The M-50 was an Israeli upgrade of the United States’ famous Medium Tank M4 Sherman. It was developed in the mid-50s to keep the venerable World War 2 era tank effective and able to face other contemporary vehicles of the Arab armies of neighboring states even fifteen years after its development.
History of the Project
After the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) needed to arm itself with modern vehicles and weapons. The new nation had to defend itself against the Arab armies of neighboring states which were rearming or arming themselves by purchasing modern equipment from the Soviet Union.
Immediately, many Israeli delegations set off around the world in search of military equipment and vehicles. In the early 50s, the Israeli Army had a heterogeneous M4 Sherman fleet consisting of practically every version, but the IDF High Command immediately realized that the versions armed with 75 mm were no longer able to face more modern vehicles, even the similarly venerable T-34/85.
At the beginning of 1953, an Israeli delegation was sent to France to evaluate the new AMX-13-75 light tank. This vehicle was judged favorably in terms of armament and mobility, but not in protection.
In 1953, Finland designed for Israel a version of the Sherman armed with a 75 mm cannon of Finnish production, but the project was not accepted by Israeli engineers.
After careful reflection, the IDF purchased some AMX-13-75s but realized that the 75 mm cannon would have been more effective on a medium tank hull. Not being able to find adequate armored vehicles able to replace the AMX hull on the international market, the IDF decided to improve the Sherman’s performance with this powerful cannon. Israel asked France for help in developing a prototype.
History of the Prototype
At the start of 1954, a team of Israeli technicians was sent to France and along with other French engineers took two different vehicles, an M10 tank destroyer and an M4A2 Sherman, modifying the two turrets to accommodate the AMX-13-75’s cannon, which had a bigger breech and a longer recoil. Both vehicles were called M-50, however, the development of the M-50 on the M10 GMC chassis was abandoned. Some M10 GMCs arrived in Israel without the main gun and were then converted with 17-pdr or CN-75-50 cannons and used for crew training until 1966.
The design of the new israeli tank continued and in 1955, the first prototype was completed with a modified gun breech, no autoloader and the MX13 telescope of the AMX-13 stretched by 40 cm to adapt it to the new turret.
In summer 1955, the first tests of the new vehicle, called the M-50, began. Firing trials took place at the Bourges tank range in France and were unsuccessful. The vehicle had balance problems and there were still problems due to the recoil of the cannon.
Only after significant work was invested in improving the gun breech and the recoil system and a new counterweight was welded to the back of the turret, in late 1955, the vehicle was accepted by the Israeli Army.
The turret was sent by ship to Israel, where it was mounted on a M4A4 Sherman hull. It was tested in the Negev Desert and received positive judgment from the Israeli High Command. Assembly lines were prepared to modify the standard Israeli Shermans (75) to the new M-50. The first 25 M-50s were built clandestinely in France and then sent to Israel in mid-1956. They were assigned to one armored company in time to see service in the 1956 Suez Crisis.
The M-50 was a medium tank, based on any available Sherman hulls in IDF inventory. After the Suez Crisis, the first Israeli M4 Shermans began to be modified locally. The same workshops where the Sherman tanks acquired from all parts of the world had been refurbished a few years earlier were used for the conversion.
In total, about 300 M-50s were converted for and by the Israeli Army. These tanks took part in the Suez Crisis in 1956, the Six Day War in 1967 and the Yom Kippur War in 1973. During the last conflict, they proved to be inadequate in fighting against the more modern Soviet vehicles that the Arab countries had at their disposal, such as the IS-3M, the T-54/55 and the T-62. Between 1973 and 1976, almost all the M-50s were removed from service with the Israeli Army. Some vehicles were passed on to Chile and Lebanese militias.
The M-50 conversions used turrets with M34 and M34A1 mantlets. These had split or round commander’s cupola and a loader’s hatch. The turrets of the standard M4 Shermans (75) were modified with a new turret extension and mantlet, providing more space to accommodate the larger main armament. Starting from the first vehicles, a cast iron counterweight was welded on the back to balance the extra weight of the turret extension and of the new longer cannon.
Almost all vehicles had four 80 mm smoke launchers of French production mounted, two on each side of the turret. These were not present on the prototype. They replaced the 50 mm M3 smoke mortar mounted inside the turret. An M79 pedestal for a 12.7 mm Browning M2HB heavy machine gun was mounted on the few vehicles on which it was missing. A second ventilator was mounted on the turret counterweight and the radio system was improved, keeping the US-made SCR-538 radio, but adding a French-made radio positioned inside the turret counterweight, alongside a second antenna, not always mounted, on top.
Engine and suspension
The first vehicles built in France were based on M4, M4 Composite, a few M4A1 and M4A4T Sherman hulls. The M4A4T was a standard M4A4 Sherman re-engined by the French between 1945 and 1952 with a petrol Continental R-975 C4 engine with 420 hp. This engine was common in France after the war thanks to the supply of thousands of these engines by the US during the Second World War. In French nomenclature, it is known as the “Char M4A4T Moteur Continental”, where ‘T’ means ‘Transformé’ or ‘Transformed’.
Following the French example, all the Israeli Shermans were planned to be re-engined with the Continental engine and receive the needed changes to the engine deck. After the 1956 war, the Israeli workshops started to slowly convert their Shermans with the new engine and French cannon.
By 1959, only 50 vehicles were converted but there is no indication this number included the original batch of vehicles sent by France. During the same year, the Israeli understood that the Continental R-975 C4 used on all the converted Shermans was not the best engine for this heavier Sherman version. The engine was no longer able to offer the M-50 sufficient mobility and was breaking after long drives, and making continuous maintenance and repairs by the crew compulsory.
In late 1959, an Israeli M4A3 Sherman was tested with a new engine, the US Cummins VT-8-460 Turbodiesel engine delivering 460 hp. The mounting of the new engine did not require any changes to the engine compartment of the M4A3 and only the engine deck was lightly modified with new air intakes with sand filters and the radiator was also modified to increase engine cooling.
