Profiles in Cold Steel: The Making of Tanks | HistoryNet MENU

Profiles in Cold Steel: The Making of Tanks

By Jonathan Parshall
2/14/2017 • World War II Magazine

In making tanks, countries revealed their national personalities—and sealed their fates.

Elusive Insights on Factory Floors

TANKS HAVE LONG BEEN A FAVORITE topic of World War II history—the “gateway drug” for many lifelong students of the war. The merits of the T-34, Panther, and Sherman still elicit impassioned debates—and probably will until the end of time. How tanks actually got built, however, has never stirred much passion. That’s a pity, as tank production is a revealing window for peering into the very structures that powered World War II.

The Second World War was a clash between systems. And not just competing ideological systems—Western democracy vs. Axis totalitarianism and imperialism, for instance—but a host of other systems as well. In the field, systems of doctrine, training, and military intelligence affected the outcome of battles as much as weapons and manpower did. The apparatus of the state maintained the all-important systems of national mobilization, logistics, finance, and research and development. And underlying many of those systems, of course, was an enormous battle of the factories.

Understanding a major combatant’s approach to manufacturing tanks sheds light on how that nation manufactured other military hardware—artillery, trucks, aircraft, and even, to a certain extent, warships. During World War II, the three largest tank producers—the United States, the Soviet Union, and Nazi Germany—each assembled armor in an emblematic national style. Those styles led to crucial advantages—or disadvantages—throughout the war, especially during 1942–1943, when the outcome very much hung in the balance.

First, a quick trip through the production statistics. Despite the effectiveness of the Nazi blitzkrieg as the war was beginning, nobody—not even the Germans—had giant fleets of tanks in 1939–1941. It only felt that way. Early-war production of armored fighting vehicles (AFVs)—that is, any fully tracked vehicle carrying a gun of some sort: a tank, tank destroyer, or self-propelled gun—was quite modest. In 1940–1941, no combatant was cranking out more than about a thousand tanks annually.

Everything changed in 1942, as the United States entered the war, and both America and Russia got serious about tank production. That year, each built more than 24,000 AFVs, dwarfing the Reich’s 6,000. Incredibly, the Germans didn’t push the panic button until the end of 1942. But by then it was too late to catch up. Despite impressive production in 1944, Germany never achieved the productivity of the United States or the Soviet Union. Measured by cumulative tank production for 1939 to 1945, manufacturers fell into three distinct tiers: the United States and the Soviet Union at the top, each producing about 90,000 to 100,000 vehicles; Germany and Great Britain in the middle, with 36,000 to 46,000 apiece; and also-rans Italy and Japan, with 4,000 to 5,000.

Building a tank requires four major inputs: money, labor, steel, and energy. In terms of money, the United States had an enormous advantage over everyone else. The world’s foremost economy, America had a large, highly productive population. It was a major coal producer whose workers milled more steel than the rest of the world combined. There was no question that when the United States geared up, it would be able to produce tanks in profusion. More intriguing is the contrast between the other two major tank builders. During the vital 1942–1943 period, Germany trumped the Soviet Union in gross domestic product and steel and coal production. (See “Steel Production, 1943” and “Coal Production, 1943,” page 46.) So how did the Soviet Union out-produce Germany by four to one in AFVs in 1942? And why did Germany perform so badly compared with the United States and the Soviet Union? The answers are found in the three nations’ manufacturing styles.

The American Way with Armor

GIVEN ITS RAW ECONOMIC POWER, no one doubted the United States would become a major tank producer at some point in the war. The question was when. As with much of America’s early war effort, in which the nation’s needs for armaments vastly outstripped its ability to produce them, the problem at the start of 1942 was that the United States possessed only the rudiments of a true tank industry. America had, in fact, only completed its first purpose-built tank factory in mid-1941. This factory, though—the Detroit Arsenal Tank Plant, in rural Warren, Michigan, about 11 miles north of Detroit—would provide the core of an impromptu industry that by the end of 1942 had transformed the United States into the world’s largest AFV producer.

