This was their finest hour. Never in history have so many tanks and AFV's been built and fought all around the globe. From the snowy steppes of Russia to the soaky jungles of New Guinea, from the sands of Egypt to the grassy plains of Western Europe, the tanks were wherever soldiers were to be seen. They fought in most battles of the Second World War, some of these have become legendary like Kursk, one of the largest armoured clashes in the history of mankind. Some new tactics were developed during the interwar and refined, such as the "Blitzkrieg" which proved decisive and changed the way tanks would be used thereafter.
Part I: Interwar tactics
Different approaches during the Interwar period concerning the use of "mechanized warfare"
Part II: Blitzkrieg
The doctrine that helped Germany conquer most of Europe
Part III: Military doctrine in the USSR
The Red Army quickly developed independent mechanized corps with a unique approach, the "deep battle"
Part IV: 1935-1939 - Central Europe and Spain
Austria and Czechoslovakia had tanks in quantity and quality. The Spanish war was a testing ground for tank tactics
Part V: September 1939 - Poland and Finland
Poland and Finland were both attacked following the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact. See their tanks and how they used them
Part VI: May 1940 - Western Europe
On paper, the French and British armies were equal to the Wehrmacht, so what caused the fall of France?
Part VII: 1940-1943 - The African campaign
Follow the "Desert Fox" Erwin Rommel and the "Desert rats" of Bernard Montgomery from Lybia to East Africa
Part VIII: Operation Barbarossa
Blitzkrieg in Russia. The forces, tactics and operations until Stalingrad
Part IX: The Mediterranean campaign
Operations in Sicily and Italy, 1943-45.
Part X: The turning point (1942-44)
Ground forces, tactics and operation from D-Day (June 1944) to the capitulation in May 1945
Part XI: The Pacific
Ground forces, tactics and operations of the Japanese and Allied forces from 1941 to 1945 During WWI the tank was first used with mixed success, but its deployment was aimed at cleaning up enemy lines with more precision than a massive artillery barrage. Tanks were also followed closely by infantry, staying with them during the breakthrough, mostly to deal with machine-gun nests. This tactic was developed and refined at a steady pace by both the British and the French, and three classes of tanks were defined. Infantry tanks were well-armed and well protected but utterly slow (infantry pace). Cavalry tanks were, on the contrary, very fast and agile, but lightly protected and with weak armament. They were used for scouting operations and advancing deep behind enemy lines. Lastly, a heavy tank model was developed, the French "char de rupture" or "breakthrough tank", which was heavily protected and armed, built to deal with other tanks as well as destroying well-protected enemy positions and bunkers. All these tanks types were spread among infantry formations, attached to them as well as supporting artillery units. No really independent mechanized corps concept was defined, at least until the beginning of WWII. In 1939, this was the main tactical vision favored by the Allies.
Not everybody was satisfied with this "support role" for the tanks. Some British theoreticians and officers like Liddel Hart and J.F.C. Fuller were attached to the first tank units during the First World War, and quickly grasped all their potential. Liddel Hart also wrote about a secondary campaign, the Palestinian one against the Ottoman Empire led by General Allenby, who favored a successful "indirect approach". Both were published and acquired some fame among German officers, including Manstein and Guderian. The idea of "mechanized warfare", and fast tanks, also originated in Britain. The Christie tank suspensions were revolutionary, and fast armored columns were put to the test prior to 1935, with Bren-Carriers and light Carden-Lloyd tankettes. This famous German word literally means "lightning war". However this was not describing a tank tactic, but rather a whole combined arms strategy, and was put in practice with a master principle: "Strike by surprise, strike fast and strike hard". This was also a means seen by some third Reich geopoliticians to win quick and "cheap" wars without having to enter a long, proactive war of attrition that Germany could not afford at this time. This strategy involved several steps:
This kind of offensive however, proved so successful that, in time, a myth emerged of German invincibility, which was not to prove true in the long run. Although both Allied camps -west and east- had to push forward an immense industrial capacity and large numbers of men to win, the Allies also learned to use almost similar tactics to forge their own successes. US General Patton for example, showed probably the best Allied version of it, being instrumental in the rapid breakthrough from Normandy to the Rhine. From then on, the "Blitzkrieg" maintained this fast-moving, combined-arms flavor. The terms were still the preferred ones by the general media when relating the allied offensive to liberate Kuwait from the Iraqis in 1990.
