America's M26 Pershing Tank Wasn't Exactly a Nazi Tank Killer

America's M26 Pershing Tank Wasn't Exactly a Nazi Tank Killer

It is safe to say that due to the difficulties involved in transporting the machines and training their crews, the only Pershings that could have seen sustained action were those 20 experimental models introduced in February 1945. As a result, since the Pershing arrived so late and in such small numbers, it had no major impact on the fighting on the Western Front.

Key Point: The American M26 Pershing heavy tank arrived too late to dramatically impact the course of World War II.

“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and the following dash across France proved the Sherman was far from the equal of the German TigerPanther, or even the outdated Panzer IV.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.

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.

Second, Lt. Gen. Lesley McNair, head of U.S. Army Ground Forces, opposed the heavy tank concept. He had fathered the “tank destroyer doctrine” for the U.S. Army, which stated that enemy armor would be taken care of by tank destroyers such as the self-propelled M18 Hellcat, M10, and M36, while friendly armor would be relegated to supporting the infantry and exploiting breakthroughs in enemy lines. He also opposed the introduction of the T26 due to the need to prioritize war material shipped to Europe over the 3,000-mile supply line from the United States to England. Scarce amounts of shipping transport and time, according to McNair, could not be wasted on delivering an untested weapons system at that critical point in the war.

McNair also argued that the Sherman appeared to be superior to the German tanks, the Panzer MK III and early versions of the MK IV, commonly encountered up to that time. Even the appearance of the German Tiger I failed to impress McNair with the need to counter that armored monster. He wrote Devers in the fall of 1943, “There is no indication that the 76mm antitank gun is inadequate against the German Mark VI (Tiger) tank.”

McNair was the prime proponent of arming Shermans with a 76mm gun, thus alleviating the need for the 90mm-toting T26E1. Lastly, he reasoned, because of the dominance of his “tank destroyer doctrine” and the absence of any “tank versus tank combat theory” in the U.S. Army at the time, there was no guidance available for the employment of heavy tanks whose primary responsibility would be to fight other tanks.

Getting the M26 Pershing to the European Theater

Pressing his view that the Pershing was needed, Devers went over McNair’s head to Army Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall, who overruled McNair in December 1943 and authorized the production of 250 T26E1s. But manufacturing of the tank, ordered in January 1944 and designated production model T26E3, did not begin until November 1944. Between December 1944 and March 1945, a total of 436 units were produced with over 2,000 made by the end of 1945. In March 1945, the tank entered combat in Europe redesignated the M26 Pershing.

By September 1944, the U.S. Army Ordnance Department realized the critical need for an American tank that could take on the German Panther and Tiger after reviewing battle reports of armored actions that had taken place in France since the Normandy landings in June. They clearly revealed the superiority of the German machines over the M4. Yet it was not until the end of the year that the first batch of T26E3 tanks, the first 40 off the production line, were ready to be committed to combat. Of these, 20 were immediately shipped overseas and the others moved to Fort Knox, Kentucky, to undergo extensive field testing. The new tanks arrived at the port of Antwerp, Belgium, in January 1945, and were the only Pershings in the European Theater. The next shipment was not expected until April.

To hurry along the introduction of the new machine and observe its performance in combat, a specialist team known as the Zebra Technical Mission, under Maj. Gen. Gladeon M. Barnes, head of the Army’s Ordnance Department Research and Development Service, arrived in Paris on February 9. At a meeting with Supreme Allied Commander General Dwight D. Eisenhower, it was decided to get the new tanks into action as soon as possible. To that end, all 20 Pershings were assigned to the U.S. 1st Army and divided equally between the 3rd and 9th Armored Divisions. On February 17 the tanks were transported to an instruction facility near Aachen, Germany. By the 23rd, training for tank crews and maintenance personnel had been completed.

Assault Across the Roer

On February 26, one day after friendly infantry had secured a bridgehead over the east bank of the Roer River between the towns of Julich and Duren, the U.S. 3rd Armored Division broke out of the bridgehead and rushed eastward. The 3rd Armored, known as the “Spearhead” Division, commanded by Maj. Gen. Maurice Rose, operated as part of Lt. Gen. J. Lawton Collins’s VII Corps, U.S. First Army.

The carefully planned American assault across the Roer River was designed to clear the territory west and up to the Rhine River. The main effort was to be made by the U.S. Ninth Army in the north with Collins’s command from 1st Army guarding Ninth Army’s right flank as far as the Rhine. After this was done, VII Corps was to capture the German city of Cologne, then head south along the Rhine to rejoin other First Army units pushing southeast to the Ahr River. Within hours of the American Roer offensive, the Pershing would undergo its baptism of fire.