M4 Series Medium Tanks

M4A3 Shermans of the 781st Tank Battalion line up on the main street in Lemberg in December, 1945. The lead tank mounts the 76mm "high velocity" main gun, while the remaining tanks mount the original 75mm pieces. (SOC)

 

The workhorse of the 781st—and of all US Army medium tank battalions in WWII after 1942—was the M4 Sherman tank. Four variants served in combat with the 781st in Europe. Shermans equipped with the 75mm main gun were at a serious disadvantage, as by 1944, this weapon lacked the lethality and accuracy necessary to duel with most German tanks at typical engagement ranges. All US armored vehicles were vulnerable to attack by German Panzerfaust (“Armored Fist”) or Panzerschreck (“Tank Terror”) rocket launchers. The former was the forerunner of the modern Soviet RPG series of antitank rocket launchers, and was an inexpensive, mass manufactured weapon with a short range (50 yards or less), but with an enormously powerful rocket-propelled chemical warhead capable of penetrating the armor of any Sherman with its jet of hyper-heated gas and high explosive. The latter resembled an American bazooka, but was manufactured in a much larger caliber (88mm vs. 60mm, or 2.36 inches), making it a much more formidable weapon.

M4A3 with 76mm gun and sandbags for protection against German antitank rockets. (SOC)

To nullify the effects of these ubiquitous and deadly weapons, crews of the 781st often decked their tanks with sandbags. Although the weight slowed down the vehicles, the sandbags detonated the Germans’ rocket warheads and dissipated their chemical energy before the armor could be penetrated.

Some units of the 781st possessed the M4A3 with a 3-inch, or 76mm main gun. This much more powerful weapon was more than a match for the most common German tank at this stage of the war, the Panzer IV, or the most common assault guns faced by the 100th Infantry Division, the Hetzer and Sturmgeschütz III or IV, all of which were equipped with a 75mm gun of slightly inferior performance. Otherwise, this variant provided the same reliable service and moderate armor protection as those M4A3s equipped with 75mm guns.

781st M4A3E8 leads the way through the Camp de Bitche, March 1945. (NA)

 

781st Shermans equipped with 76mm guns were more than a match for German armored vehicles equipped with the medium caliber-length 75mm gun, such as this Panzerjäger 38 Hetzer ("Harrier") tank destroyer/assault gun. (NA)

Another variant of the Sherman serving with the 781st was the M4A3E8, or “Easy Eight.” This version also carried the 3-inch, or 76mm gun, which fired its 15.4 pound armor piercing projectile at a muzzle velocity of 2,600 feet per second (or almost 27% faster than the 75mm gun M3 equipping many of the M4A3s in the battalion!). When equipped with this weapon, Shermans were more than a match for the German Panzer IV or any other German armored vehicle equipped with the standard German caliber-length 46 or 48 main gun. (such as the Hetzer tank destroyers employed by the 17th SS-Panzer Grenadier Division around Rimling, or Sturmgeschütz III or IV assault guns employed by elements of German XC Corps around Lemberg during Operation NORDWIND.) Even with this 76mm main gun, however, crews of the 781st who were fortunate enough to be so equipped were outgunned by the 21st Panzer Division’s Panther tanks supporting the 17th SS at Rimling, which mounted a 75mm gun with a much higher muzzle velocity (3,066 feet per second). They were grotesquely outgunned by the behemoth 128mm guns mounted on the “Hunting Tiger”(Jagdtiger) tank destroyers from the German 653rd Heavy Tank Destroyer Battalion, some of which were also attached to the 17th SS during Operation NORDWIND. Aside from its improved main gun, the only other significant difference of this variant of the Sherman is reduced ammo storage; due to the larger bulk of the 76mm projectile, it could only carry 71 rounds.

Captain Jack Rothschild examines a German Panzerjäger VI Jagdtiger ("Hunting Tiger") knocked out near Rimling. Note the massive, 250mm frontal turret armor evident in this photo; no Sherman of any type could penetrate this protection at typical combat ranges. (NA)

The Headquarters Company’s Assault Gun Platoon possessed Shermans armed with 105mm howitzers, as did the Headquarters Platoons of each medium tank company. While this main gun had very limited usefulness as an antiarmor weapon, it was extremely useful both in the indirect fire mode, and in direct fire against field fortifications or buildings. Otherwise, its performance was very similar to a standard Sherman. Sometimes, all six assault guns were brigaded together to form a provisional battery. During NORDWIND, the 781st created such an organization, under the command of Lieutenant Yonkers. Designated “Battery Y,” it included all of the indirect fire assets in the battalion, including the battalion 81mm mortar platoon and all of the battalion’s 105mm-equipped Shermans.

M4A3 Assault Gun with 105mm howitzer. Photo taken at Fort Hood, Texas, by Jim Weller. (Photo appears by gracious permission of Mr. Weller. Viewers may examine many of his other fine photos of WWII armored vehicles at http://people.delphi.com/jtweller/tanks/tanks.htm)

In the spring of 1945, as the 781st supported the 100th Infantry Division’s drive into Germany during Operation UNDERTONE, Headquarters Company M4A3 tanks were equipped with the US Army’s answer to the dreaded German Nebelwerfer rocket launchers. These two vehicles were rigged with 4.5-inch rocket launchers, each capable of “ripple firing” up to 60 rockets in a single barrage lasting only 30 seconds. These vehicles provided much-needed fire support to elements of the 397th and 398th Infantry Regiments during their assault crossing of the Neckar River at Heilbronn in April 1945.

M4A3 of Headquarters Company/781st Tank Battalion equipped with 4.5" rocket launcher. (SOC)

M4A3 Sherman

Height: 9 feet
Width: 8.7 feet
Length: 19.4 feet
Weight: 37 tons
Combat radius (how far one can go on a tank of gasoline): 100 miles on roads

Armor:
  Front: 2 inches
  Side: 1.5 inches
  Turret Front: 3 inches
  Turret Side: 2 inches
  Mantlet (Armored shield on front of turret)
    M4A3: 1.75 inches
    M4A3E8: 3.2 inches

Maximum Speed
  Road: 26 mph
  Cross-Country: 15 mph

Armament:
  Main Gun Muzzle velocity:
    (75mm) 2,050 feet per second
    (76mm) 2,600 feet per second
    (105mm How) 1,550 feet per second
  Bow Machine Gun: .30-caliber
  Co-axial Machine Gun: .30-caliber
  Anti-aircraft Machine Gun: .50-caliber

Source: US Army Aberdeen Proving Grounds Series

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