We lovers of tanks may not think a lot about how and why tanks came to be; we’re just happy that they are. To us, those hulking hunks of tracked steel are things of beauty, just as aircraft or ships are for others. Some appreciation of how the concept of the tank came about can only add to our affection for them, however, and knowing a bit about this might even help non-treadheads understand us and our obsession.
The “modern” tank was developed, first by the British, to be a mechanism for breaking the bloody stalemate on the Western Front during the First World War. Barbed wire and machine guns had made infantry assaults suicidal; the hope was that the mobility, armored protection, and firepower tanks could bring to the battlefield would turn the tide and bring victory to the Allies.
Lack of numbers, the technical limitations of the first tanks, and the way tanks were employed early on kept them from being the decisive weapon they were meant to be in World War I, but change was in the air. A few visionaries saw the potential for armored warfare to change things drastically in the future, in the same way others realized what air power might be capable of in wars to come.
While the military establishments of the victorious powers in the Great War quickly forgot or chose to ignore lessons learned from the employment of armor, several individuals in defeated Germany eagerly studied those lessons and just as eagerly absorbed the theories of armored warfare put forth by the few lonely souls in the West who could see past the way armies had “always done things.”
World War II came about as a direct result of a desire for revenge. Germany had been humiliated and punished at the conclusion of the war of 1914-1918. The worst aspect of defeat for some Germans was that their nation had been compelled to accept sole blame for the bloody slaughter of those years. Foremost among those bitter Germans was Adolf Hitler. Upon seeing a demonstration of armor prior to the Second World War, Hitler is said to have exclaimed, “This is what I need! This is what I have to have!” Whether or not the quote is authentic, there can be no doubt that Hitler gave his support to the development of what would become the Third Reich’s famous panzer divisions.
Perhaps the purest example of what would come to be known as “Blitzkrieg” (lightning war) was the German defeat of the French army and the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) in the summer of 1940. War proceeding at the pace of 25 miles per hour may not seem particularly rapid today, but in the early years of World War II, a front line that shifted 50 miles or more in a day was truly astonishing—and terrifying for those who were being pushed back or bypassed by enemy armor.
The revolutionary theory of warfare as practiced by the Germans in 1940 involved using tanks as a mass of mobile power to find and penetrate a weak point in an enemy’s defenses. Once that initial object was achieved, the tanks would “roll up” the enemy’s front line, enveloping his forces and creating havoc in rear areas. Dive bombers, serving as mobile artillery, would race ahead to take out enemy formations and strong points. Motorized infantry would pour through the gap tanks had created, consolidate territorial gains, and protect the penetration’s flanks.