80 years ago today, 11 March 1941, President Roosevelt signed the Lend-Lease bill into law. A Sherman tank called ‘Michael’, now held at The Tank Museum, was the first Lend-Lease Sherman to be delivered to Britain, in early 1942.
To mark the Anniversary we’ve delved into the Archive and found a piece published by the Museum to mark the 70th Anniversary.
In the chaos of the retreat from the continent in May 1940, the British Expeditionary Force returned with 13 of the five hundred tanks that were landed in France.
With the vast majority of the Army’s military hardware in enemy hands, the precarious position of the nation was apparent as the German Army prepared its invasion. Britain could only muster one complete tank regiment in the immediate aftermath of the retreat, and British industry would struggle to quickly re-tool and re-equip to meet the demands of total war.
Back home, Matilda II, Crusader and later Churchill tanks rolled off British production lines, but progress was slow.
As the conflict grew in North Africa, there was a new and pressing demand for tanks. At the same time productivity was hampered as factories became targets for the Luftwaffe; but this wasn’t the only issue facing British industry.
As orders for planes, ships, guns and tanks piled up Britain was forced to seek industrial capacity elsewhere. In July 1940, as the Battle of Britain raged in the skies, a British industrialist named Michael Dewar led a mission to the USA.
His objective was to convince US factories to build British tanks and he took with him examples of the latest British designs. Negotiations began slowly, not least because of the implied cost of the project, but because Americans simply didn’t like the designs placed in front of them.
Britain had not yet fully adopted the mass production techniques which had made the American automotive industry so powerful. The workshop mentality of `craftsmanship` over automated production lines added many man hours and saw a lack of standardisation in the finished products. Partly because of this, British tanks lacked reliability, although the designs themselves were also poor. For example, the Cromwell tank was designed in 1942, but did not see action until late 1944. It took two years just to iron out the bugs and flaws in its design.
The nation that had invented and pioneered the use of the tank just 25 years before was lagging behind; not least because of a lack of pre-war investment and stretched resources.
Meanwhile, the US military was coming to terms with the idea that its neutrality may be short lived. As a result, Dewar’s mission was informed that the US would design and build its own tanks which the British could purchase. There was no option but to accept American designs built to American specifications. In 1940, designs for what would become the Grant and Sherman had been advanced over less promising British designs. Both of these would play a critical role in the war before the US was able to contribute its forces.
In late 1941 President Roosevelt signed the Lend-Lease Act allowing the British, who were effectively bankrupt, to effectively hire the tanks and other materiel they required from the US. The resulting debt, which ran into many billions of pounds, was only settled by the British Government in 2006.
In early 1942, the first Sherman tanks rolled off the production lines. The first off the line was kept by the US Army, but the second was shipped straight to the UK and displayed at Horse Guards Parade – little more than a year before Tiger 131 was placed in the same spot as a war trophy.
Named `Michael` in honour of Michael Dewar, it was to be the first of some 15,000 Lend-Lease Sherman’s delivered to the UK for use by British Forces.
The Sherman’s first test came at the battle of El-Alamein in October 1942. Three British regiments with 150 Sherman’s, made their debut alongside British tanks in one of the war’s most important battles. The Sherman proved reliable and comfortable for its crews, unlike the mechanically unreliable and cramped Crusader tank. In this early incarnation, the tank’s main flaw was its tendency to catch fire, for which it earned the nickname `Tommy Cooker`. This was blamed on the fact that the early Sherman’s were petrol powered, although it is now thought more likely a result of the way in which the ammunition inside was stowed.
But it’s most impressive feature was its armament. General Montgomery had earlier lamented the British habit of building infantry tanks and Cruiser tanks for different roles, demanding instead a tank that could `do everything`. The Sherman’s dual-purpose gun, which could fire both high-explosive and armour piercing rounds, meant it was just that.
But to some British Officers, the idea that an American built tank could be superior to anything built by the nation that invented it was irksome.
Lieut. Gen. Sir Giffard Martel, Director of the Royal Armoured Corps during the war, wrote; “The Sherman tank was a dual purpose tank and was a… reliable machine, but it was not as good as either the Cromwell or the Churchill for their respective roles. We were most grateful for the use of these tanks to cover this period and we continued to use some Sherman tanks up to the end of the war.”
What Martel fails to recognise in this rather arrogant statement is the flexibility that the Sherman gave the British, as seen in the crucial variants that spawned from its chassis. For example, the British modified the Sherman to carry the 17pdr gun, creating the Firefly. For some time, this was the only tank capable of tackling the larger German tanks such as Tiger. No British chassis was able to carry this gun at that time.
50,000 Shermans were built, making it one of the most numerous tanks in history. But if the mark of a successful tank is its length of active service, the Sherman was arguably the critical element of the entire Allied tank force – rather than just a convenient stop gap to make up the numbers. It wasn’t a perfect tank (there is no such thing) but what it did, it did more than adequately.