Accepted for production, the first batch of Cummins engines arrived in Israel only in early 1960 and the first vehicles with this conversion were the M-50s produced after 1960, first seen in a parade in early 1961. From mid-1960 to July 1962, all the M-50 built, more than a hundred, were powered by this more powerful engine.
The suspension was also changed. The old VVSS (Vertical Volute Spring Suspension) with 16-inch tracks did not offer acceptable top speed and comfort for the crew. For this reason, they were substituted by the more modern HVSS (Horizontal Volute Spring Suspension) with 23-inch wide tracks to ensure good mobility even on sandy soils. After the engine change, some M-50s still used the old VVSS suspension for a period, before receiving the new model. In 1967, during the Six Days War, all the M-50s had the new Cummins engine and HVSS suspensions.
The two different variants of the M-50 were named the Mark 1 or ‘Continental’ in Israel Better known as Degem Aleph (Eng: Model A) for the Continental-engined version, and the Mark 2 or ‘Cummins’ in Israel Better known as Degem Bet (Eng: Model b) for the Cummins-engined version.
The Degem Aleph version weighed 33.5 tons, could reach a lower maximum speed and had an autonomy of about 250 km due to the petrol engine. The improved Degem Bet version weighed 34 tons, could reach a top speed of 42 km/h and had a range of 300 km. The two standard 303-liter fuel tanks positioned on the sides of the engine compartment were left unchanged, but the exhaust system was modified.
Like in the case of the turrets, the hulls of the M-50 were of early or mid-type construction with ‘small’ hatches and ‘large’ hatches. The transmission cover was made of three pieces on the early type hull and from one cast piece for the mid and late types. The ‘Continental’ version received a few upgrades such as the replacement of the transmission with a better French one.
All Degem Bet vehicles had holder frames for cans of fuel and water, spare wheels and tracks, and two boxes for materials on the sides of the hull, a good feature given that lots of the combat would take place in the desert. A new cover for the horn on the left side of the frontal armor plate was installed, along with two supports for barbed wire, one between the crew hatches and the second on the transmission cover. On the rear armor plate a new telephone, connected to the intercom system of the crew, was installed in order to keep in contact with the infantry that fought alongside the tank.
A prototype variant of the M-50 was built at the Tel Ha-Shomer workshops in the early or mid-60s, called ‘Degem Yud’ Degem means ‘Model’ and ‘Yud’ (in Hebrew write י) is the smallest letter of the Hebrew alphabet. The chassis of an M-50 Degem bet on the hull of an M4A3 ‘large hatch’ was lowered by 30 cm in order to reduce the height the tank. After the first tests, the project was abandoned and the prototype was probably scrapped.
The hull armor of the M-50 was left unchanged, but the thickness varied between the different versions of the M4 Sherman used as a basis.
On the ‘small hatch’ M4A1, M4A1 Composite, M4A2, and on the M4A4, the frontal armor was 51 mm thick angled at 56°. For the ‘large’ hatch variants of the M4A1 and M4A3 (the M4A4 was never built in the ‘large’ hatch variant), the thickness was increased to 63 mm but the slope was reduced to 47° to accommodate the new bigger hatches.
Some vehicles had the World War II upgrades with additional 25 mm applique armor plates welded on the sides of the hull, increasing the armor thickness in vulnerable spots and also on the frontal glacis two 25 mm hatch guards.
The turret, with a frontal armor thickness of 76 mm, received a new gun mantlet and turret extension with a thickness of 70 mm. On the back of the turret, the addition of a cast iron counterweight significantly increased the protection, although this was probably not made of ballistic steel. As on the hulls, some M4 Shermans had 25 mm applique armor added on the right side of the turret, covering part of the crew.
The cannon of the M-50 was the same as that of the AMX-13-75, the CN 75-50 (CaNon 75 mm model 1950), also known as the 75-SA 50 (75 mm Semi Automatic model 1950) L/61.5. It could reach a firing rate of 10 rounds per minute. This cannon had a muzzle velocity of 1,000 m/s with armor-piercing rounds. The Israelis did not want to install the AMX-13 autoloader on their Shermans, as they believed it to be unreliable and would otherwise have taken up too much space inside the turret.
Above the cannon, there was a large searchlight for night operations, but due to its size, this light was easily damaged by light weapons fire. Therefore it was often not mounted on vehicles.
The secondary armament remained unchanged. Two Browning M1919 7.62 mm machine guns were carried, one coaxial to the cannon and one in the hull, to the right of the driver. The anti-aircraft machine gun was the typical 12.7 mm Browning M2HB.
At an undefined time between the Six-Day War and the Yom Kippur War, the hull machine gun and the machine gunner position were eliminated. In some cases, the spare M1919 machine gun was mounted on the turret, used by the tank commander or the loader in an anti-aircraft role.
The total ammunition carried consisted of 62 rounds, of which 50 were stowed in the hull in two 25-round racks, nine ready to use on the left side of the turret basket, and the last three on the floor of the turret basket.
The French cannon could fire a range of shells in 75 x 597R mm with 117 mm rimfire:
|Name||Type||Round Weight||Total Weight||Muzzle Velocity||Penetration at 1000m, angle 90°*||Penetration at 1000m, angle 30°*|
|Obus Explosif (OE)||HE||6.2 kg||20.9 kg||750 m/s||//||//|
|Perforant Ogive Traceur Modèle 1951 (POT Mle. 51)||APC-T||6.4 kg||21 kg||1,000 m/s||170 mm||110 mm|
|Perforant Coiffé Ogive Traceur Modèle 1951 (PCOT Mle. 51)||APCBC-T||6.4 kg||21 kg||1,000 m/s||60 mm||90 mm|
*Of Rolled Homogeneous Armor (RHA) plate.
