In November 1941 what had become the British Eighth Army launched another offensive under the code name Crusader, for which 756 gun-armed tanks had been assembled while 259 more were held in reserve and 231 were in two armoured divisions undergoing training. The tanks that were assembled included 336 cruisers, which by then were mostly Crusaders but still included a number of A.13s and even 26 A.10s, and they also included 225 infantry tanks consisting not only of Matildas but also of Valentines.
The Valentine was the last of the British tanks designed before the war, and it differed from the others in not being designed to a War Office specification but in having been originated by Vickers Armstrongs. It was based on the proven chassis of what was originally the A.10 infantry tank but had frontal armour 60 to 65mm thick, which made it second in this respect only to the Matilda and as good as the French B1 tank. Not to overload the chassis, its weight was kept down to 16 tonnes and as a result of this it was provided with a turret for only two men, instead of a three-man turret like other British and German tanks. The War Office objected to the turret but, nevertheless, production of the Valentine was ordered and the first was completed in May 1940, when Britain badly needed tanks. Eventually, 8,275 Valentines were built, including 1,420 built in Canada, and their production exceeded that of any other British tank of the Second World War. Apart from being numerous, Valentine was also more reliable than other contemporary British tanks, which was attributable to it being developed by the only British company with several years’ experience in the design and production of tanks.
Like other contemporary British tanks, Valentine was armed with the 40mm 2-pounder, and some time after it was deployed in Libya comments appeared that this gun was inferior to the guns of the German tanks, and, by implication, that it was responsible for the reverses suffered by British tank units. In fact, its armour penetration was slightly greater than that of the 50mm L/42 gun of PzKpfw III as well as being greater than that of the 75mm L/24 of PzKpfw IV. However, the armour-piercing projectiles of German tank guns from the 37mm gun onwards contained an explosive charge with a delay fuse, which made them more deadly when they penetrated armour than the solid shot fired by the 2-pounder and which has been ignored in almost all the accounts of the fighting in North Africa.
Tanks assembled for Operation Crusader also included 195 US M3 light tanks. They were the first of the large number of American tanks supplied during the Second World War to the British Army, in which they were called Stuarts after the Confederate cavalry leader of the American Civil War. The design of the M3 or Stuart was somewhat dated and it had a cramped two-man turret, but the armour penetration of its 37mm gun was slightly greater than that of the German 50mm L/42. It was also fast and proved very reliable, thanks to the extensive development work that preceded its production. At the same time its armour protection as well as armament were comparable to those of the British cruisers. It was therefore regarded as a ‘light cruiser’ and the whole of one British armoured brigade was equipped with it.
When Operation Crusader began, the two panzer divisions of what became the Afrika Korps had a total of only 145 PzKpfw III and 38 PzKpfw IVs, while the Italian armoured units had 146 M 13/40s. Nevertheless, they managed to repulse the initial attacks of the British tank units, which were committed in a dispersed and disjointed way that nullified their overall numerical superiority. By comparison, German formations acted in a more coherent fashion and, as before, very effectively combined the action of their tanks with that of the anti-tank guns. However, in the end Rommel’s much depleted forces were forced to retreat to the border of Tripolitania. But only two weeks later and having received reinforcements, which brought up its strength to 77 PzKpfw III and ten PzKpfw IVs, Rommel’s Afrika Korps went on the offensive and drove British forces back to the Gazala line in Cyrenaica. During the four months’ lull that followed, both sides built up their tank strength. On the German side the number of tanks rose to 242 PzKpfw IIIs, including for the first time in Libya 19 Model Js armed with the long-barrelled 50mm L/60 gun, and 38 PzKpfw IVs, while the number of Italian tanks amounted to 230 M 13/40s. On the British side the number of tanks rose to a total of 850, backed by a reserve of about 120 and 300 more held in Egypt. Tanks available to the British forces included for the first time 167 American-built Grants armed with a medium-velocity 75mm gun, which was superior in terms of armour penetration to German tank guns except for the 50mm L/60 to which it was equal, and it fired high explosive as well as armour-piercing projectiles, which enabled British tank units to counter for the first time the threat of anti-tank guns.
