Saturday, 11 February 2017

The 10 Best Tanks of the Second World War

So, a few months back we looked at the worst tanks of this era. While that focused squarely upon technology had gone horribly wrong, the opening did discuss how this was the golden age of the tank. It was the are where landships were dominant in combat and air power lacked the sheer variety or power to all but overwhelm ground forces in most engagements. So, in order to best reflect this, this sequel will be focusing upon the absolute best of their kind, based upon a few core factors.

You see, this was an era of constant change. The rapid advancements of technology and abrupt breakthroughs meant that the "best" tank was changing every other month, and the tanks of 1945 utterly eclipsed those from a mere two years before. So, this one is going to be based upon a few limiting factors in order to cover as broad a range of vehicles as possible:

  • Each tank will be chosen, in part, thanks to its influence upon later designs and the impact it had upon its era. If a tank failed due to poor tactics, that was the fault of the generals and not the tank itself.
  • Each nation will be limited to three tanks in total for this list, to prevent Germany and Russia from dominating every point.
  • There will be no multiple variants of the same tank selected. Either one will be picked out to best represent their designs, or a point will be made to represent all of them with a reason as to why.
  • Each tank must have entered massed production and engaged enemy forces before the end of the war. It would hardly be fair to nominate a tank which largely fought in the Korean and Cold Wars, even if they were finished in 1945, hence the absence of the Centurion on this list.
So, from this you might find a few unexpected choices on this list. Perhaps even creations you have never heard of before now. However, each one will be carefully chose and very carefully selected with the exact reasons why outlined in the text below.

So, with that over and done with, onto our list of glorious engines of carnage!

10. Souma 35

One would be forgiven for thinking the French military is cursed. Despite their ill-earned reputation as "cheese eating surrender monkeys" the nation's military forces have a fair number of victories to their name. The problem is that while they were effective at winning battles, they could rarely win wars.  This seemed to have spread to some of their other projects as the Souma 35 was one of the best tanks of its era, but was hampered by archaic minds.

Built between 1936 and 1940, the Souma 35 served as the French cavalry tank of the time, and was constructed with speed, firepower and anti-tank duties in mind. With a 47 mm SA 35 gun as its primary armament, it could inflict severe damage upon any other vehicle of this era, and its thickly armoured and sloped design made it incredibly durable despite its surprising agility. While its design meant that it was expensive and high maintenance, it more than made up for this with sheer combat effectiveness. In one-on-one engagements against the Panzer Mk. IIIs, which served as the primary Nazi battle tank, the Souma 35 would emerge victorious thanks to its superior design. The problem was that they had been built with older tactics in mind, and the Nazis rarely deployed tanks on their own.

Much like the Char B1, the Souma 35 suffered from a few old ideas when it came to its use, but was hampered more by the poor planning of their commanders. Divided up and separated out, they were often given near impossible tasks to complete and were outmatched by the combined arms strategies of Germany. This was best seen with pyrrhic Battle of Hannut and Battle of Arras, where poor deployment contributed to their failures despite often inflicting heavy casualties upon their foes. While France might have lost the war, the Souma 35 still stood out as one of the best creations of its era, and often proved to be a nasty surprise for the invading German forces.

9. M3 "Lee" Medium Tank/Matilda Mk. II

This is one of those exceptionally rare occasions where two vehicles will occupy the same spot on one of these lists. Why two rather than just one? Because they ultimately ended up fulfilling a very similar role in the end. 

Built while British forces were still obsessed with the idea of cavalry and infantry support tanks, the Matilda Mk. II was intended to serve the role of a rolling bunker. Armed with a 40mm two pounder gun, it was capable of penetrating extremely heavy armour while its own heavily reinforced plating (which was notably 78mm thick on the front glacis) could shrug off most rounds. Then something odd happened. The Crusaders and Cruiser tanks intended to take on the Panzers ended up repeatedly failing thanks to the desert conditions of El Alamein and simply lacking the capabilities of Germany's best tanks. As a result, the Matilda was often left to fill in for them and rescue these vehicles, which it did a remarkably well.

