Armored Champion: The Top Tanks of World War II (2015)

CHAPTER 3

Blitzkrieg Tanks: 1939–40

img

THIS CHAPTER EXAMINES THE TANKS of the principal combatants in the early blitzkrieg years: Germany, France, and Britain. The Soviet Union was involved in the invasion of Poland in 1939, but the Red Army will be ignored in this chapter since the types used in 1939 have already been examined in the previous chapter.

At the time of the invasion of Poland in September 1939, the German army still relied very heavily on machine-gun armed light tanks. During the invasion of Poland in 1939, almost 80 percent of the German tanks were light tanks, while during the battle of France in 1940 this percentage dropped to about 65 percent. Neither the PzKpfw I nor PzKpfw II are likely contenders for Top Tank. The remaining four types include two war-booty Czechoslovak tanks, the PzKpfw 35(t), and the PzKpfw 38(t), of which the later PzKpfw 38(t) was clearly the superior of the two. This was armed with a gun similar to the German PzKpfw III, but it was a smaller tank with a two-man turret. For this reason, the PzKpfw 38(t) will be dropped from consideration, and the focus here will be on the PzKpfw III and PzKpfw IV as the most likely German contenders for Top Tank.

The French Army of 1940 had a bewildering variety of tanks in service since both the cavalry and infantry separately acquired their own types. The two most common were the Renault R35 and Hotchkiss H39, both of which stemmed from the infantry’s requirement for an infantry-accompanying tank to replace the venerable Renault FT. These tanks were designed to be economical and cheap to manufacture. They had good armor and adequate mobility, but the majority were armed with the same short 37mm gun as the Renault FT. They were also limited by an exceptionally small one-man turret, so these can be quickly ruled out. The infantry also had a few other minor types in service, such as the Char D1 and Char D2, but neither was exceptional and they will be ignored here. On the cavalry side, there were a number of light tanks intended for reconnaissance, such as the Renault AMR 33 and Renault AMR 35. They were machine-gun-armed scout tanks and not exceptional in terms of firepower or armor. Of the remaining types, the two most significant French contenders were the infantry’s Char B1 bis battle tank and the cavalry Somua S35.

img

Britain was slower than the continental great powers in ramping up tank production. By 1940, light tanks such as the Vickers Mark VI were in large-scale production, but this type was not impressive in terms of armor or firepower. As in the French and Soviet cases, the British army acquired tanks for its nascent armored divisions as well as separate designs for its infantry. The tanks for the armored divisions included a family of related cruiser tanks—the Cruiser Mark I, Cruiser Mark III, and Cruiser Mark IV. On the infantry tank side, the Matilda I was similar to the French infantry tanks for its small size, two-man crew, and thick armor. Its machine-gun armament places it at the low end of the firepower scale. Although sharing the same name, the Matilda Mark II was a much larger tank with a much-improved 2-pounder gun. So on the British side, the cruiser tanks and the Matilda II are the most likely contenders.

img

The best Polish tank of 1939 was the 7TP, a derivative of the Vickers 6-Ton tank but with a Saurer diesel engine and a Bofors 37mm gun. Two battalions of these, numbering about 100 tanks, served in combat in 1939.

In terms of the small powers, there is not a lot to choose from. Poland’s best tank was the 7TP light tank, a license-produced version of the Vickers 6-Ton tank. It was one of the best of the Vickers derivatives, having an excellent 37mm Bofors gun as its main armament and an Austrian Saurer diesel engine. It was comparable in combat power to tanks such as the Soviet T-26 or the Czechoslovak PzKpfw 38(t). Belgium’s best tank was the French Renault ACG1 armed with a Belgian 47mm gun. It had excellent 40mm armor, a two-man turret, and good mobility.

Italy was on the fringe of the 1939–40 fighting and its best tank was the M.11/39. This was another design heavily influenced by the Vickers 6-Ton. It had an odd armament arrangement, with its main gun in a hull sponson and twin machine guns in the turret. This was awkward and quickly replaced by a more conventional turret arrangement on the M.13/40, which will be covered in a later chapter on the Desert War. Tanks such as the Polish 7TP and Belgian ACG-1 were reasonably good designs for the time, but they were not exceptional enough to warrant consideration as the era’s Top Tank.

