on December 31, 1998
Hundreds of books have been written about armored warfare in World War II, usually from the viewpoint of a combat commander. "Death Traps" is a first hand account of the often overlooked area of maintenance support. Belton Cooper was a army Ordnance officer with the 3rd Armored Division. He gives a different perspective of the day to day life of supporting a combat command of the 3rd AD during WWII. He served as a laision officer with the duties of evaulating knocked out military vehicles, primarily M4 Sherman Tanks. His job was to determine if these tanks could be salvaged,rebuilt and be reissued to tank crews. It is already well known that America's main battle tank was far inferior to German Armor, but Cooper explains how the M4 met its fate through numerous encounters with German Panthers and Tigers. This required Tank Commanders to rethink Armored Warfare and to come up with ways to defeat the enemy. He explains in detail the numerous obstacles that had to be overcome from the Normandy landings all the way to the surrender of Germany. You will read of the development of the famous Cullen Hedgerow device that helped break the stalmate in the hedgerow country of Normandy. Also the first trials of the M26 Pershing Tank which was so badly needed by our troops to counter heavy German Armor but was refused by General George S. Patton. Pattons view was that we needed fast tanks to go to the enemys rear to disrupt supply and command elements, did not warrant tanks like the Pershing. Coopers evaluation of the Pershing shows that if we had this tank in great numbers the war in Europe could have been over much sooner and with less loss of life. Also there is the rare story of the use of the M26A1E2(aka M26E4) Super Pershing and its encounter with a Panther. This is a great book. As a Veteran Tank Commander I highly recommend this book be read by all Armor Officers and Tank Commanders. You will awe at the stories of horror when you have to clean out a destroyed tank and try to match up the body parts. You will laugh at the comical incidents soldiers often find themselves in. A great deal of thanks is due to Cooper for contributing this work. It is a much needed addition to the library's of our nation's history. The new millineum is upon us. We must encourage our veterans to write about their experience's before they are lost to time. Cooper has done this and we thank him.
Tom Holt Veteran, The Big Red One
on December 18, 1998
Death Traps: The Survival of an American Armored Division in World War II is an unusual addition to the growing pile of memoirs being published as WW II veterans age and then die. It is not written by a soldier who was in the thick of combat and has brave tales to tell, nor is it the story of someone in command, explaining and justifying his decisions. Instead, Cooper was a junior officer in charge of vehicle maintenance for the 3rd Armored Division as it fought its way from Normandy to Central Germany. He was always right behind the front lines, but seldom in combat, though frequently exposed to sniper and artillery fire. The main revelation of Death Traps is obvious from its title: the famous M4 Sherman tank which was the mainstay of American armor during the war was completely inadequate when facing German tanks. American commanders, especially Gen. Patton, chose to continue producing the Sherman even when they knew it could not face German tanks and antitank guns, and American tank crews paid a heavy price for this mistake. Cooper has done his homework. Unlike many war memoirs, he has spent time reading the general histories in recent years, and gets the background information right when he discusses the pursuit across France, the invasion of Germany, and the Battle of the Bulge. But the most important thing here is the details: how the Sherman worked, how maintenance was carried out under harsh conditions, and, especially, what happened when a high-velocity 75 mm or 88 mm shell hit an M4.
on October 5, 2002
I reviewed this book 2 years ago when I first read it because it was so truthful and realistic as written by this man. He was the young ordinance officer of my 3rd Armored Division, 33rd Armored Regimment. I was in Recon. Company and in his book he tells it as it was. I wrote the first review because of the impression it made on me. It is a book every military buff, every history teacher, every politican and every America should read especially those interested enough in our past wars to try to prevent the events in this book from happening again. WW II could easily have been lost or been like Vietnam and ended in a no win situation. I stongly recommend the reading of this for enjoyable, informative story line told from the veteran's level and prespective. I traveled to a 3rd Armored Veteran's reunion to meet the author and get his autograph. It was worthwhile. He is a fine , friendly man who wrote this book mainly as a tribute to his fellow soldiers and to tell a story that neederd telling which was how our soldiers died and suffered because of the inferiority of our tanks, guns and other equiptment to that of the Germans.
