Review: Tanks That Made History

The experience of the First World War highlighted the importance of deploying the most advanced ground weaponry on the battlefield.

13/10/2023 - 11:21
Source: Open Source
Source: Open Source

In the interwar years, all armies around the world paid close attention to the technical equipment of tanks. This review delves into the world of combat machines, as presented by

During this period, a classification of tanks by weight emerged, categorising them as light, medium, and heavy. In Britain, there was an attempt to introduce concepts like cruisers (cavalry, fast) and infantry tanks, but these did not gain traction in global practice. Additionally, many experiments were conducted on tanks during this time, most of which were deemed unsuccessful. These experiments included attempts to make tanks "multi-turreted," equipped with flamethrowers, and even trying to create tanks capable of swimming and flying.

The first Soviet tank is considered to be the T-18 or MS-1, assembled in 1927. This domestically designed machine turned out to be two times cheaper. One of the key distinctive features of the tank was its armament. To avoid the need for separate machine-gun and cannon tanks, the light two-seater tank was armed with both a machine gun and a cannon. Notably, the initial MS-1s were equipped with not one but two 6.5mm Fedorov system machine guns.

At the outset of the Second World War, the USSR entered the conflict with tanks of outdated design. Additionally, a significant portion of the equipment was destroyed by the Germans early in the war. However, in 1940, the Soviet Union commenced mass production of the T-34-76 tank, drawing on the experience gained from creating BT tanks. By the war's commencement, there were already around a thousand tanks of this model in service, combining maneuverability, armor protection, and firepower.

The medium tank T-34 served throughout the entire war, remaining the primary Soviet battle tank. In response to changing war conditions, designers continuously upgraded the "thirty-four," enhancing its armor, altering the turret's shape, and increasing the ammunition load. In 1944, the tank received a more powerful 88mm caliber gun, replacing the 76mm cannon. From then on, the tank became known as the T-34-85.

It's worth noting that the engines of tanks from all participating countries in the war ran on expensive petrol, while the T-34 operated on cost-effective diesel fuel, consuming it in smaller quantities. Setting the "thirty-four" ablaze was significantly more challenging because diesel fuel burns less efficiently than the petrol used in most other tanks.

Production processes were also improved. For example, factories introduced welded armor hulls, then replaced the welded turrets with cast ones, and later stamped turrets. The efforts of engineers contributed to almost halving the labor intensity in the production of the T-34. In total, during the war years, around 35,000 tanks of this type were manufactured in the USSR.

Germany, in turn, entered the war with two types of tanks - Pz III and Pz IV, constituting the vast majority of the armored forces of the German army. However, the Pz III tank did not withstand the harsh wartime conditions, and its serial production was decided to be discontinued in 1943. By the mid-war period, the characteristics of the second type of tanks, the Pz IV, also no longer satisfied German tank crews. Production of the Pz IV continued until the very end of the war, but only through constant upgrades.

German tank builders were consistently in search of innovative solutions, attempting to construct a machine capable of effectively countering Soviet T-34 tanks. In 1943, serial production of the tank Pz V, also known as the "Panther," commenced. Weighing in at 35 tons, the "Panther" struck a balance between a medium and heavy tank. Its armored hull design was more rational than that of its predecessors.

The Era of Heavy Tanks

The appearance of heavy tanks was driven by the experience of the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), during which it became clear that the light and medium tanks of that era could not withstand direct hits from anti-tank guns.

In 1938, the Soviet Union designed the "KV" tank. Initially, this single-turreted tank was met with a lukewarm reception by the military. However, during the Soviet-Finnish War, the "KV" demonstrated its advantage over the fashionable two-turreted tanks of the time. The tank was equipped with a 152mm howitzer, requiring an enlargement of its turret. This tank was designated as the "KV-2."

At the outset of the war, the Red Army had fewer than 500 KV-1 and KV-2 tanks, but even rare encounters with them sent shockwaves through the ranks of the German forces, as German artillery could not penetrate the tank's armor.

This fact prompted Germany to expedite the development of its own heavy tank. In 1942, the tank Pz VI, known as the "Tiger," entered army trials. It featured special narrow track rollers arranged in a chessboard pattern, which improved the tank's ride smoothness. The tank was armed with an 88mm gun, and its projectiles reached a velocity of 1000 m/s, giving it tremendous penetration power.

Through subsequent upgrades, the tank Pz VIB, or the "Royal Tiger," was introduced, featuring a frontal armor thickness of 150mm. Its gun became even longer and more powerful, and the weight of the machines was increased to 68 tons.

Serial production of the "Royal Tigers," or "Tigers II," began in 1944 when Germany was experiencing a severe shortage of metal and labor. Therefore, fewer than 500 tanks of this type were produced. However, despite their small numbers, "Royal Tigers," through the combination of "protection + firepower," managed to make their mark in the history of the Second World War.

The appearance of "Tiger" tanks on the battlefield expedited the development and production of Soviet heavy tanks, one of which was named the "IS" (rus. Iosif Stalin) and was equipped with an 88mm gun. Only a few tanks of this type were manufactured.

One of the first tanks of the post-war period was the T-54.

In service, British Centurion A41 tanks, whose development began in 1943, and the American M-48 "Patton," were also retained.

In 1953, the Soviet Union adopted the T-10 tank, and five years later, the medium tank T-55, based on the T-54. These two tanks became the last in their classes. Afterward, military authorities shifted towards the concept of the Main Battle Tank (MBT), replacing both medium and heavy tanks.

The first Soviet tank of this kind was the T-62. It was also the world's first tank with a smoothbore gun, equipped with a 115mm cannon. Apart from the USSR, where approximately 20,000 units of this tank type were produced, it was also manufactured in Czechoslovakia and North Korea.

Post-war local conflicts demonstrated the significance of employing Main Battle Tanks as the primary arsenal of ground forces, for which considerable resources and effort were invested. For instance, during that era, the Soviet Union initiated the mass production of tanks equipped with autoloaders. Soviet tanks such as the T-64 and T-72 belonged to this category.

In 1976, the Soviet Union introduced the T-80 tank, featuring a gas turbine engine similar to those used in helicopters. Despite its modest weight, it offered high power output and exhibited excellent cold-start capabilities.

The T-90 tank, the last tank developed in the Soviet Union, represented a deeply modernized version of the T-72. It featured a new turret, wedge-shaped add-on explosive reactive armor, an enhanced fire control system, and the "Curtain-1" opto-electronic countermeasure system. This system provided protection against laser-guided anti-tank guided missiles and disrupted enemy laser rangefinders.

Today, tanks have remained largely faithful to their original configuration while becoming more potent. They continue to stand as formidable ground forces. Thanks to modern technology, tanks are equipped with advanced navigation and fire control systems. Moreover, there are ongoing developments in next-generation tanks, which minimize human involvement, incorporate unmanned turrets, and implement other high-tech solutions.

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