7 of the Most Epic Tank Battles in History
7 of the Most Epic Tank Battles in History

7 of the Most Epic Tank Battles in History

Gregory Gann - August 1, 2017

Few weapons shaped the course of war like the steel-clad behemoths that dominated the 20th-century battlefield. The tank epitomizes warfare’s key concepts: combat power and mobility, and no major contemporary military lacks an armored backbone. Designed to survive the crucible of battle while destroying the enemy, the tank is a brutal weapon of war that flourished under the guidance of gifted, and often romanticized, tacticians. General field Marschall Erwin Rommel and General George S. Patton, for example, share a powerful niche in the public’s consciousness.

Nearly three-quarters of a century’s passed since their deaths, yet their names evoke images of fire-belching armored beasts to the most disinterested students of military history. When the first tank debuted in World War I, however, First Lieutenant Patton was chasing Pancho Villa in Mexico, Oberleutnant Rommel was heading to Romania with the Royal Wurttemberg Mountain Battalion, and the armored hulk’s future was anything but certain. In 1916, even the armored vehicle’s most ardent proponents could not have envisioned the following events where tanks, soldiers, and government production boards converged, often disastrously, on the battlefield.

Second Battle of Villers-Bretonneux (April 24-27, 1918)

On April 24, 1918, the first tank-versus-tank battle got underway when three German A7Vs and three British Mark IVs unexpectedly ran into one another during the Second Battle of Villers-Bretonneux. The battle began when roughly 1,200 pieces of German artillery blasted Villers-Bretonneux with mustard gas and high explosive shells throughout the night. Shortly after dawn, infantry supported by A7Vs captured the city, which threatened the critical railway junction at Amiens, and the British ordered three of their Mark IV tanks to counter the advancing German Armor.

7 of the Most Epic Tank Battles in History
Imperial Germany’s first tank, the A7V. Wikipedia.org
7 of the Most Epic Tank Battles in History
British Mark IV (female). Wikipedia.org

Technically, the German A7V was better armored, mounted two machine guns, and used a main gun similar to the British model, but failed miserably when maneuvering around a battlefield. The A7V could not cross trenches, for example. The Mark IV, however, was the product of several years of development and overcame the failure of earlier models to maneuver across rough terrain. The British tank’s armament is… where things get weird. Mark IV’s came in two variants, male and female. The male mounted two 57mm main guns, doubling the A7Vs firepower, and three machine guns. The female mounted five machine guns, but no main cannons. Designers intended the female to cover the male from infantry attacks while it’s counterpart presumably pounded away with its main guns. It was a design concept that no one has EVER revisited.

7 of the Most Epic Tank Battles in History
Timetoast

Thus, when one male and two female Mark IVs squared off against three A7Vs, the Germans held a distinct advantage in firepower. The male Mark IV, commanded by Lieutenant Frank Mitchell, ran headlong into the AV7s when they exited the forest surrounding Villers-Bretonneux, where the German tanks attacked supported by infantry. The Mark IV’s maneuverability saved Mitchell’s tank from enemy tank fire, but the artillery barrage from the night before had shredded the ground, and the bouncing prevented the gunners from scoring a hit. The German tanks, however, managed to shell both female Mark IVs, which sent them retreating into the forest. Thinking fast, Mitchell arrived at a risky solution. He pulled back from the German tanks, and stopped. In the middle of a battle. Where everyone could target him.

Mitchell’s gunner wasted no time, and pulverized one of the AV7s with three direct hits. The British paid a price for their sudden stop, and the German infantry attempted to swarm the Mark IV. Mitchell’s gunners countered by frantically loading “case-shot,” which scattered like a shotgun charge, and fired madly into the approaching crowd of enemy soldiers. The tactic worked.

The infantry scattered, but the remaining two German tanks had used the time to close on the British tank. Convinced their destruction was near, the desperate British hastily fired at the oncoming tanks, missing completely. The two German AV7s, however, decided they’d had enough of the crazed British tank, and, to the amazement of Mitchell and his crew, backed away and retreated. The Allies recaptured Villers-Bretonneux the following day, and although the British won the first tank engagement, the armored battle was short and relatively inconclusive.

