12 Tanks of World War II - War Machines in Review
12 Tanks of World War II – War Machines in Review

12 Tanks of World War II – War Machines in Review

Khalid Elhassan - September 29, 2017

12 Tanks of World War II – War Machines in Review
M5 Stuart. Tank Hunter

Stuart

After WWII began, American observers realized that the US Army’s standard light tank, the M2, had become obsolete. Its replacement was the M3 light tank, known as the Stuart – a designation referring to both the M3 and its derivative, the M5 – which featured a new gun recoil system, an improved suspension, and thicker armor. It was initially armed with a 37mm gun, plus 5 machine guns: a coaxial affixed to the main gun, in ball mount to the right of the hull, in sponsons on the right and left of the hull, and atop the turret and pointing upward for antiaircraft duty.

Stuarts were heavily armored for light tanks of the era. M3 Stuarts were powered by a radial aero-engine and were distinguished by a high silhouette and a prop shaft running through the middle of the crew compartment, which restricted space and made for uncomfortably cramped fighting quarters. Because radial aero-engines were in high demand, the M3 was redesigned to use V8 engines, and furnished with an automatic transmission which made driver training easier, and also made for a roomier, quieter, and cooler crew compartment. While at it, engineers gave the improved vehicle sloped glacis armor. The redesigned tank was designated the M5 Stuart, and began replacing the M3 in 1942.

The Stuart holds the distinction of being the first American tank to take on enemy tanks during WWII. In addition to serving with US ground forces, they were also furnished under Lend-Lease to the British, who used them in the North African Campaign. Nicknaming it the “Honey”, the British praised the Stuart’s mechanical reliability and speed. However, they failed to make good use of Stuarts, notwithstanding that the Stuarts’ 37mm gun was equal to that of the most numerous German tank in the theater, the Panzer III, which the Stuart also matched in speed, while the “light” Stuart’s armor front and turret armor was even thicker than that of the medium German tank. Shortcomings were revealed, however, such as limited range and a two man turret that reduced fighting efficiency.

The Stuarts’ other main recipient, the Soviets, did not like them: in the Eastern Front, Stuarts were under armored and under-gunned; their aero-radial engines were gas hogs; were too sensitive to fuel quality; caught fire too easily; and consumed high octane gas which complicated logistics because other Red Army vehicles used diesel or low octane fuel. Additionally, the Stuart’s narrow tracks got stuck too easily in snow, and in the mud of the spring snow melt and autumn rains.

12 Tanks of World War II – War Machines in Review
T-34s. Thinglike

T-34

The T-34 was the most produced tank of WWII, with over 84,000 rolling out of factory floors. It was also the best tank of WWII because of its superbly simple, powerful, and robust design. It was the most influential tank of the war because its presence in the battlefield in 1941 effectively made all German tanks produced up to then obsolete, and compelled the Germans to respond with new and heavier tank designs such as the Tiger and Panther, and to up-gun and up-armor the backbone of their tank fleet, the Panzer IV. That, in turn, forced changes and upgrades to the Soviet, American, and British tank fleets. Additionally, adoption of the heavier, highly engineered, and expensive Tigers and Panthers, overwhelmed Germany’s strained tank industry and severely limited the number of tanks available to the Wehrmacht. By war’s end, Germany had produced 16,300 Tigers, Panthers, and Panzer IVs – the tanks capable of taking on T-34s and Shermans. The US and USSR built 50,000 Shermans and 84,000 T-34s.

A German commission assessing captured T-34s in 1941 described it as the perfect medium tank because of its near-perfect blend of effective sloped armor that outmatched that of German tanks, firepower that greatly exceeded that of available panzers, wide tracks that readily traversed snow and mud that narrow tracked German tanks could not, and excellent power to weight ratio. The Germans designed the Panzer V Panther in response, emulating most of the T-34’s best characteristics such as sloped armor, wide tracks, and powerful gun, but failed to emulate its simplicity, with the result that only 6000 Panthers were manufactured, or one Panther for every fourteen T-34s.

When the Germans first encountered T-34s in 1941, the Soviet tanks proved superior in both armor and firepower to all German tanks. The only saving grace was that the Red Army in 1941, still reeling from Stalin’s military purges and in the midst of a major restructuring, was inept and riddled with incompetence, and so was unable to take advantage of its technical superiority in tanks. That changed after the Soviets learned from the Germans and bitter experience.

Soviet engineers had designed the T-34 with sloped armor because it afforded extra protection without adding extra weight. They gave it a simple engine that was easy to maintain, and because weight was kept to a minimum, it was able to propel the T-34 at 34 m.p.h. – impressive for a medium tank of the era. That speed allowed T-34s to rapidly exploit breakthroughs, and also gave them a tactical advantage, allowing them to quickly close the standoff distance with better gunned and heavier armored panzers such as the Tiger, and maneuver to fire at their vulnerable rears and flanks and from close enough to inflict damage.

T-34s were initially equipped with 76.2mm guns that could destroy any German tank when the Soviet Union entered the war. When newer panzers with thicker armor arrived at the front, the improved T-34/85 version was introduced, with an 85mm gun that could penetrate any German tank’s side and rear armor from a respectable distance, and even thick front armor from up close. And because they were simple to manufacture, T-34s could be produced in prodigious numbers: the Germans built approximately 1800 Tigers I and II, 6000 Panthers, and 8500 Panzer IVs during the war, or about 16,300 main battle tanks. The Soviets built over 84,000 T-34s.

12 Tanks of World War II – War Machines in Review
Churchill Mark IV. Tank Encyclopedia

Churchill

The Churchill – named not after the WWII Prime Minister but after his ancestor, John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough – was designed to overcome conditions similar to those of WWI’s Western Front, with the result that one of its most distinguishing feature are long tracks intended to traverse trenches. It was rushed into production after the 1940 defeat in France revealed the limitations of Britain’s then-standard tank, the Matilda II, and Churchills went from the drawing board to rolling out the factory floor by June of 1941. After overcoming early glitches, the Churchill went on to become the most successful British tank of WWII.

It was intended as an infantry tank – designed to assist infantry attacks, necessitating heavy armor to work closely with foot soldiers while taking heavy fire. Heavy armor came at the expense of speed, which was deemed unimportant for a tank whose mission was to accompany slow-moving infantry, and at 41 tons, the Churchill was one of the heaviest Western Allies’ tanks of WWII. In line with that close infantry support mission, Churchills were exceptionally good at climbing steep gradients and traversing rough terrain.

Early models had riveted armor, replaced by welding in later versions. The Churchill Mark I was armed with a two-pounder gun in the turret, increased to a 6 pounder or 75mm gun in later models, and a 3-inch howitzer in the hull, which was replaced by a machinegun in later versions. The Mark IV, the most produced Churchill version and the one which saw the most combat, weighed 39 tons, had a range of 90 miles, and was armed with either a 6 pounder or 75mm gun, plus two machine guns.

Churchills were generally outgunned by German tanks, but fighting tanks was not what they had been designed to do, and when they did find themselves faced with panzers, their heavy armor tended to compensate for what they lacked in firepower. In the Battle of El Alamein, a detachment of six Churchills was fired on repeatedly by German and Italian antitank guns, with one but only one Churchill was knocked out, while the remainder survived up to 80 hits. The Mark VII version, introduced in 1944, was the best-protected mass-produced tank of the war, affording its crews greater safety than that afforded any other tankmen.

The Churchill’s platform also proved adaptable to specialized tasks, and in line with its primary mission of close infantry support, some Churchills were adapted to operate as flame throwers or were equipped with 290mm petards for bunker-busting. Its powerful chassis also lent itself to uses such as bridge laying or mines weeping, with some versions equipped with heavy chains on a rotating drum flailing the ground clear of mines on D-Day and subsequent campaigns.

