Historians Can't Decide On World War II's Best Tank—But We Can

Michael Peck

Key Point: The post-1945 U.S. military has been fond of cutting-edge weapons; if you could transport today's Pentagon back to 1943, it would doubtless choose to build Tigers instead of Shermans or T-34s.

It can be argued that the best tank is the one that destroys the enemy. Or, depending on your point of view, it's the one that isn't shooting at you.

But otherwise, choosing the top tank is always a nightmare of technical and historical analysis. There are so many variables, and so many experts and history buffs that will argue those variables to the death. Yet into the fray steps "Armored Champions: The Top Tanks of World War II", written by Steven Zaloga, a defense analyst and well-regarded writer on World War II armored warfare.

So let's cut to the chase. What's the best tank of World War II?

Sorry, armor fans, but there isn't one! Zaloga wisely avoids the scholarly minefield of picking The Greatest Generation's Greatest Tank. "A tank protected with 45-millimeter armor was invulnerable in 1941, but it was doomed to quick defeat by 1945," he writes. "A tank armed with a 76-millimeter gun was a world-beater in 1941, but by 1945 was a pop-gun in a tank-versus-tank duel."

Instead, "Armored Champion" hedges its bets by spreading them. Instead of one best tank for World War II, there is one best tank for each year of the war. More important is how the author tackles the vexing question of why the seemingly "best" tanks so frequently belong to the losing side. For example, markedly inferior German armor decimated the Soviet tank fleet in 1941, while Israeli Super Shermans -- upgraded World War II leftovers -- destroyed modern Russian tanks in 1973.

Zaloga tackles this conundrum by picking two champions per year. The first he calls "Tanker's Choice," awarded to the vehicle that ranks highest according to the traditional yardsticks of firepower, armor and mobility. But the second he calls "Commander's Choice," which is based upon a tank's overall usefulness in light of factors such as reliability and quantity produced. Thus while Germany's legendary Tiger boasts more firepower and armor than the humble StuG III assault gun (a turretless tank with the gun stuck in the hull), "the German army could have bought 10 StuG III assault guns or three Tiger tanks," Zaloga writes. "Factoring in reliability, the Wehrmacht could have had seven operational StuG IIIs or one operational Tiger tank."

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