The United States had started from a point well behind the curve. Until May 1940, isolationist sentiment in America had crippled defense spending. Then France fell, and the terrifying specter of German armored power pushed the U.S. Army and Congress into getting serious about tank production, and the spigots finally opened. Seeking a state-of-the-art testbed for armor production, the government turned to Chrysler, known for having the auto industry’s finest engineers. To design the new factory, Chrysler turned to the world’s foremost industrial architect—Albert Kahn. Kahn was the go-to guy when big new factories were needed fast: he and his firm had already designed scores of cutting-edge production facilities in the United States and even the Soviet Union. Kahn did not disappoint. Construction on the Detroit Arsenal began in September 1940; by January 1941, the building was vast enough and complete enough to contain a steam-powered locomotive driven in to serve as a boiler and heat the place. And by July 1941, the factory was turning out M3 Grant medium tanks. America was in the tank business.

One factory, though—no matter how modern—wasn’t enough to win a global conflict. As global tensions escalated in late 1941, the United States looked to another industrial sector with large assembly halls, overhead cranes, and expertise in working with heavy castings: its railroad equipment manufacturers. ALCO, Baldwin, Lima, Pressed Steel, and others quickly won contracts for tank production. Once the U.S. went to war, Ford and GM likewise began the laborious process of shifting their automotive factories to AFV production.

American production engineers were the world’s finest, and played to their strengths. One of those strengths was money: Americans could afford to throw mountains of cash at their production problems. They invested heavily in hard tooling— expensive custom jigs, molds, and dies. These purpose-built fittings made standard lathes and presses much more efficient by increasing accuracy and repeatability. While hard-tooling reduced manufacturing flexibility—introducing a new part also meant creating a corresponding custom-built hard tool— the approach promised much higher output.

The Detroit Arsenal, also known as the Chrysler Arsenal, embodied this know-how. The Arsenal produced tanks on three parallel automotive-style assembly lines organized in large, spacious, and well-ordered halls. And it had acres of machine tools, some 8,000 in all—enough to support not only the Arsenal, but other tank plants.

This improvised American tank industry, centered across the industrial heartland of the upper Midwest, sprang up almost overnight. It proved to be fantastically productive. American factories manufactured 27,784 AFVs in 1942. Once fully ramped up, they produced another 29,497 in 1943. In fact, by 1944 the United States could deliberately cut back on tank production, having enough vehicles to supply its needs and those of its substantial Lend-Lease shipments to the Soviet Union and Great Britain. The railroad companies (Pressed Steel aside) were moved to other tasks, and tank production centered on Detroit, with Fisher and Cadillac working alongside the Arsenal. The Arsenal itself produced more than 22,000 tanks during the war—nearly a quarter of the total American output. The establishment of such a huge industry so quickly was a testament to American ingenuity and its unswerving belief in the mass production methods the nation had pioneered.

Russia’s Harsh, Unblinking Vision

UNLIKE THE UNITED STATES, THE Soviet Union came into World War II with an extensive tank industry—one the Soviets had unashamedly based on American-style mass production. This made sense, since many Soviet factories had been designed and built by Americans during the 1920s and 30s, when the Communists, working to improve the Soviet industrial base, aspired to the American production model. Indeed, Albert Kahn himself had designed the tractor factory at Stalingrad. And the Soviets weren’t just hiring American architects, but also American production engineers and tool manufacturers.

But by mid-1941, the German invasion had badly disrupted Soviet industry. During that disastrous summer, the invaders had captured, besieged, or threatened the Soviet Union’s western industrial cities. In six months, the U.S.S.R. effectively lost 40 percent of its gross domestic product and population, and 60 percent of its coal and steel production. In the face of this disaster, Russia hurriedly rushed equipment and skilled workers from hundreds of factories onto trains and sent machines and men east to the Ural Mountains.

The Soviets relocated the salvaged equipment to four towns: Nizhny Tagil, Omsk, Sverdlovsk, and Chelyabinsk. Each possessed an existing railroad equipment or tractor factory; the arriving equipment expanded those facilities. As workers set up the machine tools again, sometimes in the naked elements until buildings could be constructed, existing plants at Gorky and Stalingrad “kept the lights on” through 1942, producing enough vehicles for the Red Army to continue fighting. By the time the Stalingrad factory finally fell to the Nazis in October 1942, the new Ural plants were going full tilt.

This massive industrial exodus left the Russian railroad system on the brink of collapse by 1942. Overtaxed track had gone without proper maintenance; rolling stock and engines needed repair or replacement. This led to an effort to minimize railway freight tonnage, which in turn powered an emphasis in Russian factories on centralization and vertical integration—meaning that the Russians concentrated more of the entire process, from manufacture of subcomponents to final assembly, at individual factories. Doing so reduced efficiency, as even the largest factories couldn’t achieve the economies of scale that, say, an engine provider like Germany’s Maybach or the United States’ Ford could. But it helped keep the Soviet Union’s transportation network functioning.