While slow moving and mechanically complex thanks to its twin engine design, it was capable of enduring almost anything short of a Flak 88 gun when it came to direct combat. Furthermore, as British gunners were trained to fire their main weapons while on the move, it meant that the army could rely upon a slow but steady moving fire support platform for their troops. It was, of all the British tanks of this era, the only one which Nazi forces held any respect for.

By comparison, the M3 Lee was something America rushed out the door and was only intended as a stop-gap measure. What is often forgotten, and outright ignored in many films, was that America of this time was leagues behind everyone else when it came to certain military designs. Their M2 Light Tanks of this time were atrociously poorly designed, and the vehicles of any other nation would have barreled right through them. so, as they began to mobilize, they realized they needed something - anything - which could take the Panzers on in combat. The M3 Medium Tank was the answer. 

The big advantage of the M3 over its contemporaries was oddly enough a combination which was going out of fashion: A turret and hull mounted gun. The turret's 37mm barrel was light but rapid firing, relatively accurate and capable of ripping through the lighter elements of enemy vehicles, while the 75mm cannon could one-shot most Panzers. This proved to be a shock for Rommel's forces at the  Battle of Gazala, where they could rapidly destroy Panzer Mk. IIIs well beyond their effective range, but lacked the expected shortcomings. Their 51mm of armour was still fairly respectable, while its upper speed of 26mph meant it could keep pace with their best tanks. Its only real disadvantages stemmed from the high profile and hull mounted nature of its main weapon, meaning flanking attacks could be disastrous for M3 crews, and the bolted design of its armour could result in spalling after multiple hits. That's where the bolts themselves could ricochet about the interior after too many blows.

As Germany introduced more effective anti-tank weapons were introduced to overcome heavy armour, and the more popular M4 Sherman was pressed into service, they were recalled to secondary roles. Each would be used against the Italians in their home nation and sent to Russia as part of a lend-lease program (where the already outdated M3 earned the infamous nickname of "coffin for seven brothers"). Most, however, would be sent over to Asia where they proved to be extremely effective until the end of the war. With Japan relying upon its horribly ineffective Type 95 Ha-Go, the failing Empire ensured that these tanks would have a role right up until the Korean War.

8. Jagdpanzer 38 (Sd.Kfz. 138/2) "Hetzer"

This is a particularly curious one both thanks to its design and its origins. While recognised primarily as a mainstay of the Nazi war machine, it was one of the earliest occasions of German engineers reworking or adapting the ideas of others at an inspiring speed; specifically taking inspiration from the Romanian "Mare┼čal" tank destroyer and modifying the outdated and outclassed Panzer 38(t) chassis for a role it was never intended for. Normally this would be a recipe for complete disaster, but instead it proved to be a surprisingly effective weapon of war.

For starters, the Hetzer's fully enclosed armor gave it a major edge against its predecessors in the Marder series, permitting it to take blows which had totaled those tanks. As it was extremely well sloped at every angle save for the lower rear and retained a low profile, damaging the vehicle from the front and side was difficult save for close range engagements. Its design also ensured that it was easy to hide and camouflage whilst waiting to ambush larger vehicles, a task it proved to be incredibly effective in performing. In fact, combined with its remarkable mechanical reliability and ease of production, it proved to be a far more favourable vehicle than the supposed super-tank known as the Jagdpanther.

Ironically, despite Blitzkrieg tactics of the time and its name (which translates to "chaser") this was never intended to be an especially mobile vehicle. Instead, it was designed to serve as an ambush predator, waiting to attack enemy vehicles, nailing them in a few moments of violence and then withdrawing. While it might have been a one trick pony, the Hetzer's massed production and incredible effectiveness against larger, better armoured tanks helped assure more models survived the war than almost any other tank constructed.

