Monday, 11 January 2016

The 10 Worst Tanks of the Second World War


In many respects, the Second World War was the golden age of the tank. It was a rare time when the playing field was level for such technology, and everyone was advancing from the same starting point. As such, over the course of just a few years, we saw countless designs being drawn up, put into combat and then being surpassed in a relatively short amount of time. It was also the last true era where the heavily armoured behemoth seemed to be dominant on the battlefield, lacking some of the more direct or advanced forms of air support seen today. It's perhaps for this reason that the image of the M4 Sherman, Tiger Mark 1, Panther and others still endure to this day.

Still, for all its successes, the Second World War had its fair share of failures and ill conceived war machines. These ranged from those hampered by poor conceptual design elements to utterly insane builds which no one in their right mind should have ever backed in the first place. With so much on offer though, there's a couple of basic ground rules which limited this selection:

  • Each tank needed to at least reach the prototype phase. Without this, Germany's Panzers would make up the vast bulk of this list.
  • The tanks can't be Italian, as they have so many they're probably going to have their own list at some point.
  • Only one super heavy tank is permitted on the entire list. Given nearly all such designs proved to be failures, or never reached the battlefield, it seemed only fair to list the single worst one of the bunch on here.
  • Each needed to be on the drawing board or in full production between 1933 to 1945, just to ensure each would be involved in the actual war itself. Or, in the case of those who didn't even manage to enter combat, at least was being test driven while the Nazi regime was about.

So, without further ado, onto our list of mechanised failures!




10. Type 95 Ha-Go




Japan's greatest victories during this era tended to come from its air force and navy, and with good reason. The actual army itself produced very few truly fierce weapons of war, and the development of their armoured corps barely extended beyond a few light tanks. This left them woefully undermanned, and heavily reliant upon light vehicles such as the Type 95. The end result was the kind of curb-stomping rarely seen outside of a Tom and Jerry cartoon.

So, what was the big problem with the Type 95? For starters, it was basically made with combating near-medieval forces in mind. China during this time was not exactly a technological powerhouse, and much of its military tended to consist of small bands of poorly armed militia, most of who were outfitted with pistols or swords. They were the sort of foes the Red Army would laugh at even on its worst day, and the tanks didn't exactly need to be heavy hitters as a result. Because of this they had paper thin plating and a rapid firing, if low power and highly inaccurate, main gun.  While certainly speedy and well suited to tougher tropical environments like Malaya, these strengths were offset by various mechanical failures and a number of extremely unreliable and temperamental engine issues.

While the tank's opening battles were actually successes, they were often against similarly outdated designs, poorly equipped troops or inexperienced commanders. This gave them an edge during the early 1940s, especially in Burma where it was thought conventional tanks would be of no use. Then, as time went by, the Allies quickly realised not only were infantry weapons capable of shredding the Type 95's paper thin armour and engine block, but it didn't actually have the firepower to take down Matilda IIs, M4 Shermans or even M3 Lees. Suffice to say, it was all downhill from there for Type 95 crews.

While she might have had luck on her side in her early conflicts, the Type 95 was outclassed and outdated before Japan even entered the war.


9. Tank, Infantry, Mk I, Matilda I (A11)



While certainly not nearly as bad as some of the later examples on this list, the Matilda is hardly a vehicle which will be remembered with any reverence. An oddity of its era and a hold-over from cruder 1930s designs, it was distinct for having a rather mismatched combination of armour and armament. Apparently built around the idea of having heavy armour first and a solid cannon second, it was outfitted only with a single turret mounted Vickers .303 or Vickers .50. In English, this was a heavily armoured and well built tank whose only offensive armament was a machine gun. As you might guess, this left them rather ill equipped to face certain threats, particularly armoured positions and vehicles.

