Age of tanks

Title: Age of Tanks
Published: 2017
Publisher: LOOKS film
Play time: 215 minutes

The documentary 'Age of Tanks' from 2017 is a four-part series that deals with the development, production and deployment of tanks. The four-part documentary covers the First World War 1914-1918 up to and including the Interbellum (episode 'Iron, iron, everywhere'), the period after the Interbellum and the Second World War 1939-1945 (episode 'Blitzkrieg'), the Cold War & the Korean War (1950-1953) and wars thereafter (episode 'A world in chains') and modern conflicts such as the war in Iraq (episode 'Twilight of the tank'). The documentary is one of the better documentaries about the role of military tanks in history and geopolitics.

What immediately stands out is the stunning imagery that are interspersed with explanations from historians and (ex) military personnel. The development of the tank in the First World War began because a new weapon had to be designed that could disable barbed wire barriers, machine gun nests and bunkers without making the weapon being vulnerable to bullets from rifles and machine guns. The infantry, hailed by many high-ranking soldiers as the most important weapon, paid a very high price for overcoming the obstacles that were built behind the "no man's land." Barbed wire was difficult to destroy and machine guns were often protected by amour plates or bunkers. The documentary makes it clear that the name 'tank' was a concealing name of the British to indicate the new vehicles. These armoured caterpillar vehicles were able to run over barbed wire, take out machine guns and render bunkers harmless with cannons. Little Willie' of 1915 was the first British (prototype) tank that gave the impetus for the development of new tank models. The documentary zooms in on British tank models such as the famous 'Mark' series that resembled armoured 'boxes' with caterpillar’s tracks.

In the eyes of the German soldier, those tanks were monstrous apparitions that destroyed their lines of defence. Yet the German artillery was able to eliminate British tanks. Taking on a British tank was fatal for many German soldiers. The French car manufacturer Renault developed the first tank in the world with a revolving dome (Renault FT). This tank was actually the forerunner of all modern tanks and was a lot smaller and lighter than most British tanks. The Renault FT models were more difficult to hit by German artillery and other cannons due to their size and could be produced in large numbers. Provided the tanks were supported by infantry fire and cannons, they could cause major damage and make deep breaches in enemy lines. The German general staff was initially sceptical about the use of tanks, but soon realised the importance of the new weapon and decided to develop their own tank. This tank became the 'A7V' Sturmpanzerwagen. It was an armoured 'box' on caterpillar tracks with machine guns and a 57mm/2.24in cannon.

The documentary deals with the inability of many soldiers to use the tank. Some pioneers such as the British military and military historian J. F. C. Fuller (1878-1966), developed theories about the use of tanks. Tanks could be used as psychological weapons to deter and overwhelm the enemy. In other countries soldiers also developed theories on how to use tanks. In Germany this was mainly Heinz Guderian (1888-1954). After the First World War, tank development was neglected and infantry was again seen as the most important weapon of attack. Tensions in Europe increased after the Treaty of Versailles which stated that Germany could only have a small army of 100,000 men and had to make high reparations to the allied victors.

The rise of Adolf Hitler (1889-1945) ensured that mass production of tanks took place in Germany. Tank models such as the PzKpfw I, PzKpfw II, PzKpfw III and PzKpfw IV were developed in the thirties. These first tanks (PzKpfw I, PzKpfw II) were often nothing more than test models in the sense that they were lightly armoured and armed. The medium weight PzKpfw III and PzKpfw IV, on the other hand, which weighed approximately 44.092 lbs were better armoured and armed.

The cooperation between Germany and the Soviet Union, which took place before the rise of Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich, is covered in the documentary. Because Hitler saw the Soviet Union as an enemy (see Mein Kampf), the cooperation between Germany and the Soviet Union in the field of tank developments stopped. Tank developments took place in Hitler-Germany in various factories where combat experiences of tank crews were decisive in the upgrading of tanks. The German invasion of Poland (1939) and the Low Countries and France (1940) made it clear that clever tactics can win in battles with higher quality tanks. The light German tanks maneuvered between and through the Ardennes and could quickly conquer areas through their speed. The cooperation between the Air Force and the Army was essential. Despite the fact that many German tanks such as the PzKpfw I, PzKpfw II, PzKpfw III and PzKpfw IV were less powerful than the best French tanks (Char B1) in terms of armament and armour, they were nevertheless able to triumph because of their numbers, radio equipment, training and tactics. The German tanks were of course supported by aircraft and artillery, where coordination was essential.

The German victory in Western Europe in 1940 resulted in a feeling of superiority among German soldiers (and military staff). This image was reinforced by German propaganda posters, which emphasized the power of the German tanks. However, the German attack on the Soviet Union in June 1941 affected the image of the invincible German tanks (this had already been done in France by the confrontation with strong, well armoured French tanks). However, the Soviet T-34 tank was the one that shocked the Wehrmacht and the Waffen-SS by its firepower, armour and speed. That Soviet tank was in terms of firepower and armour the superior of all German tanks (Panzer I to IV). It was very frustrating to see how German tank shells simply bounce off the T-34 armour. Despite the fact that the German army destroyed thousands of Soviet tanks, it was mainly the T-34 tank (and the KV-1) that created carnage to the German tank units. The German response to the T-34 appeared in July 1943 in the form of the PzKpfw V Panther. A tank that was stronger in terms of technical criteria (firepower, armour), but also more complex than the T-34 tank.

Age of Tanks examines the iconic German PzKpfw VI Tiger that sowed death and destruction on the Eastern and Western Front. The standard American M4 Sherman, for example, could do little against that tank from a great distance. The great advantage of both the T-34 and the M4 Sherman was the fact that thousands of them were built (50.000 to 80.000). In this way both tank models could overwhelm the German tanks. The PzKpfw VIb Königstiger introduced later was indeed the strongest tank of the Second World War (in terms of firepower and armour), but was also expensive and complex to produce, quite slow, large and consumed a lot of fuel. Most of the 489 Tiger II tanks were destroyed or abandoned by the German tank crews (component failure, mechanical defects, lack of spare parts or fuel shortage). The thousands of allied tanks could not be stopped by a few German tanks that were superior in terms of firepower and armour, such as the PzKpfw V Panther and the PzKpfw VI Tiger.

The documentary gives an excellent image of the development of tanks between 1914 and nowadays. Apart from covering tanks from the First and Second World War, the documentary extensively elaborates on the events during and after the Cold War (such as the war in Iraq). The information provided is generally correct and the imagery is well chosen. The historians and military know how to convey the information well, often referring to the experiences of eyewitnesses. In general, no countries or tanks are glorified, as is sometimes the case with American or Russian documentaries (perhaps apart from the M1 Abrams). A historical overview is given where some tank models are viewed from a technical point of view.

A downside of the episodes is perhaps the lack of more extensive zooming in on individual tank types, which sometimes played a smaller role, but nevertheless were important tank models (such as the medium-heavy German PzKpfw III, the medium-heavy Soviet T-28 tank and the medium-heavy American M26 Pershing). It is a pity that very little attention is paid to the German PzKpfw IV, which was in fact the most important and most produced tank of Hitler-Germany. Also the improved M4 Sherman models such as the M4A3E8 and the British modified Sherman and the Sherman VC Firefly, are not discussed in detail. Some battlefields in which tanks were used, are not covered like the Vietnam War. Nevertheless, 'Age of Tanks' is an excellent source of information for those who want to know more about the history and politics of the 20th and 21st century and the role of the tank!

Rating: (Very good)


Translated by:
Fernando Lynch
Article by:
Ruben Krutzen
Published on: