The biggest and most capable American tank of World War II was almost too late for action.
Let’s look at one that did see use at the tail end of things.
Everyone has heard the stories of the Sherman’s shortcomings in the later part of World War II. Well there was an effort made, going back to the very inception of the Sherman, to provide the next step of something more capable.
The Sherman was classified as a medium tank. It was designed for mobility, reliability and ease of maintenance. But there were those who saw the trends with bigger guns and improved designs that guessed it would need a bigger replacement before long. They looked at issues like the Sherman’s drive train; with an engine in back and the drive wheels forward it necessitated the drive shaft passing below the turret basket, which made for a high profile. And a 75mm gun which could defeat current armor, but probably nothing thicker.
Unfortunately the people with vision were not selecting the hardware. Gen Leslie McNair was in charge of “Army Ground Forces”, one of several confusingly named branches of the Army that was responsible for doctrine, tactics and supply (errr, honestly I’m a little unclear on exactly what its authority was). Steven Zaloga is considered a leading authority on such things and I’ve read several of his books (“Armored Thunderbolt” is his most comprehensive history of US armor development), so it is with well informed and studied authority I assure you it was kind of a mess!
In a nutshell, Ordnance kept trying to design a heavy tank, and McNair kept saying “we don’t need one”.
After the first armored battles in North Africa through March of 1943 it looked like McNair might be right. The Sherman was clearly capable enough against Panzer III and Panzer IV. The few Tigers encountered in North Africa were so immobile and unreliable they didn’t seem an imposing threat.
So nothing happened fast for a new tank design.
After D-Day, with brutal hedgerow battles and more encounters with the latest German armor and anti-armor (Panzerfaust, Panzerschreck) Generals Marshall and Eisenhower both started pushing hard for something better. It helped that Gen McNair was now dead (I mean no disrespect for the man’s service; but on this particular issue he caused a lot of trouble). The most current test version of the new heavy tank was the T26E1, which led directly to a pre-production batch labeled T26E3. 20 of this test model were in Europe by the end of 1944. The design was considered solid enough it was standardized as an M26E3 before the first of them saw combat. So I’m not exactly clear on if that makes this example a T26 or an M26?
Field use did reveal some problems with the design. It had the same size engine as the earlier Sherman, so with 10 more tons of weight is was slower and the overworked transmission was prone to failure. It was also less agile in a variety of terrain. Although I believe it was actually better at crushing things in its path…
Over 300 of the newly christened Pershing tanks were in Europe by VE Day, but I believe only the first 20 actually saw combat. They were mostly effective. Their 90mm gun was a good tank killer and thanks to gyro-stabilization it could fire on the go. Different writers assess things differently, but the Pershing generally matches well with the Panther. The American Heavy is about the same size as the German Medium. Going back to Steven Zaloga, he ranks the Pershing slightly superior to either variant of Tiger in spite of being smaller (Pershing has a good gun and armor, much superior reliability and mobility).
One particularly famous confrontation in Cologne Germany, March 6 1945 was filmed and can be seen on YouTube. Its not for weak stomachs. A group Shermans are held up by a single Panther. A Pershing is brought in from a couple blocks over. After trying to come up from behind the Panther, they move into the open and discover they are staring right down the German barrel. But the Pershing gets off three quick shots and neutralizes the Panther. The Panther burned for three days.
The Pershing remained in service into the Korean War, but by then was being replaced by the improved M46 Patton. The Patton was mostly just a re-engined Pershing, to fix that earlier type’s biggest deficiency. Even to say, several of the first batch of Pattons were re-manufactured Pershings. As the M46/M47/M48/M60 family of tanks the design remained relevant through the Cold War, in fact the M60 was still in use with US Marine Corps in Desert Storm; although in such a modified derivative it is scarcely recognizable from the M26 Pershing.
This particular tank, “Fireball”, was one of the first batch of 20 that fought in Germany. It was knocked out by a Tiger I in a night battle, Feb 26 1945. But it was repaired and returned to action March 6.
This is the Tamiya kit.
Another excellent post that introduced another new tank to me.
The British had their own McNair. The people in charge of tank production tried extremely hard to stop the (secret) development of the Sherman Firefly.
There always seem to be people with limited imagination and vision. And it’s amazing how often they advance to leadership.
Most instructive Dave. I keep on learning.
I’ve often given the Pershing a hard time for being underpowered and not as mechanically reliable as it’s predecessor. But then there are few tanks if the time that could even approach the Sherman for reliability, so that is a somewhat unfair comparison. Compared to the tanks it faced it fares much better than the Sherman for armor and guns, and the reliability is still well ahead of it’s opponents. Still, as Dave has pointed out, even if unintentionally, this was more or less a transitional model to the later Cold War armor that would compete against Soviet armor, at least in design at first, though never really outside the Arab/Israeli wars in reality where it is hard to separate the equipment from the strategy, tactics, and training of the combatants.
Still it has it’s place in that it established that henceforth US armor would seek to match it’s foes (and potential foes) rather than just outnumber them. Eventually this lead to probably the greatest tank of all times, the M1 Abrams.
The Pershing also seems to have progressed quickly from a design test to production model. Like engineers tinkering around (because there was no official “interest”) to suddenly “need it now”.
By comparison the Sherman was the end of a long lineage from M1 Scout Car through M3 Lee to its fully mature form.
In one of Zaloga’s books he was talking about the legacy of WWII tanks. With all the German tanks it was just a number of features that endured, but the major architecture did not. But the Pershing was the start of a whole new family of vehicles.
Excellent Dave. A while new lesson learnt!
Glad to help!