World War II Tanks

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First used during the Battle of the Somme in September 1916 the tank has become a mainstay of modern ground forces and a key part of combined arms combat.

The tank has become a versatile and often deadly weapon system platform. They usually mount a large-calibre cannon in a rotating gun turret and this is supplemented by mounted machine guns or other weapons.

All of this is combined with heavy vehicle armour that provides protection for the crew, the vehicle’s weapons and its propulsion system. Steel armour plate was the earliest type of armour but later developments would see Chobham armour and reactive armour being used.

The use of tracks rather than wheels allows the tank to move over rugged terrain. Tanks are used in both the offensive and defensive roles.

During World War I tanks were classified as being either male or female. A male tank was armed with both cannon and machine guns while a female tank carried only machine guns.

During World War II tanks were classified as light, medium or heavy. This was based on both their armour and weapon system.

In this article we will take a closer look at some of the tanks used by the British, German, Russian, Japanese and Americans during World War II.

British Tanks

While Britain relied on its navy to defend its interests, it also had modern and effective aircraft and a small army. Its armored forces were not at all numerically equal to France or Nazi Germany.

Early British tanks were armed with the Ordnance QF (Quick Firing) 2-pounder (40 mm) gun. This was not very effective against Axis armour and the British later upgraded to a 6-pounder (57 mm) gun and the highly effective 17-pounder (76.2 mm) gun.

Cruiser Mk II (A10)

The Cruiser was classified as a heavy tank and saw service from 1940-1941.

It weighed 14.3 tonnes, had a length of 5.56 m, a width of 2.54 m and a height of 2.64 m.

It carried a crew of five - Commander, loader, gunner, driver and hull MG gunner.

Its armour ranged between 6 and 30 mm and it was armed with a OQF 2-pounder gun with 100 rounds of ammunition. There were also two Vickers machine guns which were later replaced by the BESA machine gun with 4,050 rounds.

The Cruiser was powered by a AEC Type A179 6-Cylinder Petrol 150 hp engine and had an operational range of 160 km when travelling via road.

It could reach a top speed of 26 km/h on the road and 13 km/h off-road.

A number of Mark IIs were sent to France as part of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) in the early stages of World War II.

The cross country performance was poor but they were used with reasonable success in North Africa.

Over 90% of Mark IIs were lost due to mechanical failure as opposed to enemy actions. Mainly because of their tendency to lose tracks.

Cruiser Mk V Crusader

The Crusader was classified as a cruiser or heavy tank and it saw service between 1941-1945.

It made an important contribution to the British victories in North Africa.

It weighed 20 tonnes, had a length of 5.97 m, a width of 2.77m, and a height of 2.24 m.

It carried a crew of five - Commander, loader, gunner, driver and hull MG gunner.

It had a maximum of 51 mm of armour and was armed with a OQF 2-pounder gun with 110 rounds of ammunition. This was later upgraded to a OQF 6-pounder with 65 rounds. It also had one or two BESA machine guns with 4,950 rounds.

The Crusader was powered by a Nuffield Liberty 27-litre V-12 petrol engine and had an operational range of 322 km on road and 235 km off road.

It could reach a top speed of 42 km/h on road and 24 km/h off road.

As a result of several factors the Crusader suffered from serious reliability problems in the desert.

Tanks arriving in North Africa were missing essential tools and service manuals needed to maintain operation.  A lack of spare parts meant that tanks returning to base workshops were serviced with parts recovered from other tanks.

Cruiser, Mk VIII, Cromwell (A27M)

The Cromwell was a heavy tank that first saw action in the Battle of Normandy in 1944. It remained in service from 1944 until 1955.

It weighed 28 tonnes, had a length of 6.35 m, a width
of 2.908 m, and a height of
2.49 m.

It carried a crew of five - Commander, gunner, loader/radio operator, driver, front gunner.

It had a maximum armour of 100 mm and was armed with the QF 75 mm gun with 64 rounds. It also carried two 7.92 mm BESA machine guns with 4,950 rounds.

The Cromwell was powered by a Rolls-Royce Meteor V12 petrol engine and had an operational range of 270 km on road and 130 km off road.

It could reach a top speed of 64 km/h on road and nearly 40 km/h off road.

The Cromwell had four advantages - its low profile, its speed, its manoeuvrability, and its reliability.

The 75 mm cannon had the advantage of being able to fire both AP (armour piercing) and HE (high explosive) rounds. One major disadvantage was that it was unable to knock out heavy German tanks, such as the Tiger tank, from the front - even at point blank range.

The Cromwell saw extensive action with the British Army, forming part of the 6th Airborne Division, 7th Armoured Division, 11th Armoured Division, Guards Armoured Division, and 1st (Polish) Armoured Division. The tank was also used by the 1st (Czechoslovakian) Independent Armoured Brigade Group as part of the First Canadian Army in Dunkirk.