on February 4, 2006
Deathtraps is an engrossing personal account of a of the American Tanker's experience in World War II from a unique insider's perspective, the man in charge of recovering and fixing destroyed tanks. It is a deeply personal and moving account of a man coming to grips with the horrors of war while at the same time rejoicing at the traces of humanity that remained even in the worst situations. Despite some inaccuracies and repetition it once again reinforces the fact that the M4 Sherman tank was totally outclassed for most of World War II by its German opponents. While the GI grapevine isn't 100% accurate it captures the feelings and beliefs of the armored infantry and tankers who fought and died in the Sherman. It is this insight that makes this book so valuable. Belton Cooper speaks for those who didn't make it back. The author writes with an earnestness that gives voice to those who went into battle knowing that the odds were against them. Logistics efficiency was purchased at the expense of battle losses. Whether or not that was the right choice will be debated forever but the author has earned the right to present his argument from firsthand personal experience.
Unfortunately, the lead reviewer who gave this book one star used two outrageously misleading points (among several others) to disparage this book, and rather unwittingly, the tens of thousands of American tankers who fought and died in the Sherman. He misses the point of this book by playing the part of a not-so-accurate-self-proclaimed-fact-checker and misses the story of the bravery of the crews who knowingly went into battle with an inferior weapon. Whether or not the Sherman was or was not inferior is not the point. The point is that these men believed that they faced certain death and still did their duty each day until the end of the war. (See notes below).
Additional Notes for Armor Nerds:
Armor nerds will point out that limited supplies of special HVAP ammunition and add-on armor brought some Shermans up to a survivable level at the very end of the war. The inescapable fact is that without overwhelming air superiority and artillery support, an unsupported Sherman pitted against a Panther or a Tiger without overwhelming numerical superiority was doomed. Fortunately, towards the end of the war, that became an exceedingly rare occurrence. Official Army guidelines stated that 5 Shermans were needed to knockout a Panther and thanks to the maintenance crews of the U.S. Army; there were always plenty of Shermans. The Sherman was an excellent anti-infantry weapon. It was a terrible anti-tank weapon.
Lead Reviewer's misleading "fact" checking points:
ONE: Claiming that German tank kills by U.S. armored divisions refuted the assertion that the Sherman was at a disadvantage to German tanks: Ridiculously misleading. The overwhelming bulk of German tank losses were caused by combined air and artillery support. In the case of Normandy (and Anzio), even the U.S. Navy intervened to stop German tanks near the beaches and saved the day.
TWO: Implying that since Shermans were used in the Korean War of 1950 and the Arab-Israeli conflicts of 1967 and 1973 they were battle worthy to modern standards.
ISRAEL: The Shermans were radically upgraded ("Super-Shermans") to be unrecognizable as an M4. The Shermans were mechanically reliable and lasted a long time. However, despite being given new guns and additional armor, they were still terribly vulnerable leading to incidents of mutiny when Israeli's manning Super Shermans refused to directly engage superior tanks alone without overwhelming combined arms support. That the Sherman was used this late was the result of necessity (arms embargos) and mechanical reliability (the undisputed strongpoint of the Sherman). The Arab armies also still used limited numbers of T34's and German Mark IV's due to arms shortages.
KOREA: The army was critically short of tanks and anti-tank weapons in Korea. The first U.S. units engaged in Korea had no tanks and inadequate anti-tank weapons which led to many losses including the capture of a U.S. General. They actually had to salvage tanks from the old pacific battlegrounds to initially obtain tanks for Korea. When newer Shermans arrived in quantity, they had adequate HVAP ammunition not readily available in WWII and were facing a limited number of poorly trained North Korean tanks that did well against troops without anti-tank weapons but were quickly neutralized by overwhelming air and artillery support (sound familiar?). The M26 and M46 Pershings were also on hand later on in the war so the Shermans were once again used mainly as artillery support and anti-infantry weapons.