7. Cruiser, Mk VIII, Cromwell (A27M)

Looking back now, the Cruiser was hardly the most successful series of tanks ever to be fielded in battle. Often serving more as an example of how not to do it than a series of major successes, the earlier builds were most famous for frequent losses to the Nazi war machine on almost every front. However, the Cromwell was an entirely different story, and it was one of the first signs of British engineering finally starting to get things right. Introduced late into 1944, the Cromwell was made with two things in mind - speed and versatility. Heavy armour was on the way out and it had become clear that the ability to rapidly advance, adapt and engage a multitude of various targets was desperately needed.

Outfitted with a Rolls-Royce Meteor engine, the Cromwell could achieve a respectable 40mph whilst moving flat out, and it was not unheard of for crews to leap rivers or chasms with their vehicles. This permitted them to escape enemy forces with ease and outflank slower moving vehicles during more trying engagements. Atop of this however, it retained a number of benefits which were largely absent in past tanks of its design. The dual-purpose 75mm main gun allowed it to engage a multitude of targets. While it lacked the penetrating power of a traditional 6-pounder weapon, access to High Explosive shells ensured that - despite being unable to punch through a Tiger's armour - it was more than capable of annihilating foes like anti-tank guns. It also helped that, while lacking the sloped design needed to bounce shells, the armour could withstand far better punishment of its predecessors.

The effectiveness of this design ensured that it would remain in service for another eleven years before finally being retired, and its mechanical reliability made it popular in a large number of countries. While it might have lacked some of the qualities tanks were most famous for, and a late entry into the war, the Cromwell is nevertheless fondly remembered as the first step on the road which would lead to greats like the Centurion and Chieftain tanks.

6. PzKpfw VI Ausf. E "Tiger Mk. 1"

Of this era, few tanks could be considered more iconic than the Tiger. Regarded as the ultimate "big tank" it was built with the idea of simply annihilating all opposing armour in mind, capable of crushing the infamous T-34s which had outperformed the Panzers at almost every turn. Extremely heavily armoured in every respect and outfitted with a 8.8 cm KwK 36 gun, they were found to be capable of single-handedly spearheading major assaults and holding off entire enemy squadrons without additional support.

Initially built for the famous Battle of Kursk, they were rushed into service as a superweapon to hold back the Russian advance. Unlike the disastrous Ferdinand however, the Tiger proved to be incredibly effective, and many gains during that conflict were thanks to its involvement. It was only halted thanks to the sheer tenacity of the Russians and the massively entrenched forces, with incalculable mines, pillboxes and artillery shells guarding the area. Even then, the Nazis were only stopped from breaking through with a massed rush of these tanks in the final days of the war thanks to a desperate recall order from Berlin.

Both sides of the allied front were ill prepared to face such a monster and, save for a few fortunate engagements, any force which battled them suffered massive casualties. Their very presence in the war forced a drastic shift in weapons development among several nations, both to counter and match these vehicles with improved anti-armour weapons or the likes of the M26 Pershing. However, the Tiger often proved to be superior in arms and equipment than its rivals. So much so that, more often than not, it was defeated by itself more than enemy troops.

A tank of extremes, the Tiger had excellent armour, firepower and speed, but multiple design flaws plagued this creation. The sheer weight of these tanks meant they were often unable to use bridges, cross muddy terrain and even replacing tracks was a difficult task. Their engines were also incredibly temperamental, suffering from fuel leaks and frequent breaks downs. Even then, their sheer financial and material cost often worked against them, limiting their numbers and effectiveness.

Rather famously, desperation forced the Nazis to entrench many of these vehicles and turn them into bunkers during the dying days of the war. Capable of denying whole towns to the allies at a time while they remained intact and with ammunition. Despite their shortcomings which stemmed from their production costs and over-engineered design, records of 10:1 up to 19:1 kill ratios firmly establish this as one of the deadliest tanks of the War.