Other shells that could be fired by this gun were High-Explosive Anti-Tank (HEAT) and Armor Piercing Discarding Sabot (APDS). However, it is not certain if they were ever used by the Israeli tanks.
The first ammunition stocks were sent from France by train to Italy, where they were shipped to Israel. By 1959, the ammunition was being produced by Israeli companies.
The secondary armament ammunition capacity was 4,750 rounds for the 7.62 mm machine guns and 600 for the 12.7 mm Browning.
There were also 8 reserve smoke bombs for the smoke launchers. The crew also had access to 5 M3A1 Grease Guns with 900 .45 ACP caliber rounds. These were subsequently replaced by locally produced IMI UZI.
Finally, two boxes with a total of 12 hand grenades of different models were carried. Usually, like in the US tanks, these consisted of six fragmentation grenades, two thermite grenades, and four smoke grenades. The smoke grenades and the two incendiary ones were transported in a box on the left wall of the turret, while the other grenades were transported in another box under the gunner’s seat. Over the years, the grenades used were of French or American production models or Soviet captured ones.
The crew of the M-50 consisted of 5 men, as in a standard Sherman. These were the driver and machine gunner in the hull, to the left and right of the transmission. The gunner was on the right of the turret, in front of the tank commander and the loader was operating on the left side.
Many photos show M-50 and M-51s without the 7.62 mm machine gun in the hull. At an unclear moment between the years after the Six Day War and before the Yom Kippur War, the IDF decided to remove this position in order to better allocate the limited numbers of soldiers at its disposal. As already mentioned, in some cases the Browning M1919 machine gun was mounted on the turret and used by the tank commander or the loader.
It should be noted that IDF’s MRE (Meal Ready-to-Eat) rations (Manot Krav or ‘Battle Food’) were developed for tank crews and therefore divided into groups of 5 individual rations. Only after the Yom Kippur War were these reduced to 4 individual rations.
The first 25 M-50s arrived in Israel in mid-1956 and went to equip a company of the 27th Armored Brigade. This Brigade also had two companies equipped with M-1 ‘Super’ Shermans, one Half-tracked company equipped with M3 Half-Tracks, a Motor Infantry Battalion and a light reconnaissance battalion with AMX-13-75 tanks.
The Suez Crisis
The first use of the M-50 was between 29 October and 7 November 1956 during the Suez Crisis. The 27th Armored Brigade was sent into the Sinai Desert to engage the Egyptian forces.
The Israeli attack took the Egyptian Army by surprise. The Egyptians were counting on the fortifications erected in the Sinai Desert to defend the roads that crossed the peninsula.
The Israeli Shermans and AMX light tanks fought with excellent results against the Egyptians, which had a huge variety of armor, consisting of T-34/85s, Self Propelled 17pdr Archers, Sherman Fireflies, Sherman M4A4s refitted with the GM Twin 6-71 375 hp diesel engine of the M4A2 and M4A4 FL-10s. This last version, produced by France for the Egyptian Army, had the AMX-13-75 turret, equaling the firepower of the M-50 while also keeping the autoloader.
The Israelis lost a few armored vehicles and captured many Egyptian depots and military bases. They took possession of about a dozen M4A4 FL-10s and many other M4A4 Shermans that were transferred to Israel, converted and put into service as standard M4A4 Shermans or M-50s.
Between 1956 and 1967, there were many border skirmishes between Israel and its Arab neighbors. During one of these, on 6th March 1964, Major General Israel “Talik” Tal, was aboard his M-50 along with a Centurion tank. They spotted eight Syrian tractors at about 2,000 m distance, and in 2 minutes, Tal claimed five of the eight tractors destroyed by his Sherman. The other three were knocked out by the Centurion. Some days later, another Sherman destroyed an Egyptian recoilless rifle at a distance of 1,500 m.
The Six Day War
The second and biggest use of the M-50 was between 5 and 10 June 1967, in the Six Day War. At that time, the Israeli armored force was mostly relying on M48A2C2, M48A3 Patton and Centurion Mk 5, a part of which were rearmed with the 105 mm Royal Ordnance L7 cannons, increasing anti-tank performance.
About a hundred of M-50s were sent into the desert to take part in the offensive in Sinai. Another hundred were sent to the north to take part in the offensive on the Golan Heights, while the rest remained in reserve.
In Jerusalem, very few M-50 fought because their offensive power was needed on other fronts of the war. The Israelis preferred to use the old M-1 Sherman armed with the US 76 mm cannons in the clashes against the Jordanians in the city.
At least three M-50s supported infantry assaults on Ammunition Hill and the final attack on Jerusalem’s Old City with no M-1 lost in combat and only one M-50 destroyed.
The Sinai Offensive
The Sinai offensive was launched at 8 am on 5 June 1967. The M-50 and the M-51 played a marginal role against the Egyptian tanks.
One of these engagements was during the Battle of Abu-Ageila, a stronghold that controlled the road to Ismailia. Consisting of three lines of trenches 5 km long and almost one km apart, they were defended by T-34/85 and T-54 tanks present in ‘hull down’ positions. Soviet 130 mm cannons were placed in Um Katef, a nearby hill, and the Egyptian reserves included an armored regiment consisting of 66 T-34/85s and a Battalion with 22 SD-100s or SU-100Ms. These were two versions of the SU-100 Soviet tank destroyer; the former was produced after the Second World War by Czechoslovakia, and the latter was a version modified by the Egyptians and Syrians to better adapt the SD and SU-100 to desert operations.
About 150 Israeli tanks were employed. The 14th Armored Brigade had over 60 M-50 and M-51 Shermans, the 63rd Armored Battalion had over 60 Centurion Mk. 5 tanks while the Divisional Mechanized Reconnaissance Battalion had an unknown, but limited, number of AMX-13s.
The Israeli attack was launched at night, under the cover of darkness. No. 124 Paratroopers Squadron attacked and destroyed the cannons on Um Katef hill as the 14th Armored Brigade Sherman tanks advanced hidden and covered by the dark and an artillery barrage that was hitting the Egyptian trenches.
