The first workers that built them were told they were making water carriers for Mesopotamia. It made sense since the company that made the first working model in 1915, William Foster & Co., worked in agriculture. That 18-ton model housed a crew of six and was nicknamed “Little Willie.” It was never used in combat. From that humble, secretive beginning, tanks have become one of the emblems of military might.
But which types of tanks have done the most damage? Which models of these war machines left enemy armies the most devastated? Not just “which tank has the most destructive potential,” because that would only be a list of the most modern tanks. No, we’ll be focusing on the tanks which were put to the ultimate test on the battlefield.
10. MK II Matilda
When Great Britain declared war on Germany in 1939, this was the best tank in its ranks. Its 78mm armor would at times stand up to even the 88mm, the strongest German artillery piece used in the field. Its top speed of 16 miles-per-hour was twice as fast as the previous model. When 16 of them went up against the famous Erwin Rommel’s 7th Armored division during the 1940 Battle of Arras, they gave the Allies one of the few bright spots during the fall of France when they tore up a number of Rommel’s tanks with their 40mm main cannons.
It would be in Africa that they would have their finest hour. In 1940, the Italian army in Libya invaded Egypt. The Matildas took the worst of the Italian artillery easily and knocked their armor out of commission, turning the tide against an Italian army that outnumbered the Allies ten to one. The Matildas were for a time dubbed the “Queens of the Desert.” It was such a stunning reversal that Hitler had to waste time and resources that would have more strategically been spent on the Soviet Union trying to save Italy’s face in North Africa. Speaking of the Soviet Union, Britain would send roughly a thousand of these tanks to the Red Army in 1941, and they would take part in saving Moscow.
Curiously, it would arguably be the Australians that made the best use of the Matilda tank. In the lead up to the turning point Second Battle of El Alamein, 24 Matildas were fitted with a revolving system of chains that functioned as whips for clearing mines and barb wire and designated “scorpions.” The chain system turned out to be even better against manned fortifications. After these scorpion tanks were included in a shipment of four hundred Matilda tanks to the Australian military, Japanese prisoners consistently claimed during interrogation that the sight of those whipping chains approaching would get them to abandon their earthworks.
While development of this British tank began in 1943, none were ready for manufacture until 1945, meaning they weren’t ready for combat before the end of the war. But with a top speed of 21.5 MPH, a cannon that fired 105mm shells with twice the penetration power of the 88mm artillery piece, the Centurion was still given plenty opportunities to prove itself in conflicts such as the Korean War. It remained in production for the British military until the mid-’60s, but its most significant engagement did not have anything to do with the United Kingdom directly.
In 1967 and 1973, Israel would fight the Six Days War and Yom Kippur war against its neighbors Egypt, Iraq, and Syria. Centurion tanks had been sold en masse to both sides, which according to Howstuffworks.com was the first time that the same tank was used on both sides. On Oct. 6, 1973, the Syrian military launched a surprise attack against Mount Bental to exploit the Jewish holy day of Yom Kippur. They brought 1,500 tanks against Israel’s 160, making it one of the largest tank battles in history, especially for ones that happened outside of WWII. The battle was so intense that by the time the Syrians were forced to withdraw, they had reduced the original Israeli force to only seven tanks, but they had lost over 500 of their own. The Centurion had given both armies plenty of reason to nickname the site of the battle “Valley of Tears.”
8. Panzer III
The success of the Wehrmacht Panzer units is the stuff of legend. The defeat of Poland in roughly a month, the fall of France with its numerically superior army and the British Expeditionary Force in weeks, and the conquest of Soviet satellite countries at a rate of as much 75 miles a day. While much of their success has been attributed to the use of Blitzkrieg (“lightning war”) tactics of concentrated tank forces acting independently of the infantry to disrupt enemy communications, the design of the Panzer III, the most German tank of WWII, played a significant part. With its 25 MPH top speed, 75mm main cannon, possession of a radio at a time when many tank crews had to rely on flag signals, and 109 mile range, it was perfectly poised to be the workhorse of the Wehrmacht following its completed development in 1936. Production ended in 1943 in favor of more heavily armed vehicles, but it was still present for such battles as Normandy the next year.