5. A22, Churchill Mk. III, Infantry Tank Mk. IV

While World War II might have been the death knell of the infantry tank, it had a few final success stories on each side of the conflict. One of the most famous of these was the Churchill series, which managed to beat the odds in a multitude of unexpected ways, chiefly that it was made at all. Despite bearing the name of the famed Prime Minister of this time, the Mk. I and Mk. II had been complete disasters of tanks. Rushed into service, each was found to have major blind spots and shortcomings even in terms of basic mechanical reliance. Under-powered, temperamental and prone to failure, the entire series was on the verge of being scrapped before the Mk. III was introduced. Then, everything changed.

Initially dispatched only as a minor test group of six tanks called Kingforce, they were sent into the battlefield of North Africa to test the new vehicle's capabilities. This was just in time for the Second Battle of El Alamein, and they proved to be all but unstoppable in the face of German and Italian guns. Spearheading two assaults against heavy Nazi resistance, the group faced down detachments of Panzer Mk. IIIs and Mk IVs, shrugging off hit after hit and answering in kind. Some reports estimate that at least one tank endured eighty direct hits without slowing down, and only one suffered from any noteworthy damage, which was inflicted via friendly fire. Despite suffering from overheating issues thanks to the African environment, the series was given the go-ahead for massed production thanks to these victories, and became a mainstay of the British Army.

Playing a major role in the North African and the Tunisian campaign, the tank spearheaded several famous engagements where the tank repeatedly displayed its sheer fortitude. This was exemplified when two Churchills were isolated by a German ambush during Operation Ochsenkopf and found themselves heavily outnumbered. Yet, despite the Nazis having every advantage they could have wished for, each tank fought its way clear, inflicting more than two hundred enemy casualties in return. 

More impressively still, they were also used to break the bitter stalemate of Longstop Hill in 1943. While the tanks might have been slow, they were capable of climbing sheer inclines which were impassable for other tanks. This allowed them to assault an entrenched Nazi position from a direction the commanders thought was impossible, utterly routing the enemy and even managing to disable a new Tiger Mk.I through sustained fire and several fortunate hits. This would become the famous Tiger 101.

Unlike many on this list, even time would not wholly conquer this series. Despite developments in anti-tank technology, the Churchill series would yield further successes in the Italian, Seoul and Northern European campaigns thanks to its off-road capabilities, repeated upgrades and versatility. It was found to be an incredibly reliable workhorse, acting as a bridge-layer and support tank and remained in service until the late 50s, with only the creation of the legendary Centurion preventing the planned Black Prince model from coming into service.

4. Sturmgesch├╝tz "StuG" III

One of the more criminally underrated creations of World War II, the StuG was the kind of reliable, upgradable and dependable workhorse which Nazi Germany desperately needed. Much like the aforementioned Churchill, it frequently remained in service thanks to a simple skeleton of a design which permitted rapid upgrades as the war dragged on. In fact, despite being introduced in 1940, it would remain a part of the Nazi war machine right up until the very end of 1945.

Despite being better known as a Tank Destroyer, the StuG does not match up with the mental image many hold today of such designs. Often the build is more akin to something like the Hetzer, waiting and ambushing foes before moving off again, or a lightly armoured platform designed to work at extreme ranges. The StuG though, this was an effective assault gun. Capable of reaching 25mph while moving flat out, it could keep pace with the Panzer IIIs and rapidly re-position itself on the battlefield to help defensive positions behind a Blitzkrieg offensive. Their low build meant that they were difficult to pick out at range, but easy to camouflage and their 80mm of armour ensured that they could trade blows with most enemy tanks early into the war.

Outfitted at first with a 7.5 cm KwK 37 main gun, they were used in direct support with infantry units and intended to overcome the reliance upon static firepower. The previous Great War and doctrines which had developed since then saw the use of cumbersome artillery pieces and slow moving machines to dismantle and destroy bunker formations. The StuG's ability to destroy them at such a rapid pace re-wrote tactics overnight, and proved that yesterday's strategies were dead and buried. While the KwK 37 was useful against blast shielded and soft armoured targets however, it proved to have a far harder time with enemy tanks. After suffering at the hands of T-34s and KV-1s during the Russian offensive, it was upgraded with  7.5 cm StuK 40 L/43 and later 7.5 cm StuK 40 L/48 cannons, both of which were vastly more effective against the heavier tanks.

