Wrong Tank in the Right Place:
The American M3 Lee/Grant
By Jim Werbaneth
In the early years of World War II, the
Western Allies often had a very hard time
keeping up with the Germans in armored tactics
and tank technology. One could argue that
even though the United States and Britain
surpassed Germany in how they used their
tanks, they never completely caught up with
the Nazis in the context of the tanks themselves.
The story of the M3 Grant is symptomatic
of this. A much-maligned design, it was never
more than a stopgap until the M4 Sherman
could reach the field in substantial numbers.
Yet it served in quantity itself throughout
the world, especially in North Africa, the
Soviet Union and then the Pacific, and its
appearance at Gazala in 1942 was a profound
shock to the Axis. Soon after, it would amass
a reputation as a poorly-designed deathtrap,
unless it had the good fortune of fighting
a decidedly inferior enemy.
The roots of the M3 go back to American
prewar rearmament and some of the most important
decisions regarding wartime production.
In 1940, the United States Army planned
to adopt the M2 medium tank as the centerpiece
of its resurgent armored force, and on 15
August the Army contracted with Chrysler
Motors to build 1,000 of the machines. The
plan was to build 100 per month at a new
plant to be constructed in Warren, Michigan,
Much of the influence for this came from
William Knudson, the president of Chrysler
rival GMC Corporation. A member of the National
Defense Advisory Commission (NDAC), Knudson
persuaded the Army that heavy engineering
firms, used to crafting machinery such as
heavy cranes and railway locomotives, could
not build tanks as quickly as could the automobile
industry, which was used to assembling lines
and the economics of quantity. In fact, Knudson
saw tank production as analogous to auto
production, differing only in the need for
armor plate. He did not meet universal agreement,
but there was a consensus that the country
needed additional tank production facilities,
and that the automotive industry had the
expertise to produce them in large volumes.
Red Army M3 tanks of 13th Tank Corps.
Ultimately, it was a vital reason why the
United States was capable of vastly outproducing
Nazi Germany when it came to armored fighting
vehicles. German technical quality might
have been superior, but the Americans would
always win a war of numbers.
The factory was duly constructed, but analysis
of the Fall of France revealed that the German
Pzkw III and Pzkw IV were already so far
advanced of the new American design to render
it obsolete. Chiefly, the M2's 37mm main
gun was revealed as too small to meet the
German threat, and by August the Army decided
upon a 75mm weapon.
However, the M2's turret and ring were too
small, and there was insufficient time for
the design work to fit the 75mm gun into
a new turret. Hence the Army decided in August
to build an interim vehicle, in which the
gun would be mounted in a sponson on the
right side of the hull. This would serve
at least until a tank with that gun in a
conventional turret could be designed.
It would be this tank that would come from
the new Detroit Arsenal, not the undergunned
M2. On 28 August 1940, the Army cancelled
its M2 contract with Chrysler, though a total
of 94 were eventually built at the Rock Island
Arsenal, and used mainly for training.
Genesis of the Grant
Even before the decision to cancel the M2
in favor of a tank with a side-mounted big
gun, there had been experimental work in
this direction. One M2 prototype, dubbed
Medium Tank T5E2, had a 75mm pack howitzer
mounted in a right-side sponson, with a small
turret atop the hull. It was the same general
configuration of tank that would be the M3
Construction of the Detroit Arsenal began
in September 1940 and the plant, the largest
manufacturing facility to date, was finished
in just six months. At the same time, designers
at the Rock Island Arsenal started design
of the M3, and the Army's Ordnance Department
went so far as to contract with a couple
of heavy engineering companies, American
Locomotive and Baldwin Locomotive, to produce
another 685 and 535 tanks respectively.
Meanwhile, even though the United States
was still neutral, the British Tank Commission
became involved in the design discussions,
at least informally, almost from the beginning.
It was clearly understood that the United
Kingdom would be a major customer for American
armored vehicles, and for their part the
British offered design insights gained through
All three contractors -- Chrysler's Detroit
Arsenal, American Locomotive and Baldwin
Locomotive -- produced pilot models of the
M3 in April 1941, and by August the tank
was in full production.
The M3 Grant bore some resemblance to the
aborted M2, notably a high, square-sided
silhouette, and suspension with three pairs
on road wheels on each side. Construction
was a mixture of riveted and welded methods;
most of the hull was riveted together, but
the main gun mounting and turret were cast.
Initially, the armor was 56mm at its thickest.
As planned, the armament was extremely potent
for its time. The hull-mounted main gun was
handicapped by limited traverse, but was
one of the most powerful in service anywhere
in 1941. Moreover, instead of replacing the
37mm gun, the 75mm model augmented it, as
the smaller weapon remained in the turret.
The tank would see its first action
in North Africa.
