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Fighting vehicles in World War II

01/09/2015

In 1939, despite the efforts of Liddell-Hart and Fuller, the British Army was equipped with tanks that were unfit for purpose. They were underpowered, under gunned, under strength and seen as noisy mechanicals of little or no value on the battlefield except when as support for infantry. This attitude was a throw-back to the nineteenth Century, when cavalry was pre-eminent, especially socially. In the First Word War and afterwards the influence of cavalry officers was such that the horse was the weapon carrier, and the weapon was lance or sabre. The tanks were relegated to the Tank Corps, a formation much frowned on if not derided by the horsed regiments, who saw the cavalry charge as the epitome of style and effectiveness. They forgot the effect of machineguns, barbed wire and artillery in their concept of glory.

The tanks of the inter-war years were hardly more than 2-pounder gunned (with the exception of the Infantry Tank Mark I - later the Churchill - which carried a limited traverse 3-pounder). The army was incapable of seeing that larger guns, more powerful engines and better armour was needed in view of continental tank developments. The army had light tanks mounting Vickers machineguns, mediums with 2-pounders and the Infantry Tank with it's 3-pounder. These were the tanks that faced the German army in France and Flanders in 1940. Only once, at Arras, did British tanks effectively combine en masse to take on the Germans; they nearly won, but the tactics were anomalous - a mass of tanks attacked the Germans, rather than the futile penny packets used as infantry support. There was no infatry-tank cooperation doctrine - the tanks just turned up, advanced and the infantry followed. This only works when the enemy anti-tank guns are elsewhere.

This deplorable state of affairs continued throughout the first half of the war, until the American Grant and Sherman tanks appeared. They mounted heavier guns, and the Sherman in particular prove itself as a workhorse, although unable to take on the heavy German Panther and Tigers head on. The Churchill went through many Marks and a number of roles (including flamethroweing and bridge-laying) but the real breakthrough came in 1944 with the 17 poiunder tank gun, fitted to Shermans as the 'Firefly,' and the the Comet. This was a purpose built tank to carry the 17-pounder, whicvh was effective against the heavy German tanks.

In all the British soldier was well and truly let down in the tank field - great ideas before the war fell away to nothing, the cavalry only reluctantly adapted to the armoured car and the tank. Meanwhile the Russians, the Germans and the Americans all produced thoroughly practical AFVs quicker and in the Ruassian and American cases, much more rapidly.

For publications we have scanned detailing the pre-war and wartime tanks see under the section “Weapons, Guns and Tanks.”