BLITZKRIEG PANZERS

Under the terms of the Versailles Treaty that ended World War I, the German army was forbidden to have tanks. Germany covertly avoided these restrictions by means of a secret cooperative program with the Soviet Union in the late 1920s. A joint training and experimental center was established at Kazan in the Soviet Union, where new German designs could be tested in secret.1 German panzer development focused on two types: a Leichttraktor (light tractor) armed with a 37mm gun and a Grosstraktor (large tractor) armed with a short 75mm gun. The Grosstraktor resembled a smaller version of the French Char 2C with a 75mm gun in the main turret at the front of the tank and a machine-gun turret at the rear of the tank. One odd feature was that the tank commander sat in the hull to the right of the driver rather than in the turret. Two different versions of the Grosstraktor were built by Krupp and Rheinmetall and put through their paces at Kazan in 1929–33. It was fairly obvious from the tests that neither the Leichttraktor nor Grosstraktor was entirely suitable as the basis for future panzer development. Their suspension designs were archaic, and the wargames at Kazan suggested that modern tanks needed the commander in the turret along with the loader and gunner.

When Hitler and the Nazi Party came to power in 1933, they renounced the Versailles Treaty and opened the door for remilitarization. Based on the Kazan experiments, the German army’s Motorization Department wanted two principal tank types, codenamed ZW and BW. The ZW (Zugführerwagen: Section commander’s vehicle) was the follow-on to the Leichttraktor and was the principal battle tank; it emerged as the PzKpfw III. The BW (Battalionführerwagen: battalion commander’s vehicle) corresponded to the Grosstraktor and was a fire-support tank to accompany the ZW; it emerged as the PzKpfw IV. A German army report summarized the combat roles of the two types:

The PzKpfw III is the assault tank (Sturmwagen), an “armored infantryman” (gepanzerte Infanterist) which wins the mobile battle with the annihilating power of its machine guns. The 3.7cm gun has been added to deal with the threat of an armored opponent. The PzKpfw IV is the over-watch tank (Überwachungswagen) following immediately behind the PzKpfw III and supporting it in overcoming the enemy. The ratio of PzKpfw III to PzKpfw IV is about the same as the infantry’s ratio of light machine guns to heavy machine guns.

img

The Germans introduced the modern layout for tank crews with the Krupp turrets on the PzKpfw IV seen here. The commander was free to carry out his command role while the gun was serviced by dedicated gunners and loaders.

img

One of the most important but overlooked advantages of German medium tanks in 1940 was the turret layout. The commander no longer served as gunner or loader, but instead could focus on his role of leading his tank in battle. In addition, he was provided an all-around vision cupola for better situational awareness. SA-KUVA

There are several interesting points in this report. The German army saw machine guns as the main armament for the PzKpfw III, not the 37mm gun, which was intended for the secondary role of dealing with enemy tanks. In the early 1930s, there were few tanks in European armies, and tank-versus-tank combat in World War I was a rarity. The PzKpfw III armament had the 37mm gun and the twin machine guns in separate, independent mounts. Unlike later designs, the turret machine guns were not a subsidiary armament to the gun and were not locked to it in a co-axial mount. Of the two types, the PzKpfw III was the more important, with plans to build it in a ratio of about 3 to 1 in favor of the PzKpfw IV. Armor on both tanks was modest at first, in the 15mm range, enough to protect against machine-gun fire.

Even though the German army had clear ideas for their ideal tanks, the German industry did not have the capability to manufacture such complex new weapons in 1933. The best that could be hoped for was a simple, light tank. There was considerable controversy over this issue, with some panzer advocates urging the army to delay building tanks in quantity until the ZW and BW were ready. More far-sighted officers realized the importance of forming and training the revolutionary new panzer divisions as soon as possible and that it was better to have an adequate light tank now than an ideal tank sometime in the indefinite future. As a result, the PzKpfw I was designed. Like the PzKpfw III, it had a twin machine gun in the turret as its main armament. However, it was too small to accommodate a supporting 37mm gun. In addition, the PzKpfw I was too small to have a three-man turret crew, so it ended up with a two-man crew consisting of a commander/gunner and driver. It was followed by a slightly larger tank, the PzKpfw II, which had a 20mm cannon. The main advantage of this tank was that it had modest antiarmor capability.

Development of the PzKpfw III tank began in 1934, and it entered production in early 1937. It was armed with a 37mm gun for commonality of ammunition with the new infantry antitank gun. Likewise, the PzKpfw IV tank was armed with a 75mm gun sharing ammunition commonality with the standard 75mm infantry gun. Production of the PzKpfw IV began slightly later than the PzKpfw III in the autumn of 1937.

