The M3 Lee medium tank is usually thought of as a pre-war design of limited abilities during WWII, obsolete by the conflict’s midpoint and gone when WWII ended in 1945. For the most part these assumptions are correct, but surprisingly the Lee did serve on in a few places after WWII.
(M3 Lees of the US Army 1st Armored Division in Louisiana during one of the huge “southern states exercises” in September 1941. These series of wargames were the last major exercises prior to the USA entering WWII in December. All of the equipment seen here; the M3 Lee tank, the A-20 Havoc bomber, the M3 37mm anti-tank gun, and M1917 helmet; equipped the American military when it entered the war and was later superseded by more modern kit.)
(Brazilian M3 Lee which was retained in service after WWII, this one having the balancing counterweight fitted to the M2 75mm gun.) (photo by Gino Marcomini)
(Australia’s post-WWII Yeramba SPA, the final offshoot of the Lee / Grant family.)
M3 Lee / Grant: basic description and history
The Wehrmacht’s successes in Poland during 1939 and France during 1940 caused concern in the then-still-neutral United States, in that American tank designs were not really suitable for the type of warfare being observed. The US Army’s newest medium tank at the time was the M2A1, armed with a M3 37mm gun and machine guns. It was not a success and only 94 were made.
(The M2A1 never received a popular name and honestly, wasn’t very popular. During WWII none saw combat and none even left the United States. They were used for training and discarded at the war’s end.)
In July 1940 work began on a new medium tank, loosely based on the M2A1 template. The M3 was only ever envisioned as a stopgap until a traditional-layout tank (which eventually emerged as the M4 Sherman) was developed and ready.
(The “T5 Phase III” pre-prototype vehicle, which would lead to the T5E2 prototype and production M3.)
The design was approved in March 1941 and Chrysler began delivering M3s that summer.
(The M3 Lee was the first design made at the Detroit Tank Arsenal in Warren, MI. This factory was built in early 1941 with taxpayer money and leased by Chrysler. The last design built there was the M1 Abrams, with the WWII factory closing in 1996.)
The M3 weighed 30 tons and measured 18’6″ long, 8’11” wide, and 10’3″ tall. As originally designed it had a seven-man crew: commander, driver, radioman, 75mm gunner, 75mm loader, machine gun & 37mm ammo attendant, and 37 mm gunner. The Grant (described below) eliminated the dedicated radioman and as WWII went on, the ammo attendant position was eliminated off both Lees and Grants as well.
The original large weapon was a M2 75mm gun in a casemate mounting. This allowed only ±15° of aiming; beyond that the whole tank had to turn. The right-side-offset arrangement was known to be tactically flawed from the start but in 1940, the United States was not confident that a turret which could reliably handle a 75mm’s recoil might be perfected in time. The M2 gun had 50rds of M72 AP or M48 HE ammo. The gun was stabilized but to work properly, a metal balancing counterweight was clamped onto the short barrel.
Later Lees / Grants used the M3 75mm gun. It had a longer barrel (eliminating the need for the counterweight) and increased muzzle velocity of the AP shell by 8%.
The upper gun was a M5 37mm gun firing the M74B1 AP round. In pre-WWII American thinking, it was felt that this would be the “main” weapon for use against other tanks, with the 75mm gun a general-purpose field artillery and only used against heavier tanks. Experience in WWII showed this to be backwards. This was a single-shot 37mm gun with each round hand-loaded. It was fired from a shouldered C-rest with a spade grip that also traversed the turret. Later Lees / Grants had a M6 which was similar but had a faster-operating breech. There were 179rds carried but they were in seven different racks.
Originally there were four M1919 (.30-06 Springfield) machine guns: one in the uppermost cupola, one coaxial to the 37mm gun, and a twin mount fixed to fire forwards. The twin mount was nearly useless and soon dropped, while the Grant versions lacked an upper cupola.
Six companies made the overall tank using hull and turret pieces from four additional companies, so there were many versions with minor differences and even differences within the same version. The design itself evolved over time, for example the side doors changed in shape and were eventually dropped altogether.
(The M3A5 version, which Brazil continued to use after WWII, substituted welded armor plate for the side doors. The many armored porthole-flaps on the Lee were intended both for vision and to fire small arms out of; that idea falling out of favor during WWII.)
