M26 Pershing: The U.S. Military's Nazi Tank Killer?
“We had been assured by our officers before we invaded France in 1944,” recorded Bill Harris, “that our Sherman tanks could take care of any Nazi armor we met there.”
Harris, a tank gunner in the U.S. 2nd Armored Division, had been told over and over again that the American M4 Sherman Medium Tank (the Allies’ main battle tank) was as good, if not superior, to any armored fighting vehicle in the Wehrmacht’s arsenal. Unfortunately for hundreds of U.S. and Allied tankers, including Harris, who had three Shermans shot from under him during the war in Western Europe, the nine savage weeks of fighting in the Normandy hedgerow country and the following dash across France proved the Sherman was far from the equal of the German Tiger, Panther, or even the outdated Panzer IV.
Finding a Replacement For the Sherman
Regardless of what the “Dog Faces” were told about their tanks before the Normandy invasion, some of the high brass in the U.S. Army knew otherwise due to reports coming from the Eastern Front, where the Soviet Army was scrambling during 1943 to come up with an answer to the new German heavy MK VI Tiger tank and the medium MK V Panther. In mid-1942, even as the Sherman first entered mass production (48,000 would eventually be manufactured between 1942 and 1945), the United States Army Ordnance Department, in fits and starts, embarked on a search to improve the M4. This quest started with the design of the T20 prototype intended as an improved version of the Sherman.
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The main difference between the two armored vehicles was a lower silhouetted engine that made the T20’s overall profile smaller than the existing M4. In addition, the T20 was to be armed with a new 76mm M1A1 cannon, as well as fitted with 3-inch frontal armor compared to the 2.5 inches found on the Sherman.
Other contenders as upgrades for the Sherman appeared in the form of the T22 and T23. The former was an M4 with a smaller two-man turret. The T23, like the T22, was a medium tank, but with an electrical transmission and cast iron turret able to house a 76mm M1A1 gun. Both were finally rejected (although the turret of the T23 would be used in all future 76mm upgunned Shermans) for two reasons. First, their designs required entirely new and separate training, maintenance, and repair procedures. Second, the Sherman with its 75mm gun—even by late 1943—was thought by the Army to be adequate enough for modern tank warfare. Besides, as many military men argued, it would be courting trouble to impose a new tank design on the armored force with the 1944 campaign in France only months away.
As the Army Ordnance Department looked to improve upon the existing Sherman model, others in the Army sought the M4’s replacement altogether. Lt. Gen. Jacob L. Devers, who in 1943 directed the buildup of U.S. forces for the invasion of France and earlier was head of the Army’s armored forces, advocated the replacement of the Sherman with a more powerful tank.
A Heavy Tank For the American Army
What Devers had in mind was the T26E1, America’s first heavy armored fighting vehicle. The T26E1 had greater firepower and armored protection than the Sherman. The new tank, weighing 46 tons, sported a 90mm M3 cannon, 100mm frontal armor, a new type of gyrostabilizer, and a crew of five. Unfortunately, its 8-cylinder 500-horsepower Ford GAF engine and powertrain were not powerful enough for a tank of its weight. The engine was similar to the one used in the Sherman even though the Pershing was 26,000 pounds heavier. The result was that the machine’s powerplant was not always reliable, and its maximum speed only 20 miles per hour.
During discussions in September and October 1943, Devers urged production of the T26 be accelerated and that 250 of them be produced immediately. Upon delivery he wanted the new model deployed on a scale of one T26 to every five M4s, much like the British intended to do with their 17-pounder mounted Sherman Firefly tanks.
Obstacles For the American Heavy Tank
Devers’s quest to replace the M4 with the T26 was greatly hindered by a number of factors. First, the officers of the only two U.S. Army tank divisions to have seen combat in the war up to that point, the 1st and 2nd Armored Divisions, could not come to a consensus as to whether it would be more appropriate to go with a upgraded Sherman like the T23 or with a new heavy tank like the T26.