More armour, bigger gun
From 1942, American engineers worked on a series of potential medium tanks: T20, T22, T23, with 75 mm guns. Information about the Tiger and Panther caused the engineers to increase the caliber, and in 1944, the T26 tank began trials, armed with a 90 mm gun and protected by 102 mm of armour.
While the T26 was being developed, American headquarters debated whether or not they need such a tank. Some generals, including Patton, deemed the tank excessive. Their opinion was that tanks do not fight tanks, that was the task of anti-tank guns and SPGs. The Sherman's 75 mm gun was more than enough to fight lightly armoured targets and infantry. Other high ranking officers, such as General Jacob Devers, argued that the creation of a tank with a powerful gun and thick armour is an important and necessary task.
Arguments about the T26 lasted until the Allies landed in Europe in 1944. Here, it turned out that the Sherman was a bit weak against German anti-tank guns, Tigers, and Panthers. Work on the T26 sped up. In February of 1945, the tank was accepted into service as M26 "Pershing". In that same month, the first Pershings were delivered to Europe.
The M26, even with many superior characteristics compared to the Sherman, still lagged behind the Germans. A real heavy tank was needed, and the US could not design one quickly, even with its industrial might. As a compromise, the M26 was armed with a 90 mm gun, tested at Aberdeen, and sent to Europe, to the 3rd Armoured Division.
Belton Cooper's Super Pershing
In the beginning of 1945, Major Arrington, the chief of the repair service of the 3rd Armoured summoned one of his subordinates, Lieutenant Belton Cooper. "Cooper, you are the only one of our officers brave enough to keep a slide rule in your trunk. I have a chance for you to show what you're capable of." - Cooper recalls in his book, Deathtraps.
Arrington didn't want to lose his new M26 in the first battle. He ordered Cooper to increase the vehicle's armour. The Americans' favoured tactic, covering the front armour in anything they could find and pretending they are a pile of sandbags, could not work here, the gun was too visible. Lieutenant Cooper had to act different.
"We found 38 mm thick boilerplate in well equipped German workshops. We decided to make the front armour multi-layered. We cut out V-shaped plates shaped like the front of the tank. The tank was protected by 102 mm of cast armour and two 38 mm boilerplates with a space in between them. Despite the softness of the boilerplate, we hoped that the angle and layered armour will cause German shells to ricochet."
The modification added five tons to the front of the tank, not foreseen by the designers. The American torsion bars groaned, but held out.
A helmet for a tank
That's not all! Americans love to fight over an elongated ball that they call a football for some reason. One of the rules of this game is that you must wear a helmet to protect your head. And yet, there was no helmet to put on your tank. Cooper describes the improvement to the turret: "We cut out a chunk from a destroyed Panther 88 mm thick, 150 by 60 cm. In the center, we cut a hole for the gun, on the sides, two smaller ones, for the sight and machinegun. We slipped this plate on the gun and welded it to the front armour.
Now the M26 was reliably protected from German shells, at least from the front. Another problem arose: the elevation mechanism didn't expect another 650 kg of armour. As a result of Cooper's improvisations, the vertical elevation angles were somewhat reduced. The tank could move and shoot, but only directly down.
"We cut out a counterweight from 38 mm steel. They weren't enough, we needed more weight, but how much, and where? We decided to perform an experiment. We cut out a few plates 30 by 60 cm and put them on the back of the counterweight. Moving them back and forth, by trial and error, we found the point of balance."
As a result of all these "improvements", the weight of the vehicle grew by 7 tons, and the front of the tank was 5 cm lower than before. Of course, after this, there could be no mention of good mobility, but American tankers were happy to have a tank with a powerful gun (albeit with slow two-piece loading) and good front armour.
The tank was nicknamed "Super Pershing" by the 3rd Armoured. According to Belton Cooper, it fought twice. First, in the beginning of April 1945, in Germany, between Weser and Nordheim. An unidentified armoured target was destroyed by the tank. In another battle in late April, the Super Pershing allegedly destroyed a King Tiger, hitting it in the bottom and detonating its ammo rack.
Article author: Andrei Ulanov. Andrei Ulanov is an historian and an author of books and articles on the Great Patriotic War. His most prominent works are "Order in Tank Forces" and "First T-34s" (co-authored with Dmitriy Shein). Currently, he is working on books on AT measures of Soviet infantry and combat use of T-34 tanks in 1942.