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Thanks for the Tanks, Yanks

Fifty World War I destroyers and airplane squadrons for England got the big headlines, but the real symbol of British dependence on American production was tanks. Official U.S. Army historians noted, “On no other type of materiel was collaboration with the British so extensive and carefully organized as on tanks, tank guns, and tank accessories.”

“On no other type of materiel was collaboration with the British so extensive and carefully organized as on tanks, tank guns, and tank accessories.”

In 1939, the United States produced 325 tanks, all light. In 1943, production reached a peak of 29,497 tanks of all types: light, medium, and heavy. By the end of the war, total tank production was 88,410, more than any other belligerent. America’s peak production year was 1943, in which 29,497 tanks of all types were manufactured – almost as much as the Soviet Union’s entire wartime output (29,956).

M3 Grant

An M3 Grant passes a “brewed-up” Pzkpfw II. When first introduced, the Grant’s awkward arrangement of its armament and high profile were obvious vulnerabilities, but not serious concerns during the short but vital period of time in the Western Desert when it outgunned most German tanks. Australian War Museum photo

England couldn’t get enough tanks. On June 26, 1941, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill wrote President Franklin Roosevelt, “It is obvious that nothing must be done to disturb production now in hand here or in North America. We want all the tanks we can get as soon as possible.” Ultimately, Britain took 30 percent of all U.S. tank production.

America’s main battle tank in the early 1940s was the M3 medium tank. Depending on the variant, they were nicknamed Lee or Grant, after the Civil War generals. The M3 was a transitional design – an awkward attempt to combine two conflicting battlefield philosophies: speed and maneuver, and firepower. American tank doctrine, still under development, emphasized battles of maneuver, not tank versus tank slugging matches. Combat against tanks was the responsibility of tank destroyers.

This unrealistic standard – the odds of any tank surviving combat long enough to fire 4,000 rounds being nil – meant the M3 had to get into almost point-blank range in order to knock out any moderately armored vehicle.

The M3 had a number of defects, the two most important being its tall profile (more than ten feet) and the low position and limited traverse of its 75 mm main cannon. Because this main gun had to conform to towed artillery performance standards of being able to fire 4,000 rounds before being replaced, it was a low-velocity gun. This unrealistic standard – the odds of any tank surviving combat long enough to fire 4,000 rounds being nil – meant the M3 had to get into almost point-blank range in order to knock out any moderately armored vehicle. A third problem in the earlier models was the use of rivet fasteners, which made them vulnerable to a condition called spalling – where rivets, struck by an enemy round, shattered into deadly fragments within the tank.

Hundreds of M3s were rushed to Egypt with barely enough time for the British troops to train in them before Afrika Korps general Erwin Rommel’s spring offensive. On May 26, 1942, Rommel launched Operation Venezia, the Battle of Gazala. In his diary he wrote, “There was . . . a British surprise awaiting us [at Bir el Harmat], one which was not to our advantage – the new Grant tank, which was used in this battle for the first time on African soil. . . . The advent of the new American tank had torn great holes in our ranks.” About 167 Grants participated in the battle, and helped rout the famed Desert Fox.

Gen. Bernard Law Montgomery

British Gen. Bernard Law Montgomery, victor at El Alamein, in his American Grant tank. Library of Congress photo

The campaign in North Africa, including Operation Torch and the Tunisian campaign, was the combat action high point for the M3. By the time of Operation Husky it had been replaced by the M4 Sherman as the Allies’ main battle tank.

The British, with their fascination with special operations “wonder weapons,” found the chassis of the M3 to be ideal for what became one of the most closely guarded secrets of World War II: Grant Canal Defence Lights.

Modified M3s continued to see service in support roles: as prime movers towing artillery, armored recovery and mine clearing vehicles, and anti-aircraft platforms. The British, with their fascination with special operations “wonder weapons,” found the chassis of the M3 to be ideal for what became one of the most closely guarded secrets of World War II: Grant Canal Defence Lights. The turret of the Grant was replaced with a carbon lamp capable of producing light at 13 million candle power. With a row of Grants in position, the illumination was so powerful it was capable of blinding and disorienting enemy troops. Not exactly a “death ray,” but it could temporarily immobilize them. These tanks arrived in France shortly after D-Day. And, though they accompanied the armies all the way to Germany, they were never used.