Perhaps the only two minor disappointments I have with Cooper's account are:
ONE: His missed opportunity to build upon his disclosure of the critical tank crew shortages and identify it as the leading cause of Patton's (a Southern general descended from a Confederate Officer) decision to accept African-American tank troops in his army. Given the state of race relations at that time, Patton's reversal on segregation and the integration of his army with African-American tank units underscored the failure of the Sherman and the tank crew shortage/crisis, which faced the U.S. Army.
TWO: Failure to mention that the British up gunned the Sherman with a 17-pounder gun (Firefly) that could destroy Panthers and Tigers and deployed them in a ratio of one Firefly for every four Shermans. The U.S. declined Britain's offer of the 17-pounder, again for LOGISTICAL reasons. While the British still suffered terrible Sherman losses, they at least had a fighting chance.
on August 25, 2006
I agree that the best understanding of history comes from primary source documenation where the source has first-hand knowledge of the facts. This is exactly why moments of the book are quite insightful and moving. For example, the scene where Cooper shares a fox hole in combat for the first time after receiving heavy fire. Listening to a soldier tell of crying himself to sleep while reciting the 23rd Psalm and taking comfort from Paul's words in Phillipians is touching and honest. Moments like this are what make this book worthwhile.
I will not comment on historical inacuracies concerning the US tanks v. the German tanks as it appears the foregoing commentators know a lot more than me. I would encourage readers to recall, however, who this writer is and what his job was during the war. Cooper raced across enemy lines in the cover of darkness regularly to report to his commanders who and what was recently destroyed. He then made every effort to get fresh supplies back to the front lines. In doing so, part of his daily routine was witnessing his peers wash the blood and guts out of semi-destroyed tanks - the blood and guts of their friends - so that young, often inexperienced soldiers, could take their place.
I suspect witnessing this bloodshed day in and day out for about two years would cause any person to long for tanks with more protection and more offensive power.
This aspect of the book needs not be forgotten. Sure, it could have done without the editorialism concerning events Cooper was not present for, but perhaps those digressions come from the unique suffering Cooper experienced during the War.
I really enjoyed the read of the memoirs of Belton Cooper. It was rather like sitting on your uncles lap and hearing war stories of the great World War Two...but I have to agree with reviewer R. A Forczyk whose 1 star review here, explains in detail the bias, the errors and such in the memoirs. However, I consider the book the memoirs of an old WWII soldier who did his duty, and I enjoyed the read, even if some of it is false, slanted, or borrowed from other sources long after the war was over. Having known a couple of WWII tankers myself, I can say they were a brave lot, and memoirs of this tank maintenance battalion Lt. reveal a bit of what it was like in western Europe between D-day and the fall of Berlin. See the one star review of Mr. Forczyk for a detail listing of errors and bias in this book.
on October 24, 2000
Belton Y. Cooper was an ordnance officer with the 3d Armored Division in W.W. II, where his unit's central task lay in the the immediate, post-battle recovery of those knocked-out M4 Sherman's which could be repaired in the field, and the marking for the salvage teams of those 'brewed-up' M4s -- tanker speak for catastrophic battle damage resulting in fire -- which could not. Thus, Cooper bore witness to the terrible consequences of the Sherman's late-war obsolescence when faced against the Wermacht's vastly superior tanks, and the resulting tragic and disgraceful cost in American lives. ('Disgraceful', for the proposition of fielding the superbly designed M26 Pershing in large numbers well before Operation Overlord (D-Day) was foolishly rejected on the basis of the recommendations of no less an Allied general than George Patton, in late '43/early '44.)
