Public radio from Western Michigan University 102.1 NPR News | 89.9 Classical WMUK
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Tanks were invented more than 100 years ago. How have they stood the test of time?


With word this week that German and American tanks are headed to Ukraine, we wanted to take a moment to consider the role that tanks have played on the battlefields of Europe - the extent to which they have or have not been a game-changer. Go back to World War I. That is when tanks first appeared. The idea was that an armored all-terrain vehicle could break the stalemate of trench warfare. Well, militaries have been trying to improve on tanks' design and effectiveness ever since. Historian Antony Beevor has written about the tank and personally knows his way around one from his time as an officer in the British army. Welcome.

ANTONY BEEVOR: Thank you very much.

KELLY: So paint us a picture of the situation that the first early tanks were designed for back in the First World War.

BEEVOR: The massacre of soldiers pouring out of trenches and going across no man's land was so horrific that everybody was trying to think of an alternative. And so that's where the idea of an armored tank emerged - and it was because it looked almost like a water tank, but bolted together - as a project. And Churchill, working then in the government, put as much pressure as he could to help develop it. And the British were probably just about the first, really, to get the tank going. And there, they had these monsters with the tracks on the outside rather than sheltered under armor or anything like that.

KELLY: And this was when, 1916 that they first built it?

BEEVOR: That's right.


BEEVOR: Yes. Yes, indeed.

KELLY: All right. I'm going to fast-forward you over a lot of twists and turns in the development, right up to World War II. It was the Brits who first developed tanks. But by World War II, it was Germany that had leapt ahead - is that right? - in terms of integrating tanks in their combat plans?

BEEVOR: It was, in fact, the Soviet Union.


BEEVOR: I mean, Stalin went in for a massive program. And, of course, actually, the Red Army had the largest tank force in the world. But they were not nearly as well trained as the German tank crews. And in fact, the German tanks were probably inferior both to the British and the French tanks in 1940. And yet, because of speed and, above all, because of the determination to break through, not worry about the flanks and just keep going, they were far more devastating in their tactics.

KELLY: I am curious, since you just told me it was Russia that was at the front of the pack in terms of what they were able to do with the tank in the Second World War, what happened? Because it cannot be said that their tank usage in the current conflict in Ukraine has been impressive.

BEEVOR: It has been very unimpressive and quite astonishing in the way that they have repeated the mistakes of the Second World War - all of their worst mistakes - and also sending them straight down a road, where you could block off - by shooting up one or two of them, you could then basically stop the whole column and then pick them off one by one. The Ukrainians did that and, using those British NLAW anti-tank weapons very effectively, absolutely massacred them.

KELLY: So Ukraine, of course, already has tanks in this fight. What do you expect the impact of this new - of the new ones - of the American Abrams and the German Leopards - to be in the war in Ukraine?

BEEVOR: Well, the whole advantage of the Leopard is that so many other countries in Europe have got the Leopard. And therefore, there is less problem over spare parts, ammunition resupply and all the rest of it. And of course, it's a very, very good tank. But I mean, frankly, there isn't the number.

KELLY: So they need more quantity for this to be a game-changer?

BEEVOR: They need more quantity. Basically, they are talking about 300. They might get 200 with luck, which would be sort of roughly the equivalent of a proper armored division.

KELLY: What about timing? There are many questions about how long it's going to take for these tanks to actually get there.

BEEVOR: Well, the trouble is many of them are - and especially the ones coming from Germany - have basically been sort of sitting around, in many cases waiting for proper repairs. This is really one of the problems. Europe especially has been, I'm afraid, sheltering under the American umbrella and has simply allowed its military situation to deteriorate drastically over the years.

KELLY: So if I'm hearing you correctly, you do not sound overwhelmingly convinced that - in the current quantity and on the current timeline, that the announcements of influx of tanks this week is going to be a game-changer in Ukraine.

BEEVOR: It could be. It all depends on timing. And even a certain number will certainly help because what they're expecting and why Zelenskyy is so desperate to have the tanks is they know perfectly well that Putin is going to launch a major spring offensive as soon as the ground dries. And for that, they need to be ready. But there is a fundamental paradox here, and this comes back to the beginning of the war, when the killing - the destruction of all of the Russian tanks as they advanced on Kyiv right at the beginning made everybody - every military commentator at the time say, right, well, this proves that, you know, the era of the tank is over. But we are all seeing, as I say - should we say a slight U-turn, if you like, in attitudes to the tank in warfare.

KELLY: Historian Antony Beevor. He is the author, among other books, of "Russia: Revolution And Civil War, 1917-1921." Sir Antony, thank you.

BEEVOR: Thanks very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.