Wednesday, December 6, 2017

The M26 and its children

A thread about the evolution of American Armor.

More specifically, it's about the M26 Pershing and her daughters, a great series of tanks.  Perhaps the best series of tanks every made.

M26 being ferried across the Rhine at Remagen.  It's odd to see it in this photograph as it does not appear to be a large tank by today's standard, even though it was at the time.  It's very modern suspension is quite visible in this photograph.

 The M26 Pershing

We just posted about the M4 Sherman, noting that it was a much better tank than its many naysayers would have us believe.  Those naysayers often decry that "the US never developed a tank as good as the Tiger or Panther".

Those critics are flat out wrong.  The US developed a tank better than the Tiger or the Panther.  It just didn't get very many of them overseas during World War Two and it couldn't have, unless we were planning on fighting the war into 1946, which would have been pretty bad planning.

But that doesn't mean that we didn't get M26s into action, and that they weren't better than any of the German tanks they contested.  And they did contest them.

The M26 Pershing was the best, if imperfect, American tank of World War Two and, accepting that it was deployed only in very small numbers, perhaps the best tank of World War Two fielded by any nation (and noting that I'd otherwise give that position to the T-34/85). 

The record of the Pershing in World War Two combat speaks for itself, limited thought it is. It also shows that the era of modern tank combat had arrived.  And that's important to recall.

People who like to dump on the M4 Sherman are accidental fans of the M26, as they essentially argue that the US blew it by not focusing on the M26 earlier than it did and that it didn't get them into action sooner.  We've' addressed that in our other thread and we'll simply note that this is just flat out unrealistic.  

The M26 wasn't a fully developed design, in part because we were focusing on the Sherman, by the time it was fielded in  1945 and in fact it still bore the experimental designation of "T26" at that time. That it was fielded was due to the shock of the Battle of the Bulge in which an earlier, in theater, decision not to deploy Sherman's with the 76mm high velocity gun, even though they were available,m proved to be a mistake.  That mistake resulted in the U.S. Army in the Europe immediately reversing that decision and it also lead to an immediate desire that T26s be made available.  They were, but only in very small numbers.  The US's decision to concentrate on the M4 meant that the M26, while still being developed as its developers believed in it, wasn't really as far along as it could have been.

In spite of what M4 naysayers may think, the US actually never stopped trying to advance its tank designs during World War Two. As we've already discussed, the US went rapidly through tank series during the war. While I didn't cover it in the M4 Sherman thread (and I should have) the Sherman was the "M4" as it was the fourth model of medium tank to be adopted by the United States following the outbreak of the crisis.  The M3, which came before the M4, and which was built in large numbers and fielded well into 1943 in North Africa, and at least as late as 1944 on the Eastern Front (by the Soviets, of course) actually replaced the M2, of which there had only been eighteen built since it had been adopted in 1939.

The officially adopted, but barely produced, M2 medium tank.  Note that this tank fielded the type of drive and suspension associated with teh M4 Sherman.

While conditions and demands meant that the M3 quickly yielded to the M4, and the M4 remained the main American tank throughout World War Two, the US actually did begin to design a replacement for it nearly as soon as it was fielded. That resulted in the T20, T21, T22 and T23 experimental modes, all of which leaned on the now well established M2/M3/M4 type suspensions and all of which featured high velocity 76 mm guns.  While any one of them was probably a little better than the M4, none of them were all that much better.



The T23, while never adopted, was significant in that it began to have features, in smaller scale, that the M26 would later have, including a significant cast hull.  Following work on the T23 a new design was worked on keeping some of its features, and throwing away others, that resulted in the T25 and the T26.

Almost a M26, the T25, which retrained the older suspension design.

Both the T25 and the T26 recognized the reality of the new German cat tanks and the need for a heavier tank with a larger gun.  While coming out of a "medium" tank design program which was designed to replace the M4, both were considered heavy tanks at the time and sported a massive 90mm gun, a gun much larger than anything any western tank had used before. Fans of the M26 and enemies of the M4 point to this as proof of what the US could have done late war with tanks, and to some degree they're correct.

That puts me on both sides of an argument, of course, but those who claim the US was ignoring the larger new German tanks are flatly wrong.  The US had by late 1943 recognized the need for a tank with a heavier gun. But that was late 1943 and frankly the ability to field such a tank during the war itself was doubtful.  The Army pressed on with development of the T25 and T26, coming to focus on the T26 which had a completely new suspension, but that was done with the knowledge that fielding such a tank during the war was likely going to be unnecessary and difficult to accomplish.

Nonetheless, it was in fact done.  The T26, as the T26, was fielded late war following the Battle of the Bulge during the general panic over German cat tanks.