After the war, the Cromwell remained in British service, and saw service in the Korean War with the 7th Royal Tank Regiment and the 8th King’s Royal Irish Hussars.

Matilda II

The Infantry Tank Mark II, best known as the Matilda, was the only British tank to serve from the start of the war to its end, although it is particularly associated with the North African Campaign.

It weighed 25 tonnes, had a length of 4.9 m, a width of
2.6 m, and a height of 2.5 m. It carried a crew of 4 - Commander, gunner, loader and driver.

Its armour ranged from 20 to 78 mm and it was armed with a QF 2-pounder gun with 93 rounds. It also had a 7.92 mm BESA machine gun with 2,925 rounds.

It was powered by two 6-cylinder diesel engines and had an operational range of 257 km. It had a top speed of 26 km/h on road and 14 km/h off road.

With its heavy armour, the Matilda II was an excellent infantry support tank, but if suffered due to its limited speed and poor armament.

The Matilda was first used in combat in France in 1940. Due to the thickness of its armour it was largely immune to the guns of the German tanks and anti-tank guns in France.

The Germans found the 88 mm anit-aircraft guns were the only effective counter-measure against the Matilda.

All vehicles surviving the battles around Dunkirk were abandoned when the BEF evacuated France.

In the war in North Africa the Matilda proved highly effective against Italian and German tanks, although it was vulnerable to the larger calibre and medium calibre anti-tank guns.

As the Germans received new tanks with more powerful guns, as well as more powerful anti-tank guns and ammunition, the Matilda proved less and less effective.

Tank, Infantry, Mk III, Valentine

The Valentine Mk III was a British infantry tank that saw service from 1940 to 1960. It was named the Valentine because the design was presented to the War Office on St. Valentine’s Day, 14 February 1940, although some sources say that the design was submitted on Valentine’s Day 1938 or 10 February 1938.

It weighed 17 tonnes, was 5.41 m in length, had a width of 2.629 m and a height of 2.273 m. It carried a crew of four - Commander, gunner, driver and loader.

The armour on the Valentine varied between 8-65 mm. It was armed with the QF 6-pounder (57 mm) gun and a 7.92 mm BESA machine gun.

It was powered by the AEC A190 diesel engine, had an operational range of 140 km on roads and a top speed of 24 km/h on road.

While the Mk III had a four-man crew, earlier versions only had a three-man crew - Commander, gunner and driver. The commander would also have to act as the loader.

It’s main advantage was its low profile. Yet the common complaint was the small interior of the turret and cramped interior.

The Valentine was extensively used in the North African Campaign, earning a reputation as a reliable and well-protected vehicle, which replaced the Matilda Tank.

By 1944, the Valentine had been almost replaced in front-line units of the European theatre by the A22, Infantry Tank Mark IV (Churchill tank) and the US-made Sherman tank. A few were used for special purposes or as command vehicles for units equipped with the Archer self-propelled gun.

Tank, Infantry, Mk IV (A22) Churchill

The Churchill, named after British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, was one of the heaviest Allied tanks of the war. It was best known for its heavy armour and ability to climb steep slopes. It was also used ass the basis of many specialist vehicles.

It weighed 40.1 tonnes, had a length of 7.44 m, a width of 3.25 m and a height of 2.49 m. It carried a crew of five - Commander, gunner, loader/radio operator, driver, co-driver/hull gunner.

Armour ranged from 102 mm in front to 76 mm at the rear. It was armed with the QF 6-pounder (57 mm) gun and two 7.92 mm BESA machine guns.

It was powered by a Bedford 12-cylinder, 4 stroke, water-cooled, horizontally opposed, L-head petrol engine. It had an operational range of 90 km and a top speed of 24 km/h.

The Churchill first saw service in 1941 and remained in service until 1952.

The Churchill first saw combat on 19 August 1942, in the Dieppe Raid in France. It also saw limited action in the North African Campaign.  In one encounter on 21 April 1943, during the start of the Battle of Longstop Hill a Churchill tank of the 48th Royal Tank Regiment got the better of a German Tiger I heavy tank.

German Tanks

The Germans were the first to appreciate and make full use of armoured warfare. By May 1945 the had built around 90,000 armoured vehicles.

They were the first to use Blitzkrieg (Lighting War), the concept of armoured formations supported by mechanized infantry and artillery to break through an enemy line.

Panzerkampfwagen IV (PzKpfw IV)

Commonly known as the Panzer IV, it was the most widely manufactured German tank of the Second World War, with some 8,500 built. The Panzer IV saw service in all combat theaters involving Germany and was the only German tank to remain in continuous production throughout the war. Upgrades and design modifications, intended to counter new threats, extended its service life.

