British tanks: generally well protected, mobility varied from the speedy Cromwell to the slow-but-tough Matildas and Churchill, often undergunned thanks to British railways (the size of tanks was limited by being able to move them by rail, the British railways had a limited template of “what will fit through the tunnels and down all the major lines”, this meant it was difficult to put Big Guns on British tanks from 1943ish).
In 1940 the Matilda II was a terrifying beast, in 1941 the Crusader was fast but unreliable, in 1943 the Churchill was a superb infantry tank (and the basis of endless conversions and adaptations) and the Cromwell a tough, fast cruiser, in 1945 the Centurion just missed the war but served with distinction for decades afterwards; British tanks were competent rather than outstanding. The most-produced British tank, the Valentine, isn’t well known because it was reliable, effective, unglamorous and unexceptional.
US tanks in 1939 were a very bad joke, but that changed. The M3 Lee/Grant was an awkward hybrid developed because British combat experience said that a medium-calibre gun, able to fire an effective HE shell, was urgently needed but fitting one into a 1941 tank turret was a problem (the Germans solved it by using a cut-down stumpy howitzer – good for HE and smoke, bad against enemy armour) so the M3 got a 75mm gun in a sponson mount on a tall, high-sided hull. Its saving grace was mechanical reliability (and M3s served with distinction in the Far East after they were surpassed in Europe. The M4 Sherman was perhaps the best tank of the war: mass-produced, reliable, light enough to be shipped and transported, and good at keeping its crew alive while they supported friendly infantry; it was there in numbers to support the infantry, thousands of whom lived and won because they had ample tank support.
Soviet tanks were, in the T-34, KV-1 and successors, technically very good (gun size, armour slope and thickness) but horrible from a human perspective: the USSR didn’t consider “ergonomics” or “survivability” or “reliability” because they didn’t expect tanks or crews would last long in combat. But, they were available, in numbers, and thrown into the fight in quantity, and their crews pressed on through their machinery’s shortfalls.
German tanks started out as a mix of the poor and the adequate: lots of PzKW I and II, intended as training vehicles, got sent to war, while the IIIs and IVs were adequate and reliable (and all were, let’s be fair, engineered to Teutonic standards) if not exceptional: but good doctrine and inexperienced opponents helped them triumph. The problem came with the desire to optimise, and with tank production being fragmented into multiple lines and designs, with endless revisions and adaptations: so a 30-ton “German T-34” became a 50-ton “T-34 killer” with thicker armour and better gun… but the same drivetrain designed to move a 30-ton tank, which was why the Panther had such a short lifespan if it had to self-deploy anywhere. Handfuls of German tanks and tank destroyers were individually scary, but the war was lost by Wehrmacht soldiers being overrun by Allied troops who had numerous tanks in support, while the German armour was too slow, too broken-down or too scarce to make it to the battlefield and fend off the hordes of Shermans, T-34s and Cromwells shooting the infantry onto their objective, then breaking through their lines into the rear areas.
Posted but not written by Louis Sheehan