A Short History of Military Tanks

By Henry Frost
The History Channel Magazine, 2004

The U.S. Army’s Abrams tank, capable of cruising at 42 miles per hour, withstanding withering fire, and putting nasty shells into small targets more than a mile away, is a culmination of 80 years of tank development begun in Britain at the outset of the First World War, and pursued diligently, and expensively, by many nations since. Here is a brief history of an earth-shaking weapon.

An M1A1 Abrams tank.

A Sherman tank (the “Rhino” model) during World War II.

A British Mark I tank in the First World War.

Model of an Egyptian chariot.

Tanks fulfill an ancient ideal of warriors by combining three attributes in one package – mobility, protection, and firepower.

The chariot is an example of the three-in-one approach. The “chariot age” of the Near East, writes historian Nigel Tallis, spanned the years 1600 BCE to 745 BCE, centered in Egypt:

In this period the fast chariot, which had been known for some 200 years, finally reached its full military potential when paired with defensive armour for horse, vehicle and crew and a complete offensive armament….The concept of the “chariot-system” was to reign supreme throughout the Near East for nearly 1,000 years….

The Mongol Army of the 13th century CE was the greatest exemplar of the three-in-one idea before the mechanized age. The horsemen of Chingis Khan swept west on the Asian steppe, moving more than twice as fast as the cavalry of their opponents, protected by coats of oxhide and mail, and shooting their arrows farther and more accurately than the other side. Military theorist Capt. Basil Liddell-Hart wrote in the 1920s that tanks, if used well, could become the natural successors to the massed horsemen of the Great Khan.

Tank-like ideas have kicked around for centuries. In the 1400s, Leonardo da Vinci sketched weaponry that bears similarities to tanks. Also in that period, John Zizka bolted cannons to farm carts and erected wooden planks to protect the guns.

The internal combustion engine arrived in the late 1800s, and by 1899, people were building armored cars. The vehicles failed to catch on in a big way with armies, but perhaps they planted seeds in a few minds.

The idea of the continuous track (the “caterpillar” track), fundamental to the tank, developed gradually starting in the late 1700s. The basic idea of such a system is to distribute the weight of a vehicle and give it better traction. The Crimean War (1853-1856) saw the use of steam-powered tractors with tracks (minus any offensive weaponry). In 1904, the American inventor Benjamin Holt introduced a steam-powered tracked vehicle for farming; in 1908 he brought out a tractor that ran on gasoline. (His company is now known as Caterpillar Inc.)

In 1903 the British author H.G. Wells speculated about “Land Ironclads.” In 1911 German military planners pondered tank ideas but nothing got built. In 1912, an Australian named L.E. de Mole proposed a tracked fighting vehicle, but again, the concept stalled.

Then came the guns of August.

The First World War began with a flurry of movement in the summer of 1914, followed by stalemate. The Germans settled into a defensive posture on the Western Front, attacked by the British and French with little success. The basic offensive tactic was to “soften up” the enemy with artillery shells, and send infantry troops, plus horse cavalry, against some objective – a fort, a railyard, higher ground, a weak point in enemy lines. British and French generals failed to consider the possibility that their artillery might not do a good job of preparing a path for the foot soldiers, nor did they immediately realize that attack was a more difficult proposition in the era of barbed wire and machine guns. Brave young men were slaughtered in horrifying numbers as they walked into fire. The Brits adopted a bleak nickname for their foot soldiers – “PBI” – “poor bloody infantry.”

Author William Manchester summarizes: “….On every front in the war….defensive strengths had spiked the attackers’ guns, sheathed their bayonets, broken their swords, and left the once proud war-horse to forage behind the lines….”

A new weapon was wanted. Lt. Col. Ernest Swinton of the British Army saw the need for a tracked armored vehicle that could roll cross-country across mud and soft earth, smash through barbed wire, traverse trenches, and deal with machine gun nests. He was partly inspired by a glimpse of a Holt tractor.

Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty, was thinking along similar lines, envisioning steam tractors fitted with small armored shelters. He wrote a memo about the idea in January, 1915, but the note got pigeonholed by a bureaucrat in the army’s ordnance department. Churchill had dinner with Swinton in February, 1915. Their thinking coalesced, and the next day Churchill ordered one of his naval designers to draw a “land ship” that would run on tracks. He freed up some money and got the thing built, and in 1916, at a parade ground in London, he watched a demonstration of the “Mark I,” known informally as “Big Willie,” history’s first military tank. (It was preceded by a prototype, “Little Willie.”) The machine was also known as “Winston’s Folly” – skeptics said it would never work, it would not be able to handle the mud of the Western Front, the horrible gray-brown sea that engulfed men and drowned them.

