World War II brought fundamental changes to the ways in which nations conduct wars. Technology introduced new weapons to the battlefield, and old strategies were replaced to reflect the new situation. Planes elevated air superiority to a necessity for armies on the ground. Nuclear weapons became a reality and redefined the strategic toolbox available to military and political leaders. Standing above the other changes, the reliance on armored warfare revolutionized the way nations prepared for and fought wars.
Development of Tank Strategies
First seen on the battlefield in large numbers during World War I, tanks were used as a ram to break through enemy trenches or to provide a safe firing position for infantry support troops. It was during the period between world wars that tank strategies began to develop.
British and American Models
The British and American militaries adopted a tank strategy that envisioned armored vehicles as infantry support units. Tanks could be used to open a hole in enemy lines, but the brunt of the fighting must be done by infantry units. Early tanks for the Allies had limited transverse movement for the turret, because their primary purpose was to serve as a gun platform for the infantry units coming behind them. The development and design of new tanks were low on the list of priorities for the British and the Americans until they saw the success of the German model.
Heinz Guderian, the famed German tank commander, carefully crafted a military strategy where tanks were at the center of battle. Guderian envisioned armored columns leading spearheads of an army, backed with air power, and followed by infantry units left to clean up any remaining resistance. This combined arms approach became the Blitzkrieg strategy used by the Germans throughout most of World War II. The mobility of the German tank units, and their ability to react quickly to changes in the strategic or tactical situation contributed to the German successes early in the war.
During World War II, both sides used a three-tiered system for designing and producing tanks. Each type of tank had a specific role to play on the battlefield.
The days of the individual scout on a horse were numbered as soon as World War II began. Nations needed scouts that had the speed and armor to protect themselves on the fringes of the enemy’s lines, which lead to the usage of light tanks. Light tanks were also valuable for amphibious landings, where the size and weight of heavier tanks made them impractical choices.
Medium tanks were the unsung heroes of World War II, playing decisive roles in almost every major battle, from the invasion of Poland to the fall of Berlin. Medium tanks had the speed and maneuverability of light tanks, but the armor and weapons of heavy tanks. Armies used medium tanks to exploit weaknesses along the flanks of an enemy position, or as a reaction force to shore up a line that was under attack.
Heavy tanks were the mainstay of armies during World War II and comprised the bulk of tank forces in several critical battles. The heavy tank classification included two distinct tank roles: brawlers and snipers.
Brawlers were heavy tanks designed to draw in close to the enemy. They had exceptionally dense armor and could take several direct hits before suffering crippling damage. Brawlers helped infantry units push past defenses and were used to hold defensive positions.
Snipers were heavy tanks that could carry very large bore, high-velocity guns. These tanks could fire at ranges far beyond any other tank on the field, and their defensive abilities protected them from enemy aggression.
M4 Sherman, Medium Tank, 75 mm M3 Cannon
The United States introduced the Sherman tank to counteract the battlefield superiority of early generations of German Panzers. The M4 Sherman proved highly maneuverable, and its gun had enough stopping power to strike fear in the hearts of German heavy tankers. Sherman tanks excelled at hitting targets on the move, and they came to dominate the Western Front.
T-34, Medium Tank, 76.2 mm F-34 Cannon
No single tank did more to change the course of history than the Soviet T-34. This medium tank revolutionized the design and construction of tanks with its sloped armor and internal layout, and it was a key player on the battlefield because of its ability to withstand assaults from contemporary anti-tank weaponry. Soviet factories produced almost 100,000 T-34s during World War II, due in large part to the tank’s intuitive design.
Tiger I, Heavy Tank, 8.8 cm L56 Cannon
The Tiger I was the most iconic German tank of the war. It combined Hitler’s obsession with “super weapons” and Germany’s expertise at tank design. The Tiger I had the best armor and armaments Germany could produce, and a small number of Tigers could take over a battlefield. The design did contain serious flaws that led to frequent track problems and mechanical failures, but its battlefield performance compensated for its shortcomings.
The Tank Becomes King – Battle of Kursk
In July 1943, Germany needed a clear victory over the Soviet Union. Operation Barbarossa stalled short of Moscow, and a humiliating loss at Stalingrad demoralized German troops. Hitler and the Wehrmacht looked to Kursk as a chance to finally make a breakthrough.
German forces trapped a sizeable portion of the Red Army in a salient just outside of Kursk. The German leaders believed they could launch an offensive to destroy those forces and turn the tables against the Soviet Union. Plans called for the concentration of German armor and aircraft for an all-out assault. Hitler delayed the beginning of the operation several times throughout early 1943, giving the Soviets plenty of time to organize their defenses. Soviet factories worked night and day to supply the front with the tanks and ammunition they would need for the battle.
On July 5, 1943, the Germans launched their attack. They found little resistance at first because Soviet commander Zhukov ordered his lines to bend, but not break. The Germans soon overextended their position, and German tanks bogged down in the wet marshes around Kursk. After more than a week, the Germans were unable to encircle the Soviets, leading Zhukov to launch a devastating counterattack. Soviet forces reclaimed their lost territory, and by mid-August, the Germans were on the run.
Kursk was the largest tank battle in history, with more than a thousand tanks involved on each side. The Soviets victory proved to be a decisive moment of World War II, as the Germans never mounted another serious offensive in the East.
Since World War II, tank strategies have progressed significantly, from using tanks as mobile infantry support platforms to being the cornerstone of modern military operations. The role of tanks will continue to change, as the nature of modern combat evolves.
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Top 10 Tanks of World War Two, Wonderslist
An Analysis of the Operational Leadership of General Heinz Guderian, Naval War College
Stalin’s General, Book Review, The Washington Post