By

DWIGHT JON ZIMMERMAN is a bestselling and award-winning author, radio host, and president of the...

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-4542">

    Nice shots, I think the German TIGER tank was a year after this and it was a winner

    li class="comment byuser comment-author-chuck-oldham odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-4556">
    Chuck Oldham (Editor)

    The Grants and Lees served their purpose at a time when they were really needed. No one was going to call them great tanks, but they were a nasty surprise to the Germans in the Western Desert and that was what was important.

    The Tiger was a great defensive tank, but it was always underpowered, which contributed to unreliability, and lacked mobility. Of the “iron triangle” – mobility, protection, firepower – the Tiger sacrificed the first in order to have the latter two qualities.

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-5093">

    and was thirsty as well

    li class="comment byuser comment-author-chuck-oldham odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-5128">
    Chuck Oldham (Editor)

    Absolutely right on that, too, Ann.

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-5764">

    Howdy,
    I’m sorry, but this seems a rather shallow and pathetic piece of work.
    I was hoping to learn something, but I can’t let this pass.

    Yes American tanks were critical to Britain winning North Africa, since their own tanks were so limited; in fact as I’ve often said, the main difference between Montgomery and the previous British Commanders, is that he had Detroit on his side, and they didn’t

    You have ignored the most important part of the story of the M-3 Medium; which is that it was created in the summer of 1940, and was always intended to be an interim tank before the US could make 66″ turret rings to mount 75mm guns, and only began production shortly before Churchill’s letter, in late March-April of 1941.
    The gun you criticize so much was the only one available, which you seem to be unaware of.
    It wasn’t low velocity (especially by British or then German standards) as its initial reputation as a tank killer demonstrates, but initial ammunition was lower velocity than later types, in part because of general concerns regarding recoil (which also afflicted the M-4), and a few month’s later the same tanks were using higher velocity ammunition (15-30% faster), and later often the same ammunition as the usually longer gunned Sherman tank (by the way some early Sherman’s carried the shorter M-3 Medium’s gun; 28 vs 37 calibers).
    You didn’t criticize the machine guns, turret, or engines, etc; which were also designed to last much longer than a tank in combat should expect, yet you don’t mention its highly praised reliability.
    Initially, there were so few transmissions, that the various manufacturing companies shipped the couple that were available between them for the demonstrations to the press in April 1941, to show that everything was fine when it obviously wasn’t. Eventually some things were sorted out, but the first M-3 Mediums didn’t reach Egypt until December 1941, too late to make a very significant difference in Operation Crusader.
    It’s profound reliability was the basis for the M-4 Sherman, not to mention the 64″ turret ring Canadian Ram tank as well, which was armed with a 6 pounder gun long before the Brits managed to mount one in their own tanks.
    The desert campaign in 1942 was one of considerable flux as newer tanks were introduced quickly, rendering tactical advantages like like the M-3 Medium’s very temporary, when Panzer Mk IV ‘specials’ arrived, followed by M-4 Sherman’s that summer and Tigers that fall in Tunisia after Operation Torch.
    By the way the Tiger was fatally flawed since production was limited to 50-60 per month for all of Germany, totaling barely 1350 MBT’s for two years of effort, in trying to defend fronts exceeding 1600 miles in breadth.

    Almost 6300 M-3 Medium’s were built in about 20 month’s before being largely phased out of production in December 1942 by Chrysler etc (some of the smaller companies’ limited production apparently lasted into 1943). Some versions were riveted, but others were welded from the beginning and predated the riveted models, but guess which saw combat first?

    It indeed continued to serve in combat throughout the war with our allies, being shifted to India-Burma in late 1943 onwards, along with some 900 going to the Australians to use in New Guinea and Borneo, after M-4 Sherman production had caught up with european theater demands; where the exhausted Japanese had little to resist them.
    Meanwhile any Russian unit that had M-3’s was grateful to have them, taking care to keep them in service as long as possible.

