One might argue that the seemingly ugly, flawed and difficult-to-control M3 and its variants deserved a better treatment from its adversaries. After all, it was neither designed to be superior to the Sherman nor built to any degree of perfection, and was merely planned as an urgent combination of heavy armour and mobility with a minimal production time in mind. On the brink of war, most Allied nations were in dire need of new, reliable tanks in large numbers and the M3 brought just that. Despite its numerous issues, the M3 series was surprisingly sturdy in battle and could be depended on when necessary.
In 1939, America had only several hundred Medium Tanks and desperately wanted to produce a new tank with decent armour that could serve as an interim vehicle for as long as it took them to bring the M4 Sherman into manufacture. In order to launch superior attacks against German tanks, both America and Great Britain required a tank that could carry a powerful 75mm gun. The UK had placed an order for 3,650 Medium Tanks from America, since their original request for Matildas and Crusaders was turned down. Hence, both nations had a strong demand for a tank equipped with a 75mm.
Lacking the engineering capabilities to build a fully rotatable turret that could support the weight of such an armament, the US turned to creating a temporary, imperfect tank – one that could carry the 75mm but still fight without it being located in a turret. Thus, this main gun was instead located in a sponson that was mounted on the right-hand side of the hull. It had limited traverse and elevation but still had the ability of shooting both amour-piercing and high-velocity shells. The 75mm gun was complimented by a combination of both a periscope and telescope, called the M1, for primary optical targeting. This made it excellent and finding and locking onto targets and the main gun could fire at a maximum range of about 3,000 yards. It was actually fairly accurate.
However, the US still wanted a fully-traversable 37mm gun, which was added in a small turret at the top of the hull. Able to complete a full rotation in just about 15 seconds, the turret was powered by a hydraulic motor which in turn was geared by the main engine of the tank. The 37mm was aimed with an M2 telescope and could fire up to 1,500 yards. To a certain degree, it was good at countering other tanks. The turret also featured a rear external AA mount for an M1919 machine gun.
Since the 75mm had to be mounted on a sponson connected to the hull with a turret for the 37mm gun, the M3 had to have a wide hull to make space for it. Moreover, the Lee was very tall and spacey and its high profile made it easy to spot and target. Measuring about 10 feet tall, the M3 was significantly higher than other tanks of its time. Because the main gun was mounted in a sponson and not in a turret, the M3 could not take a hull down position; this meant it could not hide behind a sand dune or bank and snipe at an enemy target without the 75mm being covered up. If the main gun was to fire from behind a hiding place, the hull of the tank would need to be exposed. The whole tank needed to be rotated to aim the 75mm gun, making the M3 very clumsy and often difficult to control and attack with.
“Production of the M3 began in 1941”
Even though the M3 had terrible off-road capabilities, it could still reach up to 26 mph when on a paved road. It was controlled by differential braking. Because of its great range, it could take on German anti-tank guns, which were proving to be a serious problem for Allied tanks in the North African campaign. The M3 saw action at Gazala where the British fought the Afrika Korps. By firing at German Panzers from outside of their natural range, the British could obtain an advantage over them despite the M3’s mobility flaws. Unfortunately, many of the sand shields on the tanks fell over with little attempt to repair them. The M3 was great in the infantry support role due to its high explosive shells.
The tracks, volute suspension system and road wheels had been adapted from previous Medium Tank models, mainly the M2, as manufacturers had little to develop anything better – the M3 was, essentially, an interim specimen. The Americans loved machine guns on their tanks and equipped the M3 with multiple mounting spots for guns. These proved hardly practical in battle and were eventually removed or welded over. Originally, there were spaces for three of four cal.30 Browning M1919A4 machine guns – the conventional organisation – which could only be altered in elevation and not traverse. This meant that the entire tank had to move to aim the machine guns, where were best for anti-infantry.
Although there were several instances of casted and welded hulls for the M3 Lee, in general the body was constructed from many riveted plates of metal. The problem with this method of construction was that if the body was hit by a non-armour-piercing shell, the plates might fall off and become high-velocity projectiles inside the tank.
The British noticed several flaws in the original tank design and made their own modifications. Their variation of the M3 was called the Grant. Churchill specifically stated that it should not be called “General Grant”, just “Grant”. The Grant had a longer, flatter turret in order to accommodate a radio transmitting unit, and a simple bi-flap hatch with an easy locking mechanism was added to the top of the turret. Grant was operated by six crew members. In comparison, the American version was named after Confederate General Robert .E. Lee and had seven crew members.
The M3 was an excellent choice for mass supply and quick production – being based on the T5E2 prototype – making it a greatly desired solution when demand for more Medium Tanks arose and construction rates dropped. As the M3 had decent and relatively heavy armour, it proved to be extremely helpful and effective in the Pacific against Japan, whose troops lacked the necessary anti-tank weapons to resist it.
A large number of M3s were shipped to the Red Army, who were disappointed with its flaws and considered it much worse than their advanced T-34. However, they had little chance as they needed as many tanks as possible since the Germans had invaded their territory and stalled the tank production. The Russians called the M3 a “grave for seven men”, which was mainly down to their dark sense of humour. Despite the fact that the M3 became obsolete and inferior to newer tanks very quickly, it was – at the golden age of its life – the best tank the Allies were able to distribute and use. It acted as an emergency supply in a time where America, Britain, Russia and several other nations were in dire need for armoured vehicles and were unable to make better, new ones quickly. Some supporters of the M3 Medium Tank say that it was better than the Germans’ flagship – the Panzer IV.