Tanks of WWII

During World War II the tank came into its own as an offensive weapon. This was made clear with the stunning German Blitzkrieg into Poland in FALL WEISS (1939), then again in France and the Low Countries in FALL GELB in 1940, and on a vast scale in the opening months of BARBAROSSA in the Soviet Union in 1941. Tanks also became the major defensive system against enemy tanks, a trend that led to the largest armored battle ever fought at Kursk in 1943, where 12 Panzer divisions met massed Soviet armor and thousands of anti-tank guns. The second largest armor fight of the war took place at Falaise in 1944. Topographical features limited use of tanks in mountainous areas such as the Caucasus and Balkans. They were also less used in fighting in Asia before 1945 than in North Africa, Europe, or the western Soviet Union. Otherwise, tanks were a signature weapon of World War II. They came in multiple varieties, from prewar tankettes that proved worse than useless even during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), to fast light versions and solid medium models, to late war heavy and super heavy types that crushed roads and broke stone bridges as they passed. Uniquely, the Wehrmacht fielded a small artillery observer tank (“Beobachtungswagen”).

The Regio Esercito had the worst tanks in Europe. Italian tankettes were fine for crushing unarmed and unarmored Abyssinians in 1936, but they proved woefully inadequate when facing British armor in 1940-1941. They were merely death traps for their own crews when deployed on the Eastern Front in 1942. The L3/35 weighed 7.5 tons, had a two-man crew, and mounted a 20 mm main gun incapable of piercing opposing armor. Among lesser Axis armies, Hungarian tanks were only slightly better than Italian tankettes. The Toldi III three-man light tank weighed 10.3 tons and mounted a 40 mm gun. The Turan II was a 20-ton tank with a five-man crew that carried a 75 mm gun. The Axis states also used captured Czech Skoda Type-36 and -38 light tanks on the Eastern Front. The Type-38 was produced for several years after the extinction of Czechoslovakia, while some were still used in battle as late as 1945. Germany’s armor spanned a wide range of capabilities and designs. Panzer I and II prewar models were used in Spain and in small numbers by China, but were obsolete by 1939. Panzer divisions attacking into Poland were mostly equipped with the 25-ton medium Panzer III. Still effective in France and the Low Countries in 1940, Panzer III armor proved inadequate and its 50 mm main gun useless against anything but enemy light tanks by the time of the BARBAROSSA campaign a year later. About 5,500 Panzer IIIs were built. The Panzer IV was about the same weight as the Panzer III but had heavier protective armor, a 75 mm main gun, and reached battle speed of 25 mph. The Panzer V, or “Panther,” was a 50-ton tank that originally mounted a 75 mm gun. While it was an effective heavy tank, only 5,976 were built. The Panzer VI/E, or “Tiger I,” was a monster at 63 tons. Its five-man crew operated a deadly and very long-range 88 mm main gun, but Tigers only had a top speed of 23 mph. The Panzer VI/II, or “King Tiger” or “Tiger II,” was even heavier at 77 tons and actually three mph faster than the Panzer VI/E Tiger. It also mounted an 88 mm main gun in a Henschel turret. Its front armor was nearly impenetrable. However, the Tiger II was mechanically unreliable, proved difficult to maneuver in urban fighting, and was much too heavy for many older bridges. Most importantly, it took far too much skilled labor and steel and was therefore not produced in decisive numbers: only 1,354 Tiger Is were built and another 500 Tiger IIs, and not all of those found a way into battle.

