Tanks and Armored Vehicles Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Although primitive designs for horse-powered, armored combat vehicles date back to the fifteenth century, it was not until the nineteenth century that they actually took a cohesive shape.

Nature and Use

Although primitive designs for horse-powered, armored combat vehicles date back to the fifteenth century, it was not until the nineteenth century that they actually took a cohesive shape. As early as 1898 the U.S. Army had designed and built a motorized gun carriage, which, although fitted with only an armor shield, is considered to be one of the world’s first armored cars. This steam-propelled vehicle, equipped with a .30-caliber Colt machine gun, continued to be built on a small scale into the twentieth century. During the Second Boer Boer Wars (1880-1902);tanksWar in South Africa (1899-1902), the British army also employed armored trailers and steam traction engines, notably Fowlers, for hauling supplies and guns. These original armored vehicles were obviously limited and were not recognized by the military authorities of any nation until the outbreak of World War World War I (1914-1918)[World War 01];tanks inI (1914-1918).Armored vehiclesTanksArmored vehiclesTanks

Colonel Ernest Swinton, ErnestSwinton, ErnestSwinton (1868-1951), who originated the tank in 1915 and fought in the Boer War, saw the potential for modern firepower and its devastating effect on men in the open. As an officer of the Royal Engineers, he was familiar with mechanical transport, including petrol-engined, Caterpillar-tracked vehicles such as those that had been developed previously in both England and the United States. In October, 1914, Swinton recognized that the line of fortified trenches, which stretched from the North Sea to the Swiss frontier, was unlikely to be breached by conventional means of attack by infantry and cavalry. Barbed Barbed wirewire entanglements, secured by intensive fire from artillery and automatic weapons, made a war of movement impossible and precluded any decisive action. Swinton sought a radical solution to the Trench warfare;Boer Warstrench deadlock and used the American Holt tractor design, then being used in France, as a starting point. The track was the key, he believed, as it made cross-country movement on rough ground easier. Swinton encountered a great deal of opposition, however, from military authorities who were skeptical about untried methods. The Royal Naval Air Service had sent armored car squadrons to the Calais area as early as September, 1914, to protect the advanced improvised landing strips they had set up for their air squadrons supporting the Naval Brigade. These vehicles were not intended for offensive use, however, and they were largely confined to roads.

In July, 1915, Swinton was sent back to London from his post in France to become secretary of the Dardanelles Committee of the Cabinet. He stood at the center of the group of politicians, officials, soldiers, and technicians whose aim was to create what became known as the tank. Perhaps more important than Swinton’s contribution to production of the tank was his original document outlining tank tactics that were used for years to come. His memorandum described the characteristics, capabilities, and limitations of tanks and defined their basic use, in conjunction with infantry and artillery, to crush enemy wire, to cross trenches, to destroy machine guns, and finally to advance so deeply into enemy defenses that their guns could also be tackled. Swinton also envisaged the need for tanks to communicate by telephone or wireless both with each other and with their supporting arms. In Swinton’s opinion, tanks were merely an auxilliary to infantry, and their independent operation was, in his mind, inconceivable.

The first tanks ran trials in January, 1916; they first entered battle in September of the same year, at Flers-Courcelette, Battle of (1916)[Flers Courcelette]Flers-Courcelette, in northern France, where forty-nine vehicles were used to add impetus to a flagging infantry action. Success was limited, however, due to the limited number of tanks available, the lack of crew experience, and the vehicles’ inherent mechanical limitations. However, some of the British army staff were convinced of the tank’s value, and orders increased. The tank’s real, or perhaps more famous, introduction came in November, 1916, at Cambrai, Battle of (1916-1917)Cambrai, in northern France. For the first time, a joint tank-infantry operation had been carefully planned to fit the strengths and limitations of armored vehicles. The attack was made on a seven-mile front, and the tanks attacked in three waves; each tank worked with the tank behind it to cross the three lines of the German defensive system. Smoke shells were fired to camouflage the tanks’ arrival, and, when the smoke cleared, the Germans were greeted by the large metal vehicles, emerging from the morning fog with guns blazing. So complete was the surprise that some of the German units panicked and fled; however, Cambrai was not an absolute victory for armored vehicles. After the first objective had been achieved, the infantry began to lose contact with the tanks. The tank units were left alone to face a German artillery battery, and many tanks were destroyed. Even though the tanks kept breaking through enemy lines, because there was no infantry there to hold the ground, their gains were useless. The armored attack on Cambrai was significant in that, in one day, it opened a large hole in the German defense system. Only 4,000 British soldiers died at Cambrai, a greater achievement than the 1917 Passchendaele Passchendaele Offensive (1917)Offensive, which took four months and 400,000 casualties. Although the tank restored mobility to the battlefield and was touted as the answer to the stalemate caused by the machine gun, barbed wire, and entrenchments, many skeptics remained to be convinced of the advantages of armored warfare.


