American M4A1 tanks first saw battle without American crews. This happened in Africa, towards the end of the summer of 1942, when things weren't going well for Anglo-Canadian forces. Tobruk fell, an important port city and foundation for Allied forces. The possibility of the Germans reaching the Suez Canal was very real. About 100 kilometers separated the front lines and the city of Alexandria.
The British Prime Minister Winston Churchill requested help from the USA. He needed tanks, as many of the newest Shermans as possible, sent to Africa. American President Franklin Roosevelt agreed and promised to send George Patton's 2nd Tank Division to reinforce the front, a rushed and impossible move, as in order to fully equip the division, all Sherman training tanks would have to be confiscated from other units. The division lacked tanks and trained crews. Simply sending it to Egypt would be impossible before November. The Afrika Corps was unwilling to wait while the Allies got help, so it was decided that just the tanks could be sent to the British.
Armoured help from across the ocean
Over 300 Shermans were ready by September, mostly M4A1, and some M4A2. In order to achieve this, some training centers in the US were cleared out. One ship carrying Shermans was sunk by a German torpedo, making it necessary to send another 52 tanks. The first Sherman reached the British as early as August.
Even though it was an early M4A1 that had many cosmetic differences from its later versions, the main characteristics of the vehicle were unchanged. As a result, when the main shipment of tanks arrived, the British had a good idea of what they were dealing with and what they had to do for it to function in Africa.
In Africa, every tank is a mobile warehouse. If it's not carrying a load of crates, canisters, tarps, sacks of rations, kindling, etc, it is useless, such is the law of the African theater of war. This load was, of course, removed before battle, but it was mandatory during a march. Field repairmen spent their time making sure that all these goods didn't fly everywhere when the turret turned. Crews hurriedly mastered their new tanks.
The British did not manage to prepare in time. By the Second Battle of El-Alamein, the first real test for Sherman tanks, only 252 tanks from the 8th Army were ready. The 9th Armoured Brigade received its 36 tanks on October 23rd, on the first day of battle. The tankers did not even have time to check over their new tanks.
In total, the Allies brought 1029 tanks to this battle. 250 Shermans is almost every fourth tank: more than enough to evaluate the effectiveness of the new vehicle in battle, and there was no shortage of battles.
Difficult start in the African dust
During the first stage of the offensive, the 9th Armoured Brigade supported the New Zealand division. Its first losses weren't from enemy tanks.
German infantry prevented the widening of passages through minefields, and the silhouettes of tanks were very visible against the morning dawn, making it easy for AT guns to work from camouflaged positions deep within the German defenses. In return, the gun was only revealed by the flash of its shot. The British tankers had trouble firing back. Generous amounts of HE shells and support from artillery didn't help.
The first contact between Shermans and enemy tanks happened soon after dawn. Late model PzIIIs and PzIVs with long guns that fought in this battle had high muzzle velocity, and could effectively fire from long ranges.
The tank battle occurred at a range of just under two kilometers. It lasted a short time, but the Shermans proved themselves an effective and reliable weapon for fighting enemy medium tanks. It is not known how many tanks each side lost, but the losses appear about equal. This meant that the Allies finally made up their deficiency in quality of tanks that was observed since the start of the war.
On the other hand, the Shermans were no wonder weapon. They were as sensitive to a lack of infantry support as any other tank. Attacks head-first at AT positions ended as poorly as with Crusaders or Valentines. All of this happened during the Second Battle of El-Alamein, which concluded on November 11th, 1942. The Germans lost for many reasons, including the sinking of several cargo ships in the Mediterranean that carried vitally important supplies for the Afrika Corps.
The Shermans' debut at El-Alamein could be easily called successful, even though these tanks barely entered production and were manned by insufficiently trained crews. The M4 had thirty years of combat ahead of it.
Original article available here.