The tactical effectiveness of the Grant’s 75mm gun was somewhat reduced by it not being mounted in a turret but in the hull and therefore having limited traverse. Grants did have a turret, but this only mounted its secondary armament of a 37mm gun. Because its 75mm gun was mounted in the hull, some Francophile historians have suggested that its design was inspired by the French B1. In fact, it had nothing to do with the latter, having originated in 1939 with an experimental T5E2 version of the contemporary US medium tank, which had a 75mm howitzer mounted in its hull instead of a turret with a 37mm gun. Subsequently T5E2 became the only available basis on which medium tanks with a 75mm gun could be quickly produced when the use of PzKpfw IV armed with a 75mm gun in the 1940 German campaign in France showed that the US Army urgently needed a tank with a similar armament. In consequence, a new M3 medium tank was developed from the T5E2 and was ordered in 1940 not only for the US Army but also, in a modified form, for the British Army, which called its version General Grant while the US version was called General Lee, after the Confederate commander. Prototypes of the M3 medium tank were completed in May 1941 and deliveries from production commenced only two months later. Eventually the total number of the US M3 medium tanks and of the British version that were produced amounted to 6,352.
Whatever their shortcomings, Grants provided the Eighth Army with tanks that were better armed than any it previously had. It also enjoyed, once again, numerical superiority. In spite of all this, when the Afrika Korps attacked the Gazala line the Eighth Army was defeated piecemeal, and having lost most of its tanks had to retreat into Egypt. It was pursued to within 60 miles of Alexandria when it halted the enemy advance by a series of counter-attacks at Alamein, where another battle took place three months later that changed radically the course of the war in North Africa.
In the meantime, on 22 June 1941 the German Army invaded the Soviet Union. The invasion was spearheaded by four panzer groups, each of which consisted of three to five panzer divisions and which between them contained 17 out of the existing 20 divisions. The panzer groups drove deep into Soviet territory and in a series of envelopments inflicted enormous losses on Soviet forces. They were only halted in the winter of 1941 at the gates of Moscow and Leningrad and deep in the Ukraine by a combination of their own exhaustion, Soviet counter-attacks and the weather.
When the invasion began, Soviet armoured forces were in a state of flux. The successes of the German armoured forces in Poland and in France led in July 1940 to a reversal of the earlier decision to disband large mechanized formations. There were now to be eight mechanized corps and in February 1941 Soviet High Command called for 21 more to be formed. Each of the mechanized corps was to consist of two tank and one motorized infantry divisions and to have 1,031 tanks. Each of the tank divisions was to consist of two tank regiments with a total of 375 tanks, one motorized infantry regiment and a battalion each of reconnaissance, anti-tank, anti-aircraft, engineer and signals troops.
The organization of the new formations had hardly settled when the German forces struck. Moreover, the leadership of the Soviet armoured forces had not recovered from the murderous purges of the previous four years. Many of the Soviet tanks were also claimed to be in need of overhauls or at least of spare parts that would enable them to operate for any length of time. But, for all the shortcomings of its armoured forces, the Red Army had a total of 24,000 tanks, according to what Stalin himself told Harry Hopkins, the US president’s personal representative. Post-war Soviet accounts put the total at a slightly lower figure of 22,600, but in any event by the end of 1941 the Soviet Army had lost 20,500 of them, which means that during the first phase of the German-Soviet war virtually the whole of the pre-war Soviet tank strength was wiped out.
The 17 panzer divisions that were largely responsible for this remarkable achievement started the campaign with a total of only 3,266 tanks, including command tanks. The most numerous of them were PzKpfw IIIs, 707 of which were now armed with the 50mm L/42 gun, but 259 were still armed with the 37mm tank gun that had already proved inadequate during the campaign in France. There were also 625 PzKpfw 38(t)s and 155 PzKpfw 35(t)s armed with similar Czech-made 37mm guns. The most powerful tank continued to be the PzKpfw IV, which was still armed with the short-barrelled 75mm L/24 gun, but there were only 439 of them.
Most of the Soviet tanks were T-26s and BTs which were armed with 45mm guns that were as good as the German 50mm L/42, but their armour was relatively thin and the vision from their turrets was confined to a single rotatable periscope that limited their commanders’ situation awareness, so much so that Finns fighting them a year earlier observed that they appeared to be ‘blind’. The situation was aggravated by the design of their two-man turrets in which the commander acted as the gunner, in contrast to other tanks with two-man turrets, like the British Valentine, in which the commander acted as the loader and had therefore a better chance of observing what was going on around him.
German PzKpfw III and IV tanks, with their three-man turrets and a commander free to observe the tactical scene, could therefore outmanoeuvre Soviet tanks, and they proved more than a match for them.
