by Jeremy Black
Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2020. Pp. xviii, 248.
Notes, biblio., index. $40.00. ISBN:0253049997
The Tank in War
Writing a new survey history of tank warfare is difficult since it requires a firm grasp of the interplay of technology, procurement, doctrine, and training, to say nothing of the role of the tank in a nation’s broader military policy. On top of this daunting expertise, the author also needs a solid appreciation of the technical combat performance of tanks during the numerous conflicts of the 20th Century in order to judge the effectiveness of a nation’s tank programs.
Adding to the challenge is the lack of good national surveys in English. The best tank books published in France, Russia, Italy, and Japan are difficult to find outside their native countries, even before addressing the language barrier.
Most academic writing on tank warfare focuses on doctrine; military technology is not well covered. Tank warfare is treated in many campaign histories, but such accounts are usually perfunctory. Most of the detailed publications about tank warfare are aimed at the enthusiasts: wargamers, military history buffs, and hobbyists. Much of this is overly technical and arcane. But at the same time, these books have contributed far more to the historical literature about tanks and tank warfare than academic accounts. Academics often shy away from the buff literature to avoid the taint of the amateur. But in ignoring the technological aspects of industrial-age warfare, it is the academics who are often the dilettantes and amateurs.
Jeremy Black’s new tank warfare survey attempts to take on this challenge, with disappointing results. His new book is annoyingly Anglocentric. There should be a rule that British writers dealing with world tank development be given a strict quota of the number of times they can refer to Liddell Hart, Fuller, and Guderian. Black’s chapter endnotes are largely monolingual and show a preference for academic surveys rather than specialized studies. No Jentz on German tank development, no Hunnicutt on US tanks, no Touzin on French tanks, no Ogorkiewicz on tank technology, etc. The bibliography is scattershot and uninspiring.
The book employs a chronological framework, briefly surveying the role of tank warfare in major conflicts, and jumping from country to country to depict their technical developments. The writing style is built around of a pastiche of tid-bits and lacks any strong analytic focus. Major tactical and technical themes are ignored. What role did the poor durability of World War I tanks have in limiting tactical innovation in the 1920s? What was the cause of the Soviet tank massacre of 1941? Was it superior German doctrine, inadequate Soviet training, or the inherent unreliability of the Soviet tank park? Should tanks be concentrated in armored divisions as in the German 1939-40 example? Or should they be divided between armored divisions and separate battalions/regiments for infantry support as in the Soviet and US case in 1944-45? Who achieved the best combined-arms tactical balance during the war? Why did Germany produce relatively so few tanks in World War II, and what impact did this have on their war effort? Why didn’t the advent of inexpensive guided anti-tank missiles signal the death of the tank in the Cold War? How well did Cold War armies balance their procurement between tanks and increasingly-expensive infantry armored vehicles?
A survey such as this one needs more numerical data to help establish some balance. For example, British army tank production from 1931 to 1936 was 218; France was 1,943, Germany 2,753. During this period, the Red Army accounted for three-fourths of the world’s tank production: 18,230 tanks. After 1919, balance in tank development shifted eastward from Britain and France to Germany and the Soviet Union; there is no sense of this in the book. Over the past century, the Russians/Soviets have manufactured more tanks and exported more tanks than any other country, a point not apparent from the balance of coverage in this book. There is little about tank production and distribution in the book, particularly comparative data. In the age of industrialized warfare, numbers matter.
The book’s many technical mistakes undermine an informed reader’s confidence in the author’s judgement. Renault FT tanks on the Chemin des Dames in 1917 (p.11)? The Soviets replaced the T-26 with the BT-7 (p. 44)? The Tetrarch as a significant player in British late 1930s tank programs (p.49)? Armor of 12.7mm on the Sherman (p. 91)? German tank protection from mid-1944 was generally supplemented with a concrete add-on layer (p. 98)? The smoothbore tank gun of the 1960s could fire further, but a rifled gun was more accurate (p.151)? The Kurds had T-64 tanks (p. 209)? These aren’t occasional mistakes; they are widespread throughout the book.
An informed reader will find nothing new in this book and will be dismayed by its errors and omissions. A casual military history reader may find it an enjoyable, if unreliable, account.
Our Reviewer: Steven Zaloga studied history at Union College, and Columbia University. He has given courses on armor/anti-armor technology for Technology Training Corp., and covered the armored vehicle industry while an analyst at DMS Inc. He is currently a senior analyst with Teal Group Corp., covering missile and drone procurement for clients in government and industry. He also served as adjunct staff with the Strategy, Forces and Resources Division of the Institute for Defense Analyses, covering trends in worldwide weapons development until his retirement in 2021. He is the author of dozens of books on tank development and tank warfare with an accent on US and Soviet/Russian combat vehicles.
Note: Tank Warfare is also available in several e-editions.