Storm from the East II

Tanks of WW2

For all Kleist’s other legitimate complaints about his supreme commander, it was untrue that German equipment was inferior, except in sheer numbers. Guderian, who wrote the 1936 work Achtung-Panzer!, believed that two different types of tank were necessary in any attack, one to deal with tanks and the other with infantry. The five-man Panzer Mark III, produced from 1936, was used against other tanks, but its 37mm gun was not powerful enough against the British Matilda tanks in Africa, so Rommel used 88mm anti-aircraft guns against them there instead. In 1940 Hitler ordered the production of a 50mm, 350hp Mark III, which the manufacturers watered down to a 47mm gun. These, as well as Sturmgeschütze (self-propelled assault guns), were used in Operation Barbarossa, along with the far less powerful Panzer Marks I and II. Up to 1944, around 6,000 Mark IIIs were produced by different manufacturers. Twelve thousand Mark IVs were built with 76mm guns, which the Soviets thought ‘good for bad European weather, not for bad Russian weather’. In 1942 the Germans started producing Mark VI (Tiger) and then in 1943 Mark V (Panther) tanks.

Although the Russian tanks and self-propelled guns used diesel, only one German tank (the enormous Maus) did so, all the others being petrol-fuelled. Petrol was far more costly, flammable and rapidly consumed, yet Germany – which had the technology as Messerschmitts flew on diesel – for some reason stuck to petrol for her tanks. The Panther was a bigger and heavier copy of the Russian T-34, with a sloped front that encouraged ricochets. It entered the front line in July 1943 at Kursk, but faced a number of problems, mainly electrical and hydraulic. Weighing 45.5 tonnes with a crew of five and top speed of 46mph, it had 110mm of front armour (it was also covered with zimmerit cladding to foil magnetic mines and grenades), a 75mm cannon 15 feet long and a Daimler-Benz copy of the T-34’s engine. Some 6,400 were produced; along with the Panzer VI, known as the Tiger I, of which the Henschel company made 1,355, these were formidable weapons indeed.

The Tiger I weighed 58.9 tonnes, had an 88mm gun, five crew and a cruising speed of 24mph. At the Museum of Tank Construction at Kubinka, 40 miles south of Moscow, one can see a Tiger tank that has been fired upon by a T-34 at around 300 yards’ range, which merely left a 2-inch dent in its frontal armour. Except at point-blank range, or firing at its side-tracks, or unless a lucky shot hit the area between the hull and turret, the Tiger tank was well placed to smash the T-34.

The heaviest tank deployed in combat during the Second World War, at 68 tonnes, was the Tiger II. This had a five-man crew, a maximum speed of 22mph, no less than 150mm of armour (180mm on the front) and an 88mm cannon. By January 1944 some 487 Panzer VIB Tiger II or King Tiger tanks had been produced, using the same chassis specifications as the Panther. Unfortunately for the Germans, these therefore inherited many of the problems of the Panther. The 88mm gun could be found on the Elefant or Ferdinand assault gun (named after Ferdinand Porsche), which had also been deployed for the first time at Kursk. Fortunately for the Russians, only ninety of these were ever built. In response to the Panthers and Tigers, the Soviets produced the very heavy KV-85, which was the same as a KV-1 except for having an 85mm cannon. This was enough to penetrate German middle-sized tanks such as the Panzers Mark III and IV, but could also destroy Tigers and Panthers.

At a meeting with General von Thoma on 23 December 1940, Halder was told that the OKH had ‘Scanty information on Russian tanks’, which nonetheless were felt to be ‘Inferior to ours in armour and speed. Maximum thickness of armour 30mm. The 4.4cm Ehrhard gun penetrates our tanks at range of 300 metres: effective range 500 metres; safe at over 800 metres. Optical sights very bad; dim, limited range of vision. Radio control equipment bad.’ Yet none of that was true of the new T-34 tank. Just as the Spitfire and Hurricane can be said to have saved Britain in 1940, so the T-34 tank saved Russia at Kursk and thereafter. First coming off the production line in 1938, the T-34/76 was easy to produce because the designer had created a welding tool for its armour sheets that women and children could also use. Its 6,000 parts were also reduced to 4,500 over the coming years. Before 1943, the T-34/76, the standard Soviet medium tank, had to get within 250 yards of a German tank with its 76mm gun and hit it from the side, whereas a German Tiger tank could destroy T-34s at a range of over a mile. (The T stands, rather unimaginatively, for Tank. Today, the Russians are up to the T-90.)

After Kursk, however, where the Russians took heavy losses before they were able to close with the enemy, they changed the calibre of the T-34’s 76mm gun to 85mm, which made a considerable difference because the 76mm gun could penetrate only 50mm thickness of enemy armour at 600 yards, whereas the 85mm could penetrate 90mm at that range. Keeping the same chassis, and thus the same powerful 500hp engine and most of the same spare parts, the T-34/85 also had five rubber wheels on each side rather than two, and, crucially, an enlarged turret that allowed the crew to be increased to five. This permitted the commander to direct operations, without having to double as a loader as in the T-34/76. This allowed the T-34/85 to fire from six to eight times per minute. The length and height of the two T-34 models were much the same, but every T-34/85 had a radio, whereas only the command tanks of the original version had been equipped with one. Although the 45mm armour thickness on its sides and 90mm on the front made the T-34/85, at 32 tonnes, 3½ tonnes heavier than the earlier model, its powerful engine meant that it could reach a top speed of 20mph, not much slower than the 21.4mph of the T-34/76. The later model also had two 7.62mm machine guns, and could drive 235 miles on a full tank of 690 litres of diesel (including the barrels attached to its outside). It carried seventy-four shells, 2,500 bullets and ten grenades inside, only marginally fewer than the ninety-two shells that fitted into the T-34/76’s magazine. When it was produced in enough numbers, therefore, Stalin finally had a campaign-winning weapon for 1944.

The lack of armour on the top of tanks – even Tigers had only 18mm – made them highly vulnerable to air attack and in built-up areas where they could be attacked from rooftops, as the Germans discovered in Stalingrad and the Russians in Berlin in 1945 (and fifty years later in Grozny). The 20mm SHAK-20 cannon on Soviet fighter planes could penetrate tank roofs, although the planes needed to attack almost vertically downwards in order to do so. With the Luftwaffe swept from the skies of Belorussia in the latter part of 1943, the German tanks there were immensely vulnerable. Tank for tank, however, they were still the best in the world. Had Hitler started the war much later, in 1943 or 1944, and if tank– and aircraft-production factories had been better protected and dispersed in a way that the Allies found harder to destroy, especially with Me-262 jet fighters protecting them from the Allies’ Combined Bomber Offensive, the Wehrmacht would have stood a far better chance of winning the war.