From its early beginnings from the ashes of Civil War, the Red Army viewed prospects of military strategy and tactics with a fresh eye. The old Tsarist military traditions were all gone along with the officers, nearly all "whites", killed, deported to Siberia, or exiled. But if the Boshelviks had men and some worn-out tanks and armored cars, they were also deeply aware of the past failures and defeats of the Russian military (plus their own experience against Poland in 1919-20), and consequently sought to embrace new ideas. The early opposition between Leon Trotsky and Mikhail Frunze, an experienced commander, turned into profit for the latter, fueling a comprehensive debate from which emerged several concepts appropriate to the needs of the Red Army and its defense policy for the years to come. During these exchanges, for example, Tukhachevsky defended the idea of a decisive battle while Alexander Svechin professed that the Russian territory was ideally suited for a war of attrition.
However, if the USSR was still weak and not yet industrially prepared to face a long attrition war, when Stalin came to power and enforced a giant, ruthless industrial effort, these views began to change and Marshal Tukhachevsky's first ideas gained favor. An attack-based policy gained full support at all levels of the military. The Deep Battle Concept was adopted in 1933 - a set of operational rules mixing Svechin aspects to conduct the strategy and Tukhachevsky’s, (aided by Vladimir Triandafillov) vision at the tactical and operational levels. The Russians were also the first to theorize in this area a third "operational art" between the tactical and strategic levels. "Provisional Instructions for Organizing the Deep Battle" became the official manual of the Red Army and remained in use until 1941 -by then with disastrous consequences.
The Deep Battle Concept, in short, professed a simultaneous combined-armed and combined-units strategy to gain victory on a specific part of the front, thus allowing a decisive breakthrough in order to render the enemy's defense of the entire front useless, or impossible. Several units were used as a bait, to attract and divert the attention, while the main effort was aimed at a specific point. These diversionary operations both prevented the enemy from moving reserves where the main breakthrough was taking place, and any effort to organize an elastic defense. The general headquarters was the Stavka, which directed a front, split into several "armies", fully autonomous units with all their components (infantry, air, tanks, artillery) also split into divisions, some of which were motorized, known as the shock divisions.
The Deep Battle concept could however be adapted also for a defensive operation. One important aspect, professed by Georgii Isserson, was the depth of operations - thus giving its name to the whole concept - proper to the Russian soil. He calculated attack echelons of 100-120 km. The breakthrough mobilized rapid-moving mechanized divisions and airborne divisions, establishing a deep but narrow secured perimeter over 40-80 km in enemy territory to be exploited. This alone, dictated the types of tanks used by the Red Army in the thirties. The T-28 and T-35s were essentially breakthrough tanks, the BT cruisers were used for the rapid exploitation of the breakthrough penetrating deeply in the enemy's rear, and the T-26s were to carry the main attack and fully secure the area.
The "Glubokaya operatsiya" or "deep operations" concept was theorized in detail by Triandafilov and his successor, Nikolai Efimovich Varfolomeev. Both professed a range of simultaneous blows throughout the entire depth of the enemy operational defense. By 1936, these generated field army regulations, but the massive officer purges left only loyal officers, not always experienced, with this rigid set of rules and without a full understanding of local flexibility inside this framework. Under the firm grasp of political commissars, and with the fear of taking initiatives, many officers were left alone inside a rigid chain of command taking orders right from Moscow. All these facts contributed in 1941 to a spectacular defeat for the biggest army on Earth at the time, although applying with zeal the concept for a defense and attack in depth which was one of the most advanced for the time.
TThe years 1935-38 were not quiet in the world, nor in Europe itself. By 1935, Italy was launching the conquest of eastern Africa while Japan was attacking Manchuria and, later, the whole of China starting from Nanking. In central Europe, the new map drawn postwar suited almost none of the central European powers of the time. Germany, for example, was cut in two with the "Danzig Corridor" like a scar on its eastern edge. Southwards, the Czechs threatened to seize bordering territories in dispute since 1922. Czechoslovakia itself was harassed from within by Germanophile extremists supported by the Third Reich. In Hungary and Romania, the situation was not clear, and for long, the USSR had some interest in the rich north-eastern Bessarabian oilfields. Hungary, another country born from the remnants of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, was also in a state of quasi-war with Czechoslovakia, due to border disputes.