Some Chinese warlords and the Guomindang had a hodgepodge of tanks imported during the 1920s, notably several dozen Renault FTs (Model 1918). During the early 1930s, China acquired Carden Lloyd Mk VI patrol tanks, about 20 Vickers 6-ton light tanks, and several dozen Vickers medium tanks, as well as Italian L. 3/35 tankettes and German Pz-1As. The Guomindang acquired Soviet tanks and armored cars in 1938, mainly T-26s, BA-10s, and BA-20s. The United States provided some Lend-Lease Shermans to China from 1944 to 1945. The Japanese were only marginally better off than the Chinese in terms of tank design, but they had many more tanks. Most were light or tankette types, copies of early French Renaults or British Vickers models. The standard Japanese tank from 1932 was the 10-ton Mitsubishi Type-89 Chi-Ro medium, which was basically an infantry assault vehicle mounting a small 57 mm gun. It was produced until 1942. A few Type-95 “heavy” tanks were built. The fi rst Mitsubishi Type-97 Chi-Ha medium tank rolled off the assembly line in 1937. It weighed under 16 tons and mounted a small 57 mm gun. It became the standard Japanese model of the war. The Japanese Army also used its tanks differently. It deployed armor in “tank groups” (sensha dan) of three or more regiments of 80 tanks each. Japanese doctrine dictated that all armor act in an infantry support role, until the Japanese experienced what massed Red Army tank divisions could do at Nomonhan in 1939. It still took Japan until 1943 to deploy its first true armored division, which was sent to Manchuria and saw little to no action. Shortages of all critical materials meant that Japan only produced five light tanks in 1945. Despite improvements to Japanese tanks and doctrine, Soviet armor again rolled over the Japanese during the Manchurian offensive operation (August 1945). The major Western Allied nations fighting in Asia used the same models built in abundance to fight Italy and Germany in Africa and Europe. The topography of Southeast Asia and the South Pacific was not generally conducive to armored warfare. The central plains of Okinawa saw more tanks used by both sides than in any other battle outside China U. S. Army doctrine favored lighter tanks both before and throughout the war. That was partly a result of fighting doctrine that favored mobility and deep maneuver over raw firepower. But it also arose from the extraordinary logistical difficulty of transporting every American tank across an ocean before it could fight in Asia, Africa, or Europe. U. S. forces began the war with several light tank types, all named for Civil War generals. The M3 Stuart was a 4-man tank weighing 12 tons and mounting an inadequate 37 mm main gun. The M5 Stuart was a 15-ton light tank also armed with a 37 mm cannon. The M3 Lee (the designation when issued to U. S. forces) and Grant (British and Commonwealth forces) were mediums, weighing 27 tons. They had a 75 mm main gun plus an anti-aircraft machine gun. The last U. S. light tank built was the M24 Chaffee, which had a 76 mm gun. The M4 Sherman was the main U. S. battle tank. Over 50,000 were built. It was provided in quantity to British and Commonwealth forces and in smaller numbers to the Red Army. Depending on mark, it weighed 29-32 tons and mounted a 75 mm or 76 mm main gun, along with two .30 caliber anti-infantry machine guns and an antiaircraft machine gun. U. S. tanks were usually overmatched on the battlefield during the second half of the war by better-armored and bigger-gun German models. Still, the medium-over-heavy tank preference of U. S. forces proved mostly sound. Unlike late-war German or Japanese tanks, American tanks were on perpetual offense after landing on some distant beach in Europe or Asia. That meant the U. S. Army needed medium tanks that could cross canals and rivers on hastily built pontoon bridges, because the enemy nearly always blew available permanent structures. Wehrmacht tankers discovered in 1944-1945 that while oversize heavies were far more powerful than a Sherman, they were less effective in urban settings and too heavy for most French, Belgian, or Dutch bridges. And there were always more Shermans on the horizon. Western Allied forces also developed armored tactics in which speed and greater numbers of smaller and less powerful tanks outflanked and overwhelmed Tiger Is and IIs. The U. S. finally fielded a limited number of its own heavy tanks late in the war. Although the M26 Pershing mounted a 90 mm gun plus the usual complement of machine guns, it only weighed 41 tons.

