WWII Tank Production in 1940-1945

People like to think that individuals can change the course of the history. That somehow Michael Wittman's actions with his Tiger tank in June 1944 when he took out 14 Allied tanks in 15 minutes, or Erich von Manstein's brilliant counterstrike during the Third Battle of Kharkov in 1943 when it for a moment seemed that the Red Army will wrap up the entire eastern front after their victory in Stalingrad, make a major difference in the outcome. However, in most wars and conflicts, the reasons for victory come down to a significant economic or technological advantage.

All WWII tank production

The graph below (WWII AFV production in 1940-1945) illustrates why Nazi Germany, in spite of its technologically superior tanks, was doomed to lose the war against the combined economical might of the Soviet Union and the United States, who both focused on mass-producing simpler constructions. Until the very end, Germans manufactured tanks which were more complicated to produce and service, and only in the last few of years of the war they began to seriously contemplate standardizing their tanks with the so-called E-series (Entwicklung) tanks.

Clarifications (about the above graph)

Most of the armored fighting vehicles (AFVs) from light tanks to heavy tanks are included. The production of the rest of the allied/axis countries is excluded because they could not match the output by the main combatants - the British WWII production was only about 20,000 AFVs in total. The Soviet production strangely peaks twice for the reason that in 1942 they turned up a huge number of both T-60 and T-70 light tanks, which were later discontinued.

WWII medium and heavy tank production

The graph below, which excludes light tanks and AFVs, showcases the industrial might of the United States. They may have begun their production later, but once they geared up they easily outproduced every other country. Another thing that this graph reveals is the fact that in spite of lot of talk about total war and being a military society, in a complete contrast to the Soviet Union, Hitler was reluctant to turn Nazi Germany's civilian production into a military production until it was too late.


In addition to the production numbers, it is good to remember that Germans suffered from a lack of fuel - which is why Hitler was so obsessed with capturing the Caucasian oil fields instead of Moscow in 1942. This caused several problems. Firstly, less fuel was availabl for training tank crews. Secondly, it would have been impossible to engage massive numbers of vehicles even if Germany had been able to produce them (which is why it was natural for Germans to focus on quality not quantity). Thirdly, running out of fuel during the withdrawal phase meant that many tanks had to be abandoned.

Allied air superiority killed the edge Germans had from their better tanks

German tanks also suffered otherwise, indirectly and directly, from the allied economic superiority. For example, during the last years of the war the Allied air-superiority meant that Germans lost countless vehicles before they even reached the front-lines. And even if German tanks reached the front-line, they were often late, because they had to move during the night, which slowed down German counter-strikes and gave Allied forces time to consolidate their positions. And when German tanks were in the battle, the Allied aircraft could, in addition to taking them out or preventing any supplies reaching them, also direct artillery fire at them.

How could the Soviet Union produce so many tanks?

The fact that the Soviet Union could build such a huge number of tanks is mostly due to the decisions made in the 1930s to construct civilian factories in such a way that they could be easily turned into military factories. The Allied Lend-lease also provided plenty of other vehicles - including trucks and locomotives - so the Soviet could concentrate on the tank production. This raises an interesting question: If the war had continued a few years longer, how could the Soviet Union have avoided the socio-economic collapse caused by total lack of such a basic things as new tractors and spare parts for the old ones?

Why didn't Hitler step up German tank production before the war?

Here is another interesting what-if question. If Hitler knew he would be launching series of lighting wars - and in each case it was paramount to gain a quick victory since Germany didn't have the resources for a long attrition warfare - why didn't he seriously crank up the German tank production before the attacks? In spite of the massive Allied bombing campaigns and lack of some raw materials, German production of tanks kept increasing until 1945 when the Third Reich collapsed. Wehrmacht began Operation Barbarossa - German invasion of the Soviet Union - with some 4,000 tanks, and even that was enough to wipe out the entire Red Army located on the Soviet western front. Had Nazi Germany produced 15,000 tanks in 1939, another 15,000 tanks in 1940, and 7,000 tanks in 1941, they could have, in theory, began Operation Barbarossa with mind-blowing 40,000 tanks. But even doubling up to 8,000 tanks might have affected the outcome of the war.

© Joni Nuutinen

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