in the movie early on as the crew repairs significant battle damage and is able to return Fury to action in mere hours. Another Sherman advantage we get to witness that isn’t commonly discussed is how the interior design and layout benefits the crew. Long before “human factors” was an engineering buzzword, the Sherman got it right — mostly by accident — and especially in comparison to other armor. A Sherman crew could efficiently spot, shoot, drive, communicate and not just with each other, but with supporting infantry, other tanks, and artillery and air support. Considerable resources were spent equipping every Sherman with a superb radio and communications suite that enabled swift and smooth coordination. Having more tanks available is only half the equation. Having a tank where you needed one at all times was the other half, and the Sherman’s superior reliability, speed, mobility, communications and endurance made it possible.
The other, bigger, half of Scott’s folly is not understanding that armor — like aircraft and small arms — are part of a system and one-to-one comparisons are meaningless without understanding the doctrine and practice governing their use in the larger context of battle. Not only was the Sherman an excellent tank overall, it was a superb tank for the way the US Army chose to fight. A slower, ponderous, range limited slugger like the competing M26 Pershing, while by the numbers unequivocally a superior machine, was unsuited to the kind of fast, flexible, reactive cavalry exploitation campaign that conquered Western Europe.
But perhaps the ultimate compliment to the Sherman was paid in the 1950s when the fledgling Israeli Defense Forces, desperate for tanks and frustrated by arms embargoes and limited finances, chose to rebuild and refit surplus Shermans with a French 75mm high velocity gun and an upgraded power plant. The M50 “Super Sherman” went on to considerable combat success, defeating newer Soviet T-55s and T-62s. The Sherman was further upgraded in the 1960s with a 105mm gun and continued to serve in peacetime and battle until finally retired in the 1980s.
So there, Scott.
By Peter Barrett. Originally published in the May 2015 issue of GunUp the Magazine.