12 Tanks of World War II – War Machines in Review
Shermans. Real Clear Defense

M4 Sherman

The M4 Sherman medium tank was America’s main tank of WWII, and the most widely used tank of the Western Allies during that conflict. They were mechanically reliable, easy to maintain, durable, easy and cheap to produce, and thus available in great numbers: about 50,000 were built during the war. They had a large turret and roomy interior, a good gun traverse rate and excellent stabilization system, and routinely managed to get off the first shot in tank-vs-tank confrontations.

They were also relatively safe by WWII tank standards, and crews on average suffered only one fatality for every Sherman destroyed: the tank might be lost, but most crewmen lived to fight another day, helped by a plethora of large escape hatches. A US First Army study of losses suffered by its 456 available Shermans from June to November of 1944 revealed 129 killed and 280 wounded, for a Sherman crew loss ratio during 6 months of intense combat of only 0.3% killed, and 0.6% wounded. On the downside, early Shermans were notorious for brewing up when hit because of inadequate fire prevention measures in ammunition storage – a problem that was remedied in later models.

When Shermans entered service in 1942, they outclassed the German tanks then in service, being more heavily armored and better armed. The standard antitank gun of the Panzer III was 37mm, whose shells the Sherman shrugged off, and when Panzer IIIs were upgunned to 50mm, they still had to get very close to inflict damage. In the meantime, the Sherman’s 75mm gun could kill anything the Germans fielded until the arrival of the Tiger. Shermans got an unfair rap for being poor tanks, mainly because they did not perform well when fighting the heavier Tigers and Panthers that were introduced later in the war. However, Tigers and Panthers represented only a fraction of German tanks, and fighting other tanks represented only a fraction of the Shermans’ workload – a fraction the Shermans had never been intended to perform.

American combined arms doctrine when the Sherman was designed held that tanks were not intended to fight other tanks – that was the task of tank destroyers armed with high-velocity guns. Shermans with bigger guns, such as the Firefly Sherman equipped with a 17 pounder, matched or exceeded the Tigers’ and Panthers’ firepower, but most Shermans kept their standard 75mm general-purpose gun with its effective high explosive shell. That was because the Shermans’ primary mission was to support infantry to achieve breakthroughs, then race through the breach and wreak havoc in the enemy’s rear. The Sherman, mechanically reliable and armed with a 75mm that fired a highly effective high explosive round, was excellent in the role for which it was designed.

The breakout from Normandy in 1944 and the ensuing rapid sweep through France and Belgium that only came to a halt at Germany’s border for lack of fuel, was the kind of performance that only an armored force equipped with mechanically reliable and easily maintained Shermans could have pulled off: other countries’ armored forces would have halted because their tanks broke down long before they reached the line where the Shermans halted because they ran out of fuel.

Shermans were outclassed by Tigers and Panthers 1-on-1, but they almost never had to face them 1-on-1. American tanks prevailed against German armor because they were part of a combined arms system that operated more smoothly than that of any other combatant. Panzers had to worry not only about American tanks – and nearly 50,000 Shermans were manufactured vs only 1300 Tigers and 6000 Panthers – but also about American infantry who were usually nearby, tank destroyers that were seldom far away, artillery, or tactical bombers that frequently circled the battlefield in taxi ranks, only a radio call away from any American tank platoon commander who found himself in trouble.

12 Tanks of World War II – War Machines in Review
Tiger I. YouTube

Tiger

Entering service in 1942, the Panzerkampfwagen VI Tiger Ausf. E, or the Tiger I, was a heavy tank whose main assets were thick armor that its common adversaries could not penetrate except from close range, and a powerful 88mm gun that could wreck its foes from prodigious distances, giving the Tiger an extensive safe standoff distance within which it was practically invulnerable. Tigers were scary, and they exerted a powerful psychological hold on their enemies’ imagination: few if any Allied tank crews relished the prospect of coming across Tigers.

On the downside, Tigers were heavy, slow, guzzled fuel at prodigious rates, had a limited range, were difficult to transport, were overengineered and notorious for their mechanical unreliability and propensity to breakdown, became immobilized when their overlapping wheels got jammed with snow and mud, and were expensive to produce and difficult to manufacture, with only 1300 built during the war – a number lower than the typical monthly production figures of T-34s or Shermans. When Tigers worked, they were terrifyingly good, but fortunately, the Tigers often did not work, and there were too few of them make a difference in the war’s ultimate outcome.

