Just as the tanks themselves, the crews that operate them did evolve as well during the past 100 years of armored warfare. Long gone are the difficulties of the first tank crews, like the overloaded two-man crews of the early French tanks, where the commander also had to load and fire the gun (probably wishing for a few extra hands). On the other side of the spectrum you had also tanks that required a four-man crew only to drive them: the commander handled the brakes, the co-driver operated the gearbox and throttle, and two gears-men were responsible for stopping the tracks (one for each), allowing the tank to turn. These days the positions have been boiled down to a 4 man crew, consisting of a commander, a gunner, a driver and a loader. Tanks with an auto-loading system have a further reduced 3 man crew instead. Here is what they do, and how they work together…
Contrary to popular belief this role consists of more than just shouting commands through the intercom. The commander of a tank also acts as a radio operator, and provides vision on the battlefield as typically he has the best field of view from within. He naturally also has to command the tank: instruct the driver on the positioning and maneuvering, find and mark targets for the gunner and request the right type of ammunition from the loader. In case he is also a tank platoon commander, on top of all of this he also has to instruct all other commanders under him, and stay up to date with the platoons situation.
The second most prestigious position after the commander is the gunners. He can adjust the turrets position and control the gun elevation and stabilization – all in order to ensure a direct hit on the enemy. This is easier said than done though, as the gunners view was actually very limited – especially earlier it was often restricted to a periscope and a direct view scope, also lacking any kind of aim assistance. Basically all they had was a simple reticle in their sight allowing for very limited range finding. These days laser range finders combined with a variety of sensors and a targeting computer assist the gunners aim, but back in the day a tank was as accurate as its gunner. Still, even the most experienced of them have to rely on the loader to reload quickly, the driver to get into position and the commander to find and mark the right target.
Both the driver and the loader are considered to be of equal level positions within the tank, with new staff often starting at either one of them, although the driver often acts as the field mechanic of the tank as well. The driver (and in some older vehicles the co-driver) is typically situated in the front of the vehicle, separated from the rest of the crew who are located in the turret / rear of the machine. While they usually have a good view towards the front via periscopes, they have to rely on their commander to guide them, often not knowing what they drive into. The driver steers the tank, controls the speed and the changes gear as necessary. One of the most important skills of the driver is to know what their tank can climb / go through and what is too much. Getting a tank stuck usually requires more than one other tank (or these days a specialized vehicle) to get out, and during combat situations it’s basically a death sentence.
Based on the commanders (or in some cases the gunners) orders, he pulls the required type of ammunition from the racks and loads it into the gun. A non-automated gun can only fire as fast is its loader is capable of keeping up with it. When ready, he has to report back that the gun is ready to fire again, though a seasoned gunner will know this already from hearing the breach of the gun closing. While in general it’s a less skilled task, a good loader is an essential part of any crew in any non-auto loading tank.
All these roles are intertwined, and to be able to perform well, everybody needs the same from the other crew members as well. It’s no wonder than that even during wartime, experienced tank crews were kept together as much as possible. Despite the stressful conditions and being squeezed together for long hours in a cramped, enclosed space, a seasoned crew will work together with deadly efficiency – a machine within a machine…
- German Tiger I tank crew on a break, Kursk, Russia, 1943: German Federal Archive
- M1A1 Commander and Gunner, 2007, Baghdad, Iraq: Specialist Thornberry (U.S. Army)
- French gunner in an AMX-56 Leclerc, 2015, Poland: NATO photo by Edouard Bocquet
- Tank driver Lance Corporal Mudondo Zabina of the Uganda Peoples Defence Forces, 2014: AMISOM Public Information
- German Tiger I tank crew cleaning the gun, Russia, 1942: German Federal Archive