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Development of Tanks during the Second World War.

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Development of Tanks during the Second World War.

Postby Francesco Baracca » 11 Oct 2009, 10:32

As a result of the differences in attitude, policy and design which existed prior to it, when the Second World War broke out in September 1939 the tanks of the various armies differed considerably in their characteristics and in their intended method of employment. In consequence, when they were put to test their performance varied a great deal.

At the time French tanks numbered 2677 and by the time the German offensive against France began in May 1940 their number had risen to more than 3500, excluding some 1500 Renault FT which were still being used in various ways and a small number of modern tanks in French overseas territories. However, of this impressive total 2665 were the Renault R-35 and similar light tanks which were designed only for close infantry support and most of which were dispersed by battalions over a wide front. In consequence, they proved ineffective against the German armoured forces which were concentrated over a narrow front and moved rapidly. The outcome of this was to discredit the concept of infantry support on which the R-35 and similar tanks were based.

The other French tanks, the medium S-35 and the heavy B-l, were well armoured and, by contemporary standards, well armed with 47mm guns as well as short 75mm guns in the case of the B-l. Moreover, they were concentrated respectively, in the Divisions Legeres Mecaniques and the Divisions Cuirassees. But these divisions were also unprepared for the kind of mobile operations which the German armoured formations conducted and they were not deployed very effectively.

On 1 September, 1939, the total number of German tanks amounted to 3195, but of this 1445 were the light, machine gun armed Pz.Kpfw.I and only 211 were Pz.Kpfw.IV. However, in their opening campaign against Poland they did not meet any serious tank opposition. On the eve of the 1940 offensive against France there were still only 280 Pz.Kpfw.IV out of a total of 3379, although this now included 710 tanks armed with 37mm guns, among which were ex-Czech Pz.Kpfw.35t and 38t as well as Pz.Kpfw.III. Most German tanks were not therefore very powerfully armed. The striking successes achieved in 1940 in France by the German armoured forces were consequently due to the way the tanks were employed rather than to their characteristics. Thus, all 2574 tanks that were actually deployed were concentrated in the ten Panzer divisions which the German Army had at the time and nine of these were concentrated on a narrow front.

The Panzer divisions were even more successful in relation to the opposing forces in 1941 when seventeen of them, with a total of about 3350 tanks, spearheaded the German invasion of the Soviet Union. The total number of Soviet tanks at the time has been generally estimated at about 24000, which was not only four times as many as the total number of German tanks but more than the number of tanks in the whole of the world outside the Soviet Union. Seventy five per cent of this total consisted of T-26 and BT tanks, both of which the Soviet Army regarded as light tanks. However, they were far better armed than other contemporary light tanks, including those which represented 37 per cent of the German tanks, and the BT was generally comparable to other 'light-medium' tanks. The large number of Soviet tanks was somewhat less formidable than it might appear because many of them were in a poor state, which has been reflected in claims that 73 per cent of the older types were in need of overhaul. Moreover, Soviet tank forces were in considerable disarray as a result of two reversals of policy. The first was a 1939 decision to abolish the tank corps, which until then contained a significant number of Soviet tanks, and to use tanks by brigades for infantry support. The second was a decision taken in July 1940, following the striking success of the German Panzer divisions in France, to reform mechanised corps on a large scale. But this decision was only partly implemented by the time the German forces attacked in June 1941. In addition, the Soviet tank forces were badly employed and as a result of it all they were almost annihilated, losing, according to German records, 17500 tanks.
In contrast to their ineffective employment, the development of Soviet tanks proved very successful. Its greatest achievement was the T-34 medium tank, which was developed from the basis of the BT. In particular, T-34 followed the example set as early as 1933 by some of the BT-5 and was armed with a 76.2mm gun. It also followed the final version of the BT series, the BT-7M or BT-8, in being powered by a newly developed V-2 tank diesel. In addition, the T-34 benefited from the experience gained during the Spanish Civil War with the BT-5, which showed that its maximum thickness of armour of 15mm on the turret and 22mm on the hull front was inadequate. Moreover, the T-34 finally dispensed with the unnecessary complication of being able to run on the road wheels without tracks as well as with them, which the BT tanks inherited from Christie. But, very sensibly, the T-34 retained the Christie-type independent suspension.


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All the features incorporated in the T-34 were originally embodied in the T-32 experimental tank built in 1939, prototypes of the T-34 itself being built in 1940. Production followed quickly and in May 1941, on the eve of the German invasion, there were already 967 T-34s. Compared with 517 Pz.Kpfw.IV the T-34 was not only more numerous but was superior in terms of fire power and mobility. It also had superior protection, even though the thickness of the Pz.Kpfw.IV armour had increased to a maximum of 50 to 60mm. raising its weight to 21 tons against 26.3 tons of the T-34.

After most of the older tanks were lost in 1941, the T-34s became the basic Soviet tanks in 1941 and 1942, when they were usually assigned by battalions or brigades to infantry divisions. Subsequently they were used increasingly within the framework of tank and mechanised corps, which were recreated in 1942. To meet the demand for it, the T-34 was produced on a very large scale. In fact, throughout the whole of the war its annual rate of production exceeded that of all the German tanks taken together, attaining a peak of 15812 in 1943, and by the end of June 1945 its production reached a total of 53497 tanks.


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n addition to the T-34, the Soviet Union also produced the KV heavy tank and also some light tanks, although these no longer counted. The KV was designed in 1938 and was wisely selected in preference to two heavy tanks with two turrets, the T-100 and the SMK, which showed that the concept of multi-turreted tanks was still alive at the time in the Soviet Union as it was in Britain. Production of the KV started in 1940 with the result that 508 were available in May 1941 and by the time it came to an end in 1943 it amounted to more than 4700 tanks.

The KV was obviously produced in much smaller numbers than the T-34 and it proved to be far less important. It had armour up to 75 instead of 45mm thick and a three-, instead of a two-man turret but this resulted in its weight being 42.5 tons while its main armament was exactly the same as that of the T-34. Its thicker armour was intended to make the KV capable of attacking enemy positions in the face of contemporary anti-tank weapons and, in fact, initially provided it with a high degree of immunity. But its immunity was bound to be short lived and, as more effective anti-tank weapons appeared, the KV lost whatever advantage it had over the T-34. The continued use of the KV was briefly justified in 1943 when it was rearmed with an 85mm gun. But shortly afterwards the same gun was also mounted in the T-34 and. as there was little sense in producing two different tanks with the same main armament, the KV-85 was abandoned. In its place came the 46 ton IS-2, or Stalin, heavy tank. This tank was similar to the KV but had thicker armour of up to 120mm on the hull front, partly because it dispensed with the hull machine gunner of the KV. However, the most important difference between it and the KV was its much more powerful, 122mm gun.


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Although the IS-2 was relatively heavy, it was not used like most earlier heavy tanks as a specialised assault or breakthrough tank. Instead, it was used primarily to support the medium T-34 tanks with its long-range gun and in particular to destroy enemy heavy tanks. In fact, it was developed to a large extent to counter the German Tiger heavy tank which had appeared by the end of 1942.

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The Tiger was, in turn, one of the German responses to the appearance of new Soviet tanks in 1941 and in particular of the T-34. At the time the German Army had no heavy tanks, except for a few experimental vehicles. However, once the new Russian tanks were encountered the German High Command realised the need for tanks more powerful than the existing Pz.Kpfw.IV. In consequence two new tanks were hurriedly developed. One was the 56 ton Tiger, whose design incorporated some features of one of the earlier experimental tanks but which was armed with a tank version of the 88mm anti-aircraft gun that had already proved highly effective as an anti-tank weapon. The other was a new medium tank which became the Panther, a 43 ton vehicle armed with a 70 calibre long, high velocity 75mm gun. The Panther began to be produced in January 1943 and, together with the Tiger, gave the German tank units a qualitative superiority over the Russian tank units. But both tanks were produced on a relatively small scale, the total production of the original Tiger I amounting to 1354 and that of the Panthers to 5976. In consequence, there were not enough Panthers to reequip the Panzer divisions completely with them and the Tigers were generally held back in independent battalions.

