September 2016 marked 100 years of tank warfare, commemorating the first deployment of the British Army’s Mark I during the First World War at the Battle of Flers-Courcelette.
British Army MkI (Male) Tank - Image courtesy of the British Army
It also marks the first step in the modernisation of armed forces around the world. Originally conceived as a means of carrying troops into combat, the designers could have no idea what they were starting.
Of course it wasn’t without its setbacks. Forty-nine tanks were deployed for battle but only twenty-five actually worked as intended but it tipped the balance of the war. By 1918 nearly 6,000 tanks had been built and the first rotating turret had been developed by Renault.
The interwar years saw the major powers – Great Britain, France, Germany, the United States and the Soviet Union – place considerable time and resources into developing this new method of waging war.
For all the proclamations of peace in our time, behind closed doors no one was buying what Neville Chamberlain was selling. The world, it seemed, was under no illusion that another major conflict would erupt so raced to develop the next generation of fighting vehicles before it did.
However it wasn’t just armour that was undergoing reinvention but tactics. The conundrum the various armed forces faced was how to incorporate tanks into the established doctrines of war.
Another war of attrition was out of the question as the cost in lives and material was unsustainable and intolerable by the public.
However, apart from the British, the major nations were reluctant to have tanks operating autonomously, and instead were trying to amalgamate them into the existing army structures.
Both approaches had their benefits, however, by incorporating armoured elements as ‘cavalry’ it allowed the first combined arms doctrines to be devised.
From a design stand-point, the American Expeditionary Force designed their tanks with mobility in mind rather than firepower, a strategic decision that would prove significant in the years that followed.
Yet, despite America’s progress, it was the French who were making the greatest inroads both developmentally and doctrinally. But by 1940 the French army’s internal politics resulted in conflicting doctrines being adopted by the infantry and cavalry. The resulting inflexibility would ultimately prove to be their undoing.
The outbreak of the Second World War put any debate on the use of tanks to rest. Germany had caught up with its rivals and made tank divisions a core part of its strategy.
Although the early model Panzers were mere shadows of the later MkIV and the Tiger, they were enough to overwhelm their opponents.
Wehrmacht Panzer IV Tank - Image courtesy of Britannica.com
They continued to innovate throughout the war with three defined developmental phases, their tanks quickly becoming objects of fear on both the Eastern and Western fronts.
However, German tanks weren’t without their problems. Whilst their armour and armament were formidable, they were complicated to build and difficult to maintain and slow in the field. Germany only produced a little under 6,000 vehicles compared to a combined 37,000 by the US and Great Britain.
As Blitzkrieg gave way to occupation, German tanks became more akin to mobile pill boxes, the light to medium Panzers being replaced by the heavy Tiger tanks.
Despite their resilience, as the war ground on, mechanical failures and design weaknesses resulted in German crews simply abandoning their tanks rather than trying to fix them.
This was always welcome news to Allied tank crews as in a straight fight, their tanks were no match. Life expectancy of an Allies tank crew on an active battlefield could be measured in mere minutes.
This was largely due to the Allies’ emphasis on speed over armour and armament. As an invading force, the capacity to move at speed, overwhelm positions and provide close in fire support for infantry was given priority.
US Sherman Firefly - Image Courtesy of Warlord Games
This compromise earned the Sherman the nickname Tommy Cooker. An unfortunate moniker derived from the frequency with which they would burst into flames when hit. This was due to poor forward armour and ill-advised petrol engine.
However, for its poor armour the Sherman tank benefited from modular, cast, components which could be quickly produced and fitted making it possible repair (and reconfigure if needed) the tank with ease and put back on the line.
Ultimately it was the Allies’ ability to overwhelm their German counterparts – and willingness to use white phosphorous shells – that defeated the opposing armoured elements.
Whereas the First World War saw regimental or divisional scale engagements, the Second World War saw companies – between 100 and 250 men – performing the same job as thousands just twenty years prior.
This was only made possible by the support offered by mobile armoured elements. This also meant warfare became a far more fluid affair. Rather than a long line that would take an abrupt shift to the left or right, armoured elements could cause the front to bend and shift on a day by day basis.
Seventy years on and advances in training, physical fitness, small arms, personal protection systems, communications and satellite surveillance means that job is now carried out by as few as 30 men. All the while supported by tanks, armoured combat vehicles, armoured transports, self-propelled guns, air support and, more recently, UAVs.
The first half of the 20th Century soured the public’s opinion for war. The terrible loss of life resulted in a broadly negative public opinion of armed conflict whereas historically it was heavily romanticised.
After Vietnam wars would only be fought when a significant advantage in numbers, technology or force multipliers could be brought to bear.
As such the tank has continued to evolve in line with the changing demands placed on the infantry they support.
New technologies in targeting and weapon systems, improved quality in metals and castings and new materials resulted in the introduction of the Main Battle Tank.
An amalgamation of medium and heavy classes, the MBT variants were far superior, affording better protection and dramatically improved performance both mechanically and offensively.
Introduction of next generation armoured fighting vehicles and tactical support vehicles provided soldiers with mobility, greater protection, advanced surveillance & night vision equipment and light to medium fire support.
These smaller, multi-role assets allow the main battle tank to return to its role as a force multiplier rather than infantry support as seen on the battlefields of Europe in the forties and Korea shortly after.
British Army Challenger 2 - Image courtesy of the British Army
Many of the modern MBTs are comparable to one another in specification on the surface. It’s the efficiencies and technology on the inside that makes the difference. Valuable changes that shave grams of weight to make the engines more efficient make all the difference.
Fibre optics replaces conventional wires. Cast light weight and durable materials like aluminium and magnesium go into control units and housings. Cast components also have the benefit that they are stronger and last longer making them more reliable in a fight.
Which is ultimately the word synonymous with the tank: reliable. For one hundred years the fate of a tank and the soldiers it was there to support came down to the reliability of its weapon, armour engine and overall construction.
It’s these things that will decide the outcome of a battle, long before the first shell is fired. Although no amount of technology can save the ill-trained. As with all things it’s the commitment of the individual, be they the designer, the caster or the crew that decides the outcome.