The overall design of the Matilda was also rather flawed. It notably suffered from having severely exposed tracks and running gear, meaning the tank could endure severe punishment but could be immobilised with comparative ease. Furthermore, being a relatively compact design, crewmen had to each take on multiple duties at a time. Well, least one of them did at any rate. Along with directing the vehicle, the commander was expected to serve as the radio operator, gunner and loader all in one, while the driver was just left with the job of getting the tank from point A to point B. That was it. The tank was so small and so cramped that there was no room for someone else, and the very act of opening the main hatch would prevent the turret from aiming directly ahead. Top all of this off with a slow speed of eight miles per hour, and the British army was left with an infantry support tank which did a good job of providing cover and supplying covering fire against light targets, but little else.

Put into service only shortly before the outbreak of war, the Matilda only saw the initial engagements across France. Though a mixture of its poor armament and atrocious tactics, the Matilda failed to gain any real successes. Its only claim to fame was spearheading the Battle of Arras, which came close to turning the tide against the German advance. No one bothered to continue the line after Dunkrik, and was succeeded by the more combat effective Matilda II. It was ultimately an inglorious end for a flawed tank.


8. KV-2




Whatever you might say about the Russian military, they truly are pragmatic to the core. More-so than any other fighting force, they reworked, re-purposed and reused practically everything they had, throwing it into battle. This led to some famous designs such as the many T-34 variants, and some rather infamous ones such as today's example.

The idea behind the KV-2 was simple - Use the same basic frame of the KV-1 heavy tank to create a mobile artillery piece and effectively tack a howitzer onto it. While certainly good in concept, as with many things, quite a few flaws quickly became evident as they were sent into battle. While they retained the KV-1's glacial speed and heavy plating around its base, the turret itself was incredibly thinly armored with next to no sloping of any kind. With only three inches of flat armour present to protect the various crewmen operating the gun, and an extremely high profile, these things were a cinch to put out of commission. Top this off with the fact enemy forces could see these things slowly approaching from miles off, and the tank was a disaster waiting to happen.

Even discounting the possibility of direct conflict, which in all fairness they were never made for, the KV-2 had no shortage of its own problems. Using the KV-1's engine, it was plagued by countless reliability issues in its early years, which was hardly the best combination to go hand in hand with its slow speed. The turret itself, along with making the tank extremely top heavy, could not even traverse unless the vehicle was on relatively level ground, meaning it did not even have mobility going for it. Oh, and much like many of the bigger, badder tanks of this war, it was so heavy it couldn't use most bridges.

Few if any KV-2s lasted past 1942 and the only use the looting happy German army found for them was as artillery observation platforms. In fact, things became so bad that the Soviets themselves (aka, the we'll-throw-everything-including-the-kitchen-sink-at-the-Nazis brigade) eventually issued a mass recall, put KV-1 turrets on them all, and sent the back out as standard tanks. It's only in recent years they have gained any real popularity, largely thanks to World of Tanks and War Thunder omitting 90% of their mechanical faults.


7. Panzerkampfwagen Tiger Ausf. B (Tiger II)




Being one of the big iconic mechanical beasts of the war, the inclusion of the Tiger II on this list is probably going to ruffle the feathers of a few treadheads. However, while it might have been a boon for Germany's propaganda, these things suffered no shortage of problems in everything from logistics to basic maintenance.

While often infamous for being problematic and over-engineered, the Tiger I at least had the element of surprise on its side and few competitors. By the time the II rolled off the production lines, Germany was in real trouble and tactics had been developed to counter them. They were rushed into service, hampered by poorly trained crewmen and plagued with notable design flaws. Chief among these was an extremely overtaxed drive, which had never been intended for something of the II's size and weight, and a double radius steering gear which was extremely prone to failure. Seals and gaskets also frequently tended to leak fuel, and of the many sent out into battle only a few tended to arrive on the front-lines. 

Their design issues often meant they were frequently in stationery, hull-down positions despite some surprising agility for their size and even the act of transporting them was a living nightmare. Too large for rail cars and too heavy for bridges, even trying to move these vehicles without using their own power was problematic at the best of times. Even once they got to combat itself, the armour was found to be surprisingly lacking. While certainly thick and well sloped, the metal was rather brittle and the seams would either crack or shatter under multiple impacts. To the Tiger's credit though, no tank was confirmed to be taken out via enemy armoured vehicles despite this glaring flaw. Instead, most were often found abandoned thanks to their fuel consumption issues, having run dry before they could return to a supply depot.

