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lcm1977

General question about British tanks in WWll.

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I do not know a lot about British tanks and how big of part they played in WWll and was just wondering why they didn't or if they in fact did and I'm just unaware of it.  Now I do know about the desert rats and Rommel but other than that I've not read, heard or seen much.  Just curious.

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In brief, the Brits used tanks a lot (ISTR that they actually built more than the Germans did). Regrettably, their designs during the war were often not quite up to snuff, which is odd since they were world leaders before the war and after. They were also slow to work out good tank/infantry cooperation which didn't help their case. But they made progress from about mid-1942 onward.

 

Michael

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Thank you yet again Michael.  I know!  that's what I was thinking.  I mean the Brits were pretty tough and normally effective in all area's so the lack of good armor kinda surprised and puzzled me.  So they did kinda catch up

around 1942 or later.  Good to hear.  I'll have to try and read up some on this subject - if I can pull myself away from the Eastern Front.  WOW!  That front was something else.  I have gained a lot of respect for Russia and 

what she went through in WWll.  Just actually learned how awesome their tanks were or should say became.  I had no idea.  Smart damn engineers and designers!

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It has been interesting for me to follow the evolution of the organization of the British armoured division. Mainly the vast if gradual increase in the amount of infantry within the division as a reflection of lessons learned in combat.This is an evolution that most armies went through. They started out with large numbers of tanks and a small number of infantry and ended up with just about equal proportions.

 

Michael

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At he start of the war the British had pretty much the same types of tanks as everyone else - light machine-gun armed recce vehicles, only marginally better armoured "cruisers", and "infantry" tanks - but British doctrine had some differences with others that aren't really important - tank guns only for killing tanks (so no HE), more armour for het Infantry tanks...

 

so...anyway - then WW2 comes along and the Brits tanks are just as good/bad as everyone else's, with a couple of standouts - the Matilda's have heavy armour & get a good rep.  But as with everyone except the Germans their doctrine and command and control are rubbish and the get beat.

 

Here's where the problem starts - people start designing new tanks to learn the early war lessons, or they modify existing tanks.....but British tanks have some shortcomings - the main one is that the turrets are small - and the turret ring is too small to take bigger guns.  So they are stuck with pre-ear concepts of tanks at the same time everyone else is moving on - the T34, Sherman and Pz-IV F2 onwards are all good medium tanks that the Brits can't match - they have no such tank in the development pipeline, nor can they make significant changes to existing designs.

 

They did up gun the Valentine and Crusader with 6 pounders (57mm) - but these arrived quite late - only 100 Crusader III's with the 6 pdr were available at el Alamain in October 1942, and the 6 pdr Valentines only became available at the end of the African campaign.  Both modification also came at a cost - the Crusader lost a crew member so eth commander became het gunner, and the Valentine lost it's machinegun!!

 

so through 1942 the Brits are mostly still fighting with a lot of their cruiser designs that are great examples of the pre-war concept.......but out gunned/armoured and commanded. 

 

So they have to design a "decent" tank from scratch - they make the Cromwell.....which would have been great in 1942 but isn't any more in 1944.  The Churchill is in the pipeline as an old-style "Infantry tank" - slow with heavy armour - it is tough enough to be useful........but it's not great.

 

By the late war the Brits have figured it out and the Comet and then Centurion show that they weren't idiots by any stretch of the imagination.

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In brief, the Brits used tanks a lot (ISTR that they actually built more than the Germans did). Regrettably, their designs during the war were often not quite up to snuff, which is odd since they were world leaders before the war and after. 

 

You can thank the great depression for that.

 

Following the 1929 stock market crash, drastic cuts to the British military saw programs which oversaw innovative tank designs, development and tactics suddenly disappear overnight. What was left was a reversion back to the old WW1 doctrine when war finally did break out.

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You can thank the great depression for that.

 

Following the 1929 stock market crash, drastic cuts to the British military saw programs which oversaw innovative tank designs, development and tactics suddenly disappear overnight. What was left was a reversion back to the old WW1 doctrine when war finally did break out.

 

That can't be the whole story since during that period Vickers, for instance, had some very good designs that they sold abroad.

 

Michael

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It wasn't the depression - that affected everybody.  And everybody went for the same mix of tanks - "Infantry" and "cruiser" to use the British parlance - in Germany they were the Pz 4 and Pz 3, in Russia they were the BT (cruiser) and the T26 & T28, in France they were the H35 and R35 and Char as infantry, and Souma as Cruiser - cavalry tanks as they French termed them (although the French then fielded the R35 as a cavalry tank.....go figure!)

 

WW2 was a time of massive change - the Germans had tanks that were better suited to upgrading rapidly - 3 man turrets were a major advantage to them and were developed due to their better thinking about command and control during the depression.  The Russians got it about 2/3rds right with the T34, and 90% right with het KV-1 in 1939-40 so had the "raw material" for effective tanks before they went to war.  The British Cavalier was also specified in 1940, but was a bit of a turkey and eventually became eth Cromwell after a couple of years of development. 

