by Belton Y Cooper
Presidio Press, 1998. 384.
Dimensions (in inches): 1.05 x 6.90 x 4.20 . $6.99. ISBN:0891418148
The technical inferiority of American to German armor in World War II is well documented and very familiar to students of that conflict. What may be less familiar is just what that inferiority meant to the men who had to take those tanks into battle. Belton Cooper was an ordnance officer with Combat Command B of the 3rd Armored Division in World War II. He trained with the division in England, and served with it from Normandy to VE day. His duties included the repair and maintenance of American tanks that had been damaged or disabled in combat. Given the poor quality of American tanks versus the German Panzers, he got a great deal of experience at it. Death Traps is an interesting and very readable memoir of a time when American soldiers went into battle with second rate weapons, and the price they paid to defeat a better equipped foe.
Coopers’s book is somewhat unusual in that Cooper served in a support unit instead of combat arms. His duties, however, were anything but safe. His unit had to recover damaged tanks, sometimes under fire, and repair them as best they could. Cooper frequently found himself leading columns of replacement tanks up to the front through territory full of bypassed, but still very dangerous Germans. Once a general, seeing Cooper leading a force of seventeen tanks, asked what a mere lieutenant was doing commanding a task force. Cooper replied that he was taking the tanks up for replacements. The general commandeered the entire column and Cooper found himself deploying this massive force for action.
Cooper and his fellow soldiers entered France believing that they had in the M4 Sherman a machine that could meet the Panzers on equal terms. Combat quickly proved otherwise. The 3rd Armored suffered staggering losses in its drive across Europe. The division entered France with 232 Sherman tanks. By VE Day, it had lost 648 Shermans completely destroyed, and a further 700 had been knocked out of action and later repaired - a loss rate of 580%. Crew losses were serious as well. The death and wounding of so many trained tankers meant that infantrymen with no tank training had to be hastily drafted to fill out the division’s tank crews. They were sometimes sent into battle with as little as a few hours of training. Tank crews shrank in size as well. The Sherman nominally carried a crew of five, but three man crews were not uncommon, with the commander doubling as loader. This meant a loss of efficiency which worsened the loss of experience. Lack of training and experience would then cause battlefield mistakes that would contribute to further bloodletting in the next action.
A better tank than the Sherman was available, but the Army had chosen not to procure it. The M26 Pershing was rejected, in part of because of General Patton’s insistence that armored divisions should avoid and bypass enemy armor. Tanks were not supposed to fight other tanks. The Sherman he felt, being lighter, would be more mobile, and could avoid head on engagements with the Panzers. Yet despite Armored Force doctrine, tank battles took place anyway, and the Sherman usually came off second best. In fact, as Cooper points out, the Pershing was not only better armed and armored, it was the more mobile of the two machines off road. It’s wider tracks gave it a lower ground pressure, something that Patton failed to understand. Thus the Pershing was better able to maneuver when an armored unit was slowed by mud and mines.
Mud and mines were encountered in abundance during the assault on the Siegfried Line. The Shermans of the 3rd Armored suffered heavily against German defenses they could neither bypass nor overcome. On November 16th, 1944, Combat Command B went into action with sixty-four Sherman tanks. Forty-eight of these were hit and put out of action in just twenty-six minutes. That same day, the 2nd Armored Division lost nearly a hundred Shermans trying to break through the German defenses. Cooper argues that wit