While many of these problems were admittedly gradually overcome with time, the extensive maintenance they required and troublesome reliability would haunt them until the end of the war. Ultimately, the Tiger II really did live up to its name. It was twice the tank the Tiger I had been, with twice the effective armour, twice the size and twice the crippling problems of its predecessor. 


6. A13 Covenanter



While it certainly had its fair share of successes, Britain's armoured development during this era was not exactly something to be elated at. Many new creations were either hampered by poor design choices or, even in the case of successes, downright terrible tactics in the face of the German blitzkrieg. Yet, even as the country was sending out wave after wave of almost laughable fighting vehicles, the A13 Covenanter proved to be so bad no one was willing to actually field the damn thing.

Ordered into production before any prototypes had been built, it was a part of a desperate rush to construct something to replace the Cruiser IV. At first glance it looked to be a promising new tank, with a low profile, extremely well sloped sides and a powerful engine which would give Britain an edge in terms of lighting fast armour. So, what exactly went wrong? For starters, the engine cooling was absolutely borked beyond belief. In order to fit the rather large 12-cylinder engine into the vehicle, the radiators had to be re-positioned to the tank's front. Along with making them remarkably easy to take out, they simply failed to prevent the engine stalling or overheating. Even after an extremely rushed re-design, entirely new problems arose, with the entire crew compartment being turned into an oven by the internal pipes.

While the sloped design was still effective, the thin nature of the armour was found to be woefully insufficient, and barely an improvement over the tank it was intended to replace. German tanks would chew through it in seconds and repeated re-designs led to the more reliable welded turret being replaced by a more risky riveted design. If you're not entirely sure why this is a bad idea imagine that, atop of enemy fire, the crew had to worry about bits of their own tank pinging off and turning into high-speed bullets. Of course, this was nothing when compared with the fact that the tank ran the risk of killing the commander if brought to a sudden stop. The hatch atop of the turret was opened by sliding backwards, lying horizontally atop a set of rubber blocks. The problem was that the locking mechanism was rather unreliable, and if the tank pulled to a sudden halt or even hit a rather large bump in the road, it would scythe shut again. I say scythe as, well, tank gunners and commanders tended to ride with their heads looking over the turret for better visibility. One wrong turn and the driver was likely to be treated to the sight of his comrade's head bouncing past his vision slit.

Want to know the real killer here, though? Several thousand were built before anyone realised just how big its problems were, leaving the army stuck with a massive surplus of these damn things. This was intended as the first step in rebuilding the severely diminished UK military, and proved to be one of the government's worst mistakes since taking Hitler's word for granted. Besides a handful of bridge-layers, the entire Covenanter line remained in the British Isles to serve purely as training vehicles for new crews. The closest they would get to seeing combat was when one was bombed during a German air raid over Canterbury.

5. Panzerjäger Tiger (P) Sd. Kfz. 184.



Better known as the Ferdinand or Elefant, this oversized tank destroyer seemed to be an answer to a question no one asked. Originally built in small numbers during 1943 with several modified versions produced in 1944, it was another victim of the "Bigger is better!" mentality which was dominating German tank designs. Weighing close to seventy tons, it was intended to counter Russian anti-tank weapons and T-34 variants at maximum range, blowing them in half with its massive 88mm cannon from several kilometers away. While it actually performed this role with surprising success, German forces ran into no end of problems before and after that point.

Much like the Tigers, Panthers and other large tracked vehicles, the Ferdinand was extremely slow, mechanically unreliable and guzzled fuel like there was no tomorrow. With a highway/off road fuel consumption of .15/.11 km/l respectively, these things were difficult to move at the best of times and had extreme trouble keeping up with blitzkrieg tactics, even without accounting for their repeated engine failures. Any damage to the tracks via mines or suspension would effectively cripple the vehicle entirely, as they were far too heavy for recovery vehicles and even exterior crew work could only do so much, even during relatively peaceful times between combat. Then, as Germany found out, the tank had no shortage of real problems to contend with in direct combat.

