Tank technology developed rapidly in the inter war years, although not all nations committed to it to an equal extent.
Mobility increased significantly. Whereas WW1 tanks could only manage a walking pace, newer tanks could move at considerable speed. This was exemplified by the experimental Christie suspension, which improved cross country performance considerably.
Developments such as these, combined with more powerful engines, brought the ‘Mobility’ segment of the ‘iron triangle’ up to speed. Pun intended.
Firepower increased drastically too.
Some tanks at the start of the war, such as the Panzer I, were armed only with machine guns, much like the ‘female’ tanks of the first world war. These tanks were intended for engaging infantry. However, they soon fell out of favour as they proved to be ineffective against other tanks.
Due to this, it soon became common practice for tanks to be armed with a large cannon as their primary weapon. The lethality of these main guns increased dramatically throughout the course of the war.
The German 1936 Panzer II was armed with a 20mm gun.
The Russian 1940 T-34 was armed with a 76.2mm gun.
The German 1944 Tiger II was armed with an 88mm gun.
This increase in firepower was directly related to the increased protection of the opposing force’s tanks. A full-on arms race between armour and anti-armour weapons was now in effect. This arms race has been ongoing ever since, and will probably continue well into the future.
It was soon discovered that the anti-infantry role of the early ‘female’ tanks could also be filled by the cannon armed tanks. This was due to the multitude of anti-infantry weapons they sported as secondary armaments. In most cases, this meant machine guns.
Most tanks would be armed with a ‘co-axial machine gun,' which would fire parallel to the main gun. In some cases, the co-axial machine gun would be ‘ballistically matched’ to the main gun, therefore where the machine gun’s rounds hit, so should the main gun’s. Combined with tracer ammunition, this allowed for a simple method of aiming, at least at shorter ranges. These machine guns were usually variants of standard infantry medium machine guns, such as the US M1919 Browning or German MG34.
Most tanks would also be armed with additional machine guns mounted on the turret roof. These would be used by the tank’s commander and loader. These machine guns would either be medium machine guns or heavy machine guns, such as the 12.7mm M2 browning, or a combination of the two. This set up proved very successful and variations of it are still found on most modern tanks today.
Many WW2 era tanks also sported a bow mounted machine gun, located at the front of the tank’s hull. This would be utilised by either the driver or a separate crewman.
NB - you may have noticed that this adds up to approximately five crew members. Some would have a separate radio operator, for a total of six. This was a significant reduction from the eight to eighteen-man crews of WW1 tanks. This trend towards a reduction in crew size is something that continues to this day.
These improvements allowed tanks to be used in ways that would not have been possible during WW1. The MKIV and A7V could only be used as slow-moving battering rams to push through enemy trench systems. This was used to make a breach that the equally slow-moving infantry could move through.
Tanks of WW2 could be used in many ways, both offensively and defensively. The most infamous of these new uses was the German blitzkrieg doctrine. This highly mobile method of warfare showed how effective a combined arms formation could be, especially if concentrated against an enemy’s weak point. Once through the enemy’s defences, the formation could wreak havoc in the enemy’s rear, leveraging their mobility. The tank was a vital component of such tactics. From this point onward, tanks would form the iron fist of any land offensive.
WW2 saw the start of regular tank-on-tank warfare. One of the largest tank battles in history, the Battle of Kursk, occurred in 1943. This battle between the Wehrmacht and the Red Army involved over eight thousand tanks.
Battles such as these cemented the idea that the main task of a tank would be to engage other tanks, with their other functions secondary to this. As such, tanks became ever more optimised for tank-on-tank warfare.
In the next article, we will explore this in more depth and examine the specific anti-armour weapons and tactics that were developed to destroy tanks. We will then discuss the technology and tactics that were developed to protect tanks from these threats.
See you next time.
By Joost J. Bakker (M4 Sherman tank) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
By baku13 (photo taken by baku13) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY-SA 2.1 jp (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.1/jp/deed.en)], via Wikimedia Commons
By Matthias Holländer (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons
By Radomil talk 14:32, 26 March 2007 (UTC) (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons
By Hohum - Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7305322
By AlfvanBeem - Own work, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19287764
M24 Chaffee with M2
By J. Mesko M24 Chaffee in action. — Squadron/Signal Publications, 1988. ISBN 0-89747-205-5, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3990222
Hull machine gun