The infantry, supported by M3 Half-tracks, cleaned up the trenches while the Shermans, after breaking through, supported the Centurions, which had outflanked the Egyptian positions, by intercepting the reserves that advanced for the counterattack.
During the battle fought between 4 am and 7 am, the Egyptians lost over 60 tanks and 2,000 soldiers, while the Israelis only lost 19 tanks (8 during the battle, while the other 11 were Centurions damaged in the minefields) with a total of 7 crewmen and 40 soldiers dying during the attack.
When Egyptian Field Marshal Mohamed Amer learned of the defeat of Abu Ageila, he ordered his soldiers to withdraw to Gidi and Mitla just 30 km from the Suez Canal.
The order to withdraw was received by almost all Egyptian units, which retreated in a disorganized manner to Suez, often abandoning fully functional weapons, cannons or tanks in their defensive positions.
In the afternoon of the 6th June, with the arrival of materials such as MIG fighters and tanks from Algeria, the withdrawal order was canceled, creating even more confusion in the troops that except in rare cases, continued the retreat to Suez.
Sensing the situation, the Israeli High Command ordered that access to the Suez Canal be blocked by trapping most of the Egyptian Army in Sinai.
Due to the rapid advance of those days, many Israeli tanks were left with little fuel and ammunition, for this reason, not all Israeli forces were able to move immediately towards the canal.
To give an idea of this problem, the road to Ismailia was blocked only by 12 Centurions of the 31st Armored Division which had at least 35 other Centurions with empty fuel tanks.
Another example is that of Lieutenant-Colonel Zeev Eitan, commander of the 19th Light Tank Battalion, equipped with AMX-13-75 light tanks. Since his vehicles had full tanks, he was given the task of stopping an enemy attack with his reconnaissance light tanks.
Eitan left with 15 AMX-13 and positioned himself in the dunes near Bir Girgafa, waiting for the enemy.
The Egyptians counterattacked with 50 or 60 T-54s and T-55s, forcing the AMX-13s to retreat after suffering many losses, without destroying a single Egyptian tank.
The 19th Light Tank Battalion, however, slowed down the Egyptians long enough for some M-50s and M-51s to fill up with fuel and intervene in the area. These, by hitting the heavier vehicles on their sides, managed to destroy many of them, forcing the others to retreat to Ismailia encountering the other 12 Centurions that totally destroyed them.
In Sinai, the Egyptian Army lost 700 tanks of which 100 were captured intact by the Israelis in addition to an unknown number that were repaired and put into service in the IDF in the following months.
The Israelis lost 122 tanks, of which about a third were recovered and repaired after the war.
The Jordan Offensive
The 10th Harel Mechanized Brigade under Col. Uri Ben Ari attacked the hills north of Jerusalem on the afternoon of June 5th, 1967. Made up of five tank companies (instead of the 3 standard ones), the 10th Brigade had 80 vehicles, 48 of which were M-50s, 16 were Panhard AML armored cars and 16 were Centurion Mk. 5s armed with old 20-pdr cannons.
Their attack was thwarted by the rough terrain and mines scattered everywhere on the narrow streets of that region. The accompanying engineers had no mine detectors and mines had to be found by probing the ground for hours with bayonets and sub-machine gun ramrods.
On that day, 7 Shermans and an M3 Half-track were damaged by mines and were left nonoperational for the rest of the offensive.
During the night, all 16 Centurions got stuck in rocks or damaged their tracks and could not be assisted or helped because of the Jordanian artillery fire.
Later that night, an assault by Israeli mechanized infantry destroyed the Jordanian artillery and, the next morning, repairs began.
Only six M-50s, some M3 Half-tracks and a few Panhard AML armored cars arrived the next morning at their destination but were immediately greeted by Jordanian fire. Two Jordanian Armored Companies arrived during the night, equipped with M48 Pattons, immediately putting a Sherman out of action.
The remaining Shermans, with the assistance of others which arrived shortly after, outflanked the M48 Pattons, which were placed in fixed positions, and hit them in their sides, where their additional fuel tanks were placed.
The additional fuel tanks the Pattons carried had not been dismounted as they should have, and became an easy target to hit. After a few minutes of fighting, six Jordanian M48 Pattons were on fire. The remaining tanks retreated to Jericho, abandoning another eleven M48s along the way because of mechanical failures.
The Ugda Brigade that fought further north was equipped with 48 M-50s and M-51s and had the task of defeating Jordanian positions in the Jordan town of Janin, defended by 44 M47 Patton tanks and the 40th Armored Brigade in reserve with M47 and M48 tanks.
After a very rapid advance throughout the day, during which Ugda forces also destroyed some artillery positions that were hitting Jerusalem and a crucial Israeli military airport, night fell and many Sherman were stuck in the small mountain roads.
Six or seven M-50s and M-51s climbed Burquim Hill. During the night of the 5th of June, among the olive groves, these found themselves face-to-face with an entire Jordanian Armored Company armed with M47 Pattons less than 50 meters away.
Under the cover darkness, the Israeli tanks attacked the Jordanian forces, destroying more than a dozen tanks for only one knocked out M-50 and no Israeli tank crew losses.
The fighting in the area was bloody for several more days. The Jordanians resisted vigorously, counter-attacking Israeli forces with all their available tanks. Although the 90 mm cannons of the M47 and M48 Patton were very effective against the Israeli Shermans, the crews operating them were not very well trained, especially in long-distance shooting.
The Israelis, in addition to superior training, were able to count on almost unlimited air support that turned out to be, both during day and night, very effective.
During the advance, an Israeli armored company had to face many M47s and M48s hidden in fixed positions. The Israelis decided to request air support, but the first wave of fighters did not find any targets because the Jordanian tanks were well camouflaged. A crew of an M-50, rather recklessly, decided to launch at full speed towards enemy positions. The Pattons immediately opened fire without hitting them once. The Sherman got close enough to hit a Patton knocking it out, before turning around and returning to Israeli lines and rejoining its company. The smoke from the burning Patton, in addition to the accurate coordinates sent by an Israeli M3 Half-track observer vehicle, which had spotted all the Jordanian tanks, made it possible to precisely bomb all the Pattons from the air and destroy them.
In the end, in the last two days of the war, the commander of the Jordanian 40th Armored Brigade, Rakan Anad, staged a counterattack by hitting Israeli supply lines.
At first, the attack launched on two different roads was quite successful, managing to destroy some M3 Half-tracks that carried ammunition and fuel for the Israeli tanks. The Israelis, who expected the offensive, however, repelled the first attacks by the Jordanian Pattons.
A small force composed of AMX-13, twelve Centurions and some Shermans of the 37th Israeli Armored Brigade went up a very narrow road (considered unusable by the Jordanians) and attacked the rear of the enemy forces by surprise. Commander Anad, along with his forces, was forced to retreat without being able to attempt any more attacks, abandoning another 35 M48 Pattons and an unknown number of M47 Pattons on the battlefield.
The Golan Heights Offensive
Due to political problems, ground attacks on Syria were not immediately authorized by Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, even though General Albert Mendler’s forces were sent to the border ready for battle.
After much pressure from the villagers living in the area, fed up with the periodic Syrian bombing, and senior army officers, after a whole night of reflection, at 6 am on 9 June 1967, Moshe Dayan authorized the attack on the Golan Heights.
From 6 to 11 am, the Israeli Air Force (IAF) bombarded Syrian positions relentlessly while the army engineers sapped the streets from below.
The advance of armored vehicles, mostly M-50s, M-51s and M3 Half-tracks, began at 11.30 am. Hundreds of vehicles lined the road behind a bulldozer.
At the top of the road, at a crossroads, the forces of Colonel Arye Biro, commander of the column, split up. Divided into two columns, they attacked the Qala’ stronghold, a hill with 360° defenses with bunkers and WW2 anti-tank guns of Soviet origin.
Six kilometers north, the Za’oura stronghold, another defensive hill, supported Qala’ with its artillery fire by obstructing Israeli vehicles and not allowing Biro’s officers to see the battlefield.
The situation confused several officers who advanced towards Za’oura convinced they were attacking Qala’.
The battle lasted over 3 hours and the information available is very confusing, as many officers died or were injured during the battle and were evacuated.
Lieutenant Horowitz, the officer who commanded the assault on Qala’, continued to command while injured and with the radio system of his Sherman destroyed by a Syrian shell.
During the approach, he lost many of the Shermans under his command. About twenty of them remained functional at the base of the hill.
The climb to the top was hampered by ‘dragon teeth’ (concrete anti-tank obstacles) and heavy artillery fire.
In an interview after the war, Lieutenant Horowitz said that one of his M-50s, commanded by a certain Ilan, was hit by a Syrian anti-tank cannon and set in flames during the climb.
Ilan and his crew jumped out of the tank, put out the flames, and after ordering his crew to find cover, Ilan climbed up on the burning Sherman, turned the turret, hit the anti-tank gun that had knocked out his tank, and then jumped out of the tank and sought cover.
Of the approximately twenty functional Shermans, most were hit by anti-tank guns, but the sturdy hull of the vehicle made it possible to recover and repair many after the battle.
At 4 pm, the stronghold of Za’oura was occupied, while Qala’ was occupied only 2 hours later. Only three Shermans arrived at the top of the hill, including that of Horowitz, who easily overcame the barbed wire and the trenches, forcing the Syrian soldiers to escape after throwing hand grenades from the turrets of their tanks into the trenches.
An hour after Arye Biro’s attack, the Israeli 1st Golani Infantry Brigade climbed the same road and attacked the positions of Tel Azzaziat and Tel Fakhr that were hitting the Israeli villages.
Tel Azzaziat was an isolated mound 140 m above the border, where four Syrian Panzer IV tanks in fixed positions constantly hit the Israeli plain below.
The Tank Company of the 8th Armored Brigade, equipped with M-50s, and the Mechanized Infantry Company of the 51st Battalion, equipped with M3 Half-tracks, attacked the positions and quickly managed to silence the cannons of the Syrian Panzers, but this was not the case in Tel Fakhr.
Located 5 km from the border, the two companies that attacked it with 9 M-50 Shermans and 19 M3 Half-tracks, made a wrong turn while under intense artillery fire. Instead of going around the enemy position, they ended up with all the vehicles in the center of the fortifications, under heavy anti-tank fire and in the midst of minefields which soon destroyed or knocked out all the vehicles. This forced the Israelis to attack the fortification with only infantry.
At the end of the battle for the Golan Heights, the Israelis occupied all their targets but lost a total of 160 tanks and 127 soldiers. Although many of the tanks were recovered after the war and repaired, returning to service a few months later, these losses were much higher than the 122 tanks lost in the Sinai Offensive and the 112 in the Jordan Offensive.
On the Golan Heights, the M-50s had no difficulty dealing with the Syrian T-34/85s and against the last Panzer IVs in use. However, their limitations were seen against the Jordanian M47 and M48 Pattons and the Syrian and Egyptian T-54s and T-55s. It was shown that the CN 75-50 cannon was no longer able to deal with the most modern tanks.
After the war, the M-50s began to be taken out of active service, as it seemed that they would no longer be effective. Some may have been converted into 155 mm Self-Propelled Guns (SPGs).
The Yom Kippur War
On October 6th, 1973, at the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War, the Israelis were caught unprepared by the Arab attack. They deployed all the available reserves, including 341 M-51s and M-50 Degem Bets still available. The M-50 Degem alephs had all been brought to Degem Bet standard or removed from the reserve and scrapped by January 1st, 1972.
