Review of "Death Traps"
By Maj Gary Pounder, USAF Maxwell AFB, Alabama
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),
1998, 352 pages.
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 Army's 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 commanders - including Gen Dwight Eisenhower - backed
Patton and decided to increase production of the Sherman. It
remains one of the most disastrous choices of World War II -
arguably, 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 Cooper's 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 Patton's 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 Sherman's 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 Army's 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 service
- a 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 neglect 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 Sherman's low-velocity 75 or 76 mm gun, for
example, was chosen because the Army's 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 Sherman's main
gun couldn't 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
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 Hitler's
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 today's Air Force audience. But it's 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 modernization
- including the growing debate over "skipping" the
next generation of weapons systems - Belton Cooper's 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.