On Memorial Day of this year, I finished reading a Keith Grint book entitled Leadership, Management, and Command: Rethinking D-Day. This deep-dive into every aspect possible of the D-Day invasion used the construct of tame and wicked problems to consider how each side prepared for and implemented their responses. At times, the book was a slow moving read but, in others, it was a fascinating page-turner. One particular section grabbed my attention and is the topic of this blog. How does tank doctrine and production have anything to do with leadership? Well, read on and you will find out.
An American tank gunner revealed the sentiments of many tank crews that fought in World War 2 - they had been deceived by their leadership. They were repeatedly told that their Sherman tanks were every bit as good as anything the Germans could put in the field; however, as contact would prove, these statements were absolutely false. The Sherman tank, from its very inception, was obsolete whenever it was produced. Strangely enough, the Americans had a tank that could have matched the German Tiger or Panther tanks; however, it was not mass produced. An image of tank - the M26 Pershing - is below. As an aside, if you have not yet visited the USS Alabama Battleship Memorial Park, I would highly encourage you to do so!
As Grint summarized on page 275 of his book, tank doctrine consisted of three main points: (1) mobility, (2) firepower, and (3) protection. The Allies, primarily the US as the production partner, focused on mobility. The Sherman was to be lighter and faster than other tanks and, therein, is the problem. American tank doctrine did not believe that tanks should (or would) engage each other in battle. Instead, tanks should be used to zip through infantry lines and cause havoc behind them. While a nice belief, the doctrine would fall apart in actual experience.
The Germans, on the other hand, invested heavily in firepower and protection. That meant when the American Sherman tanks encountered any German armor, well, the battle was already over. German guns could punch a hole through the Sherman without issue while the Sherman guns would be largely ineffective against Axis armor. The desired mobility of the American armor was touted in design but disputed in action. According to Grint, page 295, the Sherman tank could move at 26mph while the much heaving German tanks moved at 36mph (the Panther) and 23mph (the Tiger). In other words, the ONE specialization that was "the American doctrine" was not good enough. Designers would brag that the Sherman was the only tank that could fire on the move - but firing on the move was of little value when the shell would not phase the enemy.
I am not getting into the blame here - and there is plenty to go around including someone by the name of Patton - but the supposed doctrinal specialization created this "all in" approach even when confronted with facts and experience in North Africa. For instance, the Sherman gun was designed to artillery specifications (e.g. number of shots fired before the barrel had to be replaced); yet, no Sherman would fire 5,000 rounds. Whenever they faced German armor, the typical, American tank had a lifespan of fewer than 7 days. German tank commanders could not understand why the Allies would send their men to fight in these inferior machines.
So what? What's the lesson for us in the modern day? Well, I believe there are several.
(1) Unevaluated experience leads to unfulfilled potential - the Allies fought tank battles in North Africa from 1940 through 1943 offering first-hand experience of their armor's weakness and gun's ineffectiveness. Instead of reconsidering their mobility doctrine and limited firepower well ahead of any invasion of Europe, they doubled-down by trying to add a larger gun to the Sherman tanks. Without getting too deep into the M26 Pershing story, the tank could have been mass produced and available for widespread use at and beyond D-Day. Political battles, bureaucracy, and lack of leadership halted the Pershing's production until late in the war.
(2) Siloed operation strangles opportunity - the Allies focused exclusively on mobility but balanced thinking would have created the change they needed. The Pershing tank had armor, firepower, and speed similar to the German tanks but, for some reason, the commitment to mobility could not be overcome. That knowledge still saw bureaucratic boards force the Pershing to go through a testing phase more stringent than the Sherman ever encountered.
(3) Actions, not words, show true belief - here is where things really get odd. The American professed belief of mobility should have been enough to cause them to jettison the Sherman tank. Why? As stated above, the Shermans could travel 26mph, which was significantly slower than one of the German tanks and only moderately faster than the other. The Pershing, however, could move at 30mph - significantly faster than one and moderately slower than the other primary German tank. In other words, the Pershing better matched the spoken mobility-focused BUT ALSO included heavier armor with better firepower. The Allies could have remained committed to the mobility doctrine while also bolstering these other areas. This decision should have been easy! As an interesting aside in 1945, information reached the press about the Sherman's ineffectiveness as soldiers were being directly quoted in the news. The US Army's chief ordinance officer stated that no one needed to apologize for "any item" of ordinance [including tanks] because American ingenuity caused us to lead the way in every aspect.
For you and I, in our daily lives, we need to make sure we adopt the 3 principles of "tank doctrine" for success: