Tanks in World War IIThis 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: 1940-1942 - 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
From El Alamein, operation Torch, Tunisia, Sicily to Italy
Part X: Reconquest of the West and East
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 Japanesse and Allied forces from 1941 to 1945
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, whom 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 revolutionar, and fast armoured 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 mean 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, and in detail, covered several steps:
This kind of offensive however, proved so successful, that a myth emerged in time of German invincibility, which was not to prove right on the long run. Although both Allied camps -west and east- had to push forward quite immense industrial capacity and men to win, the Allies also learnt to use almost similar tactics to forge their own successes. US general Patton for example, showed probably the best Allied translation of it, being instrumental in the rapid breakthrough from Normandy to the Rhine. From then on, the "Blitzkrieg" still kept this fast-moving, combined-arms flavor. The terms were still the preferred ones by the general medias when relating the allied offensive to liberate Kuwait from the Iraki in 1990.
From its early beginnings from the ashes of Civil War, the Red Army faced prospects of military strategy and tactics with a fresh eye. The old Tsarists military traditions were all gone with its officers, nearly all "whites", killed, deported in Siberia or exiled. But if the Boshelviks had men and some worn-out tanks and armoured cars, they were also deeply aware of the past failures and defeats of the Russian military (plus their own against Poland in 1919), 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, feeding a comprehensive debate from which emerged several concepts proper 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 regain favor. Offensive gained full support at any level 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, aided by Vladimir Triandafillov vision at the tactical and operational levels. The Russians were also the first to theorize in this work 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 by 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 meant on a specific point. These diversion operations both prevented the enemy from moving reserves where the main breakthrough was, and any effort to organize an elastic defense. The general headquarter 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 by 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 without a full understanding of local flexibility inside this frame. 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.
The 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 Czech threatened to seize bordering territories in dispute since 1922. Czechoslovakia itself was worked 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 views on the rich north-eastern Bessarabian oilfields. Hungary, another country born from the remnants of the Austro-Hungarian empire, was also in 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 millions of 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 the majority in 1935 and campaigned for the attachment to the "great Reich" with 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 Werhmacht, 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. Czech tank industry and arms manufacturers were renown 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 declined 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 Gibraltar strait and began their own "reconquista" from the south of Spain. Later on, sympathetic regimes to the Nationalists like fascist Italy and Nazi Germany poured 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 important, an spontaneous help from the "Brigadas Internacionales". But only when USSR decided to side with the Republicans, 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 ideology, but also a proving ground for the latest military assets of the concerned nations. Tank designs of the thirties were confronted, new tactics devised, which were lessons for Word War Two. Apart the hundreds of armoured 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 "Dantzig Corridor", and USSR to take revenge for its defeat of 1919 and settle centuries-old dispute over eastern Poland. At the same time Hitler had gambled France and Great Britain, nominally allied to Poland, would remain inactive, in the straight line of the "Munich spirit". That was not the case however, for both practical and political reasons both nations found unable to launch immediately any sort of attack, relieving the pressure in Poland. Both had to mobilize and build-up forces before any operations. The fact is, both nations considered themselves not ready yet for a big offensive against major powers, and Poland seemed an easy prey. The German Panzerdivisons only fielded a few of the new Panzer IIIs and even less Panzer IVs, committed for support. The bulk was made of light Panzer I/IIs, which were only marginally better than armoured cars, and a few Czech-built Panzer 38(t). However, they counted on the faultless support of the Luftwaffe and good training, against a force mainly made of conscripts and a small but well-trained and well-equipped professional standing army. Added to its numerical inferiority in tanks and even more 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 offensive was a success, but 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 armoured 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 armoured 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 up tens of thousands of men, and capturing hundreds of vehicles in the process. But with little reinforcements and 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, 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 limits 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, were 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 but propaganda. These stayed in Norway until the end of the war, stationed near the Oslo Fortress. Despite taking heavy losses at seas, 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 - whom on the 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 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 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, infantry and 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 throw in. 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 in 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, 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 less 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 for some time in Great Britain. The real novelty was the use of large, autonomous armored formations (the Panzer divisions). The tactics used called for the use of synchronized air support. Armored formations were set to operate a decisive breakthrough on a specific location of the enemy line (the "Schwerpunkt"), and then either converging to the rear of the enemy to create large pockets, left afterwards to the artillery, infantry and aviation. The German tanks were designed to fulfill such tactics. They were in general 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. This gun was 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 several factors combined.
-Tactics. German tanks were used concentrated, 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, 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; Because 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 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 on any spot. The Luftwaffe decimated entire tanks 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 elemental form of communication with all the echelons, and were virtually paralyzed. Intelligence crucially lacked from the lower echelons to the head of staff. Let us remember that there was a single telephone on Gamelin's desk.
-Psychological warfare. The French command was quite confident, even over-optimistic about their capacity to deal with the Germans. When the situation changed dramatically for the worst, their plans were shattered, followed by feverish orders and counter-orders, while the sheer speed of the German advance surprised all the hierarchy and thrown the head 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 and further aggravated the situation. Lacking both 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 force were unable to resist for long, or -in most cases- unable to fight at all, surrounded and made prisoners en masse. The fleeing civilians (from Belgium and Northern France) hampered and blocked the roads, but also the movements of troops, reinforcements and supplies, let entire units deprived of fuel, orders or both.