Early models used a Continental R975 gasoline engine, based on an aircraft model. The M3A4 version used a Chrysler A57 Multibank gasoline engine, an odd style with five sets of six L-head cylinders. As gasoline fell out of favor as a tank fuel, a twin General Motors 6-71 was used on final versions. The max speed was around 26mph for all.
The main disadvantage of the M3 Lee are obvious: the limitations of the casemate arrangement and the dangerously tall and flat profile of the tank. It should be remembered that both the US Army and the Lend-Lease recipients knew from the get-go that it was a stopgap; just something good enough to hold back the Germans and Japanese until better tanks were available. That being said, under the right conditions the Lee could hold its own and was not altogether a terrible design. It could better the Panzer III and in some cases the Panzer IV, while in Burma and India it wholly outclassed the Ha-Go.
“Lee” vs “Grant”
Prior to WWII the USA did not name tanks. During WWII Great Britain assigned to Lend-Leased armored fighting vehicles the name of a general of the USA’s 1861 – 1865 Civil War. The basic M3 was named after Gen. Robert E. Lee. The tank named after Gen. Ulysses S. Grant was the M3 refined to British concepts. The upper turret was enlarged and flattened, with a No. 19 radio and smoke grenade rack fitted inside. The Grant had slightly increased armor and other minor changes as well.
(British Grant and Lee in north Africa during WWII.)
When the USA entered WWII, the British tank nicknames (Generals Jackson, Sherman, and Stuart were also used) were phenomenally popular with GIs and made at least quasi-official in the American military as well.
Before WWII the US Army suggested “Iron Cathedral” as a nickname, with no success. Less flattering abroad was “Three-Storey Disaster” (British) and “Shared Tomb For Six” (Soviet) referencing the M3 Lee’s high silhouette and propensity for the gasoline versions to catch fire if hit.
Of all production, 78.6% went to Lend-Lease. The United States made limited use of the M3, in Africa and Sicily against the Germans and in the 1943 Gilbert Islands campaign against the Japanese.
As early as 1942, some American M3 Lees were already being relegated to domestic training units.
(M3 Lee used for training at Ft. Knox during the summer of 1942. This one has the 37mm gun and machine guns removed.) (Library Of Congress photo)
Less Australia, major Lend-Lease recipients phased theirs out in 1944 and early 1945. An exception was in the CBI theatre, where the M3 performed exceptionally well. Lees / Grants of Commonwealth forces were still using the type there to the last day of WWII.
The US Army had already obsoleted the M3 from combat units in 1943. There were two support vehicles based on the design, the M31 armored recovery vehicle (described below) and the M33 artillery tractor, still in American inventory when WWII ended in 1945. In 1945 these were declared “Limited Standard” (a mid-1940s euphemism that they would not be replaced and should be used until they broke down or the unit disbanded) and were also gone by 1947.
Canada, the Soviet Union, New Zealand, and Great Britain quickly discarded any surviving examples after WWII ended, leaving the users below.
CEFEO (French forces fighting the Indochina War) did not use any M3 Lee tanks in that conflict, however they did use the M31 ARV derivative.
(French M31 in late-WWII markings.) (artwork via tanks-encyclopedia website)
The M31 was a M3 Lee hull fitted with a wrecker boom and 30t winch, along with a variety of hand tools. The M31 was unarmed but had a dummy 75mm main gun and often also a length of pipe welded onto the turret to simulate the 37mm gun. The goal was to make the M31 a less obvious target. The dummy 75mm gun was clever; the fake casemate was a hinged-type door to access the crew compartment.
France found the M31 quite handy in the Indochina War, retrieving disabled tanks and trucks. For the French, their deployment was considered inconsequential financially; the unspoken thought being that they would be sent to Indochina and used there until they broke down, with no need to ever bring them back to France.
The above photo shows a French M31 disabled by a Viet Minh mine, which was apparently powerful enough to split the hull. The “mine” may have been a type of IED the Vietnamese used, based on leftover WWII Japanese aircraft bombs. This photo also shows the door formed by the dummy gun’s fake casemate.
As the 1940s began, the Brazilian army’s armored assets were not very good. The vehicles in service were French-made FT-17 light tanks and Italian-made CV-33 tankettes. The small FT-17s were old and obsolete. Meanwhile tankettes, which during the 1930s had been predicted to play a big role in future wars, had already been exposed as a flawed concept.