Even after the introduction of the  StuG IV, the III remained in service with a surprising level of effectiveness. Compared with the more costly wunderwaffe weapons or bigger vehicles it was often a more reliable choice, and frequently proved to be at least as effective as such creations. Rather infamously, after the Jagdpanzer IV was pushed into service to supplant the III, it was revealed at Kursk that the older vehicle constantly beat its replacement thanks in part to deployment constraints.

3. M4 Sherman (All Variants)

One of the much more perplexing myths of this war has become the public view of the M4. Part of this might be down to the old public perception of a single Tiger taking on waves of M4s with ease, but the truth is that they were a far cry from the junk-heaps others view as. Released as an immediate replacement for the stop-gap M3, the Sherman saw a multitude of major improvements over tank designs of the era. 

For starters, the forwards armour and turret was incredibly well sloped and surprisingly thick at 177.8mm, allowing them to shrug off firepower from light and medium tanks fielded during the late 30s to early 40s. While this gave the vehicle a conspicuously tall profile, and was a quality found in British tanks, its other benefits gave it elements Germany often held over them. The 75 mm Gun M3 (America apparently loved that designation) was superior to the Panzer III's own weapons, and its engine could reach up to 30mph, meaning it could outrun, outfight and outlast their foes. Better yet, the M4 was also vastly easier to maintain than any other tank the Allies had, with an extremely reliable engine which could be easily be repaired or modified even in the field. Plus it also helped that it consumed far less fuel than many other such vehicles with its ability to power a full 120 miles without the need to refuel.

What made it stand out all the more, however, were its qualities behind the drawing board as well. While the M4 had been pushed into early production and tested during El Alamein's Operation Torch, it had been designed to be built quickly and cheaply without compromising its quality. Better yet though, it had a strong enough skeleton to permit multiple variants to exist, each covering a variety of different roles or being adapted to counter new technology. This resulted in a staggering 49,000 Shermans being built by the war's end, and the sheer number of different designs allowed it to constantly cover blind-spots in the Allied army's structure. The 75 mm Gun M3's not good enough? Okay, add an 76 mm anti-tank gun instead! We need a bridge-layer? Okay, make these slight changes to the design.

While there is no denying that they were simply no match for the Panther or Tiger in direct combat, it was also a sign that they were learning from Germany's own ideas. After all, with the sheer variety of vehicles on hand, who said a tank needed to kill a tank, rather than close support by planes or artillery? So, while the nickname of "Tommy Cookers" was well deserved, they were nevertheless a very effective and dependable design. Without them, the Allies simply wouldn't have benefited from the sheer level of armoured support which helped them win the war.

2. Panzerkampfwagen IV (PzKpfw IV)

Going from a multitude of variants to a single example of a bigger series again, the Panzer IV was another major technological step in an army's development. While the III had been a solid tank on the whole, unexpected opposition and superior armour had seen it left at a disadvantage time and time again. The IV was intended to not only improve upon its flaws, but to completely annihilate the tanks which had frustrated the Nazi army. Many design processes were simplified and streamlined with this tank over its predecessor, permitting faster and easier construction of each vehicle. 

Furthermore, the 7.5 cm KwK 40 main gun adapted from a towed anti-tank gun allowed them to utterly eclipse the likes of the KV-1, blowing them wide open from a range of up to 1,500 meters. This meant that, along with lesser upgrades to reinforce its hull, it could engage and destroy most enemy vehicles at superior ranges without putting itself at risk, and withstand the blows which had brought its predecessor low. In addition to this, the three-man turret design ensured that they retained a far higher rate of fire than many of the French, English and Russian vehicles of this era. This was only enhanced by further upgrades during the campaign in Eastern Europe, as designers up-gunned the tanks and experimented with armoured skirts (arguably early spaced armour) to overcome the relatively thin design.