Big Willie was 32 feet long, eight feet high, and shaped like a lozenge. In action, it carried eight sweltering men. The Brits shipped it across the English Channel in 1916 under the guise of being a mobile water tank; this was the origin of the name “tank,” according to Churchill. The rough new beast slouched into combat for the first time at the Battle of the Somme on September 15, 1916. The weapon wasn’t exactly a stunning fulfillment of the three-in-one ideal – it was slow and possessed of limited firepower – but it generated concern among the Germans at the Somme and several other encounters, so long as it avoided the deepest mud. British tanks were an important factor in the Battle of Amiens, which began on August 8, 1918, a turning point in the war.

Several nations in addition to the U.K. built tanks during the Great War, including France (which actually constructed more of the weapons than Britain), the U.S., Italy, and Germany. But tanks were under-used in the conflict. “It is a sobering thought,” writes historian Geoffrey Barraclough, “to discover that in the final phase of the American offensive in November 1918 no more than eighteen tanks were available, and that American industry, which produced vast surpluses of useless equipment, built only seventy-nine tanks….during the whole war.” (The number 84 is cited in some sources as the U.S. total.)

After the war, military planners cast their eyes on the tank and debated its role. Should it ferry foot soldiers? Should a few tanks be sprinkled into a battalion of advancing infantry? Should it have a larger mission?

Debate about tanks got nasty at times. Senior generals who had spent years mastering their specialities – horse cavalry, infantry, artillery – were loath to disrupt their pride of place by giving money and time to the new weapon. Egos were threatened. Careers teetered in the balance.

J.F.C. Fuller, a British Army colonel, a brilliant, strong-willed eccentric, and an outsider in the military establishment (and, later, a German sympathizer), saw, with the perceptive vision sometimes granted outsiders, that the tank could be revolutionary if properly used. Near the end of the Great War he wrote a seminal document called “Plan 1919” calling for armor to smash through enemy lines and attack rear areas, moving faster than accompanying foot soldiers, destroying enemy headquarters, cutting supply lines, sowing panic, and fomenting collapse.

Also contributing new thinking about armor in Britain was Basil Liddell-Hart (as noted). In France, Col. Charles de Gaulle offered ideas. Among the few American officers with a serious interest in tanks were George Patton and Dwight D. Eisenhower. “Eisenhower and Patton were true pioneers (in their thinking about armor), original and creative….” writes historian Stephen Ambrose. “But the Army was not pleased. The Great War had been won by infantry, charging in mass. Future wars would be won the same way.” High officials in Britain and France were also lukewarm toward the thinking about armor that emerged in the ’20s.

Germany, perhaps because of the trauma of defeat, was more open to fresh ideas, more willing to question standard doctrine. An officer named Heinz Guderian translated J.F.C. Fuller, studied him, and eventually found a sponsor – Adolf Hitler, who came to power in 1933.

Hitler was determined to create Europe’s strongest military to support his brutal ambitions. He was not enmeshed in old-fashioned thinking about weaponry; in fact, fresh ideas thrilled him. “Like Churchill,” writes William Manchester, “the new Reich chancellor was fascinated by technical innovation.” In 1934, upon seeing what the latest armor could do in open country, Hitler said excitedly, “That’s what I need!”

Historian John Lukacs writes, “….Relatively early in life Hitler recognized the new and immense potentialities of the internal combustion engine….(He recognized) a new warfare whose decisive instruments were to be rapid advances of motorized armor. (And he saw that) after five centuries the primacy of land power was replacing that of sea power….”

“Hitler believed tanks would make a difference in the next war,” said historian Mary R. Habeck in 2008 on the Military Channel on U.S. television, “and he was willing to spend millions of marks to make this possible.” The German army created panzer divisions (“panzer” means “armor” or “armored”), self-contained units featuring tanks plus support personnel. The focus of the panzer groups was the speedy penetrating thrust. Panzer divisions, in turn, were the foundation of the mailed fist named blitzkrieg (“lightning war”) which also involved airplanes, artillery, infantry, and engineers (the latter did such key jobs as fording rivers). When the Wehrmacht used blitzkrieg to overrun Poland in September, 1939, and to defeat the modern army of France in a stunning few weeks in the spring of 1940, military thinkers in Washington, London, and Moscow were horrified and fascinated. Questions echoed through corridors: “Do we have enough tanks?” and “Do we know how to use them?” (France grasped the value of tanks in the ’30s, and had lots of them on hand in 1940, but failed to use the best tactics.)


