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U.S. Armor Developments: World War II and After

Part 1 of U.S. armor developments

Armor first appeared on the battlefield thousands of years ago, typically using layers of leather, wood – even silk – to deflect, slow or stop arrows and spears. As offensive weapons advanced, from Greek fire and boulder-launching trebuchets to the English longbow and Mongol composite bow to early firearms, armor-makers had to advance their defensive craft to counter it.

Afrika Korps Panzer III tanks drive through the desert. Field Marshall Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps used these relatively light tanks with great success in North Africa. Bundesarchiv photo

Afrika Korps Panzer III tanks drive through the desert. Field Marshall Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps used these relatively light tanks with great success in North Africa. Bundesarchiv photo

The Greeks and Romans used armor on their chariots and siege weapons. Leonardo da Vinci designed what may have been the first mobile armored tank – a cone-shaped war wagon with a full 360-degree complement of cannon. It was never used by his 15th century patrons, but a working model recently was built, using materials available to da Vinci and following his precise instructions, demonstrating it was more than a flight of imagination.

The heavy Tiger would have been more evenly matched against the American M26 Pershing, but the U.S. had slowed production of its heavy tanks in order to mass produce the more agile Sherman and tank destroyers such as the M10, M36, and the M18 Hellcat.

British Sherman Firefly

A British Sherman Firefly patrolling the Meuse at Namur in 1944. The Firefly was a British attempt to give the Sherman a better chance against German Panthers and Tigers by upgunning it with a 17-pounder instead of the typical 75 mm low velocity gun. The assortment of road wheels, lengths of track, sandbags and wooden planks often piled on the exteriors of M4s reflects the degree of the crews’ confidence in their armor protection. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Army Center of Military History

The first serious use of tanks came during World War I, but the vehicles were cumbersome, limited in battlefield mobility and often more dangerous than protective to their crews. By World War II, however, tank technology had advanced at a level similar to the evolution of military aircraft between the two wars. Nazi Germany held the technological advantage, but the British, Russians, Japanese and Americans were not far behind.

German Field Marshall Erwin Rommel, U.S. Gen. George S. Patton and British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery earned permanent places in military history for their World War II use of massive tank forces – not only in tank-on-tank encounters, but to overrun infantry, crush enemy defenses and capture cities. Rommel’s Afrika Korps and other commands were predominantly equipped with comparatively light Panzers; Patton’s Third Army with medium-weight M4 Shermans; and Montgomery’s Eighth Army with the well-armored but underarmed Matilda, a series of “cruiser” tanks, and U.S.-built medium M3 Grants/Lees and Shermans.

Soviet T-34s advance on German forces during World War II. T-34s gave German forces trouble during World War II and gave U.S. forces trouble at the beginning of the Korean War. RIA Novosti photo

Soviet T-34s advance on German forces during World War II. T-34s shocked German forces during World War II and gave U.S. forces trouble at the beginning of the Korean War. RIA Novosti photo

Germany also fielded the heaviest tank to that point – the Tiger – primarily as a counter to the unexpectedly formidable Soviet T-34 and KV-1 tanks the Nazis encountered during Operation Barbarossa, the June 1941 invasion of their former ally, the Soviet Union. The heavy Tiger would have been more evenly matched against the American M26 Pershing, but the U.S. had slowed production of its heavy tanks in order to mass produce the more agile Sherman and tank destroyers such as the M10, M36, and the M18 Hellcat.

And when the Cold War turned hot in Korea, the United States found itself facing the same kind of Soviet-built heavy armor that had led the Germans to introduce the massive Tiger a few years earlier.

“Once the Cold War began, the U.S. believed there was a ‘tank gap’ – looking at the heavily mechanized status of the Warsaw Pact, we found the Soviets had far more and better tanks than we could field in the late 1940s and early ‘50s,” noted Dr. Robert S. Cameron, Armor Branch historian at the Army Armor Center at Fort Benning, Ga.

 

Tiger I in France

A Panzerkampfwagen VI Tiger I of the 1st SS Panzer Division Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler in France, March 1944. Bundesarchive photo

And when the Cold War turned hot in Korea, the United States found itself facing the same kind of Soviet-built heavy armor that had led the Germans to introduce the massive Tiger a few years earlier.

“When the Korean War broke out, the direction of armor issue became critical. The U.S. did not see Korea as an isolated regional conflict; our concept then was that the Kremlin was at the center of all global Communist efforts,” Cameron said. “So war breaking out on the Korean peninsula was seen as a potential prelude to the outbreak of World War III, with a center point in Central Europe. And the U.S. was not ready to wage a major tank war in Central Europe – or Asia.”

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J.R. Wilson has been a full-time freelance writer, focusing primarily on aerospace, defense and high...