Document created: 16 May 01
Published Aerospace Power Journal - Summer 2001
Death Traps: The Survival of an American Armored Division in World War II by Belton Y. Cooper. Presidio Press (http://www.presidiopress.com), P.O. Box 1764, Novato, California 94948, 1998, 352 pages, $28.95 (hardcover).
In early 1944, the US Army faced a critical decision regarding its armored forces: should it retain the M4 Sherman as its primary tank or accelerate production of the new M26 Pershing heavy tank? Although many armored commanders favored the Pershing, the tank debate continued until Lt Gen George S. Patton, the Armys leading tank "expert," entered the fray. Patton favored the smaller (and supposedly more mobile) Sherman, noting that "tanks were not supposed to fight other tanks, but bypass them if possible, and attack enemy objectives in the rear." Ultimately, senior Allied commandersincluding Gen Dwight Eisenhowerbacked Patton and decided to increase production of the Sherman. It remains one of the most disastrous choices of World War IIarguably, a decision that lengthened the war and became a literal death sentence for thousands of tank-crew members.
The consequences of the Sherman decision are brutally detailed in Belton Coopers vivid memoir Death Traps. A maintenance officer who served in the legendary Third Armored Division ("Spearhead"), Cooper was charged with the critical task of locating damaged Shermans, directing their recovery, and ensuring the flow of new or repaired tanks to frontline units. From the Normandy invasion to V-E day, Cooper witnessed the folly of Pattons logic firsthand. The author calculates (with only a touch of irony) that he "has seen more knocked out tanks than any other living American." His eyewitness observations confirmed what American tank crews discovered in combat: the Sherman was badly outclassed by German medium and heavy tanks, most notably the Mark V Panther and the Mark VI Tiger. With their heavier armor, the Panther and Tiger were almost impervious to rounds fired from the Shermans 75 or 76 mm main gun; conversely, the 88 mm gun on the German tanks usually made short work of their American opponents.
Tabulating the results of this mismatch, Cooper highlights the staggering cost of the Armys flawed choice for its main battle tank. Over the next 11 months, the Third Armored Division, which began the Normandy campaign with 232 M4 tanks, would see 648 of its Shermans destroyed in combat, with another 700 knocked out of commission before being repaired and returned to servicea cumulative loss rate of 580 percent. Casualties among tank crews also skyrocketed, producing an acute shortage of qualified personnel. By late 1944, Cooper recalls, the Army was sending newly arrived infantrymen into combat as replacement tank crews. Some of these recruits received only one day of armor training before being dispatched to the front in their M4s.
But Death Traps is more than a statistical analysis or a collection of wartime remembrances. The author effectively recounts the years of prewar ne-glect and underfunding that sometimes resulted in poor acquisition decisions. In 1939, the year that German armored columns streaked across Poland, the US Army budget for tank research and development was only $85,000. Such parsimony, Cooper observes, forced hard choices that often degraded combat capabilities. The Shermans low-velocity 75 or 76 mm gun, for example, was chosen because the Armys artillery branch wanted a cheap, reliable weapon for fire support. In another cost-cutting move, many M4s were equipped with a radial engine originally designed for aircraft. On the battlefield, this engine produced a loud backfire when starting, instantly drawing enemy fire.
Cooper also succeeds in depicting the valiant tankers and resourceful maintenance crews who battled long odds and kept American tank units in combat. Realizing that the Shermans main gun couldnt penetrate the frontal armor of a Panther or Tiger, US crews gamely tried to outmaneuver their foes, attempting to disable the German tanks with a shot against their sides or rear, where the armor was thinner. Meanwhile, repair crews labored around-the-clock to salvage damaged M4s and return them to service, developing such battlefield innovations as add-on armored "patches" (to improve crew survivability) and the famous hedge "chopper," which allowed US tanks to punch through the thick hedgerows of Normandy. As Cooper reminds us, the ultimate victory of US armored units against the German army was a direct result of the courage, pluck, and determination of American tankers and their maintenance counterparts.
Death Traps is well worth reading, but the work is not without its faults. The book contains only a couple of maps and virtually no photographs. Racing along the front lines to ensure the delivery of tanks to frontline units, the author was clearly too busy to snap pictures during his service in World War II. However, the editors at Presidio Press easily could have incorporated more maps and combat photographs into the book, making it more useful to the reader. They also might have paid a bit more attention to the prose; Cooper is sometimes a plodding writer, and he occasionally rehashes statistics presented in earlier chapters.
Fortunately, these flaws are relatively few and should not deter any serious student of World War II from reading Death Traps. Cooper has revealed a relatively underpublicized (and underappreciated) element of the American victory against Hitlers armored legions. Although historians often claim that the Shermans overcame their German adversaries through the sheer weight of Allied war production and air superiority, Cooper reminds us that it was the tank crews and maintainers who ultimately turned the tide of battle.
One final note: on the surface, a book on American armored operations and logistics during World War II would seem to have little relevance for todays Air Force audience. But its worth remembering that the same mentality that produced the Sherman tank also gave us inferior aircraft like the P-39 and P-40, which put American pilots at a disadvantage in aerial combat during the early days of World War II. More importantly, as present-day leaders wrestle with critical decisions on force modernizationincluding the growing debate over "skipping" the next generation of weapons systemsBelton Coopers book provides a cautionary tale. As technology marches forward, efforts to save money or defer weapons purchases often have grave consequences on future battlefields. Senior officials contemplating the cancellation or delay of critical weapons systems would be well advised to read Death Traps before making a final decision.
Maj Gary Pounder, USAF
Maxwell AFB, Alabama
The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.
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