People who aren't impressed with this should keep in mind that the US went from the M2, depicted above, to the M26 in six years.  That is, the US went from adopting an inadequate medium tank at the start of the war too a good one, to its effective intended replacement, a fully modern tank, in just that short of time.  That's frankly amazing. Some other countries, it should be noted, also rocketed along in tank development, the Germans being the only really comparable example, but no other nation faced the daunting task of trying to do this while supplying its other principal allies and shipping everything it made over the oceans.

Following the Battle of the Bulge, about twenty T26s were shipped to Europe.  Not many, but they wold see action.  Interestingly, twelve were sent to the Pacific where they were deployed to Okinawa for the battle there, but were not offloaded until after the fighting was over. As a result, those twelve Pacific M26s were the last deployed in the war (and after the official adoption of the tank as the M26) but they didn't see combat. the ones deployed to Europe, however, did, including the one single "Super Pershing" that was deployed.

The very first M26, or rather T26, to see action against a German tank was a tank nicknamed Fireball.  It was overseeing a roadblock with it was ambushed by a Tiger.  The encounter went very badly for the M26 which was hit three times and put out of action by the first shot, which had been fired from only 100 yards away.

Two of the Pershing's crewmen were killed in the encounter, with the Tiger's first shot going through the machinegun port in the mantlet.  The second actually hit the gun barrel causing the round in the barrel to go off and distort it.  The third shot bounced off the tank.  After that, and perhaps emblematic of the problems the German's faced, the Tiger backed up and became entangled in debris, putting it self out of action. The Pershing was repaired and put back in action in just a few days.

 The unfortunate M26 "Fireball", which was hit and put out of action by a Tiger on February 26, 1945, to the loss of two crewmen. The tank was hit three times by the Tiger, being put out of commission with the first shot.  The third shot bounced off the M26. The Tiger put itself out of commission due to mechanical failure immediately thereafter.  Fireball was returned to service on March 7, having been repaired.

Disabled Tiger I that had the distinction of knocking out a M26 Pershing, the first Pershing to be knocked out in combat, even though the M26 was a better tank. After achieving that, this tank became disabled and had to be abandoned.  German tanks were frequently disabled.

Almost at the same time, however, one M26 put one Tiger and two Panzer IVs out of commission in the same town.  Unlike the first encounter, the victorious M26 was not put out of action by mechanical failure and the loss to the Germans of their armor was permanent.

The most famous M26 action came on March 6 in a heavily filmed encounter in Cologne in which a M26 engaged a Panther in a tank duel.  In that instance, the Panther had been laying in ambush and destroyed a M4 Sherman's when the M26 was called over from a street over.  The following then occurred as recalled by the M26's gunner:
We were told to just move into the intersection far enough to fire into the side of the enemy tank, which had its gun facing up the other street. However, as we entered the intersection, our driver had his periscope turned toward the Panther and saw their gun turning to meet us. When I turned our turret, I was looking into the Panther's gun tube; so instead of stopping to fire, our driver drove into the middle of the intersection so we wouldn't be a sitting target. As we were moving, I fired once. Then we stopped and I fired two more shells to make sure they wouldn't fire at our side. All three of our shells penetrated, one under the gun shield and two on the side. The two side hits went completely through and out the other side.
The same day, however, a M26 was put out of action by a German 88mm self propelled anti tank gun, a type of tank destroyer, at Niehl, which was near Cologne.  Following this event, near Cologne, M26s knocked out a Tiger and a Panzer IV.

Sent overseas as a "heavy tank" the M26s next saw action at Remagen, where they were used for artillery support.  Their large size presented a problem in getting them over the river, however, and they ultimately had to be ferried across. They did not see action against enemy armor in that battle.

M26 acting as artillery support at Remagen.

Even as the M26 was proving itself in action in Germany, a new variant of it was introduced, in a single example, in the theater, that being the "Super Pershing".  This new variant of the T26 featured a more powerful 90mm gun and additional armor.  This new variant was actually designated to replace the M26 even thought the M26 had only just started to see service.  Only a single example made it to Europe, however, and only twenty five were made prior to the order being cancelled due to the war's end.

 M26 "Super Pershing"

The T26E4 Super Pershing was clearly a more advanced tank than the  T26, although part of this recoil system was external on the turret and therefore vulnerable.  Interestingly once it arrived in Europe it was actually up armored in theater, making it an even more heavily armored tank than it was designed to be.  The single Super Pershing destroyed three tanks before the war ended, with one claimed to be a Tiger by the crew.

Following this, twelve were shipped to be used in the battle for Okinawa, but none of them were landed prior to the battle ending.