Last but not least, starting in 1933, Germany entered the fray of central European border disputes. By 1935, Hitler was gambling on a new way to acquire lands. Call the "Germanic minorities" from any neighboring country to join the Third Reich. Three million German Bohemians, 23% of the total population of Czechoslovakia, dwelled in the Sudetenland, a rich and industrially dynamic region. The local Nazi party or Sudeten German Party won a majority in 1935 and campaigned for the attachment to the "great Reich" with the full support of Nazi Germany. After May 1938, the Czech army mobilized while the Germans moved their chess pieces. First, troubles fomented by the Sudetendeutsche Freikorps, then a full "insurrection" supported by the Wehrmacht, and finally, in September, the full annexation of the Bohemia-Moravia region to Germany. The Allies did nothing. With it came most of the industrial resources and capacity of the Czech Republic. The Czech tank industry and arms manufacturers were renowned worldwide. Exports all around the world were a trademark of companies like Praga-CKD, and alongside the resources brought to the Reich came new tanks, notably the excellent Panzer 38(t), later refined into the tank-hunter Hetzer.
In Spain, the troubles came with the elections of 1936, which brought to power a clear majority of socialists, with some communists and anarchists in the government. The entire Spanish conservative society, the bourgeoisie, the landowners, factory owners, and in general the old institutions like the Church and part of the Army felt threatened and later took up arms. Nationalist troops under Franco crossed the Strait of Gibraltar and began their own "reconquista" from the south of Spain. Later on, sympathetic regimes to the Nationalists like fascist Italy and Nazi Germany poured in reinforcements and sent expeditionary forces. After a series of defeats, the Republicans, at first not supported by supposedly friendly regimes (France and Great Britain which remained quiet by fear of internal disorders and even a full scale European war), received however some weaponry, and most importantly, spontaneous help from the "Brigadas Internacionales". But only when the USSR decided to side with the Republicans, did massive material reinforcements began to arrive (tanks, artillery and planes). Spain became not only, from 1936 to 1939, the battleground of two clear political factions, visions and ideologies, but also a proving ground for the latest military assets of the concerned nations. Tank designs of the thirties were challenged, and new tactics devised, which were lessons for Word War Two. Apart from the hundreds of armored cars used during the conflict, the Republicans fielded old French FTs, brand-new Russian T-26s and BT-7s, and the Nationalists, German Panzer Is and Italian CV-33/35 tankettes.
September 1939: The war started soon after Germany signed -to the world's later astonishment- a non-aggression pact with its supposedly mortal enemy, the USSR. Part of the agreement included sharing of the future dismembered Poland, unfortunately placed between two powerful, traditional enemies. Germany wanted its own pre-WWI territories back and put an end of the fiction of the "Danzig Corridor", and the USSR wanted to avenge its defeat of 1919 and settle centuries-old disputes over eastern Poland. At the same time, Hitler had gambled that France and Great Britain, nominally allied to Poland, would remain inactive, as had happened with the "Lesson of Munich". That was not the case however. For both practical and political reasons both nations were unable to immediately launch any sort of attack to attempt to relieve the pressure in Poland. Both had to mobilize and build up forces before any operations could commence. Both nations considered themselves not ready yet for a big offensive against major powers, and Poland seemed an easy prey. The German Panzer divisions only fielded a few of the new Panzer IIIs and even less Panzer IVs, committed for support. The bulk of their force was made of light Panzer I/IIs, which were only marginally better than armoured cars, and a few Czech-built Panzer 38(t)s. However, they counted on the faultless support of the Luftwaffe and good training, against a force consisting mainly of conscripts and a small but well-trained and well-equipped professional standing army. Along with its numerical inferiority in tanks and even more so in planes, Poland only counted a few relatively modern and efficient tanks, the 7TPs. Only a hundred were available while the others were predominantly TK/TK3 tankettes. The German offensive was a success, but it also highlighted many deficiencies in communications and tactical, technical and logistical issues, as the losses were much higher than expected in the OKH. When the end was near, the Soviet forces attacked from the east, facing little opposition.
The "Winter War", also called the Finnish Campaign, was the first serious test for the Soviet armored forces. The battleground was quite different than the hot and dry valleys of Spain. It began in November 1939, both for tactical and practical reasons. The marshy ground of eastern Finland, which was also littered with lakes favored the defensive and virtually annihilated any attempt to make a large-scale armored assault. With only frozen surfaces in winter, the flat terrain then became suitable for fast motorized columns. Just like in Poland, this was a David against Goliath type of encounter, the Soviets fielding an advantage of 3:1 in men, 30:1 in airplanes and even 100:1 in tanks. It was seen by the Stavka like a military picnic. But against all expectations, the Finns put up a brilliant resistance, using the weather and everything they could muster to hold back and defeat entire units, wiping out tens of thousands of men, and capturing hundreds of vehicles in the process. But with few reinforcements and little support from their allies, partly due to the firm neutrality of neighboring Sweden, and with massive Soviet reinforcements, the Finns eventually lost their eastern territories located around the Lake Ladoga, to be ceded by the Treaty of Moscow in March 1940. The Russians losses were partly due to a combination of internal deficiencies, the main one being the lack of experienced officers (30,000 had been recently killed or deported during Stalin's great purges). Many old tank models showed their limitations but several prototypes were also tested in real conditions, including the SMK, the KV-1 and KV-2 as well as the BT-7M, an ancestor of the T-34. The Finns had virtually no tanks at the beginning of the conflict, ending with four times more, uniquely due to captures, many of which were later converted or enhanced. The Winter War triggered a reaction by the Wehrmacht which resulted in the ensuing Norwegian campaign, where tanks would be virtually absent.
Most operations in this theater were performed by paratroopers and infantry alone, with limited artillery support and virtually no tanks. The reasons were obvious, dictated by the rough terrain in the areas of major interest, more suitable for lightly equipped mountain troops. Nevertheless, Germany landed a single unit comprising Panzer Is to support infantry against the committed Norwegians. The latter lacked any form of armored vehicles save for a few armored cars used for police purposes and had a limited number of antitank guns. Alongside the Panzer Is, Germany also committed three of its new heavy tanks, with limited purposes other than propaganda. These stayed in Norway until the end of the war, stationed near the Oslo Fortress. Despite taking heavy losses at sea, the German forces held their ground and Allied efforts to recapture major objectives failed against a resolute defense. By May, the concentration of forces in the west rendered all upcoming operations useless and the Allies evacuated.
One of the most thrilling issues of WWII, still debated among historians, is how the Allies - who on paper largely outnumbered the Germans - could have taken such a blow in a few days.
The Germans held French tanks in high esteem, especially the heavy B1 bis. Except for the still large numbers of WWI era FTs and the gargantuan FCM 2Cs, most French tanks were built in the mid and late thirties, assembled by welding with cast parts and featured excellent protection. But they were slow (infantry pace), according to the tactics of the time, used short-barrel guns to deal with fortifications and machine-gun nests, and had small turrets which forced the tank commander to multi-task. This was aggravated by the lack of intercom or radio. The chain of command was utterly rigid; movements were carefully planned with a combination of artillery and infantry, with tanks in support. Tank commanders were not supposed to take initiative on the field. The British forces also fielded excellent tanks, the best being the Matilda II, with a frontal armor superior to anything the Germans could offer. The professional and well-trained BEF was also well equipped with Cruiser I, II and IIIs for breakthroughs and Light Mk. IV, V, and VIs for reconnaissance, plus numerous armored cars. However, British tanks were constructed with rivets, had two-man turrets and also lacked radio or intercom. The chain of command was equally rigid, as late-WWI tactics dominated the minds of both General Staffs.
The Belgian army was built to stand its ground for some time, but relied on neutrality and several fortifications like the formidable Eben-Emael fort which controlled crucial crossroads and was deemed impregnable. The Belgian army fielded around two hundred 47 mm (1.85 in) AT guns, and around four hundred light tanks, some designed for infantry support and only armed with a heavy machine gun and others with light AT guns. Most of their successes were attributed to well-placed ambushing units. The worst came when German paratroopers faultlessly seized Eben-Emael. This was a serious blow to Allied plans, which conducted a rush of the 1st French Army into Belgium, long before the expected schedule. The Netherlands also saw heavy fighting for several days, until Rotterdam was bombed and they subsequently surrendered. Their army was poorly equipped, and only counted a handful of armored cars, some recent and some obsolete. The bulk of its armored forces was stationed abroad, in the Dutch East Indies.