The first tank prototype was called Mother (tank prototype)Mother. The lozenge-shaped frame was such that the lower run of the track in contact with the ground approximated the shape and radius of a wheel with a 60-foot diameter. It was calculated that this shape would comfortably cross a 5-foot trench or run up a 4.5-foot vertical parapet. It was in 1916 that the term “tank” first came into use to describe what had hitherto been described as a “landship.” Mother’s success led to the first tank, known as the Mark Mark tanksI, which was identical to Mother except that it was constructed with armor plate instead of boiler plate. The Mark I, used at Flers-Courcelette, was armed with a 6-pounder (pdr) gun and three Hotchkiss machine Machine guns;HotchkissHotchkiss machine gunsguns. Improvements to the Mark I followed in subsequent models: Wider track shoes were fitted at every sixth link, armor was slightly increased, and a raised manhole hatch was placed on top to protect the driver. The wheeled cart that trailed the earlier model was also discarded, because it was ineffective on the muddy battlefield.

Tanks in World War I

The first tanks had crews of eight. In these vehicles, steering and gear changing were cumbersome and tiring operations that placed considerable strain on the vehicle’s transmission. By the time the Mark Mark tanksV model had been developed, four-speed gearboxes were used, and the gears could then be changed by one man. The Mark V’s engines were much more powerful, and once they were made to be air-cooled, they became immune to frost. The extreme weight of the early Mark models made it impossible to control the steering and braking by hand power alone; hydraulic lines were introduced to allow control of the massive vehicles. Its armor was also increased, and a rear-firing machine gun was added.

When the United States entered World War I, it jointly produced the Mark Mark tanksVIII with the British. Prior to this time, however, French Renault light tanks and British Mark V tanks were used. German tank projects met with the same type of skepticism that had been prevalent in Britain. Although the tank was used in army exercises, its value in battle was not appreciated by the German General German General StaffStaff, who considered tanks suitable only for secondary tasks, such as frontier patrol work, gun transport, and reconnaissance. A German infantry force mounted in trucks did execute a lightning strike as part of General Erich von Falkenhayn, Erich vonFalkenhayn, Erich vonFalkenhayn’s (1861-1922) offensive against Romania in 1916, and the lessons were not lost on the German General Staff.

The Interwar Years

In the post-World War I era, the development and organization of mechanization was viewed as a possible decisive factor in warfare. Military mechanized vehicles could be divided into the following types: armored fighting vehicles, armored carriers, and armored tractors. The tracks themselves were still of a very primitive type, no more than a series of plates joined together by hinge pins. These tracks were laterally rigid, so that steering was accomplished by skidding the tracks in contact with the ground. The pins and plate wore out very rapidly. However, the tracks were effectively sprung in 1922, increasing the life, as well as the expense and difficulty of manufacture, of the track. Despite these innovations, by the 1930’s the British army had returned to traditional dogma and entered World War II with a defensive doctrine.

A tank of the type the British used successfully against the Germans at Cambrai in 1917.

(Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The British military thinkers J. F. C. Fuller, J. F. C.Fuller, J. F. C.Fuller (1878-1966) and Sir Basil Henry Liddell Liddell Hart, Basil HenryLiddell Hart, Basil HenryHart (1895-1970) restored the strategic emphasis on mobility and the use of armor in war. In 1919 Fuller asserted that the tank could completely replace the infantry and cavalry, and that artillery, in order to survive, should be developed along the lines of the tank. Military perfection, he believed, no longer could be based on numbers of soldiers: Technological advances such as the internal combustion engine had rendered human masses insignificant in the age of modern warfare, negating the need to literally destroy the enemy’s armies in the field. As Fuller argued, armored forces could paralyze, demoralize, and cause the disintegration of armies by striking at their rear communications and command systems. With slaughter and destruction reduced, he believed, war would become both more humane and more rational. Fuller’s work soon attracted attention, and he acquired a faithful disciple in Hart, who in 1922 was converted to Fuller’s vision of armored warfare.