However, on the first day of the invasion some panzer divisions also ran into the Soviet KV and T-34 tanks, which were a complete surprise to them and caused considerable consternation because they proved almost immune to the panzers’ guns. Yet the two new Soviet tanks had been in production for more than a year and by the time the Soviet Union was invaded as many as 636 KVs and 1,215 T-34s had been produced. Moreover, Soviet authorities made no particular secret of the existence of the T-34, as a month before the invasion they allowed a well-known American photographer, Margaret Burke-White, to visit a tank school outside Moscow and take pictures of the T-34 that were then published in the United States in the widely read Life magazine.
However, in spite of being a nasty surprise to the panzer divisions and superior to their tanks in terms of armour protection as well as gun power, the deployment by the Red Army of the KV and T-34 had no effect on the overall course of the campaign. This fact was obscured for a number of years by contemporary Soviet propaganda, which falsely claimed that the T-34 was only deployed when the German forces were approaching Moscow and that it was responsible for them being driven back.
The appearance of the T-34 inevitably led to demands by German tankmen for new and more powerful tanks, and consequently a special commission consisting of the leading German tank designers visited Guderian’s panzer group in November 1941 to assess the situation at first hand. Soon afterwards contracts were awarded to the Daimler Benz and MAN companies, which had done some studies since 1938 of a 20-tonne tank, for the development of a new 30-tonne tank armed with a very long barrelled 75mm L/70 gun. In May 1942 Hitler opted for the MAN design, and after trials of prototypes the first two production vehicles were completed in January 1943.
The new tank, which was called Panther, outgunned the Soviet T-34 and had thicker armour. It was also larger, having a five-man crew, and as a result of this and its thicker armour it was also heavier, weighing 43 tonnes. In spite of this, it performed well over soft ground due to its wide tracks and a suspension with interleaved road wheels that spread the load over the earth, and its design scored well from the point of view of what was later called ‘fightability’. In fact, it came to be widely regarded as the best medium tank of the Second World War, although it suffered at first from mechanical problems due to its hurried development.
Production of the Panther was preceded by that of another powerful German tank, the 570-tonne Tiger armed with an 88mm L/56 gun. The development of this heavy tank was not begun, as is sometimes claimed, in response to the appearance of the T-34, but can be traced as far back as 1935 when the Ordnance Department first considered a 30-tonne tank armed with a 75mm gun that would be effective against French 2C, 3C and D heavy tanks. This was not a well-informed objective as 2C was already obsolete and 3C and D heavy tanks never existed, but in 1937 the Henschel company was asked to design a 30-tonne DW or breakthrough tank. By 1940 a 30-tonne tank was also designed by Ferdinand Porsche and in 1941 Krupp was awarded a contract for the development of a turret mounting a tank version of the 88mm L/56 anti-aircraft gun that had proved so effective in a ground role in Spain and in France. This was followed a month before the invasion of the Soviet Union by an order issued to Porsche and to Henschel to develop a tank in the 45 tonne class, which they did on the basis of their earlier 30-tonne tank designs. Porsche, who was apt to adopt novel but not always very practical ideas, produced a tank that had problems with its electric transmission and novel suspension and this led to Henschel’s tank being selected and produced as the Tiger.
As soon as they were ready, Hitler foolishly ordered four Tigers to be used on the Leningrad front, where they first saw action in October 1942. They were employed over unsuitable swampy terrain and one had to be abandoned in a peat bog from which it was recovered intact in January 1943 by the Russians, who were consequently not only forewarned of the existence of the new tank but were able to assess its characteristics in detail. In spite of this inauspicious debut, Tiger I or Model E became for a time the most powerfully armed tank in the world as well as having thicker armour than the British Matilda and the Soviet KV, and the 1,354 that were produced took a heavy toll of enemy tanks.
While the production of Tiger I and of the Panther was getting under way, a more immediate answer to the new Soviet tanks was found in PzKpfw IV re-armed with a long-barrelled 75mm L/43 gun instead of its original 75mm L/24. As a result PzKpfw IV not only caught up with Soviet tanks, which were re-armed two years earlier with a 76mm gun, 41.5 instead of 30.5 calibres long, but outperformed them. The first of the re-armed PzKpfw IV was produced in March 1942 and it remained effective until the end of the war, by which time 7,419 had been produced.
When the decision was taken in November 1941 to arm PzKpfw IV with the 75mm L/43 Hitler decided that the Sturmgeschutz or assault guns should also be armed with it. Sturmgeschutz, or StuG for short, were originally developed as a result of the acceptance by the German High Command of the policy advocated before the war by General Lutz and Guderian of concentrating all the available tanks in mobile formations and not allocating any to infantry support. This led the infantry to demand an armoured vehicle that could provide it with close support assault and anti-tank artillery. An order was consequently issued in 1936 for the development of such a vehicle and the first was produced in 1940. It was based on the chassis of the PzKpfw III and was armed with the same 75mm L/24 gun as the PzKpfw IV but mounted in the hull.
StuG was in effect a ‘turretless tank’. Because it had no turret, it had a lower silhouette and thicker armour in relation to its weight, as well as being cheaper to produce than a tank. It was less suitable for mobile warfare because of the limited traverse of its armament, but when armed with the 75mm L/43 it proved to be a highly effective anti-tank vehicle, so much so that it was credited with the destruction of 20,000 enemy tanks by 1944.46 On the eve of the invasion of the Soviet Union the German Army had 391 StuGs, and subsequently their number rose steadily. By the end of the war, a total of 9,409 had been produced and in spite of losses there were still 3,831 in use, making StuG the most numerous German armoured fighting vehicle at the time. Except when there was a shortage of tanks in the latter part of the war, StuG were not issued to the panzer regiments but were organized into separate battalions, which were used primarily to support infantry divisions.
When StuG and PzKpfw IV, armed with the 75mm L/43 and later L/48, began to be introduced in the spring of 1942 and were followed by the first Tigers and then by Panthers, the German Army reversed the situation in which it found itself when it invaded the Soviet Union and ran into the new Soviet tanks. It now possessed qualitative superiority that was to last until the end of the war.
In contrast, the Red Army did not for a time make any major changes to the tanks it had already developed, but concentrated on producing the maximum number of them to make good the losses suffered in 1941 and to regain numerical superiority. The continued production of a virtually unchanged T-34 is particularly noteworthy in view of the recognition of its shortcomings, which were brought home by the evaluation of two PzKpfw III purchased in the summer of 1940 when the relations between the Soviet Union and Germany were still amicable. Compared with the PzKpfw III, the T-34 had superior armour and armament, but its cramped two-man turret was obviously inferior to the three man turret of the German tank and it lacked the latter’s commander’s cupola, which provided good all-round vision. The torsion bar suspension of the PzKpfw III was also found to be superior to the Christie-type coil spring suspension of the T-34.47 As a result, a new T-34M tank was hastily designed incorporating a three-man turret and torsion bar suspension. Two prototypes began to be assembled in March 1941, but three months later the Soviet Union was invaded and further development of the T-34M, which is seldom mentioned in all the writing about the T-34, was abandoned.
Large scale production of the T-34 continued, although it suffered a temporary setback when the Kharkov plant where it originated was threatened by the German advance and a decision was taken in September 1941 to evacuate it as well as other plants, including the Leningrad plant producing KV heavy tanks, to the Urals. For a time this left the Stalingrad plant as the only major producer of T-34s, but a most remarkable industrial effort resulted in the first T-34 being produced in the Urals as early as December 1941.
In spite of the temporary interruption of tank production and the staggering losses suffered during the first six months of the war, the Red Army had 7,700 tanks at the end of 1941.50 This compared well with the total of 5,004 tanks that the German Army had at the time. Some of the Soviet tanks were in the Far East facing a possible Japanese threat while some of the German tanks were being sent to North Africa, but nevertheless the Red Army continued to enjoy considerable numerical superiority over the German Army. This became much more marked during 1942 when Soviet industry produced a total of 24,668 tanks, including 12,527 T-34s. As a result of this and in spite of further heavy losses, by the end of the year the Red Army had 20,600 tanks, whereas the German had only increased the number of its tanks to 5,931, although it had also increased the number of StuGs to 1,039. During 1943 the Red Army lost almost the equal of that year’s output of 24,000 tanks and assault guns, which included 15,833 T-34s. But in the following year production exceeded losses, and by the end of it the number of tanks and assault guns the Red Army had rose to 35,400. The number the German Army had also increased, but only to 12,451, and by then its panzers were facing not only Soviet tanks but also thousands of American and British tanks in Western Europe.
Their numerical inferiority did not prevent German armoured forces destroying more Soviet formations when these counter-attacked around Kharkov in May 1942 and later at Rzhev. But when they took part in the German offensive in June, Hitler split them between an assault on the industrial city of Stalingrad and an equally misguided drive aimed at the Caucasus oilfields, which overstretched their resources. This helped the Red Army to break through the German front in November 1942 and led to the encirclement of Stalingrad, where the remnants of the Sixth Army, including three panzer divisions, surrendered in January 1943. However, a month later panzer formations under the command of Field Marshal E. von Manstein smashed another Soviet offensive in the Donets basin and at Kharkov in what became a classic example of manoeuvre warfare.