In stark contrast, the Germans fielded fewer tanks, and their philosophy of use was quite different. Heinz Guderian and Erich Von Manstein were both keen to try the new armored warfare tactics, experimented with for some time in Great Britain. The real novelty was the use of large, autonomous armored formations (the Panzer divisions). The tactics called for the use of synchronized air support. Armored formations were set to produce decisive breakthroughs at specific locations along the enemy lines (the "Schwerpunkt"), and then either converging to the rear of the enemy to create large pockets, to be left afterwards to the artillery, infantry and aviation. The German tanks were designed to fulfill such tactics. They were generally fast, with reasonably good armor and weaponry. They also used modern building and assembly techniques (welding) and, at least on the main battle tank, the Panzer III, and the support Panzer IV, roomy three-man turrets with intercom and radios for individual tanks. This allowed the tank commander to have a great deal of autonomy and, at the same time, versatility and coordination with others in real time. Given the protection of the time, the Panzer I was of limited value, but kept for scouting operations. The light Panzer II was equally kept for the same task, and the Czech-built Panzer 38(t) served as a battle-line tank, for screening and flanking. Even the main battle tank, the Panzer III, was certainly not invincible. The frontal armor was 30-40 mm (1.18-1.57 in) thick at best for the early series, and 45-50 mm (1.77-1.97 in) for the hundred Ausf. Fs fielded in May 1940. Most were still equipped with a puny 37 mm (1.46 in) gun derived from the standard Waffenamt 3.7 cm Pak 36, of limited value against most of the French tanks. These guns were called by the Allies and Germans alike "door knockers". However, a few of the new Ausf. Fs, up-gunned with a 50 mm (1.97 in) gun, could deal with most Allied tanks with efficiency. The few Panzer IVs were support tanks, equipped with a short-barrel 75 mm (2.95 in) howitzer and not intended to deal with other tanks.
Despite these limitations, the Germans prevailed due to a combination of several factors combined.
-Tactics. German tanks were used in a concentrated manner, while Allied tanks were dispersed to support the infantry. Despite their numbers, Allied units were destroyed piecemeal because of their local inferiority in numbers.
-Coordination. When dealing with superior tanks (like the B1), the Germans used coordination and cooperation, well-exercised in training, along with real-time communication. They overwhelmed tanks individually, and then dealt with another, akin to a pack of wolves. By contrast, French tank commanders were having difficulties loading, aiming, firing and scanning the battlefield at the same time.
-Air support. The BEF provided limited air support and the French air force had been already largely destroyed on the ground by the Luftwaffe. As a result of a rigid use of the air force, scattered in numerous units, each dependent on specific areas related to the army group, and the lack of coordination, the Allied high command was unable to use aviation support properly, while the Luftwaffe (especially the Stukas) were available to any unit and could be alerted by radio by a tank commander for immediate support at any location. The Luftwaffe decimated entire tank units on the move to intercept the main advance.
-The chain of command was similarly organized on both sides and the Allied side had a unified supreme command. However, on the Allied side, the aspects of local command and tactical independence at any level clearly marked the dominance of rigid WWI era tactics. Many French units were without orders for days, lacking the most elementary form of communication with all the echelons, and were virtually paralyzed. Intelligence crucially lacked from the lower echelons to the heads of staff. There was but a single telephone on Gamelin's desk.
-Psychological warfare. The French command was quite confident, even overly-optimistic about their capacity to deal with the Germans. When the situation changed dramatically for the worst, their plans were shattered, followed by confused orders and counter-orders. The sheer speed of the German advance surprised the hierarchy and threw the heads of staff into disarray. All the superior officers, with few exceptions, were mentally stuck in an infantry-pace style of warfare - set-piece battles carefully planned. Many officers also showed poor management of the situation, reacting "by the book" with obsolete tactics which further aggravated the situation.