Deployed to help press forwards during the Battle of Kursk, the Ferdinand initially performed its job well, nailing targets at maximum range before slowly grinding forwards into Russian lines. While they achieved a commendable K/D ratio under long range conditions, up close and personal was an entirely different matter. You see, apparently someone had forgotten to give these things a machine gun or any kind of close range defense against basic infantry attacks. With its main gun mounted onto the hull and any awareness of the surrounding area hampered by poor peripheral vision, Soviet troops suddenly realised they could very easily rush these things without any real threat. Armed with Molotov cocktails and grenades, Red Army infantrymen stormed these behemoths the second they were in range, resulting in fascist flambe. Of the eighty-nine committed, few to none would leave that battle.

The later "Elefant" upgrades were intended to overcome the problems which had so badly cost the tank in Kursk, but seemed to matter very little in terms of overall performance. Deployed in Italy, it was soon discovered that most roads and bridges were unable to support these vehicles, hindering their involvement in any offensive role. With most being crippled on both occasions by mechanical faults and failings, they remain infamous as a tank more frequently destroyed by their crew to prevent capture than actual enemy action.


4. T-35



So, here's the single super-heavy which proved to be so woefully made, so inefficient that it managed to beat out all others. While the German Maus, British TOG II and French FCM F1 all had their failings, the T-35 eclipses them all as the spectacular failure which symbolizes why these giant landships just don't work. Really, if you were to ask for a single example, one dazzling, eye popping symbol for just why super-heavy vehicles should never be attempted, you couldn't ask for anything better than this Russian monstrosity.

Like a few other examples here, the T-35 was the product of an older era, as it was first put into service during the mid 1930s. Intended to serve as a symbol of power for the new Russian regime, the entire thing looks like what you'd get if you hired Rob Liefeld as an engineer. With five independently operated gun turrets, it was almost ten meters long and four meters tall. It was an impressive sight to be sure, at least on the parade ground, but anything outside of near perfect conditions was an entirely different matter. Weighing at forty-five tons, it was extremely slow moving and cumbersome, barely able to fully turn and sluggish even by the standards of Great War vehicles. It was also an utter nightmare to operate, causing the crew all kinds of hell as they tried to get the thing to work. You see, while outwardly large, the interior was extremely cramped and narrowed in, so much so that many crewmen were divided up into separate fighting compartments. Those hatches you see on each turret? Yeah, they're not to allow the gunners a quick peek outside, those are how each of them got in and out of the tank.

The turrets in question, while numerous, were also poorly positioned and poorly aligned with one another. Notably, each of the main cannons could only fire upon the same target if it happened to stop at the forwards right side of the vehicle. Anywhere else and only one or two turrets could focus fire at a time, assuming they could even get those orders across. Worse even than the issues the tank had when it came to overlapping fields of fire, the T-35 had armour which would make wet cardboard look impressive on a good day. Capable of being penetrated by damn near anything heavier than a basic rifle, the 11–30 mm of armour plating meant this was little more than a over-sized coffin. Say what you will about the Tigers, but at least they could take a few hits for all their failings.

As if sensing the fact it wouldn't stand a snowball's chance in hell, the T-35 had this mysterious habit of breaking down right before combat. The whole thing was a mechanical nightmare of course, anything of this size from this era seemed to be, but even by the standards of super heavy vehicles these things were temperamental. Rather infamously, when rushed to respond to Operation Barbarossa, nearly all of the T-35s suffered crippling mechanical failures on their way to  the front-lines. Only one or two are suspected to have been taken out by the enemy, and most of those claims have never been fully substantiated. At the end of the day, the only thing the T-35 accomplished was proving exactly why no one in their right mind would want to further research into giant multi-turreted tanks. Well, outside of science fiction at any rate.


3. The Bob Semple Tank



So, steeping away from problematic and failing Russian pseudo-super tanks for a moment, have here their complete opposite. The Bob Semple tank is the sort of thing which sounds like something spawned from a bad sitcom. I had to actually double check this thing was real before adding it to this list, as even for the time the idea was ridiculous; like some terrible punch-line for how insane some creators could be. The idea, at its core, was basically to have an entire country put together home-made battle tanks in place of actual factory-made vehicles. 

