For the past century, in single combat and in wars, these landmark tanks have been arbiters of victory and defeat.
The tank was the glamour weapon of 20th-century warfare, combining mobility, armor, and firepower into one deadly package. Tanks maneuvered where other units could not, survived in environments where no others could, and spearheaded mobile operations that still stir the blood. From soldiers to historians to “treadhead” armor buffs, the 20th century loved the tank.
Intertwined with the technology and tactics of the period, the tank dominated first the imagination and then the actual doctrine of the era’s war makers. Alone it was a mere machine with a gun. Wielded by commanders of vision, men who understood its strengths, weaknesses, and possibilities, the tank became the arbiter of victory and defeat. With that in mind, let us turn to the greatest tanks of their time and to their signature battlefield moments.
Mark IV: The Granddaddy of Them all
The tank arose as an answer to a question: How could armies break the deadlock of trench warfare on the Western Front in World War I? The war opened in 1914 with all sides seeking quick, victorious campaigns of maneuver: the German invasion of Belgium, the French drive into Lorraine, the Russian invasion of East Prussia. The offensives failed, and by 1915 the fronts had hardened into static positions with all the familiar accouterments: trenches, barbed wire, machine guns, an apparently inexhaustible supply of artillery. Attacking effectively across no man’s land and through the enemy’s trenches was virtually impossible. The only tangible result of that tactic was a casualty list that beggared the imagination.
In 1914 British lieutenant colonel Ernest D. Swinton was a war correspondent on the Western Front. An eyewitness to the birth of trench warfare, he began to ponder ways to break the stalemate. The army needed an “armored vehicle immune against bullets,” he wrote, “capable of destroying machine guns, of crossing country and trenches.” He had recently seen an American Holt agricultural tractor in action at an industrial exposition in Antwerp, and suddenly it dawned on him: The key to the problem lay in the caterpillar track!
Swinton was well connected, and he shared his ideas with Maurice Hankey, secretary to the Committee of Imperial Defense. Hankey was enthusiastic, and so was First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill, always intrigued by new inventions. For a time the project came under Royal Navy purview, the reason we still speak of the hull and bow of a tank. Designs came and went, as did prototypes. The Tritton, named for the lead engineer, became Little Willie, then Centipede, and later Mother. The machine gradually assumed a rhomboidal shape, and early models had side-mounted sponsons for their 6-pounder naval guns. The design split into two types, male and female: the male having a cannon, the female armed with machine guns. Through all of these changes, one thing remained constant and has continued to the present: the project’s code name “Tank.”
The tank had an astonishingly rapid rise. A mere idea in 1914, it debuted on the Somme battlefield just two years later. The standard late war model, the Mark IV, was a highly refined machine compared to earlier designs: thicker armor, retractable sponsons, heavier track, shorter-barreled gun. By 1917 the British had fielded an entire tank corps equipped with these modern behemoths, and the corps would play a crucial role in laying Germany low in the war’s last two years.
Its Big Moment: Cambrai
In November 1917 the British launched an offensive against the Germans in front of Cambrai, in northern France. Rather than using the tanks in driblets, common up to then, Operation GY called for their employment en masse, like a bolt from the blue with no preparatory bombardment. The brainchild of the Royal Tank Corps chief of staff, Major J. F. C. Fuller, the attack caught the Germans utterly by surprise. As nine full tank battalions—400 machines, nearly all Mark IVs—churned out of the early morning mist heading for the enemy lines, German soldiers did something that up to this point of the war they had rarely done: Some of the finest soldiers in Europe—faced with this inconceivable armored onslaught—threw down their weapons and surrendered or tried to flee. The British offensive would fall short of ultimate victory, but Cambrai inaugurated a new era in warfare: the age of mechanized operations.
Christie M-1931: Hail to the Tinkerer!
