The Pershing was the first operational heavy tank of the US Army; originally designated the T26, the tank ended its service as the M26 Pershing medium tank. Named after General John J. Pershing who led the American Expeditionary Force in Europe in World War I, it was briefly used both in World War II and in the Korean War. Intended as an improvement of the M4 Sherman, the prolonged time of development meant only a small number saw combat in the European theater, most notably the 9th Armored Division’s dramatic dash to take the Bridge at Remagen. In combat it was, unlike the M4 Sherman, fairly equal in firepower and protection to both the Tiger II and Panther tanks but was underpowered and mechanically unreliable as were they.
The M26 was introduced late into World War II and saw only a limited amount of combat. Controversy continues to exist as to why the production of the M26 was so delayed.
In his 1998 book Death Traps, Belton Cooper, who was a lieutenant in the 3rd Armored Division during World War II, working as a liaison officer for the division’s armor repair units, made the claim that General George S. Patton was primarily responsible for delaying the development and production of the M26. Cooper’s claim and his other criticisms of the M4 Sherman have since been widely repeated by readers of his book, and have even come to be cited as references. In 2000, the author appeared in the History Channel TV show “Suicide Missions: Tank Crews of World War II” to expound on his views.
Tank historians such as Richard P. Hunnicutt, George Forty and Steven Zaloga have generally agreed that the main cause of the delay in production of the M26 was opposition to the tank from Army Ground Forces, headed by General Lesley McNair. Zaloga in particular has identified several specific factors that led both to the delay of the M26 program and limited improvements in the firepower of the M4:
Tank destroyer doctrine
McNair, who was an artillery officer by trade, had promulgated the “tank destroyer doctrine” in the U.S. Army. In this doctrine, tanks were primarily for infantry support and exploitation of breakthroughs. Enemy tanks were supposed to be dealt with by the tank destroyer forces, which were composed of lightly armored but relatively fast vehicles carrying more powerful anti-tank guns, as well as towed versions of these anti-tank guns. Under the tank destroyer doctrine, emphasis was placed only on improving the firepower of the tank destroyers, as there was a strong bias against developing a heavy tank to take on enemy tanks. This also limited improvements in the firepower of the M4 Sherman.
Simplification of supply
McNair established a “battle need” criteria for acquisition of weapons in order to make best use of America’s 3,000 mi (4,800 km)-long supply line to Europe by preventing the introduction of weapons that would prove unnecessary, extravagant or unreliable on the battlefield. In his view, introduction of a new heavy tank had many problems in terms of transportation, supply, service, and reliability, and was not necessary in 1943 or early 1944. Tank development took time, and so the sudden appearance of a new tank threat could not be met quickly enough under such rigid criteria.
A sense of complacency fell upon those in charge of developing tanks in the U.S. Army because the M4 Sherman in 1942 was considered by the Americans to be superior to the most common German tanks: the Panzer III and early models of the Panzer IV. Even through most of 1943, the 75-mm M4 Sherman was adequate against the majority of German armor, although the widespread appearance of the German 7.5 cm KwK 40 tank gun during this time had led to a growing awareness that the M4 was becoming outgunned. There was insufficient forward thinking to understand that there was an arms race in tanks and that the U.S. needed to anticipate future German tank threats. The Tiger I and Panther tanks that appeared in 1943 were seen in only very limited numbers by U.S. forces and hence were not considered as major threats. The end result was that in 1943, the Ordnance Dept. lacking any guidance from the rest of the Army, concentrated its efforts in tank development mainly on its pet project, the electrical transmission T23. In contrast, 1943 saw the British begin development of the 51-ton Centurion tank (although this tank would reach service too late to see combat in World War II) and, on the Eastern Front, a full-blown tank arms race was underway, with the Soviets responding to the German heavy tanks by starting development work on the T34/85 and IS-2 tanks.
The most critical period was from mid-1943 to mid-1944, which was when the M26 could still have come to fruition in time for the Normandy invasion. During this time, development of the 90 mm up-armored T26 prototype continued to proceed slowly due to disagreements within the U.S. Army about its future tank needs. The details of what exactly happened during this time vary by historian, but all agree that AGF was the main source of resistance that delayed production of the T26.