Some insight into its destructive ability can be seen in the larger battles where it was the main German tank. At the 1940 Battle of Hannut during the invasion of Belgium, the equally sized French/Dutch armies and German armies came away with twice as many of the Allied tanks destroyed as the Axis tanks even though the French SOMUA tanks were considered top of the line at the time. From June 23-30, 1941 at the Battle of Brody, a contender for the largest tank battle in history, the First Panzer Group attacked a Soviet Army three times its size and destroyed roughly a thousand of their tanks at a cost of less than a third that many of their own. But as we’ll see later, this tank superiority didn’t last for long.
7. Tiger 1
TopTenz has had a bit to say about the alleged supremacy of the Tiger tanks over American tanks in WWII, but we won’t deny that the Wehrmacht weapons wreaked havoc across countless battlefields. Despite their relatively limited production run of less than 2,000 units, their lack of mobility in many European battlefields from being too wide for many forest trails, and their gas-guzzling, their 88 mm heavy guns were devastating and their armor — which ranged from 1.5 to seven inches in thickness — repelled many Allied shells with little damage. You need only look at the top tank aces of WWII and how many of them were in command of Tiger tanks.
In first and second place were Kurt Knispel and Otto Carius, Tiger commanders with 168 and 150 tank kills, respectively. Also a Tiger ace of note was Michael “Black Baron” Wittmann, who had destroyed 138 Allied tanks and 132 anti-tank guns by the time of his death in 1944. He was a household name on both sides, and the man who was ultimately credited with destroying his tank, Joe Ekins, said of him “… He deserved to die and I’m glad I was the one who did it.” To be sure, there were ace Allied tank commanders too, such as Lafayette Pool, but they just couldn’t quite rack up such high kill counts if only because Wehrmacht tank forces were smaller and often destroyed by bombers instead of armored units.
Since a prototype was developed until February 1945, the T-54 was too late to take a significant part in what the Soviets called the Great Patriotic War. However, since the Soviet Union made roughly 50,000 of them, there were plenty to go around and for it to be involved in many other wars in the following years. Its 100mm main cannon was the most powerful tank-mounted artillery piece in the world at the time and it had a top speed of 30 MPH.
The T-54 first saw action in 1956 when it was used to crush an attempted Hungarian revolution. Then it was used multiple times against Israel in the ’60s and ’70s, the Israeli military deeming the thousands of captured units worth converting to their own use. They were used during North Vietnam’s invasion of South Vietnam in the last years of the Vietnam War, where they considerably outgunned the Southern Vietnamese army’s tanks that had been supplied by America. They were employed heavily in Africa, Afghanistan, and the Balkans. From Peru to North Korea, they continue to be put into service today.
Most portrayals of the Japanese military during their 20th Century expansion heavily emphasize their navy and air force. Between 1936 (the year before the Second Sino-Japanese War) through 1943 Japan’s military produced a modest 2,100 Type-95 light tanks, the most common of their tanks. American tanks had more firepower, better armor, and were on average about a third faster. But for a Chinese army in the 1930s, the earlier Type-89 was extremely dangerous and in one instance the Japanese used them in a way that spelled calamity for millions of Chinese lives.
For the most part, the Japanese military doctrine for tanks was based on the French model from World War I: To spread the tanks out, and have them work in support of the infantry. There was one very notable exception. On March 1, 1933, during the Battle of Rehe, General Yoshikazu Nishi needed to attack a Chinese army before it could reposition itself in new defensive formations if he were to conquer the Inner Mongolia province. He ordered a unit of tanks and armored trucks to move and attack the enemy before the infantry could fully support them. The tanks broke through and kept breaking through until they reached the abandoned city of Chengde, 200 miles behind their initial formations, on March 4. General Nishi had effectively launched a Blitzkrieg attack more than half a decade before the Wehrmacht would shock the world with those tactics in Poland. As a result countless Chinese citizens spent more than a decade under the Japanese heel, and many would join the 14 million Chinese who died during WWII.
4. Renault FT-17
With a crew of only two members, this vehicle might seem like it would be hopelessly outclassed immediately. When it was introduced in 1917, the French military had two large tanks, the Schneider CA1 and the Saint Chamond that it was expected to support. It turned out those larger tanks were abandoned because they too easily got stuck or caught fire. Meanwhile, even though it only housed a cramped crew of two, with a gunner to operate either its 37mm mini-artillery piece or its 7.62mm machine gun, the Renault FT-17 became a fixture of French and American assaults. Its relatively light seven tons meant it could handle forests and other tricky terrain, even if it could only manage 5 MPH. It proved so devastating that German units would surrender en masse at the mere appearance of one.
