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Victory in war is often followed by relaxation. Being on the winning side of the Great War left America a bit complacent, and while like others the Army produced some noted advocates for armor-- namely Eisenhower and Patton the American army quickly lost all interest in tanks. So called 'real soldiering' (the Poor bloody Infantry) was seen as more honorable and, more importantly, cost a lot less.

Then along came a guy named Hitler. By 1939 war clouds had gathered over Europe and Japan was on the march in China. As this Hitler guy was on the losing side in World War I he took some of those new-fangled mechanization ideas a lot more seriously. The German Army, disarmed at Versailles, was building tanks. When the Germans took over Poland pretty damned quickly it was realized that victorious armies were mechanized.

The problem is when you need something in a real hurry you grab whatever's off the shelf. You've got a helicoil suspension available from the M2 Light tank (tanks were okay for scouting). Got a nice continental radial aircraft engine producing 400 HP. Got a 75mm gun. They designed a turret for it, put these off-the-shelf bits together and pronounced it a Sherman. And the Sherman wasn't too bad either, in fact in 1942 it was better than the Wehrmacht's best. But by then the Germans had visited the Russian front. To their amazement the Russians had built this thing called a T-34.

The T-34 was the best tank of the first half of World War II, and possibly the most influential tank design in history. Its Christie suspension and powerful diesel motor made it faster than any other tank. Russian designers were intimately familiar with General Mud so they gave it wide tracks which allowed their tank to operate on soft ground no other tank could cross. It was well armored, and the armor was well sloped multiplying the plate's effectiveness. It had a 76mm gun too, so it had lots of hitting power. While the T-34 wasn't perfect, it combined speed, mobility, heavy armor and firepower in a near beautiful balance. Add reliabilty to the mix and you had a special tank, good enough that T34's still serve today. At the time the Panzerkampfwagon III with a 37mm gun was Germany's primary anti-tank vehicle. Simply put no German vehicle matched up. German tankers begged Berlin for something that would. Germany responded with the Panther and Tiger. Germany dumped the Panzer III and started sticking long 75mm guns on the Panzer IV.

The Russians had warned America of the Panther and Tiger, but they didn't appear in numbers until late 1943, well after the Army committed to the Sherman. Now properly backed, American tank engineers worked on the tank they really wanted to produce, and paying close attention to combat experience around the world. The produced a number of prototypes, most notably the T23 whose turret found its way onto later models of the Sherman. In late 1942 the T26 was under trials. It was a heavy tank that would become the Pershing. But in 1942 the Sherman did quite well against the older German tanks in the Afrika Korps. It was in full production and retooling would have led to a short term drop in production during the build up for D-Day. The Sherman was there and it looked more than good enough.

Maintaining production was one reason the Pershing was left on the slow track. Another was that most American leaders thought most of the German heavy tank production would head East, where it was badly needed. The last, and possibly most imporant reason was doctrine.

The Army had recognized that enemy tanks might prove a problem. So they created the Tank Destroyer Force to deal with them. The force was a combination of specialized anti-tank vehicles (eg: M18 Hellcat, M10 Wolverine) and towed guns who were supposed to fight enemy tanks. Tank destroyers got better guns (the 76mm and later 90mm) and the lion's share of the hottest ammunition. Tanks were reserved for more important tasks like assaults and exploiting breakthroughs. Unfortunately the Germans refused to co-operate. Fearing a second front the Germans put most of their Panthers and Tigers in the west. Moreover, except for the Battle of the Bulge German armor was primarily in the anti-tank role or limited-objective counterattacks to contain allied thrusts. Shermans got into lots of fights with the good German tanks, and a lot of American tankers died because of it. The rule was that it took five Shermans to fight a Tiger and only one would come home.

By 1944 the Army realized its anti-tank doctrine was wrong. There were other issues. The Sherman wasn't heavily armored enough for use in the 'assault' role. The M4A3E2 "Jumbo" Shermans with very heavy armor filled that role temporarily, but would not do forever. Even the 76mm Shermans needed a bigger gun. The Army needed a tank capable of taking on a Tiger or Panther. They gave the go-ahead to start mass-producing the M26 Pershing.

The Pershing was the first true clean-sheet American tank design. It tossed out the helicoil suspension used on the M3, M4 and M5 and replaced it with a torsion bar suspension. They used an improved version of the Ford GAA V-8 used in the M4A3 producing 500 hp and mated it with a very new automatic transmission with a torque converter. The cast hull was lower, better shaped and thicker than the Shermans. It had lower ground pressure for greater mobility. The turret was enlarged and 90mm anti-aircraft gun adapted for use. That decision proved controversial. The Army dithered between the the 76mm used in the M10 and later Shermans and the 90mm. Given the inadequacy of the 76mm the 90mm seems an obvious choice, until you consider they expected more of the HVAP ammunition, and 90mm ammo was both much larger and more expensive (which meant the tank would carry less ammo). Finally they settled on the 90mm.

The resulting design was very modern indeed, all U.S. tanks until the M1 Abrams evolved directly from the M26. The well-shaped hull offered excellent protection for relatively light weight. The gun performed well. The tank had good mobility in soft ground, but it had one major flaw: the powerpack. First it was underpowered. The Ford GAF V-8 was reliable but produced no more power than the GAA and the M26 weighed 10 tons more than the M4A3. The transmission was not reliable. It made the tank easier to drive when it worked, but it broke regularly, and proved a maintenance nightmare. In 1948 a new powerpack was designed. Both engine and transmission were replaced and upgraded models were redesignated the M46 Patton.

The M26 enjoyed a good combat record. It was introduced in limited numbers (200 tanks) in January 1945. By then the German back was already broken, but it proved capable of going one-on-one with any tank in Germany's arsenal, something that could not be said about the Sherman. The Tiger II was considered better but at much greater weight and many times greater cost. Pershings fought well during the Korean War and in limited numbers the Pershing and its M46 upgrade destroyed over half the T-34/85s killed by American tanks.

The M26 is one of the least known tanks built in America, but because it set the pattern for 30 years of American tanks and because it performed well in combat it deserves a solid place in history. The M46 and M47 Pattons really are nothing more than upgraded Pershings, and the lineage is clearly visible in the later M48 and M60 series. Which shows they got the basic design right.

Specifications:

  • Weight: 46 tons loaded
  • Height: 109" to the top of the cupola
  • Length: 249" (6.3m) without gun
  • Armor: 4.5" mantlet, 4" front, 3" sides, 1" topv
  • Armament main: 90mm gun M3:
  • 1 .50cal M2 machine gung, 2 .30 caliber machine guns
  • Crew: 5
  • Speed: 25 mph.

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