The Sherman’s great disadvantages were its engine and main gun. Its gasoline (versus diesel) engine led GIs to nickname it the “Ronson” after the Ronson cigarette lighter (sold with the slogan “lights first time, every time”). The Sherman was also consistently outgunned by the larger German tanks against which it had to fight. Its 75mm gun was relatively ineffective, but the replacement 76mm (17-pounder) gun with much higher muzzle velocity proved successful. After the British began mounting the 76mm on their Shermans, the Americans followed suit in February 1944. These appeared in the M4A1 through M4A3 models.
One of the major problems for the U.S. Army in the European Theater was its lack of a heavy tank to confront the German tanks with their thicker frontal armor and higher-velocity guns. In the course of 1944–1945 the 3rd Armored Division alone lost 648 Sherman tanks completely destroyed in combat and another 700 knocked out, repaired, and put back into operation. This represented a loss rate of 580 percent. In fact, the United States lost 6,000 tanks in Europe during World War II. The Germans never had more than half that total.
The answer to the German tanks was a heavy tank. The United States had developed the T26 medium tank with a 90mm gun, but the head of Army Ground Forces, General Lesley J. McNair, did not consider the 90mm gun suitable for a medium tank because it would encourage tank crews to hunt other tanks, a role that army doctrine had assigned to tank destroyers. In June 1944, meanwhile, the T26 was reclassified as the T26E1 Heavy Tank. Following extensive trials with 10 prototype T26E1s and modifications that included an improved transmission, better engine access, and increased ammunition storage, the Ordnance Department recommended in August 1944 that the T26 be placed in production. The Army Ground Forces went so far as to request that the T26E1 be redesigned to mount the 76mm gun, an idea rejected by the Ordnance Department.
Opposition from the user arms, however, imposed delay. This stemmed in large part from Third Army commander Lieutenant General George S. Patton’s insistence that the army concentrate on increasing production of M4 Shermans. Patton expected to use his Shermans en masse to tear huge holes through enemy defenses, through which armored infantry might pass as the tanks continued on into the enemy rear areas. Patton agreed with McNair that protection of U.S. tanks and destruction of their enemy counterparts should be left to antitank guns and tank destroyers. Tanks should not fight other tanks, at least not when an inexpensive gun could do the same job. But the U.S. M10 Wolverine tank destroyer of 1942 mounted only a 76mm gun. The M36 Jackson, introduced in 1944, did have a 90mm gun, but the latter’s 2,850 foot-per-second muzzle velocity made it less powerful than the German PzKpfw VIb King Tiger’s 88mm; and the M36’s shell could not penetrate the Tiger’s 6- inch frontal armor. The M36 in turn had only 1.5 inches of frontal armor and only 1 inch of side armor. Its gun was also mounted in an open-top turret, making it vulnerable to artillery airbursts. Both the M10 and M36 used the Sherman chassis.
The T26E1 was placed into limited production only in November 1944. The Ordnance Board recommended early in December that a number be shipped to Europe for testing in combat, but the Army Ground Forces opposed this plan as well, demanding that the new tanks be first assigned to the Armored Force for testing there. The Battle of the Bulge (December 1944–January 1945) changed this thinking, again revealing the weakness of the M4 medium against heavy German tanks.
The General Staff then intervened, and the first 20 T26E3s were sent to Europe, although they did not arrive until January 1945, too late for the Battle of the Bulge. Assigned to the 3rd and 9th Armored Divisions, the new tank soon proved its worth, and commanders demanded more of them. Ordered into full production in January 1945, the T26E3 was redesignated that June as the Heavy Tank M26 General Pershing. Some Pershings saw action in the Pacific Theater later in the war in the Battle of Okinawa.
Weighing 92,000 pounds, the M26 had a crew of five, a 500-hp gasoline engine providing a speed of 20 mph, maximum 102mm (4- inch) armor, and a 90mm main gun, along with one .50-caliber and two .30-caliber machine guns. The muzzle velocity of its main gun did not match the 88mm German tank guns, but the M26 was almost a match for the fearsome Tiger in firepower, and it surpassed its German counterpart in reliability and mobility.