(Brazilian FT-17 before WWII. These ended up serving throughout WWII in Brazil, to free up American-made Stuarts for combat in Europe.)
In October 1941 the United States made Brazil eligible for Lend-Lease aid, even though it was not at that time at war with any of the axis nations. Included in this was 103 M3 Lee tanks, a mix of M3A3 and M3A5 versions. These were delivered throughout 1942 and the beginning of 1943.
During 1942 there were problems with getting the M3 Lees into service. No Portuguese-language manuals were available, and there were also problems reassembling the tanks and getting the 37mm guns into alignment. None the less by the middle of WWII the Lees were all operational in Brazil. They were organized into three battalions, one in Rio de Janeiro, one in Valença, and one in São Paulo. Two Lees were allocated to EsMM, the mechanized forces training and development center.
Brazil sent a 25,000+-strong force to fight on the Italian front, however none of the Lees were sent. All remained in Brazil during WWII.
In 1945 the USA made the M4 Sherman available to Brazil and these began to replace the M3 Lee as the frontline medium tank, a process which continued through the end of WWII in September and beyond. By the end of WWII one of the three battalions had converted and the other two followed in 1946.
(Brazilian M4 Sherman and M3 Lee, today preserved at a museum in Rio de Janeiro. This photo shows well the dangerously tall profile of the Lee; the top of its hull is almost as high as the top of the Sherman’s turret.)
Brazil still had a lot of Lees and despite their obsolescence, they had little wear and tear on them. Reassigned to smaller subunits, reserve formations, or training units; they continued in service.
(Brazilian M3A3 Lee four years after the end of WWII.)
Gradually their numbers began to decline as it was increasingly difficult to source spare parts.
In 1957, with the introduction of the M41 Walker Bulldog, they were pulled from top-tier service and used only in secondary roles, such as driver training, mechanic training, new tactics refinement, and the like.
The final user was the EsMM facility in Marechal Deododro. It disposed of its last M3 Lees in 1969. These were the last Lees / Grants still in service anywhere worldwide.
Surprisingly the Lee was actually the most numerous American-made combat vehicle imported by Australia during WWII. A total of 777 were ordered, of which 266 were gasoline Grants, 232 diesel Grants, and the balance being gasoline Lees. The first arrived in May 1942 and the last shortly after Christmas.
(Australian M3 Lees during WWII, here with the 37mm gun dismounted for shipping. The other vehicles are LP2As, the Australian equivalent of the British UC aka Bren Gun Carrier.) (photo via Paul D. Handel / anzacsteel website)
The Lees / Grants formed the 1st Armored Division in Australia. These tanks were supposed to have only been a stop-gap until the AC1 Sentinel, an Australian-designed tank, was available in sufficient strength. However in July 1943 the Sentinel program was terminated after the 65th tank. With the threat of a Japanese invasion of Australia largely subsided by then, it was decided against replacing the Lees / Grants with M4 Shermans (only three of which were Lend-Leased to Australia during WWII) and just retaining the M3s for the duration of hostilities.
When WWII ended in September 1945, the M3s were still all in Australia, never having been deployed. During the winter of 1945/1946 all the Lees and the gasoline Grants were withdrawn from service, with some being retained for training or secondary uses and the rest scrapped. The diesel Grants were retained in active service. In Australian nomenclature they were designated “Tank, Medium, M3 General Grant III”.
While WWII was still in progress, a few Lees had been rebuilt in Australia as ARVs. These were also retained a year past the end of WWII, finally being discarded in late 1946.
After the success of allied BARVs (beach armored recovery vehicles) during the landings in Normandy, the Australians designed their own conversion of this type, based on the M3A5 hull. Designated “BARV-AUST No.1 Mk.I”, only one was converted during WWII. It could recover swamped tanks in water 6’6″ deep with 3′ waves. Even though the project was cancelled, the one made was already paid for and a useful niche vehicle, and it was used into the 1960s and retained in storage until 1970.
(The lone BARV-AUST No.1 Mk.I, which today is preserved at a museum. The wood beams were to prevent metal-on-metal contact with tanks or boats being pushed.)
For the diesel Grants, some upgrades had been done in the closing months of WWII. The suspension was replaced by that of the M4 Sherman; there being no real performance improvement but even then already, it was getting difficult to source M3 parts from the USA with the tank out of production. Track return rollers were added, as was a rack for a spare idler wheel. Steel armor 1½” thick was added over the transmission area, and an “anti-grenade mesh” was added to many in the rear. The tracks were converted to the 16½” T51 design and the hull-mounted machine guns were removed. Some Australian Grants were later adapted to use the M4 Sherman’s dozer kit.
