tank, military, armored vehicle having caterpillar traction and armed with machine guns, cannon, rockets, or flame throwers. The tank, together with the airplane, opened up modern warfare, which had been immobilized and stalemated by the use of rifled guns (see mechanized warfare). It was developed by the British and first employed in World War I in the battle of Flers-Courcellette, on the Somme (Sept., 1916), but it was used piecemeal, without any overriding strategy, and seemed a failure. In Nov., 1917, the tank achieved a major success at Cambrai, when 300 British tanks made a dawn attack on a 6-mi (9.7-km) front and shattered the German defenses.
Before World War II tanks and tank tactics were greatly improved, and in the first campaign of that war German tank armies conquered Poland in less than a month. Whole armored divisions and corps of tanks were soon formed on both sides. In mass tank battles in Europe and N Africa the tide often tended toward the side with the most effective use of armored units. Among the great armor commanders were Erwin Rommel and George Patton. There were also specialized tanks for amphibious landings and clearing mines. Antitank weapons were developed, such as bazookas, armor-piercing shells, recoilless rifles, and antitank missiles, as well as airplanes armed with rockets and bombs.
Since World War II the basic features of tanks and tank tactics have remained unchanged, but there have been refinements such as reactive armor that explodes out when hit, laser rangefinders, automatic loading, and computer systems for fire control and navigation. Antitank weapons have also been greatly improved; they now include specialized munitions capable of attacking dozens of tanks at once that are delivered by artillery or aircraft, as well as powerful infantry weapons. Tanks are particularly effective in desert fighting, as demonstrated by their use by the Israeli military and in the Persian Gulf War.
See B. H. Liddell Hart, The Tanks (1959); D. Orgill, The Tank (1970); H. C. B. Rogers, Tanks in Battle (1972); D. Jeffries, Battle Kings (1987); P. Wright, Tank (2002).
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.