In the following article, the Russian tank expert, Lt. Col. P. Kolomeitov
discusses the current phase of the age-old contest between projectile and armor.
* * *
a. Tank Versus AT Gun
Which is the stronger -- tank or antitank gun -- armor or shell? Before
the war there were different answers to this question. Some thought that in the
contest between armor and shell, armor would be victorious; others doubted the
possibility of providing a tank with invulnerable armor.
b. The Lightly Armored Tank
These conflicting opinions were reflected in the pre-war models of tanks.
The basic quality of a fighting machine was considered to be high speed, on the
theory that "the best armor is speed." And it is not surprising, therefore, that
the peace-time tank forces of most countries consisted almost exclusively of
light machines with armored plating from .236 inch to .630 inch thick. The war
in Spain revealed the power of antitank artillery. The experience gained there
was taken into account in all countries, but not fully appreciated by any of them.
After Spain there was a definite tendency to increase tank fire-power. As
regards plating, however, no real advances were made. Preference was given,
as before, to speed. During the invasion of France, for example, the Germans
used the Pz Kw 2b, together with the Pz Kw 3, as their basic machine. The
armor of the first type of tank was from .276 inch to .591 inch thick, and of the
second, from .630 inch to 1.181 inch. [The maximum speed for each was reported
to be between 37 to 43 mph.]* To give some idea of their vulnerability, it may be
pointed out that 1.181-inch armor is easily pierced by a shell fired from
a 37- or 45-mm (1.457- or 1.772-in) gun at
medium range. During the battles in France,
however, the tanks were very effective by virtue of numbers and mobility. In
other words, massed tanks were not opposed by massed antitank artillery.
c. Russian AT Gun Tactics
Apparently the Germans were thoroughly satisfied with the results of the
fighting in France. They evaluated highly the battle qualities of their machines
and considered them invulnerable. Disillusionment only came when the German
tanks encountered Soviet artillery. The German tank divisions which advanced
against the Red Army were chiefly equipped with PzKw 3's. With their aid, the
Nazi generals counted on being able to swiftly and completely annihilate the Soviet
troops. At the time it seemed doubtful that the swift iron flood unleashed by the
Germans could be stopped.
The Germans were astonished at the power of Soviet artillery, and its
ability to combat massed Panzer attacks. As early as August 1941 damaged
Pz Kw 3 tanks were observed to have been hurriedly strengthened with additional sheets
of armor plating which naturally reduced their speed. Nevertheless, armor-piercing
shell could still penetrate the plating and wreck the tank's vitals.
d. Antitank Gun Wins
Victory was now with the antitank gun. No tank could face it without the
risk of being set on fire at the first shot. New tactics had to be developed for the
tanks; they operated in masses and carefully by-passed regions saturated with
antitank artillery. Such tactics were, of course, expedient, but they definitely
bespoke the weakness of tank armor. At the beginning of the war the basic
antitank armaments consisted of 37- and 45-mm guns (1.457 and 1.772 inch) and
also special antitank rifles, and tank specialists devoted all their attention to
counteracting them. Realizing that it was impossible to protect a tank against
shells of all calibers, they considered it imperative to create a tank invulnerable
to the basic antitank armaments.
e. The Heavy Tank
Such tanks later appeared -- the Soviet heavy KV and medium T-34. In
this way, Soviet engineers initiated a new trend in tank building. The basic types
now became medium and heavy machines with thick armor, and yet quite mobile.
It would be wrong, however, to imagine that tanks of the KV type are invulnerable
to shells of all calibers. There is still not an invulnerable tank, and, perhaps there
never will be. Yet the KV is but slightly vulnerable to the basic antitank armaments,
and therein lies its strength. The best type of tank now is the one which combines
the necessary mobility (about 24 miles an hour) with the strongest possible armor.
If it is impossible to find an absolute protection against guns, then at least it is
vitally necessary to reduce the effectiveness of the basic antitank weapons. One
of the means is thicker armor.
f. German Innovations
Let us consider what the Germans have done to increase the protection of
their tanks. A new machine, the Pz Kw 6 (Tiger),** has now appeared on the
battlefield. Its armor reaches a thickness of 4.33 inches, and it is armed with an
antiaircraft gun of 88-mm caliber. This gun has been chosen not as protection
against aircraft but on account of its range and the great initial velocity of its
The Germans consider that with the Tiger they had made a revolution
in tank building. However, the Pz Kw 6 is in essence an imitation of the Soviet
KV type. It can be safely said that it was really the success of the latter that
induced the Germans to take up the construction of a heavy tank. However, there
is one thing about the German Pz Kw 6 that merits attention. At first it seemed
strange to arm a heavily armored tank with a long-range gun. Yet it was done
in order to win superiority over enemy artillery and tanks.
The Germans thought that by opening fire from a distance of 2,000 to
2,500 meters, their Tiger tank would be safe from medium-caliber guns. Such
has not been the case in practice. Of course, it would be a mistake to
underestimate the power of the Tigers, but combat experience has shown modern
antitank artillery is still more powerful.
g. The Contest Continues
The contest between armor and shell continues. In this, as in other
spheres, tremendous progress has been made during the war, but the limit has
not yet been reached. Simultaneously with the increase in armor there will
apparently be a growth in the penetrative power of the shell.
It seems [to the writer] that the struggle between tank and gun will be
ever-present. After all, every tank -- for example the German Tiger -- carries
a gun that fires a shell capable of piercing its own armor.
*Our own data give the speed of the Pz Kw 2b as 34 mph maximum and that of
the Pz Kw 3 (earlier models) at 29 mph.
**For a detailed report on this tank see Tactical and Technical Trends, No. 34, p. 13.