Emcha - The Red Army's Sherman Tanks - Tank Historia

Emcha – The Red Army’s Sherman Tanks

Among the plethora of weapons fielded by the Soviets in World War Two, perhaps amongst the stranger sights to behold was that of the M4 Sherman, known to them as the Emcha. Yet, despite being fielded in far lesser quantities than its T-34 counterparts, Shermans played a crucial role on the Eastern Front.

Having served in practically every battle after Kursk, the American-made M4 Sherman rumbled through the Ukrainian steppe, various battlefields of Romania, Hungary, Austria, and Poland, and even in the street fighting of Berlin.

Soviet Emcha tank crew.
Although the Sherman is most well known for its service with Britain and the US, it saw massive amounts of action with the Soviets on the Eastern Front.

With Soviet losses bleeding the country dry, American Lend-Lease Aid helped plug the gap of an army hemorrhaging men and equipment in unfathomable numbers. However, its usefulness went far beyond just its role in providing a numerical advantage.

Its impressive combat performance convinced Stavka to place the M4 Shermans in the hands of the country’s most elite units, its Guards Tank and Cavalry formations. These battle-hardened veterans enabled the Sherman to win numerous more Guard honors from the Carpathians to Vienna and everywhere in between.

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How M4 Shermans Ended Up in the USSR

In 1942, the Soviet military was in dire straits, and massive casualties and huge losses in industry were stretching Soviet industrial capacity to its limits. Though the courage and fighting spirit of the nation would do much to hold the Germans back, courage alone only goes so far against armored vehicles.

To blunt the German offensive, the American government added the Soviets to the Lend-Lease program to begin funneling aid into the country in whatever capacity possible. Among the first shipments of food, ammunition, and clothing were new armored vehicles.

The first armored vehicles that arrived were the M3 Stuart light tanks and M3 Lee medium tanks. These vehicles were often driven straight from the port into waiting units for immediate combat service. However, they left much to be desired.

An M3 Lee in Soviet service.
The M3 Lee was designed as a stop gap before the Sherman arrived. Although a rather primitive design, it was considered more than a match for the Panzer IV when it arrived.

Many people cite that the Soviets did not like these tanks because the vehicles had little survivability when facing a direct hit. Though the official report detailing its service that made it to Stalin and eventually back to Roosevelt himself did list this as a cause, there were other reasons the Soviets wanted something else.

Chief among their complaints was that the vertical armor of these vehicles allowed them to be penetrated by even the smallest caliber anti-tank weapons the Germans could bear. The Russians also had problems with engine reliability in their vehicles and employing its weapons since the M3 Lee tank’s hull-mounted 75mm gun could not traverse well. Such a feature was a necessity in the mountains, steppe, and cities of the Soviet Union.

But perhaps their supply system was the most significant reason they wanted Sherman tanks versus the other models. The M3 tanks supplied to the USSR were gasoline-fed variants. This was a problem, as most Soviet tanks ran on diesel. Reducing the strain on the Soviet supply system was a requirement of the Lend-Lease program, and introducing new vehicles with different fuel requirements would not help the problem.

M3 Lees at Kursk.
The M3 soon proved to be incompatible with Soviet requirements. It was big, cumbersome, and ran on petrol. This image shows Lend-Lease M3s during the Battle of Kursk.

Most of the 50,000 or so Shermans built were of the petrol type, but one particular version, the M4A2, used a General Motors 6046 twin straight six diesel engine that produced about 400 hp. This was exactly what the Soviets needed.

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Perhaps sealing the deal even further was the first test trials of 26 M4A2 tanks delivered in the first Lend-Lease convoy in early 1942. These tanks performed well, with the sloped armor and powerful engines serving Soviet tankers impressing army leadership. The US obliged to stop sending M3 tanks when the commander of the USSR’s tank force asked that any further deliveries of tanks be the M4A2 Shermans.

The M4A2 in the Soviet Union

During the entirety of the Lend-Lease program with the Soviets, the US sent over only one model of Sherman: the M4A2. The M4A2 was made almost exclusively for the Lend-Lease program, and American factories made about 8,000, with 4,102 earmarked for the Soviet Union.

Of these, only about 3,664 actually made it onto Soviet ports; the rest one can only assume having sunk to the bottom of the sea from German U-Boat attacks. That is because America sent Lend-Lease equipment mainly through the ports in Archangel or Vladivostok. The northern route certainly caused all of this loss.

An M4A2 Sherman with a 76 mm gun.
The M4A2 was a diesel Sherman. Some versions, such as the M4A2 76 mm (W) shown here, carried wet ammunition storage and a more powerful 76 mm gun.

Of the 4,102 vehicles shipped over, 2,007 were of the older 75mm type, and 2,095 were of the newer 76mm type. Of the 2,095 76mm tanks sent, about 460 were the later HVSS models of the M4A2. The HVSS model was an improvement on the suspension system that allowed for a smoother ride and increased capabilities over soft terrain.

However, all of the HVSS models were delivered near the war’s end in Europe and did not see any action. Additionally, a significant minority of the M4 Shermans were kept in reserve as training vehicles. Not only did the crews of Sherman tanks need to train, but the crews of T-34s could too.