United States

The most significant U.S. tank of World War II was the Sherman M4, especially the “Rhino” model, a doughty middleweight with a crisp punch.

In tank-to-tank encounters, Shermans were no match for the best German armor. According to some sources, Shermans earned the nickname “Ronson Lighters” for going to the flame with unseemly haste (not all sources agree that the vehicles were unusually flammable or that the Ronson Lighter nickname found wide usage). In any case, the tanks were reasonably dependable and fast, they could outflank Wehrmacht tanks, and they were produced in far greater numbers than German armor. They embodied the phrase “arsenal of democracy.”

Gen. George S. Patton was America’s best tank man, very possibly the finest American military commander of the 20th century. He led an armor-led dash from Normandy to central Europe from August 1944 to the spring of 1945, a military masterpiece on par with Stonewall Jackson in the Shenandoah Valley and U.S. Grant approaching Vicksburg. (The 1970 movie “Patton” depicts this campaign. The film captures the character of the man “very well” according to Walter Cronkite, who covered the general for United Press.) One of Patton’s outstanding subordinates was Gen. John S. Wood, whose Fourth Armored Division became legendary.

Patton’s tanks famously ran out of gasoline in the late summer of 1944. American historian Victor Davis Hanson and some other observers believe that if U.S. senior military leadership (Eisenhower and Bradley) had given adequate fuel to Patton’s Third Army, the U.S. could have crushed Hitler’s war machine by the autumn of ’44. This is a key plot point in “Patton,” with George C. Scott bellowing to Karl Malden in a muddy field, “Give me 400,000 gallons, I’ll go to Berlin!” The author Caleb Carr offers an interesting speculative essay on this topic called “VE Day – November 11, 1944: The Unleashing of Patton and Montgomery” in the counterfactual history book “What If? 2: Eminent Historians Imagine What Might Have Been” edited by Robert Cowley (2001).

If Patton had gotten his gas, how many lives might have been saved? “Millions,” writes historian Hanson, factoring in the mad ferocity with which the Nazis conducted themselves in the last six months of the war, and perhaps also assessing the agony of Eastern Europe for two generations under the Soviet boot.

The scholar Theodore H. Draper wrote in the mid-1980s,

The most anguished question of (what World War II accomplished) is whether the extension of Soviet power (in Eastern Europe) could have been avoided. It is a question that by its very nature can never be answered with any confidence. The war can be refought only as an exercise in speculation and hindsight, on paper….The Second World War was, like all wars, full of might-have-beens….Yet if there is to be an inquest into the way the war ended, it is unrealistic to think that the choice was between the present division of Europe and beating the Russians to Vienna, Berlin, or Prague….The real choice was between the halfway house of the present and a complete, classical, instantaneous renversement des alliances (“reversal of alliances”), risking some form of immediate conflict with the Soviet Union. No one in a responsible position was prepared for that in the spring and summer of ’45.


Among the German officers studying armor after the First World War was Heinz Guderian, who designed pioneering tank tactics making sophisticated use of radio. Gen. Erich von Manstein, the best German commander of the war, consulted with Guderian about tank capabilities and created the astonishingly bold plan to invade France through the Ardennes Forest and across the River Meuse. Historian Kenneth Macksey praises Manstein’s “fertile mind, with its acute understanding of the logistical constraints controlling mechanized warfare and the overriding principles of surprise and concentration of effort….” (It must be added that Manstein was directly responsible for immense civilian suffering.)

Hitler picked Manstein’s invasion plan from a welter of possibilities. “If Manstein was [the plan’s draftsman],” writes historian John Lukacs, “it would not be too much of an exaggeration to say that Hitler was its architect.”

Guderian and Manstein both participated in the invasion of Poland in 1939. Here is a description by William Manchester of a moment in that campaign, from Manchester’s biography of Churchill:

The Poles were confident; they were overconfident; they were eager for battle, buoyed by Radio Warsaw, whch played the national anthem, Chopin, and martial music, over and over. By the standards of 1920, when Poles had last seen action – against the Bolsheviks – they possessed a fine army: two million men under arms, with another million hurrying to the front. Twelve splendid brigades of horse cavalry were the pride of Poland. But they had only one armored brigade….Perhaps the mind-set of the Polish military on the eve of battle is best illustrated by Rydz-Smigly’s high hopes for one unit, the crack Pomorska Cavalry Brigade. As the spearhead of Guderian’s First Panzer Division appeared in the valley below, white-gloved officers signaled trumpeters, who sounded the charge. Down the slope rode the Pomorskas, sabers gleaming, pennons waving, moving at a steady gallop, their lances at the ready. And then, as they were preparing for the final irresistible surge, the Germans squeezed their triggers. The limbs, viscera, and skin – of men and horses, inextricably tangled – spewed gorily for over a mile. The few Polish survivors were taken prisoner. They were seen rapping hard on the tanks’ armor. Somebody had told them German armor, like Guderian’s mock panzers of 1933, were cardboard, and someone had been wrong.

