Tracked vs Wheeled Vehicles

Typical heavily armed tracked vehicle (Russian T-90). Note high ground clearance and armor protecting tracks.

AFVs may be either tracked or wheeled. Both systems offer various advantages and disadvantages. Wheels offer increased speed and range with decreased weight and operational cost. Tracks offers superior cross-country performance and a tighter turning circle. Both systems are prone to damage when attacked by kinetic energy or explosive rounds, with tires shredding and tracks being thrown. This article reviews the history of the developmental and employment of both wheels and tracks on AFVs.

Tracked AFVs

Experiences during WWII suggested to most nations that while wheeled systems were suited for transportation functions (i.e., jeeps and supply trucks), ground combat operations required the mobility capabilities offered by tracked systems. The relatively low ground pressure resulting from the use of a continuous and broad track makes them well suited to operations in off-road conditions such as sand, mud and rough terrain. Tracked systems can also support a significantly heavier vehicle than wheels, making them the logical choice for Main Battle Tanks and heavy Infantry Fighting Vehicles.

Following the war most nations chose to select the use of tracks for AFV development. Heavy combat vehicles such as tanks, self-propelled artillery and infantry fighting vehicles were predominantly designed as tracked systems. Wheels were reserved for logistical functions (i.e. transport trucks) and some specialized applications that stressed speed over cross-country mobility, such as reconnaissance vehicles for use in highly populated areas. A summary of the advantages of tracked combat vehicles is presented below.

  • Can accommodate heavy armored vehicle designs, with many modern MBTs weighing upward of 70 tons. Current wheeled technologies limit overall vehicle weight to about 35 tons, and therefore are unsuited to heavy systems such as MBTs and self-propelled artillery.
  • Supporting greater weight tracked vehicles can mount heavier weapon systems and armor systems, offering greater firepower and higher levels of protection.
  • Tracks offer a stable firing platform as compared to wheeled vehicles when employing heavy weapons. The all metal construction of tracked systems offers less “bounce” or “swaying” in comparison to large rubber tires.
  • Produce a lower ground pressure than most wheeled vehicles, improving performance in demanding terrain such as mud and sand. Average tracked vehicles only produce about half the ground pressure of a wheeled vehicle of equivalent weight.
  • Offers superior overall tactical mobility, which is to say, the ability to respond quickly and decisively in an active combat situation with hostile forces. This includes both good off-road mobility and vehicle ‘agility’. Agility pertains to such aspects as speed, acceleration, turning circle and the ability to alter course quickly, which is often critical is taking evasive maneuvers.

Typical lightly armed wheeled vehicle (USMC LAV II). Note propeller at rear (amphibious vehicle) and light weight of wheel integration.

Wheeled AFVs

While most nations following WWII focused on the development of tracked armored vehicles. The Soviets pursued developing a wide range of both tracked and wheeled vehicles, leveraging the advantages that wheeled platforms offer for many battlefield applications. Wheeled vehicles offered the opportunity for rapid mobility, providing a critical strategic advantage. Though not suited to heavy combat vehicles such as MBTs, wheels did prove suitable for IFVs and APCs. Though generally not performing equivalently to tracked vehicles in actual combat situations or in rugged terrain, wheeled vehicles are able to move quickly about the battlefield.

The capability of wheeled vehicles to rapidly move about a combat theatre provides a decisive strategic advantage. This flexibility permits reallocation of firepower more rapidly than an opponent without wheeled vehicles can respond to. In this manner the use of wheeled vehicles brings to the modern battlefield much the same advantage offered by light cavalry in bygone wars. The rapidly moving forces can be effectively used to provide flank coverage and flank attacks, to pursue a fleeing enemy, to disrupt an opponent’s efforts to consolidate forces, to quickly reinforce potential breaches in defensive lines, and to seize the initiative through rapidly responding to opportunities presented at enemy weak points (where tracked vehicles can be seen as the equivalent of heavy cavalry, being used to directly smash the opponent in head-to-head confrontations).

As the significant advantages offered by Soviet wheeled vehicles became apparent America also decided to invest in wheeled combat capabilities. The key moment came when Russian forces were able to respond to the collapse of Yugoslavia much more quickly than NATO forces were able to. Though NATO forces were located more closely to Yugoslavia than the Russian forces, the Russians were actually able to occupy key strategic locations throughout the country days in advance of the arrival of NATO units. Where each NATO tracked vehicle had to be loaded and unloaded onto rail cars for transportation, the nimble Russian wheeled vehicles simply drove at high speed across Europe using the existing road systems.

This example made the superior strategic position offered to Russia as a result of their use of wheeled vehicles painfully obvious to the NATO commanders. Consequently US Army Chief of Staff General Eric K. Shinseki drove the requirement for wheeled vehicles in the US inventory. His efforts ultimately resulted in the introduction of the Stryker Family of Combat Vehicles to the US Army. These fast and light-weight vehicles, used in conjunction with air transportation assets, provide the US Army the unprecedented ability to respond at a Brigade level to a military situation anywhere in the world within a 96 hour period.

Ultimately countries have come to recognize that wheeled combat vehicles offer unique advantages and that a “mixed” force consisting of both tracked and wheeled vehicles provides military formations the maximum strategic flexibility and mobility on the modern battlefield. A summary of the advantages offered by wheeled combat vehicles is presented below.

  • Wheeled vehicles use far less fuel than tracked vehicles when driving on roads, with this advantage decreasing with the ruggedness of the terrain over which the vehicle is driving. The consumption rate of other vehicle fluids such as oil is also reduced. Therefore the vehicles can travel farther without having to stop for refueling. Consequently the logistic train (i.e., trucks hauling fuel and spare parts to support operations) is reduced. Logistics provisioning is a major cost for modern armies, largely sets the pace at which forces can advance along a front, and are a huge liability, as unarmed trucks hauling materials to the front are vulnerable to attack. Valuable combat assets must therefore be stripped from the front line and assigned to protect them.
  • Significantly reduced maintenance requirements compared to tracked vehicles. Wheeled systems do not see the high loads that occur in tracked systems, reducing maintenance down time, frequency of repairs, and need to stock a large supply of replacement parts. A higher proportion of a fleet is therefore available at any time to engage in combat duties. Also, for a given amount of funding more vehicles can be maintained and kept fielded. Maintenance costs are a major driver of overall military budgetary constraints.
  • Wheeled vehicles are much faster than tracked vehicles, and able to travel for protracted distances using existing road systems without interruption. For example an 8×8 vehicle can drive at 60 mph on a road for many hundreds of miles without stopping. Tracked vehicles are not suited to travelling long distances. The wear on the track system is too high, and the vehicles begin to suffer breakdowns en-route. Engines overheat and the vehicles must be stopped periodically to cool down.
  • Wheeled vehicles offer superior ‘operational mobility’, which is the ability of a military force to quickly respond to a battlefield crisis (i.e., breach in defensive lines) or opportunity (i.e., breach in enemy lines).
  • Wheeled vehicles actually provide a better mounting system for lighter weapons such as the 25 mm autocannon and ATGM launch systems due to the inherent stabilization offered by the rubber tires. This improves the performance of these weapons, minimally impacting aiming accuracy when firing while on the move.
  • Though the turning circle of wheeled vehicles is larger than tracked vehicles, wheeled vehicles offer greater overall agility and are much more responsive to being driven that tracked vehicles. Wheeled vehicles are generally faster, accelerate more rapidly, and can weave and zig-zag better than tracked vehicles, all critical to taking evasive maneuvers to avoid being targeted or impacted by enemy forces. To exemplify this, consider how quickly you can respond to unforeseen events on the highway when driving your car as compared to operating a bulldozer.
  • Occupants of a wheeled vehicle do not suffer from fatigue as quickly as those in tracked vehicles. The heavy vibration of tracked vehicles cause their crews to lose focus and transported troops to suffer body aches at a much faster rate than occupants in a tire cushioned vehicle. Passengers in many modern wheeled vehicles are provided the same level of comfort as might be typical for a bus or pick-up truck.
  • Wheeled vehicles generally have superior survivability against mine strikes. Having a greater ground clearance to accommodate the suspension system, this distance proves critical in reducing the blast wave strength. More complex hull geometries can also be integrated into this increased space claim available under the vehicle, further mitigating blast effects. A 6×6 or 8×8 vehicle is still often road worthy following a mine strike. With only a single disabled wheel station the vehicles are often able to extract themselves from dangerous situations and in many cases have proven able to continue with the mission. Tracked vehicles by contrast are completely immobilized by a single track pin being sheared by a blast, which results in their throwing a track with any attempt to move. These vehicles render their crews vulnerable to subsequent follow-up attacks and often are abandoned to the enemy to scavenge or even re-deploy. This situation was commonly encountered during operations in Iraq, with ISIS taking possession of many marginally damaged tracked vehicles.
  • Wheeled vehicles are much quieter than tracked vehicles. This makes them better suited to reconnaissance duties, permitting the vehicle to get closer to enemy forces without being detected.
  • The low weight of wheeled systems facilities producing an amphibious vehicle, permitting crossing of rivers and waterborne launching of vehicles off naval ships.