The superior engineering and better tolerances in the Sherman meant that even T-34 crews could be trained on them since the looser tolerances on T-34s meant that inexperienced tank crews could break them easily.

From the remaining 3,664 vehicles that survived the journey, only 2,653 Shermans actually made it into the hands of front-line units. However, its amazing combat chronicle soon earned it the respect of its crews and its placement of it into competent hands.

The Emcha Arrives

One of the biggest mysteries surrounding the employment of the Sherman in Red Army formations is how Stavka chose them to receive the equipment. When looking at their employment, units from the Caucasus Front all the way up the Baltic Front were armed with Shermans. Despite this seemingly randomized employment, there appear to be two common denominators on who got these tanks.

Firstly, the Soviet high command only armed entire units with them for the most part. The smallest unit that received them at a unit level appears to be the regimental level. The most common formation to receive them was at the corps level, while the remaining tanks that the Soviets did not need to equip an entire corps became independent brigades and regiments.

M4A2 Emcha Sherman in Europe.
Soviet Shermans were usually given to units entirely equipped with Shermans. They saw action all over the Eastern Front. This Soviet M4A2 76 (W) is somewhere in Germany or Austria

Perhaps most interesting is that most fully-Sherman-equipped units were Guards units.

Guards units were the best formations that the Red Army fielded in World War Two. Stavka could only elevate these units to Guards status through extreme heroism displayed by its personnel along with the strategic importance of their actions. Though no official reason has been found in the historical record explaining why they did this, we can make a few good guesses.

The Sherman was quieter than the T-34 because of its rubberized tracks and the ability to run on just one engine, so it could advance quickly and silently, a necessary skill when Guards units were making breakthroughs. The Sherman also had better gun sights and more advanced communications equipment than the T-34. These would also be necessary for Guards units at the forefront of an assault when units required accuracy and good communications to exploit a breakthrough.

Emcha and T-34-85
The debate on whether the T-34 or Sherman (both shown here) is better has raged since the war. Today many agree that in terms of build quality and crew comfort, the Sherman was leagues ahead of the T-34.

In general, the Sherman is regarded as a “better built” machine than its contemporary, the T-34, suffering from less break downs and having better conditions inside for the crew.

Regardless of the reasons, the tankers that got their Shermans quickly fell in love with them. Perhaps one of the reasons was that American factory workers apparently stuffed them full of Western foodstuffs and when those got confiscated, resorted to stuffing bottles of whiskey in the barrel as a thank you to their Russian crews.

While we do not know if that story is true or not, we do know for sure that due to its title of M4, the Soviets referred to it as M Chetyrye, the Russian word for the number four. Soon, tank crews gave it the moniker of Emcha for short, and not long after that, the Emcha would get its first taste of blood in the Soviet counter-offensives after Kursk.

The Emcha in Action

Beginning in August 1943, the Emcha saw continuous service until September 1945. The vehicle performed well, and Red Army commanders consistently used it as part of breakthroughs or advanced reconnaissance. As Colonel Dimitry Loza, a Sherman battalion commander, states in his memoirs, the infamous 9th Guards Mechanized Corps was awarded honorific titles for seizing Balti in Moldova, Rymnik in Romania, and Vienna, Austria. Near Vienna, he also earned his Hero of the Soviet Union award commanding an understrength Sherman company that seized a vital rail junction on the way to Vienna.

M4A2 Emcha carrying infantry.
Soviet infantry hitch a ride on an Emcha. Tanks of the Red Army also carried infantry into battle. This tactic is known as tank desant.

However, other Sherman units also earned battle honors similar to the 9th Mechanized Corps. The 3rd Guards Mechanized Corps won the honorific title Krivorozhskaya for fighting in Ukraine, while the 8th Guards Mechanized Corps won its status for its Carpathian offensive.

Perhaps most interestingly enough is the service of the Emcha in Berlin. Multiple armored units equipped with Shermans like the 1st Guards Mechanized Corps formed part of the Second and Third Guards Tank Armies that fought in the battle for Berlin. Of the roughly four hundred tanks between those two formations alone, Sherman-equipped units lost about half their number during the street fighting in the Reich capital.

A knocked out Emcha.
A knocked out Soviet M4A2 armed with the 75 mm gun, near Smolensk, 1944.

After the war in Europe ended, the Emcha also saw service in the Far East for the USSR’s invasion of Manchuria. At least two Sherman-equipped units, the 3rd and 9th Guards Mechanized Corps, fought in Manchuria, though they saw little action and no confirmed tank kills.

Goodbye to the Emcha

According to Colonel Loza, a year after the war ended, the American government asked the Soviets to either pay for the Shermans or send them back in working order. The Soviet military opted for the latter, and the Red Army had several weeks to prepare the tanks to be shipped back. However, once Soviet troops had done the work and were ready to go, the Soviet government allegedly changed gears and had the remaining Emchas dismantled.

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Their guns and turrets went into long-term storage while troops repurposed the chassis themselves for farm and other heavy equipment. Quite the sad ending for a machine that saw so much service. Why Stalin ordered their destruction is still a mystery. Allegedly, Stalin himself was irritated that the Americans had subsequently destroyed previously returned aircraft after delivery, and he argued that repurposing the vehicles for civilian use was a better option for them.