By 1936, the German army was beginning to have second thoughts about the wisdom of its lightly armored, weakly armed tanks such as the PzKpfw I. There were signs that France and the Soviet Union were adopting more powerful antitank guns and tanks with heavier armor. Early in 1936, the army chief of staff Gen. Ludwig von Beck asked the ordnance department (Waffenamt) why they were still purchasing the light PzKpfw I and PzKpfw II instead of the greatly superior PzKpfw III. The Waffenamt answered that the PzKpfw III was not yet mature enough for mass production and probably would not be ready for it until the autumn of 1938. They rationalized this by stating the units equipped only with PzKpfw I and PzKpfw II “without question . . . have a very significant combat value.” However, in March 1936 the Waffenamt released a study on tank development that acknowledged that “in the future, lightly armored Panzers will be pinned down by heavy weapons’ fire just as in the last war the infantry and cavalry were forced to ground and stymied by machine guns.”

Initial tank fighting in the Spanish Civil War further reinforced these concerns. The gun-armed Soviet T-26 tank dominated the tank-versus-tank fighting against German PzKpfw I and Italian L.3 tankettes. Even though tank-versus-tank fighting was never very decisive in Spain, the other lesson from the fighting was that the current level of armor protection, sufficient to protect against machine-gun fire, was completely inadequate on the modern battlefield in the presence of modern antitank guns. Both the German 37mm antitank gun and its Soviet derivative, the 45mm gun, were used in significant numbers in Spain. Tank attacks against positions defended by these guns usually failed.

img

The PzKpfw IV commander had a vision cupola with five episcopes protected by armored visors. Unlike the French tank turrets, the German cupola had roof hatches to enable the commander to observe from outside the tank for better situational awareness, another useful practice that supported dynamic German panzer tactics. This is a PzKpfw IV Ausf. D of the 10.Panzer-Division on exercise at the Baumholder training grounds in April 1940 prior to the Battle of France.

img

A PzKpfw III of Panzer-Regiment.36 moves off the road to advance cross-country during the approach march to Hannut on the afternoon of 11 May 1940. The subsequent battles near Hannut were the largest tank-versus-tank battles in history up to that point, pitting two German panzer divisions against two French mechanized cavalry divisions.

Tests of the early PzKpfw III were disappointing due to problems with the suspension and transmission. The PzKpfw IV proved less troublesome, but the lessons from Spain led to a decision to shift production to the improved PzKpfw IV Ausf. B in April 1938 that had its frontal armor thickened to 30mm. The next major evolutionary step was the PzKpfw IV Ausf. D that increased side armor from 15 to 20mm and added an external mantlet to the turret to better protect the main gun opening.

The PzKpfw III program continued to wallow in technical problems with a string of unsuccessful attempts to rectify its suspension. In frustration, the Waffenamt itself took over the redesign in 1937–38, resulting in the definitive PzKpfw III Ausf. E, which introduced modern torsion bar suspension to German tank design. This type of suspension would be the most common type of tank suspension during the mid- and late-war period and is still the standard form of suspension for tanks today.

Besides the suspension improvements, the PzKpfw III Ausf. E also saw an increase in armor to the 30mm level on its frontal areas. While the evolution of the PzKpfw III in 1936–39 was marked by a steady increase in armor, the German army clearly favored mobility over armored protection. Indeed, the optimum level of armored protection on the PzKpfw III at 30mm was essentially the starting point for French tank armor, which had steadily climbed since 1921 from 30mm to 40mm and finally to 60mm by 1940 for its battle tanks.

Between the two types, the PzKpfw IV had several advantages. Both were similar in terms of armor, mobility, and crew configuration, but the PzKpfw IV had a distinct advantage in terms of firepower. The 37mm gun was inadequate in dealing with the vast majority of French tanks in the 1940 campaign due to their thick armor. The PzKpfw III could penetrate the French tanks at short range and from the sides, but was very limited in head-on engagements. The short 75mm gun of the PzKpfw IV was far from ideal as a tank-versus-tank weapon, but it was a useful dual-purpose gun and far more valuable in engaging nonarmored targets than the 37mm gun. In the world’s first large tank-versus-tank battles in May 1940 in the Gembloux Gap, it was the PzKpfw IV that proved invaluable in blasting the tenacious French dragons-portées (mechanized infantry) from their defenses in the Belgian towns. The PzKpfw IV’s other advantage in 1940 was reliability; it did not have the transmission problems that plagued the PzKpfw III design. So of the German contenders, the PzKpfw IV stands out.

