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I am reading about the Spanish Civil War in a book by Antony Beevor entitled "The Battle for Spain: The Spanish Civil War 1936-1939". According to Beevor while the nationalists were able to control the skies by using superior German made aircraft, the republicans had the edge in tank combat with Soviet T-26's. He also claims that the Spanish civil war lead to the development of heavier German tanks.

I don't know too much about German tank design, especially before World War II. What was the technological state of German tanks in comparison to other major armies of the 1920's and 1930's? Did the Russians maintain superior tank design into world war II (assuming what Beevor said is true)?

NOTE: I understand that "superior" is difficult to define. For example my understanding that while the tiger tank may have been widely considered "superior" to the American Sherman tank, the American army was able to turn out such high quantities of the Sherman that they were able to overwhelm the numerically smaller German tank divisions (I believe that's the case anyway).

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Between the World Wars, Germany did not have any tanks. It did, however, have some spectacularly overbuilt industrial tractors. – Mark Oct 9 '14 at 0:50
People often only consider the gun and armor when considering which tank is "superior" when there's so much more that goes into an effective tank design. As for the Soviets maintaining their edge, myself and others go into this in some detail over here. – Schwern Feb 25 at 9:13

3 Answers 3

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The Panzer I, the tank sent to Spain, was initially designed as an "industrial tractor" in order to get around arms controls agreements. It had a number of limitations ranging from slow speed to engine problems to inadequate armor to less effective armament. It's primary/original purpose was for the German command to teach soldiers armored warfare while not having treaty breaking armor.

The Soviet built T-26 was a much better design and taken from the successful British Vickers tanks. It, like a lot of Soviet armaments, was easy to manufacture and maintain and simple for the average soldier to use. The T-34 continued this trend.

The Panzer III and IV were the main battle tanks when WWII started in 1939. These tanks did well against the unprepared French and British forces. When the invasion of the USSR began, it became clear that these tanks had inferior guns. Superior armor tactics, however, gave the Germans about a 6:1 kill ratio over the Soviets.

The Tiger was still in the design phase during the late 1930's. It incorporated the famous German 88mm cannon and sported heavier armor than any contemporary tank. It suffered from being so technically advanced, making it expensive to build, difficult to maintain and prone to mechanical breakdown and malfunction. It was first deployed to North Africa and the Eastern front in 1942. Due to Allied bombing and the complexity and cost, the Tiger didn't see a wide deployment. Allied tank tactics used the low numbers to their advantage through flanking maneuvers that the outnumbered Germans couldn't effectively counter.

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Note that Panzer Is and IIs were still used in large numbers during the fall of France, and, along with similar Czech tanks, even during the early parts of the invasion of Russia. The few IIIs and IVs in operation did, admittedly, get concentrated at the main point of attack. – Paul Hutton May 2 '12 at 2:21
mind that the Tiger was quite reliable. The problemchild you call the Tiger was actually its predecessor, the Panther. Tiger was designed to overcome the problems with that design. – jwenting Feb 8 '13 at 7:00
@jwenting Both the Tiger I and Panther were initially unreliable. Both were overweight and had serious engine and transmission problems. Both were rushed into production. The Panther mostly overcame these problems and became one of the best all-round tanks of the war, the Tiger never did. While there were plans and prototypes to replace the Pz III and IV tanks all the way back to 1938, both Tiger and Panther projects were kicked into high gear after the shock of encountering the T-34 and KV-1 in 1941. – Schwern Feb 24 at 22:45
Don't confuse being 100% assembled by unwilling slave labour with poorly designed. From erroneously clipped dip-sticks to sand in the engine block, the Third Reich's slaves found endless ways to sabotage their work. – Pieter Geerkens Feb 24 at 23:05
@PieterGeerkens It is certainly true there was a lot of industrial sabotage. The Tiger and Panther suffered from both manufacturing problems and design problems, and they exasperated each other. German designs required tight tolerances and high quality parts which could not be maintained in a crumbling late war infrastructure or 1000 miles into Russia. But even with perfect quality, their drive trains were flawed and overloaded. – Schwern Feb 24 at 23:26

In addition to the excellent answers, German inter-war tank designs had two technical advantages: turret layout and radios.

