Why were Allied tanks so crap in World War 2?

Shermans, Cromwells, Churchills, even the T-34 - all fall down on comparison with German armour. In Normandy a Tiger I wiped out 14 Allied tanks in as many minutes. Allied tankers pretty much agree that the Tiger was the superior tank in comparison with the ubiquitous Sherman. It’s even a plot point in Kelly’s Heroes. “Nobody said anything about no Tigers!”

And that’s not even mentioning Panthers, King Tigers, Jadgpathers, Hetzers and the like (or even the absolutely insane prototype Maus).

Why was German armour so superior? It seems that the only area we excelled was in numbers, embracing Uncle Joe’s notion that quantity had a quality of its own. While tanks may be easily replaceable, I doubt that was much comfort for the not so replaceable tank crews. While I doubt Stalin gave a toss about that, why didn’t the western Allies with their incredible manufacturing capability and engineering smarts get their acts together and replace the Shermans, Cromwells et al when they got spanked?

Keep in mind who won the war.

That being said, German tanks were designed to kill tanks, while American tanks were meant to support infantry advances. Different doctrines.


Hey I’ve seen Patton – the answer is not enough Bradley in the mix. If I’m wrong I want to know why. America needs this, dammit.

While everyone gets all hot and bothered by the German super tanks, really most of their armor was comprised of not particularly superior medium tanks and assault guns. Sure, the Sherman was inferior to Tigers and Panthers. But it wasn’t out-matched by Pz IVs or StuGs. So even in a lot of tank-on-tank battles, the Shermans could perform just fine.

Though there was a difference in design philosophy. The Germans were constantly improving and upgrading their hardware. Tactically, that gave them a significant edge (when everything worked). But strategically, lots of redesigns means lots of factory shutdowns to retool. So the Allies just cranked out huge numbers of mostly-adequate tanks.

There were Allied heavy tanks in the production pipeline though – the Pershing was equal to the best German tanks, though it didn’t arrive in time to see any combat. But it was decided that it would be better to keep cranking out the Shermans in massive numbers.

And even then, the speed of tank development was astonishing. In the 1930s, tanks weren’t much more than some plates and a gun riveted on top of a tractor. By 1945, tanks were orders of magnitude faster, and better armed and armored. Throughout that, the Allied tank designs were only a year or two “behind” the Germans.

One Tiger is definitely better than a Sherman. But 20,000 Shermans proved to be superior to a few hundred Tigers and a few thousand assorted medium tanks.

They weren’t. Inferior sometime, but allied tanks were certainly not crap. They were, in general, more reliable mechanically than German tanks. It’s easy to be awed by the gun and armor of the Panther, but it was a maintenance nightmare throughout its career. The later models fixed some of the problems but nowhere near all of them; bear in mind that one of the problems with the early models was the engine would set itself on fire. You’re also looking at the very best of German armor, which was always a minority of German armor. On paper the Panther was only supposed to be 50% of a Panzer Division’s tanks at the end of the war with the other 50% being Pz-IVs. The reality was that this was never achieved; the Panther was never available in very large numbers. From wiki

Also bear in mind that you are talking about late war armor, early in the war the Germans relied heavily on Pz-Is and Pz-IIs. During the fall of France the British Matilda and French Char B1 gave the Germans nightmares; none of their tanks or standard anti-tank guns could defeat their armor.

All of that said, the reason the Western Allies got the Sherman was a result of early war US Army doctrine; tanks weren’t supposed to be anti-tank assets. The job of dealing with panzers was supposed to be handled by tank destroyers, not tanks. The reality of combat didn’t meet this expectation of course, but that was what the US Army planned on. There’s a good study here (warning, pdf) entitled Seek, Strike, and Destroy: U.S. Army Tank Destroyer Doctrine in World War II written by the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College.

Same reason Mercedes, Audi, BMW… are better cars than US cars?

Bear in mind the Germans spent decades following their humiliation in WWI developing an unparalleled military complex with blitzkreig at the heart of it. The U.S., by contrast, had to ramp up large-scale weapons production in a matter of months. They were developing weapons AS they were going to war. Germany was building tanks in factories specifically designed for the task, wheareas American tank factories were often re-tooled auto factories. Plus, those Panzers weighed a helluva lot more than the ubiquitous Sherman, but the Germans didn’t have to ship their tanks across the Atlantic. Given all the challenges, it’s remarkable U.S. design and manufacturing was as devastatingly effective as it was.

If you want pure sillyness, check out this wiki page of WWII production figures. If the weapon numbers aren’t more than enough, go down to the coal and crude oil production figures.

German tank production figures. Total of 1368 Tiger I’s and 569 Tiger II’s out of over 50,000 total tanks, or less than 4% of the total number of tanks produced. 60% of production was Panzer III’s and IV’s.