THE FRENCH CONNECTION

The French Army was one of the pioneers of tank warfare and regarded the tank as a vital element in its doctrine of methodical battle. French doctrine was preoccupied with the lessons of World War I; one of the most important was that the infantry needed a steel backbone of tank support to survive against the deadly firepower of the modern battlefield. Germany had strategic objectives that would be satisfied by fast-moving, offensive operations. The French, bled white by World War I, had a profoundly defensive outlook and saw their tank force within this defensive framework. As a result, the majority of French tanks were committed to the mission of infantry accompaniment.

At the same time, the French recognized the need for mobile forces to carry out other missions. The tank offered a mechanized alternative to the horse for the traditional cavalry missions of reconnaissance and exploitation. As a result, the French devoted about a quarter of their tank force to the cavalry. These light mechanized divisions (DLM: Division Légère Mécanique) were the closest French equivalent to the German panzer divisions, but they were far fewer in number in 1940: only three divisions compared to ten German panzer divisions. After the first demonstration of the power of the panzer divisions in Poland in 1939, the French army belatedly recognized that its maneuver force was too small. In early 1940, it began consolidating the new Char B1 bis battle tank battalions into their own embryonic armored divisions (DCR: Division Cuirasée). The new French DCR armored divisions were much smaller than their German counterparts and poorly organized with too many tanks and not enough motorized infantry. However, their fatal flaw was not organization but time—they were created too late to undergo proper training. Only two were fully organized at the start of the campaign in May 1940 and they lacked the practical experience of their German opponents.

French tank development was plagued by the split between infantry and cavalry, resulting in two parallel families of tanks. Infantry tanks were designated as chars (tanks), while cavalry vehicles were called automitrailleuses (motorized machine guns) regardless of their armament or chassis. Curiously enough, France concentrated its turret and armament development under the Atelier Puteaux (APX) so it was not uncommon for French infantry and cavalry tanks to share common turrets and guns.

There was no doubt about the need for infantry support tanks, which were enthusiastically backed by the French infantry. The inspector general of the infantry in 1938 remarked:

My profound conviction is that these machines are destined to play a decisive role in a future conflict; the infantry was unable to do without tanks in the last war and will be able even less in future operations. The tank must be the preferred arm in a nation poor in personnel. War is a question of force where the advantage rests with the most powerful machine and not with the most rapid machine.

img

The French defeat in 1940 had more to do with poor decisions at the command level than poor performance at the tactical level. Nevertheless, the French Divisions Cuirasée (armored divisions) were raised too late and inadequately trained. They were based in part on the new Char B1 bis battle tank.

The French army sponsored many small tank programs in the 1920s and 1930s, but there was very little production until 1936. As mentioned in the previous chapter, the French infantry attempted to develop a modernized Renault FT in the late 1920s as the Char D. This ended up too large and expensive, so another program was started to build a small and inexpensive infantry tank. The new design had a two-man crew like the original Renault FT but much thicker armor to resist the German 37mm gun. Its standard armament was the same SA 18 37mm gun as the Renault FT, but with a co-axial machine gun. The winner of the infantry tank competition was the Renault R35, and large-scale production began in 1936. These were used by the separate tank battalions assigned to support the infantry divisions. One of the losing competitors, the Hotchkiss H35, later entered production for both the infantry and cavalry for political and industrial reasons. Its combat capabilities were very similar to the R35.

The French army had been working on a battle tank since the early 1920s called the Char B (char de bataille: battle tank). This resembled the World War I British rhomboid Landships, but the main 75mm gun was mounted in the front of the hull. It first had a small machine-gun turret on the roof, but this gradually became larger and larger and was eventually equipped with a powerful 47mm gun and co-axial machine gun. The Char B remained mired in technical development for more than a decade, in no small measure due to changing views about the role this tank would play on the battlefield. When the requirements were drafted in 1921–22, the army expected the new Char B tank would operate like other World War I tanks in a very slow and methodical fashion. Well into the mid-1930s, the role for the Char B was still being defined. The infantry began to refer to it as a “maneuver tank,” but it was closer to the old Char 2C breakthrough tank, spearheading the advance of the infantry against a determined enemy defense. It was not seen as a tank for engaging in swirling tank battles but rather as a siege machine for cracking open enemy defenses in a slow and methodical fashion.

