History of Tanks: From Renaissance Sketches to the Modern Battlefield

For over a century, tanks have rumbled, clanked, and squeaked over the battlefield of history, churning the soil behind them and laying waste before them.

Jan 19, 2024By Greg Beyer, Assistant Editor; African History
history of tanks

 

For over a century, the rumbling of tanks churning up the battlefield has struck fear into the hearts of the soldiers (and civilians) facing them, from their first use on the muddy fields of the Somme to the massive tank battles on the Eastern Front in the Second World War. From Korea to Vietnam to Afghanistan and Iraq, these iron beasts have formed the backbone of ground-based military doctrine.

 

Technology in the modern era made the construction of “armored cavalry” en masse a possibility, but the idea for tanks goes back centuries to a time when such creations would have been misplaced on the battlefields.

 

The history of tanks stretches far back into history, and the implications of their existence have changed the course of history.

 

Old Concepts & Beginnings

da vinci tank
A cutaway reproduction of a covered war carriage based on the sketches of Leonardo da Vinci. Source: Museo nazionale scienza e tecnologia Leonardo da Vinci, Milan

 

Although far from the concept of what constitutes a modern tank, the idea for a vehicular mode of protection and firepower can be identified in the 15th-century sketches of Leonardo da Vinci. His drawings show a wheeled, man-powered, conical contraption with guns emplaced around it.

 

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The 15th century was also the beginning of experiments by Czech general Jan Žižka, who created armored wagons with cannons on them and loopholes for guns. This could be argued to be an evolutionary continuation of the war chariots used during the Bronze Age by civilizations such as the Hittites and the Egyptians 4,000 years ago.

 

In the 17th century, experiments began with what is now known as caterpillar track or continuous track. It wasn’t until the 20th century, however, that tanks evolved into the distinctly modern forms we see today. In his 1903 short story The Land Ironclads, H.G. Wells created the idea for huge armored vehicles that could traverse the battlefield, overrunning trenches. It would be just thirteen years later when this science fiction turned into reality.

 

The First World War

mark i british
A British Mark I in 1917. Source: Historicwings.com

 

The technology of the early 20th century shifted warfare in a direction that made offensive actions extremely difficult. Swift and sweeping victories were a thing of the past, and defensive lines turned the fighting into a war of attrition. The need to traverse craterous ground and cross trench lines demanded the creation of a new type of vehicle.

 

In 1916, the British Mark I made its debut on the fields of the Somme. Operated by five men, this behemoth of a machine had many flaws, but the concept was sound. It achieved enough success that improvements began in earnest, and by 1917, the Mark IV achieved critical success in the Battle of Cambrai.

 

schützengrabenvernichtungspanzerkraftwagen or tank
The German A7V. Source: Queensland Museum Network

 

France, Germany, and the United States followed the lead of Britain and produced their own designs. The French Schneider CA 1 came into service in 1916, followed shortly by the Renault FT-17, which had the first 360-degree rotation turret. The United States produced a copy of the Renault called the M1917, but it came too late to see any action in the war.

 

It was only in the last year of the war that Germany introduced its first tank, the A7V, onto the battlefield, although it had been in the concept and production phases for over a year. With a minimum of 18 crewmembers needed to operate it, the A7V was a gargantuan machine, measuring over 21 feet in length and 10 feet in width.

 

In 1918, the war ended, but the future of land warfare had already been decided, and tanks were an inevitable and unavoidable part of the future.

 

The Interwar Years

panzer ii german
A German Panzer II light tank. Source: Landmark Scout

 

The interwar years saw a massive development of tanks in Europe, as tanks were added to the inventories of the Soviet Union, Poland, Italy, Spain, Czechoslovakia, and other countries. Outside of Europe, Japan picked up the idea and started producing its own tanks.

 

In the United States, the idea didn’t gain much traction, and tank production was greatly reduced. It would only be at the outbreak of the Second World War when the US realized it had to catch up to its European contemporaries in terms of tank development.

 

The general thought was that big tanks were better among the former Entente powers. With their tactics, it made sense, as tanks were also used as mobile fortifications for troops to hide behind. The French Char 2C and the Char B1 were examples of this. The Germans, however, began formulating ideas for a different kind of usage for the tank.

 

The Second World War

char b1 french
A French Char B1. Source: The Tank Museum, Bovington

 

After the Treaty of Versailles, Germany was forbidden from adding tanks to its armed forces. In 1933, however, Adolf Hitler became chancellor and decided to discard the restrictions. He immediately began producing panzers in huge quantities. Although the early versions, with their light armor and small guns, were no match for their European counterparts, the Germans would quickly produce successive designs that would be massive improvements with each iteration throughout the Second World War.

 

In 1939, the war sparked off an arms race in tank production. Germany had fully embraced the doctrine of tank warfare, and these vehicles formed a vital part of the Blitzkrieg tactic. They stormed across Poland in 1939, and in May 1940, tanks formed the lynchpin of the critical speed and success of the German Wehrmacht against the French. German generals such as Erwin Rommel and Heinz Guderian led the charge, proving the effectiveness of tanks as engines to capture objectives with stunning speed.

