Engineers proposed a new hydromechanical transmission and a new engine. The modernized variant went through trials and was accepted into service under the name M46 Patton. The initial plan was to not only build new Patton tanks, but modernize already existing Pershings. However, the Second World War ended and demobilization began, putting an end to this program. As a result, when the United States entered the Korean War on the side of the south, it turned out that they were seriously lacking in vehicles.
Pattons on the Last Line
The American forces closest to the theater of war were the occupational forces in Japan. Formally, these forces included tank battalions, including heavy ones. In reality, only light M24 Chaffee tanks were present on the islands. These were the only tanks that could use flimsy Japanese bridges, and they were overall the most suitable for mountainous Japanese terrain. Korean landscapes were similar to Japanese ones, but when the M24s arrived, they ran into a new problem that did not exist in Japan: T-34-85 tanks that the USSR sent to their North Korean allies. Against them, the 75 mm gun on the Chaffee was impotent.
The northerners were advancing, and Douglas MacArthur was feverishly organizing transfer of any and all materiel to Korea. As further proof that the army is a rather chaotic organization, Pershing tanks were suddenly discovered in Japan. The tanks were mothballed: their technical condition left much to be desired. These tanks were fixed up as much as possible and put into use against the North Korean forces that were nearing Seoul, the capital of South Korea.
Desperate effort on behalf of the ground forces and effective work from the air made its mark. The northern offensive stalled exactly until the point when "normal" tank divisions arrived from the United States, including those armed with Pattons. The first of those was the 6th Tank Battalion, which was sent to the Pusan Perimeter, the last line of defense of South Korean and American forces, immediately upon their arrival.
Even though the Pattons reached the front lines, it would be a while before they saw T-34s. The situation changed in the fall of 1950 when the Americans began their own offensive. In these battles, M46 tanks from the 6th battalion destroyed between 6 and 9 T-34-85s and SU-76s.
The pendulum swung the other way. Chinese "volunteers" entered the fray to aid their socialist comrades. Retreating, the 6th battalion lost almost all of its tanks, and not in combat. According to American data, the tanks were being transported by rail and, in order to keep them from falling into enemy hand, the train had to be bombed by American aircraft. There is also information that several Pattons were captured by the northerners, from where they made their way to the USSR and were thoroughly inspected.
Combat Career of the Gas Guzzler
Most Pattons arrived in Korea by the time the front line stabilized, and they mostly worked as assault guns, destroying infantry and fortifications. North Korean T-34-85s didn't rush to meet the M46 in combat, so the main enemy of the American tanks were mines and breakdowns. Statistics of just one Patton battalion, about 30 tanks, tell the a grim tale. In May of 1951, the following had to be replaced or fixed:
- 3 transmissions
- 40 defective oil radiator fans
- 27 clutches
- 9 final drives
- 6 differentials
In addition, the technical service platoon fixed many small technical defects in the field.
Another problem with the Pattons earned them the nickname "gas guzzler". Driving on an average Korean road, the M46 consumed 4.5 gallons of fuel (over 15 L) over one mile (1.6 km). If the Americans achieved their goal of converting their entire Korean tank park to Pattons, it would have been a nightmare for supply officers. The nightmare was avoided, since the M46 was needed in Europe, where relations between the West and the USSR were ruined completely.
It is difficult to determine the combat effectiveness of the Patton in Korea. According to evaluation from American tankers, everything went well. The front armour of the M46 could hold a hit from the 85 mm gun of a T-34, and the 90 mm gun on the Patton could penetrate a T-34 at any practical combat range. However, when the Americans studied tanks lost by the northerners, they only discovered 39 vehicles out of 240 that were destroyed by a tank, and 3 more that were possibly destroyed by a tank. No more than 8 T-34-85s and several SU-76es were claimed by Pattons. American combat losses as of January 1st, 1951, consisted of 17 Pattons, 11 of which were lost irreparably. Interestingly enough, tanks from the 6th battalion that were bombed by their own allies are not included in the list.
The Korean War was the first and last conflict where the M46 Patton tank fought. Its combat qualities surpassed those of the T-34-85, but its technical characteristics lagged behind Soviet tanks. The 100 mm gun of the T-54 which entered production in 1949 could confidently penetrate even the thickest frontal armour of the Patton from a kilometer away. In return, the Americans could only rely on subcaliber ammunition at closer ranges.
The career of the M46 was short. In June of 1951, its first successor, the M47 Patton II, came off the assembly line.
Original article available here.