Whereas the US produced roughly 50,000 Sherman tanks of various models.

See this previous thread for some additional discussion.

Basically, you’re right that the Allied tanks weren’t great at fighting other tanks, and could have been improved. But there’s a hidden assumption in your OP and an outright mistake.

The hidden assumption is the idea that the purpose of a tank is to fight another tank. That’s only true if the military in question wants to do it that way. The American concept was to use different weapons for tank killing – notably purpose-built tank destroyers, anti-tank guns, aircraft, and (in a pinch) bazookas for tank-killing.

American medium tanks (primarily the M-4 Sherman and its predecessor, the M-3 Grant/Lee) were general-purpose tanks, designed to fight infantry and obstacles and, above all, to maneuver at speed. As such they were reliable, fast, and had good suspensions for crew endurance during sustained drives. Fighting other tanks – especially heavy special-use units like Tigers – came as an afterthought.

It is certain they could have been made better for that task, but bear in mind that the theory behind their design was that they were not really for fighting other tanks – you’d have to persuade the US military of the need to make them anti-tank specialists before you could set about upgrading them.

The “outright mistake” is to say the T-34 falls down in comparison to German armor. The T-34 has been called the best tank of the war by many authorities – even perhaps a majority – and its only competition for that title is the Mark V Panther, which was designed based on captured T-34s. Furthermore, the T-34 is often considered the best tank of all time when lists are made. The T-34 was superior to anything the Germans had when they first met it, and at war’s end was still the equal of any medium tank in battle. The T-34 was fast and reliable, had fantastic cross-country and bad-weather performance, and used solid armor, well-sloped, combined with a good gun. Basically the main area of the Panther’s superiority was better optics/rangefinding for long-distance engagements. You can mitigate that somewhat by using terrain to close without exposing yourself to long-range fire – and the Panther was notoriously subject to mechanical failures.

Comparing the T-34 or Sherman to the super-heavies like the Tiger is not as meaningful as one might think, when one compares the numbers involved.

German armored vehicle production in WWII

Soviet armored vehicle production in WWII

American M-4 Sherman production figure: 49,234

Scanning those cites, you’ll see that Tiger production for the war was 1,368 – set against 49,234 Shermans and 57,339 T-34s. Add to that the fact that the later Tigers had difficulty even reaching the front, once fuel was scare and railroads and bridges had been largely destroyed, you’re looking at a Tiger encounter being rare and unusual in the first place.

edit: I see I’ve been scooped a few times. :stuck_out_tongue:

Interesting, seems the old quote about the Germans being like an elephant attacking a host of ants applies just as much to their armour.

On the T-34, I always figured it for a more robust equivalent to the Sherman, in that they pumped them out like their was no tomorrow (which, if they hadn’t, there might not have been). How did it stack up against the German panzers in encounters? I’m guessing it did better than the petrol-driven Sherman, although wiki indicates that the Germans still had the upper hand;
The Soviets lost 6, 4, 4 and 1.2 tanks for every German tank lost for the years 1942, 1943, 1944 and 1945 respectively. [71] [72]

No, American tanks were not meant to support infantry. The weakness of that doctrine was clear
by the time the US got in the war. US tanks were concentrated in Armored divisions just like the
other major combatants. Where US doctrine differed was in emphasizing the use of tank destroyers
rather than main battle tanks as the primary anti-tank weapon…

Ya run what ya brung. I dont doubt that tac doctrine evolved as the german blizkrieg became more apparent. But with the figures upthread for production of the M4, it would not have been that much difficulty switching over to all pershing armor formations and a ninety mil main gun.

What they did was to hold back production of the pershing, in favor of allocating the 90mm cannons for air defense, while still equiping formations with the M4.

That tells me that the army doctrine was still geared to infantry support and not anti armor, else at the very least they would have gone for a more substancial gun and round.


There’s a number of reasons. Some of it was the Germans were tactically much more proficient than the Soviets early on, an advantage that eroded as the Soviets got better and the Germans got worse as attrition eroded the advantage. Some of it is the Soviets simply had much more tanks than the Germans; tank losses weren’t all or even mostly caused by other tanks, anti-tank guns knocked out more tanks than other tanks. Some of it was also less obvious weaknesses in the T-34. Early versions of the T-34 had a two-man turret while most German tanks by this point had three-man turrets. The two-man turret meant the tank commander had to do double duty as the gunner which greatly reduced situational awareness. The three-man turret meant a commander, a gunner and a loader so the commander could focus on the job of commanding the tank and could keep his head out of the turret hatch, giving vastly better for situational awareness than being buttoned up. The Soviets also had a chronic shortage of radios, especially early on in the war (a situation that also plagued the French and British in 1940). Often only the platoon commander had a radio in his tank and had to communicate orders to the rest of his platoon using signal flags, while the Germans had radios in every tank.