Every bit as powerful as E.B. Sledge's memoir of his experience as a Marine in the Pacific War, ("With the Old Breed"), what lend's Cooper's book such a visceral power is his most unself-conscious and rigorous honesty in recounting his war. Like Sledge, he is obviously a very perceptive and humane individual, who trusts that each anecdote which he has judged to be most illustrative of the urgency and horror of the events which surrounded him in '44-'45, will strike home to the reader with a poignancy borne of his refusal to indulge in any of the petty embellishments which ultimately weaken the impact of the memoirs of lesser writers. Brutal honesty in a literal sense...
on February 19, 2013
This book is an interesting memoir, but it is marred by unnecessary repetitions and a large number of errors regarding technical aspects of WW2 tanks. Robert Forczyk has already documented many of the errors this book contains in his excellent review. Here are a few more examples of errors. It's unfortunate that a book with so many errors has had such a profound effect on people's opinion of the M4 Sherman as a weapon system.
Page 21 Cooper claims that German tanks used Christie suspensions. He also claims the US M24 and M26 used Christie suspensions. This is not true, most German tanks in service in 1944 used torsion bars (with the exception of the leaf spring equipped Pz4.) The M24 and M26 used torsion bars as well.
Page 22 Cooper describes the Pz4 as a 22ton tank with four inches of frontal armor, and a wider track than the Sherman. The late war Pz4 was actually 28 tons, had a little more than three inches of frontal armor (not slopped) and had a relatively narrow track , necessitating the use of grousers, much like the M4.
Page 24 Cooper describes the M4A1 as "essentially the same tank as the M4 but with an improved high-velocity 76mm gun and a different turret." Actually, the M4A1 came with either the 75 or 76mm guns, the difference between an M4 and a M4A1 was that the M4 had a welded hull, the M4A1 had a cast hull.
Page 26 Cooper states that "the power ratio of the M26 was approximately 12 horsepower per ton compared to 10 horsepower per ton on the M4" and that the M26 was "faster and more agile over rough terrain." He has the horsepower figures reversed, the Sherman had more power per ton, the M26 was always regarded as an underpowered vehicle until it was upgraded to the M-46 in the early 1950's.
Page 79 Cooper states that the Ford Motor Company made an eight cylinder version of the British Rolls Royce Merlin engine for use in the Sherman generating 550 horsepower. This is a total fiction. The M4A3 was in fact equiped with a Ford built V8, but it was not the Rolls Royce Merlin. It was a Ford design designated the GAA and it generated 500 horsepower at best.
These are a few examples of incorrect information presented in this book. People interested in an objective evaluation of the M4 Sherman would do well to steer clear of "Death Traps."
on January 8, 2006
Informative book on what it takes to keep a mechanized division operating at combat readiness along with the limitations of the Sherman tanks (ronsons) and the decisions to field the Sherman over the Pershing tank that resulted in higher casualties. The author also describes how the mechanics and recovery teams were able to maintain enough tanks to keep the combat power of the armored division rolling forward.
The author first writes on the years of training conducted at military specialty schools to develop technical proficiency prior to the Normandy campaign. The amount of time spent training became evident in the high caliber performance of personnel when compared to those who replacement personnel who arrived during active operations in 1944 and 1945.
The author then describes his staff role in the campaigns on how he would drive from the headquarters to the line units, and back to the maintenance sections with only one jeep. This was a very dangerous job as the front line was often fluid with German units in between the different commands. Then one realizes his crucial role in the division. He is a technical expert and if was taken or listed as a casualty, the technical proficiency of the maintenance units would have drastically been impacted. What would have happened in key battles should one less tank been available? Reading a book on the Hurtgen Forest (Charles MacDonald) and Beyond the Beachhead- 29th ID in Normandy (Baluski), not having a tank or two to support the infantry in key results often resulted in heavy casualties and attacks failing.