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Both tanks had the same general layout as Pz.Kpfw.IV and five-man crews but apart from having much more powerful armament and thicker armour they were much more advanced mechanically. As a result of its combination of characteristics the Panther came to be regarded as the best medium tank of the 1943-45 period while the second version of the Tiger became the most powerful tank to be used during the Second World War. Thus, Tiger II was armed with a higher performance 88mm gun which was 71 calibres long and which could pierce considerably thicker armour than the 122mm gun of the IS-2. It was also heavily armoured, its frontal hull armour being 150mm thick, although this contributed to its weight of 68 tons, which made it the heaviest tank used during the war. But the total production of Tiger II amounted to only 489 vehicles.

In the meantime, while the Tiger and the Panther were being developed, the existing German tanks were belatedly armed with more powerful guns. In particular, Pz.Kpfw.IV was armed in 1942 with more powerful 75mm guns, first 43 and then 48 calibres long, instead of the short barrelled gun of 24 calibres, which had been used in German tanks since the Grosstraktoren of 1929. In contrast, the Soviet Army armed its tanks with progressively longer barrelled and, therefore, higher velocity 76.2mm guns. Thus the early Russian tanks, including some of the BT, were armed with guns only 16.5 calibres long but the final versions of the BT and T-28 medium tank were armed with guns 26 calibres long while the original versions of the T-34 and KV had guns of 41.2 calibres. However, when the Pz.Kpfw.IV was finally rearmed with the 75mm L/48 gun the latter proved to have an armour piercing capability considerably greater than that of the Russian 76.2mm guns of 41.2 calibres and as good as that of the 85mm gun with which the T-34 was eventually armed.

The armament of the most numerous German tank during 1941 and 1942, the Pz.Kpfw.III, was also improved. The Pz.Kpfw.III was conceived as a light tank to be used alongside the medium Pz.Kpfw.IV. However, it had the same general layout, five-man crew and almost the same weight as the Pz-Kpfw.IV, which was extravagant in relation to its original armament of a 37mm gun. After the 1940 campaign in France it was rearmed with a 50mm gun 42 calibres long, which at short range could penetrate more armour than the short barrelled 75mm gun of the contemporary Pz.Kpfw.IV. However, its performance proved inadequate against the frontal armour of the Russian T-34. In consequence it was rearmed again, being fitted in 1942 with a 50mm gun 60 calibres long, the armour piercing performance of which was at least comparable to that of the Soviet 76.2mm tank guns of 41.2 calibres. In the end it was armed with the same 24 calibre 75mm gun as the original Pz.Kpfw.IV. This should have been done from the start and might have led to the merger of the two types into a single battle tank that could have been produced more efficiently and employed more effectively.

As it was, Pz.Kpfw.III was best used when its chassis became the basis of the turretless Sturmgeschiitz. The latter was conceived as an assault gun for infantry support but in 1942 it was rearmed with the same long-barrelled 75 mm gun as the Pz.Kpfw.IV. This turned it not only into a tank destroyer but also into a very effective turretless tank and it was used as such by the Panzer divisions when there was a shortage of turreted tanks. Ultimately the number of Sturmgeschiitz built on the Pz.Kpfw.III chassis amounted to 9409, which was more than the total production of any German tank.
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Re: Development of Tanks during the Second World War.

Postby Francesco Baracca » 11 Oct 2009, 10:34

New designs and improved versions of the existing vehicles developed in response to the appearance of the T-34 and KV not only made German tanks more than a match for the Soviet tanks in terms of gun-power but also put them well ahead of British and US tanks. So far as British tanks were concerned, the 40mm guns of the early cruiser tanks, from the Mark I to the Mark VI Crusader, and of the Matilda infantry tank, were superior in terms of armour penetration to the 37mm gun of the original Pz.Kpfw.III and almost equal to its short 50mm gun.