By the late 1920’s the British government had become increasingly concerned about the dilapidated condition of its army, resulting in experimental trials with mechanized and mixed units, held between 1927 and 1931. On the Salisbury Plain in August, 1927, exercises were conducted with an incongruous force of armored cars, various-sized tanks, and cavalry and infantry units. Although problems such as constant congestion at bottlenecks were ubiquitous, the trials demonstrated the mobility advantages inherent in mechanized strategy. In 1931 an exercise was conducted by the First Brigade Royal Tank Regiment. The force was composed entirely of tracked vehicles, and, using a combination of radios and colored flags for communication between the tanks, they functioned in unity and precision. This period of experimentation and development soon lost impetus, however, as the army’s leadership became increasingly conservative. This fear of change discouraged further innovation and experiment in armor. Even after the rise of Adolf Hitler (1889-1945) and British recognition of the German continental threat, little was done to improve land forces, as such action was politically unpopular and financially difficult to reconcile with expenditure on the British navy.

Germany had always believed war to be a useful instrument to ensure national security and to foster Germany’s higher status in Europe. Therefore, although antiarmor elements existed in Germany, it was on the whole a more conducive environment for armored warfare. Mechanization of the army was part of a more encompassing program, and the creation of tank formations was initially a subordinate element in improving overall mobility. Tank warfare became increasingly important and by 1929 formed the main thrust of army modernization. The turning point had come in 1927, when Germany;tanksGermany concluded that the principles of tank warfare would need to be reconsidered, embracing the concept of decision-oriented, operationally independent armored warfare.

With the rise of National Socialism in the 1930’s, the party’s leader, Hitler, AdolfHitler, AdolfHitler, guaranteed rearmament, and his new government immediately began to fulfill this promise. Armor doctrine found fertile ground, and supporters in the government backed the development of armored forces against the skepticism of more conservative officers. Light- and medium-model armored vehicles equipped with machine guns, an armor-piercing gun, and radios, and capable of speeds of up to 25 miles per hour, began to appear in 1938 and 1939 as the Panzer tanksPanzer III and Panzer IV. At the outbreak of World War II in September, 1939, six Panzer divisions existed and were being trained in the technique of the BlitzkriegBlitzkrieg, literally “lightning war,” the violent and surprise offensive by which Poland was overwhelmed in 1939.

The Spanish Civil War Spanish Civil War (1936-1939);tanks(1936-1939) set the stage for the armored warfare of World War II. The Republicans, supported by France and the Soviet Union, followed French armor doctrine and distributed their tanks within the infantry formations. They employed the tanks in support of infantry frontal attacks, forcing the vehicles to move at walking pace and providing lucrative targets for the Nationalist antitank gunners. The Germans, who supported the Nationalists, persuaded them to concentrate their armor, group it with motorized infantry and mobile artillery, and deploy it where the enemy was weak, in fast-moving attacks on narrow fronts. This strategy was effective and played a significant role in the success of the Nationalist offensives of 1938-1939 that led to their victory. The French and the Russians both drew false conclusions about tank strategy after the war. Both nations believed that the antitank gun had mastered the tank and that tank formations could not play an independent operational role in future waging of war. The Germans quickly proved them wrong.

Tanks in World War II

On World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];tanksAugust 1, 1939, Germany invaded Poland, beginning the conflict that evolved into World War II. By this time the German army understood that tank forces could not act alone. They prepared their tank force for penetration, but then attached to it a motorized support of infantry, artillery, and engineers. Germany used the same tactic of rapid, self-supporting mobility after defeating Poland, attacking France in May, 1940. In France the German army was also aided by air support, which proved to be another effective strategy. It is significant to note that, although France had more tanks than Germany, the defensive doctrine that the French applied to their use failed to hold out against the lightning offensive movements of the German Panzer divisions. France was defeated in June of 1940. Germany then turned and attacked Russia in June, 1941. After the initial German success of rapid, armored pincer movements, the Russians developed the T-34 tank. It was armed with a long, high-velocity 76-millimeter gun, which shredded the German armor. The T-34 itself seemed immune to the Panzer’s own shells. Their top speed of 33 miles per hour, over the Panzer’s 25 miles per hour, on a wider-tracked base was also indispensable in the mud and snow of the eastern front. After gaps had been created in the front, the Russians sent in their tank forces, composed mostly of the formidable T-34, to enlarge and expand the breakthrough. Once the Americans joined the battle on the western front, the most commonly used vehicle was the Sherman Sherman tanktank, which helped turn the tide on the Germans in North Africa and later in France.

