Military minds of every country wished for decades, maybe centuries, that they might get an armoured all-terrain vehicle. However, the appearance of real tanks was a surprise even for their users. Tactics of their use were thought up long before they reached the battlefield by theorists, but their use in battle went against all theory. The first tanks went into battle in September of 1916, but the war that they were supposed to win lasted another two years. Even though they played an important, if not decisive, role, there were still senior commanders that considered tanks quackery.
It was expected that tanks would be invulnerable, but these expectations were not met. In addition, many of these vehicles did not even reach the enemy, breaking down on the way to battle or getting stuck on the battlefield.
Tanks were supposed to protect their crews, but they were another danger. The tankers were thrown around like seamen in a storm in their cramped metal box with no shock absorption. Temperature up to 70 degrees and hot exhaust gases led to fainting. Simply starting the tank could be fatal. The enormous crank had to be yanked by 3-4 men, and when the engine started it lurched back violently, resulting in injury or death to anyone that did not jump away in time.
A question arose after only a few months of using tanks: are they needed at all? Turns out they were, because even the first battles showed that they save on allied infantry. A knocked out tank can be repaired, and its crew is small, so losses are not so noticeable. On the other hand, repairing wounded or dead infantrymen is difficult. It's simple emotionless wartime arithmetic: a few thousand tankers and a few hundred tanks that cost as much as a single WWI artillery barrage, hundreds of dead, and the tide of war turns, the style of battle is changed forever.
None of this prevented the "death" of tanks several times throughout their subsequent career, or the loss of what soldiers learned in the final years of WWI, namely cooperation between tanks, infantry, artillery, and aircraft.
There is almost nothing in common between a modern tank and a classic British "rhombus" with tracks around the entire hull, armament in sponsons, with no turret, and with a strange tail behind it. But tanks evolved quickly, and about a year after their debut, the Renault FT-17 was built, with a design that would become classic for the vast majority of future vehicles.
There were many types of armoured vehicles on tracks, from multi-ton monsters to tiny tankettes. Tanks gained radio stations or spools of telephone wire, cranes to repair their damaged brothers and rollers to clear paths through minefields.
Tanks became capable of crossing enormous craters, crawl through impassable mud day and night, carry soldiers on their armour and behind it, tow important cargo. There were experiments to make a tank that could fly (or at least glide on a special winged frame). Engineers with wild imaginations even tried to make tanks that could jump like a kangaroo. Old slow vehicles quickly became obsolete, but nobody knew at the time what new tanks were going to look like.
Tanks conquered new lands during the interbellum period. In the forest and steppes of Russia and Poland, in the jungles of Paraguay, in the deserts of Ethiopia, Mongolia, and Turkmenistan, the sound of tank tracks could be heard from anywhere. Tanks were the deciding force in many conflicts. Frequently, tanks made for breaking through fortifications fought villages or ancient castles.
The enemies of tanks improved as well. High caliber machineguns, rapid-firing antitank guns, armour piercing bullets, mines, bottles with incendiary fluid. It seemed that tanks were once again done for. Who needs a vehicle that will be destroyed as soon as it's spotted? This happened, like at Khalkin-Gol where some units lost half of their vehicles in literally half an hour, or in the Winter War.
But tanks grew thicker armour and higher caliber guns, and just a pair of heavy KV tanks ensured the final breakthrough of the Mannerheim line. At the same time, with competent support from reconnaissance, sappers, infantry, and artillery, meek T-37s with a single machinegun and obsolete T-26es defeated Polish pillboxes. War is full of such paradoxes.
WWII: Armour's Senior Year
WWI is symbolized by tanks slowly crawling forward and gnawing through enemy defenses, while a typical image of WWII is huge columns of tank groups and armies in a blinding dash for hundreds of kilometers to encircle hundreds of thousands of enemies. Tanks fought in the icy polar regions to the scorching Sahara, from Belorussian swamps and green hedgerows of Normandy to Pacific atolls and streets of Berlin.
In these years, tank forces learned their final bitter lessons. It became blatantly clear that insufficient reconnaissance, cooperation, supplies or repair quickly nullifies any tank force. You could no longer rely on just a big gun and thick armour. French Char 2Cs and B1s, Soviet KVs, German Panthers, Ferdinands and Tigers knew no equals on paper but showed their weaknesses in real life. Trucks full of infantry, shells, fuel and repairmen, tractors with guns, radios, all these things were overshadowed by the tanks themselves, but were still vital to the success of mobile units.
The future victors of WWII had to learn that you had to fight with what you have, here and now. but you have to do it well. The T-34 and Sherman weren't designed as the best tanks of the war, but they became such, through the long road from raw designs that broke down at every step to reliable and menacing "workhorses" that could travel thousands of kilometers. Sure, the IS-2 wasn't as menacing as the 90-ton KV-5 when it came to millimeters of armour, but it successfully defeated every enemy it met when used well.
It was once said that the best tank is the one that you have at the right time and at the right place. We may have to add "and is used correctly" to that statement. Once these truths were known, only then did tanks learn how to fight.
Original article available here.