By the time the Char B was ready for production in 1936, it was a very archaic design. The hull-mounted 75mm gun had no significant traverse and there was a fatal flaw in the aiming system. Instead of having independent traverse, the gun was aimed by the driver using a special range-finding sight and a Naeder servo device attached to the transmission that permitted precision steering of the tank. While technologically ingenious, it was tactically foolish, placing too many burdens on the driver to act as both driver and gun aimer. Furthermore, it compromised the durability of the tank since the Naeder device resulted in a mechanically delicate power-train that was very prone to breakdown.

img

The most numerous of the new tanks was the Renault R35, intended to be a replacement for the old Renault FT. To minimize costs, it was very small, with only a two-man crew. However it was well armored, with the frontal armor designed to resist the German 37mm antitank gun.

img

The Hotchkiss H39 was purchased alongside the R35 since Renault could not manufacture tanks fast enough. They shared a common APX-R turret. The H39 was used by both French infantry and cavalry units; these are from the 1st Cuirassiers of the 3rd Light Mechanized Division.

img

To provide better antitank firepower, some H39 were fitted with the more powerful 37mm SA 38 gun during 1940, as seen here in the factory yard near Paris.

The Char B1 started out with a good 47mm gun, but its turret design was fatally flawed. The turret was originally intended as a purely secondary feature to defend the tank. The original requirement called for a simple and small one-man turret. By 1936, the turret armament had increased in importance since it gave the Char B1 the ability to defend itself from enemy tanks. However, it kept its original one-man layout. This meant that the tank commander was overburdened with responsibilities, having to direct the tank in addition to loading and aiming the 47mm gun. The turret was later dubbed a “one-man orchestra.” Production of the Char B1 was limited to 100 tanks, at which point production switched to the improved Char B1 bis. This version had thicker tank armor, shifting from 40mm to 60mm frontal armor. In addition, a new and more powerful 47mm gun was adopted.

The infantry remained unenthusiastic about creating armored divisions. As late as 1936, Gen. Maurice Gamelin noted: “The problems of constituting large tank units has been studied in France since 1932; the development of the antitank weapon has caused a renunciation of this concept.” By 1937, opinions were shifting and the idea emerged to concentrate the Char B1 tanks in heavy tank brigades that might be useful as a mobile counterattack force against the German panzer divisions. In 1938, the Superior War Council ordered the formation of a commission under the army’s tank inspector to study a large armored unit consisting of two Char B1 battalions, a battalion of the new Char D2, two motorized infantry battalions, and two motorized artillery battalions. Although field trials were planned, the German annexation of Austria and the Sudeten crisis prompted the French government to cancel the trials for fear of increasing international tensions. One study in late 1938 concluded there would not be enough Char B battle tanks ready to form large units until October 1940 at the earliest and perhaps not until 1941. A provisional manual on the tactical employment of armored divisions was released for comment in February 1939. French doctrine still did not envision the armored division as an autonomous force, but rather as part of an infantry corps to assist in the maneuver of infantry divisions. The French felt pressured to form their first three armored divisions in late 1939 after the German demonstration of blitzkrieg tactics in Poland; however, it would prove too late for proper organization and training, and the Char B1 bis was poorly configured for such a unit.

img

This Char B1 bis, named Vertus, was commanded by Lt. Jacques Hachet and served with the 41st Tank Battalion during the ferocious battle at Stonne in May 1940. The tank remained in action until 20 May when it suffered a mechanical breakdown.

img

The Char B1 bis suffered from clever design features that proved impractical in the chaos of combat. The hull-mounted 75mm gun was aimed by the driver, using a precision steering system. The driver was provided with an optical rangefinder, the tubular device above the steering wheel.

img

The crew layout in the Char B1 bis was poor. The commander was a “one-man orchestra,” manning the turret gun along with his other responsibilities. As a result, tank tactics suffered. Likewise, the driver was expected to drive the tank as well as sight and aim the hull-mounted 75mm gun. This was an invitation to tactical failure in battle.