It weighed 24.6 tonnes, was 5.92 m in length, 2.88 m wide and 2.68 m high. It carried a crew of five - Commander, gunner, loader, driver, radio operator/bow machine-gunner.

Its armour ranged from 80 mm in front to 20 mm at the rear. It was armed with a 75 mm KwK 40 L/48 main gun with 87 rounds. The side armament consisted of two 7.92 mm MG 34 machine guns with 3,150 rounds.

 It was powered by a Maybach HL 120 TRM 12-cylinder gasoline engine and had an operational range of 200 km. It could reach a top speed of around 38 km/h.

The Panzer IV was the workhorse of the Panzer Korps and saw action on every front where the Germans were involved.

Panzerkampfwagen V Panther

The Panther was a medium tank deployed on both the Eastern and Western Fronts in Europe from mid-1943 to its end in 1945.

The Panther was intended to counter the Soviet T-34 and to replace the Panzer III and Panzer IV.  It is considered one of the best tanks of World War II for its excellent firepower and protection; although its reliability was not as impressive.

It weighed 44.1 tonnes had a length of 6.87 mm, a width of 3.27 m and a height of 2.99 m. It carried a crew of five - Commander, driver, radio-operator/hull machine gunner, gunner, loader.

It had sloped armour of up to 80 mm. It was armed with a 75 mm KwK 42 L/70 with 79 rounds and two 7.92 mm MG 34 machine guns with 5,100 rounds.

It was powered by a V-12 petrol Maybach HL230 P30 engine and had an operational range of 200 km. It was a fast tank with a top speed of 55 km/h on road.

In open country and at long range the Panther was excellent.

The first production Panther tanks were plagued with mechanical problems. The engine was dangerously prone to overheating. Petrol leaks from the fuel pump or carburettor, as well as motor oil leaks from gaskets, produced fires in the engine compartment.

During the battle of the Bulge, around 400 Panthers were listed in the units participating in the offensive, while 471 were listed in all for all the Western front. They were not at their advantage in the forest, but once again proved deadly on open ground.

Panzerkampfwagen VI Tiger Ausf. E

The Panzerkampfwagen VI Tiger Ausf. E, often shortened to Tiger, was a heavy German tank. The Tiger I gave the Wehrmacht its first armoured fighting vehicle that mounted the 88 mm KwK 36 gun (not to be confused with the 88 mm Flak 36).

It weighed 57 tonnes, had a length of 6.616 m, a width of 6.56 m, and a height of 3.0 m. It carried a crew of five - Commander, gunner, loader, driver, assistant driver.

The Tiger’s armour ranged from 25 to 120 mm. It was armed with an 88 mm KwK 36 L/56 with 92 AP and HE rounds. Its secondary armament consisted of two 7.92 mm MG 34 machine guns with 4,800 rounds.

It was powered by the Maybach HL230 P45 V-12 and had an operational range of 195 km on road and a top road speed of 45.4 km/h.

The Tiger was feared by Allies on both the Eastern and Western Fronts. While only a small number of Tigers were produced (only 1,347) the psychological impact they had was impressive.

The Tiger gave fame to a few WWII tank aces, like Kurt Knispel, Michael Wittmann and Otto Carius, something rarely heard of before, since the life expectancy of a tank crew was always quite shorter than that of fighter pilots.

Russian Tanks

In 1939, the USSR had the biggest armoured force in the world, numerically superior to all western powers combined. Before 1936, the Red Army displayed brilliant and innovative armoured tactics, well trained crews and experienced officers. But, starting in 1936, Stalin ordered a series of “great purges”, out of fear of a military coup. New officers were also always chosen on loyalty over skill.

Kliment Voroshilov (KV-1)

The Kliment Voroshilov was a Soviet heavy tank that saw service from 1939 to 1945.

The KV series were known for their heavy armour protection and were practically immune to the 37 mm KwK 36 and howitzer-like, short barreled 75 mm KwK 37 guns mounted, respectively, on the early Panzer III and Panzer IV tanks fielded by the invading German forces. Until more effective guns were developed by the Germans, the KV-1 was invulnerable to almost any German weapon except the 88 mm Flak gun.

The KV-1 weighed 45 tonnes, was 6.75 m in length, 63.32 m wide and 2.71 m high. It carried a crew of five.

Its  armour was 90 mm in front, 75 mm on the side andd 70 mm in the rear. It was armed with a 76.2 mm L-11 gun and 2, 3, or 4 DT machine guns.

It was powered by a Model V-2 V12 diesel engine and had an operational range of 335 km. Its top speed was 35 km/h.

T-34 and T34-85

The Soviet T-34 medium tank  has often been credited as the most effective, efficient and influential tank design of WW2.

