The "tank" received its baptism of fire in World War 1 as large, cumbersome lozenge-shaped tracked vehicles lumbering about the pock-marked battlefields. Back then, they were known as "landships" and few truly realized their vast warfare potential. It was the British that truly brought about the armored fighting machine and other national armies soon followed suit. In the interwar years following World War 1 and prior to World War 2, the tank underwent an evolution that saw the demise of these lozenge-shaped beasts of old. While the French found international success with their wartime Renault FT-17s, the British employed their popular Vickers 6-Ton systems. The two tanks went on to influence several light tanks designs around the world including those beginning to appear in Italy, the Soviet Union and the United States.
The M2 is Born as the T2E1
In 1935, the US Army charged the Rock Island Arsenal with development of a new light tank prototype which came to be known as the "Light Tank T2E1". The T2E1 was the culmination of several previous attempts - the "T1" and "T2" prototypes in particular - and these were more akin to further evolutions of the British Vickers 6-Ton series. As a light tank, the T2E1 was rather compact by modern standards and relatively lightweight. It sported a one-man turret and its armament consisted of a single 0.50 caliber heavy machine gun. The vehicle was suspended upon a conventional track system that incorporated a front-mounted drive sprocket and a rear-mounted track idler along with four road wheels on two bogies. Like other tanks of the time, the vehicle held a pronounced side profile due to its elevated hull superstructure.
The light tank as a battlefield implement was a sound design decision by the Americans (and others) for the time. The disastrous effects of a crumbled economy due to the world collapse (Great Depression) left a lasting scar on military procurement around the world. As such, many forces "made due" with development (or purchase) of light tank systems as opposed to more complicated and expensive medium- and heavy-class systems available. The T2E1 was a perfect product for the burgeoning armored corps of the US Army. The machine gun-only armament was also standard fare for the period.
The T2E1 was adopted into US Army service as the "M2" or, more formally, the "Light Tank M2". The initial production models of 1935 were known as the "M2A1" and began a rather short line of variants to follow. However, after only 10 examples were delivered, the Army changed its initial vision for the tank and called upon a design to feature no fewer than two machine guns across two individual turrets. The "multi-turret" concept proved quite popular for the time, particularly in Europe, where the idea of engaging multiple enemies at once was accepted as sound doctrine. In practice, this philosophy would soon prove cumbersome for the vehicle commander to manage and, within time, the concept was eventually dropped by the time of World War 2 - tanks moving to a multi-crew, single turret layout.
The M2A2 - "Mae West"
With that said, the Rock Island Arsenal responded with a revised M2 design, this now featuring the requisite dual-turret layout, the second turret fielding a 0.30 Browning M1919 machine gun to complement the original 0.50 caliber Browning in the main turret. Due to the nature of the "double turret" design, US Army personnel referred to the revised M2s as "Mae West" in reference to the sex symbol/actress of the time. The production mark was then changed to "M2A2" to indicate the aforementioned changes and these began arriving in 1935 as well.
The Spanish Civil War, Proving Ground for the Enemy
On July 17th, 1936, the Spanish Civil War on the Iberian Peninsula began bringing with it the combined forces of the Republicans versus the allies of the Nationalists. The bloody struggle would range across the country over the course of three years to which some 500,000 people would be killed and 450,000 displaced. For interested parties, the war was something of a chance to fulfill political obligations or expound upon new tactics in utilizing the latest of available technologies. This point was driven furthest home by Adolf Hitler's Germany who sided with the Nationalists (as did Italy and Portugal) and showcased their latest weapons and tactics in what would come to form the dreaded "Blitzkrieg" spearhead assaults of World War 2.
The first of the modern tanks were put to the test in the Spanish conflict, chief among these being the Soviet T-26 and BT fast tank series as well as the German Panzer I. Other participants included several light tanks of Italian origin and others dating as far back as 1916, being of World War 1 vintage. The battlefields of Spain went on to prove that machine gun-only tanks served a limited purpose in modern warfare and this fact soon reached American warplanners an ocean away.
In 1938, the M2A2 was upgraded to the new M2A3 standard which retained the dual-turret layout but incorporated improved armor protection as well as a revised suspension system for better off-road performance. Of this mark, 72 examples were produced making it the definitive mark of the series to this point.
With the experiences of the Spanish Civil War learned and half of Europe soon falling to the advancing Germans (including the vaunted French Army and their advanced tanks), the US Army commissioned for a revised version of the M2A3, this to incorporate an all-new cannon-armed turret. The weapon of choice became the 37mm "Gun M5" to which 103 projectiles would be stored about the tank. In addition to the new armament and turret, armor protection was improved to 25mm while the powertrain was revised for the better. Infantry suppression was attained through no fewer than 4 x .30-06 Browning M19191A4 series machine guns to which 8,470 rounds of ammunition were afforded the crew. These machine guns were set all about the vehicle including one in the bow and others in the frontal hull sides while one could be mounted on a pintle externally along the turret rear face.
This new production mark became the "M2A4" which proved the pinnacle of the M2 family line as a whole, seeing some 375 total examples delivered in all. Power was supplied via a single Continental W-670-9A 7-cylinder engine of 245 horsepower which allowed for a top road speed of 36 miles per hour as well as an operational range of 200 miles. Armor thickness remained 25mm at its thickest, most notably along the frontal hull and turret facings for obvious reasons. The vehicle was crewed by four personnel: the vehicle commander (who unfortunately doubled as its gunner), the driver, a dedicated ammunition handler (loader) and a "co-driver".
America Enters the War, the M2 Influences the M3 Design
In December of 1941, the Empire of Japan attacked the American fleet at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii and formally began US involvement in World War 2. By this time, the M2 series was something of an outclassed weapon by European standards and was eventually replaced on the American production lines by the more capable M3 Stuart Light Tank in March of 1941. Despite this fact, the M2 was still readily available in some number and put to action in the Pacific Theater when it measured up favorably against the largely light-class tanks of the Imperial Japanese Army. The newer M3 Stuart line actually owed much to its own existence to the preceding M2 and both shared a similar appearance in their overall form and function. The concepts proved in the M2 family made their way into the refined M3 which was further spawned into the M5 Stuart line in time. As such, the importance of the M2 in American armored warfare concerning World War 2 should not be overlooked.
The M2 at War
When war finally greeted America, all of the preceding M2 marks were being utilized in the tanker training role while it was only the M2A4 mark that went to war. These fought with the American 1st Tank Battalion during action at Guadalcanal (August 1942-February 1943). The only other key operator of the vehicle became the British who had earlier placed an order for 100 systems to help stock their dwindled supplies. However, the order was upgraded to the Stuart tank class after only 36 M2 examples had arrived. British Army M2s are believed to have been used in anger during the Burma Campaign.
The M2A4, Patton and the DTC
Famous US Army General George S. Patton is known to have used an M2A4 as his personal tank during Desert Training Center (DTC) instruction. The DTC was based in the Mojave Desert of California/Arizona, established in 1942, and served to train all-new generations of American tankers in the methods of modern warfare, particularly for the upcoming North African Campaign of 1943 following the "Operation Torch" landings. Operation Torch marked the first American-British landing assaults of the war to help threaten German expansion on the African continent. The force also included elements of the Canadian, Netherlands and Free French armies.