The Sherman “Ronson” Myth

When one has spent any time in tank circles, particularly those online, it’s almost inevitable that when discussing World War Two Allied armor somebody will mention how inferior Allied tanks were, and how they were crushed beneath mighty German treads at every opportunity. There is a particular emphasis on the poor M4 Sherman, which, of course, would spontaneously ignite at the mere sight of a Tiger coming over a hill, resplendent in its legendary Krupp steel.

The Sherman, you will be informed, was invariably called the “Ronson”, with its puny guns, weak armor and extremely flammable petrol engine and ammunition. You’ll then be told that this nickname came from the company’s slogan: “lights first time, every time”.

M4A1 Sherman tank.
The poor Sherman has received quite a bad reputation over the years, although this trend is reversing.

It was no match for the might of the Third Reich and only by sheer weight of numbers could they ever win. This is touted so much by so many you would be forgiven for wondering how the Allies ever won the war, however, there is only one small caveat to all this… It’s utter rubbish.

So where did all this begin, what are the facts, and where did this notion that the American Sherman would just shiver and brew up at the mere thought of fighting German tanks?

For that we have to look at a few areas, the first will be the actual origin of Ronson, what were they? And when did this term start getting used in popular media?


The Ronson Myth

The Sherman/Ronson association has two parts, the nickname, “Ronson”, and the slogan that usually follows.

Ronson is now part of Zippo, the famed lighter brand. Ronson started off in the 19th century making tin plate ornaments, hood fixtures and safety matches, but its later main product was the famed Ronson cigarette lighter.

It’s often touted that the Germans, and even its users, referred to their Shermans as Ronsons. This apparently came from the alleged advertising slogan “lights first time, every time“, as a derogatory way of accusing the Sherman tank of bursting into flames every time it was hit. It pushes the idea that this vehicle was a death trap.

Sherman tank on fire.
The nickname plays on the common idea that the Sherman burnt easily.

The problem is that slogan was never used during the wartime period. Ronson’s slogan throughout most of its production was “press, it’s lit, release, it’s out”. There are a number of other reoccurring slogans, such as “The World’s Greatest Lighter” and “One Finger, One Motion”.

Many have scoured books, magazines eBay listings and blogs in a bid to try and find this slogan on one of Ronson’s advertisements prior to 1945, but so far this exact text hasn’t been found.

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One similar, “A Ronson lights every time” has been found, but this was on an advert from the 1920s. It’s very unlikely that a slogan that was in one print over a decade before the war carried over into everyday conversation into the wartime era.

Ronson lighter advert.
This is the closest pre-1945 Ronson advert found so far with that slogan. However, it is from the 1920s and isn’t an exact match.

Interestingly, an advert from 1941 has the words “A zip of the wheel and it’s lit – every time” – but that was on a Zippo ad!

On our hunt we found a Ronson advert with the exact slogan: “lights first time, every time”, but that was from December 1950! We also found a book that seems to mention the slogan in 1946, but we unable to confirm the contents or date. Neither were printed during the war, however.

The point is, there isn’t any evidence that the Sherman was nicknamed “Ronson” because it “lights first time, every time” during the war. Could someone have witnessed a burning Sherman and said it looked like a Ronson lighter? Perhaps.

Ronson 1950 Advert.
This advert from December 1950 is the earliest we can find that contains the exact quote.

But despite being widely quoted today, not once has a single written or recorded period source of the Sherman being referred to by this moniker ever cropped up – not in POW reports, wartime journals, war diaries, or period recordings.

Millions of papers survived the Second World War, and list every praise and grumble about the Sherman, and yet the nicknames “Ronson” and “Tommy Cooker” only begin to appear post-war anecdotally, appearing in letters to the editor in the late 1960s and published in print around that time. Some appear a little earlier, but the origin of what they mention is never clear.

Yet these obscure and hard-to-trace books remained mostly in the background until the arrival of Death Traps: The Survival of an American Armored Division in World War II by Belton Y Cooper, published in 1998.

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This single book is the source of much of the current criticism of the Sherman, but is one written with a large amount of bias. It is also not primarily written by Cooper himself but rather a ghostwriter who wrote most of the book.

Belton Cooper, 1917 – 2007, spent his war years with the 3rd Armored Division recovering and working around knocked out Shermans and therefore took a particularly dim view on the survivability of the Sherman.

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After all, if all you saw was knocked out Shermans then that understandably goes a long way to shape your opinions and views. His book is widely discounted today for its inaccuracies, confirmation bias and assumptions on decisions and tank development procedures that Cooper was never involved in. However it has led to a lasting legacy on the Sherman.

It is important to realise how much of an impact books and movies can have on the public’s opinion. Remember, the 1970 movie Patton started the widespread myth that German tanks were diesel powered, when they were powered by petrol.

Destroyed Shermans.
Only working among Shermans that have been damaged would certainly skew your perspective.

The Ronson myth has since been cemented over the sordid history of tank books and the persistent flaw of ‘circular sourcing’, as very few authors on the subject research correctly, with the majority just quoting from previous books and so on which has led to a multitude of errors over the last 40 years.

If you need evidence on how easy and damaging this can be, just look at the Churchill AVRE’s spigot mortar, which has been repeatedly incorrectly stated as 290 mm in diameter, or the TOG 2, which is still being incorrectly listed as having a 17 pounder gun.

Pick up any coffee table book on Second World War armor and it’s more or less the same text with the same quotes: “the Sherman was called the Ronson by Allied users and the Tommy Cooker by the Germans”. Yet ask those same authors if could they show a source for this information and que eerie silence and cricket noises.

