The second world war was the single most important event of the 20th century. It changed almost everything – borders, international trade, political systems and more beyond – and its echoes are still being felt today. One of those echoes is in warfare, as World War 2 was the conflict that saw the rise of the most iconic army unit: the tank.
Tanks were first developed in Britain during World War 1 – ironically, by the Royal Navy, under the direction of Winston Churchill. From there, multiple countries began developing them: France, Germany, the USA, and eventually Russia after it became the Soviet Union. The rapid development of tanks that followed would see its trial-by-fire when World War 2 broke out, and new designs were put to the test under wartime conditions. Today, we have five designs that proved themselves on the battlefield.
On June 22, 1941, Germany launched Operation Barbarossa, an invasion of the Soviet Union. Hitler and the German high command believed that the Soviet armed forces were of such inferior quality that they wouldn’t be able to stand up to German blitzkrieg tactics, and that their Panzer divisions would be almost unopposed as they advanced.
They were not prepared whatsoever for what they got instead – tens of thousands of unexpectedly superior T-34 medium tanks. When the T-34 was encountered by German forces, a German general described it as “the finest tank in the world”. It was so effective that several famous German tank designs, including the Panther medium tank and the Tiger heavy tank, were built specifically to counter the T-34. It drove German generals and Hitler crazy. What was it about this tank that was so impressive? Two traits stand out: sloped armor and mass production.
Sloped armor is one of those innovations that seems so obvious in hindsight that it doesn’t even look that revolutionary. But make no mistake, this small difference in design was so crucial to the success of the T-34 that other countries, including Germany, began incorporating it into their own tank designs. Sloped armor is exactly what it sounds like – armor that is placed at an angle, or “slope”. What this means is that when a projectile hits the armor, it’s not going through it head-on. Instead, it’s going through more of the metal at an upward angle. So even though the technical armor for the T-34 was only 47mm, the effective armor of the tank was double that. Like I said: really simple, really genius.
The second feature that set the T-34 apart from other tank designs was its mass-producibility. Though it is described as one of the best tanks of the war, the reality of the T-34 design was that it was crude and rushed; it had to be, given the circumstances. But the Soviets worked around its design flaws well. For example, the pins holding the tracks in place were not locked in, like with other tank designs. This caused the pins on the tracks to fall out over time. Instead of trying to fix this problem directly, which would have cost them valuable time and resources, the Soviets just put a chunk of metal that stuck out towards the track, hammering the pins back in as they passed by. This solution is emblematic of the Soviets’ wartime approach to tank design: “good enough”.
These duct-tape solutions paid off. By 1945, the Soviets had produced over 80,000 T-34s of multiple variants, making it the most produced tank of the entire war. Germany simply couldn’t keep up with this stream of metal monsters; every time they destroyed one, the Soviets just put out a new one. Though some have coined this as “quantity over quality”, one might say that quantity is a quality all on its own.
Next on our list is one of the most famous tanks of the war, the Panzerkampfwagen VI, nicknamed “Tiger”. After encountering the unexpectedly strong armor of the T-34, the German high command realized that their own armored divisions, consisting largely of Panzer IIIs and Panzer IVs, were not up to the task of taking on the Soviets. To that end, they fast-tracked (no pun intended) the production of some newer tank models that could meet the demands of the Eastern Front. Two models, which even today cause controversy among historians and tank enthusiasts, eventually came out of this push – the Panther medium tank and the Tiger heavy tank.
A quick note to those same tank enthusiasts who are no doubt rushing to the comments section right now: we’re including the Tiger and not the Panther because, unlike its smaller cousin, the operational history of the Tiger tank was not marred by a tendency to destroy itself. In all seriousness, the real reason is because there is a great deal of back and forth on whether the Panther tank was the best tank of the war or trash-tier garbage. The Tiger, by contrast, is much simpler to break down. So yeah, we’re taking the easy way out on this one, sue us. (Please don’t sue us.)
The Tiger was built primarily for one specific task – taking on other tanks. Interestingly, the Tiger did not use sloped armor (although its successor, the Tiger II or “King Tiger”, would). Despite this, it still sported some of the heaviest armor of any tank fielded during the war, with frontal armor up to 100mm thick and side/rear armor anywhere from 60 to 80mm thick. The Tiger’s armor also utilized what is known as “Maraging steel”, which is made by treating Martensitic steel through an extended heat-treatment process. All of that is fancy metalworking speech for “dang it’s strong”.
