The Best Army Tanks of World War II

The Panther, T-34, Tiger, Mk. IV Panzer, and Sherman

By Chuck Hawks


Everyone is entitled to their own opinion as to which tank was the best of WW II. My criteria for inclusion were that the tanks selected had to be a major factor in the war, be produced in large numbers, and be effective in battle. The German King Tiger, for instance, was not included as it was unreliable, slow, and only 484 were produced. It proved more useful dug-in as a gun emplacement than for maneuver, hardly a great recommendation for a tank.

Here is a quote from Hasso Manteuffel, commander of the German 7th Panzer Division, taken from Basil Hart's book The Other Side of the Hill:

"Tanks must be fast. That, I would say, is the most important lesson of the war in regard to tank design. The Panther was on the right lines, as a prototype."

"Fire-power, armor protection, speed and cross-country performance are the essentials, and the best type of tank is that which combines these conflicting requirements with the most success. In my opinion the German Panzer V, the 'Panther,' was the most satisfactory of all, and would have been close to the ideal had it been possible to design with a lower silhouette."

Following, in order of precedence, are my choices as the best tanks of WW II.

1. German Mk. V Panther

The sloping armor of the German Panther tank was a response to a similar feature on the Russian T-34, although the basic Panther design traces its roots back to the pre-war years. Pursuing this process of one-upmanship, the Germans created the best tank of the Second World War when they introduced the Panther in January 1943. It was deployed in time for the battle of Kursk, its first major engagement.

The Panther was a medium tank with decent speed, satisfactory reliability, heavy German FHA 80-85mm sloped frontal armor and very good firepower. The Panther's high velocity 75mm gun could penetrate the armor of all Allied tanks, making it a lethal adversary. The tank's top speed was 28 MPH. The Panther's design featured a torsion bar suspension system and interleaved wheels, which allowed it to go practically anywhere. Some 4814 Panthers were produced before the end of the war.

It was a particularly dangerous foe for the American, Canadian and British Sherman tanks, which were simply no match for the Panther. The Panther was faster, more reliable, more maneuverable and could go more places than its larger running mate, the Tiger tank. Its sloped armor gave it nearly the immune zone of the heavier Tiger.

Had Germany won the war, I believe that the Panther would today have a service record and longevity comparable to that achieved by the Russian T-34. As they say, winning is everything.

2. Russian T-34

Russia adopted the T-34/76 medium tank in December of 1939. This breakthrough vehicle was designed to be "shell proof" with welded 45mm frontal armor sloped at 60 degrees. It was also designed to be easy to mass-produce, maintain and repair and this proved to be perhaps its greatest advantage over German armor.

Only 1,225 T-34's had been built by the time the Germans invaded the USSR. Still, when the T-34 first went into action in June 1941 it was a nasty surprise to the German Panzers. Production was increased and the T-34 soon out numbered as well as out performed the German Mk. III and early (Ausf A-F) Mk. IV Panzer tanks that were its main adversary in the "Great Patriotic War" during the period 1941-1943. Later in the war the Mk. IV was up-gunned and the thickness of its armor increased to make it a worthy adversary for the T-34.

The T-34/76 gets its name from the 76mm main cannon with which it was equipped. This gun was perfectly satisfactory against the Panzer III and early Mk. IV, but inadequate to penetrate the frontal armor of the later German Panzer IV's (late G, H, and J's), Tiger and Panther tanks at long range. For use against enemy troops there were hull and turret mounted machine guns.

The T-34's shortcoming in main battery firepower was solved by the introduction of an 85mm main gun, mounted in a turret designed for the KV-1C tank, which made the T-34/85 one of the world's great tanks. The new gun gave the T-34/85 the punch it needed, along with overwhelming numerical superiority, to dominate the Eastern Front and drive the Germans back to the Reich. The new turret was more resistant to German shell hits, offering the Soviet crew better protection. A five-speed transmission was also adopted at this time.

The T-34 was tough, maneuverable, reliable and capable of traversing almost any type of terrain. It was, overall, the best Allied tank of the war, generally pretty comparable to the late models of the German Mk. IV Panzer. By the end of the war some 40,000 T-34's had been produced.

It remained in service far longer than any other WW II vintage tank. T34's served in Korea, where U.S. soldiers found that their sloped armor made them almost impervious to light anti-tank weapons. In fact, I understand that T34's are still in service with some minor powers, a 60 year record of service approached by no other tank.

3. German PzKfW Mk. IV Panzer

The 17.3 ton Mk. IV Panzer tank was introduced in 1937 and used throughout WW II. Early in that conflict it was the dominant tank. Its fast firing, short barreled 75mm gun was ideal for supporting infantry and the early (Ausf A-D) Mark IV was used with great effectiveness in German Blitzkrieg attacks on Poland, France, the low countries and initially in the invasion of the USSR. Top speed was 18 MPH and the frontal armor was 30mm thick. The Mk. IV Ausf F received an armor upgrade to 50mm and the Ausf G had 80mm bolted/welded armor.

There were hull and turret mounted machine guns to increase the Mark IV's lethality against enemy infantry. Between 1940 and 1945, Germany produced about 9,000 of these tanks, making the Mk. IV far more numerous on both the Western and Eastern Fronts than the later Panther and Tiger tanks. The Mark IV provided a nice balance of protection, firepower, reliability and maneuverability.

