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The Wrong Tank in the Right Place:
The American M3 Lee/Grant

By Jim Werbaneth
August 2015

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.

In Beginning

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, outside Detroit.

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 Grant.

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 combat experience.

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.

Specifications

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, Ohio.

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.


An M3 Grant, showing the turret overhand and pistol port demanded by the British.

 

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 Kingdom.

Grant tanks arrived in Africa in early 1941. There the M3 would reach the peak of its importance.

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 strength.

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.

Beyond Alamein

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 for it.


An American M3 Grant tank in Tunisia, 1943.

 

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 Japan.

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 it.


Six brothers lost at Kursk, 1943.

 

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.

Conclusions

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 for haste?

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 effectiveness.

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 withdraw it.

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