The design ethos of the Tiger was basically the opposite of the T-34. Where the T-34 was built for quantity, the Tiger was built for quality. It utilized labor-intensive production methods and expensive materials to round out its design, which made each unit prohibitively expensive; as such, it couldn’t be fielded in large numbers. Even so, the ones that were put into action soon proved themselves more than capable of taking on all comers. Its 8.8cm gun was powerful enough to pierce through basically any enemy tank at the time.
This advantage proved decisive, particular in the West after the Normandy landings. The Tiger was so influential on the strategic planning of the Western Allies that the heavy tank battalions including the Tiger tanks were the only non-division element to be included on war maps. All of that is fancy wargaming speech for “dang it’s scary”. Allied tank crews often went out of their way to avoid Tiger tanks, instead preferring to call in air support or use artillery to deal with them, because most Allied tanks simply couldn’t stand up to their firepower and armor.
As we said before, the Tiger was not perfect. It was most definitely over-engineered and too expensive for the demands of the war effort, and it suffered from similar reliability problems as the Panther tank. This, however, was more down to it being forced into roles and situations that it wasn’t designed for rather than inherent design flaws, and when conditions approved, the Tiger performed incredibly strongly, with most of the heavy tank battalions in the German army racking up an average ratio of five enemy tanks destroyed for every one Tiger lost. With that in mind, we can conclude that despite its flaws, the Tiger tank was most definitely one of the top tanks of the war.
The StuG III
We’re kind of cheating with this next entry on the list, because it technically isn’t a tank. However, this vehicle is underappreciated enough that it seems worth including to bring its storied operational history to a wider audience. The Sturmgeschütz III, shortened to StuG III, was a German assault gun based on the Panzer III chassis. The turret of the Panzer III was taken out, and replaced with a fixed casing to allow the vehicle to support a larger caliber gun. The Panzer III was an early medium tank that saw use in France and was intended to see the German army through Russia, but that plan fell flat when the Panzer III proved inadequate for taking on the Soviet T-34. However, the chassis of the Panzer III was considered capable enough that it was used as the base for another vehicle that would outshine it completely – the StuG III.
Though the StuG itself was a fairly simple vehicle, boasting a turretless 7.5cm gun and a 50mm frontal armor plate (later versions would have an additional 30mm plate welded on as a supplement), it differed from many other German fighting vehicles in one simple, crucial way – it worked. It was introduced in 1940 and served all the way to the end of the war, seeing action on every front from France to Italy to Russia to Norway. While the Tiger and Panther tanks were more expensive to produce, the StuG was comparatively cheap; one Tiger cost as much to make as four StuGs. In addition, the StuG did not suffer from the reliability problems of its larger tank counterparts. In essence, it was the workhorse of the German army, performing its tasks reliably while the flashier Tiger and Panther tanks took the spotlight.
The effectiveness of the StuG was down to its simple design and firepower. The vehicle had a low profile, being one of the shortest vehicles Germany deployed at only 2.16m tall. This made it a surprisingly difficult target, as well as making it easier to camouflage than the monstrous Tiger tanks. The vehicle itself could perform a variety of different roles, from infantry support to functioning as a tank destroyer. Though it would ultimately be outclassed by other tanks later on, it offered a flexibility that other German designs simply didn’t have.
There were eight total StuG III designs, but the most common by far was the Ausf. G, with over 8,000 produced by the end of the war. In total, just under 12,000 StuGs were built, far above the ~1,400 tigers produced and the ~6,000 Panthers. The legacy of this vehicle is not that it was famous, groundbreaking, or even incredibly good – but rather that it got the job done.
The M4 Sherman
Next on our list is the American M4 Sherman. The Sherman is another famous example among tank types for being neither nice to look at or super effective. Despite that, it can most definitely be called one of the defining tanks of World War 2 based on how widespread it was. At around 50,000 units built, it was second only to the T-34 in numbers produced. It saw combat all over the world, from Africa to Europe to the Far East and Pacific. Around 4,000 were given to the Soviets under the Lend-Lease program, earning the Sherman the distinction of having served in both the Eastern and the Western fronts of Europe. This tank was everywhere; what did it have going for it?