A tank is a complex weapon, and tank design usually requires a team of technicians and engineers. In their early incarnation, however, tanks were often the product of a cranky mechanic fiddling around in his garage. J. Walter Christie was the archetype. An American inventor of the interwar period, he designed one innovative weapon after the other: an amphibious gun packed with cork for increased buoyancy, a light tank with a 750-horsepower Hispano-Suiza airplane engine that could leap a 20-foot gap from a 45-degree ramp; and the M-1928 tank with solid rubber bogey wheels, each of which had its own vertical coil spring. Its independent suspension provided the smoothest ride yet achieved in a tracked vehicle. And—oh yes—the M-1928 could also shed its tracks in just 30 minutes and run on its wheels.
Surprisingly, the U.S. Army had none of these weapons during World War II. A prophet without honor in his own country, Christie sold most of his designs abroad. The U.S. Army did buy his M-1931 prototype, another advanced model with independent suspension and sloped armor to reduce the effectiveness of antitank fire, but was concerned about cost and mechanical reliability. The M-1931, too, could remove its treads, and its 338-horsepower Liberty aircraft engine gave it an unusual top speed of 70 miles an hour. U.S. planners saw no need for such a thing. What nation could possibly need a tank that fast?
The answer to that question was the Soviet Union. The Red Army bought the Christie M-1931, and it became the ancestor of a generation of BT tanks (for bystrokhodnii tank, or “fast tank”). The BT-1 had a 37mm gun; the BT-5 a 45mm. Both were greatly superior to contemporary German models (still armed only with machine guns or 20mm pop cannons), and a direct conceptual line ran from the Christie tank through the Soviet BT series and from there to later designs, including the T-34.
Its Big Moment: The Road to Moscow
In late June 1941 the Wehrmacht was riding high. Operation Barbarossa had surprised the Soviet military on all levels, smashing the Soviet air force on the ground and slashing great holes in front-line Soviet defenses. It was pedal-to-the-metal time on the road to Moscow.
Check that: not everywhere. A German battalion commander of the 15th Panzer Regiment got a nasty surprise on day two of the invasion: a new Soviet tank of some sort—sloped armor, nimble, speedy, and the most powerful tank gun the German had ever seen. Years later, he still shuddered at the memory. “We, of course, had no knowledge at all of this tank; and in the first phase of this battle, my tank was shot; and my driver killed. Four tanks were in our group, and they all suffered the same fate. The commander’s cupola had been shot away, and two officers and two sergeants were dead.”
The German major had just met the T-34, a revolutionary Soviet design that had evolved from the earlier fast-tank concept and a vehicle that owed much to the genius of the American tinkerer J. Walter Christie.
SOMUA S-35: Forgotten Greatness
French armor has gotten no respect from historians, and small wonder. The French army fought one great mechanized campaign in World War II and lost. But the defeat had much less to do with the quality of French armor than it did with issues of command, control, and doctrine, and the French actually fielded some decent models. Among them: the Renault R-35 infantry tank, with a 37mm main gun, machine gun, and 20 to 40mm armor; and the heavy Char B1 model, with a 47mm gun in the turret, a fixed 75mm in the hull, and twice the armor thickness of contemporary German tanks. The best of all was the medium SOMUA S-35, an excellent machine all around, with a 47mm main gun, coaxially mounted machine gun, and 47mm armor—with an impressive top speed of 29 miles an hour.
Its Big Moment: The Gembloux Gap
The 1940 campaign was short, for obvious reasons, and the Wehrmacht’s operational maneuvers completely flummoxed the French high command. Nevertheless, as French mechanized armies rolled north into Belgium to take up defensive positions along the Dyle River, two light mechanized divisions (DLMs) plugged themselves into the open terrain of the Gembloux Gap between Louvain and Namur. Here, from May 13 to 15, they banged into the onrushing German 3rd and 4th Panzer Divisions. With over 1,500 tanks engaged on both sides, it was one of the largest tank battles in history up to that point. French S-35s spearheaded the effort and gave as good as they got, preventing a German breakthrough, inflicting heavy casualties, and covering the approach of the French infantry divisions to the Dyle. The S-35 was the finest tank on the field in those days. Gembloux was a useful reminder that even the best tank cannot substitute for good doctrine and a sensible national strategy.