 

The Americans had nothing at all effective in 1939 - but like the Soviets had 1940-41 to absorb some of the lessons of the early war and got the formulae right with the Sherman (in the sense of a "modern" concept)

 

so IMO the Brits suffered because they were early into the war with a faulty doctrine & designs that they lacked the industrial clout to alter quickly at exactly the time they needed to.

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It wasn't the depression - that affected everybody. 

 

The implications of the stock market crash was felt worldwide. However, its effect among the major participants of World War II were not universal.

 

While not hit initially as hard as the Americans, for Britain, the repercussions of post 1929 would linger on for a longer period. Britain was already weakened by the Great War and the Depression further exacerbated its problems as an empire in decline. Heavy industry was most affected with some towns in northern England seeing as much as 70% unemployment. The situation was not helped by the fact that Winston Churchill, then Chancellor, enacted a policy of floating the Pound Sterling on the gold standard in 1925 to a level before the Great War which served to make British goods more expensive thus, slowing the economic recovery in the 20s. This same policy would have disastrous results in the 30s.  

 

In 1927, the formation of the Experimental Mechanized Force by the British military was the world’s first armoured brigade. It took part in several exercises to prove the concept of mechanized warfare; specifically, the benefits of having an independent mechanized force with its own operational and strategic focus. The results of the 2 year exercises proved the viability of the concept but problems in the force organization and the small scope of the maneuvers left the brass, many of whom were highly conservative and some believing horse cavalry still had a role to play, unconvinced. When the Experimental Force was dispersed in 1929, several months prior to the start of the Great Depression, advocates of tank units working in tandem with motorized infantry would not see another chance to impress upon their generals the urgency of this new reality when the stock market crash finally did hit. With the budget cuts across the board and the political establishment in no mood for war, tank units were relegated to serving as adjuncts to large traditional forces, the same WW1 structure which put the British at a tactical disadvantage over the Germans at the start of the Second World War. Consequently, the influence of tank design was subsequently focused on mechanical reliability and speed but with light armament. Like the Americans, the British were slow to adapt as they continued using the same emphasis on their design until late in the war.

 

The effect of the Great Depression on the United States is already well known. The Americans were better able to recover from it due in large part to the automobile industry as well as government economic stimulus initiatives. In the end, it was less about the economic downturn and more about the policy of isolationism and the resulting neglect for its armoured forces. That was painfully obvious when the Americans entered the war with flawed doctrines for tank warfare and with tank designs that better served plant managers who needed to meet production quotas over protecting the lives of tank crews. This would eventually be corrected at great cost in lives and fairly late in the war at that.

 

For Germany and Russia, the Great Depression had the opposite effect. Germany was already heavily restricted by the Versailles treaty at the point the Great Depression hit. While the general population suffered mightily in the first few years, the level of poverty and depravation paved the way open for Hitler who quickly denounced the Versailles treaty in 1935 after taking power. Under sweeping economic reforms, German engineers were able to set their fertile minds to the task of designing weapons of war under the guise of numerous civil industries. Designers tended to stress modularity and performance which gave German arms production the ability to adapt to new requirements for upcoming variants and designs. Despite initial Germans tanks being lighter than that of their western opponents, their combined arms doctrine and advanced tactics helped compensate them in the early war years until heavier platforms became available.

 

Russia, by virtue of having government control over all factors of production and with an economy that was not tied to the rest of Europe, was insulated by the Great Depression which had ravaged others.  Stalin’s five year plan saw the rise of Russia from a backward rural country to a leading economic power, especially in steel production. The economy grew as much as 400% in some areas. American and even German engineers who could not find employment in their own countries traveled to the Russia to assist with the construction of machinery necessary for the plan’s implementation. Soviet engineers themselves were not shy about incorporating foreign technologies into their own tank designs - Walter Christie’s suspension system being among them. Many technological advances and ideas with military applications which could not be realized elsewhere as a result of budget cutbacks were happily put to use in Russia. Due to the harsh climate, reliability and ease of maintenance was a necessity that would punctuate all Soviet designs from small arms to aircraft.  The Russians designers also had another aid in the form of practical experience as a result of the battle of Khalkhin Gol which highlighted the vulnerabilities of the BT series of tanks. The battle’s aftermath inspired Mikhail Koshkin to develop the BT’s successor that would come to be known as the T-34.