It provided an unprecedented combination of firepower, mobility, protection and ruggedness. It served from 1940 to the late 1960s.

It weighed 26.1 tonnes, had a length of 6.68 m, a width of 3.0 m and a height of 2.45 m. The T-34 carried a crew of four while the later T-34-85 had a crew of five.

It’s frontal armour was 47 mm thick while the rear armour was 45 mm.  The 7-34 had a 76.2 mm F-34 gun while the T-34-85 had a 85 mm ZiS-S-53 gun. Both with also armed with two 7.62 mm DT machine guns.

Both were powered by the Model V-2-34 38.8 L V12 diesel engine and both had a top speed of 53 km/h. The T-34 had an operational range of 400 km and the T-34-85 and operational range of 240 km.

The T-34’s wide tracks gave it the ability to move over deep mud or snow and this was vital during the harsh Russian winter.

The combat statistics for 1941 show that the Soviets lost an average of over seven tanks for every German tank lost. This was mainly due to poorly trained crews and the fact that the Soviets at first used a four man crew with the tank commander also acting as the loader.

Japanese Tanks

Due to the war with China, Japan produced a large number of tanks. Although initially the Japanese used tanks to good effect in their campaigns, full-scale armored warfare did not occur in the Pacific and Southeast Asian theatres as it did in Europe, and tank development was neglected in favour of naval activities.

The best Japanese designs were never used in combat as they were kept back in expectation of defending the Japanese Home Islands.

Type 89 medium tank I-Go (Chi-Ro)

The Type 89 medium tank I-Go was a medium tank used by the Imperial Japanese Army from 1932 to 1942 in combat operations of the Second Sino-Japanese War, at Khalkhin Gol against the Soviet Union, and in WWII.

It weighed 14.10 tonnes, had a length of 5.73 m, a width of 2.15 m and a height of 2.56 m. It carried a crew of four - Commander/gunner, loader, driver and hull gunner.

Its armour ranged from 6 to 17 mm and it was armed with a 57 mm Type 90 gun with 100 rounds. Its secondary armament consisted of two 6.5 mm Type 91 machine gun (hull, turret rear).

The Chi-Ro was powered by a Mitsubishi A6120VD air-cooled inline 6-cylinder diesel engine and had an operational range of 170 km. It had a top speed of 26 km/h.

American Tanks

US tank doctrine in WWII emphasized that American tanks should avoid fighting enemy tanks. Killing enemy tanks would be left to anti-tank units, equipped with AT guns and purpose-built tank destroyers.

The M4 Sherman was to be used to support the infantry and to break holes in the enemy line and use their superior speed and maneuverability to outflank the enemy, cut off his supply lines, and hit vulnerable targets like artillery and supply dumps.

M3 Stuart

The M3 Stuart, officially Light Tank, M3, was an American light tank of World War II. It was supplied to British and Commonwealth forces under lend-lease prior to the entry of the U.S. into the war. The British nicknamed the tank the “Honey Tank”.

Thereafter, it was used by U.S. and Allied forces until the end of the war.

It weighed 15.19 tonnes had a length of 4.84 m, a width of 2.23 m and a height of 2.26 m. It carried a crew of four - Commander, gunner, driver, assistant driver.

Its armour ranged from 9.5 to 63.5 mm and it was armed with a 37 mm M6 gun with 147 rounds. It had three 7.62 mm Browning M1919A4 machine guns with 6,750 rounds.

The Stuart was powered by twin Cadillac Series 42 220 hp. It had an operational range of 160 km and a top speed of 58 km/h on road.

M4 Sherman

The M4 Sherman was the most numerous battle medium tank used by the United States and some of the other Western Allies in WWII.

The M4 Sherman proved to be reliable, relatively cheap to produce and available in great numbers. Thousands were distributed through the Lend-Lease program to the British Commonwealth and Soviet Union. It served in the US Military from 1942 to 1957 and was produced in numerous variants.

It weighed 33.4 tonnes, had a length of 5.84 m, a width of 2.62 m and a height of 2.74 m. It carried a crew of five - Commander, gunner, loader, driver, assistant driver/bow gunner.

The Sherman’s armour ranged from a minimum of 12.7 mm to 177.8 mm. It was armed with a 76 mm gun with 71 rounds. Its secondary armament consisted of a  .50 caliber Browning M2HB machine gun (300–600 rounds) and two .30 caliber Browning M1919A4 machine guns (6,000–6,750 rounds).

It was powered by a Chrysler A57 30 cylinder gasoline engine; 370 hp. It had an operational range of 241 km on road and a top speed of 48 km/h.

After World War II, Shermans were supplied to some NATO armies; Shermans were used by U.S. and allied forces in the Korean War.

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