On the Western Front, where the Allies lacked powerful armor capable of taking out Tigers, other than up-gunned Sherman Fireflys and M10 tank destroyers, Tigers maintained their superiority until the war’s end. But on the Eastern Front, that superiority was increasingly challenged by T-34/85s, IS-2s, and IS-122s whose guns could destroy Tigers from various ranges.

In 1944, Tiger I production was discontinued in favor of the Panzerkampfwagen Tiger Ausf. B, more commonly known as the Tiger II or Royal Tiger, of which 492 were manufactured by the war’s end. Weighing 77 tons, the Tiger II replaced its predecessor’s thick flat armor with thicker sloped armor that was significantly more difficult to penetrate. It was exceptionally well protected, and between January to April 1945, Tiger IIs were credited with destroying over 500 tanks on the Eastern Front at a cost of only 45 Tiger IIs, most of them destroyed by their own crews to prevent their capture after they broke down or ran out of fuel. On the downside, Tiger IIs suffered most of their predecessors’ mechanical problems plus a few more, and were slower, capable of only 9 to 12 m.p.h. cross country.

12 Tanks of World War II – War Machines in Review
Tiger II. Girls und Panzers

12 Tanks of World War II – War Machines in Review
Panzer V Panther. Techno Wizard

Panzer V Panther

Designed in 1942 as a counter to the Soviet T-34, and entering service in 1943, the Panzerkampfwagen V Panther tank was intended to become Germany’s main medium tank and replace the Panzers IV and III. It was significantly cheaper than the Tiger, whose performance it equaled in many respects, and only slightly more expensive than the Panzer IV, which the Panther excelled by a wide margin. Nonetheless, technical issues, Allied bombing, and production bottlenecks prevented Panthers from being manufactured in sufficient numbers, and they ended up serving alongside Panzer IVs until war’s end.

A German commission assessing captured T-34s in 1941 noted the effectiveness of their sloped armor, which, combined with a powerful 76.2mm gun, wide tracks, and good power to weight ratio, made it almost the perfect medium tank. So the Germans set out to make their own perfect medium tank by borrowing the T-34’s main characteristics. Being German, however, they recoiled from the T-34’s crudity and sought to improve on it. They over-engineered things, and the resulting Panther ended up plagued with mechanical issues throughout its career.

The Panther had the same engine as the Tiger tank but was 12 to 16 tons lighter, which made the Panther faster and better at traversing rough terrain. The Panther’s sloped armor was as effective as the Tiger’s thicker flat armor, and the Panther’s 75mm gun had more penetrating power than the Tiger’s 88mm, making it deadlier against enemy tanks. However, the Panther’s smaller shells were less effective when firing high explosives.

With its near perfect blend of firepower, armor, and mobility, sophisticated targeting sights, and use of technology far ahead of its time such as infrared vision, the Panther was Germany’s overall best tank of the war, and some argue that it was WWII’s best tank, period, surpassing even the T-34. Were it not for unreliability issues that were never ironed, that latter claim might have been true. However, the Panthers often did not work: their engines had a notoriously short lifespan, their overlapping road wheels fared badly in the snow and mud of the Eastern Front, and their off-road range was a mere 62 miles.

12 Tanks of World War II – War Machines in Review
IS-2. Tanks Encyclopedia

Iosef Stalin (IS)

The Soviet Iosef Stalin (IS) tank line, developed to replace the KV heavy tank family and address its shortcomings, were a success during the war and went on to set the template for Soviet tanks for decades. In 1941, the standard antitank gun on Germany’s dedicated armor-killing tank, the Panzer III, was 37mm, whose shells KV tanks simply shrugged off. The Germans quickly upped their firepower, upgraded their Panzer IVs with more powerful antitank guns, and in 1942, rushed the Panzer VI Tigers into service with powerful 88mm guns.