Panzer Mark III: Utility Man
So fearsome was the German reputation for armored battle that misconceptions have arisen. The most common one, perhaps, was that the Germans were plying their trade in superior vehicles. Nothing could be further from the truth. Most German tanks were already obsolete at the start World War II, and the Wehrmacht spent much of the conflict scrambling to catch up. In other words, they won their most dramatic victories in inferior machines, and the margin of victory lay in superior training, more aggressive commanders, and doctrine better suited to exploit the mobility of the tank.
No one will ever argue that the Pzkw (for panzerkampfwagen, armored fighting vehicle) Mark III was the best tank of the war. In speed, armor, and firepower, the Mark III was middling at best. But while never the best in any of these ratings, it was good enough at all of them, a jack-of-all-trades with no obvious weaknesses. The Mark III also had one real advantage: a three-man turret that let the loader and gunner do their things while the commander concentrated on the overall tactical situation, a feature soon to become standard in international tank design. Finally, like the Wehrmacht itself, it was flexible enough to change and capable of almost infinite variation. It began the war with a 37mm main gun, received the 50mm gun in 1941, and then, in its final incarnation (the Model N), a 75mm. Even after production ended in 1943, its chassis continued to serve as the hull for the ubiquitous German turretless assault gun, the StuG III.
Its Big Moment: Gazala
Give well-trained crews and a solid commander even a mediocre weapon and watch the sparks fly. In May 1942 General Erwin Rommel’s Panzerarmee Afrika launched a great offensive against the British Eighth Army in its fortified position at Gazala, west of Tobruk. Moving a gigantic armored force—including his entire complement of panzers, mostly Mark IIIs—into the deep desert overnight, he drove into the British flank and rear just as the sun was coming up. At first, British soldiers thought they were seeing a sandstorm on the horizon, but the situation clarified with awful suddenness. “It was,” a British soldier later wrote, “the whole of Rommel’s command in full cry straight for us.” It was the signal moment of Rommel’s career and the apotheosis of a tank that rarely gets the kudos it deserves.
T-34: The Champ
The T-34 was the finest tank of World War II. An amalgam of American inspiration (in the form of the Christie tank design) and the Soviet penchant for innovative military thinking, the T-34 had it all: nice wide treads for maneuver over mud, snow, and Russia’s primitive roads; the best tank gun in the world at the time (the 76.2mm); canted armor for increased protection; and perhaps above all, mechanical reliability. Its appearance in 1941 came as a major shock to the Germans and inflicted crippling losses on them all the way from the border to Moscow. Indeed, more than any other weapon, the T-34 was responsible for the survival of the Soviet Union in that terrible first campaigning season.
When the tides shifted and the Red Army transitioned over to the offensive, the T-34 came into its own. All the great moments of the 1942 campaign—Stalingrad, the counterblows in the Caucasus, the helter-skelter lunge from the Volga to the Don to the Dnieper in one seamless campaign—featured the T-34. Finally, even when the state of the art had passed the T-34 by, the Soviets simply stuck a bigger gun in it, the 85mm. The T-34/85 would be in the thick of it for the rest of the war, fighting all the way into Berlin.
Its Big Moment: Kalach
The massive Soviet offensive of November 1942 was barely three days old when it happened. German garrison troops far behind the line holding the Don Bridge at Kalach had heard their share of bad news in the previous 48 hours: The front north and south of Stalingrad had ruptured, their Romanian allies were shattered, Soviet tank armies were pouring into the gaps. But all of that was happening very far away. Kalach was well behind the front. The slow pace of rear-area duty had quickened in the past few days. Supply trains, ammunition shipments, staff officers—the usual thing. And troops scurrying hither and yon, along with some tanks. Reinforcements for the front? the men had asked one another. But wait—they weren’t heading out—they were coming into town. A general retreat? A wrong turn? Wait a minute….They aren’t ours!