7 of the Most Epic Tank Battles in History
Wikipedia

The Battle of Khalkhin Gol (September 11 to May 15, 1939)

When the border clashes intensified along the Soviet border, both militaries paused to build up their forces. Equipment, aircraft, and infantry poured into the region. Each country sent one of their premier experts in armored warfare. Komkor Georgy Zhukov arrived in early June, assuming command for the Soviets, and Lt. General Masaomi Yasuoka led the Imperial Japanese Army’s 1st Tank Corps. Throughout June, the Japanese won several smaller engagements and prepared to launch a major attack at the Soviet forces concentrated on the opposing side of the Khalkin Gol River.

7 of the Most Epic Tank Battles in History
Soviet BT-7. Net-maquettes.com
7 of the Most Epic Tank Battles in History
Japanese Type 95 Ha-Go tank. Wikipedia.org

The two-pronged offensive attacked with three regiments of infantry toward the west, and Yasuoka’s 1st Tank Corps to the east and north on July 2. Though initially successful, Zhukov grasped the Japanese’s intention to encircle his army, and focused his counterattack on the enemy’s mobile units. Assembling a force of 450 tanks and armored cars, Zhukov outmaneuvered Yasuoka’s 1st Tank Corps and attacked three sides.

The Japanese tanks proved no match for the Soviets in the combat that followed, and after grueling week of brutal fighting, Yasuoka withdrew the shattered remnants of his corps across the Khalkin Gol. This shattered their infantry’s chances for success, and after another two weeks of stalemated fighting, the Japanese retreated.

Zhukov’s counterattack gutted the Imperial Japanese’s armor, but his enemy still had a large, entrenched, army on the other side of the river. Zhukov was determined to dislodge his opponent, and on August 20th, he launched one of the most devastating offensives in history. The Soviet General had built up his forces tremendously over the summer, and the Japanese were stunned when three infantry divisions supported by nearly 500 BT tanks swarmed across the river on the heels of crushing massed artillery salvos and airstrikes.

Numerous and entrenched though the Japanese were, Zhukov used his tanks ruthlessly; seizing control of the enemy’s flanks, destroying their remaining armor, and capturing their army in a classic double envelopment. On August 31st, no Imperial Japanese forces remained on the Mongolian side of the border, leaving the BT tanks, and Zhukov, the clear victor.

7 of the Most Epic Tank Battles in History
Wikipedia

Battle of Hannut (May 12, 1940 to May 14, 1940)

When the French and German armor clashed near the sleepy Belgian town on May 12, 1940, World War II’s first tank brawl got underway. The German military had smashed across Belgium’s borders two days ago, and General Maurice Gamelin, the Allied supreme commander, believed his enemy was repeating their World War I tactics, and he intended to stop their advance by entrenching his forces near the town of Gembloux.

Gamelin suspected the Germans would attempt to break through with concentrated armor, and assigned the mechanized Corps de Cavalerie, commanded by General René Prioux, the task of fighting a delaying battle while building his defenses. Unfortunately for Gamelin, that was exactly what the German High Command wanted the French General to do.

7 of the Most Epic Tank Battles in History
French SOMUA S35. Worldwarphotos.info

The majority of Germany’s newest and most experienced armored units were sweeping through the Ardennes forest to the south, and the Nazis’ plan hinged on tying up the Allies army’s while the Panzer’s completed their surprise movement. Commanded by General Erich Hoepner, the assault to the north incorporated a large group of predominately older tanks. Hoepner’s forces included roughly 600 tanks, but most of them were Panzer Is, and IIs, designed as infantry support units. The Mark IIIs and the new Mark IVs were designed for tank-on-tank combat, but nearly all of them were in the Ardennes. This presented Hoepner with a serious problem as the French SOMUA S35 was arguably the world’s premier tank.

Heavily armored, fast, and equipped with a powerful 47 mm gun, the SOMUA S35 was superior to German armor in nearly every way… with one notable exception. The French tank used a two-man turret, and the tank commander was also the gunner. French tank commanders couldn’t watch the battlefield constantly, whereas their German counterparts had a dedicated gunner, and their commanders could react instantly to the changing conditions of a battlefield. This deficit was compounded by General Prioux’s decision to spread his tanks out along the defensive line whereas General Hoepner concentrated his armored units. Essentially, distance prevented Prioux’s tanks from supporting one another, and Hoepner exploited this advantage ruthlessly.