It was the French cavalry that was most enthusiastic for armored divisions, seeing them as a modernized form of the traditional cavalry maneuver force. World War I was the swan song of traditional French horse cavalry; by 1918, the role of the cavalry as the mobile arm of decision on the battlefield was in serious doubt. To redeem the cavalry from oblivion, senior French commanders were prudent enough to link the cavalry to a mission rather than a mode of transport. Gen. Maxime Weygand argued that “The cavalry will keep its raison d’être as long as speed and surprise are valued on the battlefield . . . The war of tomorrow will be, more than ever, a war of machines.”

Weygand began to reform the cavalry in 1930 as funds became available. Serious mechanization was contemplated under a 1934 plan to fully mechanize three cavalry divisions as light mechanized divisions (DLM). These were intended for the traditional cavalry roles of reconnaissance, flank security for infantry corps, offensive exploitation of breaches in the enemy lines, and defensive responses to enemy breakthroughs. They were the closest French equivalent to the German panzer divisions, but in 1940 only three were available and the third, the 3e DLM, had only been organized in early 1940.

The cavalry wanted a powerful battle tank as the centerpiece of its DLM. However, the first attempt, the AMC 34, was insufficiently armored to defend itself against the new German 37mm gun. A new design program began at Somua in October 1934, but serial production of the Somua S35 did not begin until 1937. In the meantime, the cavalry was saddled with the Hotchkiss H35 infantry tank to start the mechanization process. The Somua was a well-armed, well-armored design. Hull construction used very advanced casting techniques and the hull armor was 40mm thick. The tank was armed with an excellent 47mm gun capable of penetrating any German tank of the 1940 period from normal combat ranges.

The main drawback of the Somua S35 was its crew configuration. The cavalry had wanted its tanks fitted with two-man turrets, recognizing that this was a more efficient arrangement for high-speed combat. However, the requirements for the Somua had called for both a low weight of only 13 tons while at the same time a high level of armor protection. In trying to accomplish the impossible, the Somua tank was very narrow to reduce overall size and weight. As a result, the turret ring was narrow, permitting a “one-and-a-half-man” turret. The tank commander rode in the turret, but there was enough space on the right side of the turret to permit the radio operator to assist in loading the gun. While better than the usual French one-man turrets, it was still inferior to the German three-man turrets under actual combat conditions.

img

A Somua S35 of the 29th Dragoon Regiment, 2nd Light Mechanized Division, that took part in the massive tank battles in Belgium in mid-May 1940.

img

img

The Somua S35 had a three-man crew, with the operator in the hull having a secondary function of assisting the tank commander with loading the main gun. This was marginally better than on other French tanks but not as efficient in combat as the German layout.

Despite this problem, the Somua S35 was a significantly better tank than the Char B1 bis. It proved to be more mechanically dependable in 1940, and its armor, while not as good as the Char B1 bis, was still adequate when facing the German 37mm antitank guns.

THE BRITISH BLITZ

Britain was at the forefront of tank design in the 1920s and early 1930s; as mentioned earlier, the Vickers 6-Ton tank largely set the stage for world tank designs in the mid-1930s. However, the British Army was third in line for industrial resources after the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force, and this lack of national priority would plague British tank design in the early years of the war. Britain was even slower than France in army mechanization, not forming its first armored division until 1939 and unhorsing its cavalry later.

Aside from reconnaissance tanks such as the Light Tank Mark VI, British tanks fell into two main categories: infantry and cruiser. The cruiser tanks were intended for the Tank Brigades and eventually the new armored divisions. The British Army had several doctrinal differences from its continental counterparts. While the Germans saw the PzKpfw III and PzKpfw IV armament primarily for engaging nonarmored targets, British doctrine placed tank-versus-tank fighting at the forefront of the mission of its cruiser tanks. Furthermore, British tactical doctrine expected tanks to fire on the move, not from the halt. These priorities had several effects on cruiser tank design: There was considerable interest in hydraulic turret traverse to enable running engagements and, like the Germans, the British also recognized the need for a three-man turret crew to conduct tank battles.

The first of the modern cruiser tanks was the Vickers A9 that entered development in 1935 and was accepted for service in the summer of 1937.2 Its armament was the excellent new 2-pounder (40mm) gun, which could penetrate 40mm of armor at normal combat ranges. Turret traverse was hydraulic. The main drawback of the 2-pounder gun was that the high-explosive round did not have a large charge and was seldom issued to tanks in the 1939–41 period. To provide some high-explosive firepower, a close-support (CS) version of the tank was manufactured in small numbers, armed with a 3.7in (94mm) howitzer. Although called a howitzer, this weapon was actually a breech-loaded mortar, with resulting accuracy issues at longer ranges.