By 1947, the process of disposing of the gasoline Lees and Grants was complete and there remained 149 diesel Grants in the Australian army. In 1948 the country restructured its military and the tank units would now be an active-duty regiment operating Churchills, backed up by two brigades of the Citizen Military Force (a type of reserve); one with Matildas and the other with the remaining M3 Grants.
(Australian Grants during the 1950s.)
This unit, the 2nd Armored Brigade, was based in Victoria. They were not full-time used and most only saw use during “camps”, periodic CMF drill maneuvers.
By October 1955, there were only 50 M3 Grants still in running order and the decision was made to finally phase them out, now a decade past WWII. In 1956 they were disposed of, some being demilitarized and sold off as farm or mining vehicles.
(An ex-Australian M3 being restored in 2018.)
After WWII the Australian army, which traditionally favored towed artillery, sought to obtain surplus SPAs (self-propelled artillery vehicles) from either the UK or USA, in both cases finding the asking price too high or the vehicles offered unsuitable.
In July 1949 it was decided to proceed with a domestic design, using diesel Grants as the base hull. The Yeramba (an aboriginal atlatl) was to be a mating of two WWII weapons, the British QF 25-Pounder howitzer and the American M3 tank.
(Overhead view of a Yeramba) (Australian War Memorial photo)
(Front view of a Yeramba, this one preserved at a museum in Australia.)
For the conversion, the front and upper parts of the tank were cut off. The driving position was moved from the Lee / Grant center location to the right of the gun, and sockets for an optional plexiglass windshield were added. A trailer hitch was installed.
Inside, a beam supported a cradle assembly holding the 25-Pounder. The artillery piece had to be modified to limit its recoil to 1’8″, additionally a muzzle brake was fitted to counteract some of the recoil. The howitzer’s elevation was -10°/+40° and it could slew ±20° independent of the vehicle. The 25-Pounder fired a 88x292mm(R) round weighing (obviously) 25 lbs, and had a maximum range of 7½ miles when using boat-tailed HE shells. The rate of fire was 4 – 5 rpm. The Yeramba carried 88 HE-Frag or Smoke rounds and 16 AP rounds for direct fire against tanks, although the Yermba was not intended to be exposed to direct combat.
A No.19 Mk.II (Aust.) radio was carried and also, Yerambas carried a field telephone reel so vehicles in a battery could talk to one another.
All of the Grants used for the project had General Motors diesels and all had already received the M4 Sherman’s suspension retrofit as described earlier. The Yeramba used 79-link tracks. On the glacis was carried spare track grousers and a variety of hand tools.
(On the normal M3 tank, the side doors were considered something of a liability by the end of WWII. However in the SPA role, they were quite useful as ammunition and spent casings could easily be passed in and out of the vehicle.)
The crew was 6: commander, driver, howitzer gunner, and three ammo handlers. The open-topped Yeramba had no secondary armament strictly speaking, but two Bren machine guns were carried and could be fired over the side walls. There was also stowage for weapons to arm the crew if they had to fight dismounted: two Owen submachine guns, two Enfield rifles, and a half-dozen hand grenades. Storage space was also provided for a canvas rain tarp to enclose the top of the vehicle.
The prototype was assembled by the Development & Proving Establishment at Monegeetta, Victoria in 1949. A success, a further 13 conversions were authorized and done between 1950 -1952.
(The prototype Yeramba.) (Australian War Memorial photo)
The Yerambas entered service with a dedicated unit, the 22nd Field Regiment, in 1952. This unit was stationed alongside the 2nd Armored Brigade (which was still operating M3 Grants) and envisioned to accompany it into battle.
(A Yeramba doing a slope tolerance test.)
By all accounts the Yeramba was a good design, successful and popular with its crews. However its career would be very short. In 1956, the Australian army made an effort to flush out some remaining WWII vehicle designs, including all remaining Matilda and Grant tanks. Along with this, it was decided to retire the Yerambas even though it had only been 2 – 4 years since their conversions. There was a proposal to exclude the well-liked Yerambas from the mass vehicle culling but in the end, they were retired in 1956, having never seen combat.