Against the Tigers’ thick armor, especially up front, the KV’s 76.2mm gun proved largely ineffective. Moreover, the slow KVs were unable to maneuver and close in quickly, like the T-34s could, in order to fire at the Tigers from closer ranges and at weaker spots so as to inflict damage. With a weak gun that could not damage the German heavy tanks, and armor that could be penetrated by the Tigers from long range, the rationale for the KV disappeared: it was far more expensive than the T-34, but lacked greater combat performance to justify the greater cost.

To cope with the tougher threat environment while fulfilling the KV’s designated role as a breakthrough tank, the IS line was designed with thick sloped armor to counter 88mm shells. IS tanks had thicker armor than the KV, but because of a better layout were lighter and faster than KVs, as well as lighter than Tigers and Panthers, and had a lower silhouette. IS tanks were equipped with powerful guns that, while intended primarily to fire high explosive shells at infantry strong points and bunkers, were also capable of taking out Tigers and Panthers.

The IS line was born from an interim evaluation tank, a KV armed with an 85mm gun. The increased firepower was good, but the KV’s armor was inadequate, so the Red Army issued directives for a new tank design to be armed with an 85mm gun, but with better armor than the KV. The result was the IS-1, which entered service in 1943, retaining the KV’s running gear and hull, but with greater armored protection thanks to a welded turret, and armed with an 85mm gun.

In 1944, IS-1s were succeeded by the IS-2, armed with a 122mm gun that had separate shell and powder charges, resulting in a slow rate of fire only 1.5 rounds a minute initially, later improved to 3 or 4 rounds. The huge shells and powder charges meant that fewer could be stored, and IS-2s were limited to 28 shells on board, usually 20 HE and 8 antitank. Slow rate of fire and fewer shells was balanced by devastating power, as the 122mm gun could penetrate a German Panther’s front armor at 2700 yards, and its side armor from 3800 yards. By contrast, a Panther would have to close in to 870 yards to penetrate the IS-2’s turret, and 660 yards to penetrate its front armor. Against the Tiger, testing showed that the IS-2’s gun could penetrate its turret at 1600 yards and its front armor from 660 yards.

The IS-2 was even more effective against infantry, as its 122mm high explosive shells proved murderous against strong points and bunkers. At a pinch, the 122mm HE shells could also be fired at German tanks, and if they struck, no matter the distance, the explosion could cause cracking and even tear off the front armor’s weld. The mechanical shock could disable the enemy tank even without penetrating its armor.

12 Tanks of World War II – War Machines in Review
Comet. Wikimedia

Cromwell/ Comet

The Cromwell was the first British tank that combined decent armored protection with high speed, powered by a reliable Rolls Royce Meteor engine. By 1943, a new British tank was needed to handle the new Tigers and Panthers, but the Cromwell’s turret could not accommodate the best available gun for destroying those panzers, the 77mm dual-purpose high velocity (HV) gun, and had to settle for an inadequate medium gun.

Thus, the A34 Cruiser Tank Comet Mark I, Britain’s second-best tank of the war and its deadliest against enemy armor, which was essentially an upgraded Cromwell. It was built on a modified Cromwell chassis with a larger turret ring for a wider and bigger turret that could accommodate the 77mm HV gun. That gun was lethal against Panthers, the Comet’s German equivalent, and at most ranges, against Tigers as well. It was also superior to the Panther’s 75mm gun.

Entering service in 1944, the Comet’s superiority over the Panther was not limited to firepower. While the Panther had thicker armor, was roomier, and carried more ammunition, the Comet had a lower profile and was mechanically sounder, with a Rolls Royce Meteor engine – a conversion of the Merlin engine that powered P-51s and Spitfires – that was far more reliable than the Panther’s Maybach engine.

The Comet’s Christie suspension system was also more durable than the Panther’s, and weighing 11 tons less while powered by an engine that produced equivalent horsepower, had a better power-to-weight ratio that gave the Comet greater acceleration and made it 6 m.p.h. faster. Comets continued in British service until 1958, and with other militaries until well into the 1980s. The Comet led directly to the development of the Centurion, Britain’s primary tank of the post-WWII era.

 

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