Skin Deep

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So to accompany the piece on whether or not tanks have any future, let’s talk about tanks of the past. Consider this an exercise in both historical accuracy, critical thinking, and me just being a giant nerd about tanks.

So.

What was the best tank of World War II?

Ask that question around the average group of armchair generals and you’re going to get a wide range of answers, but two of them in particular will likely make up the lion’s share of opinions. Specifically, either the Soviet T-34, or the German Panther, or Panzerkampfwagen V if you’re feeling frisky. After that you’ll likely get a smattering of other vehicles, some of them very late-war and therefor largely irrelevant, others just different for the sake of being different, and most of them will be completely and absolutely wrong for a very simple reason.

Tanks are extremely subject to a particular form of flawed analysis, which I’ve generally thought of as either skin-deep, or outside-in.

The T-34, for example, is regularly praised for its “revolutionary” sloped armor, legendary ruggedness, powerful cannon, fantastic mobility, and massive production. After all, you can look at a given list of specifications and it will tell you how thick the armor was, the bore and caliber of its cannon, its (again) “revolutionary” Christie Suspension, incredible production numbers, and so on. You can take all of these numbers, compare them to the competition, and say, with a great deal of unearned confidence, that clearly this was the best tank of the war.

Which is a crock of shit.

The T-34 was a terrible tank. Its armor, occasionally praised by people with a very poor understanding of, well, armor, for being of exceptional hardness, was in fact hardened to the point of being actually brittle. You can see this in the wrecks of destroyed T-34s: not neat holes punched in the tank like you’d find for an Allied or German tank, but massive chunks just shattered off the glacis plate. Moreover, that hardness left it particularly subject to spall damage inside the tank, where a hit that failed to fully penetrate the armor could still render the crew quite, quite dead, from the scabbed-off shrapnel now bouncing around inside the tank until it intersected something soft and squishy like, say, a driver, or explosive, like the ammunition stored in rather sensitive areas.

Because that “revolutionary” Christie Suspension ate up a huge amount of the tank’s internal volume, leaving the crew compartment incredibly cramped in comparison to other tanks. Allied officers, upon seeing the T-34 in person, were often surprised that people could actually fit through the access hatches to the vehicle, and pretty much nobody could do it quickly, which can be a matter of some importance if you’re dealing with something like, say, a fire breaking out near the aforementioned poorly-stowed ammunition.

But surely the massive production numbers of the tank, the only such vehicle to eclipse the Sherman in that regard, should count for something, no? The Soviets must have fine-tuned the art of mass production in order to field such an incredible amount of armored might, yes?

No.

The Soviets didn’t make some great breakthrough in the art of manufacturing; what they discovered was little more than how many possible ways they could cut corners while still producing something that at least looked and acted like a tank for the first couple hundred miles or so. Radios? Radios are for unit commanders, not every tank, so commands within the units themselves were reduced to things like signal flags or just yelling really loud. Optics for the commander? Nah, he can just pop the hatch to get a look around if he wants to get an actual view of the battlefield, and surely the odds of a piece of shrapnel intersecting with his head are low enough that we won’t lose too many. Actual glass for the driver’s periscopes? Psh, real Soviets don’t need glass, they can make do with plastics. Or just nothing, and drive their tanks with the hatch open.

The hatch that leads directly past all that important sloped armor directly into the heart of the crew compartment.

A turret basket, that important little feature that functionally every other tank worth mentioning possessed, that allowed the turret crew (i.e. everyone except for the driver) to sit comfortably inside the turret while it rotated? Capitalist frippery, a good Soviet soldier can just dance around inside the moving armored vehicle with its incredibly bouncy suspension that rendered it nearly impossible to aim accurately on the move, or even be particularly accurate on follow-up shots while stationary.

A transmission that actually functioned properly? Ridiculous, that’s why you have a gunner and that hammer in the toolkit, because you’re gonna need both if you want to change gears.

Soviet factories found every conceivable way they could to speed up production by stripping more and more things from the design. You’ll find people who will gleefully point out that the Soviets were welding their tanks together at a time when other nations like Great Britain were still riveting their armor on.

