The period between the two world wars, as far as tank development was concerned, was influenced by the legacies of the first conflict, the global economic crises and, latterly, the growing knowledge that another war was inevitable.
The legacies of World War I were firstly, the presence of large numbers of tanks in the victorious armies, and secondly, the fact that armoured tactics were still very much a ‘work in progress’. The economic woes made any form of investment in military equipment an almost impossible sell.
At the time of the Armistice in November 1918, France had nearly 4,000 tanks and had supplied many to the American army. The British Army had fewer – around 1,000 – but mainly of heavier types than the light Renault FT17s of the French. Germany effectively had none and what experiments the Russians had undertaken had been long overtaken by events. The effect was to stifle any major expenditure on developing replacements. The FT 17 went on with the French army until 1935, as well as with other armies.
Possibly more telling was the effect the lack of a solid tactical theory. Tanks had originally been conceived as infantry support weapons, designed to overcome strong, fixed defences. By 1918, the need for tanks capable of fulfilling the traditional cavalry role of exploiting a breakthrough had been identified and light tanks developed. This ‘interim’ situation had a direct impact on both tank design and the organisation of armoured formations.
In France and the USA, independent armoured establishments were abolished and tanks subordinated to the infantry, effectively returning to their original role of infantry support. In the UK, the independent tank formation managed to survive, and tactical development aimed at arriving at the optimum makeup of an armoured formation continued in the form of various exercises and experiments. Some tank development continued as well, although often with very small, prototype-quantity numbers. Light (=cheap) tanks became a particular interest for governments. Vickers emerged as a major tank designer and producer during this time. Probably as a consequence of the ‘infantry support’ concept, the most unfortunate effect seems to have been the stagnation of the development of better tank armament; multiple machine guns figured heavily, sometimes in multiple turrets. Heavier armour meant the reduction of mobility.
France, too, developed larger armoured formations comprising mobile infantry and artillery, but the bulk of its tanks continued to be split into smaller units and attached to infantry formations. However, tank development did make some strides during the 1930s with significant vehicles such as the medium SOMUA S35, the heavy Char Bis and the lighter Renault S35 and Hotchkiss H35. These developments were spurred on by the rearmament of Germany after 1933 and the repudiation of the Treaty of Versailles.