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Tanks: The New Fighting Machines of World War II

Updated on April 11, 2011

This is a midterm paper I wrote for an English class. See my works cited page at the end of the paper for any sources I have used.

Tanks: The New Fighting Machines of World War II

Tanks in the 21st century are well known as elite fighting vehicles. With their powerful guns and almost impenetrable armor, tanks have been dubbed the cavalry of today and it would be hard for many soldiers to imagine going into combat without the support of tanks. However, tanks do not have a long history of use. In fact, tanks were not used until World War I and at that time there were no known military tactics for tank use or even a consensus on what a tank’s job should be. With the world moving into World War II at the end of the 1930’s, the use of tank technology was still only in its infancy, hardly ready for large scale use in a new war. The tanks of World War II were not the well-defined super weapons that they are today, being relatively untried and underdeveloped; yet they were still an example of the best military technology of the times. When considering the importance of the tank and its development during WWII, it is worth exploring just what the tank was at the start of the war, the advantages and disadvantages of the use of tanks by each side in the conflict, and the issue of whether tanks were already being used to their full potential during World War I or whether the tank only began to be a fighting force to be reckoned with during the Second World War.

The tank at the dawn of WWII

At the start of the Second World War the tank was still a small machine without the massive fire power seen on tanks today. They were also not built for comfort; the men controlling a tank would suffer from overheating, poor ventilation of fumes, and injuries from hard contact with the tank’s metal interior (John Weeks -20). The main tank of the German Panzer forces in the first years of the war was the PanzerKampfWagen I, or simply, Panzer I. It was a light tank that could reach speeds of 23mph, a fast tank for those days, and was armed with only machine guns (Rickard, J). Some version of this tank was prominent throughout the war on the Axis side. On the Allied side the Sherman tank was the most prominent tank in use. Commanders like the American General George S. Patton would push tanks into the fighting forces on the front lines by training tank crews and developing tank tactics (Roger H.Nye 41-43). However, tanks were more than just fighting vehicles; they were used for many support roles as well. Some tanks carried special equipment such as the Churchill Great Eastern Ramp that could enable tanks to act as ramps thereby allowing other fighting vehicles to reach higher cliffs. There were also tanks such as the Sherman Flail that were designed to clear minefields creating safe paths for the infantry through dangerous areas (George Forty and Jack Livesey 30-31).

In the first stages of World War II tanks were used as bulldozers on the battlefield. The deadlock of the First World War and its trench warfare was the driving force behind the development of tanks, which were used by all sides to break through lines of defense. The Germans would be the first to recognize the immense fighting power of tanks and would use their new Panzer divisions to devastating effect in the blitzkrieg phase of the war. At the turn of the war the Allies would employ Patton and the tanks of his Third Army in a rush to beat back the Axis powers. The tank opened up all new possibilities for offence, bringing back the “Cult of the Offensive” that dominated the mindset of armies at the start of the First World War. It had been thought at the start of World War I that attacking was always superior to defending; however, by the end of the long trench style fighting a new lesson had been learned: in trench warfare the defender has a distinct advantage. Hitler and his commanders wanted to avoid the stalemate of the First World War and looked to tanks to smash through any defense that might be in place. The tank, over the course of the Second World War would evolve from a portable shelter to a heavily armed and armored fighting vehicle. The development of tanks would not only create bigger and stronger fighting vehicles but would also advance the technology used to destroy tanks, such as the anti- tank guns. 

The tank of WWI

Tanks did exist before the conflict of World War II. However, the tanks of the First World War were barely understood and utilized compared to the tanks in the Second World War. While tanks were recognizably tanks at this time they really bore little actual resemblance to the tanks of today. Like most weapons tanks needed time to evolve, time for the technology that is standard for the tanks of today to be invented. The tanks of today have an entirely different role from the tanks of World War I, a role that was developed in the Second World War. The commanders of World War I were still cavalry men who thought of the tank as only being required in a supporting role to the men in the field in other branches of the armies.  There was considerable resistance to the implementation of tanks into armies. Many commanders thought that tanks could never replace the cavalry; they valued a good horse over the untried battle vehicle (John Pike). Eventually, most of the commanders who were cavalry men would make a name for themselves by commanding tanks were cavalry men wand would regard the tank as the next step forward in war technology.

While tanks brought advantages of firepower and armor to the fighting field, there were also numerous problems with tanks. Along with the afore-mentioned lack of comfort for the tank crew there was the problem of a shortage of tanks. During the First World War the total number of tanks produced by all sides only numbered about 7728 tanks. However this problem would quickly be overcome during the course of the war. America alone was able to produce 88,410 tanks from 1940 through 1945 (John Pike). 

Tank development

The tanks of World War II were a steppingstone on the continuum of tank development. They were technologically far ahead of the first tank-like vehicle designed by Leonardo da Vinci which would have been made of wood (George Forty and Jack Livesey pg16). However the tanks of today have made a similar leap away from the tanks of WWII. This can be illustrated by comparing two tanks, The Sherman tank of WWII and a tank of the 21st century the M1 Abrams tank. The M1 Abrams used by the US in the Iraq war is equipped mainly with a 120mm smoothbore cannon and can travel at 45 miles per hour. It has a tactical cruising range of approximately 275 miles (M1 Abrams Main Battle Tank). The Sherman tank had as its main weapon a 76mm gun as well as a few machine guns and could only reach speeds of 24mph. The Sherman tank has a range of 120 miles (Kennedy Hickman). The differences between these tanks were the product of years of development and fighting experience. The tank of World War II was not the tank of today, but rather a necessary predecessor. World War II allowed for the necessary time, money and experience needed to bring the tank out of obscurity and into the forefront of fighting machines.

Works Cited

George Forty and Jack Livesey. The World Encyclopedia of Tanks & Armored Fighting Vehicles. Blackfriars Road, London: Lorenz Books. 2006. pgs. 16,30-31

John Pike. Tank History - World War II. 03/12/05. 26 February 2009

John Pike. Tank History - Inter-War. 03/12/05. 26 February 2009

John Weeks. Men Against Tanks. New York: Mason/Charter. 1975 pg 20

Kennedy Hickman. M4 Sherman Tank: A World War II Icon. : Military History. N.D. 26 February 2009

Rickard, J., Panzer I Light Tank, Military History Encyclopedia on the Web,

11/30/07. 26 Feb. 2009

Roger H.Nye. The Patton Mind. New York: Avery Publishing Group Inc. 1993 pgs. 41-43

M1 Abrams Main Battle Tank. FAS. 4/14/ 2000. 26 February 2009


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