The A9 had its peculiarities. In view of the limitations of the 2-pounder against nonarmored targets, the A9 had two subsidiary turrets in the hull front armed with machine guns. The A9 was not well armored, with a maximum of only 15mm on the main surfaces and 7mm on other surfaces. Production began late in 1937 and by the summer of 1940, 125 series production tanks had been delivered.

There was some interest in an infantry tank version of the A9, and this was developed in parallel as the A10. The armor basis was increased to 25mm, then to 30mm, and the two front machine-gun sub-turrets were removed. In the event, the British army changed the infantry tank armor requirement to deal with the threat of the German 37mm antitank gun and the A10 ended up being built as a cruiser tank, with the A9 becoming the Cruiser Tank Mark I and the A10 the Cruiser Tank Mark II. Production of the A10 did not begin until 1939; a total of 170 tanks were completed by May 1941. Both of these tanks were built by the experienced firm of Vickers and proved to be dependable.

The next evolution of this family was the A13. One of Britain’s main tank advocates, Gen. G. Martel, assistant director of mechanisation at the War Office, had attended wargames in the Soviet Union in 1936 and was deeply impressed by the performance of the high-speed BT-5 tanks. On returning to Britain, he instigated the development of a British equivalent using the Christie suspension. The A13 bore a strong family resemblance to the previous A9 and A10, having the thinner armor of the A9 but lacking its sub-turrets. It was powered by the same World War I Liberty aircraft engine that propelled the original Soviet BT tanks. During its development in 1939, it was appreciated that it could be penetrated by the 20mm gun on the German PzKpfw II light tank, so work began on turret appliqué to increase its protection from 14mm to 30mm on the A13 Mark IIA (later Cruiser Mark IV). Both the baseline Mark II and the unarmored Mark IIA were in service in the Battle of France. At the start of the war in September 1939, there were 77 cruiser tanks in service (35 Cruiser Mark I/A9, 42 Cruiser Mark III/A13). The numbers continued to increase so that there were 150 committed to France in May 1940.

img

The British cruiser tanks were primarily armed with the 2-pounder, but some were configured as close-support tanks with a breech-loaded mortar. This Cruiser Mark IA CS of the HQ of A Squadron, 3 RTR (Royal Tank Regiment), was lost in Calais after shedding a track.

img

The Matilda I infantry tank was built on a strict budget. Although well armored for its small size, it was too small and weakly armed to be a practical infantry tank. After the Battle of France, surviving tanks were retired to training units. This one is seen in the United Kingdom in 1941 with Polish troops for training.

Alongside the cruiser tanks, the British army also developed a family of infantry tanks. The first type, the A11, was intended to be an inexpensive two-man tank with thick armor and a single machine gun in the turret. Production began in 1938 under the code name Matilda, but second thoughts began to emerge about the wisdom of such a minimal vehicle with modest armament and a top speed of only 8 miles per hour. Fewer than 140 were completed. In its place, the A12 Matilda Senior was designed, also called the Matilda II. This was a far more substantial tank, armed with a 2-pounder gun in a two-man turret and with 75mm frontal armor. Its top speed was 15 miles per hour, better than its predecessor, but no world-beater.3 What is especially surprising about the A12 Matilda was the choice of armament. As mentioned, the 2-pounder was an excellent antitank gun for its day, but with poor high-explosive firepower. Infantry support generally depends on high-explosive firepower to deal with enemy infantry, antitank guns, and field entrenchments. British reliance on this single weapon compromised its early tank designs.

img

The defeat of the British Expeditionary Force in France in June 1940 left Britain with very few tanks in the face of a possible German invasion. This is a Cruiser Mark III of the 3 RTR left behind at Calais.

Of the British tanks that served in France in 1940, the only one to leave a lasting impression on the Germans was the A12 Matilda infantry tank, which served in the 1st Tank Brigade.4 Although only twenty-three served in France, they took part in the counterattack at Arras on 21 May 1940, which gave the Germans a good scare. The Matilda was invulnerable to the German 37mm antitank gun at most ranges, and it usually took a 105mm field gun or an 88mm Flak gun to knock it out. However, even if it impressed the Germans, it had its share of faults. It was too slow on a mobile battlefield, its tracks offered poor traction in wet conditions, its gun lacked high-explosive firepower, and it had poor reliability.