Designed by - or at least named after - New Zealand Minister of Works Bob Semple, the tank was spawned out of the country's need to build a standing military fromk anything and everything on hand. With little established infrastructure to support the construction of a full military force or even basic blueprints, Semple opted for the "here, hold my beer!" approach  and set about having tanks built without any serious planning or direction behind them. Constructed out of corrugated iron, several were based upon existing vehicles such as Caterpillar D8 tractors, with the armour set about it like a steel case. Rather than actually blocking rounds or truly protecting them for damage, the crude plating was just put together with the vain hope of deflecting rounds from the crew within. No, really, and this is what they thought the end result would look like:



As you might expect from a vehicle being built by civilian communities, there wasn't much in the way of actual anti-tank weapons. So instead the creators went for that quantity over quality approach, outfitting them with six Bren light machine guns. These weren't exactly placed in the most sensible of locations, and instead seemed to be put wherever they had room. Just to give a quick idea of how badly some of this was done, one gunner was required to lie on a mattress atop the main engine (as in directly atop of it) in order to fire his weapon.

Well, after taking all of this into account, the Bob Semple tank didn't exactly pass with flying colours when the first prototypes were put to the test. Due to their sheer impracticality, poor handling, awful firepower and being a crime against common sense, the New Zealand army opted not to take Semple up on his idea. Still, while they might have been thoroughly ridiculous, they have developed a kind of cultural fondness in their homeland as a symbol of self-reliance. It's certainly a better legacy than the last two entries on this list.


2. Tančík vzor 1933


This is one of those few which seems to have slipped between the cracks in history. By all rights this should be held up on a monument, serving as an eternal reminder of how some ideas should never be attempted. Made to augment the Czechoslovakian army, it was copied from the Carden-Lloyd Mk. IV tankette right down to many of its core design elements. However, while the Mk. IV had existed purely as a support vehicle for dragging artillery pieces and the like, someone had the bright idea of converting this thing into a full fighting vehicle. The plan was to basically make a highly mobile machine gun nest, capable of moving quickly from position to position and serving as a counter to any major infantry attack. Unfortunately, the end result left a lot to be desired. 

This thing was regarded as the epitome of a bad tank, even by its test drivers. It was poorly armed, badly armoured, with little room for the gun and noisy as all hell. Actually trying to hit any target was difficult at the best of times, largely thanks to an extremely narrow field of fire and the fact that moving any faster than a snail's pace made the gun woefully inaccurate. Even discounting its unreliability in the heat of battle and tendency to break down at the worst moments, the army quite literally could not think of a role it would be suited for. While it was too poorly constructed to serve as a front-line vehicle, its boxy and narrow design made visibility of the outside world nearly impossible. Even sitting side by side, the crew within had little chance of really communicating with one another, short of screaming over the engine.

Despite everyone short of its creator adamantly hating the design, political intervention ensured that seventy of the Tančíks were made, but largely kept to one side. Thanks to their limited role and general dislike, their only real use was a few minor suppression actions against partisans during the Slovak National Uprising. Unsurprisingly, little has actually been said in terms of their active service which wasn't scathing and highly critical of their performance.


1. A38 Valiant




So, we finally reach the last option on this list, the big one. You might not know of it, not even know of its legacy, but you'll soon understand just why this has been picked out as the worst tank of this era.

Designed in 1943 and produced in the following year, the Valiant was built with the intention of correcting the British army's shortcomings in Burma. The basic concept was thus: Build as small and light a tank as possible with as much heavy armour as they could. Simple enough in theory, until someone apparently decided to abandon all sanity while working on the project.

Severely under-gunned for its weight, the Valiant was armed only with a single 6pdr (57mm) main gun, lacking any variant of bow-mounted machine gun. This might have been fine given it was intended to primarily combat Japanese tanks, but then you get to everything else. Despite being intended as a light design, the vehicle was abysmally slow and had low mobility even by the standards of British infantry tanks. With an incredible top speed of 12mph, it was outclassed by the M4 Sherman despite being the same tonnage, and had only an estimated range of eighty miles. So, it was barely capable of crawling forwards but it made up for that by barely being able to operate beyond supply depots.