Army planners saw the day approaching in
which the 37mm tank gun would reach obsolescence,
but it was still very useful in 1941, and
at least competitive with similar armament
built in other countries, including the British
2-pounder. In practice the American gun was
better, as it could fire high-explosive ammunition,
unlike Britain's favored tank weapon. Thus
the Grant mounted two main armaments, one
adequate for its time, and another designed
for the future.
There were two major defects with the 75mm
though. The first was its position in the
tank's hull, granting it limited traverse.
The other was that the Army insisted that
it match artillery standards for durability,
and thus be able to fire 4,000 rounds before
replacing the barrel, disregarding that few
tanks could be expected to last that long
in combat. As a result the Grant's 75mm gun
and that of the following M4 Sherman were
low-velocity models, good for meeting the
requirements for an artillery piece but incapable
of generating the energy levels required
for anti-tank use.
The tank and its guns were served by a standard
crew of six.
The power plant was a gasoline-fueled, nine-cylinder
Wright-Continental radial aircraft engine,
which delivered enough horsepower to drive
the tank's thirty ton weight up to twenty-six
miles per hour (sixteen cross-country). However,
there was a cost, as gasoline could turn
a tank into a firetrap in combat.
The Grant was extremely adaptable, though.
Should the regular engine be in short supply,
it could accommodate a diesel engine too.
One variant, the M3A4, even packed four Chrysler
automobile engines in one box, a version
dubbed the "egg-beater." Other
versions had improved protection, especially
a hull in which welding replaced rivets.
Into the Desert
The British Tank Commission arrived in the
United States in June 1940 to procure armor
for its own army. Initially its charge was
to arrange for American companies to build
British designs, but with the defeat of the
United Kingdom seen as a real possibility,
the NDAC opposed any diversion of American
production from American models. Thus the
British found it necessary to purchase the
M3 directly from Baldwin Locomotive, the
Pullman company, and another plant in Lima,
The British' first purchase was for a modified
American M3, to which they assigned the name
Grant I. The major difference from the American
standard was a redesigned turret, from which
the commander's cupola was removed, thereby
lowering the vehicle's imposing silhouette
by about a foot. The British also moved the
radio equipment from the hull to the turret,
extending its rear with an overhang, and
adding pistol ports on either side.
The ratification of Lend-Lease freed Britain
from the need to pay for weapons with cash
on the barrelhead, and additional orders
for M3's ensued. Both the modified Grant
and another model they called the Lee, actually
basic U.S. Army tanks without changes to
the turret, made their way to the United
Grant tanks arrived in Africa in early 1941.
There the M3 would reach the peak of its
Even though the United States was desperate
to build up its own armored forces, by May
1942 President Roosevelt insured that 167
Grants were sent to the Eighth Army, where
they formed the bulk of 4th Armoured Brigade's
The Battle of Gazala in May and June 1942
marked the Grant's baptism by fire. There,
it provided a massive shock to the Axis,
who had not encountered anything so powerful
in British service. Nicknamed the "Pilot" by
its enemies, the Grant was equal or superior
to anything in German service, including
the Pzkw IIIJ, the first of its line in the
desert to mount a high-velocity 50mm gun.
Gazala was Erwin Rommel's greatest victory,
and the battle that earned him the baton
of a field marshal. Yet none of this was
due to the shortcomings of the Grant.
Not that there were not shortcomings. The
75mm gun's limited traverse often made it
necessary to rotate the entire tank in order
to get off a shot. In addition, the Grant
could not fire that gun from a hull-down
position, aggravating the vulnerability lent
by its high profile. Standing in the open
was the only way to get the vehicle's best
asset into the fight.
The Grant continued to be a mainstay of
the British army in North Africa, fighting
at Alam Halfa and El Alamein. By then, though,
the Americans were sending the first of a
new tank, this one carrying its 75mm gun
in a proper turret. The Sherman, the tank
for which the Grant was an admitted stopgap,
was now ready for action.
The Shermans dispatched to Egypt in time
for El Alamein were taken from the United
States Army's own stocks, in effect stripping
American combat power in favor of the United
Kingdom when the latter needed it the most.
One result was that the M3 stayed in American
service longer than it should have.
Thus it was the primary American medium
tank during Operation Torch and the subsequent
campaign in Tunisia; the Shermans that should
have been in the American units were in British
ones instead. Unfortunately, the M3 was losing
the technological race, as the Sherman would
next, as the Germans introduced upgunned
versions of the Pzkw IV, and sent the Pzkw
VI Tiger to Africa. The Grant was the battle-winner
at Gazala and adequate at El Alamein, but
it was decidedly second-rate in Tunisia.