The cruiser tanks were committed mainly with the 1st Armoured Division in its battles on the Dunkirk perimeter. The main problem with the cruiser tanks was their thin armor, which was vulnerable to the German 37mm antitank gun. The cruiser tanks had a mixed reputation with their British crews due to mechanical problems. The Liberty engines in the A13 had a running life of only about 100 hours, and suspensions and tracks had a poor reputation for durability. As in the French case, many of the problems with British tanks in France in 1940 probably had much to do with their novelty and the lack of crew experience rather than inherent design flaws. About 75 percent of the tank losses were attributed to mechanical breakdown.5 The same tanks saw combat later in 1940 in the desert, where they displayed far greater battlefield effectiveness.6 British tanks of 1940 do not compare well to their French or German counterparts in terms of armor, firepower, or mobility.

TOP TANK OF THE BLITZKRIEG ERA

Blitzkrieg–era tanks were extremely varied due to the lack of maturity of armored doctrine and the hasty design and manufacture of many of the types. Basic issues had not been resolved. How thick should armor be? Enough to defend against machine guns; enough to defend against antitank guns? What about the main tank armament? Was a powerful antitank gun the best solution? How important was high-explosive firepower? What about mobility? Was a slow pace better suited to infantry support? How important was high speed? Tanks of this era ran the gamut. Armor was often quite thin, only 15mm in some cases but an impressive 75mm in others. Firepower was often limited to machine guns; guns in the 37–40mm range were common and some 75mm guns were appearing. Mobility requirements ran from the arthritic 8 miles per hour of infantry tanks to the speedy 30 miles per hour of cavalry tanks.

One of the most critical battlefield ingredients in 1939–40 was mechanical reliability. The early tanks were certainly much better than tanks of World War I in this regard. However, mechanical fragility remained the main source of tank losses in 1939–40. The German army held several advantages in this regard. German tanks were not especially impressive at this point in terms of armor or firepower; however, they were generally sound designs and benefitted from the use of reliable Maybach engines. Equally important, the German army had begun its mechanization program early and had the critical experience of the Austrian Anschluss, the occupation of Czechoslovakia, and the initial campaign in Poland to learn the mundane but essential tasks of keeping its panzers moving. The battlefield experience of the German tank crews was priceless. As Napoleon said, “In war, the moral is to the physical as three is to one.”

img

An interesting comparison of two 1940 rivals, a Somua S35 and PzKpfw IV, at the U.S. Army Ordnance Museum at Aberdeen Proving Ground. This Somua had served in the French 2nd Light Mechanized Division in 1940 and was captured by the Germans. It was later turned over to the Italians, who operated over fifty of these during the war. It was captured by the U.S. Army in 1944 near Rome and sent back to Maryland for technical evaluation.

img

The PzKpfw IV was intended to provide high-explosive fire support to the more numerous PzKpfw III. It was armed with a short 75mm gun, nicknamed the “cigar butt,” which had excellent high-explosive firepower but very limited antitank punch.

German armored warfare doctrine was also more mature than French or British doctrine. The campaign in Poland had demonstrated that the panzer division organization was superior to the light division configuration that had been used to mechanize the cavalry. As a result, between October 1939 and the start of the France campaign in May 1940, the German army reorganized the light divisions into panzer divisions, creating a more uniform and effective force sharing a common tactical doctrine.

This discussion has condensed the Top Tank contenders to two: the French Somua S35 and the German PzKpfw IV. The Somua S35 performed very well in the tank battles of the Gembloux Gap in Belgium in the world’s first large tank-versus-tank battles.7 In the holy trinity of tank design—armor, firepower, and mobility—the S35 was an excellent design. In comparison, the PzKpfw IV scored well on two of the three basic criteria—excellent firepower and mobility—but mediocre for armor protection. From a tanker’s perspective, the Somua S35 is the choice. It had excellent firepower and armor, and its main fault was its poor turret design. So I give it the nod for Tanker’s Choice of the blitzkrieg era.

img

For Commander’s Choice, I give the nod to the PzKpfw IV. In spite of its mediocre armor, the PzKpfw IV had better battlefield performance due to its more modern crew layout and mechanical dependability. The PzKpfw IV was a more versatile weapon and would form the backbone of the German Panzer force for the remainder of the war.