 

For the Allies, tanks were used to augment the firepower of infantry, a tactic that was unchanged from the First World War over two decades earlier. Despite facing the vastly superior French Char B1, the German panzers triumphed. The key to German success was massed firepower. Instead of using tanks to support infantry, tanks were used en masse – a highly successful tactic that the Allies were slow to adopt.

 

m4 sherman american
An American M4 Sherman. Source: National WWII Museum New Orleans

 

In the deserts of North Africa, wide open deserts were perfect for tank warfare, and in the east, Germans and Russians clashed in some of the largest tank battles in history. The key to Soviet victory, and perhaps complete Allied victory over Nazi Germany, was the Soviet T-34. This workhorse of a tank was not the most powerful, but it was simple, easy to repair, and quick to produce. A fairly decent tank, the T-34s finally clanked their way through the streets of Berlin after having defeated the armies of Germany. Despite fielding the best tanks of the war, such as the Tiger and the Panther (which was a superior German copy of the T-34), these tanks were too few to stem the tide of Soviet revenge.

 

In the west, the Western Allies trundled forward with their tanks which included the British Churchill Mark IV and the American Sherman.

 

The Cold War

t 72 soviet
Soviet T-72 tanks in Afghanistan during the 1980s. Source: Georgi Nadezhdin/AFP

 

After World War II, tanks became grouped according to “generations.” The first-generation tanks were those produced during the Second World War and the following years.

 

Second-generation tanks of the 1960s and 1970s were generally characterized by having night optical devices and protection from nuclear, biological, and chemical threats.

 

Third-generation tanks have vastly improved composite armor and stabilization, allowing accuracy while moving at high speeds.

 

There is no specific thing that characterizes fourth-generation tanks; however, there are significant gaps between third-generation tanks and the weapons platforms that are currently being produced. Advanced armor, guidance systems, optics, electronics, and a host of other extremely advanced technologies are being implemented in the tanks of today.

 

t 72 mbt
A T-72. Source: Alan Wilson / Army Technology

 

The industrial capabilities and ideological differences between the Soviet Union and the United States after World War II spurred an arms race characterized by intense investment in military design. The Soviets realized the effectiveness of the mass usage of tanks and made a considerable effort to build upon the successes of the T-34. The second-generation T-72 saw particular success at home and as an export platform. Over 25,000 have been produced, and heavily upgraded versions are still being built today (classified as third-generation).

 

m1a2 abrams american
An American M1A2 Abrams in Poland, May 2023. Source: Theresa Gualdarama/US Department of Defense

 

Tank development in the United States stagnated after the introduction of the M60, a tank that became vastly inferior to Soviet designs as the Cold War entered the 1970s. With the introduction of the M1 Abrams in 1980, this dynamic changed. NATO countries also kept pace with their third-generation tanks, with the British introducing the Challenger in 1983 and the French introducing the LeClerc in the same year.

 

Of important note is the usage of M1 Abrams in Iraq in 1991, where the Abrams saw significant success, especially in the Battle of 73 Easting, where hundreds of Iraqi first and second-generation tanks were obliterated by the superior performance of the American tanks and infantry fighting vehicles.

 

Right on the frontline with the Warsaw Pact, West Germany invested heavily in tank design. The second-generation Leopard 1 was introduced in 1965 and was slowly replaced by the third-generation Leopard 2, which entered service in 1979.

 

Tanks Today

k2 black panther rok
A South Korean K2 Black Panther. Source: armyrecognition.com

 

In use by major powers today, tanks designated as “modernized” represent the pinnacle of what can be fielded in great quantity on the battlefield. Chassis that are even a few years old can be upgraded to current standards. Some of the most recent additions include the Israeli Merkava IV Barak, The American M1A2 SEPv4, the Italian Ariete AMV (a modernized second-generation tank), and the Leopard 2PL, which is a joint venture between the Germans and the Polish. These tanks boast the most advanced technologies with electronic warfare suites, improved speed and handling, guided shells, and many other features.

 

t14 armata russian
Russian T-14 Armata tanks. Source: TASS

 

In the 21st century, tanks labeled “fourth-generation” are being built. Of particular note is the South Korean K2 Black Panther, which Poland has procured in quantity and already upgraded to the K2PL Black Panther. In Britain, the Challenger 3 is due to enter service in 2027, while France is currently implementing the introduction of the LeClerc XLR. In Russia, the T-14 Armata has gained a lot of attention, while India, Germany, Turkey, Pakistan, China, and many other countries are working on programs of their own.

 

destroyed leopard 2
A German Leopard 2 surrounded by American Bradley infantry fighting vehicles, victims of Russian drones in Ukraine, June 2023. Source: TASS/Russian Defence Ministry

 

The future of tanks is difficult to predict. Technology has shaped the battlefield unpredictably in a relatively short space of time. The open ground of Iraq hinted at a massive advantage and a bright future for tank warfare in the modern age, while the situation in Ukraine has led many to doubt the future of tanks, especially with the advent of drone warfare. Nevertheless, the war has shown that tanks are still vital to any military operation on the ground.

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By Greg BeyerAssistant Editor; African HistoryGreg is an editor specializing in African History and prolific author of over 100 articles, with a BA in History & Linguistics and a Journalism Diploma from the University of Cape Town. A former English teacher, he now excels in academic writing and pursues his passion for art through drawing and painting in his free time.