    But I’m very curious where you came up with the idea the US, which was building both a huge navy and huge merchant marine, built almost THREE times as many tanks as the soviets during the entire war, when in fact they actually barely outproduced the USA?

    The fact that that your post has not had these facts corrected in the last two weeks is appalling. My interest is this site has been considerably diminished, as a result.

    How can we criticize the lame-stream media for their colossal ignorance in military or historical matters to mention just two, when someone who should know better gets so much wrong?

    While I’ve been disappointed in what I’ve read so far, I always hope to see improvement.

    I know we all have bad days, but our work shouldn’t reflect any personal failings.

    Looking forward to better reports,

    L

    li class="comment byuser comment-author-chuck-oldham odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-5776">
    Chuck Oldham (Editor)

    Welcome and thanks for the comment. I think the fact that your comment has a higher word count than the original post speaks to much of what you complain about, since when a writer has a limited word count allotted to him, details are going to be lost in the interests of describing the big picture. But it’s obvious you’re a fan of the M3, and why not? It’s unusual in configuration among World War II tanks that fought more than a couple of months or so (Char B, I’m talking to you), and of course Bogart commanded one in Sahara, so it received star billing in at least one film.

    First, I agree with you on Montgomery. Both Wavell and the Auk, were, in my opinion, superior generals, not to mention superior human beings, but they were essentially in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong orders or a lack of resources that crippled their efforts. But that’s another story.

    Second, good catch on the 29, 956 number, which is a production figure covering only Soviet light tanks, although the paragraph in your comment compares the US to the USA. I assume you meant UK. In any case, our figure will be corrected, since it doesn’t include the all-important mediums like the T-34 and T-34/85, or the SP guns. Add those in, and you’re looking at more than 62,000 additional tanks for the production figure over the entire war.

    Notwithstanding that, in 1943 the U.S. produced nearly double the entire Soviet production in that peak year. The U.S. also produced more than 100,000 AFVs during the war, if you want to count half-tracks, etc., which the U.S. Army certainly did. Slightly less than the Soviets’ claimed totals, but about three times what the UK produced. And regarding Soviet totals, I think Stalin taught us all to take those with a grain of salt.

    As to ignoring the most important part of the story, as you put it, that the M3s were intended as interim tanks, the story clearly states that the M3 was a transitional design, though some of the details of why that was so could not be included due to space considerations.

    With regard to the M2 75mm gun, at the moment in time covered in the story it was a great weapon, but today’s writers have the benefit of history and hindsight. In the Western Desert, as stated, it was a rude shock to the Germans, outranging everything they had other than the Mk. IV special’s L48 75mm and the 88mm in the anti-tank role. What you point out, however, is really a matter of perspective. There is no reason to malign the Grant/Lee’s 75 mm at that point in the war. It had a better muzzle velocity at 2,050 fps than the Mk. IV’s standard 75mm gun at 1,263 fps, for example. On the other hand, the British Matilda’s 2-pounder main gun, admittedly essentially a 40mm, had a muzzle velocity of 2,650 fps. But far from being unaware of the fact that the M2 75 mm gun was the only one available at the time, we are well aware that it was the only one available to most American tankers THROUGHOUT the war. The Mk. IV special’s 75 mm had a muzzle velocity of 2,481 fps, almost double the earlier generation German 75 mm. The Panther’s 75mm gun had a muzzle velocity of 3,068 fps. The T-34/85’s larger 85mm fired at 2,600 fps, and the Tiger’s 88mm had a muzzle velocity slightly higher than the Soviet 85 mm. So you can understand the inclination to speak of the M2 75mm as low velocity when viewed from the perspective of the entire war. While other armies moved on and upgunned as well as uparmored their tanks, the U.S. only belatedly adopted the 76mm for some of the later Shermans and of course the 90 mm for the Pershing. But it was too little, too late. See Belton Cooper, Death Traps for a personal look at the results of these decisions, as one example.

    The reliability of U.S. tanks in World War II is well known. While that aspect was not within the scope of the article it certainly had something to do with the British interest in U.S. tanks throughout the war, reliability not being a strong suit of British tanks of the era. Again, reliability over the long term was not the main subject of the article, but rather the British need for tanks and their initial effect on the war in the desert.