The author continues to describe the fighting and use of replacements during the battle of the bulge. The lack of trained tank crews became apparent and resulted in the infantry replacements converted into tankers becoming casualties themselves in a matter of hours. This is perhaps one of the key points - integration of replacements - that is a common theme in other history books from the Civil War, Infantry Aces (Kurowski), Band of Brothers (Ambrose), Battles of the Waffen SS (Frey), Beyond the Beachhead (Baluski), Caen Anvil of Victory, Hurtgen Forest (MacDonald) , Steel My Soldiers Hearts (David Hackworth) about Vietnam. All of these books mention that they key to the successful integration of replacements into veteran units is to give them the time and opportunity to train as a unit. If replacements are simple fed into a unit while in active combat operations, the replacements quickly becomes casualties themselves.
The author completes the book on describing how they formed combined arms task forces or tanks, mechanized infantry, anti-aircraft units, engineers, and artillery. These task force units were able to quickly advance and react to the fluid battlefield environment. One key point was that even though the Germans were on the process of defeat, their soldiers were still able to fight and in one battle, the Germans inflicted heavy casualties, along with killing MG Rose, the 3rd Armored Division Commander.
Reading a Bridge to Far and It Never Snows in September (books on Operation Market Garden) one understands how the mechanics in the German Army were also able to maintain the combat power of the Panzer Divisions, a similar crucial role as the author had in the 3rd AR Division.
The author might not have the "glorious" role of being a tank commander, paratrooper, or fighter ace, but reading his book, one not only understands the strengths and weaknesses of the Sherman and why it was fielded over the Pershing tank, but how good mechanics have a crucial role in maintaining the combat power of an armored division.
on January 15, 2005
This review is as much a response to some of the other negative reviews of this book that appear on this site ("A Faulty Indictment", "Interesting account, inaccurate and lacking in insight", for example) as it is a direct examination of the book itself. True, Cooper's book does not represent the most lucid prose ever written in the category of war memoir. True, Cooper does make some factual errors and delves into other areas where he is out of his depth. But these are primarily in areas that are extrinsic to the main topic of his book. When it comes to dealing with the issue of the Sherman tank, however, Cooper is on much firmer ground. He offers a unique perspective on what is was like to crew an American tank during WWII. He was actually there. He was in charge of the crews that had to recover and attempt to fix up scores of shot up Sherman tanks (not to mention clean up the goo, that had been lately an American soldier, off the insides of these same tanks). To nitpick the author regarding some side issues and then trot out a load of misleading statistics that do not in any way refute the main thesis of the book - that the Sherman tank was vastly inferior to the tanks it had to fight - seems to me to both unworthy and unmerited when weighed against the important issues Cooper raises in his book.
One of his critical reviewers holds that writers of memoir should limit themselves to areas in which they have particular knowledge. Good advice. But when Cooper makes assertions in areas where he has perhaps unequaled knowledge and experience the reviewer seeks to rebut him with statistics that do not in any way contradict Cooper's thesis that the Sherman was a wholly inadequate weapon as compared with those of out enemy. So what if the Germans only lost 200 fewer tanks than the allies in Normandy? Isn't it possible that the overwhelming air superiority enjoyed by the allies at that time had something to do with that? Also, given the overwhelming superiority in numbers of tanks on the part of the Allied forces in Normandy shouldn't the balance of losses have been much more one-sided in our favor? The other figures cited by this particular critic of Cooper likewise do not show that Shermans matched up well against German tanks in head on head engagements. If you want to get some relevant statistics, let me suggest comparing the armor penetration capability of the Sherman's low velocity 75mm gun vs. that of the high velocity weapons used on the German Tiger, Panther and even the late model Mk IV tanks (which made up the majority of the balance of German tanks in Panzer units at that time). There is no comparison. The German weapons win hands down and this does not even take into consideration the fact that the Tigers and Panthers had thicker armor, and, in the case of the Panther at least, better shaped armor to boot.