Gen. Erwin Rommel led tanks into combat in Poland in 1939 and France in 1940, and became a legend in 1941 and ’42 as leader of the armor-intensive Afrika Korps in North Africa. He thumped U.S. forces at the Kasserine Pass in Tunisia in late ’42.

Churchill, who recognized a gifted and honorable warrior when he saw one, couldn’t resist praising Rommel during the war, virtually speaking to the general directly: “We have a very daring and skillful opponent against us,” he said of Rommel in the House of Commons in 1942, “and, may I say across the havoc of war, a great general.”

Rommel demonstrated military brilliance not only with tanks but with anti-tank weapons, making remarkable use in North Africa of the Wehrmacht‘s 88 mm gun, one of the most effective and versatile German weapons of the war.

Gasoline for tanks was Rommel’s bane in the autumn of 1942 as it would be for Patton in the autumn of 1944. Rommel ran out of gas in October of ’42 within shouting distance of Cairo and the Suez Canal. This shortage was a major factor in the British victory at El Alamein, a triumph of major strategic and psychological importance for the Allies at a time when British prospects were low. (Incidentally, the battle served as a model for U.S. Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf in Desert Storm.) The key British tank commander in North Africa was Gen. Bernard Law Montgomery; his tactics are summarized by historian Macksey:

He insisted that….tanks should be integrated with the overall plan of battle and not permitted to rush off on their own, charging to destruction against unshaken enemy guns and tanks. His men were vastly assisted by the considerable improvement to British radio communications from the latest sets, and by the U.S. Sherman tank….(The Sherman) at last gave the British a tank which could outmatch enemy 88mm anti-tank guns.

The best filmed documentary on the war in North Africa is an episode in the British TV series “The World at War” titled “The Desert.” See also the 1943 documentary “Desert Victory.” Among the notable books on the theater are “The Rommel Papers” by Erwin Rommel (1953) and “Together We Stand: America, Britain, and the Forging of an Alliance” by James Holland (2006).

Germany’s most important tank of World War II was the Panther, a fast, agile, well-protected vehicle with a main cannon that could make short work of Shermans. But German factories managed to build only about 6,000 of them while the U.S. built some 50,000 Shermans. “Tank-building almost invariably taxes industry to the limit,” notes Macksey – it’s labor-intensive and expensive. Germany’s Tiger tank was also important but it may have been seriously lacking in one respect – the author Paul Carell, in “Hitler Moves East” (1964), posits his theory that the Germans lost on the Eastern Front because Tigers lacked machine guns and were thus vulnerable to infantrymen sneaking up on them.

The most spectacular German tank of the war was the Tiger II, also known as the “Royal” or “King” Tiger, which went into production in late 1943. Only about 500 of these weapons saw action, including a few in the latter stages of the Normandy campaign. History might have taken a turn for the worst if several hundred of these beasts had been poised to pounce in early June, 1944, in northwestern France.

Soviet Union

The essential Soviet tank of the war was the T-34, designed by an eccentric genius (is there any other kind of genius?) named J. Walter Christie, an American whose innovative ideas failed to pass muster with the U.S. Army. (Christie also supplied concepts for the Cromwell tank, one of many notable British designs to appear over the years.) Christie used sloping armor on the T-34 to deflect shells, with a multi-wheeled suspension system, fully as important as the caterpillar track in the evolution of the tank.

As the Germans advanced toward Moscow in 1941, Soviet leadership ordered the shifting of whole tank factories eastward, beyond the Ural Mountains, to relative safety. Workers labored day and night under harsh conditions to fulfill Stalin’s desire for vast legions of T-34s, and built an astonishing 24,000 tanks in 1943.

In the summer of ’43, Russian tanks won the Battle of Kursk, on the Russian steppe, 250 miles south of Moscow, a thundering duel where Germany “lost strategic control of the war” in the opinion of scholar Patrick Wright. (An important book on this conflict is “The Battle of Kursk” by David M. Glantz [2004]. See here for more on Glantz.)


