The History of the Tank

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Podcast Transcript

On November 20, 1917, German soldiers on the Western Front saw something that had never been seen in the history of warfare. 

They witnessed over 400 lumbering metal beasts heading their way. If they tried to shoot them, the bullets would just bounce off. 

They were some of the first people to be introduced to tank warfare.

Learn more about the history of the tank, how they were developed and how they changed warfare, on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

The history of warfare can be thought of as a constant back and forth between offense and defense. 

Someone developed the spear, and someone else developed the shield in response. 

Someone built city walls and someone else built the catapult to attack those walls. 

So, in light of that, it isn’t surprising that putting people in a metal box would be seen to be an almost inevitable response to be shot at with guns. 

The first known idea of something that could be considered a tank came from Leonardo da Vinci. 

He drew designs for something which is known as Leonardo’s fighting vehicle. It sort of looked like a flying saucer or maybe a fortified paper umbrella. It was designed to be made out of wood and reinforced with metal. There would be men inside and a series of small hand cannons which ringed the vehicle.

According to the design, it would have been propelled by men inside who moved it by turning gears. 

Leonardo’s device was never built, but the idea of an armored protected platform that you could shoot out of, but not get hit in return, always was there.

The problem wasn’t creating an armored shell. Battleships had basically done that in the 19th century. The problem was mobility. Moving around an armored cart with horses wasn’t really a solution because the horses would be vulnerable. Even if you could put them into an enclosed, protected space, they probably wouldn’t like it.

The simple idea of an armored space was in need of a means of propulsion, and that came with the invention of the automobile.

However, it required more than just the invention of the internal combustion engine. 

An armored vehicle covered with iron and steel is by its nature very heavy. Moreover, wars aren’t necessarily fought where there are roads. A heavily armored vehicle would need to travel over rough terrain, and regular wheels just wouldn’t cut it. 

They would sink into soft soil. This was a problem that had already been encountered with large tractors.

The solution to this problem came in 1907 by a Californian by the name of Benjamin Holt. He filed a patent on the first functioning continuous crawler track.

Other people had thought of similar systems before, but he came up with the first practical system that worked. 

The continuous track allows a vehicle to spread its weight over a much larger area than a wheel or a tire would. 

What made the tank a reality was the first world war. 

Almost immediately, in the first days of the war, people were thinking of the creation of something very tank-like. 

Less than a month after the start of the war, the French military engineer, colonel Jean Baptiste Eugène Estienne said,

“Victory in this war will belong to the belligerent who is the first to put a cannon on a vehicle capable of moving on all kinds of terrain”

Estienne was thinking in terms of artillery and at the time he said that he had no clue what was going to happen in the upcoming war. 

As trench warfare set in, the entire western front ended up becoming a massive stalemate. 

The Allies were looking for something that could break through the stalemate and counter the defensive trenches and fortifications which had been built up.

There were all sorts of experiments and attempts at building what they called landships. One French idea was called a Boirault machine which was a vehicle that basically was a giant tank tread that surrounded the entire vehicle, with everything inside of it.

The designs which had the most success were those that used the Holt tractors at the basis of the vehicle. 

By the way, the word “tank” came from a British code word used for the project because it looked like a water tank. The word tank sort of caught on after that in several different languages. 

The first tank which saw service was the British Mark I tank. It was used at the Battle of the Somme in 1916.

If you’ve seen a World War I era tank, you’ve probably seen the Mark I. It looks like a rhombus with two treads that went around the entire body of the tank. 

There were 49 of these tanks used at the Somme, however, they had limited success. 

These first tanks were not equipped with large guns. They were mostly designed to roll over barbed wire, cross trenches, and provide a spearhead for infantry. 

The first real success of tanks came on November 20, 1917, at the Battle of Cambrai. There over 400 tanks took part in an attack and were able to push six miles into the German lines over a front seven miles wide.

As this was still the early days of tank warfare, there were many different designs that were used in combat. The British, French, and Americans all had multiple different models which were used over the course of the war. 

The real impact of the tank wasn’t really felt until the last few months of the conflict. Knowledge about how to use tanks effectively was accumulated rapidly over the course of the war.

After the war, German general Erich Ludendorff said the Allied tanks were one of the primary reasons for the German defeat.

After the war, every country took notice of how effective tanks were. They evolved beyond just infantry support vehicles. 

Countries developed dedicated tank corps. Armor improved as the engines improved, and they were also equipped with larger guns. 

The strategy around tank warfare also changed. As the vehicles improved, they began to be viewed more as primary weapons. In France, Charles de Gaulle advocated this doctrine, but it was never formally adopted by France.

The start of World War II in 1939 radically changed how the tank was perceived. While many countries were slow to change their doctrines to fully integrate tanks, the Germans were not. 

The invasion of Poland, and how quickly it happened, surprised the world. A big part of how quickly they were able to move was due to relying on mechanization, in particular tanks. 

As with the first world war, the second led to rapid evolution in tanks by both sides. 

