A tank is a trail armored combat vehicle created to employ enemies face-to-face, via straight fire from a large caliber-gun and supporting fire from machine guns. Heavy armor on top a high extent of mobility confer it survival, as the tracks let it to cross even rough land at high speeds. The name tank first came to pass in British factories making the hulls of the first battle tanks: the workmen were given the notion they were making tracked water containers for the British Army, therefore keeping the assembly of a fighting vehicle secret.
The process began in World War I. American tank doctrines from the beginning focused on direct support of the infantry. American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) planners paid little attention to futuristic ideas such as those of British Colonel J. F. C. Fuller for a campaign based on fast tanks in deep-penetration roles. With the end of the war, the embryonic Tank Corps was disbanded. Tank units were assigned to the infantry, whose experts increasingly warned against their excessive use as a potential handicap to the rifleman’s “offensive spirit. “
In 1921 the Army possessed about 1,000 copies of the light French Renault FT-17, and 100 or so British Mark VIII heavy tanks assembled at Rock Island Arsenal from parts made for a projected Anglo-American program that died with the Armistice. What the infantry wanted was a light tank of about 6 tons that could be transported on Army trucks and a medium tank of 15 tons, the weight limit of average highway and pontoon bridges. What it got by 1930 were a dozen or so prototypes of various kinds, all too far from meeting branch specifications to be considered for even limited production. Branch rivalry proved less intense than expected.
While the cavalry stressed the importance of speed and range, in-house organs such as Infantry Journal published an increasing number of articles emphasizing the potential of tanks for independent missions, as well as in the branch-specific roles of leading and accompanying infantry. There was, however, simply not enough money to pursue separate design tracks of close support and long-range exploitation. Could one vehicle possibly perform both tasks? A potential solution emerged when the fast tank so often discussed in armor circles became reality in the designs of independent inventor J.
Walter Christie. The few Christies actually purchased were divided between infantry and cavalry and earned mixed reviews. Their influence was nevertheless perceptible in the M2 light tank and its near sister the M1 combat car. More than 100 of these 7. 5-ton vehicles were acquired in the mid-1930s. The M1 carried only two . 30-caliber machine guns in a rotating turret; the M2 had the same armament in two fixed turrets–a characteristic that promptly earned it the nickname “Mae West” in honor of the buxom film siren.
But the vehicles’ reliability made them welcome in the infantry’s tank battalions, and the cavalry found its new combat cars an answer to a branch’s prayer. In 1932 a mechanized cavalry brigade was authorized for Fort Knox. When the dust raised by advocates of the horse settled, the new force emerged as cavalry yellow through and through. Its missions were defined in traditional cavalry terms: reconnaissance, pursuit and exploitation.
Its limited maneuver experience generated little serious discussion of a U. S. counterpart to the Panzerwaffe emerging in Adolph Hitler’s Germany. As late as 1938 both infantry and cavalry remained committed to mobility and reliability, rather than armor and armament, as the fundamental desiderata for tank development. Neither the U. S. government nor the U. S. Army had any reason to believe substantial American forces would be deployed overseas in a high-tech, high-risk environment. Should such an expedition be necessary, shipping space would be at a premium, as would maintenance facilities on arrival.
Even medium-weight tanks seemed a correspondingly risky investment. The same criteria applied in reverse to any possible invasion of the United States. No enemy in the Western Hemisphere had any tanks to speak of. Armored forces deployed from Europe were hardly likely to reach North America in strength. The United States, moreover, had nothing like the production facilities to introduce new tank designs on any scale. The government arsenal at Rock Island, Ill. , had been responsible for building the small numbers of light tanks authorized under various 1930s programs.
Rock Island specialized in artillery. It lacked the room for large tank production lines except by converting from another vital need: guns. Instead, the Army proposed to increase its tank inventory by following plans developed in the 1920s–contracting tank construction to heavy engineering firms, locomotive factories and similar institutions with facilities and experience in heavy assembly work. The emerging doctrines of the new armored force combined domestic heritage and evaluation of foreign experience.