Those tanks rolling into Kalach on November 22 were the vanguard of the Soviet 26th Tank Corps. Concerned lest the Germans succeed in demolishing the crucial road bridge over the Don, the corps commander, General A. G. Rodin, sent into the city a small detachment—a pair of motorized infantry companies fronted by precisely five T-34 tanks. They entered Kalach with headlights blazing, rushed the bridge, and reached it before the befuddled German garrison could react. As so often in the history of tank warfare, mobility had been the key. Nothing did it better than the T-34.
Panzer Mark V Panther: Payback
The T-34 came as a shock to the Germans in 1941. Virtually every German memoir mentions the power and range of its gun, its impervious armor, its maneuverability even on the softest ground. The Germans sent a team of experts and technicians to the Eastern Front to study the problem, then designed a countermeasure—or in this case, a countertank.
In its fully developed model, the Mark V Panther had a high velocity 75mm long gun, one of the most powerful tank guns of the war; the same sloping armor as the T-34, which effectively increased protection; and some 80mm of armor in the front of the hull and 50mm on the sides. All that armor came with a price, however. A Panther weighed nearly 45 tons. Nevertheless, its Maybach V-12 engine was capable of generating 680 horsepower and an impressive top speed of 34 miles an hour. Tough to kill, dangerous to be around, and difficult to outrun, the Panther was one of the war’s most formidable tanks.
Its Big Moment: Kursk
The debut of the Panther was at the Battle of Kursk in July 1943. Historians have spilled an ocean of ink about the tank’s troubles in that first encounter. Rushed into combat before it was fully tested, the Panther experienced all sorts of teething problems, and the Kursk battlefield was littered with broken-down models that had blown transmissions, burnt-out engines, thrown tracks, and more.
But a counter-narrative is possible. Soviet tank losses, it is now clear, were massive during the fighting at Kursk. A relatively small number of Panthers—a hundred or so—took part in the battle. A large number of them did break down in the opening days. The Germans were able to recover some and send them right back into action. In the battle as a whole, perhaps as few as 50 Panthers destroyed 267 Soviet tanks, not to mention an untold amount of transport, ammunition, and supplies.
The Germans lost Kursk, but the problems of the Panther were not the reason. In the end, Kursk was a perfect expression of the Panther’s career—deadly service in a lost war.
Panzer Mark VI Tiger: Behemoth
Evaluating the Tiger tank has not been easy for historians. Beloved by the buffs, legendary in killing power, awe-inspiring in size—it was all these things. But the Tiger wasn’t the greatest tank of World War II, not by a long shot.
The Tiger was heavy, weighing 55 tons, mainly because of its armor: 100mm in the front and 60 to 80mm on the sides. It had the largest gun the Germans ever put in a tank, the dreaded 88mm. Like the Panther, the Tiger was weighed down by its armor, but the Germans never found an engine that could drag so much weight around reliably. The Tiger always suffered from engine and transmission problems, and its speed and maneuverability were sluggish at best. Not for nothing did its German crews dub it the “furniture van.”
And yet, it should go without saying that if you were an Allied soldier or tank crew, you did not want to get in a Tiger’s way. So fierce was the Tiger’s reputation that a syndrome developed among Allied troops on the Western Front. Anytime they saw a German tank, they figured the worst: It must be a Tiger. The Tiger had a negative morale effect wherever it appeared in battle, and even in places where it didn’t.