After World War II, military planners in several nations focused on the prospects of a Third World War. Gen. Sir John Hackett of Great Britain speculated in 1978 that World War III “might open on conventional lines” rather than with nuclear weapons – i.e., with tanks. One potential invasion route for Warsaw Pact armor was the German valley known as Fulda Gap, northeast of Frankfurt. NATO troops stood vigil there for years, including the U.S. 11th Armored Cavalry and West German armor, including perhaps the best tank in the European theater, West Germany’s Leopard. (Today’s Leopard 2A6 gets many votes from experts for the title of best big tank in the world, as does Britain’s Challenger 2.)

Tanks played significant roles in Korea and Vietnam. The Vietnam film “Full Metal Jacket” (1987) makes considerable use of tanks, although there’s some dispute among sources about whether the M41 models shown in the movie were in fact used in combat in Vietnam by the U.S. Marine Corps; their use was possibly restricted to South Vietnamese units.

In Esquire magazine (September, 1969) journalist Michael Herr described a Viet Cong tank attack in 1968 on Camp Langvei in South Vietnam manned by 24 Americans and 400 South Vietnamese:

Nine light tanks, Soviet T-34’s and 76’s, were deployed east and west, closing on the camp so suddenly that the first sound of them was mistaken by the Americans for a malfunction of the camp generator….An American colonel who had come on an inspection visit to Langvei was seen charging the tanks with nothing but hand grenades before he was cut down. (He survived. The word “miracle” doesn’t even apply.) Somewhere between ten and fifteen Americans were killed, and as many as three hundred of the indigenous troops….Jesus, they had tanks. Tanks! After Langvei, how could you look out of your perimeter at night without hearing the treads coming?

The Middle East has been the most visible site for tank combat over the last half-century. In the Six-Day War in 1967, the Israeli Defense Force used Sherman M4s, modified and regunned from their World War II configuration, along with U.S.-built Pattons and British Centurions, plus superbly-trained crews and air superiority, to defeat the tanks of Egypt and Syria (Russian-made T-54/T-55s). Today, Israel’s Merkava tank (Hebrew for “chariot”) is well-regarded by armor experts, a complex vehicle that nestles its highly experienced crews in relative safety.

Dictatorships used tanks against civilians in Hungary (1956), Czechoslovakia (1968; see the 1988 film “The Unbearable Lightness of Being”), Beijing (1989), Tibet (periodically since 1950), Syria (2012), etc. On June 5, 1989, in the last hours of the short-lived Chinese democracy movement, a man dressed in a light shirt and dark pants, clutching a plastic bag in each hand, said “no” with his body to a column of Chinese Army Type 59 tanks on Beijing’s Great Avenue of Chang’an, causing the vehicles to briefly stop. (He was perhaps inspired by events earlier in the democracy movement when groups of civilians blocked military convoys.) The man’s identity is not known with certainty; he is called “Tank Man” or “Unknown Rebel.” One eyewitness, a photojournalist, states that he was immediately arrested. Many people arrested in 1989 in China were executed. Images of Tank Man flashed across the globe. He became one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people of the 20th century. However, Tank Man is not influential everywhere. According to Pankaj Mishra, writing in The New Yorker (June 30, 2008), the Chinese government’s effort to repress knowledge of the 1989 democracy movement has resulted in an unsettling fact: “Students at Beijing University recently failed to identify the iconic photograph of the young man with the plastic bags confronting tanks.”

Does the big tank have a future? Might smaller armor replace these monsters? Might military planners opt for weapons that are easier to fly to hot spots, better at negotiating city streets, perhaps armed with electronic missiles rather than guns? More suited to what has been termed the “complex irregular warfare” of the future? Such an approach might appear to be logical – as journalist and historian Robert Messenger notes in the conservative Weekly Standard (2010), “The military we developed to fight Soviet troops in Europe is….deeply unsuited to the post-Cold War world.” But, Messenger adds, “Mother Army resists change….” Shades of the 1920s when the army clung to its horses. (The next question is, should the U.S. be flying tanks to hot spots?)

A factor supporting the continuing construction of the Abrams (and/or its expensive upgrading) is noted by Ivan Eland of the Independent Institute (2008): policymakers have “strong incentives to favor big-ticket arms….manufactured in favored congressional districts….Robert Gates and his successors as Secretary of Defense can chatter, cajole, exhort, prod, and even threaten the services, but they’ll probably have little luck in changing the incentive structure of the military-industrial-congressional complex.” ●

End Note

1. President Dwight D. Eisenhower famously warned in 1961 about the acquisition of “unwarranted influence” by the “military-industrial complex.” According to one version of events, an early draft of his speech used the phrase “military-industrial-congressional complex” but it got changed to placate members of the U.S. Congress. There’s dispute about whether the early draft was worded in that way.