I don’t want to get into all of the various models that both sides used over the course of the war, because if I get that far into the weeks I could spend several episodes on that. 

I will say that the development of the tank was a constant battle of trying to balance several things. You wanted a gun that was large enough to take out other tanks and armor which could protect you from other tanks. However, too big of a gun and too much armor, and you couldn’t maneuver and you used too much fuel. 

On top of all of that, you had to have a design that could be massed produced and was reliable and easy to maintain in the field. 

I will make special note of the largest tank battle in history which took place during the war, the Battle of Kursk. The battle saw over 10,000 tanks on the battlefield on both sides. 

The war also saw the first use of personal anti-tank weapons. The rocket-propelled grenade is commonly called a bazooka.

A rocket-propelled grenade is in fact rocket-propelled, but it isn’t a regular grenade. Piercing the armor of a tank is very difficult. Anti-tank weapons make use of something called the Munroe effect, or a shaped charge. 

A regular explosion will blast energy outward in all directions. A shaped charge will focus much of the blast on a single point. Shaped charges are pretty much necessary to efficiently penetrate the thick armor on a tank. 

After the war, tank design got more sophisticated. Warsaw Pact countries settled on similar designs, whereas NATO countries developed many different models that weren’t interoperable. 

One development was the creation of composite armor. Composite armor is armor made from layers of different materials including ceramics, plastics, metals, and even air. It is designed to be lighter and stronger than traditional plate armor, however, it is much more expensive to produce, so it is usually just used on the most vulnerable parts of a tank.

Given its incredibly dense nature, depleted uranium has been used for both tank armor and in anti-tank ammunition. Depleted uranium is uranium with much of the U-235 removed. It is basically what is left over after the process of enrichment. 

Coupled with a shaped charge, a depleted uranium round can go through most tank armor. 

The biggest counter to shaped charge ammunition has been reactive armor. 

If you see images of tanks on the news, you might notice that they are covered with something that looks like panels or sometimes even bags. These are reactive armor panels. 

Most of them are designed to explode on impact. You might think it is odd that you’d cover a tank with explosives, but the purpose is to counter a shaped charge blast. When it is hit, it will explode outward, neutralizing much of the power of the shaped charge. 

There is also a type of reactive armor called electric armor, which uses an electric charge to vaporize incoming projectiles. 

There have also been major advances in anti-tank weapons. The old bazooka required the person firing the weapon to be rather close and within line of sight. 

The cold war saw the development of anti-tank missiles. Wire guided missiles were introduced in the 1950s and 1960s which allowed the person firing the weapon to guide it to its target. This could be done from a much further distance than a bazooka. 

These missiles have shrunk such that they can be shoulder-fired by infantry. Missiles like the javelin anti-tank missile and the Next Generation Light Anti-tank Weapon or NLAW, have made tanks extremely vulnerable to common infantry soldiers. 

These modern anti-tank weapons also use what is known as a tandem warhead. Two warheads are fired out of the same missiles, the first of which is designed to activate the reactive armor, and the second is designed to take out the tank.

Likewise, tanks have always been extremely vulnerable to ground attack aircraft and attack helicopters, and now drones.

The disparity between offense and defense has swung to a point where the tank might be on its way out or at least might change considerably. 

A $70,000 javelin missile or a $25,000 NLAWS rocket can take out a tank that costs $2 million to $15 million dollars apiece. 

The United States Marine Corps announced in 2021 that they were getting rid of their tanks. 

Many military strategists now think that they are too slow, consume too much fuel, and are too vulnerable to cheap anti-tank weapons and aircraft to be still be used in the role they once did. 

To give you an idea of how much fuel they consume, the M1 Abrams Tank, which is the primary tank of the US Army, consumes 500 gallons or 1900 liters of fuel to travel 289 miles or 466 kilometers. That almost 2 gallons per mile.

That requires a massive amount of fuel and logistics which can slow down an army.

I don’t think we’ve seen the end of the tank, but we might very well have seen the end of the primacy of the tank. They have become too expensive, too slow, and too vulnerable. 

In the span of a century, we may have seen the rise and fall of the tank as a primary weapon of war. 


The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.

Today’s review comes from listener Ayodeji over at Podcast Addict. They write.

Where do I start? I found Gary’s EED through Stephen Kotowych’s Tesla podcast episode and I have been hooked ever since. It is so clear, simple and engaging. Absolutely the only podcast I have recommended to friends and connections on LinkedIn. It’s ideal for all ages, even my toddlers pay attention and I hope Gary gets all the listener numbers he needs to make the podcast a sustained success. Thanks Gary.

Thanks, Ayodeji!  I admit I never intended the show to be for kids, but I have had many people reach out to me who say they listen to it with their kids. Just know that I’ll always keep the language in the podcast such that you can listen to it with children, and it will be as family friendly as history will allow. 

Remember, if you leave a review or send me a Boostagram, you too can have it read on the show.