Its Big Moment: Villers-Bocage
It has always been dangerous to get close to a tiger. On June 13, 1944, the British 22nd Armoured Brigade learned that lesson the hard way. Part of General Bernard Law Montgomery’s attempt to outflank German defenses in front of Caen, the lead elements of the brigade were passing through the village of Villers-Bocage on their way east. Here they stumbled into an ambush by a company of five Tigers under First Lieutenant Michael Wittmann. Alert to the British advance, Wittmann took his Tiger into a small patch of woods south of the road out of town and waited. He let the head of the British column get within 80 yards before he took out the lead tank with a single shot from his 88mm main gun. Trapped on the narrow road by the flaming wreck, much of the rest of the brigade (58 Cromwells, equipped with an inferior 75mm gun) was helpless. Realizing he had little to fear, Wittmann drove parallel to the road, shooting as he went. “For Christ’s sake, get a move on!” screamed one British noncom into the radio. “There’s a Tiger running alongside us 50 yards away!” At one point, Wittmann actually climbed his Tiger onto the road, destroying the tanks in front of him, forcing lighter vehicles into the ditch, machinegunning them, and even running over some of them. In just minutes, he and his company destroyed 24 tanks, 9 halftracks, and a mass of towed guns and armored cars.
In recent years historians have demythologized Villers-Bocage, pointing out that the ambush was only a temporary setback for the British. And Wittmann’s decision to get on the road and drive into town resulted in his Tiger being disabled by a British shell, forcing him and his crew to escape on foot. Wittmann’s lone-wolf attack did plenty of damage, but it was also risky. Even so, during the first moments of the fight, Wittmann and his crew must have felt 10 feet tall.
M-4 Sherman: Good enough
In contrast to German and Soviet tanks, the M-4 Sherman has received bad press since the end of the war. Too light to slug out it with Tigers and Panthers, under-gunned and under-armored, exhibiting a tendency to “brew up” in combat (it was nicknamed the Ronson, for the popular brand of cigarette lighter), the Sherman has caused handwringing among U.S. military historians and tank buffs alike.
The haters should stop. The M-4 was a perfectly adequate tank, and in many respects remarkable. Its gyrostabilized gun was a game-changer, providing the ability to fire and move that made it the envy of its foes. And the Sherman was light enough to transport overseas—the real reason the U.S. Army could not have used a tank like the Tiger. Like all great tanks, the M-4 could be varied almost infinitely: welded hulls, cast hulls; gasoline engines, diesel engines; dry stowage, wet stowage. U.S. tank production in World War II consisted of an incredibly diverse series of Sherman variants.
U.S. armor doctrine saw the tank in the exploitation role, not for the breakthrough (the task of the other arms) or for tank-on-tank combat. Killing enemy armor was the job of the tank destroyer. Perhaps the doctrine was faulty, but the Sherman was perfect for it—and it worked well enough to win the war.
Its Big Moment: Cobra
By late June 1944 the Allies seemed to be permanently bottled up in Normandy. But under the surface, something exciting was happening. General Omar Bradley and his staff had planned the big breakout, Operation Cobra. Of course, they knew by then that running their M-4s at prepared German defenses was suicide. The breakthrough would be the task of the U.S. Army Air Forces, with 1,500 heavy bombers carpet-bombing a small segment of the German line from St. Lô to Périers.
The bombing pulverized German defenses. Then came the new U.S. Third Army, under a new commander, General George S. Patton Jr. Urging his Shermans forward at top speed, Patton headed south onto the open ground, then veered west into Brittany and east toward Paris and the German border, always advancing faster than the Germans could retreat. Never had the word “overrun” had a more literal meaning, and never had a mission been better suited to the qualities of the Sherman tank.
T-62: Cold War, hot Tank
The Cold War is a memory today, but it was a deadly serious contest at the time, and the Soviet Union often seemed to be winning. The Soviets had hordes of tanks (perhaps as many as 50,000), a massive military presence in Central Europe, and absolute quantitative superiority at the point of contact with NATO in the Fulda Gap linking East and West Germany. U.S. planners no doubt spent some sleepless nights during the era but usually comforted themselves with thoughts of American technological superiority: Quality would make up for quantity.
But would it? What if the Soviets had the edge in quality as well? The entire generation of Cold War Soviet tanks—the T-54, T-55, T-62, T-64, and T-72—were extremely innovative machines, pioneering automatic loaders, high-velocity smoothbore guns, and extremely low-profile rounded or hemispheric turrets. None of these Soviet tanks ever went toe to toe with their U.S. counterparts in World War II or thereafter, and perhaps that was just as well for the West.