The Golan Heights Sector
At the outbreak of the war, on the Golan Heights front, the Israelis could count on two Armored Brigades with a total of 177 Sho’t Kal tanks with 105 mm L7 cannons, against three Syrian Armored Divisions with a total of over 900 Soviet-made tanks, mostly T-54s and T-55s with a few T-34/85s, SU-100s and more modern T-62s.
On October 6th, a few hours after the beginning of the war, the 71st Battalion, composed of students and instructors of the IDF Armor School, a force of about 20 tanks including some M-50s, was sent to the front line.
On October 7th, the Syrians attacked the position held by the 77th OZ and 71st Battalion, trying to bypass the Israeli defenses. After several hours, in the afternoon, the Syrians were forced to give up their attack by withdrawing and leaving over 20 destroyed tanks on the battlefield.
Around 10 pm, the Syrian 7th Infantry Division and the 3rd Armored Division, which had night vision equipment, and also the 81st Armored Brigade equipped with the powerful T-62, attacked again.
The Israelis, deploying a total of 40 tanks, were able to withstand two different waves of the 500 tanks of the Syrian Army.
During the second attack, at 4 am, the Syrian commander, General Omar Abrash, was killed when his command tank was hit by an Israeli shell.
The loss of the general slowed down the offensive in that sector, which resumed only on October 9th. The Syrian tanks attacked the now exhausted Israeli soldiers of the 71st and 77th Battalions of the 7th Armor Brigade. After several hours of combat, the Israeli Commander, Ben Gal, had only 7 tanks left that had managed to fire hundreds of shells thanks to the crews that, hidden among the rocks, were going out to retrieve ammunition from the damaged or destroyed Israeli tanks.
Lieutenant Colonel Yossi Ben Hannan, who at the outbreak of the war was in Greece, arrived in Israel and rushed to the rear of the Golan Heights front where, in a workshop, he found 13 tanks that had been damaged during the fighting of the previous days (among them at least a couple of Shermans). He quickly grouped together as many crews as he could (often wounded soldiers, volunteers and even some who escaped from hospitals to fight), took command of this heterogeneous company and moved in support of the 7th Armor Brigade.
When they reached the 7 surviving tanks, a counterattack began and hit the left flank of the Syrian Army, destroying another 30 Syrian tanks.
The Syrian commander, believing that Ben Hannan’s 20 tanks were the first of the Israeli fresh reserves, gave the order to retreat from the battlefield.
After 50 hours of battle and almost 80 hours without sleep, the survivors of the 71st and 77th Battalions, who had destroyed 260 tanks and about 500 other vehicles, were finally able to rest.
The real Israeli reserves were already on their way and did not take long to arrive. Of the hundreds of tanks that the Israeli Defence Force had, some were M-50s, which were still effective at short ranges or from the sides against most of the Syrian and Jordanian tanks that they would face in the following days.
The Sinai Sector
In the Sinai Desert, the Egyptians, after crossing to the eastern bank of the Suez Canal, attacked the Israeli Bar-Lev Defensive Line. About 500 or 1,000 meters behind the defensive line were the positions of Israeli tanks, which numbered only about 290 along the whole front, of which only a few dozen were M-50 and M-51s.
The Israeli tanks made a valuable contribution during the first hours of the war, but the Egyptians consolidated their positions and deployed 9M14 Malyutka missiles, known under the NATO name of AT-3 Sagger, which decimated the Israeli tanks.
Information about the use of the Shermans in the Sinai Campaign is scarce. About 220 M-50 and M-51s were employed in the battles against the Egyptians, with unsatisfactory results. The M-50s had a marginal role, as they could only effectively deal with the odd T-34/85 still used in some Egyptian armored brigades and PT-76 amphibious tanks which attempted an amphibian assault on Lake Amari. The M-50 could only damage the T-54 and T-55 on the sides, where the armor was thinner and straight. Also in this campaign, they proved to be ineffective against the T-62s and IS-3Ms and too vulnerable to infantry anti-tank weapons, such as AT-3s and RPG-7s.
A small batch of M-50 Degem Alephs which had not been converted to HVSS suspensions were employed in fixed positions in the fortification lines built after 1967 by the IDF in the West Bank area. They were meant to defend the ‘Kibbutzim’, or settlements, founded by Israel after 1948.
The tanks went to reinforce the militia bunkers already in the area and armed with obsolete or second-line weapons, such as T-34/85 or M48 Patton MG cupolas.
In some cases, the suspensions were left and used to drag the tank to its position while the engines were removed, as was all the interior except for the turret basket. The radio system was also removed. The ammunition racks were left and the amount of ammunition stored was increased. For some vehicles, an entrance was created in the rear of the vehicle. For others, the entrance was created in the front by removing the transmission cover and part of the floor.
After these modifications, the vehicles were put into holes in the ground and covered with earth and rocks. Only the turrets and in some cases a few inches of the hull were visible. They were accessible through trenches dug in their vicinity, which connected them to the rest of the fortifications.
The hatches were not sealed so that they could be used as emergency exits in case of danger. Some of these rusty hulls are visible in some places in Israel even to the present day. The most famous is that of the Kibbutz Hanita, on the border with Lebanon, near the Mediterranean Sea. Another is located in the city of Metula, also on the border with Lebanon, which has been painted in bright colors by some local artists and is still visible in its original position. Many others have been removed from their positions and scrapped.
Withdrawal from Service in the Israeli Army
Between 1974 and 1976, the remaining M-50s were fully removed from active service in Israel. The surviving M-50s had different destinations. In 1975, a total of 75 were supplied to various Lebanese Christian militias during the Lebanese Civil War which began in 1975. 35 were supplied to the South Lebanon Army (SLA), 19 were provided to the Kataeb Regulatory Forces, 40 to the Lebanese Forces, one to the Guardians of the Cedars and 20 to the Tiger Militia.
The M-50s supplied to the Lebanese Christian Militias fought fiercely against the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO)
Many M-50s supplied to the Lebanese Militias were old and in bad condition and the inexperience of their Lebanese crews meant that they soon ran out of spare parts and were mostly used in fixed positions by digging the hull into the ground.
Before 1982, the PLO took possession of several vehicles that were dismantled. The PLO nevertheless managed to put two of them back into service and used them to fight in Beirut, until the Palestinians also ran out of spare parts. During the Israeli invasion in 1982, one of the two M-50s was destroyed by the Israelis near the Camille Chamoun Sports City Stadium while the other was found sometime later by French troops (employed in the NATO mission in Lebanon) hidden inside the ruins of the same stadium.
At least three of the seventy-five M-50 supplied to Lebanese militias, two based on the M4A3 Sherman and one on a M4A1, which had been probably damaged, had their turrets removed and had angled armor plates added on every side of the turret ring along with three machine gun mounts. The armament, according to photographic evidence, consisted of a Browning M2HB and two Browning M1919 machine guns on the sides. It is not known to which Christian militia these belonged to and it is not even known how they were employed. The most accepted hypothesis claims that they would have been employed as command tanks or Armored Personnel Carriers (APC).
When the South Lebanon Army disbanded in 2000, the M-50s which had survived (the SLA still had spare parts) were returned to Israel to prevent them from falling into the wrong hands.
However, it is not known how many returned to Israel or the operational deployment of the other 40 Shermans sent to Lebanon.
The remaining vehicles not sent to Lebanon or Chile remained in the Israeli reserve until the mid-1980s and then nine were sold to museums, three to private collectors, four turned into monuments, while the others were scrapped.
A document of the Ejército de Tierra (Spanish Army) dating from November 1982, proposed to the country’s High Command the modernization of some of the vehicles in service and examined some modernizations being carried out in other nations. Among the many proposals to upgrade Leopard 1s and M48 Pattons, an interesting proposal of the Israeli NIMDA company is mentioned. The Israeli company was planning to upgrade the M-50 and perhaps also the M-51 with the installation of a new power pack consisting of the Detroit Diesel V8 Model 71T engine connected to a transmission system with mechanical clutch or to an Allison TC-570 torque converter with a modified gearbox. After conversion, the tank would have a top speed of 40 km/h and a range increase of 320 km. The new drive system would also include dust filters and an improved cooling system that could be housed in the existing engine compartment without any structural changes.
In addition, the company proposed the adaptation of the old CN-75-50 75 mm cannon, reboring it from 75 mm to 90 mm caliber, making it similar to the French-made CN-90-F3 90 mm L/53 cannon, the same one mounted on the AMX-13-90. The gun could fire rounds at a muzzle velocity of 900 m/s and could fire the same rounds as the GIAT D921 cannon of the Panhard AML armored car: HE and HEAT-SF. It could also fire an APFSDS round designed for another French 90 mm cannon.
This project was most likely proposed to Chile in 1983, but they opted for the IMI 60 mm Hyper-Velocity Medium Support 60 (HVMS 60) cannon, which was more effective in anti-tank combat.
In the early ’80s, Chile asked the Israeli Military Industry (IMI) for an upgrade package for the M-50.
A prototype armed with the new HVMS 60 was built on an M-50 hull and, after positive evaluations during training in 1983, it was presented to the Chilean High Command, which accepted to upgrade their sixty-five M-50. From early 1983, this vehicle was used by Chile, which only replaced them in 2006.
Camouflage and Markings
At the birth of the first armored corps in 1948, the IDF used the Olive Drab paint on its first Shermans, left by the British in military warehouses or purchased together with the first vehicles in Europe. Until the first half of the ’50s, Olive Drab was sometimes used in more brownish shades on all Israeli Shermans, including the very first M-50 Degem Alephs.
Already in the early ’50s, however, the “Sinai Gray” was tested on some M-3 Shermans, accepted in service shortly before the Suez Crisis. At least until 1959, the M-50s coming out of the conversion workshops were painted in Olive Drab.
By the early ’60s, all the M-50s were painted in the new Sinai Gray which, however, as can be seen in many color photos of the time, had many shades, painted even to the discernment of local commanders. The Armored Brigades stationed in the Golan Heights and on the borders with Jordan, Syria and Lebanon had a darker or brownish color, while the vehicles used in the south, on the border with Egypt, had a more yellowish shade for use in the Sinai. Obviously, over the years, these vehicles were mixed in with the various Israeli armored units or were repainted with other shades.
The Israeli marking system entered service after 1960 and it is still used today by the IDF, even if the meanings of some symbols are still unknown or unclear.
The white stripes on the cannon barrel identify which battalion the tank belongs to. If the tank belongs to the 1st Battalion, it only has one stripe on the barrel, if it is the 2nd Battalion, it has two stripes, and so on.
The company the tank belongs to is determined by a white Chevron, a white ‘V’ shaped symbol painted on the sides of the vehicle sometimes with a black outline. If the M-50 belonged to the 1st Company, the Chevron was pointing downwards, if the tank belonged to the 2nd Company, the ‘V’ was pointing forward. If the Chevron was pointed upwards, the vehicle belonged to the 3rd Company, and, if it pointed backward it belonged to the 4th Company.
The company identification markings have different sizes according to the space a tank has on its sides. The M48 Patton had these symbols painted on the turret and were quite big, while the Centurion had them painted on the side skirts. The Shermans had little space on the sides, and therefore, the company identification markings were painted on the side boxes, or in some cases, on the sides of the gun mantlet.
The platoon identification markings are written on the turrets and are divided in two: a number from 1 to 4 and one of the first four letters of the Hebrew alphabet: א (Aleph), ב (bet), ג (gimel) and ד (dalet ). The Arabic number, from 1 to 4, indicates the platoon to which a tank belongs to and the letter, the tank number inside each platoon. Tank number 1 of the 1st Platoon would have painted on the turret the symbol ‘1א’, tank number 2 of 3rd Platoon would have painted on the turret the symbol ‘3ב’, and so on. The platoon’s command tank only has the number without the letter, or in rare cases, the platoon commander has א, i.e. the first tank of the platoon.
