(Some of this is taken from a previous post on Statistical Issues.)
Left us start with the issue of tanks from the perspective of propaganda. More rubbish has been written about who had the best tanks during the Second World War than about any other topic to do with that war. Again and again you get supposedly serious historians talking about how the Germans started the Second World War with overwhelming tank superiority; that the Allies were only brought back into the race by the arrival of the Sherman tank; and how German technology leapt ahead again at the end of the Second World War to give them unrivalled vehicles. All these statements are of course completely incorrect.
One of the problems of course, is 'best tank when, and for what?'
Comparing what was available in 1939/40 to what was being produced in 1945 (say a Panzer III or Matilda II with a Centurion or Stalin), is worse than useless. There is no comparison. Only the Panzer IV was actually produced throughout the war: and the heavily armoured final version of the tank – with a long barrelled 75mm gun capable of taking on almost every tank yet operational in mid 1945 – bore only a passing resemblance to the lightly armoured tank with a short barrelled infantry support gun – of with minimal ability to do more than scratch the paint of a CharB in 1939/40.
The best tank in the world in 1939 was the French Somua 35 (closely followed by the FrenchCharB). These tanks were, for the period, the best armed, armoured, and most mechanically reliable vehicles available. They repeatedly demonstrated their complete invulnerability to the standard German tank and anti-tank guns, and were often able to destroy large numbers of German tanks, before eventually being themselves destroyed by hastily deployed German heavy artillery or anti-aircraft guns. There are records of single French tanks taking over 130 hits from German anti-tank guns, while blithely cruising around destroying German tanks, vehicles, and guns.
The main fault to be had with the French tanks however, was their one-man turret. It may have had a 47 mm gun capable of knocking out any German tank of the period, but it meant that the tank commander had responsibility for loading, aiming, and firing, as well as directing his own tank, and those of the other units in his squadron. Given that far too few tanks had radio, the magnificent equipment was always left down by command and control techniques.
Fortunately for the allies, the best tank of 1940 was the British Matilda II. Not only did it have armour invulnerable to any German gun except their heavy anti-aircraft artillery - the famous 88 mm - it also had a 40 mm gun capable of defeating any German tank of the period, and the magnificent advantage of a three-man turret with proper radio facilities. Unfortunately for the allies, there were only a few dozen of these available in northern France. Not nearly enough to turn the tide. They did however have the crucial effect of scaring the German divisional commander (one Erwin Rommel) into pulling back and re-fortifying his position rather than advancing after the Arras counter-attack; and an equally stellar affect on the German high command who froze Panzer operations for a few crucial days to let infantry catch up, and then refused permission for the Panzers to be wasted in the tax on the evacuating British and French forces at Dunkirk.
A minor sidelight here. I have always had trouble with history books, or indeed with graduates of various army training schools, who hold that Hitler should have allowed his tanks to roll over the Allies at Dunkirk. They manage to ignore several important details. The German blitzkrieg worked against second-rate troops, and only became a rout when they found their way into rear at areas with inadequate lines of defence. The German tanks facing the more professional Allied forces in Belgium were beaten off time and again with significant casualties. The idea that the Germans would have been effective in attacking the cream of the Allied forces, well-equipped with artillery, anti-tank guns, and tanks, in what would effectively become street fighting (the worst possible offensive terrain for tanks), is highly dubious. The fact that most of the German tanks had just completed several hundred kilometers of fast movement and now needed major maintenance was also an issue. As was Hitler’s quite sensible belief that it was more important to redeploy them to finish off France, than to waste them against desperate men in a fortified port.
The Matilda and its successor the Valentine would probably still the best Allied tanks in the world in early 1941, when they swept Italian forces before them, and several times fought the German African corps to a standstill. The German response to their shocking failures in 1940, had been to upgrade the Panzer III and IV with slightly improved armour, and the short barreled 50 mm gun. But they were still on a losing wicket engaging the British infantry tanks in any sort of close terrain, such as in the siege of Tobruk. Fortunately for Rommel, out in the open terrain of the desert he could deploy his tanks behind screens of high-powered anti- tank guns, which the British tanks lacked the long-range high explosive shells to engage effectively.