I think pop history is mostly to blame for misunderstanding German tanks and the Wermacht in general. Panzer, Panzergrenadier and Motorized divisions were only ever a small fraction of the German Army; the great majority was foot bound infantry divisions that relied on horse drawn transport for supplies and towing artillery and anti-tank guns. In a lot of ahisorical wargames the Germans are practically swimming in Panthers, Tigers, Jagdpanthers with the Panzergrenadier infantry all being driven around in Spw-251 halftracks. Only one of the four Panzergrenadier battalions in a late war Panzer Division had halftracks, the other three used trucks. Hollywood hasn’t helped either, Kelly’s Heros was a great movie but of course the German tank couldn’t have been a Pz-IV or a StuG, it had to be a Tiger. Then there’s Saving Private Ryan where in the final battle they couldn’t be facing the regular German Army, they had to be SS despite the fact that the first SS elements to reach the American sector didn’t arrive until days later and at Carentan. The SS had to have a tank as well despite the fact that the 17th SS Panzergrenadier Division Götz von Berlichingen didn’t even have a single tank, only an assault gun battalion that only reached the front later still. The tank of course also had to be a Tiger despite the fact that there were no Tigers in the American sector of the front until a month later.

Yes and no. The US army organized Armored Divisions, but also raised enough independent tank and tank destroyer battalions that each Infantry Division had a tank battalion more or less permanently attached to it, and divisions in Europe had one or more tank destroyer battalions as well. I wish I could give numbers, but I don’t have my copy of World War II Order of Battle: An Encyclopedic Reference to U.S. Army Ground Forces from Battalion through Division, 1939-1946 which is the bible of the US Army OOB handy and the appropriate pages don’t seem to be available online. However if you look inside to page 75 and for some pages on Infantry Divisions are detailed with typical organizations and independent battalions attached and dates of attachment. The 1st Infantry Division for example had the 745th Tank Battalion attached to it from Normandy all the way until the end of the war, the 645th Tank Destroyer Battalion from August 1, 1944 to the end of the war and two other Tank Destroyer Battalions attached for briefer periods of time.

And much the same results.

All of those brands are known for high maintenance expenses, being repair-prone, and taking more time & resources to manufacture (thus higher priced). So they are vastly outnumbered by sales of American brands (or Asian brands made in America).

Yep, very much like the Panzers of WWII indeed.

As has been mentioned. Allied tanks at the start to perhaps the mid of the war were generally better, certainly during the fall of France and the first months of Barbarossa as well as in N Africa at the start. The first really adequate tank the Germans had was the Panzer III, the first one superior to the Allies was the Panzer IV which was probably superior to a Sherman. It’s with the Panther and the Tiger and the King Tiger that the Germans took a lead that they never surrendered during the war.These tanks came about in numbers during 1943. So for nearly the first few years of war, your hypothesis is wrong, the German tanks were either inferior or attest slightly better than the Allies and these were the years of German victory

The western allies did as it is begin plans for better tanks, but logistics requirements of Overlord put paid to that. They choose to go in with the Shermans not much upgraded from the ones at El Alamien because they could be produced in bulk. While they were efforts to upgun the Shermans, and the British did infact produce the Sherman firefly, the need for numbers and commanlity was paramount.When the Allies got to Normandy, the numbers of Tigers, Panthers and Jagdpanthers that they faced was a shock. Allied armor formations had a lousy tine, I remember reading that some armored divisions ended the Western Europe campaign with losses of several hundred percent. These losses were much greater than expected in large part due to the great disparity in performance of the the tanks, although the experienced German tank crews were undoubtedly a factor as well alongwitb the fact that many Western Allied and especially US troops, were quite inexperienced.

So, the Germans won while having worse tanks and lost while having better tanks. The answer to the OP is simple. The Germans continely improved rehire designs, From about 1942 till late 1944 the Allies did not or at least put those plans on the back burner. Note however, if the war had continued the newer Allied tanks would have been just as good if not better than the Germans. The Pershing did in fact arrive to see a bit of combat, but it might have started coming in numbers. The British Centurion tanks as well.

Well, the RAF had flying tank killers that were devastating against everything the Germans had on the road, and the USAAF version was equally effective.

Two types in particular and other Allied ground attack aircraft in general rendered German armour pretty helpless by late '44.

The Wiki entry on the Sherman also says that one reason is that larger tanks like the Patton were actively delayed or resisted, ie they could have been in action earlier, but that there was a lot of debate over whether anti-tank or infantry support was the higher priority.

After the Battle of the Bulge, said resistance vanished pretty quickly, which I would take as a tacit acknowledgment that resisting their introduction was the wrong decision. By then it was too late for them to make it to combat in any serious numbers.


Well, they could have given the Sherman a bigger gun.

Their quality/reliability ratings do not bear this out.