The results of armored development in World War Two demonstrated that what the original concept for the M26 had been was correct.  Following the war, it was reclassified as a medium tank, which it had always really been. The concept of it as a heavy tank was due to tanks like the Tiger being conceived of that way, but in reality, the Tiger and the Panther were simply the next generation of tank.  A person can debate it, but we'd regarded the T-34 as the first modern tank.  If it wasn't, then the Tiger was.  The M26 was the first American modern tank, and it was a good one as further developments would show.

It's common to take the position that the U.S. Army did nothing but sit on its hands between World War Two and the Korean War, but as we've already shown, this just wasn't true.  If it was, there wold have been no tank development by the US at all following the war, but in fact the opposite was the case.  The results of late war fighting had shown that tanks had entered a new phase. The US had a tank in that class, the M26, but it set about working on an improvement. In the meantime, the US withdrew from service all of the M4s that were not equipped with high velocity 76mm guns and US armor consisted of M4s so equipped along with the M26.  The US had just over 2,000 M26s at that time.

The M46 Patton

The designed replacement for the M26 was the M46 Patton.

M46 Patton in Marine Corps Service in Korea, Korean War.

The M46 Patton was in fact the M26 Pershing with improved engine and transmission.  Originally it was classified as the M26E2, but ultimately re-designated as a new tank entirely, even though it was clearly an improved M26.  As the improvements, which included a new bore evacuator, were principally designed to address mobility problems with the M26, the M46 would in fact replace the M26 in combat in the Korean War.

The service of the M26 and the M46 in the Korean War is very much worth noting.  The tank proved nearly completely invulnerable to the T-34/85, the most modern of the Soviet made T-34s.  The projectiles fired by the M26/M46 proved so potent that they would go completely through T-34s.  In fact, the M26 and M46 proved to be overkill for the T-34, which was remarkable as the same design had never met that fate with any German tank.  By and large the Patton's and Pershing's were withdrawn from service in Korea after the war became a static fight there in part because they simply weren't needed.  Indeed, while it's surprising, the M4 with the 76mm gun proved to be a match for the T-34/85 in Korea.

So, from the 1945 to 1955 time frame, the U.S. had fielded a tank that was better than the best of the late war German tanks and, as it turned out, better than the best Soviet tank, the T-34/85, which is arguably the best tank of World War Two.  The M26 and M46 never had the opportunity to take on the Soviet heavy tanks, which were in a truly very heavy class, and its not known how they would have done against them, but there's reason to suspect that they would have done well.

Of course, the Soviets hadn't stood still in this period.  By the late 1940s they were working on what would become the T-55, a tank they introduced in the mid 1950s. Bet that as it may, throughout the 1950s the T-34/85 accounted for 88% of Soviet tank production. The US was far ahead.

 Soviet T-55. The design had been standardized by 1946, and it went into service in 1949, but the tank still made up only a small part of Soviet tank production in the 1950s. The Soviets ceased production of the tank in 1981 and it remains in service in large numbers around the world today.

M47 Patton

Even as M26s were rebuilt to the M46 standard, another development was occurring to the tank which would see the turret of the M26/M46 replaced with a new design, which was fielded as the M47 Patton.  Closely based on the Pershing and featuring its chassis, the tank was in fact a new design with a new turret and therefore differing appearance.  The turret design would be one familiar to later American tankers.


Still called the Patton in honor of General George S. Patton of World War Two, the M47 was the first US tank to be designed since the interwar period and it was introduced in 1951.  It was supposed to replace the M4, the M26 and the M46.  Over 8,000 were built, but developments were happening quickly and it was in fact soon supplanted in U.S. service by the M48 Patton.

M48 Patton
South Korean Army M48, March 1987.

The third US tank in a row to be named in honor of Gen. Patton, the M48 featured the new familiar Pershing chassis but omitted the bow machinegun, the first main U.S. tank to make that omission.  It was in fact an entirely new design, obviously based on the old M26 lineage, and was an enormously successful tank.

M48 Patton in South Vietnam.

The M48 would be the principal US tank in the late 1950s and go on to see heavy use by the US and its allies for many years.  It was the tank the US principally used in Vietnam.  The last variant of it, the M48A5, was sufficiently close to its successor, the M60, that it was up-gunned to the 105mm gun the M60 used and it can be very difficult to tell the two apart.  Indeed, the M48A5s actually replaced the M60 in service with the US Army and South Korean army in Korea in the late 1970s, showing how close they really were.

M48A5, equipped with a 105mm gun and much resembling its successor, the M60.

Before we can go on to the M60, and why it came about, and what its story is, we have to first, however, deal with the M103.

The M103


Following World War Two a lingering feature of tank design was the heavy tank.  The modern heavy tank was really something that entered into combat in a serious way with the Tiger.