This is where the myth of the value of the Sherman tank comes from. The Sherman arrived at a time when it’s armour and weapon were on a par with the Panzer III and IV tanks that it was facing. Despite the fact that its 75 mm gun was greatly inferior as an anti-tank weapon to the new British six pounder guns that were starting to equip British tanks, the high explosive shell that the Sherman could fire was incredibly useful for engaging Rommel’s 88 mm guns at long-distance in the flat desert terrain.
For several months, it seemed as though the mechanically reliable Sherman would be a war winner, despite its notable tendency to explode in flames whenever it was hit. (Allied troops refer to it as a Ronson - “lights first time every time”. German troops just referred to it as a “Tommy Cooker”.) But this concept was fantasy, which could be easily demonstrated within a few months, though it took the US government another two years to admit it.
Within months of the Sherman arriving on the battlefield. the Panzer IV had been upgraded to a long barrelled 75, and the result, as many commentators have noted, "was more than a match for any contemporary Allied tank".
Worse was to be revealed in the Tunisia campaigns, where the Sherman’s came up against the Tiger tank (a response to the brilliant Russian T34), which was almost completely invulnerable to their 75 mm guns. (The British were very grateful that their more efficient six pounder anti-tank weapons were already being reinforced by the magnificent new 17 pounder anti-tank weapons which could deal with these monsters.) Nonetheless American authorities apparently learnt nothing from this campaign. (To be fair the British were also working on the assumption that a six pounder anti-tank gun would be adequate tank armament to see out the war at this point.) However the Italian campaign revealed conclusively that shorter range engagements against more heavily armed and armoured vehicles made the Sherman completely obsolete. Even the much more heavily armoured British Churchill, with it’s astonishing cross country ability and acceptable 6 pounder was not adequate.
The British response was surprisingly fast (considering how slowly things had changed in the past), not only designing and manufacturing 17 pounder version of the Cromwell from scratch in time to have some available for the D-Day landings; but also developing a version of the Sherman that carried the 17 pounder gun. This latter – the Sherman Firefly – was offered to the Americans, along with all the other ‘funnies’ that Percy Hobart had designed for the campaign, but again American military authorities - particularly General Omar Bradley - felt that none of this was necessary. (See casualties at Omaha compared to British/Canadian landings. For the rest of the war the Americans had to borrow British ‘funnies’ for assault operations.)
The campaigning Normandy showed even more thoroughly how ineffective the standard Sherman was as an assault tank, but still American authorities insisted that swapping from a 75 mm to a 76 mm gun would be enough to see out the war. The new gun was significantly better, giving the Americans and the equivalent anti-tank firepower to the British six pounder (which had been recognized as being insufficient for two years in British service) or the Russian 85mm. However the weapon was nowhere near as efficient as the 17 pounder which the British now had in more than half their tanks and self-propelled anti-tank guns.
In all of this so far, I have barely mentioned the Russians at all. Their T34 tank was possibly the single most effective of the war, and was the breakthrough that forced everyone else to rethink their designs. So we can say without a shadow of a doubt that the T34 was the best tank of the war for almost two years – from the time of Barbarossa (June 22, 1941) until the appearance of the Panther at Kursk (July 5, 1943). It certainly held this title unchallenged by the Sherman and Churchill tanks that appeared during its reign, and probably by the Tiger as well.
The Tiger is a problem for this sort of discussion, because it re-introduces the concept of 'what for' into the debate. The Tiger was a far superior heavy infantry support or assault tank to the T34, but a far inferior battlefield manoeuvre or pursuit tank. In fact the Tiger was so slow and limited in cross country ability, that it was actually more effective as a defensive weapon once the Germans were thrown back on that approach, than it had been for re-igniting their Blitzkreig glory days.
Which brings up another debate worth considering. Heavy versus medium tanks, and their roles.
The vast majority of western books are fixated on the 'best' tank, perhaps on the assumption that a single tank that will do all jobs is the best solution. Certainly there are loud complaints in many textbooks about the British division of their armour into Infantry versus Cruiser tank formations. For some reason it is believed that this was a waste of resources, that could have been better spent on a 'compromise' tank that could do everything required.
