The Core Dump

A strong conviction that something must be done is the parent of many bad measures

[By Nic Lindh on Friday, 30 January 2015]

Death Traps and Fury

Fury is a relentlessly grim World War II movie, and as the source autobiography Death Traps makes clear, it should be.

There have been lots of strong, gritty World War II movies that do their best to show you the horror of that conflict, like Saving Private Ryan, Flags of Our Fathers and the German Das Boot and Stalingrad. All brutal and unrelenting.

But Fury is grimmer.

It does have problems as a movie: The characters never become more than sketches—and mostly unlikeable sketches at that—and the plot is thin and unimaginative, relying on plenty of the tropes of the genre. And of course having your face rubbed in the horror of war isn’t what anybody would call enjoyable.

But it’s technically solid, with the most intense battle scenes since Saving Private Ryan. Watching it, I thought the take-away (apart from war being really freaking loud) was that the Germans kept fighting long after they by any rights should have stopped and that the M4 Sherman tank was a poor tank.

But the Wikipedia article on the film mentions it was inspired by Death Traps, the autobiography of maintenance company officer Belton Y Cooper.

If you read Death Traps you understand the tone of the movie as well as why the eponymous tank is named Fury. The M4 medium tank was not just bad: It was a literal death trap for the crews manning it, so poorly armored it stood little chance against German tanks and German anti-tank weaponry.

M4 losses were appalling, but thanks to industrial might the American army were mostly able to replace or repair the machinery. This lead to a lack of tank crews so severe that replacement infantry soldiers were sometimes given a day of training before being thrown into battle against veteran German forces. Naturally, this was a recipe for disaster.

The obvious question is, why would the army of the nation with the strongest industrial base of the conflict go to war with such an inferior battle tank?

Turns out the M4 was designed by committee to satisfy several incompatible goals (all the following blockquotes are from Death Traps):

The armored and cavalry officers favored a large-caliber, high-velocity antitank gun mounted in the turret. The infantry officers still thought of the tank as an infantry assault weapon. The artillery officers thought that if a tank was going to carry a gun larger than a 37mm, the gun should conform to artillery specifications, which required a gun to be capable of 7,500 service rounds in combat. To meet this, a 75mm gun and larger would require a relatively low velocity. It apparently never occurred to the artillery officers that few tanks would ever survive in combat long enough to fire 7,500 service rounds.

When battle tested it was obvious the tank could not take on German armor. But the great tank general Patton decided that didn’t matter. Here’s what Cooper has to say about Patton’s decision favoring the M4 over the heavier, better-armored M26:

He said that the tanks of an armored division were not supposed to fight other tanks but bypass them if possible and attack enemy objectives to the rear. […] Patton felt that because the M4 tank was lighter and required less fuel than the M26, it would be faster and more agile and was better equipped to perform the mission of the armored divisions.

In an excellent argument that the M26 heavy tank should be used, General Rose [who was later killed in combat] and other field commanders resisted the higher-ranking Patton. The experiences in North Africa at Kasserine Pass and also in Sicily had convinced them of the superiority of German armor and the need for a heavy tank to offset it. However, Patton persisted in his view; he was not above a hassle. He insisted that we should downgrade the M26 heavy tank and concentrate on the M4.

Patton’s rank and authority overwhelmed the resistance of the more experienced commanders, and the decision was made to concur with Patton’s view. SHAEF immediately notified Washington to deemphasize production of the M26 heavy tank and concentrate instead on the M4 medium tank. This turned out to be one of the most disastrous decisions of World War II, and its effect on the upcoming battle for Western Europe was catastrophic.

Turned out the Germans did not care what U.S armored doctrine dictated and insisted on meeting the underpowered M4s head-to-head with superior tanks.

The weakest point in the movie is the ultimate night battle with SS troops after Fury has been disabled—weak because the SS troops who were urgently headed for a different location would have simply gone around the tank rather than attack it over and over from the front while displaying Star Wars Storm Trooper shooting skills with their Panzerfausts—was based on a section of Death Traps in which a single and astonishingly bad-ass surviving tanker performed that same feat during an Allied advance:

In the fighting around Hastenrath and Scherpenseel, the tankers, without adequate infantry support, performed almost superhuman acts of heroism to hold on throughout the night. It was reported that one of the tankers, in his tank on a road junction, was the only surviving member of his crew but was determined to hold his position at all costs.

The lone tanker had previously sighted his 76mm tank gun down the middle of the road. He depressed the mechanism slightly and loaded a 76mm HE [high explosive—used against non-armored targets]. As the Germans advanced in parallel columns along each side of the road, he fired. The HE shell hit the ground about 150 feet in front of the tank and ricocheted to a height of about 3 feet before it exploded.

The shock took the Germans completely by surprise. The American tanker continued to fire all the HE he had as rapidly as possible, swinging the turret around to spray the German infantry, who were trying to escape into the fields on both sides of the highway. Loading and firing the gun by himself was extremely difficult, because he had to cross to the other side of the gun to load and then come back to the gunner’s position to fire.

After exhausting his HE and .30-caliber ammunition, he opened the turret and swung the .50 caliber around on the ring mount and opened fire again. He continued firing until all of his .50-caliber ammunition was exhausted, then he grabbed a .45 submachine gun from the fighting compartment and opened fire with this. After using all the ammunition from his Thompson and his pistol, he dropped back in the turret and closed the hatch.

He opened his box of hand grenades and grabbed one. When he heard German infantry climb onto the back of the tank, he pulled the pin, cracked the turret hatch slightly, and threw the grenade. It killed all the Germans on the back of the tank and those around it on the ground. He continued to do this until all of his hand grenades were gone; then he closed the hatch and secured it.

By this time, the German infantry unit apparently decided to bypass the tank. From the vicious rate of firing, they must have assumed that they had run up on an entire reinforced roadblock. When our infantry arrived the next day, they found the brave young tanker still alive in his tank. The entire surrounding area was littered with German dead and wounded. This, to me, was one of the most courageous acts of individual heroism in World War II.

Death Traps was written to be a dispassionate account of Cooper’s experiences, but it’s obvious he was still seething with rage and resentment about the lives he saw wasted.

Read it, then watch Fury. And be happy you’re not in an M4.

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