The fact (if it is a fact) that the Allies held an advantage in numbers of tanks of 4 to 1, or that the Sherman "was designed for mass production" does not show that Cooper was wrong about its faults. In any event, the problem of tank supply in 1944 was not production, but shipping and port capacity. Nor do Cooper's critics offer evidence that production of superior tanks in the U.S. would have substantially reduced overall tank production. I would like to note here that production of the Sherman tank reached its zenith in the 2nd quarter of 1943 after which output fell significantly - plunging to less than 1/3 the peak rate in the first quarter of 1944. If you aggregate the production of German Mk IV, Mk V and Mk VI tanks for the corresponding period you will see that they were producing almost exactly the same number of those tanks as we were of our "designed for mass-production" Shermans! This is an amazing statistic given the fact that Nazi Germany had a far smaller industrial base (that was also being attacked from the air) and that each of the German models mentioned enjoyed significant advantages, as I already have mentioned, over the Sherman. Should I also add that the Soviet Union, which also had a significantly smaller industrial base than we did, produced their vaunted T-34 tank - which, unlike our main tank, benefited from timely, regular and significant improvements - in greater quantities than the Sherman? If, for some reason, the supreme industrial power in the world could not find the resources to produce a superior tank in sufficient numbers, could we not at least have provided our tanks with adequate firepower? Well, of course, we did, sort of, but too late to affect the bloody battles in Normandy and far later than it should have been (a higher velocity 76mm gun was eventually mounted on the Sherman, but these weapons were still markedly inferior to the German 75mm and 88mm tank guns in penetrating power and did not appear in quantity until late 1944 despite the fact that we had captured early production German Tiger tanks in North Africa more than a year before D-Day). This would not have significantly affected the advantages the Sherman enjoyed that Cooper's critics raise with respect to reliability or quantity of production, but would have made a significant difference on the battlefield.
We should also consider that if you suffer significantly fewer tanks destroyed in the field (because they are sufficiently armored to defeat the enemy's tank ordinance, or because you can now destroy your enemy with your more powerful gun without having to get almost suicidally close to him, or because your tank doesn't catch fire every time it takes an otherwise non-fatal hit), you don't need as many tanks produced, as many ships to transport them, or as many port facilities to off-load them. In addition, your more experienced tank crews, a resource far more precious than the equipment itself in both military and moral terms, could continue to fight and fight more effectively than the often green crews that would replace them (Cooper relates that crew losses were such that inexperienced infantrymen, who had never even been in a tank much less trained in one, were regularly being thrown into tanks with little or no preparation due to the horrendous losses suffered by American tankers).
It's this last point that really gets my blood boiling. Does it matter to the crewman that has had 3 or 4 or more tanks shot out from underneath him that we won the overall numbers game with the German's with respect to tank production? Or, how about his buddies who had been in the same tank with him, but are now splattered on its insides? Were their families supposed to take comfort in the fact that the tank in which their loved-one met his end was "designed for mass production" or that our government saved money on a cheaper weapon? In fact, one little appreciated phenomenon of WWII is that we in the US wasted vast resources in the manufacture of tens of thousands of inferior weapons due to our government's obsession with production totals. This was true with aircraft as well, but at least in that case we were usually producing some top-notch planes contemporaneously as well. That was not the case with respect to our tanks. By 1944, the Sherman tank was far outclassed by its counterparts. Our soldiers deserved the best our country could provide and we didn't give it to them - this is what Cooper's book throws into stark relief.
When it comes to WWII, I often get the impression that many would rather that no one dare cast shadows over the bright memories we collectively enjoy of that era. There seems to me to be an almost unconscious closing of ranks around the proposition that our war effort then is above criticism. I submit that at least some of Cooper's critics suffer from this baleful mentality. Cooper is having none of that. "Death Traps" is a worthwhile read for anyone wanting to get a full picture of what it was like to fight in an American armored division during WWII. I would also go as far to say that there are lessons that could be drawn from "Death Traps" that would be useful even unto this day. If your interests lie in either of those directions, don't be misled by some nitpicking Monday Morning Cheerleader and pass it up.