It doesn't seem to occur to such critics that the technology levels of most nations for most of the war were to up to a genuine 'all purpose' tank. In the last days of the war, both the Americans and British rushed the new models to the front line. The American Pershing heavy tank had a very good 90 mm gun, and much better armour. It also unfortunately, had the same engine as the Sherman for much greater weight, so was as slow and difficult to manoeuvre as many of the underpowered German heavy tanks. It is not really an 'all purpose' design. By contrast to the British were moving the first of their Centurion tanks to the front line even as the war finished. The Centurion had an unrivalled balance of armour, gun, and manoeuvrability. Whereas the Pershing had a service life of only a few years, the Centurion is still in front-line service with several nations in the Middle East, Asia, and Africa, including Israel which has used them in many wars. (The South Africans have just announced yet another upgrade to keep the Centurion at battle standards).
It should be noted though, that many people suggest that, technically, the first genuine all purpose tank – the Centurion – was actually a post war design, because the 6 operational tanks in Belguim when Germany surrendered had not actually engaged German tanks. (As opposed to the Pershing, the 20 operational examples having engaged German tanks at least twice…) This appears to be splitting hairs more than a bit considering the war continued for several more months in Asia against an opponent not worthy of redeploying Pershing's or Centurian's against – in fact incapable of facing even obsolescent Matilda's (Australians in New Guinea), Stuart's and Grant's (Burma). But it does reinforce the point that such designs were technically not possibly for most nations for most of the war.
The truth is that every nation that took tanks seriously in WWII had different categories of armoured vehicles. Every single one of them – French, German, Russian, Italian, British, American and even Japanese – had armoured cars for scouting; light tanks for more combat intensive reconnaissance and pursuit; medium tanks for open warfare and pursuit; and most had heavy tanks for infantry support and breakthroughs . (To be fair the Italians and Japanese never had heavy tanks…. and their mediums looked a bit 'light' by anyone else's standards.)
The writers who decry the British Infantry and Cruiser tank division seem unaware that almost everyone else had the same division. The Germans had Panzer III cruisers, and the early Panzer IV's with low velocity short barrelled guns as infantry support vehicles. Later this division was the Panther – whose 75mm high velocity high explosive shell lacked punch for anti-infantry or anti-artillery work – and the Tiger - the 88mm high explosive shell having much greater punch: but the principle was the same. The French had the Somua 35 for cruiser work, and the CharB for assault work. The Russians had a variety of heavy and medium tanks throughout the war on the same principles.
Only the Americans had a different division, with their preference being general purpose cruisers with low velocity 75's, and 'tank destroyers' with high velocity 76.2's, but based on pretty similar hulls. In some ways their division was prescient, in that the German 'Jagd' tank destroyers were just a more streamlined version of the same principle - heavier gun on specialist version of similar hull. But it left the Americans with a hole in the assault tank/infantry support category that was never adequately filled. (Whenever they needed heavy tanks to assault one of the fortified ports in France, it was the specialised Churchill's of General Hobart's 79th division that they had to call on.)
Having noted the necessary division between medium cruisers and heavy assault/infantry support tanks however, we can still make a fair summary.
So, in contrast to what many history books and documentaries will tell you, the French had the best tanks in 1939, and the British had the best tanks of 1940 and 1945. Also in contrast to what many history books will tell you, the Shermans effective front-line role can best be defined as the few months between the battle of Alamein, and the arrival of Tiger tanks in Tunisia. All attempts to use it after that in Italy or northern France just demonstrated how pathetic it was in modern engagements. Even the British Firefly version with the 17 pounder, was extremely vulnerable to any German tank. In fact it is amusing to note, that they came into their own for the blitzkrieg across open country in pursuit of the defeated German armies across France; which has a direct parallel to the inferior German tanks pursuing the defeated French in 1940. (The equally inadequate British Cromwell tanks, being significantly faster, were actually still better at this pursuit than the Shermans.) The best tank of the Sherman's period of functional use, of course being the T34.
So our list of 'best tanks' could go something like this.
1939 - Best cruiser - Somua 35, Best support - CharB.
1940 - Best support becomes Matilda II.
1941 - Best cruiser initially Panzer III/IV with short 50mm guns, becomes T34 when Russia enters the war.
1942 - Best support is Tiger.
1943 - Best cruiser is Panther.
1944 - Best support is Tiger II.
1945 - Best 'all purpose' is Centurion.