M26: WWII COMBAT USE

A relatively late arrival to the Western European Theater of Operations was the U.S. Army T26E3 tank. The vehicle pictured served with Company B, 19th Tank Battalion, 9th Armored Division, at Remagen, Germany, in March 1945. Unlike the gaudier camouflage paint schemes seen on many late-war German tanks and self-propelled guns, the T26E3 is in its nondescript base olive drab. The vehicle’s registration number was done in yellow on a ventilation hump located on the front hull. The national insignia is seen on the front upper hull and rear engine deck. Also seen on the rear engine deck is an air identification panel.

A single pilot example of the heavy tank T26E4 was sent to Germany just before the war in the ETO ended. It mounted a new, more powerful T15E1 90mm main gun. To increase its armor protection levels, appliqué armor was mounted on the front hull and turret of the vehicle in the ETO.

The desire by U.S. Army tankers fighting in Northwest Europe to have a vehicle in service that was at least an equal in fighting effectiveness to the late-war German tanks they were encountering in battle appears in a quote from this March 1945 U.S. Army report titled United States vs. German Equipment:

No comment can be made on the M26 tank itself, as none have been seen by any of this crew as yet, however, a more heavily armored vehicle would be very desirable, and if the M26 tank lives up to its publicity releases, it should be the answer to the German Mark V [Panther] and Mark VI [Tiger] problem. The 90mm gun, as used by the T.D. units [M36 Tank Destroyers] has proved to be very satisfactory as far as we have seen.

In response to this type of demand, 20 T26E3 tanks out of the initial production run of 40 vehicles were rushed overseas, arriving at the Belgium port of Antwerp in January 1945. These tanks were part of a technical mission, codenamed “Zebra,” intended to assist the rapid introduction of the new tank as well as several other items of new equipment to the rigors of combat. To evaluate how the 20 T26E3s would fare in combat against German late-war tanks, the U.S. Army 3rd and 9th Armored Divisions each received ten vehicles.

The first T26E3 tank-on-tank combat action took place on the evening of February 26, 1945, when a T26E3 tank from the 3rd Armored Division, nicknamed “Fireball,” was knocked out. The American tank had been trying to break through a roadblock and its position was given away by a fire among the rubble that silhouetted the vehicle’s turret to a nearby, but unseen, German Tiger Ausf. E heavy tank that put three rounds into the M26 at a range of 100 yards.

The first German 88mm projectile penetrated the Browning .30 caliber coaxial machine gun port on the M26, killing the vehicle’s gunner and loader, while the second projectile destroyed the tank’s muzzle brake. The strike on the muzzle brake caused the propellant of a chambered round to detonate, with the projectile portion exiting the gun barrel and the explosion causing the barrel of the 90mm main gun to swell. The third projectile strike gouged a chunk of steel out of the right side front of the vehicle’s turret and ripped off the open vehicle commander’s hatch. Upon conclusion of firing on the American tank, the German tank backed up in the darkness and managed to immobilize itself on a pile of rubble and was abandoned by its crew.

The following day, another T26E3 tank from the same division avenged “Fireball” by destroying a German Tiger Ausf. E heavy tank with four shots at a range of about 900 yards. The initial round was an M304 HVAP-T that destroyed one of the German tank’s front hull-mounted final drives, immobilizing the vehicle. The second round was a T33 AP-T that struck and penetrated the bottom of the tank’s thick gun shield and caused an internal explosion that rendered the vehicle inoperable. Two follow-on HE rounds did not cause any additional damage to the German tank.

In addition to destroying the German Tiger tank, The other T26E2 tank engaged and knocked out two German Pz.Kpfw. IV medium tanks that same day at a range of 1,200 yards with one round of T33 AP-T each. These were followed by two rounds of HE that killed the crews as they attempted to evacuate their respective vehicles.

During the fighting for the German city of Cologne on March 6, 1945, a T26E3 now designated the M26, of the 3rd Armored Division, destroyed a German Panther tank with three shots. This “tank-versus-tank” incident was captured on film by a U.S. Army Signal Corps cameraman and is often seen on television shows about the war in Europe. The best known combat action in which the M26 tanks took part – but did not include any tank-versus-tank action – occurred on March 7, 1945, when four M26s of the 9th Armored Division aided in the capture of the Ludendorff railroad bridge over the Rhine River at the German town of Remagen.

By the end of March 1945, 40 additional M26 tanks arrived in Western Europe. These were assigned to the American Ninth Army, with 22 going to the 2nd Armored Division and 18 to the 5th Armored Division. In early April 1945, the 11th Armored Division of Lieutenant-General George S. Patton’s Third Army received 30 M26s. However, with the war in Europe winding down, there were no additional tank-versus-tank combat actions between the M26 and German tanks.

With the war in Europe ending, greater attention was paid to the fighting in the Pacific. A Marine Corps document dated April 1945 titled Iwo Jima, 4th Tank Battalion Report made this recommendation based on combat experience gained during the fighting on Iwo Jima:

Tank, Army, medium, M4A3 should be replaced by Tank, Army, heavy, M26 (also known as Tank, Army, medium T26, T26E1 and General Pershing). M4 series tanks are extremely vulnerable to 47mm AT [antitank] fire, magnetic mines, shaped charges and field artillery. This is especially true in operations against a well manned, heavily fortified position or in a slow moving situation over difficult terrain where the M4 loses its maneuverability. The 75mm M3, Tank, the primary armament of the M4 series tank is not effective against well-constructed reinforced concrete positions. The M4 series tank, with its increased weight from many modifications and its narrow track and bogie-volute suspension system has too much ground pressure to successfully negotiate loose sand or heavy going.