Tanks in Modern Conflicts

The Israeli-Arab October War Yom Kippur War (1973);tanks(1973) displayed a new style of armored warfare. The Israeli army charged into the Suez Canal area in small groups of tanks, unsupported by reconnaissance, infantry, artillery, or air forces. The Egyptians, who were armed with RPG-7 rocket launchers and Sagger antitank guided missiles (ATGM), soundly defeated the Israeli forces. This initial defeat, however, did not, as many thought, portend the end of the heavy, slow-moving tank. After the first disastrous days, the Israelis restored the mobility of their tank formations; their ultimate success was primarily due to the reintroduction of all arms cooperation. Infantry was vulnerable to artillery and machine-gun fire. Artillery was vulnerable to attack by tanks and infantry. Tanks also were vulnerable to a variety of antiarmor weapons. When used together, however, each force compensated for the weakness of the other. The tanks destroyed enemy armor and machine guns; infantry cleared antiarmor weapons and held ground; and artillery, secure behind the armor and infantry, neutralized enemy antiarmor weapons and artillery. The effective use of tanks, therefore, had to be adapted to the changing technologies of armor and antiarmored warfare.

M-1A1 Abrams tanks in Iraq during Operation Desert Storm.

(Army Times Publishing Co.)

There have traditionally been two methods of defeating the thick, rolled homogeneous armored steel that has generally protected Antitank weaponstanks. Kinetic energy (KE) attack involves firing a high-velocity projectile from a large-caliber gun. In flight, the light outer jacket, or sabot, of the projectile falls off, and the remaining kinetic energy is concentrated in its smaller-diameter core, made up of high-density material. The core then forces its way through the armored plate. Chemical energy (CE) attack uses an explosive charge to create energy to defeat the armor plate. The shell’s explosive charge creates and directs a narrow, high-pressure jet that forces its way through the armor plate.

In the mid-1970’s and early 1980’s, three new developments in armor technology appeared to counter traditional antitank weapons. It had been known for some time that some materials, such as ceramic or glass, severely degraded shaped charge jets. The Soviets thus developed simple laminate armor for protection against both KE and CE attack; the T-72, for example, was fitted with this armor as well as with ceramic inserts in cavities within the cast turret armor. Another development was explosive reactive Armor;explosive reactivearmor, developed by the Israelis and consisting of small panels bolted to the exterior of the tank. When struck by a high explosive antitank (HEAT) projectile, the explosive detonated, driving the plates apart and disrupting the shaped charge jet. The most significant of the new armors was Chobham armor, a complex laminate developed by the British and first publicly shown in 1976. It was composed of spatial layers of various materials, such as steel ceramic and aluminum, and was reported to give significantly better protection than any other armor against multiple attacks by KE and CE warheads. Other innovations included the fitting of tanks with explosion-suppression systems and the substition of combustible hydraulic fluids for electronic systems. As shell penetration of armor caused possible ruptures in hydraulic lines, internal catastrophic explosions from hydraulic vapor became common. Moreover, ammunition was placed in separate, protected bin compartments. The latter two concepts were practiced by the British. In the Middle East wars during 1970’s and 1980’s, British-designed tanks proved difficult to ignite.

Armored vehicles are towed into the former Yugoslavia by British Chinook helecopters during the 1999 Kosovo crisis.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

Soviet revisions in operational doctrine at this time saw the evolution of Operational ManeuverOperational Maneuver GroupsGroup (OMG) concept. This involved the employment of self-contained, highly maneuverable, heavily armored formations early in an offensive. OMGs would, theoretically, attempt to punch their way through the defenses of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) before they were fully developed and strike deep into the NATO rear, with the intent of causing chaos and the rapid collapse of the defense. The OMG concept evolved from the Soviets’ experience in World War II, but the Israelis in the 1956, 1967, 1973, and 1982 wars used a similar doctrine most successfully. Soviet tanks, such as the T-64, T-72, and T-80, had 125-millimeter guns, automatic loaders, and integrated fire-control systems to permit rapid, accurate, and lethal fire. These tanks also had multibarreled Grenadesgrenade dischargers, which were capable of firing smoke grenades that degraded the performance of the new thermal imaging sight technology. Although the Soviet threat soon subsided with the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1989, a new threat quickly took its place.