American Tanks Do Not Surrender

Sep 12, 1918 – French-supplied US Army Renault light tanks, led by Lieutenant Colonel George S. Patton, advancing as part of the American offensive on the German salient at Saint-Mihiel, in eastern France.

It was March 23, 1918, and George could barely contain his excitement as the train chugged and clattered its way up to the station at Bourg. He had spent the past year working his way through the ranks up to captain and establishing a Tank School in the French city. And today was the day that his first ten tanks would finally arrive.

Much as George loved horses, and much as he’d enjoyed his first skirmish driving a Dodge car, there was something about the tank that he just couldn’t get enough of. Its sheer brutal power and capacity for destruction appealed to his aggressive nature. There was nothing subtle about them, nothing that danced around the topic—the tank was a force of destructive power that knew nothing except to charge fearlessly into battle. Perhaps George felt a kind of kinship with them.

Either way, when the train hissed and puffed to a halt at the station where George stood waiting for it, it took all of his self-control to stop him from rushing up to it. A different officer might have stood and watched as the tanks were backed off the train, but George went straight into the first tank, driving it himself with typical hands-on enthusiasm. There was also one practical consideration: George was the only American present who had any experience driving tanks at all.

Earlier in the year, George had been sent to Liverpool as Pershing’s personal aide. When Pershing was sent to Paris, George followed him there, where he’d spent three months overseeing the training of American troops there. After that he was moved to Chaumont and oversaw the base. All this training and organizing was something he found intensely boring; he implored Pershing to get him to the front lines and into the thick of the action, and Pershing did his best. With cavalry being used less and less, Pershing aimed to give George command of an infantry battalion. At that point, George didn’t care what he was allowed to command as long as he could get into the fighting. As British Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig described in his diary after meeting the young man, he was “a fire-eater, and longs for the fray.”

As George himself started hunting for a different position in the army, the idea of working with tanks started to occur to him. At first, he was strongly opposed to them and preferred the cavalry that he’d grown up with, but gradually, he started to warm to the idea. One aspect that appealed to him was that the troops inside the tanks were kept a little safer from gunfire than most other soldiers. George himself appeared to have no fear for his life and never did, but he wrote to Bea that “I love you too much to try to get killed.”

When he came down with jaundice and had to be admitted to hospital, George was no doubt frustrated by even more idleness. But it was in the hospital that he met Colonel Fox Connor. Connor was a great commander in his own right, but he is best known for his mentorship of young officers that would later become prominent in World War II; he was the man who made Eisenhower. He immediately recognized a fighter in George and encouraged him to work with tanks.

Finally, on November 10, 1917, George was given his assignment to establish the AEF Light Tank School. After being trained by the French army at Champlieu, studying the results of the Battle of Cambrai, and going to the Renault factory to watch the tanks being made, George was finally ready to teach his fellow Americans how to drive tanks.

On April 3, 1918, shortly after his precious borrowed tanks had arrived at the Tank School on the train, George was promoted to lieutenant colonel. In between attending the Command and General Staff College in Langres, he also trained his men to use tanks in support of infantry. In this period, he wrote a 58-page paper on light tanks. His childhood tutors would probably have fainted to discover that their “dimwitted” pupil had just written the basis of the US Tank Corps, dyslexia or no.

Even considering his demonstrations were going well and inspections of the Tank School had rendered others impressed, George was still bored; he longed to be on the actual front, in the thick of the fighting. Major LaFavre, a Frenchman, finally indulged the fiery young commander by driving him to the German front for a look at the battle. Although George didn’t actually get to fight, he did take off his helmet and have a smoke to insult the Germans.

Finally, in August 1918, George was given command over the 1st Tank Battalion and sent along with the rest of the Tank Corps to the railroad through St. Mihiel to Verdun. They were to free the railroad, allowing for the establishment of a new base. George was to go into battle at last. His speech the night before the fight was to the point: “American tanks do not surrender.”

September 12, 1918, would be George’s first taste of a world war. He waited in his tank behind the front lines, listening to the shelling. At first, he was nervous about sticking his head out of the parapet, but within a few hours of the fight starting, George was bored of waiting. He climbed out of the tank and headed into the thick of battle on foot.

This day would be one of the best of George’s life: reckless, dangerous, characterized by rash decisions, and endlessly exciting. He marched fearlessly across a bridge that was presumed to be mined (it wasn’t), hitched a ride on random tanks that he came across, and spent a few hours hiding in an open shell hole – a hole blown in the earth by an explosive shell – after diving off a tank that was being violently fired on. He escaped the shell hole  by traveling across the battlefield, listening for the sounds of the machine guns and throwing himself to the ground anytime he heard the machine guns open. He described his calculation of the time between the guns opening and the bullets arriving as “the only use I know of that math has ever been to me.”

He returned to his ranks later that afternoon to happily organize an attack on a small town called Beney. Even discovering that his food hamper had been replaced with rocks by some courageous prisoner of war wasn’t enough to dampen George’s enthusiasm; he simply pinched some crackers off a dead German and carried on with his organizing.

The next day, Patton adopted what would be his characteristic method of leadership: leading from the front. Walking in front of his tanks as an inspiring example to his men, he led his troops to victory, capturing Jonville on September 14. The battle had been a great triumph for the Allies and especially for George. Only five of his men had been killed in the battle, and the success of the tanks had proven to high command that they were more than useful—in the right hands though.

And it was largely agreed that George’s hands were about as right as they could get.

A Purple Heart for George

September 26, 1918 dawned with thick fog and even thicker enemy fire.

The hoarse crack of German machine guns filled the sky as George led his brigade towards Cheppy, determined to clear out those nests of guns and clear the way for the U.S. I Corps, who followed behind. A hundred and fifty tanks rumbled on behind them; George led the way on foot, watchful among the heavy fog. It shrouded the landscape, hiding the hulking shapes of enemy guns, muffling their crack so that the loudest sound seemed to be the eerie rumble of the tanks that followed them.

At George’s side, his orderly, Private First Class Joe Angelo, strode along with not a care in the world. At only twenty-two, he was as fresh-faced as a young boy. Gun tucked close to his body, he kept one eye on the enemy and one on George.

A crossroads emerged from the fog as they advanced. George gestured sharply, bringing the men and tanks to an abrupt halt. He listened for a moment to the sound of the machine guns before turning to Joe and speaking in a low voice. “Stay here and watch for the Germans,” he ordered. “I’m going on ahead.” Before Joe could protest, George shifted his gun and headed on up the knoll ahead, scanning the shrouded landscape for sign of the enemy. He was determined to flush out those nests of sinister enemies and destroy them with the power of his tanks. The loudest sound in the muffling mist was his own harsh breathing as he advanced slowly, leaving his fifteen men behind.

The deafening whistle of a shell split the silence. George flung himself to the earth as shells hurtled above him; he heard the crack and thunder of their explosions behind him and prayed that his men and tanks were safe. Then, a familiar shot rang out from somewhere near the crossroads—the sound of an American rifle discharging. Adrenaline stung George’s hands and feet and he scrambled back over the knoll, shouting, heedless of the Germans all around.

“Joe!” he yelled. “Is that you shooting down there?”

Joe’s response was lost in the chaos of machine guns and shells that broke loose, the air shattered with bullets and explosives.  It was as if the clouds had burst and were raining death down upon them. George hurried over the knoll in time to see him gesture with his rifle towards the body of a German soldier that lay nearby in a pool of blood. George’s blood was on fire.

“Come on!” he yelled down to Joe. “We’ll clean out these nests.”

Joe scrambled up the hill beside his commander and they advanced together towards the ranks of German machine guns, expecting their tanks to emerge from the fog and reinforce their attack at any moment, but no support came. A heavy spatter of machine gun shots sent them both diving for cover. George cursed. “Why aren’t my boys taking out these nests?” he snapped. “Joe, go and find out what’s going on back there.”

Joe was back almost as quickly as he’d disappeared, running half-crouched to avoid the screaming bullets. “The tanks are stuck in the mud, sir!”

George swore again. “Follow me.”

