Thursday, October 23, 2014
View from the Turret
A knocked-out Sherman tank, somewhere in France in 1944. The hole in the front was made by a German 88mm shell that passed through the tank and blew out the back (photo from worldoftanks.com)
Readers of this blog know that your humble correspondent is hardly a cinema maven; I can count my trips to the theater over the last five years on one hand, with at least one finger left over. Most of those movies were selected by Mrs. Spook, or involved one of the grandkids, so the odds of finding me at the local multiplex--for a movie I actually want to see--are pretty slim.
However, I'll probably make an exception for Fury, the Brad Pitt World War II film that debuted last weekend. Fury is the story of an American tank crew, in the closing days of that conflict. Pitt plays Staff Sergeant Don "Wardaddy" Collier, the commander of an M-4 Sherman tank. Collier and his crew have been together since the North Africa campaign and have never suffered a single casualty. With Nazi Germany tottering on the brink of defeat, the crew entertains the faint hope they may actually survive the war, and they look to Collier to lead them through.
But of course, duty calls. Their tank, nicknamed Fury, is part of a Sherman platoon sent to hold a vital intersection behind enemy lines. The unit encounters a German Tiger tank, which destroys the other Shermans while Fury is disabled by a land mine. Despite the fact that 300 enemy infantrymen are approaching their position, Collier refuses to abandon the mission, and sets about plotting an ambush, leading to the film's climactic scenes.
Borrowing a narrative device from countless other war films, director David Ayer inserts a "new" soldier into Collier's tight-knit crew, creating the usual friction between the veterans and the rookie. Fury's newcomer is Private Norman Ellison (played by Logan Lerman). Ellison is a former clerk, pressed into service as an assistant driver when his predecessor is killed in battle. As his first duty, Ellison must remove the dead man's body from the tank.
From what I've heard, Ayer's film is both bloody and raw, and that's a fairly apt description of tank warfare in World War II. As we've noted in previous posts, Allied tank losses during the drive from Normandy to Germany were horrendous.
My father's old outfit, the 3rd Armored Division, came ashore less than two weeks after D-Day, with a complement of 232 tanks, virtually all of them Shermans. By the time the Nazis surrendered 11 months later, the division had lost more than 700 M-4, a cumulative loss rate of more than 600%. Losses among tank crews were equally high; at the start of the Battle of the Bulge (December 1944), U.S. armored units were so short of tank crews that infantry replacements were pressed into service as tankers. Some were sent into battle against experienced German units with only eight hours of training, and most had never been inside a tank before their one-day orientation session. So, there is clearly a precedent for soldiers from other branches being trained for armored duty and sent into battle with virtually no preparation.
In some respects, Fury is probably overdue, since it's the only World War II film of recent memory that takes audiences inside the tank. I've read that the replica used for interior shots was only slightly larger than that of an actual Sherman, so viewers may gain an appreciation of the claustrophobic conditions that tankers operated under.
They should also get a sense of the daunting odds faced by Sherman crews on the battlefield. At the time of its introduction in 1942, the M-4 could easily match German tanks on the battlefields of North Africa. Two years later, the Sherman was at a distinct disadvantage against the larger Panther IV and Tiger I/II tanks operated by enemy Panzer units. Equipped with a deadly 88mm main gun, the Tiger totally outclassed earlier model Shermans (which carried a 75mm gun) and it was superior to later M-4 variants, which featured a 76mm main gun. Ironically, most Panthers also carried a 75mm main gun, but with a longer barrel and more powerful powder charge, the German gun had a much higher muzzle velocity, enabling it to easily penetrate the Sherman's rather thin armor.
How did we win the war with an inferior tank? It was combination of factors, including Allied dominance in the air; our remarkable ability to produce--and repair--tanks, and of course, the courage and determination of the men who crewed those Shermans.
By the time U.S., British and Canadian armored columns broke out of Normandy and began their charge across western Europe, the Luftwaffe had virtually disappeared from the skies of France, Belgium and the Netherlands. Most of Germany's remaining fighters were reserved for defending the homeland against huge raids by American and British bombers. Meanwhile, U.S. P-47s, P-38s, P-51s and RAF Typhoons roamed over the countryside, decimating Nazi armored formations.
The Allies also benefited from the genius of American war production. While Germany's Panther IV and Tiger tanks were technical marvels, they were also difficult to produce. The Third Reich built only 8,000 of both, and the total Tiger output was less than 2,000. Meanwhile, the U.S. built almost 50,000 Shermans, more than enough to equip our own forces and other Allied nations as well.
For all of its faults, the M-4 was also much more reliable and easier to fix. Shermans that suffered moderate damage were usually towed to a maintenance unit, quickly repaired and returned to service. My father was the NCO in charge of a platoon of tank retrievers in the 3rd Armored Division. During their time in combat, they pulled a lot of damaged tanks to the repair point, and if a crew wasn't available, they were trained to drive them back to the armored unit that needed a replacement.
My father, who turns 99 in a few days, has never been shy about sharing his experiences in the Army, from his days as a peacetime draftee at Camp Polk, to his time in Germany after the war ended. But he rarely speaks about the process of repairing knocked-out tanks; that's because maintenance personnel had the unenviable task of cleaning out the inside and removing any remains that might have escaped the medics or the casualty collection teams. Once the clean-up was completed, one of the first orders of business was to repaint the tank's interior; the odor from fresh paint tended to obscure the smell of burned equipment and flesh that sometimes lingered inside.
Dad always speaks of the tankers with a great deal of respect, even recounting an incident when a Sherman crew picked a fight with some of his men. He understood the odds they faced--and the fact that many never made it home. That's why I believe Fury is worth a look; as World War II fades further into the mists of history, the film gives us another glimpse of the men who fought and died for each other, and saved the world in the process.
ADDENDUM: Some less-than-flattering reviews from a U.S. Army officer and the eminent British military historian Max Hastings.