Tank Myths of World War II

By Jim Lankford, National Historian

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During the 65 years that have passed since the end of hostilities in Europe a variety of myths and misconceptions have arisen regarding the capabilities of American tanks and tank crews. Many of these myths and misconceptions circulate widely on the Internet, and are often derived from the writings and conclusions of a post-war generation of WWII armor "experts", inaccurate combat scenarios found in many WWII video games, misconstrued, self-serving assertions that can be found in some official WWII reports, as well as inaccurate, uncorroborated claims found in some published veterans’ memoirs.

This page is dedicated to deflating these myths, and correcting these misconceptions. The information is derived from years of interviews with scores of armor veterans from several WWII armored divisions whose combat experience ranges from bow gunner / assistant driver to officers who commanded tank battalions during the war.

Myth # 1
The use of sandbags on tanks as field modifications intended to increase crew survivability in medium (Sherman) and light (Stuart) tanks was generally ineffective, and primarily served to improve crew morale as the layering of sandbags on the outer hull of their vehicles made them feel safer.

The Truth
Sandbags proved to be an effective means of preventing the penetration of the tank''s armor by the shaped charges (high explosive, anti-tank) fired from hand-held German panzerfausts and panzerschrecks. (Both were similar in nature to the widely known bazooka used by US forces.) The added protection afforded by sandbags allowed medium tank crews to continue their missions even after being hit by multiple rounds from German panzerfausts and panzerschrecks. Sandbags were especially helpful because tanks of the 14th Armored Division experienced unusually high levels of combat in urban environments during which attacks by hand-held anti-tank weapons were very common.

Sandbags were much less effective in protecting against armor penetrations by solid anti-tank rounds (shot) fired from high-velocity guns such as the notorious 88mm. However, there are a few recorded instances in which a sandbagged medium tank absorbed one or more hits from shot fired by high-velocity anti-tank guns without hull penetration. This appears to have been a function of range from the anti-tank gun, as well as the angle of attack by the shot on the tanks armor. In subfreezing weather, the moisture in the sandbags froze making them as hard as concrete. Frozen sandbags defeated shot fired from high velocity anti-tank rounds on numerous occassions.

General Patton's charge towards the end of the war that the added weight of sandbags caused the bogie wheels and suspensions of tanks to wear out quickly is not borne out by the contents of the division G-4 Journal. In fact, there is no mention of excessive wear or damage to these components, and the division did not require abnormal amounts of replacements for these components. The only exception is seen among certain units which were equipped with already worn-out M5 light tanks which were issued to the division on its arrival at Marseilles in lieu of new light tanks. These old tanks, as well as some equally worn-out half-tracks were obtained from the junk yard of an Ordnance Supply Depot, and were discovered to have first been in combat during the North African campaign. By April, 1945 the bogies on these North African light tanks were completely worn out, and required replacement in the field, but given the extraordinary number of miles they had traveled the bogies lasted considerably longer than expected -- even carrying the added weight of sandbags.

Myth #2
Tank crews and officers preferred the 75mm tank gun over the 76mm tank gun because it fired a more powerful HE (high explosive) shell which was more effective against soft targets than that of the 76mm gun.

The Truth
Tank crews and officers actually found that the less powerful HE shell fired by the 76mm gun was more than adequate against soft targets of any type typically engaged by tanks. Why? It must be remembered that at a moments notice medium tanks could call on their supporting artillery to engage targets that required larger, more powerful HE shells. In addition, some medium tanks were equipped with 105mm howitzers, and tank units were often accompanined by assault guns carrying 75mm howitzers, both of which delivered a larger amount of high explosive onto their targets. Not surprisingly, veteran tankers were unwilling to sacrifice the extra range and increased armor penetration of the 76mm gun in exchange for the somewhat larger HE shell of the 75mm gun.

More information will be added to this page as time permits.