They crawled, then ran, back to the tanks, which were sunken to the hubs in mud. George seized a shovel and started digging, yelling at his men and at Joe to hurry up and help. Sweat poured down the back of his neck as he worked manically, aware of the shells that struck ever closer, sending up sprays of earth. Half-deafened by the chaos, George looked up at last to see his tanks moving again. More by gestures than words, he urged them forward and led them back up the hill. Now they could return fire and the world dissolved into one continuous blast of noise.

Halfway down the other side of the hill, they spotted a huddle of infantrymen among a scattering of bodies. They turned their terrified faces to George, clinging to their guns and each other with pale shadows of that morning’s bravado.

“What are you lot doing?” George roared at them.

“We don’t know what to do, sir,” one cried plaintively. “Our officers are all dead.”

“Joe, take these men to the tank detachment,” George barked. The infantrymen hurried over to Joe, delighted to finally have leadership; the fact that it came in the form of a Private First Class like themselves did not occur to them. Joe led them quickly back to the tanks. Heavy fire from the German artillery continued to pound into the American ranks. Seeing that they were drawing all the fire, George yelled for Joe again. “Go ‘round the side and wipe out those German nests,” he ordered. “Take fifteen men with you.”

Joe’s eyes were two terrified white circles in his dirty face. “I’m sorry, but they’ve all been killed.”

Despair filled George for a moment. “My God! They’re not all gone?”

“I’m sorry, sir. They’ve all been killed by machine guns.”

George gritted his teeth, fire rising in him on behalf of the brave men that had all perished. “I’ll clear them out myself,” he growled, seizing his gun and heading for the heaviest fire.

“Sir! No, sir!” Joe lunged forward and grabbed George by the arm. “It’s suicide!”

George grasped a handful of Joe’s dark, wavy curls where they stuck out from under his helmet and shook him so hard that the young man’s teeth rattled. “We’re going,” he said and plunged into the fog. Joe was right behind him. Blood seething, George charged forward. Then a muzzle flashed in the mist, terribly close. George heard the crack and felt something shatter in his thigh. He stumbled to a halt, barely comprehending, as pain began to blossom through his leg. When he looked down, a round circle of blood had opened on his leg.

“Sir.” Joe was beside him.

George could say nothing. He collapsed without a sound.

With bullets raining around them, it was young Joe who pulled the unconscious George to safety, despite the danger he was placing himself in. He dragged his commander to the nearest shell hole and bandaged the wounds in his leg: the entrance wound in his thigh and the ugly exit wound in his left buttock. For two hours, George lay senseless in the shell hole as Joe kept watch. When he revived, his first concern was for the battle. Lying in the mud and blood, he swiftly took command of the battle. Joe was instrumental; he ran back and forth between George and the tanks, carrying his orders all over the battlefield despite the peril. It was only after those German nests were finally destroyed that Joe was allowed to find some infantrymen to help carry George out of the shell- hole and to safety. And George would only allow himself to be taken to a hospital once he’d given his report to a command post.

George received the Distinguished Service Cross for his actions that day, as well as a Purple Heart when the award was established in 1932. Joe was also awarded a Distinguished Service Cross, but perhaps the highest title he could lay claim to was the way that snobbish George chose to describe his low-born orderly: “without doubt the bravest man in the American Army.” He told American newspapers in 1919 that he had never seen Joe’s equal.

George’s wound meant the end of World War I for him. While he was promoted to colonel not long after his part in the battle, the Meuse-Argonne Offensive – as the battle would be known later – would prove successful. The victory came at a high price, in both lives and currency; in only three hours, the Allies alone used more ammunition than was fired in the entire American Civil War. The offensive would continue for forty-seven days and cost almost sixty thousand German and American lives alone. But on November 11, 1918, an armistice would finally bring an end to the First World War.

George stayed in Europe recuperating from his injury until March 1919. Then he was sent home to Camp Meade, Maryland to serve as a major. In June he was sent to Washington, D. C. to write manuals on the operating of tanks. Here he started to revolutionize the strategic use of tanks in the American army, assisted by Dwight D. Eisenhower, who would later become the Allied commander of the Second World War. George and Eisenhower forged a partnership that would prove formidable in the war that was coming.

The Tiger and Panther – Conclusions

Tiger I E

Panther G

Tiger II

The prospect of making a nearly invulnerable and deadly but still usable tank was briefly realized by the Soviet Union in 1941 – 42 with the T-34. Accelerating technology in anti-tank weaponry changed this, but to their credit the Soviets focused on producing the same vehicle but improving their logistics, tactics and communications, which in the long run turned out to be a far superior force multiplier. They also concentrated on making a large number of a few different designs, simplifying both their production and logistics. The tactics they designed relied upon having hundreds of reliable tanks available at any given time for their operations – while these were not the best protected and best armed tanks in the field, there were always enough for infantry support duties (independent tank regiments) and exploitation of breakthroughs (tank armies). Their success speaks for itself, delivering actual operational victories instead of the occasional thrilling tactical narrative, that, while making for fun reading for German tank enthusiasts, were a poor substitute for the support the Heer so desperately needed.

The Americans followed a similar strategy to the Soviets, focusing on the reliable and easily produced Sherman. This vehicle was produced in such quantity that the Americans were not only able to lavishly equip their own forces, but were able to supply their allies as well, with M4s equipping entire Commonwealth and Soviet tank brigades by 1944. The Americans didn’t focus on maneuver as much as the Soviet Union, but this was natural given smaller overall size of the theater they were engaged in. Their firepower intensive tactics were more than adequate given their strength in logistics, and they could certainly maneuver if given the space and opportunity as the Normandy breakout and the surrounding of the Ruhr in 1945 demonstrates.

The Germans, meanwhile, tried to make invulnerable, heavily armed tanks, not realizing that this approach was not viable given the limitations of the technology of the day. They went ahead anyway despite early indications of their heavy tanks’ shortcomings, applying the same ‘we’ll figure it out as we go’ mentality to their vehicle production as they did to their military operations. Faith in their National-Socialist engineers also played a role in this – any vehicles they developed had to be by definition the best. The propaganda surrounding these vehicles was so effective, it not only convinced the Germans but later generations of foreigners as well as to the superiority of their designs.

Even the prospect of using such tanks in positional warfare like the fighting around Leningrad, the Panther Line, Italy and Normandy was no longer necessarily a guarantee of good results due to the existence of allied AT weapons capable of destroying them. Attempts to stay ahead of these increasingly deadly allied counter-weapons merely resulted in utterly unreliable vehicles like the Tiger II, Jagdtiger and Sturmtiger. While there were few allied weapons capable of destroying these vehicles, they were largely unnecessary as the super heavy tanks tended to take themselves out of the picture by breaking down well before they reached the battlefield.

The German shortage of tanks from 1943 to the end of the war is constantly commented upon, and is usually put forward as some sort of unfair allied advantage that Axis forces must somehow overcome. The fact that this came about due to decisions deliberately made by the upper echelons of the German government to produce fewer ‘high quality’ vehicles is seldom if ever mentioned.

The popularity of the German heavy tanks with the soldiers who used them and the troops they supported comes as no surprise. They could be very effective from the limited tactical point of view of the average soldier on the ground, who didn’t notice or care how much fuel the vehicles were consuming or how difficult they were to maintain. They also kept their crews relatively safe from enemy fire, turning aside shot that would have destroyed vehicles with less armor, while their main armament could overcome the tanks of their opponents from great distances. If the crew had to destroy the vehicle after it broke down, they could always get another – if they had to sit out a battle because their tank was being repaired, there was always the next one or the one after. Hopefully, some enterprising infantry commander wouldn’t dragoon them into his company as replacements while they were waiting. It was the after-action reports written by these men, in addition to the hype by the National-Socialist press, that was read by later generations of tank enthusiasts and the myth of German tank supremacy was born.

Another factor was how these weapons were seen from the allied perspective. Their sheer physical size could be terrifying – some had their vehicles destroyed by them, or watched as their shots bounced off their heavy armor. That this didn’t happen too terribly often is lost in the reading of these exiting encounters, and this feeds into the myth as well. The German heavies left such a large psychological impression that soon every one of their tanks that was encountered became a ‘Tiger’, even if none were in the area. While their mystique did have a power all its own, one can’t help but think that this was a poor substitute for actual combat capability in German units.

After Normandy, the rest of the war was a downward spiral for the Wehrmacht. The ‘industrial miracle’ of 1944 by German industry was largely an illusion. While large quantities of vehicles were produced, this was done at the expense of replacement engines, spare parts and logistical support vehicles. The Soviet Union had done a similar exercise in the 1930s – while the large production numbers may have been of significant propaganda value, the formations created tended to be brittle, lasting only for one battle or two before disintegrating.

