M103

Just a day trip yesterday.  A nice drive through the Alabama countryside. I was the designated driver for some family members.

Foolishly, I forgot to bring my camera “just in case.”  Foolishly, as it turns out, because we stopped at the Veterans Memorial in Lineville, AL, a wide spot in the road. Turns out they had, in addition to nice granite tablets showing all the locals that fought in World War II (and a surprising number of my family were on there) they had some nice hardware. A Huey on  a pedestal, an F-100F Super Sabre, an M1918 155mm howitzer (for Craig, no doubt) and the one thing that really caught my eye, an M103 heavy tank.

Almost from the beginning, tanks came in two flavors, heavy and light. Eventually, medium tanks came into being.  By the time World War II rolled around, the US had mostly abandoned heavy tanks in favor of faster, more mobile medium tanks (like the M4 Sherman).  There were several pilot programs for heavy tanks, such as the M6 and the T-28 Supertank, but none entered service in any significant numbers.

After World War II, as the Cold War began to heat up, the Army looked with concern to continued production of several Soviet tanks such as the JS-10.  Tankers in the Army didn’t relish the facing the same situation they faced when medium Sherman tanks faced King Tiger tanks that heavily outgunned them and whose armor was almost impenetrable to the Sherman’s guns. Accordingly, once more, the Army ordered the development of a heavy tank, this time the T-43, which shared the layout, technology and some components with the M48 Patton series of tanks.  In fact, at first glance, the T-43 looks an awful lot like an M48. The big difference was than instead of the 90mm gun of the M48, the T-43 carried a massive 120mm gun.  300 T-43s were built at the Detroit Tank Plant.

But the T-43 was unsatisfactory for various technical reasons, and the entire production run was put into storage, until a series of corrective modifications could be applied.  Accepted for service, the T-43 was redesignated the  M103 in 1957. The Army still wasn’t very thrilled with the results. The top speed was only 20 miles per hour, and its AV-1790 gasoline engine only gave it a range of 80 miles! The Army did what it usually does with junk it doesn’t want. It gave them to the Marines.

m103_4_of_4

The Marines were not particularly thrilled with them, either, but hey, free tanks are free tanks. Plus, the low speed and short range of the tank was a slightly better fit for Marine doctrine of using tanks in direct support of dismounted Marine infantry.  The Army did end up fielding one battalion of M103s in Europe, for about 5 years.  And the Marines did continue to put some money into the program, upgrading them first to M103A1 (by adding a turret basket to the floor of the turret) and eventually to M103A2, replacing the gasoline engine with the AVDS-1790 supercharged diesel engine. That greatly increased the range, and modestly increased the speed.  Still, as soon as they could get ahold of some M60 tanks, they got rid of their M103s in 1973.

dmm103-1

I’d seen the M103 at the Ft. Lewis museum, and the one at Ft. Knox. Still, it was a bit of a surprise to find one in a rural Alabama town. And the reason I was so frustrated that I forgot my camera was that…. unlike dang near every tank on display in America, this one’s hatches weren’t sealed. Big as daylight, the commander’s hatch was open. And sure, there was a sign that said not to climb on it, but you know, sometimes, rules are made to be broken. I really wish I could have taken a few hundred interior pics of the old tank. It was in surprisingly good condition.  Next time…

12 thoughts on “M103”

  1. God I wish you’d brought your camera. You have NO idea how much I wish I had a really, really thorough set of detailed pictures of one of those.

  2. “The Army did what it usually does with junk it doesn’t want. It gave them to the Marines.”

    Where’d you get that line on the M103?

    Truth is the T43 (project name for M103) was a dead end, as far as the Army was concerned in 1953. The Army, much as it did in WWII, frowned upon the super-heavy tanks for several good reasons. Most important of which, the Army felt the 90mm HEAT round, used on medium tanks at that time, was more than sufficient to deal with Soviet armor.

    The project stalled until the USMC voiced concern at the delays. The Marines *wanted* the big tank in a bad way. SecNav complained to the Army, citing the Marine’s concern over the effectiveness of the 90mm, and… well .. the specter of those super-heavy Rooskis like the T-10. So the project got more funding (and arguably detracted much from the M60 project at that time).

    After initial trials, the Marines bought something like 200 of the M103, but the Army bought only enough for training and test needs. As the M103 variant, the tank was a piece of junk. Problems like the use of vacuum-tube electronics in a bouncing tank were never fully worked out. Other problems included the need for two loaders in the turret(!). The Marines actually put most of their purchase straight in the storage yards, hoping for all the kinks to get worked out in follow up development. Only after 100-plus mods to become the M103A1 did the Marines put all of the tracks in service, through 1958-59. (Later the M103A2 improved even more with a new power pack.)

    In 1959, the Army finally warmed to the M103. At that time a single heavy tank battalion formed in Europe as the 899th Armor (later 2/33rd Armor). ALL THE TANKS of the 899th came from Marine stocks. Within a year, sanity prevailed. The Army was soon to field the M-60 tank with the 105mm gun. So any advantage the M103 gave in firepower was negated with the M60’s maneuverability. So the Army quickly phased out the big tanks as the M60 MBT came into service.

    The Marines, oddly, were not interested in the M60 at first. As with the M1 tank a few decades later, the Marine leadership was set on getting “anything but what the Army is buying.” Regardless, to say the Marines received hand-me-down junk from the Army in the form of M103s is not exactly true. If anything, the Army ended up getting the hand-me-downs, at least for a short time.

    1. It is true the tanks from the battalion the Army fielded came from Marine stocks.

      But in my (extremely brief) research, I never saw any reference to the Marines as the advocate for the development of the T-43/M103 prior to production. If you have a reference, I’d like to read it.

      Not saying you’re wrong (I know better than that). Just saying I’d like to read further. The M103, while a developmental dead end, was an interesting beast.

    2. Hunnicutt’s volume on the American Heavy Tank. Look for a library copy, as it is pricy. Cheaper, and focused on the points made above, is Estes’ “Marines Under Armor.”

  3. Were these ever issued to the Marine Reserves? We’ve always had a Company of tanks based in Tallahassee and I vaguely remember something that looked very similar to these in Veterans Day Parades circa 1964-68. The city fathers only allowed 2 or 4 to roll because of the street damage (so I’m told).

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