On a tactical level, tanks are primarily an infantry support vehicle. Their job is to supplement infantry attacks (or defenses) with additional firepower. By the end of the war - on a tactical level - the side with tanks and infantry would win against enemies with infantry alone.
Therefore, any discussion on what is the "best" tank of World War 2 must revolve around this primary mission. It it not about silly debates about gunpower or armor. It is instead about which tank was best able to fulfill its role in both the strategic and tactical level.
On the balance, four tanks - and only four - ever deserved consideration for the "best". This is the American M4 Sherman, the Russian T-34, and the German Panzer Mk III and Mk IV.
Any tank heavier than 30 tons was generally too unreliable to have any impact on the strategic level, while imparting only conditional (and often minor) advantages at the tactical level.
Tanks that were lighter can arguably still fulfill the strategic and tactical roles required of it (especially true of the Panzer 38ts which actually formed the bulk of the early Panzer Armies), but by and large they were overshadowed by the capabilities of the mediums and the growing organic anti-tank capability of the infantry forces. Hence, they are also not for consideration.
The purpose of this post is to make the case for the Panzer Mk III, which I personally believe to be most deserving of the title "Best of World War 2" within certain qualifications.
First of all, the Panzer III very much fulfills the strategic requirements of the German Army. It was one of the primary tanks of the early campaign in the West (France 1940), as well as for most of the Russian campaigns (from 1941-43). It was also one of the primary tanks in the desert for that sideshow with Rommel.
Moreover, it was involved in some of the most spectacular successes of the entire war. Overall tank kill ratios were 7:1 in Germany's favor in 1941 (Zaloga's Red Army Handbook) despite the technical superiority of some types of Russian armor (i.e. T-34 and KVs). Never again would such enormous numbers of men and tanks would be killed or captured in massed campaigns of maneuver.
Even more remarkable are the distances involved: It was over 1,000km from the starting point of the Barbarossa to the gates of Moscow. The Panzers covered that distance in less than half a year - a daunting distance that no Allied campaign would ever match. Even the vaunted reliability of the Sherman was never asked to cover such a distance.
[Note: The Sherman however did cover a shorter distance in France '44 with much greater speed - but the US Army did not have to contend with the enormous Russian reserves and constant counter-attacks; not to mention the poor roads of the vast Russian steppes.]
After 1943, the Panzer III loses some of its luster, to the point that the Panzer III "tank" is gradually (but not completely) withdrawn from service. But this ignores the fact that the trusty Panzer III chassis nonetheless remained in service as one of the most successful AFVs of the war: The Stug.
This vehicle was actually one of the most successful of the entire war. Its low profile meant that it often got the crucial first shot in any engagement, to the point that many Allied commanders actually mistook Stug firing from concealed positions as actual Tigers or Panthers! (See Zaloga's Thunderbolt)
While it is true that Stugs were no longer participants in great strategic exploitation attacks, the same was true for all German tanks by 1943. After Third Kharkov, the Germans were now strictly on the defensive and had no power to perform any grand offensives. Attempts to do so (Kursk, Mortain, Bulge, and others) all resulted in disaster, even when using the "invincible" heavy Tiger and Panther tanks.
Ultimately, in a defensive war what the Germans needed were numbers. They needed to have tanks in sufficient numbers to support their infantry.
And as a weapon of a grinding, attritional war the Stug excelled. Weighing a mere 25 tons, it consumes only roughly half the steel needed to make a Tiger or a Panther. Even with the German heavies clogging up the production lines and eating resources, enough Stugs were built that every mainline German Division could rely on having a company of them for support (although this still paled in comparison to one whole battalion of Shermans supporting each US Infantry Division), meaning that most of the "tank" support that the German infantry ever got was done by the Stug.
By contrast, no other tank out of the four main contenders ever performed such a smooth transition - from a strategic exploitation vehicle, to a tactical support vehicle for defensive war - while maintaining the same level of dependability and reliability.
The Mk IV was never truly able to reach the full mass-production levels like its competitors to make it fully suitable for attritional defensive war. The T-34 was to a large extent rushed and improvised due to the state of the Soviet industry - with a lot of minor flaws that took too long to address that resulted in needless losses. Meanwhile the Sherman was saddled with poor anti-tank power due to a flawed US Tank Destroyer doctrine.
In short, the Panzer III was the vehicle that was always "at the right place, at the right time, at the right configuration". It was the reliable exploitation tank during the great early war offensives. It was the dependable support weapon of the late war defensive battles. Little more could have been asked of it
Edited by Zinegata, Aug 06 2012 - 07:34.