The infantry tank was a concept developed by the British and French in the years leading up to World War II. Infantry tanks were designed to support infantry-soldiers in an attack. To achieve this, the vehicles were generally heavily armoured to allow them to operate in close concert with infantry even under heavy fire. The extra armour came at the expense of speed, which was not an issue when supporting relatively slow-moving infantry.
Once an attack supported by infantry tanks had broken through heavily defended areas in the enemy lines, faster tanks such as cruiser or light tanks were expected to use their higher speed and longer range to operate far behind the front and cut lines of supply and communications.
The split between the infantry tank and cruisers had its origins in the World War I division between the first British heavy tanks and the faster Whippet Medium Mark A and its successors the Medium Mark B and Medium Mark C. During the interbellum, British tank experiments generally followed these basic classifications, which were made part of the overall doctrine with the work of Major-General Percy Hobart and the influence of Captain B.H. Liddell Hart.
In 1934 Hobart, the then "Inspector, Royal Tank Corps", postulated in a paper two alternatives for a tank to support the infantry. One was a very small, heavily armoured, machine gun-armed model that would be fielded in large numbers to overwhelm the enemy defences. The other was a larger vehicle with a cannon as well as machine guns and heavier armour against enemy field artillery. Vickers designed a tank to a General Staff specification based on the first option - the A9. Within the limitations of military finances, the Master-General of the Ordnance, Hugh Elles, went for the smaller machine gun tank. This requirement was passed to Vickers-Armstrongs which had a prototype (A11E1) but with armour proof against current anti-tanks guns ready by September 1936.
Comparisons with other tank types
Using later terminology, the infantry tank has been compared to a heavy tank, while the cruisers were compared to mediums, lights, or even armoured cars. This comparison can be misleading: particularly as the infantry tank was never intended to have the same anti-tank capabilities as a heavy tank.[clarification needed]
The infantry tank was distinctly different from either the "heavy tank" or "breakthrough tank" concepts, although some pre-war multi-turreted heavy machines such as the Soviet T-35 and the German Neubaufahrzeug (both taking some of their inspiration from the Vickers A1E1 Independent prototype - an idea which was abandoned by the War office in the late 1920s for lack of funding), which were similar, and with similar doctrines for their use. The Neubaufahrzeug was considered too slow for Blitzkrieg tactics and fell from favour. German (and to some extent Soviet) wartime doctrine shifted towards faster medium and heavy tanks fighting large multi-tank battles, with the role of the infantry tank in the assault taken by simpler self-propelled artillery.
An important difference, however, was that heavy tanks were generally very well armed, while infantry tanks were not necessarily better armed than other types. For example, the Soviet KV-1 heavy tank and British Matilda II infantry tank were deployed at about the same time in 1940. These two models had similar levels of armour protection and mobility, but the KV was far more heavily armed than the Matilda.
In British practice, the main armament of the infantry tank went in three phases. The pre-Dunkirk British Army Matilda I had only a single heavy Vickers machine gun, a compromise forced by the lightness of its chassis and the price it was built to. The Matilda II gained a capable anti-tank capacity for its time, with the 40mm 2 pounder, but these were only issued with solid-shot (i.e. non-explosive) for anti-tank use and had little effect as artillery when providing close support for the infantry. The ultimate evolution of the British infantry tank concept began with the Churchill Mk I, where a hull-mounted 3 inch howitzer could support infantry assaults with HE shells while the turret had a 2-pdr for use against other tanks. As the increasing size of tanks, and their turret ring diameters, allowed such a howitzer to be turret-mounted in vehicles such as the Crusader Close Support (CS) and Centaur CS.
Since infantry tanks were to work at the pace of infantry units which would be attacking on foot, high speed was not a requirement and they were able to carry heavier armour. The first two purpose-designed infantry tanks, the Mark I and Mark II "Matilda"s were armed with a heavy machine gun and QF 2 pounder anti-tank gun respectively. The Mark I had been ordered in 1938, but it had become clear that a better-armed tank would be needed and its replacement, the Mark II, was already under design and would be ordered in mid-1938.
These two saw action in the Battle of France where in the counterattack at Arras they caused a shock to the German panzer units. Losses of the Mark I in France were not replaced, but the Mark II Matilda remained in production.
British doctrine remained that infantry and cruiser tanks were both expected to engage enemy tanks, hence the use of both the 2-pounder and then 6-pounder on both.
They were followed into service by the Valentine and Churchill designs. The Valentine proved to be difficult to develop further but the Churchill went through successive variants and served up to the end of the war.
