Book Review: Armored Champion by Steven Zaloga

index“Armored Champion: The Top Tanks of World War II” is the latest installment in the “Armored” series of hardcover books written by Steven Zaloga, published by Stackpole Books.  While the first three of Zaloga’s “Armored” books focus on US armor of World War II, this latest book takes a broader look at the tanks used in that conflict, examining and declaring “the top tanks of World War II.”  The idea of declaring the top tanks of the war is a bit of a departure from the authors previous works.  At first glance it reminds one of the  innumerable “top ten” cable TV documentaries and internet forum threads dedicated to such a premise.  However, if anyone is qualified for the task of putting together such a list, Steven Zaloga must be at the top of the list due to his 40 years of research in the field and prodigious output as a writer.

It’s fair to say that this is the first book of his that seems intended to generate controversy  based on its premise and title.  One has to wonder if this book is intended as Zaloga’s response to the internet generation’s predilection with lists and rankings.  As far as this reviewer can tell, this is the first work by Zaloga in which he references online games such as “World of Tanks” and he also at one point uses the internet idiom of “Nazi fanboys” to describe admirers of SS Panzer ace Michael Wittman!

Considering the premise of the book, Armored Champion could have been a true disaster in the hands of a less skilled author.  Fortunately Zaloga avoids the trap that many fall into while evaluating WWII armor which is to overly fixate on the armor/mobility/firepower stats or to give into nationalistic bias.  Zaloga is able to avoid these pitfalls by creating two different criteria by which to judge the tanks which he refers to as “tankers choice” and “commanders choice.”  In a nutshell, “tankers choice” defines the tank that is the best combination of firepower, armor and mobility while “commanders choice” takes into account factors such as reliability, cost, availability and crew ergonomics and how they impact combat power.  To put it into terms that would apply to your average internet forum discussion of tanks,  “tankers choice” could be thought of as “gamers choice” since gamers generally want the most powerful vehicle available, while “commanders choice” could be thought of as “history buffs choice” since history buffs are most likely to ask “how did this tank help win the war?”

The book starts with a chapter laying out the ground rules for how the author will be judging the vehicles as well as an explanation of WWII tank basics.  This section has just enough depth to give readers new to the topic enough background to follow the rest of the book.  This is followed by eight separate chapters, each of which examines a specific time period or the war and ends with the author declaring his winning tanks for that period.   The periods examined are the 1930s, the French 1940 campaign, Operation Barbarosa 1941, Russia 1942, Russia 1943, North Africa, Europe 1944 and Europe 1945.  The text is accompanied by a large number of photos, charts and illustrations.  Endnotes, bibliography and an appendix of wartime tank production figures are included at the end of the book.  The book itself is a hard bound edition with glossy pages and good quality photo reproduction.  The layout is clean and should be familiar to those that have any of Zaloga’s other “Armored” books by Stackpole.

While Zaloga does not shy away from discussing some of the technical details of the vehicles covered in the book, those looking for descriptions of his champions at a “rivet counting” level should look elsewhere.  This book is more focused on the overall picture of tank development in the period, delving into technical minutiae only when it serves to make the authors point.   In fact, the section at the end of each chapter in which he declares his winners is often only a page or less.  As to the authors picks, we will not reveal them here but only say that they all seem reasonable enough.  That said, readers are certainly going to have their own opinions and the author himself states that some of the choices are open to debate.  Fans of British tanks will be disappointed (if not surprised) to find that UK tanks fail to make the list.  German tank fans will be happy to know that the Panzers make the list, although maybe not for the vehicles they might assume.  Soviet tanks are well represented in the list.   American vehicles make an appearance or two, despite the resoundingly poor representation they often get in modern popular culture.

So what to make of Armored Champion?  It’s a bit unlike any other book on tanks and armor, almost intentionally designed to be provocative.  For readers new to the subject of tanks and armored fighting vehicles of World War II, it makes for a very handy introduction to the topic.  Given the popularity of games such as World of Tanks,  it’s probably fair to assume that there is a pretty good demand for such a product right now.  For the experienced tank enthusiast, much that is in this book will be familiar.  For such readers the primary appeal of this book will be the chance to consider Zaloga’s choices of the best tanks and then formulate their own counter-arguments.  Armored Champion is a quality book and an entertaining one, although perhaps not an essential title in the same way as Zaloga’s previous masterpiece “Armored Thunderbolt.”

( It has been noted by some Amazon reviewers that there may be some errors in some of the charts, in particular some of the armor stats for the M4.  While these errors are unfortunate, they do little to detract from the main narrative of the book.)

This review written by Tank and AFV News.  Please do not reproduce without permission.

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