When it was realized that the original, short barreled 75mm gun lacked the muzzle velocity to penetrate the sloped armor of the newer Soviet T34 tank except at close range, a long barreled 75mm kwk L/43 and L/48 gun became standard in the Mark IV. This high velocity weapon could penetrate the T34's armor at any angle to beyond 1200 yards and served for the rest of the war, keeping the Mk. IV a dangerous foe for all Allied tanks.

When it became evident during 1941 that the armor of Ausf D-F Mk. IV's could be defeated by the latest Allied tanks, the Mk. IV's frontal armor was upgraded to 80mm FHA in the late G, H and J models. This spurred the Soviets to increase the firepower of the T34 with an 85mm main gun (see section above) as a response. At that point the Mk. IV and the T34 were pretty even antagonists, one on one, and remained so for the rest of the war.

4. German Mk. IV Tiger

The famous German Tiger tank was a response to the great Soviet T43 tank. The Tiger was very heavily armored and was equipped with a powerful 88mm main gun. The difference between a 75mm American or 76mm Russian main gun and a German 88mm gun may not sound like much, but in terms of weight and effectiveness of shell it was enormous. This powerful weapon was augmented by a hull mounted machine gun.

This high velocity cannon was the most powerful main gun carried by any tank during WW II. It could destroy all Allied tanks at long range. Even the very heavy Soviet Stalin tank could be penetrated at 1,500 meters and most Allied tanks could be knocked out at 3000 meters.

The Tiger's vertical 100mm (4") frontal armor made it nearly impervious to fire from the 75mm guns of Allied Sherman tanks and early Soviet T34/76 tanks. Sloped armor would have given the Tiger an even greater immune zone, but Hitler did not want the Tiger to reflect Russian T-34 design influences. In any event, the Tiger was only vulnerable if one of the smaller Allied tanks could get in a killing shot from behind, where its armor was thinner.

On the other hand, the Tiger's heavy armor and big gun made it so heavy (55 tons) that its great weight prevented it from crossing lightly built bridges. In addition, the Tiger was bothered by engine overheating and suspension problems. The Tiger had a top speed of about 23 mph and it guzzled fuel. According to some sources, it was slow to train its turret. The first 250 Tigers were powered by a Maybach HL 210 P45 diesel. It reportedly took almost 2 minutes to traverse through 360 degrees under power, or about three minutes to train manually. Other sources dispute this and quote 60 seconds at maximum RPM (RPM based traverse) to traverse 360 degrees. Later Tigers with the higher reving Maybach HL 230 P45 engine could traverse through 360 degrees in 40-48 seconds at maximum RPM.

A Tiger cost about three times as much to produce as a Panzer Mk. IV, so Tigers were never built in the numbers required to win the war on the ground. Total Tiger production amounted to some 1350 tanks. Perhaps the most formidable tank of the war in one on one tank combat, the Tiger was not the best all-around tank in the German inventory. Its lighter, faster and more numerous running mate, the Panther, held that honor.

5. American M4 Sherman

The M4 Sherman tank is included in this list because it was produced in greater numbers than any other WW II tank. It became the standard battle tank not only of U.S. forces, but also of the UK, Canada, Australia and the rest of the British Commonwealth.

Sherman tanks served on all fronts during the war, even with the Red Army on the Eastern Front when it was supplied to the Soviet Union. Its numerical superiority on the battlefield went a long way in the ETO, sometimes allowing Allied tankers in Shermans to defeat individually superior German Panther and Tiger tanks.

The Sherman was provided with a rather short barreled 75mm (3") main gun. This was an excellent, fast firing anti-infantry weapon. It was able to penetrate thin armor, which made the Sherman superior to the light weight Japanese tanks it encountered in Asia and the Pacific Theatre.

Unfortunately, the American 75mm gun was usually unable to knock out the heavily armored German Panther, Tiger, and King Tiger tanks unless it got within very short range (inside 100 yards or less). On the other hand, the Sherman was also equipped with a hull mounted machine gun plus a turret mounted machine gun and a free swinging machine gun mounted above the turret hatch for the tank commander. This made it a tough on enemy infantry and a fine fire support vehicle for friendly infantry.

To help resolve the 75mm cannon's deficiency, a gun with a longer barrel that operated at a higher muzzle velocity was adopted for later Shermans. This 76mm gun gave the Sherman a better chance against the more heavily armored German tanks, but was not produced in sufficient numbers.

The Sherman was protected by 2" (50mm) side armor. This was sufficient to save the crew from small arms fire and light artillery, but left the Sherman terribly vulnerable to the high velocity 75mm and 88mm guns carried by the German Mark IV, Panther and Tiger tanks.

The high velocity German guns that could easily penetrate the Sherman's armor, coupled with vulnerable ammunition storage, gave the Sherman the nickname "Ronson," taken from the Ronson cigarette lighter. This was based on the Ronson Company's famous slogan, "lights first time, every time."

Mechanically, the Sherman was highly reliable and easily repaired, unlike some Axis tanks. A satisfactory tank on the scene was tactically more valuable than a potentially great tank stalled somewhere away from the battle. This bitter lesson was repeatedly driven home to German field commanders, who often could not get their Tiger and King Tiger tanks into crucial battles on a timely basis.

The Sherman, of course, fought the Japanese as well as the Germans and Italians. The different theatres had quite different tank requirements. In Asia and the Pacific the Sherman performed very well. It was probably the best all-around tank in the war against Japan.




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Copyright 2005, 2012 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.


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