Its Big Moment: Suez Though NATO and the Warsaw Pact never went to war, the T-62 still had its moment in the sun. In October 1973 the “front-line” Arab states of the Middle East launched a surprise attack on Israel. The Egyptians had to get across the Suez Canal, a feat they managed with clever engineering and bridging techniques, including blasting the sand berm on the Israeli side of the canal with high-pressure water cannons. The Syrians launched a bruising multi-echelon, deep-battle assault of the sort taught them by Soviet advisers. Common to the two offensives was the main battle tank. As hordes of Arab T-62s poured into Sinai and up the Golan Heights, and the Israel Defense Force desperately tried to cobble together a defensive position on both fronts, the strategic balance in the Middle East changed forever. The IDF eventually recovered its footing, fighting a tough defensive battle and then counterattacking in both sectors, but the world is still coming to terms with the shock of 1973.
M-1 Abrams: The Pinnacle
The 1980s saw the U.S. military on a spending spree in an era of nearly unlimited budgets. With the threat from the Soviet Union still paramount, the army designed new weapons to meet the challenge: the M-2 Bradley infantry fighting vehicle, the AH-64A Apache attack helicopter, the UH-60 Black Hawk transport, and the Patriot air defense system. All these weapons were expensive, complex, and highly effective, but none was more effective than the M-1 Abrams main battle tank.
The M-1 was not merely an advanced design. It was a completely new breed of tank. Even a short list of its innovations was impressive: composite (or Chobham) armor, a top secret innovation; an extremely low-target profile, a first for a U.S. tank; a laser range finder for target acquisition; thermal imaging; and air conditioning.
Then there was the engine. The M-1 departed from all previous tanks with piston engines in favor of a Lycoming Textron 1500 gas turbine, generating no less than 1,500 horsepower. Weighing almost 60 tons, the M-1 had a top speed of 45 miles an hour and could accelerate from zero to 30 in just 12 seconds, a shocking sight. In terms of power, speed, and protection, the Abrams was simply off the charts, and it got better with the addition of a German-produced Rheinmetall 120mm smoothbore gun, in the version designated M-1A1. The day the Abrams came on line was the day the United States won the Cold War.
Its Big Moment: Iraqi Desert
The M-1 never fought its intended Cold War foe. But in 1991 it did fight the “B-team,” the Iraqi army, in Operation Desert Storm. At a grid coordinate designated 73 Easting, the 2nd Squadron, 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment, charged into the elite Iraqi Republican Guard. Catching two divisions (12th Armored and Tawalkalna) in a dust storm, the squadron used thermal imaging, main-gun fire, and guided missiles to wreak havoc. A lone battalion, in short, smashed two T-72-equipped divisions.
At 73 Easting, and wherever it has fought high-intensity mechanized operations, the M-1 has been overwhelming in the attack. After all of the tank designs seeking more effective explosives, the M-1 fired a depleted uranium spike, part of the armor-piercing, fin-stabilized, discarding-sabot (APFSDS) round. It could penetrate the turret of an Iraqi T-72, kill everyone inside, exit the turret from the opposite side, and then penetrate another Iraqi tank. There has never been a more lethal tank than the M-1.
The tank dominated 20th-century combat, but by and large it has been absent in the 21st. Today, with combat against shadowy nonstate networks and terrorist organizations, there seems little room for large-scale mechanized operations. Indeed, modern strategists tend to denigrate armored warfare as overly “kinetic” and out of touch. But who knows? Great powers such as Russia and China seem once again to be on the march, and trouble spots range from the Middle East to Ukraine to Southeast Asia. Analysts have declared the tank obsolete on at least five occasions in the 20th century, and each time it has come back. At some point in the future, military planners will need mobility, heavy armor, and a big gun, and they’ll know where to get it—the tank.
Robert M. Citino, a professor at the U.S. Army War College, has written numerous histories, including The German Way of War, Death of the Wehrmacht, and Quest for Decisive Victory.
Originally published in the January 2015 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here.