American M3 Grant and Lee Tanks at Kursk

The American M3 Grant or Lee medium-tank was hopelessly obsolete by 1943 but that didn’t stop it from participating in the largest tank-on-tank engagement in history, the Battle of Kursk in Russia. You can read the history of the battle here, but the BLUF is that lend-lease M3 Grant tanks equipped several Russian units by mid-1943. Even though they were a generation behind the prominent tanks on the battlefield, notably the Russian T-34 and the German Panther, they were pressed into service by the Soviets to bridge the gap until T-34 production cold replace them. During Kursk, M3 Grants faced off against veteran Nazi SS units. As one would expect, losses were high, the average Russian solider hated it, but despite its faults, the M3 Grant gave decent service on one of the harshest battlefields ever seen.

This highly stylized image of an M3 Grant/Lee Medium tank is what most American’s saw of the tank in 1941, publicity photos. The M3 was a compromise of competing theories on what a tank should be and what it should do. In the end, it gave good service to the United States and its allies, even if it wasn’t the tank that any of them wanted. U.S. Archives Photo 196276

The M3 Grant/Lee tank was a stop gap. An easy to produce tank that was meant equip American armored forces until the arrival of the M4 Sherman tank. It came in two variants, the Lee, named after Confederate General Robert E. Lee, was the one that equipped U.S. Armored forces for the early part of the war. The Grant variant named after Union General Ulysses S. Grant was built to British specifications and had a larger dome turret on top of the tank among other small changes. Upon its arrival in North Africa, the M3 was a match for most of the early German Panzers. As up gunned Panzer IV’s and tank destroyers like the Marder arrived, M3 losses started to mount and the tank was pulled from service as the M4 Sherman was arriving.

M3 Grant/Lee Tanks being produced at the Chrysler tank factory. It was production lines like this that allowed the United States to produce large quantities of tanks for its allies under the Lend Lease program. Image from www.worldwarphotos.info

Even though the M3 was obsolete, there was still a functioning production line for the tank. Russia was in desperate need of tanks while it ramped up production of its own T-34. 1386 M3’s, predominately Grant variants, were produced for Russia to help them bridge the gap until their own production capacity increased to meet demand. In what is a testament to the ferocity of the battle of the Atlantic, only 976 of these tanks made it to Russia through Murmansk. The rest were lost to U-boats and prowling aircraft that interdicted the transport ships while they were at sea. The initial Russian reaction to the M3 was lackluster. The hull was riveted and the main gun was side mounted in the fashion of World War I tanks severely restricting the arc of fire. The M3 also required a large crew of six people. This spread the work load to operate the tank, but if the vehicle was hit or worse on fire that was two additional bodies that had to get out through limited hatches.

An M3 Grant medium Tank is loaded aboard a cargo ship in 1942. Many of these tanks would go to the bottom of the Atlantic ocean when their cargo ships were sunk en route to Europe. Photo from www.worldwarphotos.info

With the need for tanks, the M3 went into service immediately and saw significant service around Stalingrad during the Russian winter offensive that trapped the German 6th Army. The M3’s operated together as homogeneous units and often in the company of M3 Stuart light tanks. Their service during this time was respectable as the majority of the German tanks it encountered were early model Panzer III’s armed with 50mm guns. In one-on-one combat with a Panzer III or early model Panzer IV, the M3 was more than a match. In combat with German tank destroyers or the feared Tiger tank though, it would almost always lose. What’s important to remember is that the life expectancy of tanks during this time was short regardless of what type of vehicle it was. The Russians never tried to retrofit their tanks with upgrades as they understood the tank would likely be destroyed before they could pull it off the battle line to make changes.

M3 Grant/Lee Tanks in service with the Soviet Union. Loathed by Russian tank crews, the M3 was nonetheless praised for its reliability on the Russian front. Image originally from www.theshermantank.com

By July of 1943, the M3 Grant was in service with multiple units that had been staged to counter what the Nazi’s called Operation Citadel to cut off the Kursk Salient. In the six months since the Russian Winter Offensive started, the entire nature of armored warfare had changed. The German’s still fielded some Panzer III’s but their armored forces were being reconfigured with up gunned Panzer IV’s, the Tiger I was fielded in force, the Elefant tank destroyer had arrived and the Panther tank, arguably the best tank of the war, had arrived in mass. The 50mm main gun of the earlier German tanks had been replaced by high velocity 88mm and 75mm guns that could kill any tank on the battlefield. The Battle of Kursk was more than just a battle. It was a campaign that lasted for weeks and one that would usher in the modern era of armored warfare.

Two knocked out M3 Grants in Soviet service. Despite their damage, these tanks would have been quickly recovered by either the Soviets or the Germans and put back into service. Photo originally from www.theshermantank.com

The M3 probably saw extensive service at Kursk but there is only one known engagement that is documented. On July 5, 1943, M3 Grants of the 230th Separate Tank Regiment engaged elements of the II SS Panzer Corp. Nazi SS units during the war received better rations and material support than the regular Wehrmacht and the II SS panzer Corp was no exception. It had been built with SS veterans and was a hard fighting unit equipped with the best that Germany had to offer. The II SS Panzer Corps spearheaded the 4th Panzer Army’s attack on the Kursk Salient and the 230th Separate Tank Regiment was directly in its path. 32 M3 Grants and 7 M3 Stuart light tanks went into action to stop the II SS Panzer Corps. It is likely that all were destroyed. This isn’t a reflection of the M3’s performance as the 52nd Guards Rifle Division that the 230th Separate Tank Regiment was attached to at the time was almost entirely over run and destroyed in the opening of the battle.

A knocked out Soviet M3 tank at Kursk. The Soviets built layers of defenses at Kursk designed to blunt the German offensive. They held their best units in reserve for a counter attack. The M3 by 1943 was not particularly useful on the Eastern Front. It was for this reason that many of these tanks found themselves with units stationed as part of the force to blunt the German attack. Losses were heavy and on the wide open plains of Kursk, where super predators like the Tiger I and Elefant tank destroyer reigned supreme, the M3 could not be expected to achieve much. This picture originally came from a book, but was located on www.armchairgeneral.com

After Kursk, the M3 Grant was moved away from the front to other sectors where tanks were still useful but wouldn’t see the type of hyper warfare that was becoming common. In that capacity, the M3 Grant remained in Soviet service until the end of the war. While the M3 Grant may not have been the tank that the Russians wanted, it did exactly what it was designed to do. It bridged the gap until the T-34 could arrive in bulk and assume the fight.

Good enough for everyone! Captured Russian M3 Grants in service with the Nazi Wehrmacht. German units were known to press any working armored vehicle into service and many M3’s were impressed. Photo originally from www.worldwarphotos.info

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *