Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Monumental Sherman

Mewata Barracks,
 Calgary, Alberta
If you are a Canadian, whether you know it or not, you have likely had a run-in with a Sherman tank.  The Sherman tank was ubiquitous on the battlefields of the Second World War.  With over 50,000 tanks produced during the war, and a bad reputation for losses when going head-to-head with those big German cats (Tigers, and Panthers, and Nazis oh my!) the Sherman has been used as an example proving the Brute Force concept of Second World War historiography, associated with John Ellis' book of the same name.   This line of reasoning claims that while the Sherman was inferior to the later model panzerkampfwagens, the Allies eventually used their sheer numbers to overcome the Wehrmacht. A handful of historians challenge this popular version of the Sherman's failings and claim that in certain terrain, and commanded by skilled operators, the Sherman could best the hallowed panzers.  Like the armoured fighting vehicles that they defend, these revisionists are facing an uphill battle.

A Sherman Firefly at
 Trois-Rivieres, QC

Shermans are also ubiquitous in Canadian memorials across the country and overseas.  The vast majority of these memorials are not, however, the M4A4 model Sherman, which was widely used by British and commonwealth formations during the second world war, but M4A3E8s, used in the closing months of the war by Americans and in the post-war era by Canadians.  The so-called "Easy Eights" had a smoother suspension and larger gun than the early 6 pounder or 75mm variants.  Giveaways for later model identification, include muzzle-breaks on 76mm guns and the Horizontal Volute Spring Suspension (HVSS).

HVSS was used on later model Shermans, while
 Vertical Volute Spring Suspension was used on models
 used by Canadians in the Second World War.  Image
"Athena" Memorial in Ortona, Italy. 75mm gun
There is an interesting story behind one of the more well-known Canadian tank memorials found in Italy.  The "Athena" tank memorial is situated in the town of Ortona, where the Three Rivers Regiment's (TRR) troopers helped the infantry regiments of the 1st Canadian Divisions take the town in house-to-house fighting in December of 1943.  The tank, while being the correct model that the TRR fought with, is not a relic of the street-battle of Ortona.  A few years ago, members of the regiment shopped around looking for a suitable tank, and purchased "Athena", previously dubbed "Cookie" from the Dutch War and Resistance Museum in Overloon, Netherlands.  The tank had served with the 7th American Armoured Division until turning over in a ditch.  In 2006 the tank, freshly painted with Canadian insignia, was presented to the town of Ortona.  As preservedtanks.com reports, 
The installation of the tank in the Piazza was intended to be temporary, pending the creation of a suitable site. This was planned to be on a pedestal north of the Piazza, overlooking the beach. In the meantime the tank has been moved to a grassy area nearby.
Most origins of memorials are likely lost to the public record, squirreled away in Legion Branch filing cabinets or fading with the memory of the "Greatest Generation". An interesting image in the Library and Archives Canada shows men preparing a Sherman as a memorial in "Fort Garry Park, Doetinchem, Netherlands" in late 1945.

Trooper J.L. Dumouchelle and Corporal W.L. Corn cleaning a Sherman tank of The Fort Garry Horse used as a monument in Fort Garry Park, Doetinchem, Netherlands, 22 November 1945. Photo Credit: Capt. Ken Bell / Canada. Dept. of National Defence / Library and Archives Canada / PA-131691
The tank still remains in what is now known as "Canada Park" in the town.  The name change is interesting, in that what once was a tribute to a specific action by a specific regiment has now been nationalized using a name that the average Dutch citizen is much more likely to identify with.  It is hard to say how the troopers polishing the tank back in 1945 would react to the removal of the regimental name.  Did they invest great importance in the notion that the tank would stand as a memorial to their specific regimental family?  Who knows, they may have just been tasked with polishing up the tank due to some minor disciplinary infraction and were looking forward to attending a dance with local Dutch women.

M4A3E8 in Kelowna, BC. 76mm gun
That Sherman tanks are popular as memorials speaks both to their widespread availability after the war, and their iconic appeal as one of the quintessential Allied weapons of the Second World War.  It certainly is not hard to find them across Canada.  The use of these machines as memorials, however, seems to draw away from their purpose.  These memorials are to the soldiers who fought and died for their various regiments, yet there is little to remind one about the human experience of war in the display of a vehicle.  True, dedication plaques often mention those that served in the vehicles, but to often form their crews appear in the histories as silent ghosts in the machine.  Like Cartesian body and mind, it is difficult to determine where and how the two interact. 

Charlottetown, PEI. 76mm gun
M4A4 in Normandy. 75mm gun
[A previous version of this post was originally published on 22 August 2010]


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