Although there were only 4,592 produced, the FT-17 was so mobile that they were still being used around the world after the end of WWI. They were often employed during the Spanish Civil War, by the Finns against the 1939 Russian invasion, and into World War II. They were actually still in use even by 1948 in the Arab-Israeli war. A 30-year run is pretty impressive for any piece of military equipment.
3. Mark V
On September 15, 1916, 50 of these tanks from the UK were put into combat during the months long Battle of the Somme. After weeks of bloody gridlock, these tanks rolling at 5 MPH were able to cut through the German trenches. The number of casualties they inflicted on German infantry was so severe that even though early in the battle British casualties had outnumbered German casualties three to one, by the end of the conflict German casualties were higher.
The Mark V clearly differs from modern tanks in a number of fundamental ways. On the negative side, this pioneer tank was extremely prone to overheating (and was always extremely hot even when functioning optimally) and exposed its own crew to toxic engine exhaust. In what seems like it should be a negative, it had no forward facing weapons or rotating turrets. However, the side-mounted weapons were good for delivering heavy fire down both sides simultaneously when the tank was near or even in a trench.
A significant factor in the sheer deadliness of the Mark V and the Renault FT-17 was that there were so few German tanks brought to bear against them. Germany would only produce twenty throughout the entire war. While the German military was relatively quick to develop anti-tank weapons, they had to rely on relatively vulnerable artillery and infantry to stop them.
For some enthusiasts of military history, it’s easier to list what was wrong with the Soviet T-34 than to list the reasons why even Field Marshal Ewald von Kleist dubbed it “the finest tank in the world.” Visibility for the crew was limited and it was very difficult to train crews to use it optimally, especially when the Red Army was quite literally under the gun during the early months of the Nazi invasion. Against those drawbacks, its high-velocity artillery piece that could penetrate any German tank, its higher maneuverability and 30 MPH speed, its sloped armor (so effective that one tank was hit 23 times by German anti-tank shells and only suffered superficial damage), and the fact it was easy enough to manufacture that the USSR could build 60,000 of them in less than four years leave little wonder why it was dubbed “war-winning.” Its greatest times to shine were stopping the German advance on Moscow and the arguably more impressive act of stopping a Blitzkrieg in its tracks at the Battle of Kursk, the largest tank war in history.
Despite the aforementioned T-54 having been meant to replace it, approximately 20,000 T-34 tanks were produced after 1945. They took part in such conflicts as the Korean War and the 1967 Six-Days War. In 1961 Fidel Castro personally rode one during the offensive that would destroy counter-revolutionary forces during the 1961 Bay of Pigs battle. Most impressively post-WWII, during the 1974 Invasion of Cyprus, Greek forces defending the island defeated Turkish forces despite the T-34 being outnumbered nearly six to one by American-manufactured tanks. Many militaries around the world still have T-34s ready should the worst come to worst.
1. M1A1 Abrams
First produced in 1978 and introduced to the U.S. Army in 1980, this main battle tank has the greatest firepower of any tank currently serving. It is equipped with an Rheinmetall M256 120-millimeter smoothbore gun that fires 105 millimeter shells. The shells they fire have been able to penetrate more than thirteen and a half inches of armor. That is significant because that’s the equivalent of the thickest armor on any portion of any tank in the world, specifically the Russian T-72. Computer-aided aiming has a 90% accuracy rate even at moving targets more than a mile away.
Abrams shells are made of depleted uranium from nuclear power plants, the heaviest material available. This choice of projectile material potentially caused grievous harm to America’s own service members. In 2006 NBC News reported that a number of American veterans, among them Herbert Reed, Hector Vega, and Jerry Ojeda tested positive for depleted uranium in their urine in December 2003. If the medical side effects are as severe as the veterans claimed in their lawsuit, then considering that an estimated 410 tons of depleted uranium were fired at Iraqi targets between the 1989 and 2003 Gulf Wars, shells from M1 Abrams tanks may have contributed to inflicting a massive, lasting toll on the health of Iraqi citizens and visitors.