Of course, this is because the British understood that it took a great deal of time to train a good welder, particularly on something as challenging as tank armor, but they had a hell of a lot of good riveters, who could easily produce things that while certainly not as tough as a properly welded hull, were equally certainly better than an improperly welded one.

Whereas the Soviet approach was more along the lines of “Here Comrade. Here is welder. Go weld.” with the Commissar standing in the background to remind you of the potential dangers of doing silly things like going back and checking your work to make sure you had actually done it right.

So instead of the illustrious image of the T-34 as the armored fist of Stalin, smashing the German lines and striking terror into their troops, in reality was you had was a cramped, uncomfortable tank, prone to breakdowns and track breakages, prone to explosions and shattered armor, as likely to be simply abandoned instead of repaired, with a cannon it couldn’t aim, units it couldn’t coordinate, commanders who couldn’t command, drivers who couldn’t drive, and all of these things combined probably contribute to the fact that something along the order 80% of all the T-34s produced during the war were destroyed in the war, and it’s important to note that a significant number of those tanks were later models, produced equally late in the war, at a time when the Allies were tapering off their own productions because they already knew they had enough tanks to get the job done.

Soviet crews typically preferred the Sherman to the T-34; sure, its gun lacked the same punch, but it wasn’t particularly less survivable, and they were vastly more comfortable to operate in. And while the gasoline in the Sherman’s tanks was more likely to ignite than the diesel in the T-34, that seemed to concern the crews less given that it was much easier to get out of a burning Sherman than it was to escape from an exploding T-34.

But if not the T-34, surely then the Panther, the pinnacle of German engineering, the finest medium tank of the war?

Well, to begin with the Panther is a medium tank in name only. Weight-wise, it would be classed as a heavy tank in any other military force of the day; the Nazi love for bigger and “better” tanks is the only reason the Panther would be put down as a nearly 50 ton “medium” tank. And the Panther was certainly a fantastic bit of engineering, though it achieved its legendary status by a few bits of trickery, such as putting all the armor forward in order to render it largely impervious to lesser weapons, which works great if you’ve got control of the battlefield and you aren’t outnumbered by swarms of smaller, cheaper tanks that can penetrate the side armor.

What plagued the Panther was a mechanically complicated design at a time when Germany needed to be building simpler weapons. Initial readiness reports for Panthers were abysmal, and while they managed to approach something vaguely resembling acceptable at their peak, it wasn’t long before the situation reversed itself as materials shortages and damage to German infrastructure took its toll. By the end of the war, in many cases you’d be lucky if even half the Panthers would start up and make it to the battlefield, where they’d promptly get swarmed under by smaller, cheaper tanks.

Because while the Panther would have been an incredible tank to have at the start of the war, when the Nazis were riding high on a wave of conquests and seemingly unstoppable on the field of battle, by the time the Panther actually entered service, it was very much the wrong weapon to be building. There were simply never enough Panthers to turn the tide, let alone enough of the even bigger Nazi tanks, in the face of hordes of flawed T-34s and the actual best tank of the war.

The humble Sherman.

That’s right, I said the Sherman.

Fight me.

Cheap to build, comfortable to use, well-appointed and well-supplied, easy to repair and while it was certainly not without its share of weaknesses (narrow tracks, weak gun, etc) all of those pale in comparison to the sheer number that rolled off of the assembly line, complete with all the bells and whistles that American and Allied tankers expected.

Sure, in a tank vs tank battle I’d rather be sitting in a Panther. Assuming it would start, and was capable of actually maneuvering in combat, which was a pretty big if at times. But the Sherman wasn’t designed for tanks vs tank combat; that’s what tank destroyers were for as far as the US Army was concerned. The Sherman was designed to support the infantry and it did so quite adequately. And if we’re going to make our selection based on terms of how many tanks were available, the odds are good that the poor guy sitting in the one functional Panther is going to be facing off against close to a dozen Shermans. They might not have been designed for that fight, but they’d have won it, and in reality they did win it.

Quite handily.