Tanks were projected for use in masses, by divisions and in entire corps–as instruments of exploitation, as opposed to breakthrough. More important for operational considerations, both the M3 and its designated successor mounted main guns whose armor-piercing capacity ran a distant second to their ability to fire high-explosive shells. That fact reflected armored force doctrine emphasizing the medium tank’s supporting mission. Production factors played a role as well. The projected mediums were complex, incorporating a substantial spectrum of new technologies.
Firms were receiving contracts despite the fact that few in their work forces or on their technical staffs had even seen a tank, much less knew how to build one. Even a major company like Chrysler had to construct production facilities. The outstanding successes of those novices–Chrysler was able to deliver the first M3s less than a year after submitting its initial bid–wed not a little to the fact that in those early stages of industrial mobilization the best was not allowed to become the enemy of the good.
The first Shermans rolled off newly constructed production lines in 1942 at the Lima Locomotive Works, the Pressed Steel Car Company and the Pacific Car and Foundry Company. By 1943 the Baldwin Locomotive Works, the American Locomotive Company and the Pullman Standard Car Company also were contributing to increasingly impressive production totals. The U. S. armored force had, however, another ace in the hole. None of Europe’s armies intended to pit tanks against tanks as a matter of course. The favored counter was the antitank gun.
High-velocity weapons, usually 37-50mm, with low silhouettes, shields for their crews and motor traction, they were intended to move quickly to threatened points, in company or battalion strength, and knock out tanks as they came into range. Antitank guns were cost-effective compared to tanks–so easy to mass produce and so simple to operate they might well be considered expendable, and often were. The U. S. Army had added an entirely new version of the weapon to its order of battle. In 1940 the War Department accepted the position of General Andrew D.
Bruce that attacking tanks were best countered not by mere battalions but by entire groups and brigades of high-velocity guns on self-propelled carriages. Bruce’s long-term concept involved putting a modern 3-inch gun on a modified Sherman chassis. To emphasize their mission of seek, strike and destroy, the new units were called tank destroyers, or TDs. They received their own training center and what amounted to status as a separate arm that at peak strength had more than 100 battalions.
The Army fielded no fewer than 15 armored divisions and 37 independent tank battalions in northern Europe. By D-Day, however, only a single armored division deployed in the theater had seen any action at all, and then only briefly. Inexperience, inadequate training and problems of sharing experience, particularly among the constantly transferred independent battalions, took precedence over questions of materiel. For infantry support, machine guns were usually the tank’s most important weapon, just as they had been in 1918.
Armored divisions in the European Theater of Operations (ETO) were usually distributed among Army corps in a ratio of 1-to-2 or 1-to-3 infantry divisions, and in practice would perform much the same roles as their footslogging partners. The Army’s new armored field manual, published in January 1944, neither suggested nor implied a need for new tanks in what was clearly a more modest role than originally envisaged. The question was not whether U. S. factories could retool to manufacture either the M6 or the T20. It was whether a changeover, or even an adjustment, represented the best use of material and technical resources.
The M4 was not an optimal armored vehicle. The United States’ factories could, however, produce it in numbers enough not only for American forces but also for the British, the Free French and, not least, the USSR, whose Lend-Lease Shermans formed a significant element of the Red Army’s armored forces for much of the war. Two Shermans could be embarked for one M6–no bagatelle given the massive demands on Allied shipping in 1942 and 1943. The new M18 Hellcat, introduced in late 1943, could make the incredible top speed of 55 miles per hour, but had nearly no protection and carried the same 76mm gun that encumbered the Sherman.
It was possible to maneuver, seeking more vulnerable sides and rears. There were enough German tanks in Normandy, however, relative to the space involved to provide higher and more consistent levels of mutual support than had been common in North Africa and Italy. American crew losses mounted, and crew morale declined. Omar Bradley and then Dwight Eisenhower were sufficiently disconcerted that the supreme commander contacted U. S. Army Chief of Staff George Marshall, demanding that tanks and tank destroyers with 90mm guns be made available as soon as possible. The development of a tank with a 90mm gun followed a more tortuous path.
