American WW2 tanks – what’s missing?

Following on from posts on Russian and German tank development in the 1930's and during World War 2, this post is about American tank development.

It is a considerably shorter story as the United States avoided thinking about war in the 1930's (which partially explains why American inventor Christie’s suspension system ended up in the Russian T34) and did almost no development work at all.

So we start in the 1940's.

M3A1 (Also Known As Stuart)

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A riveted together light tank, the M3A1 was rushed into production based on the few prototypes that the US Army did have available in the early 1940's.

It was too lightly armoured and with too small a cannon but both the USA and the UK were desperate for any tank that worked at all.

M3 (AKA Lee)

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With most of its armoured forces lost at Dunkirk, the UK sent a team of tank experts and civil servants to America to both advise on what was needed (from their experience of the German Blitzkrieg) and to buy anything that could be made quickly.

The Lee tank was the result. It was a terrible design in many ways – rivets (that blew out and flew around the interior when the tank was hit in battle) and much too tall (an easy target to spot: British tanks had a lower turret for this reason and were designated as Grant).

The British spent all of the UK’s US-held dollar funds to buy this tank. Lend/Lease was set up soon afterwards.

The M3 was the first tank that the US really used in serious combat in Operation Torch. Though it was a bad design in many ways, the 75mm cannon (mounted in the hull as US factories could not yet make large turrets) was able to destroy most German tanks.

The failures in early US tank battles were more due to bad tactics and training than this tank.

M4 (AKA Sherman)

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The most famous and most produced US tank of WW2, the M4 Sherman is a clear example of “good enough” design and manufacture.

  • Unlike Russian tanks like the T34, the Sherman showed no particular advances in tank design.
  • Unlike German tanks like the Panther, the Sherman was not terribly well made.

Yet there were thousands of them and they worked.

They were also adaptable. The British, in particular, remade Sherman tanks with heavier guns and as specialist assault tanks for D Day.

The missing tanks

For theoretical strategic and tactical reasons, the US army staff in Washington DC blocked requests from staff in Europe for heavy tanks for almost the whole war.

As shown in films like Fury, it was not unusual to lose several American tanks to destroy one German tank. The heavier armour and bigger guns of German tanks meant the Sherman tanks were outclassed.

The American army did have heavy tanks in development but they were not prioritised and repeated requests from commanders with combat experience were ignored. It was only a massive intervention by the head of the US Army that broke this impass.

It was in the final months of the war that a few heavy tanks were deployed. They worked well but were too late to have any impact.

Standardisation and need

Russia created both medium and heavy tanks to meet the differing needs but kept to a few reliable designs.

The Germans created superior tanks but wasted both time and resources on too many designs and too detailed engineering.

The US tank story of WW2 is simple but it is those missing tank designs that define it.

Written by

Sensory Design Consultant, usability researcher and workshop facilitator. www.linkedin.com/in/alastair-somerville-b48b368 Twitter @acuity_design & @visceralUX

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