Ten Rarely Seen Colour Images of Tanks in WW2

In an age when the digital manipulation of images is commonplace, we are now used to seeing ‘colourised’ photographs of classic images from the Second World War. Some of these are good, some less so, some exceptional, like the work of Marina Amaral. However, we often forget that colour photos of warfare date back to the First World War when early colour pictures were created by Albert Kahn, and also some from German photographers.

By the time of WW2, however,  colour photography was moving into a new age, and was much more widely available. This photographs were taken for Life Magazine between 1939 and 1944.

Polish Tankettes, September 1939 (Life magazine image)

1. Polish Tankettes September 1939

The introduction of ‘tankettes’, light tanks which were minimality armoured and only lightly armed, were common in many armies before the Second World War. These Polish TKS or TK-3 was such a vehicle made in Poland from 1931 and based on the British Carden Loyd tankette. Some 575 of these TKS formed the bulk of Poland’s armoured formation in 1939 and the majority only being armed with 7.92mm Hotchkiss machine-guns meant that they did not stand much of a chance against the German tank force. A few of the TKS armed with 20mm cannons were able to destroy German light tanks, but in most cases this vehicle was used in an infantry support or reconnaissance role. The German Army captured these vehicles after the campaign of 1939 and used them for training and as artillery tractors. Examples of the tank survive in the Polish Army Museum.

Char B1 tank Verdun II at Solre le Château l 16 May 1940 (Life Magazine image)

2. French Char B1 Tank, May 1940

The Char B1 tank used by the French Army at the outbreak of the war was one of the most powerfully armed and armoured tanks of that period of the war. It had a forward firing 75mm gun and a 47mm gun in a turret. Both of these were capable of taking on pretty much all of the contemporary German tanks and in actions like Stonne inflicted heavy losses on the Germans: one Char B1 here knocked out over a dozen German tanks single-handed. The tank pictured here, Verdun II of 37e Bataillon de Chars de Combat (BCC), was commanded by Capitaine Bruneau who headed up the four-man crew. At Solre le Château on the evening of 16th May 1940, one of their tracks was hit by a shell during fighting against the 7th Panzer Division, immobilising the tank. Brueneau and his crew were forced to abandoned the vehicle.

Stuart Light Tank in use by US Army May 1943 (Life magazine image)

3. Stuart Light Tank, Tunisia May 1943

The M3 Stuart Light Tank was an American design produced from 1941 and a large number were supplied to the British Army who used them in the desert from 1941. When American forces participated in the closing phase of the war in North Africa, they were used by reconnaissance units of US Armoured formations and this image dates from the campaign in Tunisia in 1943 and is a tank from the US 1st Armored Division. The terrain is typical of the battlefields fought over here in 1943.

M4 Sherman in Tunisia, May 1943 (Life magazine image)

4. M4 Sherman Tank, Tunisia May 1943

The M4 Sherman was arguably the workhorse of the Allied tank forces in the Second World War. Designed and manufactured in the US, it was used by American forces as well as those from Britain and also Russia. This M4A2 Sherman was photographed in Tunisia in May 1943 while in action with the US 1st Armored Division. It graphically shows the thought behind the much seen Allied road sign ‘dust kills’.

Panzer IV in Tunisia, May 1943 (Life magazine image)

5. Panzer IV G, Tunisia May 1943

This Panzer IV-G was knocked out in fighting against the US 1st Armored Division in May 1943. Like the Sherman, the Panzer IV was one of the workhorses of the German Panzer Army and there were many variants as the war progressed. By 1943 the tank had been up armoured and was equipped with a 75mm capable of knocking out most Allied tanks. While many Allied soldiers cried ‘Tiger’ whenever a German tank appeared on the battlefield, the reality was it was much more likely to be a Panzer IV.

Tiger I, Tunisia May 1943 (Life magazine image)

6. Tiger I Awaiting Demolition, Tunisia May 1943

The Tiger I first went into action against American and British forces in Tunisia in December 1942 when a unit equipped with them attacked near Djedeida. The first Tiger knocked out in combat was in January 1943, by an anti-tank gun from the 72nd Anti-Tank Regiment near Robaa. A number of others were taken out by mines. This image shows an American Engineer about to blow a Tiger I wreck up with demolition charges. The familiar front end of the Tiger is what identifies the tank in this image, and while shell strikes are visible, it seems to have been knocked out by mines.

M7 Priest in Tunisia, May 1943 (Life magazine image)

7. M7 Priest, Tunisia May 1943

As the Second World War went mobile and the use of Armoured formations increased, there was a need to have a mobile artillery platform. The M7 Priest was an American design that catered for this need and saw the chassis of the old M3 Grant/Lee being re-used to mount a 105mm self-propelled howitzer. The Priest was an American weapon but was used by many British formations; this example is in use during the battles for Tunisia in May 1943, and was part of a Royal Artillery unit in 6th (Armoured) Division. The British uniforms and equipment strewn over the vehicle clearly identify it as such.

Panzer IV F in Tunisia, May 1943

8. Destroyed Panzer IV F, Tunisia May 1943

The Panzer IV Ausf F1 was part of the main German tank force in 1943 but somewhat outdated as it was only equipped with a short barrelled 75mm gun. It had been upgraded in terms of armour thickness but by 1943 this tank was almost obsolete and the M4 Sherman was more than a match for it, and it was easily knocked out by the British 6-pounder or American 57mm anti-tank guns. This example seems to have been destroyed by a combination of mines and artillery fire, however.

Italian Semovente self-propelled gun, Italy, May 1944

9. Italian Semovente, Italy May 1944

The Italian Semovente 75/18 was a self-propelled gun used by the Italian Army in the North African campaign. Large numbers of these tanks were captured by the Germans when the Italian government surrendered and joined the Allied cause in September 1943 and they seem to have been used by Panzer Grenadier Divisions in the Italian campaign. This example was captured by the Corps Expéditionnaire Français at Vallemaio, on the Gustav Line front, in May 1944 and has been abandoned outside an aid post being used to treat the French wounded.

M4 Shermans, Italy May 1944

10. Shermans in the Battle of the Gustav Line, May 1944

In Italy the Corps Expéditionnaire Français was equipped largely with American uniforms and equipment. These M4 Shermans were part of the armoured compent of the French forces in the fighting at Vallemaio in May 1944, a time of year when the fields are full of blood-red poppies across Italy.


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