The Ordnance Department had recommended as early as May 1943 that pilot models in the T20 series be tested not only with a heavier gun, but with thicker armor and wider treads than either the M4 or the T20 designs. The T20 series had been conceived as a medium tank. In that version, it offered no significant advantages over the Sherman. The 90mm configurations, the T25 and the T26, amounted to introducing a heavy tank through the back door. Weighing more than 45 tons, with 4. 5 inches of frontal armor, on paper at least they bode fair to compete with, if not match, the German Panthers and Tigers.
Work on the new design did not receive high priority. Not until May 1944 was the original order of 50 completed. The first M26, chosen over the T25 for its greater reliability, was not standardized until March 1945. It was not light tanks that were wanted for the close-gripped fighting of the northern Europe campaign. Even during the post-Operation Cobra days of breakout and pursuit in the summer of 1944, the Shermans’ maneuverability and high rate of fire were at best stopgaps against German tanks and assault guns whose armor and firepower were ideally suited to the conditions of a fighting withdrawal.
To speak of the failure of U. S. tank policy in World War II is nevertheless a crass overstatement, even if failure is defined in the narrow terms of tank versus tank. Interwar and early-war concepts favoring mobility and reliability, regarding tanks as best suited for exploitation rather than breakthrough and incorporating a counter to mass armor attacks, fitted both the United States’ military requirements and most of the then-relevant European experience.
The Sherman, its light tank stablemates and the tank destroyers supporting them were developed to fit parameters of doctrine and experience. They were also manufactured on a scale and at a pace no other power could hope to match. That process took time even once a doctrinal base existed: that is to say when the users had reasonably clear ideas of what they wanted. The Army’s history of tank design and production possibilities reflects the strong elements of improvisation in the U. S. war effort.
The German and Soviet doctrines and technologies against which American models are so often compared were products of processes begun in 1919. By 1939 the Wehrmacht and the Red Army both had tank inventories in the thousands. U. S. tanks were counted in three figures well after Pearl Harbor. Commanders, crews and tactics had to be introduced by forced draft, in hopes of high learning curves that were by no means always forthcoming. It made corresponding sense to standardize comprehensively, rather than keep tinkering with systems in search of an optimum.
Not until early 1943 did American armor doctrine and equipment have even a limited base of direct experience–which by no means pointed in a single direction. Tunisia, Sicily and Italy offered limited opportunities for using armor on a large scale in exploitation roles. Northwest Europe seemed a different proposition. Force-to-space ratios in that theater were expected to allow the Shermans to maneuver as their design intended–if not quite on the scales envisioned in 1940–once the infantry and its supporting arms had broken German resistance.
However, even if the Army and its tankers had been generally convinced by mid- 1943 of the absolute necessity to alter not merely priorities but attitudes and doctrines, bigger guns and heavier armor on new chassis were unlikely to have been in unit strength by D-Day in any number. The German Panther offers a useful benchmark. It was developed in response to the obvious challenge of the superb Soviet T-34 medium tank and the heavy Klimenti Voroshilov. It received as clear a priority as was possible in the convoluted administrative structure of the Third Reich.
Yet it was 18 months before the first Panthers saw action, and another 10 before the tank was considered satisfactory. Even then Panthers continued to suffer serious problems with engines, suspensions and turret mechanisms. The M26, another wartime design, took a bit over a year to reach operational status, and its bugs were being discovered as late as the Korean War. In terms of doctrine, equipment and mentality, the American armored force of World War II was optimized to win and to defeat Operation Barbarossa.
Until the war’s final 10 months, its shortcomings nevertheless involved acceptable tradeoffs. Even after D-Day, deficiencies in American armor did not involve the kind of crisis the Germans faced in late 1941 on the Russian Front, when they found themselves drastically overmatched in both numbers and quality. Artillery and fighter-bombers, the superior training and improvisational skill of American tankers, and overwhelming material imbalances in all categories of armored vehicles combined to maintain a pattern of being good enough. No more was needed. No more was done.