 

Overall, the Great Depression’s impact on the ability for countries to innovate, especially in the field of tank design was profound – some more than others. Lack of funding to continue the testing of new concepts on a larger scale saw Britain drop from a leading advocate of mechanized warfare back to World War One levels, for an example. By stark contrast, Germany and Russia actually came out the Depression with a net plus which facilitated an environment for new ideas. Where the establishment governing the Western Allies were quick to dismiss the potential of the tank in the 1930s, the Germans and Russians saw opportunities to position themselves in an effort to expand beyond contemporary pre-conceptions when the need arose.

 

While the Depression certainly isn't the only factor with respect to tank design, to downplay it as insignificant is to ignore the economic and political realities of the time.

 

The Americans had nothing at all effective in 1939 - but like the Soviets had 1940-41 to absorb some of the lessons of the early war and got the formulae right with the Sherman (in the sense of a "modern" concept)

 

 

On the contrary, the Americans were the least agile of the major powers when it came to introducing new classes of tanks as the situation warranted. I'd say it was the Russians who got the concept of the modern tank right with the T-34.

Edited by Boeman

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I absolutely agree it was the Russians who were the masters of tank design in WW2. In a sense they had to be as they were perpetually involved in a ground war and had been practising in Spain, in Finland, in the Far East, and Poland before the big match.

 

For tank guns the Germans and the British probably share the honours. For ingenuity the British but there again a matter of needs must as the Dieppe raid proved that some special thinking would be needed for the invasion.

 

Curiously the Germans though having two fine fighting tanks in the Tiger and Panther they were not strategic successes in the fiddliness to build and weight department. The Panther was a belated response to the T34 and did suffer some serious teething problems. Mind you I suspect most tanks did but not all of them started off in one of the biggest tank battles to prove it.

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I suppose special mention should be made of the Churchill as being a tank designed for First World war environment that gained its spurs because its design allowed it to do things other tanks could not do in the mountains of Tunisia. And later with 6" 150mm of frontal armour it did not suffer as badly as other western tanks from the vanilla 50mm and 75mm ATG's.  The very long hull beside giving great climability also meant plenty of room for becoming a Funny.

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On the contrary, the Americans were the least agile of the major powers when it came to introducing new classes of tanks as the situation warranted. I'd say it was the Russians who got the concept of the modern tank right with the T-34.

 

The T34 was not a modern tank tho - it had a 2 man turret and was unreliable and as awkward as all heck to operate.  The engine/transmission layout was appalling so when the T34/85 was introduced it was grossly overbalanced - something that could only be rectified by massively increasing the strength of the front springs - which did nothing to improve the ride.  Ammunition stowage was pathetic - 9 rounds ready in the '76!!

 

the T34 did have good armour, a good gun and good mobility for 1941 - but it was not as fantastic as many people would like to believe.

 

As for operational "agility" - the US introduced the 76mm Sherman in July 1944, the Russians got the T34/85 operational in May - so there's not a lot of difference in eth timeline there.

 

The Pershing was as good as anything anyone else produced - so again, not sure what your point is.  A "political" decision was made to not produce it in numbers in favour of Shermans.......but that's certainly nothing to do with US design agility.

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The T34 was not a modern tank tho - it had a 2 man turret and was unreliable and as awkward as all heck to operate.  The engine/transmission layout was appalling so when the T34/85 was introduced it was grossly overbalanced - something that could only be rectified by massively increasing the strength of the front springs - which did nothing to improve the ride.  Ammunition stowage was pathetic - 9 rounds ready in the '76!!

 

the T34 did have good armour, a good gun and good mobility for 1941 - but it was not as fantastic as many people would like to believe.

 

What made the T-34 a quantum leap was that it first tank platform to achieve the correct balance of mobility, firepower and armor protection whereas other tanks were deficient in one or more of the other three. It forced the entire world to re-think the concept tank design with its sloped armour and wide tracks; the Germans most of all.

 

Regarding reliability, it is worth pointing out that Russian engineers were relatively inexperienced by comparison to their western counterparts as Russia itself was emerging from a largely agricultural economy though they did some have brilliant minds among them. Originally, the initial batches of the T-34 were made in western Russia, but as the German invasion rolled inexorably on, these facilities were dismantled and transferred east of the Urals – effectively putting Russia’s industrial capacity in disarray as new facilities of lesser quality were hastily constructed. Another factor to consider was the urgency to mass produce tanks in ever greater numbers even with a shortage of skilled workers. Plant managers were under threat of death if quotas were not met and so supplemented forced labour (women and teenagers) to meet their expected targets. A largely unskilled work force churning out tanks under appalling conditions would naturally lead to many T-34s with poor riveting, welding, etc. In practice, the average T-34 was capable of traveling about 200km before reaching its end of shelf life. This was considered acceptable by the Soviet high command as most tanks would see their demise long before that accumulated distance was reached. As for its other deficiencies, the Russians did correct the 2-man turret with the T-34/85 and addressed the issue of cramped conditions simply by employing tank operators of smaller stature.