On May 12, Hoepner concentrated the 3rd and 4th Panzer Divisions to secure Hannut, where they destroyed seven French tanks with no losses. Fierce resistance stalled the German advance, and intense fighting exploded throughout the region. Hoepner launched a focused attack on a single point of his enemy’s defenses the following day, seizing the opportunity that Prioux’s dispersed tanks offered, and smashed through the French line. The older German Panzer Is and IIs, inferior in every way to the SOMUA S35, swarmed the French tanks; outflanking the more heavily armored and armed tank, and pounding them into scrap, but they paid a heavy price for their victory. French units destroyed 160 Panzer’s (all but 49 were eventually repaired and returned to service), whereas the Corps de Cavalerie lost 121 tanks.

7 of the Most Epic Tank Battles in History
German Panzer IV Ausf. F1. Wikipedia.org

Battle of Brody (June 23, 1941 to June 30, 1941)

Following World War II, numerous military historians argued that 1943’s Battle of Prokhorovka was the largest tank battle in history. Over the past decade, however, most scholars revised this opinion, and point to the concentrated armor clashes during the opening phases of Operation Barbarossa; Nazi Germany’s 1941 invasion of the Soviet Union. The largest estimates of armor at the Battle of Prokhorovka range between 978 (the most likely number) and 1,500. The Battle of Brody, however, included 4,100 tanks at a minimum. Scholars suspect the number of armored units may have been closer to 5,000, but the insane chaos of the invasion wreaked havoc on the logistics of both sides, and the true number may never be known.

The Battle of Brody pitted the German 1st Panzer Group, commanded by Generaloberst Paul Ludwig Ewald von Kleist, against six concentrated Soviet Mechanized Corps drawn from the 5th Army to the north and the 6th Army to the south… and no clear commander. Orders to counter-attack came on the heels of orders to defend. Movement, difficult as it already was, was compounded by conflicting instructions. The Soviet Union was straining every sinew to repulse the German Army before it reached Kiev, and the result was complete pandemonium.

7 of the Most Epic Tank Battles in History
World War Photos

When the two armies crashed into each other, hundreds of Panzers fought thousands of Soviet armored units in a bitter, brutal, struggle near the triangle of three towns (Dubno, Lutsk, and Brody) over the course of four days. Experienced and confident in their officers and equipment, the German 1st Panzer Group expected to triumph over the Soviets. The evidence seemed to support their optimism as the Panzers raced forward, but the Soviets had a nasty surprise for the German Army: the T-34. Following the Battles of Khalkhin Gol two years prior, the Soviet’s analyzed the weakness of their BT tank line and used their experience to build a medium tank with dense, sloped armor, a more powerful main gun, and a vastly improved track design. The result was the T-34, and the Germans had absolutely no idea it existed.

Kliest later referred to the T-34 as “the finest tank in the world,” and Guderian would grudgingly admit it was superior to German Panzers. Combined with the operational and tactical prowess of the veteran Panzer crews, the T-34 fought against a stacked deck in 1941. With one notable exception, the German Panzers devastated the Soviet’s armor over the next four days. The Soviet’s gave ground slowly, but the Panzer’s consistently outflanked their opponents, encircled their armor, and destroyed them like a wolfpack pumped on steroids and backed up with air support.

This was not the case for the Soviet’s 8th Mechanized Corps who successfully attacked the 11th Panzer Division on the 26th, but a single victory does not win a battle. When the smoke cleared on June 29, 1941, only shattered remnants of the first Soviet counter-attack remained, and the final tally ended thusly: Germany lost roughly 200 tanks out of 750 whereas the Soviets lost between 2,600 and 3,000 armored units.

7 of the Most Epic Tank Battles in History
Soviet KV-2 tank. Wikipedia.org

KV at the Crossroads (June 24-25, 1941)

When Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, a vast three-pronged offensive unfolded Army Group South was tasked with capturing Kiev; Group Center’s objective was the destruction of Soviet armies and occupation of Smolensk; Group North’s strategic goal was the seizure of Leningrad. Caught offguard, the Soviet’s mounted a desperate defense against each of the German Armies, and the single KV tank that slowed Army Group North for two days was a small part of the fighting known as the Battle of Raseiniai.

The 6th Panzer was a light mechanized unit, comprised of two motorized infantry regiments, a Panzer reconnaissance battalion, a Panzer regiment, two companies of Panzerjägers (tank-hunters), two motorcycle battalions, two artillery battalions, an anti-aircraft battery, and a company of Panzer engineers. This unit embodied blitzkrieg. Fast, well-armed, and well-trained, the 6th went through Lithuania like a thunderbolt; blazing the way for the larger army behind them. Their advance, however, came to a standstill when reports that the enemy had cut between the 6th and the main body.