However, no attempt was made in Britain to develop a tank with a larger calibre dual-purpose gun like that of the Pz.Kpfw.IV. What was developed were only close support versions of the cruiser and infantry tanks armed with 76.2mm howitzers, which were limited-purpose weapons with no armour piercing capability and which were in no way comparable to the dual-purpose guns of similar calibre mounted at the time in Soviet as well as German tanks.
A larger, 57mm gun was mounted in 1942 in the Crusader III cruiser tank and Churchill III and IV infantry tanks. Its armour-piercing capabilities were considerably greater than those of the 40mm gun and almost the same as those of the long 75mm with which Pz.Kpfw.IV had been rearmed by then. But it was still inferior to the latter, and other 75 or 76mm guns, so far as high explosive shells were concerned. Moreover, there was no British tank with a more powerful gun that could match the 88mm gun of the Tiger, which had appeared in 1942.

In fact, cruiser and infantry tanks continued to have exactly the same main armament, in spite of the considerable differences in their weight. This meant that the heavier, infantry tanks could not play a role equivalent to that of the heavy tanks of the German and Soviet armies, which were not merely more heavily armoured than the medium tanks but which were also armed with much more powerful guns. As it was, they were never expected to be a more powerfully armed complement to the cruiser tanks. Instead, they were intended to form a separate category of tanks for close cooperation with the infantry and for this purpose they were much more heavily armoured than the cruiser tanks but not more heavily armed. Thus, as a contemporary War Office publication put it, "The main difference between the infantry and cruiser tanks lies in the thickness of armour".

The concentration on armour protection in the development of the infantry tanks paid off at first in the case of the Matilda, which enjoyed a high degree of immunity when it was used in 1940 and 1941 in Africa against ill-equipped Italian forces. But, based as it was on armour protection, its success was cut short, like that of the Soviet KV, by the appearance of more effective anti-tank weapons. Thereafter it had to rely more on its armament and in this respect it was no better than the contemporary cruiser tanks. The same was true of its successor, the Churchill infantry tank, whose armour was progressively increased to a maximum of as much as 152mm but which, in spite of it, did not distinguish itself as a fighting vehicle.


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In 1943 it was finally recognised that tank guns should not only be armour-piercing weapons but dual-purpose guns capable of delivering effective high explosive fire as well as perforating the armour of enemy tanks. Thus the final, 40 ton version of the Churchill and the 28 ton Cromwell cruiser tank were both armed with medium velocity 75mm guns. But when these tanks went into action in 1944 their armament was two years behind that of the Pz.Kpfw.IV and three behind that of the T-34. Moreover, they were no longer powerful enough to fight effectively the latest types of the opposing tanks, such as the Panther or, even more, the Tiger.

The official attitude towards this situation was that "the tank is designed with the primary object of destroying or neutralizing enemy unarmoured troops". This may have been true during the First World War but the view implied by this statement that tanks should not normally fight enemy tanks was no longer realistic when both sides were using tanks on a large scale and fighting them could not be avoided. Nevertheless, such views persisted and so did the policy, of which they were an expression, of developing and using the two separate categories of infantry and cruiser tanks.

This policy was, in fact, the root cause of the inadequate attention given to the gun-power of British tanks and of their shortcomings during the Second World War. How serious these shortcomings were is indicated by the fact that, in spite of the relatively large number of tanks produced in Britain, in 1943 and 1944 British armoured formations had to be equipped to a large extent with US built tanks. Yet in 1941 British tank output was already considerably higher than the German and at its peak of 8611 in 1942 it was more than double the latter.