 

It is no secret that the German tanks on average utilized superior optics, had a better interior layout, wider field of view and fielded radios which provided them with innumerable advantages. But let’s not forget as well, of course, that many of these tanks were not without their own deficiencies- the tendency by designers to over-engineer leading to reliability issues, especially early models of late-war vehicles.

 

Having said that, the T-34 is not the mythical wonder weapon that it is often praised to be. Certainly, it was not the best tank by August, 1945. Still, it proved to be a war winning platform as a result of the concept of balanced stats in addition to the volume produced.  At the very least, it left an indelible impression on those whose task it was to design mobile armour for the next generation.

 

As for operational "agility" - the US introduced the 76mm Sherman in July 1944, the Russians got the T34/85 operational in May - so there's not a lot of difference in eth timeline there.

 

The Russians didn’t just have the T-34/85 at their disposal, they had a wide range of platforms by 1943 such as the SU-85, SU-100 and even SU-152 which were able to penetrate the heavier German tanks. The IS-2 was also being introduced in 1944 to provide the Soviets with a heavy assault weapon for spearhead operations, a class of tank for which the Americans relied upon the British for.

 

As for the American 76mm, it did provide better penetration with HVAP ammo on upgraded Stug III and Panzer IVs but proved impotent against the Panther’s frontal armour. This is significant as D-Day onwards saw Panthers accounting for half the Panzer force arrayed against the Allies in Normandy.

 

By contrast, the Russians were very quick to recognize threats posed by new German vehicles and upgraded their arsenal accordingly whereas the Americans moved at comparatively glacial pace. By the time they took it seriously enough to finally field 90mm solutions via the Pershing and Jackson, Germany’s defeat was already assured.

 

The Pershing was as good as anything anyone else produced - so again, not sure what your point is.

 

Not quite. While the Pershing was a vast improvement over the Sherman in terms of armour and armament, it used the same engine which had to cope with much heavier weight. As a result, it was a slow and difficult to maneuver. The British Centurion was an all-around better solution that actually did fit the major requirements of a post-war main battle tank. The shelf-life of the Pershing was measured in just a few years compared to Centurions which are still in use by some armies today.

 

A "political" decision was made to not produce it in numbers in favour of Shermans.......but that's certainly nothing to do with US design agility.

 

It could be argued that the American leadership prioritized Sherman production with the full knowledge that it was outclassed in an effort to put more tanks on the ground thus, adopting a similar strategy used by the Russians of employing numerical superiority at the cost of expending more lives.

 

However, if you examine the perception held by military bureaucrats, specifically Lesley Mcnair and George Patton, one can spot a reverence for the M4 Sherman that indicated an astonishing level of willful ignorance. General Mcnair actively fought the development of the Pershing from its initial proposal in 1942 and beyond even despite having good intelligence on tank specifications for the Panther in 1943. Only after the Battle of the Bulge was there a tacit acknowledgement on the inadequacy of the Sherman to take on heavy German Panzers by the Pershing’s detractors.

 

The British, to their credit, saw the shortcomings of the Sherman and retrofitted their M4s with the 17-pounder which was equivalent to the penetrative qualities of the German L-70 gun (and even better with tungsten shot). When these were offered to Americans forces prior to D-Day, Omar Bradley, in his belief that they were unnecessary, rejected the offer out of hand. He would later admit it was an error on his part.

 

In the end, US tank forces were able to grind down the German Panzer arm through sheer force of numbers and air superiority. It still leaves one wondering though, how many lives could have been saved had the development of heavier tanks like the 90mm Pershing not been stonewalled to the degree that it was. It is a tragedy brought about not by the lack of innovation in American tank design, but by the worst possible reason of all, plain old fashioned hubris. And THAT is my point!

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It could be argued that the American leadership prioritized Sherman production with the full knowledge that it was outclassed in an effort to put more tanks on the ground thus, adopting a similar strategy used by the Russians of employing numerical superiority at the cost of expending more lives.

 

Your wording creates a distorted impression. The net effect of concentrating production on the Sherman was to save lives. By doing so, the Army was able to attach a battalion of tanks to nearly every infantry division. This reduced the loss rate among the rifle companies who after all were the ones suffering by far the most casualties.

 

 

The British, to their credit, saw the shortcomings of the Sherman and retrofitted their M4s with the 17-pounder which was equivalent to the penetrative qualities of the German L-70 gun (and even better with tungsten shot). When these were offered to Americans forces prior to D-Day, Omar Bradley, in his belief that they were unnecessary, rejected the offer out of hand.

 

Do you have proof for that statement? As it has come to me, the Brits prior to D-Day did not have enough Fireflies to meet their own needs, let alone provide any to their Allies. It was only late in '44 that sufficient stocks were available that such an offer could have been contemplated. What Bradley rejected were some of the "funnies" that might have proven useful on Omaha.

 

Michael

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