The Panzer I and Panzer II both had the commander also operating the gun. The Germans learned that being a tank commander was a full time job: commanding the tank, scanning for targets, listening to the command radio network. With the Panzer III they settled on the three person turret design that remains to this day: commander, gunner, loader. Their superior ergonomics gave their tanks a better situational awareness, rate of fire, and could allow more complicated tactics. Other nations, most notably the Soviet Union with the T-34, were slow to learn this lesson and their tanks were hampered by a two man turret.

At the beginning of WWII radios were expensive, heavy, and power hungry. Many tanks, especially light tanks, did not have radios. This limited the tactics and maneuvers they could perform: tank tactics either had to be very simple, slow and deliberate, or they would just sort of run around pell-mell. The Germans put a radio in every tank allowing rapid communication, coordination and complex, fluid tactics that could adapt to the situation. This allowed them to use their often inferior tanks to great advantage to outflank and outmaneuver the enemy and generally press the pace of battle at a speed the Allies could not keep up with.

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German tanks were generally inferior to Allied and Soviet designs in the pre-war years.

The Germans were limited in what they could build due to the restrictions imposed upon them by the Treaty of Versailles, limiting their military. Indeed this treaty stated that they were not allowed any tanks at all but in the 1930s as they began to re-arm the treaty was largely ignored.

When Germany invaded France in 1940, their tanks were inferior to the French (and British) designs as this quote from Wikipedia (and Heinz Guderian) illustrates:

The French Army preferred to fight a defensive battle and built tanks accordingly. But there were some instances when some of the French tanks were able to slug it out with the German tanks and get the better of it, sometimes spectacularly so as when on 16 May a single Char B1 French heavy tank, the Eure, frontally attacked and destroyed thirteen German tanks lying in ambush in Stonne, all of them Panzer IIIs and Panzer IVs, in the course of a few minutes.[1] The tank safely returning despite being hit 140 times (this event is not trackable in German documents and relies on the statements of the crew[citation needed]). Similarly, in his book Panzer Leader, Heinz Guderian relates the following incident, which took place during a tank battle south of Juniville: "While the tank battle was in progress, I attempted, in vain, to destroy a Char B with a captured 47 mm anti-tank gun; all the shells I fired at it simply bounced harmlessly off its thick armor. Our 37 mm and 20 mm guns were equally ineffective against this adversary. As a result, we inevitably suffered sadly heavy casualties".

The main reason that Germany won so decisively in early battles was due to Blitzkrieg tactics and the way their armour was organised. The French tended to use their tanks in defensive positions that negated the advantage of mobility and they spread them out so tanks were not concentrated together. This meant when French tanks did engage German armour they were almost always fighting against superior numbers.

The Panzer IV was the most advanced German tank produced before the war:

Total numbers were around 200 before the outbreak of war.

Strangely the Germans didn't learn the lessons of the Blitzkrieg themselves and when faced with the more agile and numerous Russian T34 tank they produced slower and more expensive tanks that were always going to be outnumbered.

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Who are the "Allies" in the pre-war years? – Anixx May 2 '12 at 13:16
I doubt very much that Panzer IV was inferior to Char B1 – Anixx May 2 '12 at 13:22
Indeed, Germans were always quick to adopt the enemy's weapons, but they didn't value Char B1 at all. Quite a number of them was conquered, but if I remember correctly they were never put into the front line use by Germans. – kubanczyk May 5 '12 at 3:51
The Char B1 was a much better tank than anything the Germans had in the field at the time in terms of armor and firepower. It was, however, incompatible with German tank doctrine - the cupola could only hold one man, so the tank commander had to also be a gunner and the radioman. Furthermore, it was too slow for fast-moving blitzkreig formations, since its engine was underpowered. In a standup fight, the B1 fought off multiple panzer opponents. (It was vulnerable to heavy artillery, and too slow to escape such.) – RI Swamp Yankee Aug 13 '12 at 17:00

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