And American tankers, six at a time, paid
From then on, the M3 fell from favor in
the Mediterranean and then Western Europe,
rapidly replaced by the M4 Sherman in both
American and British service. The M3 did
survive there in the form of derivative vehicles,
especially the M7 self-propelled 105mm artillery
unit, also known as the Priest in British
service. Other derivatives served as artillery
prime movers, recovery vehicles, mine clearing
vehicles, and a variant "canal defense
light." These were armored search light
carriers used as late as 1945 to support
the British crossings of the Rhine and Elbe
Rivers in Germany.
After Tunisia though, the general destination
for M3's was the Far East, where Japanese
armor and anti-tank capabilities made it
an excellent place to use technology that
would never again be capable of standing
up to the Wehrmacht. Britain sent numbers
of its Lees and Grants to Burma in particular,
where they replaced Stuarts, Valentines and
Matildas, none of which could compare when
it came to firepower. Some tanks too were
seconded to the Australians for use against
In 1945, the Grant was still in first-line
service in Burma. For the climactic Battle
of Meiktila, the veteran 254th Indian Tank
Brigade was equipped with Grants, while the
inexperienced 255th Indian Tank Brigade received
Shermans. Both did well in mobile battles
on open plains, most unusual in Burma.
The U.S. Army also used its M3 against Japan.
In November 1943, in concert with the more
famous (and far more costly) Marine assault
at Tarawa, the U.S. Army's 27th Infantry
Division seized Makin atoll in the Gilberts,
employing M3's as armored support. Otherwise,
America employed its M3's for training.
Another user of M3's was the Soviet army,
and the tanks were passed off to the USSR
under the terms of Lend-Lease. There, they
were not received with enthusiasm or affection;
after all, the Soviet Union's definitive
medium tank was the superb T-34, and the
M3 was just a stopgap until the Western Allies
could get the Sherman into the field. The
M3 was dramatically inferior to what other
Soviet crews were using, and everyone knew
About 300 were sent to the USSR, both via
Arctic convoys to Murmansk, and through Iran.
Once there, they fought with around Kharkov,
Stalingrad and the northern Caucasus. Soviet
crews noticed their faults right away. The
combination rubber-steel tracks were not
up to the challenge of harsh Soviet conditions,
and when the rubber burned out the tracks
fell off. Even when the tracks were in good
shape, M3's had a hard time making speed
on Soviet roads, and sand was a challenge
as well, ironic for a vehicle that made its
reputation in the desert. The Soviets further
hated its high profile.
Perhaps the greatest Soviet indictment of
the M3 was encapsulated in the nickname they
gave it: A grave for six brothers.
It can be easy to agree with the assessment
of Soviet M3 crews, an opinion shared by
not a few Americans who fought in the tank
in Tunisia. It was a tall vehicle with major
problems, and if the main gun was big, it
was only a fair artillery piece miscast as
a tank gun: Good for shooting at infantry,
disappointing when aimed at armor. But at
least it was big.
One is left with a major question though:
Could the United States have fielded a better
tank in 1941, considering the country's slow
start, lack of concrete experience, and need
Probably not. The United States did not
enjoy the factors that benefited German and
Soviet tank design, such as extensive previous
experimentation, and the all-important combination
of combat experience and the ability to learn
from it. American tank design, like its mechanized
doctrine, further suffered from decisions
that were questionable at best. In the realm
of doctrine, the decision to make tanks essentially
anti-infantry platforms while putting the
anti-armored role under the tank destroyers
ranks as one of the worst, and in technology
the confusion between a tank gun and an artillery
piece is as bad.
Nor did the United States Army mend its
ways with the Sherman. That tank kept its
tall silhouette, crew-incinerating gasoline
engine, and inadequate main battery. The
most important, and obvious, difference between
the early Sherman and its predecessor was
that the Sherman mounted that gun in a turret.
The M3 Grant and Lee might have been at
best inferior and at worst a combination
death factory and crematory for its crews,
it still achieved important feats in the
Second World War. It was the first American
medium tank to see action, and when it did
at Gazala, the Grant was a tank to be feared.
As it turned out, the M3 could be effective
as long as commanders were smart enough to
keep it away from any enemies who might dare
to fight it on equal terms. When it was the
best British tank at Gazala, it was effective.
A few months later, when German technology
had progressed, it proved less competitive
in Tunisia. Then against the Japanese, among
the worst practitioners of mechanized and
anti-tank warfare, it regained much of its
The M3 truly was a grave for six brothers,
if the competition was a late-model Pzkw
IV, or a Tiger. But against Japan, it might
have been almost as effective as a Pzkw IV
or a Tiger.
The final verdict on the M3 was that it
was the wrong tank in the right place. America
probably could do no better at the time,
and it was good enough to win, under the
right conditions. The secret was picking
the right time and place to put it front
and center, and then having the wisdom to
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