The Americans did not produce the best tanks of the War. The Shermans were known by their crews for being vulnerable and inferior to the German models. The USA compensated that handicap by producing more than any other warring countries and by giving much attention to the finishing works and to details that completely evaded others. Standardization, easy maintenance, mechanical reliability, comfort of the crew were considerations out of reach (mechanical reliability for the British) or totally foreign (comfort of the crew for the Russians) to the United States' allies. Yet, those details allowed the arsenal of the democratic countries to play a major role in the final defeat of the axis powers.
In 1940, there were in total 464 tanks on the territory of the USA and the production that year amounted to 330 units. Two years later, America turned out 24 997 tanks, surpassing in one year the total production of Germany for the whole duration of the war ! The rate of production still increased afterwards giving a grand total of 130 000 tanks, tank-destroyers and self-propelled guns produced by the US during the war. It placed the Americans abreast of the Russians (100 000) and far before the British (25 000) or the Germans (24 000). The Sherman, with almost 50 000 units, was the most built tank of the war.
It was not enough for the USA to equip their armed forces with that manna of materials. They also delivered lots of those tanks to their allies, British and Russians, but also to all other allied nations involved in the conflict: France, Australia, China, etc...
Although they were on the winning side at the end of World War I, the Americans inflicted to themselves a military slimming down comparable only to what the treaty of Versailles imposed to defeated Germany. In 1920, an Act of Congress placed tanks under the control of infantry and such cuts the credits in the next years that they only allowed the acquisition of two tanks a year on average ! The trends started to reverse in 1932 under Mac Arthur's aegis, when he was Chief of Staff of the US Army. He allowed the cavalry to start the replacement of horses by tanks and gave the necessary impulse for a new line of light tanks.
It took seven more years for a line of medium tanks to enter production. 1940 was the begin of the American rearming at a time when the panzers earned multiple successes in Europe. Noting their backwardness in medium tanks, the US perfected their models as fast as possible and started their deliveries to their non-official British ally in 1941.
A heavy tank was part of the US rearming plan. Logistical considerations as well as the poor quality of the proposed models explain why the concept of a heavy tank was dropped in September 1942, two months before the appearance of the first Tiger ! It took until 1945 for the first American heavy tank to reach the frontline, at a time when the issue of the war was no more in doubt.
Identification and classification
The identification of the various types of American tanks is particularly difficult. The most visible features do not distinguish the models from one another but were applied to all series from a given moment. Special models are built by adapting units of various models.
In that matter, the Sherman is certainly the most arduous. There are only a limited number of fundamental types (5 majors, one minor), but there are dozens of variations, each variation being adapted for several special uses, creating as many new sub-variations.
Standardization was an almost purely American worry (in Germany, Speer, the minister of war production tried to impose it at the end of the war but unsuccessfully). Although there were hundreds of different prototypes, only a dozen fundamental models were "standardized", produced, sent to the frontline and used for all needed variations (tank-destroyers, self-propelled guns, ...). That eased considerably the logistical headache of spare-parts, while allowing for huge savings during the production.
The Americans classified their tanks in light, medium and heavies. In each of those classes the prototypes were designated with a "T" followed by a digit (e.g. Medium Tank T5). The variations had the name of the basis prototype more a "E" with a digit (e.g. Medium Tank T5E2). When a model was "standardized" and put into production, they exchanged the "T" for a "M" and the "E" for a "A". Thus the Sherman was for the Americans the "Medium Tank M4". Its various models were the "Medium Tank M4A1", the "Medium Tank M4A2", etc... The British gave surnames to the various models they received from their US ally. "Lee", "Grant", "Sherman", "Stuart", etc... are British inventions, taking inspiration in the names of American generals. The Americans took over that usage after 1945.
By demanding the mechanization of the army in 1932, Mac Arthur put the corner stone of the first line of American light tanks, that remained in production until 1944. The first models were the M2 for the infantry and the "Combat Cars" (later renamed "Light Tank M1") for the cavalry. First armed only with MG's, it took until 1939 before the first gun was installed in the turret (M2A4). M1 and M2 were only sporadically engaged on the frontline in the Pacific area.
