Ever since the first armored vehicles crawled across the tortured battlescapes of World War I, tanks have become an indelible fixture of land warfare. Many tank-on-tank engagements have occurred over the years, some more significant — and epic — than others. Here are 10 you need to know about.
Top image: An Iraqi tank burns during Operation Desert Storm in 1991.
Battles listed in chronological order.
1. The Battle of Cambrai (1917)
Fought in late 1917, this Western Front battle was the first great tank battle in military history and the first great use of combined arms on a large scale, marking a true turning point in the history of warfare. As historian Hew Strachan notes, "the biggest single intellectual shift in making war between 1914 and 1918 was that the combined-arms battle was planned around the capabilities of the guns rather than of the infantry." And by combined, Strachan is referring to the coordinated use of sustained and creeping artillery, infantry, aircraft, and, of course, tanks.
On November 20, 1917 the British attacked at Cambrai with 476 tanks, 378 of them being combat tanks. The horrified Germans were caught completely by surprise as the offensive carved out a 4,000-yard penetration along a six-mile front. It was an unprecedented breakthrough in an otherwise static siege war. The Germans eventually recovered after launching counter-attacks, but the tank-led offensive demonstrated the incredible potential of mobile, mechanized warfare — a lesson that was put to good use just a year later in the final push towards Germany.
2. The Battle of Khalkhin Gol (1939)
The first great tank battle of the Second World War pitted the Soviet Red Army against the Japanese Imperial Army along the Mongolian and Siberian border. Set within the context of the Sino-Japanese War of 1937-1945, Japan claimed that the Khalkhin Gol marked the border between Mongolia and Manchukuo (its name for occupied Manchuria), while the Soviets insisted on a border lying further to the east through Nomonhan (which is why this engagement is sometimes referred to as the Nomonhan Incident). Hostilities ensued in May 1939 when Soviet troops occupied the disputed territory.
Captured Japanese soldiers (photo: Victor A. Tёmyn)
After some initial Japanese success, the Soviets countered with 58,000 troops, nearly 500 tanks, and some 250 aircraft. On the Morning of August 20, General Georgy Zhukov launched a surprise attack after feigning a defensive posture. As the brutal day unfolded, the heat became oppressive, reaching 104 degrees F (40 degrees Celsius), causing machine guns and cannons to jam. The Soviets' T-26s tanks (a precursor to the highly effective T-34s) outmatched the obsolete Japanese tanks, whose guns lacked armour piercing shells. But the Japanese fought desperately, including a dramatic moment in which Lieutenant Sadakaji charged a tank with his samurai sword until he was cut down.
The ensuing Russian encirclement allowed for the complete annihilation of General Komatsubara's force, resulting in 61,000 casualties. The Red Army, by contrast, suffered 7,974 killed and 15,251 wounded. The battle marked the beginning of Zhukov's illustrious military leadership during the war, while demonstrating the importance of deception, and technological and numerical superiority in tank warfare.