Even the armour itself, the very thing it had been built to focus upon, was considered to be woefully inadequate. While certain sections were constructed from cast metal, many others were bolted together. This was a process which had long since been ruled out as being extremely dangerous for the crew within thanks to risk of spalling. Even without that however, it followed an extremely flawed design by having the mantlet on the interior of the turret, turning its entire front into a massive weak spot. Given that this is one of two areas focused upon the most in forwards engagements, the gunner was effectively just waiting to be turned to paste by a lucky round. This problem was only amplified by its high profile despite the low body, meaning it was easy to see coming from a long way off and a blind man could pinpoint it even through a jungle. 

Even without its many basic failings, the ergonomics alone would have marked it as a failure. For example, while putting the vehicle through its paces, the test driver discovered a couple of odd things. For starters, he needed to throw his full weight behind each lever in order to operate them. Pushing them back past a certain point resulted in them jamming so badly they needed to be forced back into position with a crowbar, and the interior was so cramped the driver often risked losing at least one limb. Really, that's not an exaggeration, if he were to get his foot caught between the pedals the confined nature meant amputation was the only way of freeing him. 

The commander was no safer either, as it was discovered that any slight bump or turn risked him bashing his head against the sharp edges of the hatch and concussing himself. A big part of this was down to the wishbone design of suspension, which was considered overly fragile and extremely inadequate for a tank of its type. I wonder why no one listened to those people when they were building the damn thing.

Surprisingly, despite all of this and utterly failings its basic trials, the Valiant still found use in the British military. Soon after the project was shut down, it was hauled away and set up as an example to new officers, showing them what the past had offered. For quite some years afterwards, crews were expected to enter the tank and cite as many failings as they could find, and then list them off for an examiner. Just to put that in perspective - Mere weeks after its creation, this iron cast punchline to a terrible joke was literally set aside as a guide on how not to do it. The entire thing was kept, preserved and displayed as a constant reminder of the Ministry of Defence's failure and how it should never be repeated again. The Valiant wasn't  simply a tank, it was a living testament to Britain's shame as a military power in the world.



So, those are the ten worst tanks of the Second World War. A few of you are likely to wonder why certain choices weren't on here and, in particular, why there are not any American tanks. Truth be told, there were several lined up for this list, especially those preceding the M3 Lee, yet for their every failing it just seemed another country had managed to outdo them. Had this list been longer a good two or three certainly would have made it on there, but for the moment I personally stand by these choices.

If you have your own suggestions or even arguments against those present on this list, please feel free to leave them in the comments. It's been quite some time since there's been a proper history discussion on this blog, and it's always nice to hear the thoughts of others surrounding the machinery of bygone eras.

7 comments:

  1. FCM 2C deserved to be here, one of the biggest (70 tons), never fired in the 2nd WW because they all failed before crossing german troops
    from wiki :
    "The Char 2C is the only super-heavy tank ever to attain operational statut"

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    1. It honestly was a toss up between that and the T-35, but the Russian monster just about edged out over it thanks to its history. Were this slightly longer or had I opted to list multiple super heavy vehicles on here, the FCM 2C probably would have taken the two or three slot.

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    2. Honestly the rule of only one super-heavy on the list is mainly why I can't think of any you didn't cover extremely well, though I suppose that's fair since if you allowed any tank then pretty much every spot could be taken up by super-heavy tanks.

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    3. Pretty much in all honesty. There's only three possible exceptions to this, the Tortoise, TOG II and T28. The first was built too late to be of any real use, the TOG II was basically a third wheel and people realised its use was provided better by other vehicles, and the T28 was finished too late for its intended use against the Siegfried Line. It's almost sad to think those three are the closest this class ever got to an actual successful design.

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  2. Now, I can't help but stare at the Baneblade and its brothers with new, wary eyes.

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  3. Note that every Imperial vehicle is held together with rivets...

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    1. Indeed, and you then have the questionable shape of their design. I'm often left wondering how in hell a Leman Russ is capable of possibly deflecting an enemy shot.

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