In pictures of the M-50s, these symbols are not always visible, as pictures taken during the Yom Kippur War in 1973 show many M-50s that had already been withdrawn from operational service, repainted and kept in reserve.
On some photos taken before the standardization of this system of markings, three white arrows can be seen on the sides of the vehicles in service in the Sinai, the markings of Israeli Southern Command. Others also had a number painted on the front that identified the weight of the vehicle. This was done to indicate if the tank was able to cross certain bridges or for transportation on trailers. The number was painted white inside a blue circle surrounded by another red ring.
All seventy-five vehicles that were given to Lebanese militias were repainted in white before delivery.
A small number of the 35 Shermans delivered to the South Lebanese Army (SLA) were repainted with a blue-gray camouflage with black stripes. Some received a light blue camouflage, while others kept the white color with which they arrived from Israel in 1975. The M-50 of the SLA had the symbol of the South Lebanon Army, a hand holding a sword from which cedar tree branches (the symbol of Lebanon) came out in a blue circle, painted on the frontal glacis.
The M-50 Degem Bets delivered to Chile in 1983 had another type of camouflage. The 85 M-51s Chile first received in 1979 arrived with Sinai Gray camouflage. The Ejército de Chile (Chilean Army) greatly appreciated the camouflage because, in the Atacama Desert, where Chilean crews were training, it was very useful. After a short time, however, they decided to switch to other paints because the dust and salt were affecting the Israeli paint (the Atacama Desert is the driest on earth because of the very high salt content). No single camouflage scheme was decided for the whole army, and it was the local commanders who chose the scheme and bought the paints.
The M-50s which arrived in Chile in 1983 were also in the classic Sinai Gray camouflage but were repainted immediately after being assigned to their units. Many of the camouflage patterns remain a mystery, but a lot of information is available about the ones used by the Regimiento de Caballería Blindada Nº 9 “Vencedores” (Eng: 9th Armored Cavalry Regiment) of the Regimiento de Caballería Blindada Nº 4 “Coraceros” (Eng: 4th Armored Cavalry Regiment) used in the north of Chile. This unit repainted some of its M-50s in a light sand yellow color and others in green-grey, similar to the Olive Drab. In the end, in 1991, all the Shermans of the Armored Group were re-painted in light sand yellow because the grey-green was covered by desert sand.
Myths to dispel
The nickname ‘Sherman’ given to the Second World War crews to their Medium Tank, M4 and now entered in the common language of video games, films or simply enthusiasts was never used, officially, by the IDF that has always called their M4 Medium Tanks as the name of its main guns, M-3 for all the Shermans armed of 75 mm M3 cannon, M-4 for all the Shermans armed with a 105 mm M4 howitzer and so on.
Consequently, the Shermans modified with the French CN 75-50 cannon took the name of M-50 Sherman.
The nickname ‘Super’ was actually used only for Sherman versions armed with 76 mm cannons. These, which also had a dozer blade, remained in very limited use through the Yom Kippur War, before being removed from service entirely. These vehicles were the only ones to receive this nickname from the IDF. These vehicles were supplied in the 1950s by the French.
The ISherman (aka Israeli Sherman) nickname is also often encountered, but it was never used by the Israeli Army to indicate any vehicle on the Sherman chassis. It probably originated from model kit producers or ill informed writers/journalists.
Chilean vehicles armed with the 60 mm cannon were never called, neither by the Chilean Army nor by the Israeli Army, M-60 Shermans. The only known name for this variant is M-50 with HVMS 60.
The M-50 appeared as a vehicle of necessity for the Israeli Army. It was meant to make the standard M4 Shermans armed with the obsolete Second World War 75 mm M3 cannon effective enough to still be viable on the battlefield by upgunning them with more modern cannons and changing the engines.
In this period, the Arab armies were heavily rearming after the 1948 defeat and the IDF needed to have tanks capable of dealing with these more modern threats.
The M-50s proved themselves when fighting against similar vehicles of WW2 vintage, taking part in some of the crucial events that led to the continued existence of the Israeli nation. While they managed to also deal with later vehicles, such as the T-54 in some situations, by the late 60s and 1973, the M-50 was clearly obsolete.
M-50 Degem Bet specification
|Dimensions (L-W-H)||6.15 x 2.42 x 2.24 m
(20’1″ x 7’9″ x 7’3″ ft.in)
|Total weight, battle ready||35 tonnes|
|Crew||5 (driver, machine gunner, commander, gunner and loader)|
|Propulsion||Cummins VT-8-460 460 hp diesel with 606 liters tank|
|Top Speed||42 km/h|
|Range (road)/Fuel consumption||~300 km|
|Armament (see notes)||CN 75-50 L.61,5 with 62 rounds
2 x Browning M1919 7.62 mm with 4750 rounds
Browning M2HB 12.7 mm with 600 rounds
|Armor||63 mm frontal hull, 38 mm sides and rear, 19 mm top and bottom
70 mm mantlet, 76 mm front, sides and rear of the turret
|Conversions||50 of the Degem Aleph version and 250 of the Degem Bet version|
Chariots Of The Desert – David Eshel
Israeli Sherman – Thomas Gannon
Sherman – Richard Hunnicutt
Inside Israel’s Northern Command – Dani Asher
Lioness and lion of the line III Volume – Robert Manasherob
The Six Day War 1967: Jordan and Syria – Simon Dunstan
The Six Day War 1967: Sinai – Simon Dunstan
The Yom Kippur War 1973: The Golan Heights – Simon Dunstan
The Yom Kippur War 1973: The Sinai – Simon Dunstan
Special thanks to Mr. Joseph Bauder who shared a lot of information and anecdotes about the M-50 and Israeli vehicles in general improving this article in many ways.