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The US tanks with which a number of British as well as the US armoured formations were equipped were principally the M4 Sherman medium tanks. These tanks owed much of their origin to the use by the German armoured forces of the Pz.Kpfw.IV with its 75mm gun, from which the US Army drew the very sensible conclusion that it required a medium tank with a gun of the same calibre. A month before this conclusion was reached in June 1940, the US Army had only 464 tanks. What is more, the latest and most powerful of them was the prototype of the M2A1 medium tank, a peculiar 21 ton vehicle with a 37mm gun in a two-man turret and no less than six machine guns in the hull. Two of these were fixed in the front plate for firing forward by the driver and the other four were in small sponsons at each corner of the superstructure, which made the M2A1 almost a throw-back to the original British tanks of 1916. However, the M2A1 had a sound chassis, which could be used as the basis of a new medium tank. In view of the urgent need for it, it was decided that it would take too long to produce a new tank with a 75mm gun mounted in a turret. Instead, the gun was mounted in the hull, for which a prototype fortuitously existed in the form of the experimental T5E2 medium tank built in 1939. The configuration of the resulting M3 medium tank left a good deal to be desired but it could be produced quickly and it proved effective when first used by British tank units in Libya in 1942.

In the meantime the prototype of a second medium tank, mechanically similar to the M3 but with a turret-mounted 75mm gun, was completed in September 1941 and began to be produced in February 1942 as the Medium Tank M4. By July 1945. when the last of them were built, 49 234 tanks of this type were produced, which almost equalled the total number of T-34 tanks that were produced by then.

As they were produced, the M4 medium tanks became the principal equipment of the US as well as British and then also of the recreated French armoured formations. Their general layout was similar to that of the Pz.Kpfw.IV and their 75mm guns were comparable to the 76.2mm guns of the T-34 but they were inferior in their armour piercing capability to the long 75mm guns with which Pz.Kpfw.IV was rearmed by the time the M4 appeared in the field in 1942. The M4 only caught up with the Pz.Kpfw.IV in gun power when an improved version was produced at the beginning of 1944 with a long-barrelled 76mm gun. However, by the time the rearmed M4 came into service new German as well as Soviet tanks were already armed with more powerful guns. Nevertheless, a few months before the Anglo-American landings in Normandy in June 1944 it was still considered in the United States that two thirds of the M4 tanks should remain armed with the 75mm gun. But once the fighting in Normandy started the inadequate performance of the 75 mm gun, particularly against the frontal armour of enemy tanks, because too obvious to be ignored.

The complacency which existed until then about the armament of the M4 tanks was largely due to the view held by the command of the US Army Ground Forces that it was not the function of tanks to fight enemy tanks and that the role of armoured formations was one of exploitation and pursuit. This view resembled the contemporary attitude of the British Army to the role of armoured formations and the damage it caused to the development of US tanks was ensured by the creation of separate units of tank destroyers "especially designed for offensive action against hostile armored forces".

The tank destroyers were more heavily armed than the contemporary tanks and in the eyes of the commander of the Army Ground Forces, Lt. General L J McNair and their other proponents, they eliminated, or at least reduced, the need for tanks to be equally heavily armed. This view was an illusion, as tanks still had to fight enemy tanks and therefore needed to be armed for it. In consequence, the attitude of the Army Ground Forces stood in the way of arming tanks with guns sufficiently powerful to fight enemy tanks and the creation of the Tank Destroyer Force caused a dispersion of development effort and of the forces in the field.

Some consideration was given in 1942 and 1943 to arming the M4 with a more powerful, 90mm gun but this possibility was abandoned in 1944 in favour of a new tank, the M26 Pershing. This tank was the outcome of a somewhat diffuse chain of developments which started in 1942 with the design of a new medium T20 tank with a 76mm gun and involved the construction of several other experimental tanks with 76 and then 90mm guns. One of the latter was finally approved in December 1944 and a small pre-production batch of what was to be adopted as the Pershing was sent to Europe to see action shortly before the war ended.

The 41 ton Pershing represented a considerable advance on the M4 mechanically and it was also more heavily armoured and armed with a more powerful 90mm gun. But its armour and armament did not represent any significant advance on the German Tiger I, which was introduced more than two years earlier. Thus at the end of the Second World War, both the US and the British Army were still well behind the German Army in the gun-power of their tanks. But the doctrines which were largely responsible for this had become discredited and it was generally being recognised that tanks must be well armed to fulfill their potential as a mobile source of fire power effective against a wide range of battlefield targets, including enemy tanks.
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