Retired from Battle: M4 Sherman Tank Tackles Farming

An English farming contractor turns to an M4 Sherman tank for plowing duty.

Sherman tractor

Robert Crawford’s Sherman tractor at a recent rally. When Robert bought the tank, he was told it had been used in the famous Battle of El Alamein in North Africa where General Bernard Montgomery defeated Erwin Rommel, the legendary “Desert Fox.” This fact was never proven, although Robert did find sand in the tank’s running gear.

Photo courtesy Peter Longfoot

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Isaiah tells us in the Bible that the Lord will judge and rebuke nations and people; “and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks,” which, Isaiah prophesies, will bring about the end of war. Well, that glorious goal hasn’t yet been reached, but after World War II, some discarded weapons of war were converted to peaceful uses.

Surplus trucks and jeeps could be, and were, easily converted for civilian use, but tanks? To what possible use could these lethal machines be put? Well, the first thing that comes to mind is as crawler tractors for farm and industrial use, but the heavy superstructure that made up the armored hulls and the turrets of tanks made such use problematic. However, some 50,000 M4 Sherman tanks had been produced by the Allies during the war, and lots of them were left over, so ways to use these tracked and formerly lethal lumps of iron were developed in a number of countries.

Finding ways to use tanks

In this country, R.G. LeTourneau (read more about this ingenious man, Farm Collector, May 2016) bought a couple hundred surplus tanks from the scrap dealer. The tops were cut off level with the tops of the tracks and the scrap was melted down to make steel. The rear engines were removed and “we bolt one of our DC electric motors onto the (front-mounted) transmission and set down on the floor (of the engine compartment) a diesel engine and generator to make electricity,” LeTourneau said in a published account. “We connect up the wires and away we go.” LeTourneau used the tractors on his farming operations in Africa and South America as “farm tractors, bulldozers and mobile full-revolving cranes.”

There are also reports of Shermans modified with winches being used by electric companies in the west to string power lines across rough terrain as late as the 1970s, and a New Jersey contractor used a Sherman to demolish old houses in 1957.

Several Canadian companies made mobile rock drills for mining and log yarders for lumbering operations using M4 tank chassis and, although information is scarce, Russia seems to have converted surplus Shermans for tractor and bulldozer work.

Tank replaces steam cable

Robert Crawford, a large farming contractor in Lincolnshire, England, had been using steam cable tackle to operate a deep-digger plow to reclaim unproductive land. After World War II, British agriculture expanded and Crawford’s old and outdated steam tackle needed replacing. It was impossible to find a crawler tractor powerful and heavy enough to pull the big plow, so in 1947 he paid £350 for an ex-British Army M4 A2 Sherman tank, minus turret and armament.

Sherman tanks were powered by a variety of engines and Crawford’s had a General Motors Model 6046, Series 71 twin power pack, consisting of two 6-71 diesel engines, producing a total 375 hp and driving the tracks through a 5-speed synchronized transmission. The heavy frontal and side armor was removed, bringing down the weight of the machine to about 20 tons.

When used for deep digging, the Sherman pulled a
Fowler single-bottom steam balance plow that could work at depths of up to 3 feet. For regular plowing, Crawford used a Fowler 4-bottom balance plow of the type used in cable plowing. The Sherman ordinarily plowed in second gear at speeds of up to 6 or 7 mph and could complete 10 to 20 acres in a day’s time, using 30 gallons of fuel on average. At each end of the field, the Sherman was unhitched from the plow’s towing cable, turned and then re-hitched to the other end, thus the reason for using balance plows.

Crawford’s son, Robert, took over the business and restored the Sherman in 1984. Crawford still occasionally  demonstrates the machine. Old Tractor magazine, which was present at a 2005 demo, reported, “… the Lincolnshire countryside echoed once again to the roar of the twin GM diesels – and the sound resonating through the 9-in. diameter pipes has to be heard to be believed!”

Birth of the Shervick

At the end of the war, Great Britain was seriously short of cooking fats, along with everything else, and the result was the infamous Tanganyika ground nut scheme. Tanganyika (now Tanzania) in Africa was at the time a British possession. It was thought that 150,000 acres of scrubland there could be cleared and planted to ground nuts (peanuts) that could be harvested and pressed for oil.

The heavy crawler tractors and bulldozers needed to clear the land were in short supply, but a large number of surplus military tractors were found and (with great difficulty) sent to Africa, where inexperienced native operators wrecked many of them. One account says, “By the end of the summer of 1947, two-thirds of the imported tractors had been rendered unusable.”

The British government, which was paying for all this, contracted with the Vickers-Armstrong engineering company to build heavy crawlers for use in Tanganyika.

Vickers used surplus Sherman tanks as the basis for the tractors that were named Shervick after their Sherman-Vickers heritage. The Shermans were heavily modified with the hull and track system shortened considerably. Instead of three double-wheeled bogie units on each side, just two were used. The whole thing was reversed as well, making the front of the tank now the rear of the tractor. The GM twin power pack was replaced by a single 6-71 engine mounted atop the chassis and covered by a louvered hood, giving the Shervick a more conventional tractor appearance.

Cable-controlled Blaw-Knox bulldozer blades, stump diggers and heavy-duty front-mounted rakes were fitted to the Shervick tractors for tree and brush clearing. In photos the Shervick was a compact and neat-looking crawler tractor.

Tractor a casualty of botched plan

It’s unknown how many Shervick tractors were made before it was discovered, after some £49 million had been spent and the land pretty much turned into a wasteland, that not only was the soil in Tanganyika unsuitable for peanuts, but there wasn’t enough rainfall to sustain the crop. The Labour government cancelled the project in January 1951 and although Vickers tried to promote the Shervick for other uses, the attempt failed and manufacture was discontinued.

So, although the Bible admonition to “turn swords into plowshares” may be sound advice, it seems to not always be practical. FC


Sam Moore grew up on a farm in western Pennsylvania. He now lives in Salem, Ohio, and collects antique tractors, implements and related items. Contact Sam by email at letstalkrustyiron@att.net.