The 1920s and 1930s saw significant research into and theorizing about the role of tanks, but relatively few tanks were produced until World War II saw an explosion in production as combatants rushed to manufacture them by the thousands each month, and tanks became the dominant weapons of ground warfare. In the meanwhile, the war upended many assumptions held during the interwar years about the tanks’ expected role in modern warfare, and many hitherto strongly held doctrines were discarded in favor of ones more suitable to the realities of the modern battlefield.
Spurred on by the exigencies of war, research and development galloped at a breakneck pace to keep up with the mounting challenges posed by ever newer and deadlier weapons technology, and a gun vs armor race during the war led to rapid increases in both firepower and armored protection, in thickness as well as layout and design. Few tanks – with one notable exception – that began the war were still capable of providing effective front line service when the war ended. In 1939, the 23 ton Panzer III was Germany’s most powerful tank, and its 37mm antitank gun was the day’s deadly anti-armor state of the art. By 1942, both the Panzer III and its 37mm gun were obsolete, and by war’s end, battlefields were traversed by goliaths such as Germany’s Tiger II, clocking in at 77 tons, against which the Soviets pitted the Iosef Stalin-2, sporting a 122mm gun.
Following are the 12 most influential tanks of WWII:
Designed by the Czech engineering firm CKD, and used by the Germans after their 1939 occupation of Czechoslovakia, the Panzerkampfwagen 38(t) proved an effective light tank that played a significant role in the blitzkrieg and Germany’s early successes in WWII. It performed well during the invasion of Poland, the onslaught on Western Europe, in North Africa, and the invasion of the USSR.
The hull was riveted and compartmentalized, and the 38(t)’s most distinctive feature was a simple leaf suspension system and big roadwheels that made for easy maintenance and lowered costs. It was a simple and effective tank, well designed and well built, and not plagued by the glitches that affected many German-designed tanks. Armament consisted of a 37mm gun that was quite respectable in 1939, with 90 rounds. That was supplemented by two machine guns: one in a ball mount to the right of the 37mm gun that could be coupled to it to fire coaxially, or aimed and fired independently, while the other machinegun was hull-mounted and operated by the radio operator.
For light tanks, 38(t)s had better protection and anti-tank capabilities than the German-designed Panzer I and Panzer IIs, so they were employed more aggressively in infantry support and in dealing with other light tanks and armored vehicles, but were not designed to spearhead breakthroughs or take on main battle tanks. But once breakthroughs had been achieved, 38(t)s came into their own. Penetrating deep into the enemy rear, 38(t)s wreaked havoc far and wide.
By 1942, advances in tank designs and changed battlefield conditions had rendered the 38(t) obsolete, and tank production was halted. Chassis production continued, for use in the Marder III and the Hetzer, or Jagdpanzer 38, tank destroyers, while surviving 38(t)s were withdrawn from frontline service and relegated to security and convoy escort duties.