As British cruiser tank designs developed into larger vehicles with more powerful engines, they could carry bigger guns and more armour and yet still achieve high speeds. At the end of the war the cruiser tank lineage led to the "universal tank" in the form of the Centurion.
In practice the British did not operate only infantry and cruiser tanks. Lack of production capacity meant the large scale adoption of US medium tanks.
France, the Soviet Union and Germany
During the interwar years, the French Army adopted three light tanks in the infantry tank role. These were the Hotchkiss H35, the Renault R35 and the FCM 36. All three had two–man crews and were similar to the Matilda I in terms of size, weight and armour. However, they were better armed, having 37mm guns as well as co-axial machine guns.
In practice, although able to resist hits from other tanks and anti-tank guns, and designed for good, albeit slow, cross-country performance, the separation of tank functions into specialised areas such as infantry and cruiser types was not effective. Invariably the cruisers ended up meeting enemy tanks in combat, while the infantry tanks were the only ones present when a breakthrough was accomplished. The infantry tank idea faded as tank design progressed during the war. It was eventually replaced outright with the general acceptance of the 'universal tank' idea.
The concept was also employed by the other big tank-producing nation of the 1930s: the Soviet Union, as exemplified by the T-26. The T-26 was a light tank assigned to infantry units and thus fulfilled the infantry tank role, but it had the relatively thin armour of a light tank, but with a potent 45 mm gun. Their BT tanks were the fast cruiser types.
Germany had its separate Panzerwaffe; the German infantry used phased out Panzerkampfwagen Is in its Independent Tank Brigades. This is often seen as reflecting some explicit doctrine; in reality it was simply caused by a lack of funds, tank production not having any priority. When more money became available the Sturmgeschütz III was taken into use by the artillery, in its original role of an infantry close support vehicle—the counterpart of the Allied Infantry tanks.
Despite the concept of splitting tanks into infantry and cruiser roles being an instance of the general economic principle of division of labour in mechanization, during World War II, its application in mechanized warfare proved to be hugely inefficient in terms of technical development, production, maintenance, logistics, and — worst of all — tactical flexibility. Therefore it was not surprising that during the war, it was progressively abandoned by all the major belligerent countries.
The US disbanded its Tank Corps in 1919 and the National Defense Act 1920 defined tanks as an infantry responsibility and their purpose was to support the infantry. There were little funds available for tank development and only around two experimental tanks were produced a year. In the early 1930s, the promotion of mechanization of the cavalry began. For political expediency and to avoid conflicting with the 1920 law, the tanks developed for the cavalry based on the infantry's light tanks were called "Combat Cars".
Medium tank designs produced were focused on infantry support. The M2 Medium Tank designed in the late 1930s had multiple machine guns to give all round fire and a 37 mm anti-tank gun. However before mass production could start the Battle of France had already shown that a 75mm gun was needed.
The Japanese Imperial Army used tankettes as infantry support in the 1930s and into World War II. These small light tanks were also referred to as armored cars (though they usually only held a crew of two and appeared like miniature tanks) and included the Type 92, Type 94, and Type 97 "TK" vehicles. Japanese troops would ride on the fast-moving tankettes, use them as tractors to pull equipment, or otherwise use them in support roles. Only later versions of the tankettes came equipped with anything other than machine guns. These vehicles were successful supporting infantry in campaigns against China in the 1930s but were not designed to engage other tanks with armor that was meant to repel only small arms fire.
- History of the tank
- Tanks in World War I
- Comparison of World War I tanks
- Tanks of the interwar period
- Tanks in World War II
- Comparison of early World War II tanks
- Cold War Tanks
- Post-Cold War Tanks
- Armoured fighting vehicle
- Chamberlain & Ellis p54
- Matilda Infantry Tank p 3
- Chamberlain & Ellis p54
- The turret ring bearing must carry the recoil force of the main gun, reduced by the mounting's buffer as well containing the gun breech and associated recoil distance of the gun. The turret and bearing diameter controls the bearing capacity, thus the limit of armament capacity.
- Fletcher The Great Tank Scandal
- Fletcher, Universal Tank
- Chamberlain & Ellis British and American Tanks of World War II 1969, Arco Publishing. p84
- Chamberlain & Ellis p105
||This article includes a list of references, but its sources remain unclear because it has insufficient inline citations. (December 2009)|
- Fletcher, David (1993). The Universal Tank. HMSO, for REME Museum. ISBN 0-11-290534-X., p. 87
- Fletcher, David (1994). Matilda Infantry Tank 1938-1945. Osprey Publishing.