Lacking training, equipment and orders, and left with loose discipline, French soldiers were found facing a highly motivated, well-trained, younger and well-equipped autonomous German infantry. With the full use of air support (especially the terrifying Stukas), ensuring French ground forces were unable to resist for long, or -in most cases- unable to fight at all, and the French were surrounded and taken prisoner en masse. The fleeing civilians (from Belgium and Northern France) hampered and blocked the roads, and thus the movements of troops, reinforcements and supplies, and left entire units deprived of fuel, orders or both.
However, with one armored and two motorized infantry divisions in Libya and Eritrea, the close support of "Supermarina" (The powerful Italian fleet), and the support of bombers based in Sicily and Calabria –(not counting those in North Africa), Marshal Grazziani was, on paper, able to unleash a devastating all-out offensive against the British interests in this area. France was now tamed and, at least in theory, neutral, but with hostile tendencies towards British Forces after the events of Mers-El-Kebir in August. But the head of staff decided to strike at another theater of operation, with the conquest of British Somaliland. It lasted between 7 and 19 August 1940 and ended as a decisive victory for the Italian army, and a six month occupation of these territories. The operation saw mostly armored cars on both sides, plus some CV-33 tankettes on the Italian side.
However, the British struck back in December 1940, during Operation Compass. It ended in February 1941 with a stunning victory over Italian forces, ending with the conquest of all of Cyrenaica and the capture of a large amount of prisoners and material. The British models seen in action there were Matilda IIs, Valentines (first version), and the Cruisers III and IV, along with several AC types.
Work in progress...
Work in progress...
Work in progress...What is called the "Pacific Campaign" was, in reality, a composite of several campaigns in the whole Asian theater of operations, spanning a far larger area than the Western and African campaigns. This started with the Chinese campaign, which begun in 1937 with the assault on Shanghai, and was later incorporated into the framework of WW2. Also associated is the early Japanese series of invasions (December 1941) and the "island hopping campaign", which started with the assault of Guadalcanal and the Solomons by the 1st Marine Division in the fall of 1942. This kick-started the slow and painful reconquest of the Southern Pacific, followed by the Central and Western Pacific islands. Why a single chapter for this instead of several ones? Because the main actor of the event, the IJA or Imperial Japanese Army, did not possess large fleets of tanks, and the ones that existed were not used in independent units, as the Germans did with their Panzer divisions. Moreover, the terrain where these forces were engaged did not favor tanks at all, featuring deep, impassable, and rain-soaked jungles and small coral islands, in which the Japanese armored forces were widely dispersed, and tanks were used mostly for infantry support.
IJN operations in ChinaDuring the early part of the operations, Type 96 medium tanks, Type 96 light tanks and Type 97 tankettes were available, but used for infantry support all along the Manchurian conquest. In the latter phase (1937 onward), most of the armored units were transferred to the operations in Nanking (Shanghai). The Manchurian state was consolidated under the rule of a puppet government, and most of the armor used there consisted of armored cars of various types. During the second phase of the Chinese campaign, aimed at Peking and the biggest industrial centers, tanks were still used for infantry support, while the conquered territories were patrolled by armored cars. The latter formed the backbone of the occupation forces, while more and more armored units were stationed on the borders. In 1939, the Sino-Mongolian-Soviet series of border clashes saw the Russians and Japanese engaged in several actions on the Khalkhin Gol/Nomonhan plateau and around key road and railway junctions. During the latter phase, massive Russian forces, along with armored units, were engaged in the takeover of the Japanese-controlled petrol depots. In these little-known fights in the east, the Russian forces easily repelled the Japanese armor, partly due to superior performances of the high-velocity 45 mm (1.77 in) cannon and the poor performance of the Japanese AT guns and field artillery used to repel these offensives. The Japanese forces even devised kamikaze infantry squads, to try to deal with vastly superior numbers of armored vehicles.
After 1941, a significant part of these forces were diverted to the operations in the East Indies, Burma, and the Philippines. But the bulk of these forces were composed of newer tanks, while the older models remained in China, supplemented by a vast majority of armoured cars.
IJN operations in SW AsiaThese events encompass French Indo-China, Burma, Ceylon, Hong-Kong, Malaya, Singapore, and the Dutch East Indies.
Work in progress...
A Bulletproof Design