The Gulf War Gulf War (1990-1991);ground combat(1991) saw the most technologically advanced ground combat of the century. The American M-1A1’s, British Challengers and Chieftains, and French AMX-30’s were shipped in to combine the best old-fashioned hardware with modern targeting computer software. The American M-1A1 (tank)[M 0001A1]M-1A1 is a rolling fortress that radiates a menacing power. The four-man tank weighs 63 tons and measures 26 feet long. The tank’s primary weapon is a 120-millimeter M68E1 smoothbore cannon that fires M-728 armor-piercing shells up to a distance of 2.5 miles while moving at 20 miles per hour. Other armament includes two 7.62-millimeter M-240 machine guns and one .50-caliber Browning M-2HB machine gun. With its powerful 1,500 horsepower gas turbine engine, the M-1A1 has a top speed of about 42 miles per hour and consumes fuel at the rate of 6 gallons per mile. The M-1A1 has a range of about 288 miles. It carries forty rounds and is equipped with an advanced carbon dioxide laser rangefinder, thermal viewing for night fighting, and a better suspension than earlier versions. The M-1A1 is considered the most sophisticated and capable main battle tank in the world. Even the Iraqi use of the Soviet T-72, a generation behind the M-1A1 in development, could not make the battle any real test for the coalition forces. Although the preceding air campaign created highly favorable conditions for the ground forces to accomplish their mission, it was ultimately the ground forces and their tactical air support that destroyed the Iraqi army.

With the growing emphasis on airpower in the 1990’s, particularly in Bosnia and Kosovo, the true potential for armored warfare remained unrealized. As in the first tank battles, it remains clear that there must also be an armed force to hold any ground that is gained. Tanks and armor, therefore, will always have their place in the waging of war.Armored vehiclesTanks

Books and Articles
  • Alexander, Arthur J. Armor Development in the Soviet Union and the United States. Santa Monica, Calif.: RAND, 1976.
  • Chamberlain, Peter, and Chris Ellis. Tanks of the World: 1915-1945. London: Cassell, 2002.
  • Citino, Robert. Armored Forces. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1994.
  • Estes, Kenneth W. Marines Under Armor: The Marine Corps and the Armored Fighting Vehicle, 1916-2000. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 2000.
  • Foss, Christopher F., ed. The Encyclopedia of Tanks and Armored Fighting Vehicles: The Comprehensive Guide to Over Nine Hundred Armored Fighting Vehicles from 1915 to the Present Day. San Diego, Calif.: Thunder Bay Press, 2002.
  • Fuller, J. F. C. Machine Warfare: An Enquiry into the Influences of Mechanics on the Art of War. London: Hutchinson, 1941.
  • Guderian, Heinz. Achtung-Panzer! The Development of Armoured Forces, Their Tactics, and Operational Potential. Translated by Christopher Duffy. London: Brockhampton Press, 1999.
  • Gudmundsson, Bruce I. On Armor. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2004.
  • Hogg, Ian V. The Greenhill Armoured Fighting Vehicles Data Book. London: Greenhill Books, 2000.
  • Koch, Fred. Russian Tanks and Armored Vehicles, 1946 to the Present: An Illustrated Reference. Atglen, Pa.: Schiffer, 1999.
  • Macksey, Kenneth. Tank Warfare: A History of Tanks in Battle. London: Rupert Hart-Davis, 1971.
  • Pugh, Stevenson. Armour in Profile. Surrey, England: Profile, 1968.
  • Spielberger, Walter J. Panzer II and Its Variants. Vol. 3 in The Spielberger German Armor and Military Vehicles. Atglen, Pa.: Schiffer, 1993.
  • Stone, John. The Tank Debate: Armour and the Anglo-American Military Tradition. Amsterdam: Harwood Academic, 2000.
  • Wright, Patrick. Tank: The Progress of a Monstrous War Machine. London: Faber, 2000.
Films and Other Media
  • Hell on Wheels. Documentary. History Channel, 1998.
  • The Tanks Are Coming. Short film. Warner Bros., 1941.

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