Battles for Seoul
The Patton Tank, Part Four:
The End of the Line
By Arrigo Velicogna, Ph.D.
July 2020

The mobile phase of the Korean War ended in July 1951, when, in the words of General Ridgeway, hope replaced reason. The late winter and spring battles had broken the back of Peng Dehuai’s forces. Chairman Mao’s dream of total victory had gone unfulfilled with the collapse of the April/May offensive while Ridgeway’s counter-push took the UN Forces back across the 38th Parallel almost everywhere.

A limited victory appeared at hand, and the communists offered negotiations. The offer was taken at face value, but it was just a delaying tactic. Chairman Mao was not prepared to end the butchery. The end result was to lose Kaesong, the old imperial capital of Korea, to the Communists for the foreseeable future, and to lock the two warring sides into a war across what is today the DMZ. For two more years the butchery continued, albeit in a different way.

The crew of this Marine M46 apparently had many friends.

Some historians call it a stalemate, and portray a static war. The reality was different. Several large-scale offensives were launched or attempted, and some significant chunks of real estate changed hands. To a certain extent, the stalemate was imposed by Washington. U.S. offensives were few and often aborted by the White House, but communist offensives had to be broken on the ground by tank-artillery-infantry teams. In the air, up north, the fight also continued unabated. Contrary to perception the USAF and USN even attacked into Chinese airspace with regularity. But on maps the front apparently did not budge.

In this kind of war, the M46 soldiered on steadily expanding its numerical role, but also changing its tactical role. Tanks were no longer the spearhead, but instead deployed as mobile fire platforms. They provided long range direct fire, often in bunker-busting roles, or close-range canister support in defense. They were also used as self-propelled artillery in indirect fire roles. This led to a series of perceived lessons back in the U.S. that would haunt American tank design in the following decades.

No more tank battalions were sent to South Korea, except to replace rotating formations. No armored combat command saw use there, either. On the other hand, the Pattons’ number increased. They replaced older tanks in medium tank battalions, but they also became the mainstay of regimental tank companies. Back in 1946 the U.S. Army had decided to replace regimental anti-tank companies, usually equipped with 57mm guns, with medium tank companies. Yet, the process had never gone far. Plenty of regiments did not have tanks in their anti-tank companies. With the “slowing” of combat, and the new defense-awareness in Washington, tanks and money were available to fill these companies to authorized strength.

A column of M46 Patton tanks in Korea.

Korea also spurred the Army to look at ways to improve its night fighting capability. The initial approach was to adapt the CDL idea to the new world. The CDL, Canal Defense Light, was a British-inspired World War Two program to mount high powered searchlights in armored turrets and field them on M3 and M4 hulls to provide illumination for night fighting.

While on paper it was a sound concept backed by testing a reasonable doctrine, in practice it floundered due to secrecy. The program was so secret that basically no one knew about it and how to employ it. When the secret units equipped with CDL tanks were fielded, lack of combined arms training and understanding of the concept doomed it.

Yet the Army was persuaded that the concept to use powerful searchlights was sufficiently sound to be carried forward. A special turret housing a high-powered searchlight was tested on an M4A3 hull. The prototype worked, but testing revealed that it was extremely difficult to aim at these searchlights at night. Even non-armored housings were sound enough. The specialized Sherman variant was dropped and an 18-inch searchlight installed on Patton tanks giving them the ability to illuminate targets at night. These were operationally fielded in Korea from 1952.

Korea also played havoc on the Pershing-to-Patton conversion program, and on any idea of exporting the M46. The initial conversion program had been predicated on the assumption there would be a whole fleet of Pershings available to modify. While the Korean war provided urgency and increased funding, it also reduced the fleet of stored M26’s. More and more Pershings were needed in Korea for real combat and also in Europe to rebuild deterrence, steadily draining the pool of potential Pattons. The Army briefly considered the acquisition of completely new M46 Pattons, but decided against it.

The M46 Patton was a dead end, and what the US Army wanted, and needed, on the long run was a new tank design, not a refurbished M26. Not only did this reduce the scope of the conversion program, but made the sale of Pattons (and even Pershings) to allies a difficult proposition. When Korean the emergency concluded, other alternatives were available, as the M47 Patton (that we will discuss in future installments) was an M46 with a new turret. Yet some countries did indeed receive token number of M46’s as trainers for the newer M47 (they shared the same hull and the same powerpack after all). But Korea was both the debut and the end of the M46’s career.

Refugees make their way past a stalled M46 at Haengju, Korea, June 1951.

The Korean War ended on 27 July 1953, three years and one month after it started. Colonel Harry Truman had been replaced by General of the Army Dwight Eisenhower (and the U.S. Army would suffer), Comrade Stalin had passed away, Chairman Mao and the Great Leader Kim Il Sung faced the butcher bill. Yet the M46 would not die immediately. The Armistice agreement forbade parties from introducing new equipment in Korea. US Forces Korea (USFK) would still use the M46. The U.S. Army declared the M46 Patton obsolete on 14 February 1957, together with the M4 Sherman. The M46 was declared limited standard for USFK, continuing to serve as long as spares were available. Spares were ordered to be kept in both Japan and Korea for another five years. Korea was indeed the home of the M46.

Parting shot
The M46 Patton was something of a weird tank. Without the massive drawdown of the U.S. Army following May 1945, and then the sudden realization the Cold War had started, it would never had seen the light. The sudden realization that Comrade Stalin was up to no good sparked a flurry of emergency measures. As far as armor was concerned, the first of these emergency measures was the development of the “new” M46 Patton tank. Calling the M46 a new tank was a stretch. For all practical purposes the M46 was just a refurbished Pershing, all “new” tanks were obtained by conversion. When faced with the option to start new production the Army decided against it, the M46 being a dead end. The new name was more a publicity stunt than anything else. Yet it was a name that, for a series of reasons, stuck.

Still the M46 was an important milestone in post-war tank development. It restarted the whole production process and improved the performance of the old M26 Pershing. More importantly validated both the new engine and the new automatic transmission, paving the way for the next 30 years and more of American tank design. For all its limitations it was the first of a family that would mark the evolution of the United States tank force.

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