The IV's effectiveness following its repeated upgrades is evident in a number of reports throughout the later years of the war. While the T-34 might have initially been capable of running rings about previous designs thanks to its own sloped armour, the IV could penetrate them from almost any angle. Some engagements recorded an even higher combat effectiveness than the Tiger during the later years, and made up the bulk of German armoured might. In fact, in most engagements, both the M4 and T-34 came off worse following its long-barreled upgrade, and it was often only secondary factors which limited their ability to blunt advancing enemy forces.

1. Soviet T-34-85

This might seem like both an obvious and an odd choice. On the one hand, the T-34 was a rightfully famous and revolutionary design, you might be wondering why we're focusing upon just one here? Why not all of them like with the M4 Sherman? Well, this might as well cover all of the T-34 designs, but we're focusing upon this one as it effectively took the best elements of every other tank on this list, and beat them at their own game.

The T-34-85 was developed in response to the improved Panzer IVs and the introduction of the Tiger to battlefields. While their initial tanks had retained an edge against the Nazi armoured might, the sheer penetrating power of their new cannons was rapidly overcoming the sloped design of their machines, and exploiting design weaknesses. While the initial planned response to this was the creation of the entirely new T-43 and pressing their IS-2s into combat, until upgrading the T-34 proved to be a much more feasible option. Its armour plating was reinforced at multiple points, particularly about the vulnerable turret base, and a much more powerful 85mm ZiS-S-53 gun. While this particular cannon lacked the sheer scale of the famed Flak 88 or a significant improvement in explosive potential, its sheer penetrating power was enough to even the odds. 

Now capable of punching through the side armour of Panthers and Tigers, multiple engagements proved that the T-34-85 was more than able to outperform them. This was in part to the major upgrades, admittedly, but it was also thanks to the fact that Russia had benefited from several new strengths without losing any of their previous ones. As it still used most of the components from their previous T-34 designs, the shift in production barely caused a drop in their output, and it only cost an estimated 30% more than a standard design. Furthermore, it was still surprisingly fast and extremely numerous, allowing them to overwhelm and outflank enemy positions. In effect, while Germany had poured thousands into building new superior tanks, delaying production, and creating a nightmare for both their bankers and engineers, Russia had done the same thing with barely a single failing. It's telling that, in trying to achieve the same goal, Germany produced less than seven thousand Panthers and a mere one-thousand-three-hundred Tiger Mk. Is, Russia churned out over twenty-thousand T-34-85s.

In the end, for all the effort Nazi Germany had put into building a new super tank, Russia would have the last laugh. Not by reworking a completely new design into an almighty slow moving juggernaut, but by just improving upon what they had until it could outfight them at every turn.

So, those are the best tanks of the Second World War, at least in my opinion anyway. There are some which could have made it onto here admittedly, and a few which were very close runners-up, but I personally stand by these choices. Each played a major part in shaping military tactics today, and were dominant in their fields for at least one point during the conflict. If you have your own suggestions or thoughts on what else should have been on here, please feel free to add them to the listing below with a few reasons why. After all, the more the merrier. 


  1. When I saw the title I knew what the top three tanks would be, the only thing I didn't know was what order they would be in. I didn't doubt that you'd have the Sherman on here (though I feel it's a little cheating to list all the designs while picking the T-34-85). About the only thing I didn't know was whether or not the T-34 (one of them anyway) was going to be #1 or #2.

    1. Hah, well, honestly I did try to limit down the Sherman to a couple of options, but the problem I kept bumping into was they didn't really reflect just how versatile the machine was. In many respects its sheer genius stemmed from the fact you could get the tank to do damn near anything, adjust it to almost any role, while the T-34 was more or less always built primarily as a killing machine. So, I tried to reflect upon the sheer genius of the basic Sherman while showing the fact the T-34 was so adaptable that it could out-fight the Tiger with a few upgrades, even after that had been built from the ground up as an entirely new tank.

      Basically it was trying to respect the great benefits and ideas behind two very different vehicles.