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History of the Tank

yearEarly tankstonsgununits
1918Gas-Electric (Holt)mm
1918Steam Tank, Three-Wheeledmm
1918Steam Tank, Track-Layingmm
1918Ford, Three-Tonmm
1918Skeleton Tankmm
1918Mark 1, Three-Manmm
1917M1917 Six-Tonmm
1919M1919 Christiemm
1919Mark VIIImm

Compared to other weaponry, the tank was the most rapidly developed weapon system in the history of warfare. From a non-existent beginning, the tank went from concept to the decisive edge in the Great War less than three years. The tank was originally designed as a special weapon to solve an unusual tactical situation, the stalemate of the trenches. Basically, the tank was intended to bring the firepower of artillery and machine guns across the morass of No Man's Land while providing more protection than a purely infantry unit could carry. The sole purpose of this weapon was to assist the infantry in creating a penetration so that the cavalry, which had been waiting for the opportunity since 1914, could exploit into the German rear.

Few recognized during the Great War that the means for returning mobility and shock action to combat was already present in a device destined to revolutionize warfare on the ground and in the air. This was the internal combustion engine, which had made possible the development of the tank and eventually would lead to the mechanized forces that were to assume the old roles of horse cavalry and to loosen the grip of the machine gun on the battlefield. With increased firepower and protection, these mechanized forces would, only some twenty years later, become the armor of World War II. When the armored artillery, the armored personnel carrier, the wheeled cargo vehicle, and supporting aviation - all with adequate communications - were added to constitute the combined arms team of the modern armored division, commanders regained the capability of maneuver in most of the land areas of the world.

The development of the tank was, literally, a case of beating plowshares into swords. These extremely heavy armored vehicles move about on endless tracks that provide the large bearing surface needed for covering all sorts of terrain. Tank builders were not the first to cope with the problem of moving a heavy vehicle over land, and were not the first to use endless tracks. At the start of this century, the logging industry and farm-equipment manufacturers sought a new means of providing traction for the heavy vehicles required to traverse snow-covered or soft ground.

The endless track may have first appeared in a commercially successful form on steam-powered Lombard and Phoenix log haulers, built in the northeast and the Upper Great Lakes regions. It then appeared in California, where tractor builders had been resorting to very awkward, wide wheels to support their machines on soft soils. They turned to the endless track as a solution, and subsequently formed the Caterpillar Tractor Company. The company's gasoline-powered vehicles erved as an important technological stepping-stone in the development of the military tank during the Great War, and Caterpillar Tractor Company representatives worked on both sides of that war: the U.S. firm aided in developing the first British tanks; an Austrian representative of the firm aided the German tank-building effort.

In late 1914 after observing a small American-made caterpillar tractor in France, Lt. Col. Ernest D. Swinton, an English officer, recommended to the British Committee of Imperial Defence that caterpillar tractors be armored and armed for use in combat. Swinton's ideas were for "caterpillar machine gun destroyers" to overcome the wire and obstacles and eliminate enemy machine guns so that the following infantry could exploit the breakthrough. Thus tanks could restore mobility to the battlefield. Although his proposal was not immediately accepted by the committee, it gained strong support of one of its members, Winston S. Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty.

The Royal Navy, largely at Churchill's urging, sponsored experiments and tests of the vehicle as a type of "land ship" during 1915, and the tank at last became a reality. In an effort to keep secret the real purpose of the early models when they were being shipped to France, the English labeled them tanks- for use as water tanks by Russia. Thus originated the name of tank for the new weapon. The naval background of the tank's development also explains such nautical tank terms as hatch, hull, bow, and ports. The great secrecy surrounding tank development, coupled with the skepticism of infantry commanders, often meant that infantry had little training to cooperate with tanks. As a result, the infantry would become separated from the tanks, allowing the German infantry to defeat the two arms separately.