The Ural facilities were huge: the largest in the world, in terms of manpower committed. The Chelyabinsk tractor works, for instance, was known simply as Tankograd: “Tank City.” Tankograd could fabricate nearly everything needed to make an AFV except the gun. It cast steel and armor; produced the engine, transmission, and other components; and assembled the vehicle. It even produced ammunition. The number of workers at the new facility skyrocketed: from 21,000 in 1937 to 40,000 in 1942. By 1944, while Chrysler had 19,500 workers engaged in tank production at the Arsenal and subsidiary plants, Tankograd had 60,000 people under its roof, most of them women, teenagers, and old men. Working conditions were primitive: hot, smoky, cramped, and dimly lit. But Tankograd and the other Ural facilities poured out vehicles.

One principle the Russians adopted with a vengeance from the Americans was planned obsolescence. In a manufactured product, it makes no sense to have subcomponents that last longer than the product itself. The Soviets weren’t dummies. They had carefully studied battlefield data and realized that the average lifespan of a tank on the Eastern Front was less than six months. In combat, tank lifespan was about 14 hours. These were disposable vehicles, with disposable human beings inside. This brutal insight clarified everything about vehicle design, leading the Soviets to embrace a methodology that might be called “The Zen of Shoddiness.”

Viewed this way, there was no sense in building a tank engine or transmission good for more than 1,500 kilometers (932 miles); the tank would be dead by then. The Soviets realized they could machine those components to looser tolerances, using lower-quality metals. And they replaced machined parts with stamped metal components whenever possible. Paint jobs were lamentably bad; welds often crude—although the Soviets did experiment with innovative technologies. At Nizhny Tagil, welding tank hulls underwater hastened cooling and sped up the manufacturing process.

At the same time, the Soviets did everything possible to reduce cost. They standardized Soviet tanks and self-propelled guns on just three chassis: the KV-1 heavy, T-34 medium, and T-70 light. And they kept production runs long and design changes to a minimum, implementing a change only if it made a vehicle simpler or cheaper to manufacture. With the T-34 medium tank, for example, manufacturers simplified 770 parts and eliminated more than 5,600 from 1941 to 1943. During that period the tank’s cost fell by half, from 269,000 rubles to 135,000. While everyone knows that time is money, the inverse is also true: less money meant less time on the line. Components were machined more quickly. And as workers learned the intricacies of assembling the same vehicle over and over, assembly time went down, too. Taken together, the overall labor cost of the vehicle plummeted.

None of this should imply that Soviet tanks were poorly designed. Quite the opposite: the T-34 was a great tank. Its firepower, protection, and mobility surpassed any AFV the Germans fielded until the end of 1942. Cosmetics and comfort simply didn’t concern the Soviets; natty paint-jobs and ruler-straight welds didn’t kill Germans; the T-34’s 76mm gun did. That component of the vehicle worked very much as advertised. True, the tank’s loader had to scramble around inside the hull, because the T-34 had no turret basket in which he could sit. In Russian tanks, the things that mattered worked well enough; the things that didn’t were afterthoughts.

While it’s easy to ridicule the simple, sometimes shoddy, weapons the Soviets cranked out, it’s difficult to escape the conclusion that the philosophy underlying the Russian manufacturing approach was nothing less than brilliant. From an emasculated industrial base that left the Soviets under-producing Germans in coal and steel by a ratio of one to four, Soviet factories turned the tables, out-producing Germany nearly three to one in tanks during the vital 1942–1943 period. This monumental achievement was crucial to the war’s outcome.

Germany’s Two-Edged Sword

AND THEN THERE’S THE Reich. Industrial strength and skill should have made Germany a formidable tank manufacturer. But Germany’s national manufacturing style held deep cultural preferences for production modes that ran counter to its interests in winning the war. German engineers viewed American-style mass production with disdain, associating it with cheap, poorly made consumer goods. In Germany, craftsmanship still reigned supreme, and German manufacturers expected industrial workers, having spent years in exacting apprenticeships, to be highly skilled. These cultural tendencies toward finickiness were fully embraced by the Wehrmacht as well. Indeed, when Germany resumed tank manufacturing in the 1930s, the Wehrmacht deliberately withheld contracts from firms that used hard-tooling or assembly lines, deeming those manufacturers “too inflexible to meet changing requirements.”