Locals later claimed a single tank had arrived on the night of the 23rd, driven to the crossroads outside of Raseiniai, and simply stopped. The tank may have run out of fuel, or broke down. Whatever the reason, this was a tank that had no intention of moving… or falling to the Germans quietly.

The convoy fled and reported sighting a lone KV tank at the crossroads outside of the Raseiniai. The 6th anticipated a Soviet counter-attack and suspected this was its beginning. A second convoy, unaware of the KV’s presence, approached the crossroads. The KV unleashed an intense barrage and destroyed all twelve trucks. The German commander, Generaloberst Erhard Raus, realized this was not a massive counter-attack, rather it was a single tank… directly in the middle of his supply lines. Worse, the tank continued to fire on German positions in Raseiniai. Raus needed to remove the tank quickly, and ordered anti-tank crews to attack. Panzerjägers positioned a battery of 50mm anti-tank guns and fired. The tank sat immobile, silent. Suddenly, the turret turned and annihilated the anti-tank battery.

The Germans tried attacking with a distant 105mm Howitzer but missed. They tried moving an 88mm anti-aircraft (AA) turret into range. The KV spotted the gun immediately and destroyed it. Soldiers tried to close in and plant explosives under the cover of night; they were driven back by machine-gun fire, but managed to damage one of the tank’s treads. The following day, Raus ordered several Panzer’s to distract the KV, while soldiers moved another (camouflaged this time) 88mm anti-aircraft gun into range. Fire from the AA gun quieted the KV, and German soldiers closed in on the massive tank. The turret turned suddenly, and a German soldier managed to fling a grenade inside the tank before fleeing, killing the tank’s crew. Six dead soldiers had manned the lone KV, and the Germans paused long enough to bury their foe out of respect their stand merited.

7 of the Most Epic Tank Battles in History
M3 Grant tank. WW2today.com

Battle of Gazala (May 26 to June 21, 1942)

Promoted to Lieutenant General and assigned command of the newly formed Deutsches Afrika Korps in February of 1941, Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s first year in North Africa wasn’t a smashing success. Both he and his British opponents shared a few victories and failures, and the year ended with both sides controlling relatively unchanged positions. 1942 would not follow the same path. On January 5th, the Afrika Korps received desperately needed reinforcements and supplies, and Rommel launched an assault two weeks later. Given the tenuousness of his supply chain, Rommel needed the port city of Tobruk, a prize he’d tried, and failed, to capture throughout 1941.

7 of the Most Epic Tank Battles in History
World War Photos

Rommel’s attack surprised the Allies, who lost over 110 tanks and control of the cities Benghazi and Timimi. Caught by surprise by the Afrika Korps, the Allies lost over 110 tanks and other heavy equipment. The Axis forces retook Benghazi on 29 January and Timimi on 3 February, and General Sir Claude Auchinleck, commander of the allied army, established a defensive line to protect Tobruk near the Gazala. Rommel, however, had no intention of attacking their prepared defenses. Unbeknownst to the Allies, the communication codes used by the US State Department in Egypt was compromised, and until June of 1942, Rommel had detailed knowledge of his enemy’s deployment and military strength.

The information Rommel received was critical. 200 of the new Grant tanks, superior to anything under Rommel’s command, had reinforced the British, and the Allies outnumbered the Germans. The British had 110,000 infantry, 843 tanks, and 604 aircraft, whereas Rommel’s forces included 90,000 infantry, 560 tanks, and 542 aircraft. Time was not on Rommel’s side. He needed to slow the tide of reinforcements to the Allied armies and shorten his supply lines. Rommel had to capture Tobruk as soon as possible.

Following Luftwaffe victories near Malta in April 1942, long awaited supplies finally reached the Afrika Korps, and Rommel began preparing an offensive in May. The British were planning to attack, and Rommel had no intention of surrendering the initiative. Thus, in late May, Rommel attacked first at Gazala. The attack, however, was not what it seemed. Infantry with a small contingent of armor assaulted the fortifications, but only as a feint. The bulk of Rommel’s armor and motorized forces swept around the British’s left flank under the cover of darkness and attacked the allies from behind. Both sides took heavy losses. Packs of Panzers had to swarm the Grant tanks, and their superior armor, individually.

The mobile forces fought for two days. Rommel, however, ran low on fuel, and shifted to a defensive position that became known as the “Cauldron.” He used the British minefields to the west to cover his flank, and mangled the Allied forces that closed in to attack. Rommel’s infantry cleared a path through the minefield, and fuel was rushed through. Rommel counterattacked through the minefield’s path immediately, achieving complete and total surprise.