There was also little fuel for the gas hungry heavy tanks due to Western Allied bombing of refineries in addition to the Soviet seizure of the main German source of fuel in Ploesti, Romania. Even the fuel that could be produced had a difficult time making its way forward through increasingly effective air interdiction.

Years of attrition and defeat in the east had mortally wounded the German army – the disaster in Normandy and the destruction of Army Group Center in Belorussia effectively destroyed it. Panthers were massacred at Arracourt in September 1944 by supposedly inferior Sherman tanks and M-10 and M-18 tank destroyers. Redeploying their armor in the east to try and seal the gap created by the destruction of Army Group Center, the Germans left Romania vulnerable – the Soviets took advantage of this absence and seized the country, destroying the German 6th Army in the process.

The rest of the war was pointless offensives by the Wehrmacht and the holding of temporary lines as the Nazis threw less and less capable formations in front of the increasingly professional allied armies – these efforts could at best delay defeat in the amount of time it took for these hollow divisions to be destroyed. Some will point to tactical narratives in 1944 – 45 where the German heavy tanks were victorious to try and maintain that these vehicles were superior, but these incidents had no more outcome on the fighting than similar incidents with heavy allied tanks at Stonne and Arras in France in 1940.

The Panther has the reputation of being the ‘best tank’ of World War II. Steven Zaloga (whose work I highly admire) even goes so far as to say that it could be considered to be the world’s first main battle tank (MBT). As for the first claim, the best one can say is that it might look that way on paper. What’s never included in the detailed schematics of these vehicles is how often they were actually present on the battlefield, and how often their superior armor and armament translated into more positive outcomes for the battles in which they were present. As for Zaloga’s claim, the T-34 is the first tank that qualifies for this honor, and indeed could perform more of the battlefield tasks of an MBT (infantry support, exploitation of breakthroughs and anti-tank assignments) better than the Panther even though it was an earlier design. The Panther was superior in its anti-tank capability – indeed, it could be considered more of a heavy tank destroyer than a main battle tank given is capabilities. Far from being the war’s best tank, it wasn’t even the best tank destroyer. While it may have had better armor protection than the British Firefly, the American M-36 or the Soviet SU-100, what really mattered was which vehicle got the first hit in an exchange of fire – in this circumstance, the Panther’s extra armor was just added weight. The allied vehicles were also more likely to be encountered in quantities that would make a difference, being more reliable and backed by a superior logistics system that kept them plentifully supplied with fuel and ammunition.

Finally, it should be kept in mind that the design of the Panther wasn’t even original – it was an attempt to copy the Soviet T-34 and it failed to do even this. The supposed improvements to the Soviet’s design only served to make the vehicle difficult to produce and operate – there’s nothing particularly innovative about weighing a design down with so much armor that its transmission continually fails and immobilizes the tank.

Since armor enthusiasts tend to be more aware of the Tiger’s shortcomings, it’s seldom listed as the Second World War’s best tank – it was a useful idea, but poorly executed. Its main armament was very effective in terms of both HE and AT performance – it was also highly resistant to the most common Allied AT weapons, even from the side. However, it suffered from the same problems as the Panther in terms of its mechanical complexity. Despite this, it was able to utilize its advantages to good effect when the front was relatively static or other situations where it didn’t have to travel far.

Allied Vehicles

Western allied heavy tanks went through a slow development process, with both the British and the Americans coming up with valid designs by 1944. The British fielded the Churchill MKVII and VIII, vehicles that combined good reliability and armor capable of resisting the most commonly encountered German AT weapons – most notably the 75mm Pak 40. The MKVII had a useful 75mm gun that was capable of engaging soft targets like infantry and artillery successfully as well as the German vehicles it was most likely to fight, the Stug III and Pzkw IV. The MkVII was a specialist close support version with a 95mm howitzer capable of taking out heavier field fortifications. Several engineering variants were produced as well, each of which were invaluable in improving the mobility of Commonwealth armored formations and overcoming the most common obstacle to the Western Allied advance through Europe – infantry and artillery strongpoints, which the Churchill AVRE and Crocodile variants were able to assist their hard pressed infantry in overcoming. The vehicle’s major shortcoming was its slow speed, which mostly regulated its service to where the advance was proceeding at a more sluggish pace, like Normandy, the Reichswald or a siege of one of the German held Channel ports. Reliability in the MKVII version and beyond ensured that it was always present in sufficient numbers to give adequate support and provide a positive boost to operational outcomes.

The Americans initially had the most practical response to their need for a heavy tank – they modified their M4 medium tank design, creating the M4A3E2 Assault Tank. It should be noted that this design wasn’t meant to be a ‘breakthrough’ tank, but a column leader capable of shrugging off hits from the most common German AT weapons – it was even resistant to the 88mm Pak 36 and the Panther’s 75mm L/70. It was armed only with the 75 and 76mm guns found on other Sherman designs instead of the potentially more useful 105mm, which would have been much more effective against soft targets. Even though only 250 were made, they were so popular that many armored units made their own versions in their field workshops. While the extra armor made the E2 a little slower, it didn’t noticeably reduce its reliability.

For the sake of completion, the American T26 Pershing should also be included. While the tank’s heavy armor made it more resistant to German AT weapons, it did not stand up well to the tanks it was designed to defeat – like so many armor engagements, success in these encounters depended upon who spotted their enemy and engaged first. The T26’s main gun had both good HE and AT performance – however, the tank was much more mechanically unreliable than the M4 and its notable that in the Korean War that the Sherman was the preferred tank due to its superior mobility.

The Soviet Union ended up having the best heavy tank program of any of the World War II belligerents after something of rough start. The KV-1 and KV-2, like the Tiger and Panther, were good for the occasional spectacular tactical victory that could be exploited for propaganda purposes, but like their later German counterparts on the whole were operational liabilities due to their weight and mechanical unreliability.

To their credit, the Soviets improved their vehicle by creating the KV-1S. This tank was lighter by way of sacrificing armor protection, and it’s improved transmission meant it spent much less time in the repair shop and also made it easier to drive. Its turret had a better layout and was smaller (saving more weight), had a faster traverse and a commander’s cupola, all of which made it easier for it to spot enemies and get the all important first shot off in an engagement. When the models that proceeded it proved to be unworkable, production of them ceased, although the chassis of the KV-1 continued to soldier on in the form of the SU-152 – a useful infantry support vehicle with a secondary anti-tank capability.

The KV-1S was later further modified by replacing the turret with that of the vehicle that represented the future of Soviet heavy tank design, the JS-85. Called the KV-85, this tank had the armor to stand up to all but the heaviest German AT weapons, while its 85mm gun could threaten even the German heavy tanks in most circumstances. The 85mm HE round also had superior performance to the 76mm gun carried by the earlier T-34 as well as any German medium tank, the Panther and the Stug III. The KV-85’s mechanical shortcomings doomed the design to a short production run and the vehicle along with the earlier KV-1S began to be replaced in Soviet heavy tank regiments with the JS series.

The JS-85 was the first vehicle produced, but since its main armament was the same as the T-34/85 medium tank, it was soon replaced by the JS-2 with a 122mm gun. A 100mm gun with better AT performance had been available, but the 122mm was chosen due a number of considerations – first, the 122mm was a very common weapon in the Soviet arsenal, so spare parts and ammunition would be easy to come by. Second, the 122mm had superior HE performance while still retaining a significant AT capability. Since the Soviets envisioned the vehicle as being primarily for breaking through German fortified lines manned mostly by infantry and AT guns, the chosen gun was a logical choice. The drawback of this weapon was its low rate of fire (thanks to it using ammunition that came in two parts that needed to be assembled before firing) and the fact that the relatively compact vehicle could only hold 28 rounds of ammunition.

Its armored protection from the front was proof against the more commonly encountered German AT weapons and could often deflect even 88mm and 75mm L/70 rounds carried by the Panther and JgPz IV/70 tank destroyers. The side armor provided protection against the 75mm Pak 40, which was by far the most common German AT weapon in 1944, the vehicular version arming the later model PzkwIV, Stug III and IV, JgPz IV, Marder and Hetzer vehicles. Greater armor protection was of course possible, but since this would have compromised the JS-2’s mobility and reliability, the Soviets chose not to do this.

The JS-2’s small size and well placed, sloped armor stood it in good stead with German heavy tank designs. At 46 tons, it weighed about the same as the Panther despite having far superior all-around armor protection, and of course the 122mm main armament could effectively engage a variety of targets, unlike the Panther’s 75mm which was optimized for destroying tanks. Meanwhile, the Tiger IE weighed 57 tons and the Tiger II an unwieldy 70 tons.