The M26 presents the following advantages over the M4. It is shorter, wider and lower, presenting a lower silhouette; it weighs forty-four tons, the additional weight being caused by increased armor. Since it is now evident that M4 series tanks cannot safely be loaded in LCMs [landing craft, mechanized], this increased weight would not affect the use of the M26 in amphibious operations.

On the island of Okinawa, Japanese 47mm antitank guns were taking a heavy toll of thinly armored M4 series tanks. As a result, it was decided to send 12 M26s to that theater of operations. The M26 tanks arrived on Okinawa after fighting concluded in July 1945. The M26s were then considered as playing an important role in the planned follow-up invasion of Japan; however, the Japanese surrender in August 1945 ended that mission.

The M26 was officially designated the “General Pershing” after World War II in honor of General of the Armies John J. “Black Jack” Pershing, who was commander of the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) in France during World War I. In May 1946, the M26 was reclassified as a medium tank, as the U.S. Army was envisioning developing much larger and heavier tanks. Wartime and postwar tankers simply referred to the vehicle as the “M26” or the “26.”

Following World War II, the U.S. Army revised its weight classifications for tanks. Light tanks could weigh up to 25 tons. Anything between 26 and 55 tons was classified as a medium tank. Heavy tanks ranged in weight from 56 to 85 tons. Tanks weighing over 86 tons would be classified as super heavy tanks.

M26 VARIANTS

The Ordnance Department decided they needed a version of the M26 that mounted a main gun equal in performance to that of the 8.8cm Kw.K. 43 fitted in the German Tiger Ausf. B heavy tank (often referred to as the Tiger II) first encountered by American tankers during the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944. The gun they installed in a modified T26E1 was designated the 90mm gun T15E1 and fired one-piece, fixed ammunition. Another version of the same gun firing two-piece, separated ammunition was designated the T15E2, and was fitted to a second pilot tank.

The modified T26E1 with the T15E1 gun was designated the T26E4 in March 1945 with authorization for 1,000 units to be built. In the end, only the original pilot of the T26E4 made it to the ETO before the end of the war in Europe. Upon arrival in Europe it was re-designated as the T26E4, temporary pilot number 1. Among modelers, the vehicle is referred to incorrectly as the “Super Pershing.” It was rushed into service to see if it could be placed into action against the German Army Tiger Ausf. B in order to compare the respective vehicles’ combat capabilities.

When firing an HVAP-T round (designated the T44 shot) from the T15E1 gun at a muzzle velocity of 3,750ft/sec the projectile could penetrate 9.6 inches (244mm) of armor at 500 yards, and at 1,000 yards 8.7 inches (221mm) of armor. At 1,500 yards, it could penetrate 7.7 inches (196mm) of armor, and at 2,000 yards it could still penetrate 6.8 inches (173mm) of armor. The barrel of the T15E1 was 21.5 feet long and needed a double external equilibrator mounted on the top of the vehicle’s turret to balance the gun in its mount, and a heavy counterweight welded onto the rear of the turret bustle to balance the turret in traverse.

Once the T26E4, temporary pilot number 1 arrived in Western Europe in March 1945, the front of the vehicle’s gun shield was up-armored by the 3rd Armored Division with an approximately 80mm chunk of armor flame-cut from the glacis of a captured German Panther tank. The glacis of the T26E4 and the bottom front hull plate on the vehicle were provided more protection by welding on two large steel armor plates 1.6 inches (41mm) thick.

The T26E4’s first combat action occurred on April 4, 1945, when it engaged and destroyed what was perceived as a German tank or self-propelled gun at a range of 1,500 yards. On April 21, 1945, it supposedly engaged in a short-range duel in the German town of Dessau with an enemy tank identified as a Tiger Ausf. B. However, current research into the location of all known Tiger Ausf. B tanks indicates that none were near Dessau on this date, and the location of the ammunition more closely corresponds to that of a Pz.Kpfw. IV.

The end of the war in Europe resulted in all but 25 units of the T26E4 being canceled. As these vehicles eventually entered the U.S. Army inventory, a decision was made that the preferred postwar tanks would fire one-piece, fixed ammunition, and not the two-piece, separated ammunition fired from the 90mm main gun on the T26E4. As a result, those T26E4s not used as range targets were scrapped.

M26 ASSAULT TANK

Based on the successful employment of the M4A3E2 assault tank in Northwest Europe, it was decided to develop an assault tank version of the M26. It was proposed that such a vehicle have almost 5 inches (125mm) of armor on its cast-armor sloped front glacis and a cast-armor turret that was 8 inches thick (203mm) all the way around. To compensate for the increased weight of the proposed vehicle, it was decided to attach 5-inch end connectors to the existing 23-inch-wide T80E1 track. In February 1945, the Ordnance Committee designated the proposed M26 assault tank as the T26E5.

In March 1945, the Ordnance Department decided that the T26E5 needed even thicker armor than originally anticipated. The sloping glacis was now 6 inches (152mm) thick, and the vertical gun shield on the front of the tank’s turret was 11 inches (279mm) thick. The front of the tank’s turret on either side of the gun shield was 7.5 inches (191mm) thick, with 3.5 inches (89mm) on the vertical sides of the turret. The rear of the turret was to be 5 inches (127mm) thick to help balance the turret in traverse. The additional armor pushed up the weight of the T26E5 to 51 tons.

Testing showed that the mobility of the T26E5 was almost equal to that of the standard M26 on level roads. However, like the M4A3E2, the suspension system failed when driven over rough ground at higher speeds. Production of the T26E5 began in June 1945, with 27 units built before the program was canceled with the official end of World War II.

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