Heavy tanks certainly preexisted the Tiger, but the Tiger was really the first heavy tank to feature prominently in a serious way on the battlefield.  While the Soviets had prior heavy tanks, the Tiger was something that they immediately began to design to counter, resulting in the "Joseph Stalin", i.e., the "IS" series of tanks, starting with the IS 1.

IS 1 prototype.

Following the IS 1 the Soviets rapidly upgraded their heavy tanks.  The IS 1, with an 85mm gun, was very quickly replaced by the IS 2 which was similar but which fielded a 122mm gun.  The 85mm gun was instead used in the T-34/85.  The IS 2 was made in significant quantities during World War Two and was supplied to the Red Chinese following the war.  However, even by the war's end the IS 3, a new heavy tank, had been introduced.

IS 3, which featured the archetypal sauce pan turret that would be featured on generations of post war Soviet tanks.

The IS 3 was introduced in 1945. Following this the Soviets continually upgraded their heavy tanks until introducing the last variant of it, the T-10 (originally the IS 8) in 1952.  The T-10 had the characteristic appearance of post war Soviet tanks and was distinguishable in appearance only by its large size.  Like its predecessors, it featured a 122mm gun.

Concerned about the Soviet heavy tanks, the US set about designing its own heavy tank to counter it and came up with the M103.  The M103 was essentially a super sized tank in the M26 lineage.  It had heavy armor and a 120mm gun.  While it had mechanical reliability problems, it was competitive with the T-10.  It never saw action.

The M60 "Patton".
During the 1950s and 1960s it increasingly became obvious to the United States and the Soviets that the era of heavy tanks was really over and that armies were better off just fielding a main battle tank. The US, in keeping with this development, went to working on an improvement of its existing medium tank line and introduced the M60 in 1960.  It went on to replace the M103 and mostly replace the M48, but as can be seen final variants of the M60 were very close to it in design and remained in use along side of it.  The M60 remains in use around the globe today, although not by t he United States.

M60 in Germany.

The M60 featured a 105mm gun, replacing the 90mm used on the M48s, and featured a larger turret resembling that which had been used on the M103.  It proved to be a very capable tank and was widely used in combat by armies supplied by the United States, as well as by the US.  It remains a front line tank in many of the world's armies today, although not in the US Army which replaced it, over a long period of time, with the M1 Abrams

M60 in Germany in 1985.

The Soviets in this period were not standing still, and in 1961, the same year the M60 was introduced, they introduced the T-62.  The -T-62 was an improvement on the T-55 which had never been able to supplant the T-34/85 in the 50s and which remained in production along with the T-62. The T-64 was soon augmented by the T-64. Both of these tanks featured larger guns than their predecessors.

 T-62 at Nellis Air Force Base

T-55s, T62s, and T-64s have all seen action against M60s and M48s around the globe.  Their good tanks to be sure, but the American tanks have more than stood their design ground against them.

The Leopard I

The Leopard I?  That's a post war German tank.

 Later variants of the Leopard I in Germany.  This one has been up armored. The original Leopard Is were fairly lightly armored.  Let's see, six wheels that look remarkably like the six on all of the Pershing descendants. .. rear sprocket drive like the Pershing and its descendants, roller wheels to support the treads up on top (not visible here. . . . hmmm.

Yep, it is.

Inclusion of the Leopard I here is going to make its fans angry, but the Leopard I resembles the M48 more than it does any German tank of World War Two, something that isn't true of all post war German equipment.

One of the most famous of the post war tanks, the Leopard I came in after West Germany had been equipped with M47s and M48s.  Wanting to field its own design, West Germany first worked with France to come up with a tank design and then abandoned the pursuit. Going on its own, it came up with the Leopard I.

 Earlier variant of the Leopard I with a cast turret that looks remarkably like that on a M46/M47/M48.

You will not be able to find (or at least I couldn't) anything that will claim that the Leopard I was based on part on the Pershing tank chassis and the M47 and M48 tanks.  But the similarities are remarkable.  Most notably the chassis is nearly identical. something that departed enormously from all prior German tanks.  The original turrets were also remarkably like those of the period M48s.  Perhaps, just perhaps, there was no influence, but that would certainly counter they way they looked at the time of their introduction.

The M88

While the M60 is now gone from U.S. service, the Pershing's story nonetheless lingers on in the form of the M88 tank retriever, an armored crane designed for recovering disabled combat vehicles.  It continues to feature the original M26 chassis and there's no sign of replacing it anytime soon.

Conclusion. . . a real armored success.

For some reason, not only does the M4 Sherman get no love, American armor, save for the M1 Abrams, tends not to either.  It's odd.  It's been consistently good from the very onset.

Certainly the M26 was.  It's basic design was reworked and reworked from 1945 onward and it was always better than its opponents.  A real unacknowledged success.

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