We’ll start with the most famous American tank of all time, the Sherman. The USA produced nearly 50,000 of these tanks during WWII. The Sherman was the heart and soul of the U.S. armored forces throughout the war. Simplicity, ruggedness, and reliability were the chief virtues of this outstanding vehicle, but the Sherman was not without its faults. The Sherman was chronically under-gunned when compared to the German tanks it had to fight. It was also chronically under armored, with a distressing tendency to catch fire when hit by enemy shells. Sherman crews, as a matter of fact, called their tanks “Ronsons,” since they lit “first time, every time.” The Sherman was successful partly because of its ruggedness and the great number produced. In normal battlefield circumstances Shermans outnumbered their German counterparts three, four, or more to one. In fact, one common tactic used when stalking a much more heavily armed and armored German tank was for two or three Shermans to keep their opponent “busy,” (which, incidentally, could have been extremely hazardous) while a couple more Shermans would try to get into a position from which they could hit the enemy tank in its more vulnerable flank or rear.
The next most well-known U.S. tank to come out of WWII was the Stuart, which, like the Sherman, was named by the British for a famous Yankee General. The Stuart was a light tank with a relatively puny 37mm gun. In Europe it was used mainly for reconnaissance, police, and mop-up duties, but in the Pacific and in Burma the Stuart was a star performer, busting bunkers, smashing pillboxes, and navigating terrain where larger and heavier tanks could not go. The Stuart was generally stout enough to defeat the small numbers of poorly armored Japanese tanks it encountered. And, like the Sherman, the Stuart was a model of reliability – so much so that British soldiers in North Africa gave it a second nickname – “Honey.”
Among historians of armor, no tank is more legendary than Germany’s Tiger. Originally developed as a counter to some of the more heavily armored British and French tanks of WWII, the Tiger not only held its own against all Allied types, but dominated to such an extent that Allied troops literally feared it. With thick armor and a powerful 88mm cannon, the Tiger was a vehicle of formidable fighting capability. Against these good points should be weighed the chief drawback of the Tiger – its size and weight. Because of its massive armor, the Tiger weighed about 25 tons more than the American Sherman (55 tons, compared to the Sherman’s 30 tons). The result was rather delicate steering, transmission, and suspension, and crucially, a very greedy fuel consumption. To give a fair indication of the Tiger’s power, it should be noted that Germany’s leading Tiger ace, Michael Wittmann, had 138 tank kills to his credit at the time of his death in Normandy in 1944. Fortunately for the Allies, the Tiger was always grossly outnumbered.
Alright, this tank might not be a household word, but the Soviet T-34 of WWII was a true masterpiece of armor, and deserves a place in history with the great armor designs of all time. The T-34 came as close as possible to achieving the perfect blend of speed, protection, and firepower. The T-34 had a very adequate 76.2mm gun, and it was quite fast for its time, with a top speed of 32mph (compared to the Tiger’s 23.5mph). The most revolutionary thing about this tank, though, was its sloped armor, which gave more protection for a given thickness than vertical plate. Like the Americans with their Sherman, the Soviets produced about 50,000 of this excellent tank.
Not as famous as the Tiger, but actually more important to the Germans, the Panther was produced as a direct response to the threat posed by the Soviet T-34. This dangerous-looking vehicle had the same excellent characteristics as the T-34 – sloped armor, a powerful gun, and a high road speed of 34mph. Unfortunately, Hitler insisted on rushing the Panther into battle before it was ready, with the result that more of the first Panthers to see service were lost to breakdowns than to enemy fire. Nevertheless, the Panther was a deadly transmission to the end of its service. Still, the Panther was a deadly opponent, capable of putting a shot clean through a Sherman at close range.
The ultimate in German tank design in WWII was represented by the King Tiger, also known as the Tiger II or Royal Tiger. Like the Panther, this massive (67 tons) vehicle had sloped armor and an even more powerful version of the 88mm weapon carried by the original Tiger. This tank was so thickly armored as to be almost impervious to the enemy fire from the front at normal battle ranges. Its gun could kill any Allied tank at very long distances. Even so, the King Tiger had all of the worst faults of the original Tiger and the Panther – it was too heavy, burned too much fuel, and its engine, suspension, and transmission were overstressed. The Allies did feel fortunate, however, that only 489 King Tigers were produced.
By now some readers may be asking if there are any famous tanks from any time other than WWII. For the armor buff, the answer is most definitely yes, but for the general public it is a most definite maybe. Since WWII was the biggest war that ever was, it only makes sense that many famous tanks would come from that era. But in more recent times, the tank that most average people would have heard of is America’s M-1, of Desert Storm fame. The war against Iraq silenced many of the critics of this fantastic fighting machine. Powered by a quiet- running multi-fuel turbine engine, this 67ton (the same weight as the German King Tiger) tank can travel at speeds in excess of 55mph, and it can take aim on and strike targets 90% of the time while on the move! It has space-age composite (steel and ceramic) armor which gives its crews excellent chances for survival in battle. In the Gulf War, only four M-1s were lost, and once of those was a victim of “friendly fire.” As an indication of the advances in armor in the last 50 or so years, no WWII era tank, however powerful, would have a ghost of a chance against a modern M-1.
Postscript: Of all the great tanks ever produced, two have passed the only true test of greatness, longevity. Fifty years on, the American Sherman and the Soviet T-34 soldier on in various parts of the world. Shermans with new guns and engines were, in fact, a mainstay for the Israelis in their wars with the Arabs.