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).
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.
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.
This story was originally posted on May 25, 2011