Requirements tended to change because the Wehrmacht firmly controlled weapons specifications, and did not hesitate to alter them to capitalize on engineering innovations that might improve combat performance. Not only in tanks but in all its weapons, the Wehrmacht indulged in a constant quest for technological advantage. In many cases, though, this emphasis on pricey, elaborate, and evolving design led to a reduction in production. Put simply, when design engineering went up against production engineering in Germany, design engineering usually won.

Likewise, the Wehrmacht had a predilection for too many models, and for having too many under production at once. It produced the Panzer III in no less than 14 models, with the largest run being only 1,067 units, built by six different plants. The Panzer III’s assault gun variant, the StuG III, came in eight models; there were 10 of the Panzer IV and nine of its self-propelled gun version—all produced in comparatively small quantities.

Consider, then, the case of the most famous German AFV of all: the Tiger. This heavy tank was assembled at a single facility, the Henschel & Son works in Kassel, Germany. On paper, the Kassel plant could turn out 240 to 360 Tigers per month. Yet the plant’s highest monthly production goal was only 95 units, and it never produced more than 104 in one month during the Tiger’s 25-month, 1,347-unit run. For most of that time, the Kassel facility produced an average of 60 to 80 units per month. What was going on?

In a nutshell, the Tiger was an engineering marvel, but an assembly nightmare. For one thing, the Wehrmacht made more than 250 engineering changes to the vehicle’s design during its run. Think about what that meant: On average, a Tiger rolling out of the factory likely differed from a tank on the line just six units behind. That left the Kassel facility coping with two or three design changes every week. Many were “improvements” tangential to the vehicle’s success in combat: reshaped turret traverse levers, mounting points for canvas screens to camouflage the tank as a large truck, waterproof coverings for the commander’s cupola, and on and on. And Kassel didn’t manage most changes in “blocks” or “flights,” but in a constant stream of onesie-twosie modifications. For all intents and purposes, each Tiger was a handcrafted vehicle.

Other issues plagued Tiger production. The highly complex assembly process used a methodology more akin to aircraft manufacture than vehicle assembly. Rather than moving along an assembly line, the product remained in one location for assorted manufacturing operations, then was moved to another. The process downplayed hard-tooling: the Kassel plant had only about 1,000 machine tools. In contrast, the Detroit Arsenal had 8,000; Tankograd, 6,000-plus. Substantial rework on the line further slowed production. The net result was that the average Tiger took 200,000 to 300,000 manhours to build, as opposed to 10,000 for the average Sherman. Likewise—while currency comparisons must be taken with a very large grain of salt—a Tiger appears to have cost around $320,000, in contrast to the contract price of $33,500 for a Chrysler-built Sherman.

The problem was, of course, that German armored vehicles faced the same brutal realities of combat as everyone else’s. The Wehrmacht expended tanks in battle at high rates—not as high as the Soviets, but the tanks died all the same. German tanks simply were not cost-effective. Yet instead of accommodating this truth, the Wehrmacht insisted on building handcrafted tanks until about 1944. Even when vehicle size and complexity pushed Germany into partial mass production by 1944, it never fielded enough tanks.

Function, Form, and the Fate of Nations

TAKEN ALTOGETHER, IT’S CLEAR THE  Americans held a winning hand, but they also played it adroitly. They brought superior product engineering to bear, rapidly converted railroad equipment and auto companies, and spent rivers of money on hard-tooling. Starting from essentially nothing at the beginning of 1941, the United States built the world’s largest tank industry by the end of 1942. Even factoring in their advantages, this was a tremendous achievement.

The Soviets accomplished something more astounding. They reacted to 1941’s horrific economic body blows by making a realistic, if hard-hearted, appraisal of the war they were fighting, then produced rough but well-engineered vehicles to match. Had the Russians emphasized quality over quantity, they unquestionably would have lost the war. Instead, the Soviets leveraged limited resources with a laser-like focus on reducing production costs while maximizing output. As a result, a plethora of armored vehicles poured forth from the factories in the Urals.

The Germans’ production style did not get real until too late in the game. A national bias against mass manufacturing certainly played a role. But the Germans also failed to comprehend that the entry of the Soviet Union and the United States into the war had changed its very nature. One on one, vehicles like the Tiger could dominate any Allied opponent. But in the context of combat along multiple huge fronts, the Germans’ decision to produce a relative handful of high-cost Wünderpanzers was pure folly.


Originally published in the October 2014 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.

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