The JS-2 also had the other common Soviet virtues of being easier to manufacture and maintain. Ease of manufacture meant large numbers could be fielded in independent tank regiments that could be attached to infantry armies whenever breakthrough operations were about to commence – starting in late 1944, the regiments were expanded to brigades that concentrated the firepower and shock value of these vehicles even more. Tank armies were also given a regiment of JS-2s to use as the situation warranted.

The chassis of the JS-2 was produced in such quantity that it was also utilized for the JSU-122 and JSU-152 assault guns. These turretless vehicles were often used in a similar fashion to the JS tanks, as overwatch vehicles during an advance over open ground or as an accompaniment to infantry assault teams operating in an urban environment.

Given its strengths, the JS-2 was the best heavy tank of the war – but it wasn’t the best tank overall. There is a tie for this honor between the M4A3 Sherman and the T-34/85 with the advantage going to the latter due its wider tracks that improved its off-road mobility over soft ground (although this was later addressed in the M4 in late 1944 with a field modification that attached extenders to the side of the tracks) and the superior performance of its 85mm gun – unlike the later Sherman with its 76mm gun, the upgraded T-34 did not sacrifice HE capability for improved anti-tank performance.

The Sherman gets an honorable mention for its sheer utility. Used by every allied army, it saw action in every major theater where World War II was fought and performed superbly in every one of them, giving the allies a decisive edge in operational mobility and massed firepower. Manufactured only in the United States, the tanks themselves, as well as the spare parts and ammunition that sustained them were shipped overseas to the fronts that required them. Its mechanical simplicity and compact size meant that many could be manufactured and easily shipped, while its reliability meant that not only would more be present on the front line, less space in freighters would be required for spares and could instead be used for other purposes. An allied victory may still have been possible without the M4, but it would have taken much longer and been far more costly. While the Panther and Tiger could produce isolated tactical victories that may or may not have been relevant to the larger battle being fought, the M4 was an instrument of global operational and strategic success.

In the end, the decision to produce the Tiger and Panther tanks, and to continue to produce them even after they had proven to be ineffective, was an enormous mistake that made an allied victory easier than it would have been otherwise. Instead of producing these two behemoths, Germany should have followed the example of Soviet and American industry, focusing on one key design that would be produced throughout the war that had the capability to be modified as circumstances dictated, that was mechanically reliable, fuel efficient and easy to produce and repair.

Rather than design an entirely new tank, the Germans should have focused on improving the Pzkw IV by giving it a more powerful and fuel efficient diesel engine, wider tracks and enhanced protection, but only from the most common allied AT weapons. As far as armament is concerned, the vehicle’s KwK 40 L/48 gun was more than adequate. Germany’s other excellent, more potent (but heavier and larger) AT guns could have been left to turretless tank destroyer/assault gun designs that could also be more heavily armored than conventional tanks due to the weight saved by mounting the gun in a casement.

Such changes would have allowed the Germans to produce far more AFV than they did historically – as an example, for each Tiger produced, the Germans could have manufactured seven Stug IIIs. Such numbers could have provided many more German infantry divisions with their own battalion of this very useful vehicle, and it could have even been distributed to Germany’s allies in greater quantities and earlier than they were historically, which would have greatly improved these formations’ staying power in the field.

If a new vehicle was to be made, it should have been an all-terrain truck that was capable of keeping the panzer spearheads supplied. The need for such a vehicle was obvious after the failure of Barbarossa – the German blindness to this lesson was one of the reasons for the failure of their summer offensive in 1942 as the panzers continually ran out of fuel and spares, causing tanks to be left behind and depleting their divisions of the mass needed to carry through their attacks and exploitation successfully.

The failure to appreciate the nature of the problems that beset their organization led to the downfall of the Heer in 1944 – 45. These final years were the most destructive of the war, so it is for the best that the German armed forces were incapable of prolonging the inevitable.

Normandy was the Wehrmacht’s last chance to score a meaningful operational victory. If the allied bridgehead could have been rapidly driven back into the sea, significant reserves could have been sent east to stem the ruinous offensives launched by the Red Army in mid-late 1944. It is doubtful if the war would have had a positive outcome for Germany, but it would have made the allied victory a much more costly affair.

That the war was to continue for another year was due as much to allied logistical limitations as to German resistance. The Volksgrenadier Divisions, Volkssturm, Panzer Brigades and other expedient units could only briefly delay the inevitable – the Soviet Vistula-Oder Offensive annihilated scores of these stop-gap units in a matter of weeks.

The counter-attack around Arracourt, the Ardennes counter-offensive, Nordwind, and Operation Konrad and Spring Awakening were all doomed to operational insignificance due to the German’s inability to logistically sustain them, the steady loss of mass in the Panzer formations due to increasing mechanical breakdowns and increasingly effective allied counter-measures.

The July Plotters who bravely sought the destruction of the Nazi regime were correct in their assessment of the conflict’s progress – the war was effectively over and the only thing remaining to be determined was how much of Europe and her population were to be spared before it was over. The best that can be said of the Tiger and Panther tanks is that they helped hasten this conclusion.


Boxer APC variant with crew and troop compliment.

Concept of a ‘mission module’ (top) being fit into the general purpose chassis (bottom).

View from the rear of the Boxer chassis without a mission module in place.

German APC variant of Boxer with FLW-200 RWS equipped with 50 calibre heavy machine gun. ‘APC’ (Armored Personnel Carrier) from ‘Aliens’ becomes reality.

Boxer with Lance turret. Commander and gunner sights can be seen.

The Boxer IFV – note protected gun barrel and extensive use of AMAPS bolt-on armor modules.

Blast protected Energy Absorbing (EA) seating in Boxer.

The Boxer is a multirole modularly designed IFV designed as a joint effort by Germany and the Netherlands. It is manufactured by two large German based military companies, Krauss-Maffei Wegmann and Rheinmetall. The modular design concept was envisaged as a system to provide a vehicle that could be re-configured in a maintenance building into a number of different variants, each purposed to meet a particular military operational requirements. These readily exchangeable mission modules permit one vehicle to satisfy a number of mission roles, included armored personal carrier, fire support and reconnaissance. It is projected that the Dutch will purchase approximately 400 of the vehicles, while the Germans are planning to procure at least 600 vehicles.

The 8×8 wheeled Boxer is heavy for an IFV with a curb weight of 53,000 pounds (24 metric tonnes) and a total combat weight of 80,000 pounds (36.5 metric tonnes). The vehicle is approximately 26 feet (7.9 meters) in length, 10 feet (3 meters) wide and 7.9 feet (2.4 meters) in height. The Boxer is operated by a crew of three, consisting of a driver, commander and gunner. The driver is situated in the forward right hand side of the vehicle. The commander and gunner are located in the turret for those configuration within a turret and behind the driver in all other variants. The Armored Personnel Carrier (APC) configuration transports a compliment of 8 troops.

The Boxer is powered by a 711 hp MTU 8V 199 TE20 diesel engine that delivers an impressive power to weight ratio of 27 hp/t, a top speed of 64 mph (103 km/h) and an operational range of 680 miles (1100 km) with on-board fuel. The engine provides power to the wheels through an Allison HD4070 fully automatic transmission which offers 7 forward gear and 3 reverse gears. All wheels are fully powered with the front four being steerable (as with most 8×8 vehicles). The chassis is supported on an independent double wishbone coil suspension system and the tire pressure can be adjusted through a Central Tire Inflation System (CTIS), which is also commonly found on most modern 8x8s.

Originally the development of the innovative Boxer design was a joint effort by Britain, Germany and France that started in 1999. But the British and French left the co-operative effort to develop their own vehicle concepts, while the Dutch joined with the Germans in 2001. Early proto-type vehicles were ready by 2002 and received operational trials by the Germany army, with production approved by 2008.

The flexible vehicle design incorporates interchangeable modules to accommodate the various mission configurations. The modular design approach was seen as more efficient than developing a fleet of vehicles with unique chassis for each required configuration. It is claimed that the mission modules can be removed and replaced within an hour. The front section of the vehicle, containing the powerpack, electronics, crew and weapon station, is of a fixed design. The modules are single piece structures and are inserted into the rear section of the vehicle, similar to how a cargo box can be inserted into the bed of a pick-up truck.

Currently designed mission modules are for an Armored Personnel Carrier (APC), Ambulance, Artillery Gun, Battle Damage Repair, Command Post, Engineering, Infantry Fighting Vehicle (IFV), and Logistics vehicles. Vehicle orders have been placed by the Netherlands, Germany and Lithuania, with most of the German and Dutch vehicles being of the APC configuration.