The design goals for the Sherman were quite similar to those of the T-34. First, it was to be mass-producible, so that the Americans could get a lot of them into action quickly. Second, it was to be flexible, so that it could perform a variety of different roles, ranging from supporting infantry to spearheading assaults to engaging enemy tanks. And third, it had to be reliable. In all three of these cases, it performed admirably – being cheap to produce, effective in varying combat situations, and easy to repair and get back into action should it break down. At the height of production, one Sherman rolled off the factory floor every 30 minutes.
The Sherman was produced in several variants, but the common theme between most of them was its 75mm gun, only being upgraded to a longer 76mm barrel after it became clear that the Sherman needed to compete with the larger Tiger and Panther tanks. Its armor was 50.8mm thick, angled to be effectively 90mm.
When the Sherman was first put into action in North Africa, it proved superior to the lighter German and Italian tank designs and contributed heavily to the Allied victory. This victory would come back to bite them, however, as the Americans believed that the Sherman in its current state would be sufficient to win the war against Germany. In addition, the Americans largely followed a “tank destroyer” doctrine, which dictated that killing tanks should be left to dedicated teams of anti-tank personnel and that tank-on-tank duels should be avoided. As a consequence, little emphasis was put on improving the Sherman for the role of tank combat.
As we know, the Germans were not sitting around with their tank designs, with the Panther and Tiger tanks soon to be introduced in larger numbers than the Allies expected. The Sherman, though a perfectly capable tank in its own right, was an unfavorable matchup against the Panther and was hopelessly outgunned by the Tiger. Casualty rates among Allied tank crews would continue to climb as the war dragged on. Nevertheless, the Allies always had numerical superiority, and with the introduction of the 76mm gun, the Sherman was found to be able to compete with the heavier German tanks. Ultimately, after the war ended, the Sherman would continue to see service throughout the 20th century in wars around the world, cementing its legacy as the most enduring tank of the war.
Once again, we’re kind of cheating with this last entry on the list, because technically the Firefly is just the Sherman again. But it’s a British design and was only used by the British, and it has its own Wikipedia page, so we’re calling it fair game.
The British, unlike the Americans, saw the dangers posed by the German heavier tanks to Allied armor. They believed, correctly, that the Sherman was inadequate to take them on, but as we explained before, the US wasn’t interested in making tanks that could duel other tanks. The British, on the other hand, wanted just that, yet their own home-grown tank designs were experiencing delays. So what could they do? Well, the British had developed an excellent anti-tank gun, the 76.2mm QF 17-pounder. They also had a bunch of Sherman tanks that the US had given them through the Lend-Lease program. You can probably see where this is going. Yep, they just slapped an anti-tank gun onto the Sherman and called it good.
Actually, it was pretty good, since the Firefly was capable of penetrating the armor of the Panther and Tiger tanks, something that ordinary Shermans couldn’t do. The first Fireflies were put into service just in time for the Normandy landings, and they couldn’t have been introduced at a better time. The Allies were just beginning to realize that the Germans had far more heavy tanks in their forces than they anticipated, and that the American doctrine of avoiding tank duels wasn’t going to pan out. With that in mind, the Firefly proved indispensable to the Allied forces. It ended up being so effective that German tank operators were instructed to target Fireflies first when engaging enemy tank formations, keeping an eye out for the distinctive longer barrels. Realizing this, Firefly crews attempted to camouflage themselves into looking like regular Shermans, even going so far as to put fake muzzle brakes halfway down the barrel and painting the rest another color. It’s unclear if this actually had any effect, but Fireflies do seem to have been statistically less likely to be destroyed in combat than other tanks, so draw your own conclusions.
Overall, the Firefly wasn’t a highly produced vehicle like others on this list, only clocking in at about 2,200 produced in total. However, it certainly made its mark on the war in several ways. First, it proved its worth by being capable of knocking out heavy German tanks despite their large size. Second, it demonstrated to the Americans the necessity of heavier armaments on their own designs. And third, it was an effective stopgap design until the introduction of newer designs such as the Comet and Centurion. All in all, it’s difficult to find anything hugely negative to say about the Firefly. Maybe that’s a legacy we should all aspire to.
This was a list of just five World War 2 tank designs. There were dozens of other designs from countries that weren’t even mentioned in this video, and of course there are many tanks from the Cold War and beyond that implemented new technologies and tactics. Even so, it’s always interesting to see how things progress from their earliest iterations; have you noticed that modern tanks like the M1 Abrams still use sloped armor? And of course, with new engineering comes some truly ridiculous projects like the Maus – oh, I promised myself I wouldn’t mention that. Oh well. Thanks for watching.