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Even after a century, tanks still play a major role in war

An American soldier walks ahead of an MKIV British-made tank, circa 1918.
Hulton Archive
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Getty Images
An American soldier walks ahead of an MKIV British-made tank, circa 1918.

Earlier this week, it was announced that German and American tanks are headed to Ukraine to assist in the country's ongoing resistance to the Russian invasion.

Some analysts say it could be a game changer for the length and outcome of the war. And looking back at history, tanks have certainly played a significant role on other European battlefields.

Starting with World War I, when they first appeared, tanks introduced the idea that an armored all-terrain vehicle could break the stalemate of trench warfare.

NPR's Mary Louise Kelly spoke with historian and former officer of the British army, Antony Beevor, to discuss the legacy of the tank, and how it has evolved until now.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity


Interview Highlights

On what early tanks were designed for in the first World War
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 [circa 1916]. And there, they had these monsters with the tracks on the outside rather than sheltered under armor or anything like that.

British soldiers enjoy a jaunt on a British Mark IV tank.
Hulton Archive / Getty Images
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Getty Images
British soldiers enjoy a jaunt on a British Mark IV tank.

On the development of tanks for World War II

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.

April 1942: British Valentine and Matilda tanks being loaded onto a train bound for Russia.
Fox Photos / Getty Images
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Getty Images
April 1942: British Valentine and Matilda tanks being loaded onto a train bound for Russia.

On Russia's recent utilization of tanks
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.

On how the newly pledged German and American tanks could impact the war in Ukraine

Well, the whole advantage of the Leopard (German tank) 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.

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.

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 sheltering under the American umbrella, and has simply allowed its military situation to deteriorate drastically over the years.

Ukranian tanks move on a road before an attack in Lugansk region on February 26, 2022.
ANATOLII STEPANOV / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
Ukranian tanks move on a road before an attack in Lugansk region on February 26, 2022.

It could be [a game changer]. 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 the era of the tank is over." But we are all seeing, should we say, a slight U-turn, in attitudes to the tank in warfare.

This story was adapted for the web by Manuela Lopez Restrepo. contributed to this story

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Karen Zamora
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Matt Ozug
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Mary Louise Kelly
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.