In addition to domestic tanks such as the inadequate Mk III “Valentine” infantry tank, the British Army received thousands of U. S.-built tanks via Lend-Lease. Among the first received was the M3A1 supplied in mid-1942 by a diverted emergency convoy. It was used extensively in the desert campaign beginning with the two battles of El Alamein. It was known to Tommies as the “Honey.” British and Canadian armored divisions were also consigned M3 Grants. The British were not always content to use undergunned American tanks. They re-equipped Shermans with more powerful 17-pounder tubes to create an upgunned British version in 1944: the “Firefly.” Royal Engineers also developed a series of highly specialized tanks for the OVERLORD invasion of France. The most famous were formally known as “Armored Vehicles, Royal Engineers”(AVRE). These were amphibious assault tank adaptations inspired by Major General Percy Hobart, and thus most commonly referred to as “Hobart’s Funnies”. The “Funnies” were usually modified British “Churchills.” They included “swimming” tanks fitted with rubber floats and canvas screens; “crab” tanks, equipped with thrashers and flails for clearing mines; “bobbin” tanks that rolled out mesh as a temporary road over sand and clay; bulldozer tanks; “Crocodile” flame-throwing tanks; Armored Ramp Carriers; and other tanks fitted with specialty tools such as demolition frames or fascine layers. One AVRE was fitted with a petard spigot mortar that fired a 40 lb bomb-called “flying dustbins” by British troops-for demolishing pillboxes. All these fine adaptations helped British and Canadian troops get onto their beaches in Normandy on D-Day ( June 6, 1944), then get off them and move inland.

Soviet armor was plentiful before the German invasion on June 22, 1941, but varied greatly in quality. The 11-ton T-26 was the most numerous Soviet tank when the war broke out. T-60s weighed 6.4 tons, had a crew of two, and mounted a 20 mm gun. They were the Red Army scout tank equivalent of the Italian L3/35 tankette. The 10- ton T-70 was still rolling off the line in 1942. It was a death trap for its two-man crew when facing Panzers or anti-tank guns. Yet, with the main medium and heavy tank factories lost at Kharkov and surrounded at Leningrad, a critical decision was made to concentrate on producing T-60s in automobile plants while fevered completion of new tank factories was underway, notably at Chelyabinsk (“Tankograd”). Chelyabinsk became the main manufacturing center of the superb T-34 medium battle tank, the mainstay of Soviet tank armies by mid-1942. The 1940 model weighed 28.5 tons while mounting a powerful 76 mm gun. Its four-man crew could attain a battle speed of 34 mph, faster than any Panzer. The 1943 model was nearly six tons heavier; the extra weight came from additional armor. The 1943 T-34 was turned out at the extraordinary rate of 1,200 per month. The T-34-85 did not add much weight. Its great advance over earlier models was its 85 mm high velocity gun, which could smash the heaviest Panzers. Its turret was also enlarged and modified, providing better sighting and gun handling. Even with the extra weight it still attained a top speed of 34 mph. About 11,000 were built in 1944 and 18,500 in 1945. The T-44 was comparable to the T-34, but with thicker armor (3.5 inches frontal).

Alongside T-26s, T-60s, and the first T-34s, the Red Army deployed the KV-1 in 1941. Named for Kliment Voroshilov, it weighed 53 tons. It outmatched the armored protection and weight of shell of German Panzer IIIs and IVs, could withstand multiple hits, and mounted a powerful 76 mm gun of its own. Protection and firepower made up for a slow, 22 mph top speed. The KV-1 so impressed the Wehrmacht that German tank designers modeled the Panther and Tiger types on it. The Soviets introduced a new series of heavy tanks late in the war. The KV-2 weighed 57 tons and mounted a 152 mm howitzer. Capable of just 16 mph and with insufficient frontal armor, it proved highly vulnerable. The 1943 KV-5 was a 50-ton tank with an 85 mm gun. The “Joseph Stalin,” or JS II, was a variation of the KV line under a new name. It weighed over 50 tons and had a top speed of 23 mph. It mounted a 122 mm gun and had 3.5-4.7-inch frontal armor, along with a remarkable 3.5-inch side armor. The JS III weighed an additional 1.5 tons but was two mph faster. It had an exceptional 4.7-6.0 inches of frontal armor. Some 2,300 “Stalin” tanks were built in 1944, and 1,500 in 1945.


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