The APC variants of the Dutch and German Boxers are armed with Remote Weapon Stations (RWS). The Dutch vehicles are equipped with a Kongsberg manufactured Protector M151 RWS which mounts a 12.7 mm HMG. The German vehicles mount a Heckler and Koch FLW-200 RWS. This system is fully stabilization, has an integrated laser rangefinder and thermal imager and can mount a 7.62 mm MG3 machine gun, a 12.7 mm M3M HMG or a 40 mm GMW automatic grenade launcher. There is also an option to upgrade the turrets to the FLW-200+ system which adds a Close Circuit Television (CCTV) camera and can mount a 20 mm autocannon.

IFV variants are equipped with the Rheinmetall designed and manufactured two man Lance turret which mounts a 30 mm autocannon. The Lance turret incorporates gunner and commander sight which can be seen in the image below to the left of the turret. The raised and rotating commander sight is situated above the stationary mounted gunner site. There is also a Lance remote-control (RC) turret available which mounts the same chain gun. This could be selected to be incorporated into future vehicle orders. Lithuania has also placed an order for Boxers which are to be equipped with an Israeli RAFAEL Samson Mk II weapon station. This system incorporates a 30 mm autocannon and mounts Spike-LR anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs).

The Boxer chassis is fabricated from welded ballistic steel which provides baseline 30 calibre small arms protection. The vehicles are also designed to protect against top attack bomblets and small anti-personnel mines. Seating is suspended from the ceiling to protect the crew against hull deflections resulting from a blast event. To further improve blast protection each mission module in constructed with a multiple layered crew floor which mitigates injury to the occupants by reducing the resulting floor deflections induced by the pressure wave of the mine.

Increased protection from kinetic energy penetrator and HEAT rounds is provided through the addition of modular ceramic armor tiles. The armor modules consist of AMAP composite armor (Advanced Modular Armor Protection), a 4th generation armoring system developed by IBD Deisenroth Engineering Germany and which supplants their 3rd generation MEXAS product line Overall AMAPS is claimed to provide equivalent protection of earlier systems for only 60% of the total system weight.

AMAP supposedly integrates ceramics, nano-ceramics, nanometric steels, and advanced steel and aluminium-titanium alloys into a multi-layered armor system. The improved high hardness steel used in the construction is said to defeat equivalent rounds at only 70% of the weight of comparable steels, such as ARMOX 500 and MIL-STD-46100 HHA. The newly developed aluminum-titanium alloy, Mat 7720, though much more expensive than ballistic steel, is said to provide equivalent protection as MIL-STD-12560 RHA steel at only 40% of the weight. Note that high hardness steels tend to be used on upper armored vehicle surfaces to optimize defeat of KE threats, while RHA steels, offering greater ductility, tend to be used on the lower chassis to defeat IEDs and mines.

The newly developed nano-ceramics are both harder and lighter than conventional pressed and sintered ceramics and claimed to provide equivalent protection for approximately 75% of the weight. The high fracture toughness possessed by the nano-ceramics also results in superior multi-hit capability compared to other ceramics. The armor tiles, as with many add-on armor kits, are bonded to a composite backing plate to provide support to the ceramics and distribute the significant loading on the tiles generated by a ballistic strike events. This package is then surrounded with a fabric mesh which both protects the tiles from the environment and also assists in maintaining armor panel integrity following impact.

Early production vehicles of German Boxers briefly saw deployment in Afghanistan with the German army in 2011. The vehicles were used for testing and training purposes and no action was seen. Therefore the performance of the vehicle in actual combat situations is yet to be evaluated.


View of British Ajax, showing extensive armor protection and 40 mm main weapon. Nothing shouts “Scout” better!

Ajax with catalogue system installed. The extensive array of sensors available to the commander and gunner can be seen on the turret.

The PMRS ‘Ares’ APC. Protection levels, vehicle configuration and mobility are equivalent to the baseline Ajax vehicle. The Ares is armed with a Kongsberg Protector Remote Weapon Station, which is operated by the vehicle commander.

The 40 mm CTA International cannon and some of the telescoped ammunition that it can fire, including from left to right a high explosive round, airbursting round (anti-personnel), APFSDS round and practise rounds. There is also an anti-aircraft round. The CT40 is appreciable lighter and more compact that other 40 mm cannon, reducing weight and space claim requirements when integrating it onto armored vehicles.

The Ajax or Scout SV (Specialist Vehicle) is a family of armored vehicles being designed and manufactured by General Dynamics – UK for the British Army. The vehicle was developed from the ASCOD armored vehicle, designed and built by Steyr-Daimler-Puch of Austria and Santa Bárbara Sistemas of Spain for the Spanish and Austrian militaries. The first Ajax vehicles were to be delivered to the British Army in 2017, with a total of 589 to be built and delivered until 2026. The vehicle is protected to a high level and armed with a unique 40 mm cannon that incorporates a rotating breach loading mechanism and fires compact telescoped ammunition.

The Ajax is a 92,000 pound (42 tonne) vehicle that is 25 feet (7.6 meters) long, 11 feet (3.35 meters) wide and 10 feet (3 meters) in height. Powered by an MTU 600 kW 8V engine the vehicle is equipped with a Renk 256B transmission and a torsion bar suspension system. The vehicle will be manufactured in a wide number of variants, where the turreted variants are crewed by a commander, gunner and a driver and the support styled variants (not possessing the 40 mm turreted weapon) are crewed by a commander and driver, where the commander operates the Remote Weapon Station.

Designed to accommodate modern computerised communication networks, essential to co-ordinating modern forces, the Ajax possess ample sensors and a 20 Gbs/s Ethernet intelligent open architecture. This provides the vehicle the ability to accumulate, process and store 6 TBs of sensor data, which can then be exchanged in real time with other vehicles similarly equipped with an integrated BOWMAN communicate suite. This system is similarly installed on the British Warrior IFV and Challenger 2 MBT.

The family of Ajax vehicles is comprised of turreted and unturreted vehicles. All turreted configurations are referred to as ‘Ajax’, while other configurations have their own unique names, which all start with the letter ‘A’ and are all based on Greek mythology. There are to be 245 turreted Ajax vehicles built, 198 of which consist of the basic Reconnaissance variant, 23 of a Fire Support variant and 24 of a Surveillance variant. The planned unturreted vehicles are referred to as Protected Mobility Recce Support (PMRS) and Engineering vehicles and include 59 APCs (to be named ‘Ares’), 124 Command and Control vehicles (‘Athena’), 51 Engineering vehicles (‘Argus’), 34 Overwatch vehicles (‘Ares’), 38 Recovery vehicles (‘Atlas’) and 50 Repair vehicles (‘Apollo’).

The main weapon on the AJAX turreted reconnaissance vehicle is the 40 mm CTA International CT40 cannon. CTA International is a joint venture company involving collaboration between Nexter of France and BAE Systems of the UK. The CT40 is able to fire 40 mm “telescoped” ammunition. Telescoped ammunition is a relatively newly developed ammunition which is shorter and generally lighter than traditional cartridges, thereby increasing the amount of ammunition that can be carried in a vehicle for a given calibre weapon. Telescoped ammunition involves partially or completely enveloping the projectile within the propellant. The CTA International CT40 cannon is aimed by a Fire Control System (FCS) and the vehicle is equipped with a state of the art ISTAR package. This suite of sophisticated sensors provides the crew the ability to perform automated search, tracking and detection functions, effectively doubling the range at which targets can be identified and tracked.Loading ammunition through a Rotating Trunnion, permitting for rapid automatic reloading without requiring linked belted ammo (example of which is shown in the lower right most image).

The CT40 has a unique loading mechanism which involves a rotating trunnion located in the breach of the weapon. This design approach permits for rapid loading of the weapon without requiring a linked belted system, further reducing weight. The principle of the rotating trunnion is shown below. As this is a relatively new system there are concerns that the reliability of the loading system may initially suffer from teething problems.

The secondary weapon of the Ajax is the L94A1 coaxial 7.62 mm chain gun, being a long barrelled version of the Hughes EX-34 7.62 mm chain gun. The L94A1 is also mounted to the British Challenger MBT and British Warrior AFV. The EX-34 was designed specifically to be used as a coaxial weapon and therefore has certain features that are optimized for this function that are not found in other weapons that are retrofit for this application. When misfiring occurs the dud rounds are simply ejected from the chamber rather than requiring manual clearing. All gases generated by firing of the gun are also expelled through the barrel and therefore do not enter the crew area. The rate of fire is also much higher than is the case for most AFV co-axial guns.

The AJAX Scout SV is considered to be one of the best protected IFVs developed to date. The vehicle integrates recently developed protection technologies to protect the vehicle and its occupants from a wide range of threat types. The modularly designed armor system provides 360 degree protection against ballistic threats, artillery splinters, IEDs, anti-tank mines, and shaped charge warheads. The crew and occupants are isolated from blast attack by being positioned in energy attenuating seating. The vehicle is also equipped with a wide range of sensors to detect approaching threats including acoustic detection, thermal sights and local situational awareness sensors. The modular armor components are add-on and therefore can be tailored to meet specific anticipated threat scenarios. The vehicles are also being built with additional payload available to accommodate upgrading the vehicle protection as required to meet emerging threat situations and to incorporate newly evolving armor systems.