In his 2008 book Armored Thunderbolt, Zaloga significantly revised an earlier version of this story which had appeared in his 2000 book M26/M46 Pershing Tank 1943–53, quoting from a much more extensive list of original documents from the Ordnance Department, Army Ground Forces and General McNair’s correspondence. In September–October 1943, a series of discussions occurred over the issue of beginning production of the T26E1, which was advocated by the head of the Armored Force, General Jacob Devers. Ordnance favored its pet project, the 76 mm gun, electrical transmission T23. Theater commanders generally favored a 76 mm gun medium tank such as the T23, and were against a heavy 90 mm gun tank. However, testing of the T23 at Fort Knox had demonstrated reliability problems in the electrical transmission of which most army commanders were unaware. The new 76 mm M1A1 gun approved for the M4 Sherman seemed to address concerns about firepower against the German tanks. All participants in the debate were however unaware of the inadequacy of the 76 mm gun against the front armor of the Panther tank, as they had not researched the effectiveness of this gun against the new German tanks which had already been encountered in combat.
Single prototype of 90mm gun T26 turret mounted on an M4A3 chassis.
Gen. Lesley J. McNair had agreed to the production of the 76 mm M4 Sherman, and he strongly opposed the additional production of the T26E1. In the fall of 1943, he wrote this letter to Devers, responding to the latter’s advocacy of the T26E1:
The M4 tank, particularly the M4A3, has been widely hailed as the best tank on the battlefield today. There are indications that the enemy concurs in this view. Apparently, the M4 is an ideal combination of mobility, dependability, speed, protection, and firepower. Other than this particular request—which represents the British view—there has been no call from any theater for a 90mm tank gun. There appears to be no fear on the part of our forces of the German Mark VI (Tiger) tank… There can be no basis for the T26 tank other than the conception of a tank versus tank duel—which is believed unsound and unnecessary. Both British and American battle experience has demonstrated that the antitank gun in suitable number and disposed properly is the master of the tank. Any attempt to armor and gun tanks so as to outmatch antitank guns is foredoomed to failure… There is no indication that the 76mm antitank gun is inadequate against the German Mark VI (Tiger) tank.
General Devers pressed on with his advocacy for the T26, going over McNair’s head to General George Marshall, and on 16 Dec 1943, Marshall overruled McNair and authorized the production of 250 T26E1 tanks. Then, in late December 1943, Devers was transferred to the Mediterranean, where he eventually led the invasion of Southern France with the 6th Army Group. In his absence, further attempts were made to derail the T26 program, but continued support from Generals Marshall and Eisenhower kept the production order alive. Testing and production of the T26E1 proceeded slowly, however, and the T26E1 did not begin full production until November 1944. These production models were designated as the T26E3.
A single prototype of a T26 turret mounted on an M4A3 chassis was built by Chrysler in the summer of 1944, but did not progress into production.
Hunnicutt, working from Ordnance Department documents, reports that Ordnance requested production of 500 each of the T23, T25E1, and T26E1 in October 1943. The AGF objected to the 90 mm gun of the tanks, whereas the Armored Force wanted the 90 mm gun mounted in a Sherman tank chassis. General Devers cabled from London a request for production of the T26E1. In January 1944, 250 T26E1s were authorized. General Barnes of Ordnance continued to press for production of 1,000 tanks.
According to Forty, Ordnance recommended that 1,500 of the T26E1 be built. The Armored Force recommended only 500. The AGF rejected the 90 mm version of the tank, and wanted it to be built with the 76 mm gun instead. Somehow, Ordnance managed to get production of the T26E1 started in November 1944. Forty primarily quoted from a post-war report from the Ordnance Dept.
Regardless of how it came about, production finally began in November 1944. Ten T26E3 tanks were produced that month at the Fisher Tank Arsenal, 30 in December, 70 in January 1945, and 132 in February. The Detroit Tank Arsenal also started production in March 1945, and the combined output was 194 tanks for that month. Production continued through the end of the war, and over 2,000 were produced by the end of 1945.
Following its introduction into combat in Europe, the T26E3 tanks were redesignated as the M26 in March 1945.
Please note Tiger I production was 1,347, between August 1942 and August 1944, of which 50 odd were remanufactured hulls/turrets.