Development of the AFV During the Second World War

Ralph Zuljan

Armored fighting vehicles, or tanks, came of age during the Second World War. In 1939 the average tank had a 37-47mm main armament, with about 20-40mm of frontal armor and a maximum speed of 30-40 km/h. A 20-ton tank was considered heavy in 1939. Combat experience generated military requirements for heavier weapons and thicker armor. So, by 1945, main armaments ranged between 75mm and 90mm. Frontal armor thickness of 60-80mm became the norm and it was generally sloped to improve its effectiveness even more. Maximum road speeds of 40-50 km/h were common. And 30-40 ton tanks were common.

The general layout of tanks tended to converge during the war. While in 1939 most tanks had one- or two-man turrets, by 1945 three-man turrets were the rule. The additional crewman was generally a loader for the main gun. Command and control of armored units improved because, with a specific crewman for loading the gun, the commanders no longer had to double as the loader and was able to concentrate fully on his leadership functions. This was the primary contribution of German military thought to the technical development of the tank. The simple fact that German tanks were the only ones to have three-man turrets in the early period of World War II represents a significant factor in explaining the military successes achieved during the Blitzkrieg years of 1939-42.

Probably the most influential design to arise during the period was the Soviet T-34. Several innovations were evident in this design: the armor was sloped to increase its effectiveness, the main armament extended beyond the front of the hull and the tracks were wide, making it a comparatively nimble vehicle off-road. The only serious weakness in the design was its two-man turret which hampered its effectiveness on the battlefield. Even so, the T-34 significantly affected German tank development, ultimately leading to the Panther and Tiger II designs. The impact of these vehicles on the western Allies was substantial and therefore the T-34 really deserves to be credited as the forefather of the modern main battle tank.

Of all the tank designs produced prior to the Second World War, very few actually survived in front line service for more than a few years. The German Panzer IV was, in fact , the only prewar model to remain in front line service as a tank in 1945. Longevity was not a common feature of tank designs during this period. Yet, the advantages of maintaining production of an existing vehicle over developing a new one were self evident.

Maximum turret-ring size proved to be a critical factor in making a design viable for the long term. In the T-34, for example, the two-man turret was replaced by a larger three-man turret and a heavier 85mm main armament in 1943 - giving it performance that was basically comparable to the new German Panther design. The fact that this upgrade was feasible eminently demonstrates the original T-34 design's durability but it also represented an immense saving in terms of research and development as well as enhancing production possibilities. Likewise, the German Panzer IV proved to be capable of accommodating a long 75mm gun and greater armor protection than were originally specified. These improvements made the Panzer IV capable enough to effectively engage enemy armor up to the end of the war.

Many of the other early war designs were eventually withdrawn from service because they lacked the ability to be readily upgraded. The British Matilda II and Crusader, as well as the German Panzer III, all became obsolete very early on because their design limits had already been reached. For the British, in particular, the problem of design obsolescence was acute. No British design of 1939-40 was able to accommodate a main armament capable of defeating German AFVs likely to be encountered in 1944-45. Entirely new models had to be developed. Consequently, the best British-made tank to see service in the war (the Cromwell) was only marginally better than a German Panzer IV and definitely inferior to a Panther.

In the Panzer IV, the Germans actually had a tank that was viable throughout the war. However, rather than concentrating resources on improving this basically sound design, they opted instead to create a brand new vehicle which was intended to be superior to any expected enemy armor. This tank, the Panther, was arguably the best design to emerge during World War II. When it was introduced the Panther was, at least on paper, far superior to anything else on the battlefield but it suffered from a myriad of technical problems because of its short development period. Considering the difficulties inherent in introducing any new weapons systems in the middle of a conflict, the German decision to do so remains a questionable one.

The American Sherman, introduced in 1942, was a generally sound design that proved to be sufficiently durable to survive the war. Much like the Soviets, the Americans elected to concentrate their efforts on modifying existing designs, rather than develop new ones, in response to changing threats on the battlefield. This choice, in part, enabled both countries to produce substantially more tanks than either the British or Germans managed.

It is somewhat ironic that although the Germans produced superior tank designs in the latter part of the war, they won their early victories with what can reasonably be described as mediocre tanks. And the Allies managed to win World War II with tanks that were not necessarily the best but merely adequate for the tasks assigned to them. Choosing to upgrade existing designs proved to be a better choice than developing new ones. All that seemed to matter was that a basic level of technological parity with opposing tanks existed - late model Shermans and T-34s were basically on a par with Panthers. With this condition satisfied, production levels took on the greatest importance. In the end, quantity proved to be as important as quality with respect to tanks.

Originally published in "World War II" at on October 1, 1998.
Revised edition published in "Articles On War" at on July 1, 2003.

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