Small, local attacks, beginning at Flers on the Somme on 15 September 1916, dissipated the initial surprise of the tank. Not until 20 November 1917, at Cambrai, did the British Tank Corps get the conditions it needed for success. around 400 tanks penetrated almost six miles on a 7-mile front in an attack at Cambrai. This was the first large-scale employment of tanks in combat. Unfortunately, success was not complete because the infantry failed to exploit and secure the tanks' gains. The British scored another victory the following year, on 8 August 1918, with 600 tanks in the Amiens salient. General Eric von Ludendorff referred to that date as the "Black Day" of the German Army.

The German response to the Cambrai assault was to develop its own armored program. Soon the massive A7V appeared. The A7V was a monster, weighing 30 tons with a crew of eighteen. By the end of the war, only fifteen had been built. Although other tanks were on the drawing board, material shortages limited the German tank corps to these A7V's and some captured Mark IV's. The A7V would be involved in the first tank versus tank battle of the war on April 24, 1918 at Villers-Bretonneux -- a battle in which there was no clear winner.

Numerous mechanical failures and the inability of the British and French to mount any sustained tank drives in the early tank actions cast doubt on the usefulness of tanks. And by 1918, tanks were extremely vulnerable unless accompanied by infantry and ground-attack aircraft, both of which worked to locate and suppress antitank defenses.

But Gen. John J. Pershing, Commander in Chief, American Expeditionary Forces (AEF), requested in September 1917 that 600 heavy and 1,200 light tanks be produced in the United States. When General Pershing assumed command of the American Expeditionary Force and went to France, he took George Patton. Patton became interested in tanks. They were then unwieldy, unreliable, and unproved instruments of warfare, and there was much doubt whether they had any function and value at all on the battlefield. Against the advice of most of his friends, and after much inner anguish and debate, Patton chose to go into the newly formed US Tank Corps. He was the first officer so assigned.

The American-produced heavy tank was the 43.5-ton Mark VIII, patterned after a British model. Armed with two 6-pounder and five .30-caliber machine guns, it was operated by an 11-man crew, had a maximum speed of 6.5 miles per hour, and a range of 50 miles. The American-built 6 -ton M1917 light tank was a copy of the French Renault. It had a maximum speed of 5.5 miles per hour and could travel 30 miles on its 30-gallon fuel capacity. The US program was augmented in the summer of 1918 by the development of a 3-ton, 2-man tank, originated by the Ford Motor Company. This third tank to be mass-produced during 1918 was powered by two Ford Model T, 4-cylinder engines, armed with a .30-caliber machine gun, and had a maximum speed of 8 miles per hour.

American tank units first entered combat on 12 September 1918 against the St. Mihiel salient with the First Army. They belonged to the 344th and 345th Light Tank Battalions, elements of the 304th Tank Brigade, commanded by Lt. Col. George S. Patton, Jr., under whom they had trained at the tank center in Bourg, France. Although mud, lack of gas, and mechanical failure caused many tanks to stall in the German trenches, the attack succeeded and much valuable experience was gained. By the armistice of 11 November 1918, the AEF was critically short of tanks; no Americanmade tanks were completed in time for use in combat.

The strategic idea behind the tank was to employ them as breakthrough weapons to breach the German lines. Tactically, tanks provided the infantry with a means to neutralize hostile fire and to create a pathway through wire entanglements. Once the machine guns and obstacles were eliminated, the large body of infantry following the tanks would maintain the momentum of the assault and exploit the breakthrough.

In a memo to the Chief of the Tank Service (Rockenbach) , dated December 12, 1317, Patton wrote that tanks should "... push on at own initiative beyond the final objective but only after infantry consolidated that position in order to seek every opportunity for pursuit. At this phase the support and possibly the reserves should join the leading tanks." Patton had already grasped the tactical usefulness of the tank.

Tanks were still considered to be infantry support weapons and were placed under control of Infantry Corps or Divisional commanders. They assisted infantry by crushing down wire, bringing direct fire on machine guns and trench systems, and also drawing fire away from attacking infantry. Tanks raised the morale of attacking troops and demoralized the enemy. The effectiveness of tanks was reduced by a high rate of mechanical unreliability, poor coordination with infantry, and insufficient techniques for command and control.

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Page last modified: 01-07-2021 18:00:32 ZULU