Thursday 14 July 2011

It was the best of tanks, it was the worst of tanks

The Google Books service includes archives of a number of magazines, a fascinating resource covering a variety of subjects. I’ve been rummaging through the back catalogue of Popular Science in particular, starting with the first issue from May 1872, ready to mock some dead scientists and their quaint ideas from the smug perspective of the internet generation, but the very first paragraph of the first page, from Herbert Spencer’s The Study of Sociology, is:

“Over his pipe in the village ale-house, the laborer says very positively what Parliament should do about the “foot and mouth disease”. At the farmer’s market-table his master makes the glasses jingle as, with his fist, he emphasizes the assertion that he did not get half enough compensation for his slaughtered beasts during the cattle-plague.”

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, huh. About the only difference today would be the labourer having to enjoy his pipe outside the ale-house due to the smoking ban. In October 1872 one of the articles is “Has our climate changed?” (unfortunately missing the first page or two); I know history repeats itself, but not necessarily verbatim. There is some fun to be had, especially after 1915 when the name transferred to another publishing group and the content became aimed at a more general audience; page 857 of the June 1918 issue cautions “Don’t go parachuting unless you are equipped with the proper kind of breeches”:

“In order to check the constantly increasing number of fatal aeronautical accidents a humane inventor has patented a pair of parachute breeches. Will they prevent your being dashed to the ground? We don’t know. The fabric, cut and workmanship are matters of choice, and your tailor will be pleased to suit your particular form and taste.”

What really kicked this off was that I’d been Googling around some tank-related material; as Warsyde notes World of Tanks seems to be pretty historically accurate, from my amateur grognard perspective, generally aligning with records and testimony (at the individual tank level, that is; there were very few actual engagements where a mix of 15 Russian, German and US tanks took on 15 other Russian, German and US tanks in a two mile square area enclosed by mysterious force-fields). I’m familiar with most production armoured vehicles of WWII but World of Tanks expands its tech trees with experimental and prototype models, so with the recent introduction of US tank destroyers I was digging around for some more details, and Popular Science had a couple of contemporaneous articles. “Big Guns Stalk Their Targets” from July 1943 is all about self-propelled artillery, emphasising early American work on SPGs, but doesn’t have anything on the prototypes used as Tier 2, 3 and 4 vehicles in WoT. A few months earlier, in March 1943, another article proudly proclaimed “Why America’s Tanks Are The World’s Best” as the M4 Sherman rolled off the production lines in increasing numbers.

Now you expect a touch of patriotism, if not outright jingoism, during a war, and the article wasn’t exactly wrong in trumpeting the more powerful gun, heavier armour and faster speeds of the Sherman compared to the German Panzers it had faced in the North African desert; it’s reflected in World of Tanks, with the early Sherman being a Tier 5 medium tank, and the Africa Korps were mostly equipped with Panzer IIIs (Tier 4 medium) and early mark Panzer IVs (with short 75mm howitzers that aren’t represented in WoT; the Tier 5 Panzer IV in the game starts with the long-barrel 75mm gun of the Ausf. F2/G, very few of which made it to North Africa). As the article boldly notes:

“In building tanks with which to equip their panzer divisions the Nazis concentrated on quantity rather than quality. They won the early armored battles of the war not because they had better tanks than the British and French, but because they had many more of them at the important spots and because they handled them much better. The tanks they are using today were designed in 1936, and there have been almost no improvements in them since the beginning of the war.”

Slightly unfortunate timing of the article, really, for though the Panzer III and IV were indeed showing their age in 1943, Panzer divisions were starting to get kitted out with the Tiger I (Tier 7 WoT heavy) and Panther (Tier 8 medium), and though an up-gunned Sherman M4A3E8 was introduced in 1944 (bumping it up to Tier 6 in WoT), armoured battles in Western Europe after D-Day were frequently the mirror of the above, the Allies having the numbers (and artillery and air support) to counter individually superior German tanks.

The perceived supremacy of the Sherman resulted in a degree of complacency in the development of subsequent tanks such that only a handful of Pershing heavy tanks (a Tier 8 medium in WoT) entered US service in time to see action, with LIFE magazine of March 1945 highlighting the problems faced by late-war American tank crews in “The Battle of the Tanks” on page 41, comparing the Sherman to Russian and German heavy tanks. I’m sure most World of Tanks players know the depressing feeling of entering a battle in a Tier 5 or 6 medium tank and facing a Royal Tiger (Tiger II, German Tier 8 heavy) or Stalin (IS2, Russian Tier 8 heavy), though on the plus side the worst that can happen is not getting many experience points as opposed to dying horribly in a flaming metal coffin.

Not the most cheery of endings, that, so why not flip back to page 2 of that issue of LIFE and enjoy the advert for Munsingwear “stretchy-seat” underwear for men of action. The seat alone is worth the price of admission!

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