Is there any truth to it?

So was there any connection between Ronson and Shermans during the Second World War?

There are in fact two.

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The first is the Sherman, along with aircraft and other military vehicles, appeared in Ronson adverts. This was not uncommon during the Second World War as Ronson supplied equipment to the US government.

Ronson advert from 1944.
This advert from 1944 contains a Sherman tank.

These however still used the more common slogan or were aimed at war bonds and are, of course, not related to burn rate of Sherman tanks.

The second connection is to the Ronson flamethrower.

This flamethrower was named after the lighter by the Petroleum Warfare Department and used in both small converted carriers such as the Wasp and in a few Shermans, named Sherman Ronsons. When in transport the warning: “Caution Sherman Ronson Flammable” was stencilled onto them.

So there was, officially, a Sherman variant named Ronson – but these ones did the burning.

Sherman Ronson flamethrower tank.
A well known photo of a Sherman Ronson flamethrower in action.

Burning Shermans

This leads to the question: Did the Sherman burn? The answer here is yes; any large metal box full of ammunition and fuel when perforated by rounds will have a chance to cook off. But this also needs to be checked.

First, the notion that American tanks burned due to the use of gasoline engines, while German tanks used diesels is easily dismissed as German tanks also used gasoline engines and both had similar rates of burning out from fuel fires.

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The second issue lay with ammunition stowage, and this was by far the more deadly of the two issues. Tank crews are well known to hoard as much ammo as they can get their paws on in a conflict; resupply can never be a certainty and even today it’s not uncommon for crews to stash extra rounds about the place and carry lap shots.

M50 Sherman loader's position.
The interior of a tank is a small space. A perforation has a very high chance of setting off ammunition stored inside, especially if more is being carried than standard. This is a universal problem facing all armored vehicles, not just the Sherman.

While this overcomes one issue, it creates many more – incorrectly stowed ammunition drastically increases the risk of any tank brewing up when perforated.

These tanks, notably in the weeks following the Normandy landings, were often carrying more than their fair share of rounds. When hit, the ammunition stowed haphazardly around the tank had a good chance of cooking off, and yet despite this – due to the Sherman’s well placed sprung loaded hatches and crew discipline in the event of a fire occurring – many Sherman crews were able to escape, giving them the highest crew survivability of Allied tanks.

The US lost 4,295 Shermans in the ETO, which is far better than the German losses in the same battles. Once correct ammunition loading had been established and later wet stowage bins were added, the chance of ammunition fires dropped to a much safer record.

Sherman applique armor.
Shermans were initially equipped with additional armor to help protect ammunition storage locations.

One other area that should be looked at is German counter-tank tactics.

With Germany retreating on all fronts, the US was able to flex its logistical and repair systems to a level that the average German tanker could only have dreamt of.

Entire workshops were quickly set up or dismantled a short distance behind the front lines. They were able to quickly recover knocked out or damaged tanks and within 24 hours have them back in service.

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Germany, on the other hand, lost the majority of its battles and had to forgo this luxury, often leaving behind vehicles that had been knocked out, damaged or simply broken down without the ability to recover them.

Knocked out Sherman.
This Sherman has been hit but multiple rounds and set on fire. This was a common tactic taught to German crews to prevent the tank’s repair and reuse.

This led to a change in tactics in which German anti-tank teams would endeavour to make sure that any vehicle hit would be set alight, as a burned-out hull was often a complete write-off.

Therefore even when a tank was hit and the crew were seen bailing out, several more shots were placed into the vehicle to ensure that it was well alight and sent to the breakers yard rather than recovered and sent back into action a day or two later. This can often be seen in photos of hulls with several shots in them.


So after a brief look at this, was the Sherman called the “Ronson” during the war or not? Unfortunately with myths like these, we cannot categorically say it didn’t happen, because it is almost impossible to show something wasn’t said. However at the same time, there is no evidence that it was said during the war either.

The slogan hasn’t even been proven to have existed prior to 1945, let alone be a common nickname and phrase for the Sherman tank.

What is clear is that the nickname only became popular decades after the war.

Could it have been shared verbally between troops? Maybe. But again, this cannot be proven, and it is odd that if it was so widely used why no one jotted it down in their diary or reports.

With the lack of evidence of anyone using the nickname, and with no wartime Ronson adverts containing the slogan, we believe it is highly unlikely that this was a common nickname for the Sherman during the Second World War. It appears to have retroactively slipped into the psyche of historians and maybe some veterans long after the events being discussed.

The Sherman wasn't anymore of a Ronson than other comparable tanks of the day.
Another Sherman that has taken multiple hits.

Overall the enduring myth that the Shermans were bad tanks, death-traps or inferior to German tanks holds no water with anybody who has studied the subject correctly.

It’s unrealistic to expect that the myth will go away any time soon as it is so thoroughly ingrained into many who are interested in the subject. It also supports the common, yet strange and erroneous idea of German technical and tactical superiority, and downplays the incredible effort of the Allies during the Second World War.

So, we will now hand this over to our readers, and challenge you to prove that this nickname and phrase was indeed given to the Sherman during the war. Anecdotes or yarns won’t do, we want to see solid wartime evidence, reports, diary entries etc. Also, feel free to try and hunt for a pre-1945 Ronson advert with the slogan: “lights first time, every time”.

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If any new evidence comes to light, we will be sure to update this article to track how this myth develops.