Jake Devers’ Tank
The M26 Pershing, Part One
By Arrigo Velicogna
Bobbing and weaving, dashing from the cover of one metal girder to another, the men made their way onto the bridge. Machine-gun fire from the towers near the east bank spattered among them, but return fire from the riflemen themselves and from the big tanks on the Remagen side kept the German fire down. With a few well-placed rounds, the Pershings silenced German riflemen firing from a half-submerged barge in the river.
With these words U.S. Army Historian Charles Macdonald describes the appearance of Pershing tanks on the abutments of the Rhine bridge at Remagen in Germany in March 1945. Yet usually the Pershing is just a sidenote in World War Two histories. As far American tanks are concerned, the Sherman and Stuarts are widely known while the Pershing looks like a sort of white elephant in the room. Fewer than 100 Pershing tanks were deployed in Europe before the end of the war and even fewer saw action. Yet the M26 Pershing was an influential tank in the story of U.S. tank designs. Its story is also interesting pitting different way to see a tank against each other in a conflict that almost killed the Pershing before it ever saw a German panzer.
Do we really need a heavy tank?
Even if there is no direct source for the question, “Do we really need a heavy tank?” sounds like a question that was asked of American tank designers several times in 1943. In late 1942 the U.S. Army had fielded the M4 Sherman medium tank, a tank that was widely hailed as the most advanced medium tank in the world at the time. Its blend of armor and firepower seemed excellent and, more to the point, capable of defeating the majority of the German panzers encountered so far. The Sherman was a good all-around tank capable of supporting infantry (the mission it was designed for) and even dealing with enemy tanks (a mission it was not designed for). Certainly according to the powerful commander of the U.S. Army Ground Forces, Lt. Gen. Leslie McNair, there was no need for a heavy tank. For McNair a new design had to be reliable and not so big that it ate up precious shipping space in the Liberty ships crossing the Atlantic, and every new design had to answer a specific request from the field. As far McNair was concerned there was not a request from the field for a heavy tank.
Reinforcing McNair’s opposition to a new heavy tank was the poor, even abysmal, record of the Ordnance Department in designing heavy tanks. The first attempt, the M6 (left), was bad; the second one, the T14, was more or less an overweight Sherman. The last one, the T20, was something no one really wanted. It started its life as a response to a British requirement for an infantry tank (the same class as the Matilda) and was to be equipped with a 76mm gun. At the time there was already a program to re-arm the Sherman tank with a 76mm gun, and the latest morph of the T20, the T23, was plagued by problems with its new electric transmission. Ordnance was in love with the electric transmission (a love shared by Dr. Porsche in Germany; his Elephant tank destroyer used it) and claimed it was an incredibly cost-effective solution. Ordnance claimed also that the T23 was ready for service, even if no trial had started. Ordnance was so confident that it was already setting up a production line for 250 copies of the T23.
Ordnance’s plans were thwarted by Field Marshal Erwin Rommel and his Kasserine offensive. From Tunisia the first reliable report on the new German heavy panzer reached the U.S. and had the Army clamoring for a heavier tank. The top brass wanted more armor and a bigger gun. Ordnance redesigned the T23 (left) in two variants: the T25 with a 90mm antiaircraft gun used in the antitank role and three inches of frontal armor; and the T26 with the same gun and an inch more of frontal armor. Also spoiling Ordnance’s dreams of a speedy introduction of the T23 into service were the results of the first trials of the new tank at Fort Knox. As much the electric transmission was innovative it was unreliable and continually breaking down. Two new subtypes, the T25E1 and the T26E1, using Torquematic (hydraulic) transmission, had to be designed.
The first 50 tanks (40 T25E1 and 10 T26E1) were ready by May 1944. By that date the invasion of France was approaching and the Army had to make some hard decisions about tanks. There was simply no time to test and introduce a new tank before the invasion. There was also a need to build up sufficient tank reserves to withstand casualties. Finally there was the necessity to upgrade the firepower of the Sherman a little. These priorities conspired to have the turret of the T23 used to create the 76mm-armed Sherman (the original turret being too cramped to allow proper use of the 76mm gun) and to shelve the idea of a heavy tank for a while, or at least this was what General McNair wanted to do.
Enter Jacob Devers
Lieutenant General Jacob Devers knew quite a bit about tanks. He had led the Armored Force after the premature death of the “Father of the American Armored Force,” General Adna Chaffee Jr. He had fought countless battles against the “evil” McNair on the size and equipment of armored divisions, on the need for a medium tank capable of dealing with enemy tanks, for proper radio equipment and training. He also had fought battles against Ordnance’s engineers and their idea of tanks bristling with unusable machine guns, sporting crammed turrets, and lacking sufficient engine power. In the end he had fought so many battles that he was booted upstairs to England to prepare the U.S. Army there for the cross-Channel invasion, an invasion that he knew he would not have led anyway. Despite this Devers remained focused on his task to provide the tank battalions and armored divisions with appropriate tanks. He took a deep interest in the T26E1. The T26E1 seemed an excellent tank. It had a good gun with both good antitank capability and effective high explosive rounds. Four inches of frontal armor assured a decent level of protection.
The T25 prototype.
In late 1943 Devers had tried to have 250 T26E1 produced in time for the invasion. Ordnance agreed with the provision that 1000 T23 with their crappy electric transmission would be manufactured at the same time. McNair used Ordnance’s request as an excuse to intervene and stop both the T23 (rightly), and the T26 (wrongly). In December Devers’ successor, General Dwight Eisenhower, weighed in against the T26, arguing that the only improvement of the T26 over the M4 was the additional armor and that it was not necessary. Eisenhower’s intervention rested on the assurance made by Ordnance’s people that the 76mm gun of the newest Shermans was more than adequate to deal with Tiger and Panthers.
Yet Devers would not give up, and finally reached the Army Chief of Staff, General George C. Marshall. Marshall supported Devers and ordered that 250 T-26E1 be procured with an end date of April 1945. McNair tried first to oppose the new tank on technical grounds over its weight, the transmission and then proposed that the lighter T25E1 be produced instead and equipped with a 76mm gun instead of a 90mm one. There was also little interest from the combat commanders in Europe. A former armor ordnance officer, Belton Cooper, championed the idea that it was George Patton who strenuously opposed the new tank. Yet Cooper was never able to support his claim while renowned tank historians George Forty, Steven Zaloga, and Richard P. Hunnicutt all rejected Cooper’s assertions and instead identified McNair and his Army Ground Forces command as the main culprits, presenting documents and letters to support their own conclusions.
Despite the opposition, the new tank would not die. Devers had made his points clear with Marshall and Marshall was able to persuade the War Department to support the program. The 250 tanks became 2,000. The only problem was that no significant numbers of the new tank would have been available before 1945. It was not just a consequence of the opposition from the Army Ground Forces. The T26 was a new tank and was not ready for production. The design process had started only in the spring of 1943. It was the heaviest tank with torsion bar suspension ever made in the United States (the Soviet KV series had the record for the heaviest tanks with torsion bar suspension in World War Two). The hydraulic transmission, called torquematic, was a novel approach and, while less problematic than the electric one, required more maintenance that conventional mechanical transmission. Its main gun, while based on an existing 90mm antiaircraft gun, was still on the drawing boards.
Despite all these limitations the tank was completed relatively quickly, in just 15 months, a length of time that favorably compares with the two years required by the German Panther. Even before the new tank was ready the War Department decided to gamble on it, requesting 6,000 tanks to be produced by the end of 1945. Industrial production kicked in in November 1944 with ten T26E3 (the production version) tanks produced and by the end of 1944 forty of them were available.
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