The British 150th Brigade surrendered on June 1. Allied forces holding the Free French strongpoint at Bir Hakeim fled on the 10th, and Rommel swung north and raced to the sea. The bulk of British forces remained in Gazala, but Rommel’s advance to the sea separated the Allies from the city they were protecting. Rommel ignored the fortified British at Gazala, and swung east, capturing Tobruk in a single day, and accepting the surrender of 32,000 defenders, a desperately needed port, and a massive quantity of supplies.

7 of the Most Epic Tank Battles in History
Soviet T-62. Wikipedia.org

Battle of the Valley of Tears (October 6, 1973 to October 9, 1973)

Fighting multi-front wars is a difficult endeavor for any nation, and even the most powerful militaries try to avoid it. This was especially true on October 6, 1973, during Yom Kippur, when the Arab Coalition, led by Egypt and Syria, launched a surprise attack at Israel from the north and south. Caught completely unawares, Israeli defense forces scrambled to reinforce both fronts, and the Golan Heights was particularly light on defenders.

7 of the Most Epic Tank Battles in History
Israeli variant of the British Centurion, known as the Sho’t. Wikipedia.org

The Syrian’s smashed into the Golan Heights, which was defended on the north side by the 7th Israeli Armored Brigade and the 188th Barak Brigade to the south, with an overwhelmingly powerful armored force. Roughly 1,400 tanks swarmed into the region, and the T-62, the Soviet Union’s latest armored unit, made up over one-quarter of the Syrian’s armor. Backed by over 1,000 pieces of artillery, air support, and the older T-54 and T-55 tanks, the T-62 thoroughly outclassed the Israeli armor. Equipped with night vision and 115mm main guns, the T-62 should have annihilated the Israeli’s World War II era British-made Centurions and US-made “Super” Shermans. Combat, however, is anything but predictable.

The 7th Armored Brigade’s stand in the north is a legendary tale worth telling, but perhaps the most interesting story is the Barak Brigade’s lesser-known defense of the south. Both units had the same orders; hold the line until the reserves scrambled. The Barak Brigade, however, had far less tanks than the 7th, and when the Syrian’s 46th Armored Brigade pressed into Southern Golan, the Israeli defenders were outnumbered by 600 to 12. The Barak Brigade called for air support, but Syrian air defenses were among the thickest in the world, and they’d invested heavily in modern Soviet systems. They devastated Israeli air forces, forcing the Barak Brigade to fight on its own.

This is when things get… interesting. When Egypt and Syria launched their attack, twenty-one-year-old Lieutenant Greengold was on leave, preparing to take a course for company commanders. Comprehending the danger immediately, and currently unassigned to a specific unit, Greengold hitchhiked to a command center in the Golan Heights, where he assumed command of two recently repaired Centurion tanks, and assembled their crews on the fly. Syrian tanks broke through the line toward the northwest, and Lieutenant Greengold’s scratch-built unit raced to stop them. Six destroyed T-55s later, Greengold sent his damaged tank back for repairs, assumed command of the remaining unit, and moved to counter the Syrian’s 452nd Tank Battalion. Night, however, was falling, and Greengold knew the enemy’s night-vision systems gave them a dangerous edge.

Constant movement, Greengold decided, was the only option. If he couldn’t hide in the darkness, he could make the Syrian’s believe their opposition was stronger than it was. Driving like a madman in a tank (because he was), Greengold destroyed at least ten enemy armored vehicles, and the Syrian’s retreated believing they faced a far more powerful force than they actually did.

 

Sources For Further Reading:

The Japan Times – Prelude to WWII: Japan’s Nomonhan debacle

The Past – Prokhorovka: The Greatest Tank Battle In History?

Warfare History Network – The Battle of Brody: Disaster Along WWII’s Eastern Front

National WWII Museum – Drive to Nowhere: The Myth of the Afrika Korps, 1941-43

Warfare History Online – Erwin Rommel Frustrated By French Foreign Legion At Bir Hacheim

National WWII Museum – Forgotten Fights: The Free French at Bir Hacheim, May 1942

The New York Times – A Brief History of the Golan Heights, Claimed by Israel and Syria

The Daily Sabah – Israel’s Annexation Of The Golan Heights Is A Grave Violation Of International Law

Al Jazeera – The October Arab-Israeli War Of 1973: What Happened?

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