In the meantime, the fusion of both lines had given birth to the excellent M3 (the British Stuart, later nicknamed "Honey"). It joined the fighting even before the entry of the USA in the war, in North Africa with the British. It served as reconnaissance vehicle until the end of the war and was issued to almost all allied nations, China included. With its immediate follower, the M5, almost 20 000 units were built. A medium tank derived from it, the M7 was envisaged but the project was dropped in favor of the Sherman.
To remedy the main weakness of the Stuart, the too weak 3.7 cm gun, the study of a brand-new tank was undertaken. It used the new suspension with torsion bars developed for the Hellcat, a very fast tank-destroyer, and a ultra-light 7.5 cm gun. The resulting Chaffee was probably the best light tank of the war, although it appeared too late to play a major role. The Americans then started a whole range of vehicles to build on the new hull to replace most of the models in service at the time. The end of the war prevented the fulfillment of that plan.
At a time when the Germans crushed France with their panzerdivisions, the most powerful American tank was the Medium Tank M2, armed with a 3.7 cm gun ! It took one more year for the production of a tank with a 75 mm gun to start. The Lee/Grant or Medium Tank M3 was a "fill-gap" with its main weapon mounted in the hull. The time to develop a fully-revolving turret for a 7.5 cm gun would have lasted too long. The new tank saw action for the first time in North Africa with the British in May 1942. It was better than the less-than-average English tanks but it was unable to keep abreast of the new German panzer. Like most American tanks during the war, the Lee/Grant was too high and was an easy target for their much more squat adversaries.
With the arrival of the first Shermans in the autumn 1942, the fill-gap could be relegated to less important fronts and then in second line. The Sherman, with its turret armed with a 7.5 cm gun enjoyed a short period of technical superiority. But it appeared long after the T-34, which had taught the Germans the need for more powerful vehicles. The rearmed Panzer IV, Sturmgeshütz and Marders did not take long to tip the technical balance back in favor of the axis side.
Although the Americans quickly realized that their machine was no more up to scratch, they preferred thinker on the existing vehicle rather than incur the delays and the costs of a brand new model. Almost all original components of the Sherman were changed, variations with more powerful guns, thicker armor, more performing suspensions appeared and disappeared without remedying the inferiority of the American tank. Actually, numerical superiority was the only remedy to the quality problem.
The war ended without that a replacement for the Sherman had appeared. Only the T-23 went further than prototype, but no unit left the American territory.
The first US attempts to create a heavy tank failed dismally. The weight of the proposed vehicles was too high and they were undergunned. Of all tested prototypes, only one, the M-6 entered production but it was dropped before 40 units were built !
The success of Panthers and Tigers and the blatant inferiority of the Sherman forced the American to reconsider the problem of heavy tanks. Design with a new type of suspension with torsion bars, it was successful this time. For a weight amply inferior to the one of a Tigers (40 tons vs. 56 for a Tiger), the Pershing enjoyed a comparable firepower and a good protection. It reached the frontline too late to play a major role in the war but it set a pattern for a whole new generation of American post-war Medium Tanks (the Pershing was reclassified so after the war), among them the Patton.
Self-propelled guns and tank-destroyers
Following the example of the British, the Americans used hulls of existing tanks to get self-propelled guns. The most numerous was the M7 (surnamed "Priest" by the British). It was a 10.5 cm howitzer mounted on the hull of Lee/Grant and of a Sherman afterwards. The hull of the Chaffee was used to mount several guns (among them the 10.5 cm howitzer to replace the Priest), but the end of the war put an end to those plans.
To make up for the insufficient antitank capabilities of their tanks, the Americans added armored as well as infantry units with specialized tank destroyers. They enjoyed a more powerful gun than the tanks, in a revolving turret (something new compared to their German of Russian counterparts), but that turret was open. The most numerous tank-destroyers were the M-10, with a 7.62 cm gun. Although superior to the gun of the Sherman, it was just enough facing the heavy German panzer. A second generation of tank-destroyers, the Jackson, was thus developed with the much more powerful 9 cm gun.
A last word
It is impossible to be exhaustive with the American tanks. The proliferation of prototypes or variations around standard models would make the task hard and the result confusing. We have limited ourselves to the models that either saw war action, or should have go further than the prototype but saw their career shortened by a change in priorities, or prepared the advent of a major line. If you feel that there is a gap in the selection proposed, do not hesitate to contact us.
We would like to know accurately how many tanks the USA had at the end of the war and how many tanks were delivered to the allies of America during the war. If you know those figures, please contact us.