Lieutenant Aleksandr P. Oskin in an T34/85 and 501st Heavy Tank Battalion

The heaviest tank produced during World War II, the Tiger II was also known as the King Tiger in literal translation of the German Königstiger, or Bengal tiger. At 63.5 tonnes (62.5 tons), it outweighed any other heavy tank deployed in appreciable numbers. Its 88mm (3.5in) KwK 43 L/71 high-velocity gun was the finest implement of warfare of its kind in the German arsenal when production began in earnest in mid-1944. Although the Tiger II was a formidable foe in combat, fuel shortages and mechanical failures resulted in a number of the massive tanks being abandoned in the field or destroyed by their crews to prevent capture.

Although many features of the Tiger II were actually ahead of their time, the tank was plagued by mechanical issues. Many of the problems stemmed from an unreliable drivetrain. Its tremendous weight strained the Maybach powerplant and resulted in frequent breakdowns, while the suspension was also suspect in varied weather conditions. The weight of the Tiger II contributed to difficulties with cross-country movement, particularly over marshy terrain and across rivers. Long-distance travel was accomplished on railway flatcars.

The cost of Tiger II production was prohibitive as well, several times greater per unit than that of other German tanks. Each Tiger II further required the investment of 300,000 man-hours to complete. Fuel consumption was extreme and limited the range of the Tiger II, particularly during the crucial hours of the Battle of the Bulge in late 1944.

Guards Lieutenant A. P. Oskin

Following their destruction of Army Group Centre in the summer of 1944, the Red Army launched a massive offensive across the Ukraine and into Eastern Poland against Army Group North Ukraine.

It culminated in the seizure of bridgeheads on the western bank of the Vistula River, notably in the region of Sandomierz. Despite their losses, the German forces were still full of fight and threw whatever units they could muster against the Soviet enclaves.

One of these units was 501st Heavy Tank Battalion, newly equipped with Tiger IIs and under the command of Major von Legat. In common with most of the German heavy tank units in the latter part of the war, the 501st was fated to become a ‘fire brigade’ force, transferred from place to place as the situation demanded and denied the time to build up an operational relationship with the units it supported.

However, its baptism of fire as a Tiger II unit was yet to come, as, on 6th August 1944, all serviceable vehicles were loaded onto flat cars and shipped to Poland, leaving behind 14 of these brand new, but temperamental monsters in the battalion workshops.

In the vicinity of Staszow, at the southwestern extremity of the Sandomierz bridgehead, the Soviet 6th Guards Tank Corps was in the van of the Russian advance; the village of Ogledow its latest conquest. However, resistance had hardened and reconnaissance led Corps HQ to order its tank units to pull back and establish defensive positions west of Staszow.

The German heavy tank battalion had just arrived in Poland with their new Tiger IIs (first unit with the Tiger II in the East). After unloading at Kielce, 45 Tigers set out for Ogledow 30 miles or so away, only 8 Tigers made it with the rest failing on route.

On 12 August 1944, a lone T-34/85 under Lieutenant Aleksandr P. Oskin of the 53rd Guards Tank Brigade employed its 85mm gun against the latest German heavy tank, the Tiger II. Lt.Oskin was outside of Ogledow hiding in a corn field.

Oskin observed three Tigers along a dirt road and realized that from his concealed position he could fire at their flanks. At a range of 200m (656ft), Oskin ordered his gunner, Abubakir Merkhaidorov, to fire at the second tank in line. The shell penetrated the turret. Two more hits were scored. The fourth shell set the Tiger alight. As the first Tiger in line rotated its turret, Oskin got off four rounds. Three did little damage, but the fourth set the Tiger ablaze.

Blinded by smoke and fire from the other two German tanks, the third Tiger began to withdraw, but Oskin manoeuvred behind it. A single round destroyed the tank. Oskin had demonstrated what the T-34/85 could do in combat and was decorated as a Hero of the Soviet Union.

Prisoners captured prior to the action had revealed the arrival of a new heavy tank battalion, but the Russians appear to have had no idea that it was equipped with the Tiger Is replacement. In fact 501st Heavy Tank Battalion had only been able to muster 11 serviceable vehicles for this attack, due to the mechanical problems that dogged most of the late war German ‘super weapons’, which tended to be rushed into service without sufficient field trials.

With this assault beaten back the Soviet forces launched a counter attack, surprising the German forces and recapturing Ogledow. Amongst the spoils were three Tiger IIs, allegedly still in running order and abandoned by their crews. It is likely that these had suffered minor malfunctions and, as no other vehicle was capable of towing them, couldn’t be moved in time.

Other clashes followed, which, according to Soviet sources, resulted in the loss of more Tigers to the guns of Soviet tanks, including the IS-IIs of the 71st Independent Guards Heavy Tank Battalion. Seven King Tigers attacked Soviet positions from the height 272.1. Waiting in an ambush near Mokre Guards Lieutenant Udalov in his IS-2 tank (with number 98 painted on the turret, fitted with the D-25 cannon) let the German tanks to come to the distance of 700-800 metres and started firing. After few hits the first tank was set on fire and the second was knocked out. German tanks reversed and moved back. Udalov drove towards enemy and from the edge of the forest fired again. With one more tank burning Germans retreated. Soon King Tigers attacked again, this time towards Poniki, where Guards Lieutenant Beliakov’s IS-II set up the ambush. He commenced fire at the distance 1000 metres and after third round had set enemy tank on fire. The Germans realized the grave situation and retreated again.

Guards Senior Lieutenant V. A. Udalov

During three days of continuous fighting between August 11th and 13th, 1944, in area of Staszów and Szyldów the 6th GTC destroyed and captured 24 enemy tanks, 13 of them were newly introduced King Tigers.

“From 9th to 19th of August 1944, the 52nd GTBr took 7 POWs and eliminated 225 soldiers and officers, destroyed one machine gun, captured three cannons, destroyed 6 tanks, 10 trucks and 2 other vehicles.”

Whatever the full truth, the German heavies had been poorly deployed in ill-judged frontal attacks and after the action Major von Legat was replaced as the unit commander.

Plans for the T-34/85 tank gained impetus following the pivotal Battle of Kursk in the summer of 1943. By March 1944, the upgunned variant of the original T-34 medium tank was being deployed with elite Guards units of the Soviet Red Army.

The long barrel of the high-velocity 85mm (3.35in) ZIS-S-53 gun enhanced the sleek, streamlined profile of the T-34/85 medium tank with its turret forward atop the hull. The design was characteristic of Soviet tanks for decades to come.

T-34/85 medium tank

The improved firepower of the T-34/85 medium tank came about following analysis of the T-34 performance during the Battle of Kursk. Three 85mm (3.35in) weapons were considered before a decision was made to mount the ZIS-S-53.

Following the victory at Kursk in July 1943, thwarting the German offensive Operation Citadel, the Soviets began to assess the performance of their T-34 medium tank in combat with the German PzKpfw V Panther and PzKpfw VI Tiger tanks. The T-34 was equipped with a 76.2mm (3in) main weapon, while the German tanks mounted high-velocity 75mm (2.95in) and 88mm (3.5in) guns respectively.

Both sides lost tanks in great numbers, but it was determined that the T-34’s main weapon did not provide sufficient muzzle velocity to penetrate German armour at a reasonable distance, compelling the Soviets to execute mass charges to close rapidly with the Germans in something resembling a Wild West shootout.

The initial conclusion was that the T-34 required more armour and additional plating was affixed to a small number of the tanks. During testing it was determined that the additional armour so eroded speed and manoeuvrability that the experimental model, the T-43, was discarded.

The Power of Suggestion

The designers came to the realization that the answer to enhancing the T-34’s combat capability laid in a new main weapon. Soviet records indicate that during a meeting on 25 August 1943, V.G. Grabin, the chief designer at Artillery Factory No 92, suggested arming the T-34 with a more powerful 85mm (3.35in) gun. Three separate designs were tested before the ZIS-S-53 gun, sponsored by General F.F. Petrov, was accepted. The gun was also used in the KV-85 and IS-2 heavy tanks, as well as the SU-85 tank destroyer.

The one-piece cast turret was enlarged to accommodate a third crewman, bringing the total to five, with the commander no longer required to serve the main gun in combat. The new configuration substantially improved the combat efficiency of the T-34/85. The commander was positioned in the rear of the turret to the left with the gunner in front of him and the loader on the right. The driver and a second machine gunner were positioned forward in the hull. The basic turret redesign was completed within weeks at Production Works No 112 in Gorky.

