Why America Only Built Two 100 Ton T28 Heavy Tanks
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Here's what to keep in mind: The T28 has never seen a fight. How would it have gone if it had been like this? The 105 millimeter cannon would have been enough to take out German pill boxes - and also tanks. More important for the U.S. Army in 1945, however, was that the foot-thick front armor of the T28 was protected against dreaded German anti-tank guns like the eighty-eight millimeters.
When it comes to tanks, America can only hope that size isn't everything.
During the Second World War, Germany had its armored giants such as the seventy-ton Bengal tiger, the 188-ton mouse or the never built P.1000, a thousand-ton giant that waddled across the line between ambition and madness. The Soviets, in turn, deployed regiments with fifty-six-ton JS-2 tanks.
In contrast, the American M-4 Sherman, weighing 30 tons, looked almost puny. For various reasons, such as facilitating overseas production and transportation, the United States decided not to build heavy tanks during World War II. Even today's M-1 Abrams weighs 60 to 70 tons, far less than the mouse.
However, it turns out that the United States built a monster tank during World War II. The ninety-five ton T28 would have been the heaviest tank in American history.
Technically speaking - and we'll talk about it later - the T28 wasn't a tank.
It was actually a self-propelled weapon (also known as an assault weapon). Instead of mounting the weapon in a rotating turret like a normal tank, the weapon was stuck in the front fuselage, which meant that it could only shoot forward.
That would have made the T28 an unusual weapon in the American arsenal. During the Second World War, the US tank fleet consisted of tanks with turrets and tank destroyers with turrets (essentially tanks with less armor and a stronger weapon). Even the M-3 Grant, this misshapen stopgap combat vehicle, had a thirty-seven millimeter turret cannon to complement the seventy-five millimeter cannon attached to the fuselage.
However, the Germans and Soviets used many assault guns. The advantage of a German Sturmgeschutz III or Jagdpanther or a Soviet Su-85 or Su-100 was that they were cheaper to manufacture than tanks (the turret is an expensive component) while still having thick armor and a powerful weapon. Removing the tower also made them a smaller and less visible target. The downside was that a steady forward fire meant that the entire vehicle had to swing in that direction to attack targets sideways or behind instead of just swinging the turret. This inflexibility could prove fatal in a free-wheeling mobile fight against other tanks.
But when used as ambushers, where they were difficult to spot due to their low profile or were able to support infantry with fire, they were very effective. For allied foot soldiers who had to face them, it made no difference whether they were called tanks or self-propelled weapons.
The T28 differed from other US vehicles in that it was developed for a specific and specific task. The U.S. Army had plenty of Shermans and tank destroyers. What was missing was a weapon to break through German fortifications. What worried American planners in particular was the Siegfried Line, the long chain of pill boxes and bunkers guarding the German western border. A 1943 study by the Ordnance Department concluded that a heavily armed and armored vehicle would be required to break through this defensive force.
"The original concept was to mount the new 105 mm T5EI cannon in a tank with 8" front armor using the electric propulsion system developed for the T1E1 heavy tank and the T23 medium tank, "said tank historian RP Hunnicutt in his book Firepower: A History of the American Heavy Tank. "The high-speed T5E1 cannon had excellent penetration against concrete, and when installed in a heavily armored chassis, it was expected to be extremely effective at reducing heavy fastenings."
The army finally opted for a ninety-five-ton design with twelve-inch front armor. Compare that to the Sherman, which weighed about thirty tons and was protected by about two inches of front armor. Even the dreaded King Tiger, which the Germans used in battle, had only about six inches of front armor.
The T28 was nearly thirty-seven feet long and about ten feet high from the rear to the tip of the weapon. It carried a crew of four and the 105 millimeter cannon. For close-range defense against infantry, however, the T28 had only a .50 caliber machine gun mounted on the roof, which is why the driver had to sit down to fire it.
Not surprisingly, the weight of this vehicle gave cause for concern. Although the weight of the M26 Pershing is twice that, the T28 used the same engine, which explains its top speed of eight miles an hour. Even this number could only be achieved by reducing the T28's ground pressure with two sets of rails on each side of the vehicle (one set of rails could be removed on a road for higher speed).
Another challenge was to find someone to build a vehicle of this size. The Pacific Car and Foundry Company stepped forward and completed the first T28 in December 1945. By then the war had ended and the original order for five test vehicles had been reduced to two, with the second being delivered in January 1946.
Deleting the program was probably a good idea since the army didn't know what to do with this giant. The vehicle was originally referred to as a T28 tank. Then, as only bureaucrats can, in February 1945, "a memorandum from the Chief of Ordnance called for the T28 to be redesigned as a 105mm T95 cannon car because the cannon was not mounted on the turret and because of its limited secondary armament."
In other words, without the turret and some extra machine guns, the vehicle wouldn't deserve to be called a tank. "The heavily armed and armored T95 did not quite fit into the usual categories for US Army combat vehicles," Hunnicutt writes. "For example, tanks were expected to carry their weapons in fully rotating turrets, and self-propelled guns were usually lightly armored for maximum mobility."
Then, in June 1946, there was another adventure in the military nomenclature. The T95 was again the T28, but this time it was called a super-heavy tank.
The T28 has never seen a fight. How would it have gone if it had been like this? The 105 millimeter cannon would have been enough to take out German pill boxes - and also tanks. More important for the U.S. Army in 1945, however, was that the foot-thick front armor of the T28 was protected against dreaded German anti-tank guns like the eighty-eight millimeters.
On the other hand, like any tank, it would have been vulnerable to mines. Armed with a single exposed machine gun for close range protection, it would have been vulnerable to infantry armed with rocket launchers and explosive charges. In this respect it was similar to the German tank destroyer Elefant: without machine guns, elephants were swarmed and destroyed by the Soviet infantry in Kursk. Thus, the T-28 would require close infantry support.
But in the end, the United States would have discovered what the Germans were doing: a handful of massive tanks doesn't make much of a difference on a global battlefield.
A surviving T-28 is expected to be exhibited at the Armaments Museum in Fort Benning, Georgia in 2020.
Michael Peck is a contributing writer for national interest. It can be found on Twitter and Facebook.
(This article was first published a few years ago and is being republished due to the interest of the readers.)
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