Other changes to the T-34/85 from the original T-34 included a commander’s cupola atop the turret with five vision slits. A hatch was installed in the turret roof for the loader and included ventilation slits to evacuate fumes from the main weapon and a turret-mounted 7.62mm (0.3in) DT machine gun. A second machine gun remained in the hull. Pistol ports were placed on the turret sides.

Due to space restrictions, the size of the fuel tanks was reduced, slightly curbing the T-34/85’s range compared to the earlier T-34. The heavier turret also required that stronger springs be introduced to the Christie suspension to adjust for the additional weight.

Prescribed Production

The exigencies of war greatly influenced the hurried production of the T-34/85. By 15 December 1943, on the strength of proven hull designs – three of which were in production with only slight differences between them – the Soviet State Defence Committee ordered production of the T-34/85 to commence. The turret itself, however, had not been finalized and its designers were required to catch up with the pace of hull production.

Production Works No 112 actually began manufacturing the new tank in January 1944 and the first T-34/85s were delivered to elite Guards armoured units in March 1944. During the spring, two more manufacturing facilities, in Omsk and Nizhnij Tagil, were assigned to produce the T-34/85. Most of the new tanks actually were produced in Nizhnij Tagil. Throughout wartime production, the turret and other components of the tank were refined and improved. At one time, the three factories were producing three slightly different turrets.

Battlefield Improvement

The T-34/85 indeed brought better combat survivability to Soviet armoured forces. The greater range of the new main weapon and its muzzle velocity of 780 metres per second (2559 feet per second) improved penetration of German armour plating with armour-piercing ammunition. Combat experience revealed the need for additional protection against German anti-tank weapons such as the shoulder-fired Panzerfaust. Additional thin plating or wire mesh was welded into areas around the hull and turret that were susceptible to ‘trapping’ shells or hollow charges. These were often successful at deflecting otherwise damaging strikes.

Approximately 22,500 T-34/85 tanks were produced during the war and production continued into the late 1950s. Variants included the OT-34/85, mounting an AT-42 flamethrower instead of the hull machine gun. The flamethrower was capable of emitting a stream of fire up to 100m (327ft).

Flakvierling Field Modification on Panzer IV Chassis

These vehicles were the brainchild of Untersturmführer Karl Wilhelm Krause, the C.O. of “HJ’s” Flakzug of II./SS-PzRgt 12 who had the Company Workshop Chief graft a 2 cm Flakvierling Flak 38 onto a Pz.IV G/H hull as a field mod with full support of his superiors.

The new invented Flakpanzer IV “Wirbelwind” which was build following the instructions of SS-Sturmbannführer Karl Heinz Prinz Kommandeur of II./SS-PzRgt 12 and Krause from the Panzerregiment of the Division. The plans for this vehicle were brought to Hitler by Max Wünsche and then it was decided to build it in series.

According to Count von Seherr-Thoss for this conversion the turret of the Pz. Kpfw IV was removed and the Flak was built in the opening of the turret horizontally in the center of the traverse ring of the chassis. To fulfil the conversion the top carriage of the Flak had to be modified, as can be seen later on with the Wirbelwind. The main change was the removal of the gun shield. It was the first attempt to integrate the Flak into a revolving turret. As a result the vehicle was said to have received an armoured turret, comparable to the later Wirbelwind, but in a more primitive way. The exact number of those conversions isn’t known anymore, but probably it could have been up to 3.

One of the gunners of this Zug which consisted of three Panzers, i.e. twelve 2-cm Flak, was Sturmmann Richard Schwarzwälder. He wrote in a report:

On 14 June 1944, when you were being chased by a fighter-bomber, I already had downed seven aircraft and been awarded the Iron Cross II. I had a total of fourteen kills … At the start of the invasion it was still easy to shoot them down, the guys were flying low and were inexperienced. However, this was to change soon.

Schwarzwälder was wounded during the Ardennes offensive on 15 January 1945 in the Eifel mountain range. His right upper arm had to be amputated.

There’s a shot of one on p.83 of Schiffer’s “The 12th SS Panzer Division HJ” by Herbert Walther who claims it allegedly “shot down 27 aircraft and gave good support during armoured attacks”. Apparently Hitler was so inspired by its success he ordered all armoured units to be equipped with such a vehicle (ie. what was to become the “Wirbelwind”), as quickly as possible.

It’s also seen in a few other sources – and is a front/LHS 3/4 view with the guns at about 10 degrees elevation, 6 crewmen visible and with some foliage hanging off it.

It does appear from some photos that the gun is perhaps sitting down on the fighting compartment floor due to its low overall height above the hull top.

The only photo I’ve seen of it or the other 2 done by “HJ” for that matter, note it has the old style flat spoke drive sprockets. and notched smooth tread bar tracks, so its more likely to be on a late Ausf. G hull.

The caption in Hiemdal’s “HJ” album on p.224 dates it around 14 June 1944 as the author Hubert Meyer’s vehicle, and says the idea for the Wirbelwind sprang from this vehicle created by the 12.SS under Max Wunsche.

The SS.Pz.Rgt.12. had the “standard” 1944 organization, ie.:

The I. Abteilung was equipped with Panthers (Kompanies 1-4) and the II. Abteilung with Panzer IVs. (Kompanies 5-9) – [ie. each Battalion(Abt.) having 4 and 5 Kompanies respectively]

Together with the tanks belonging to the Battalion and Regiment staffs, this gave a total of 79 Panthers and 101 Panzer IVs (3 of which were field converted to “Wirbelwinds”, thus back to 98 ‘gun tanks’).

Authorized strength was:

17 tanks per the 4 Kompanies in I. Abteilung (= 68 total + 11 Staff = 79or), and;

17 per the 5 Kompanies in II. Abteilung (= 85 total + 16 staff = 101 – 3 Wirbelwinds = 13 staff and 98or) [vs. the expected 22 x 4 Kompanies (=88 total + 13 staff = 101 -3 = 10 staff and 98or).

Previous Experimental Development

2 cm Flakvierling auf Fahrgestell Panzerkampfwagen IV

Krupp was informed that the Panzertruppen urgently needed Flakpanzers to escort the Panzers. At the request of Dipl. Ing. Klein of L Flak 4 on 2 September 1942, Krupp began to design a leichte Flak auf gepanzerter Sfl. (light anti-aircraft gun on interim solution, a 2 cm Flakvierling was to be armored self-propelled chassis) based on automotive-mounted on a normal Pz. Kpfw. IV chassis with eight components from the Pz. Kpfw.”Luchs” and mounting either the 2 cm Flakvierling or the 3.7 cm Flak 36. On 1 October 1942, both the VK 13.05 (Luchs) and the VK 16.02 (Leopard) were to be considered as the basis for the Versuchsflakwagen Leichte (VFW L light experimental anti-aircraft tank).  Due to the Pz. Kpfw.”Leopard” being canceled, a decision was made on 20 January 1943 to use automotive components from the Pz. Kpfw. IV for the VFW L.

On 22 February 1943 Krupp was asked to mount various Flak guns (including the 2 cm Flakvierling, 3.7 cm Flak 36 and 43, and 5 cm Flak 41) on a flat platform with double-walled (2×10 mm) December 1943, a decision was made to continue folding sides. The chassis with 500 mm wide Kgs 61/500/130 tracks and six steel-tired rubber-cushioned roadwheels per side was hardly recognizable as belonging to the Pz. Kpfw. IV family.

In meetings held from 29 May to 1 June 1943, Krupp was informed that the Panzertruppen urgently needed Flakpanzers to escort the Panzers. As an interim solution, s 2 cm Flakvierling was to be mounted on a normal  Pz Kpfw. IV chassis with eight 470 mm diameter rubber-tired roadwheels per side. Krupp was awarded contract DE 0084/6307/43 by the Luftwaffe to design the superstructure with double-walled (2×12 mm) folding sides.

The single experimental 2 cm Flakvierling auf Fahrgestell Pz. Kpfw. IV was completed on schedule at the end of September 1943 and shown to General Guderian at Kummersdorf on 16 October 1943. Guderian stated that this Flakpanzer represented his demands and ordered series production to start at 20 per month in April 1944

At a meeting of the Panzerkommision on 21 development of a 3.7 cm Flak 43 on the Pz. Kpfw. IV chassis instead of the 2 cm Flakvierling. Series production of the 2 cm Flakvierling auf Fgst. Pz Kpfw. IV was canceled. The single experimental chassis was converted to mount a 3.7 cm Flak 43.