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.
3. The Battle of Arras (1940)
Not to be confused with the 1917 Battle of Arras, this Second World War engagement featured the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) against the German Blitzkrieg as it advanced rapidly towards the French coast.
Rommel, pictured at center, mistakenly thought he was being attacked by five infantry divisions during the Battle of Arras. (Bundesarchiv, Bild)
On May 20, 1940 the BEF's Viscount Gort ordered a counterattack, codenamed Frankforce, on the Germans. It involved two infantry battalions amounting to 2,000 men — and just 74 tanks. The BBC describes what happened next:
The infantry battalions were split into two columns for the attack, which took place on 21 May. The right column initially made rapid progress, taking a number of German prisoners, but they soon ran into German infantry and SS, backed by air support, and took heavy losses.
The left column also enjoyed early success before running into opposition from the infantry units of Brigadier Erwin Rommel's 7th Panzer Division.
French cover enabled British troops to withdraw to their former positions that night. Frankforce was over, and the next day the Germans regrouped and continued their advance.
Frankforce took around 400 German prisoners and inflicted a similar number of casualties, as well as destroying a number of tanks. The operation had punched far beyond its weight — the attack was so fierce that 7th Panzer Division believed it had been attacked by five infantry divisions.
Interestingly, some historians believe this ferocious counterattack was what convinced the German generals to declare a halt on May 24 — a short break in the Blitzkrieg that allowed the BEF some added time to evacuate its troops during the Miracle at Dunkirk.
4. The Battle of Brody (1941)
Until Kursk in 1943, this was the largest tank battle of the Second World War and the single largest in history up to that point. It took place in the early days of Operation Barbarossa as German troops advanced rapidly (and relatively easily) along the Eastern Front. But in the triangle formed by the towns of Dubno, Lutsk, and Brody, a confrontation emerged in which 800 Axis tanks were set against 3,500 Russian counterparts.
The battle lasted four grueling days, ending on June 30, 1941 with a resounding German victory and a large-scale Russian retreat. It was during the Battle of Brody, however, that the Germans got their first taste of the Russian T-34s — tanks that were practically impervious to German weapons. But owing to a series of Luftwaffe aerial attacks (which destroyed some 201 Soviet tanks alone) and poor tactical maneuvering, the Germans prevailed. What's more, it's estimated that 50% of Soviet operational losses of armoured vehicles (~2,600 tanks) were on account of logistical shortcomings, supply shortages, and technical issues. Total Russian tanks lost amounted to 800, as compared to 200 German tanks lost.
5. The Second Battle of El Alamein (1942)
This battle marked a turning point in the North African campaign, and the only great tank battle won by the British Commonwealth forces without direct American involvement. But an American presence was most certainly felt in the form of 300 Sherman tanks (for a total of 547 tanks) shipped hastily to Egypt from the United States.
Fought from October 23 to November 1942, it pitted the meticulous and patient General Bernard Montgomery and his forces against those of Erwin Rommel, the crafty Desert Fox. Unfortunately for the Germans, however, Rommel was extremely ill, and he was forced to retreat to a German hospital before the battle broke out. Adding insult to injury, his temporary fill in, General Georg von Stumme, died of a heart attack during the battle. The Germans were also plagued by supply problems, especially fuel shortages. It was a recipe for disaster.
Montgomery's restructured 8th Army launched a two-pronged attack. The first phase, Operation Lightfoot, consisted of a powerful artillery bombardment followed by an infantry attack. During the second phase, the infantry cleared the way for the armoured divisions. Rommel, who returned to duty in desperation, realized all was lost, and cabled Hitler accordingly. Both the British and German armies lost about 500 tanks, but the Allied troops failed to take the initiative after the victory, allowing the Germans sufficient time for retreat.
But the victory was secure, prompting Winston Churchill to declare: "This is not the end, it is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning."
6. The Battles of Kursk (1943)
After the defeat at Stalingrad, and as the Germans were pushed inexorably back towards Berlin, German planners decided to make a bold, if not futile, stand at Kursk in hopes of regaining the initiative. The overall result was the largest prolonged engagement of heavy armour in the war, and one of the largest single armoured clashes in the form of the Battle of Prokhorovka.
German Panzers and some captured T-34s attack at Kursk.
The numbers are almost impossible to grasp: 3,000 German tanks set against nearly double that figure in Soviet armor. But as German tankers showed time and time again, they could hold their own on the battlefield despite being outnumbered and facing technologically superior machinery (though the Tiger and Ferdinand tanks were starting to close the gap).
The result was, in the words of historian Anthony Beevor, a "slogging match." One SS tank commander managed to destroy 22 Soviet tanks in under an hour. Russian soldiers approached enemy tanks with "suicidal bravery," getting close enough to throw mines under the tracks. Beevor writes:
"They were around us, on top of us and between us," wrote [a German tanker]. "We fought man to man." All German superiority in communications, movement, and gunnery was lost in the chaos, noise, and smoke. "The atmosphere was choking," a Soviet tank driver recorded. "I was gasping for breath, with perspiration running in streams down my face." The psychological stress was immense. "We expected to be killed at any second." Those who were still alive and still fighting a couple of hours later were astonished. "Tanks even rammed one another," wrote a Soviet onlooker. "The metal was burning." The concentrated area of the battlefield was filled with burned-out armoured vehicles, exuding columns of black, oily smoke.
It's important to note that this was as much a tank battle as it was an aerial battle. While all this was happening, planes duked it out in the skies while trying to pick off the tanks below.
After eight days of this, the attack was halted. Though the Russians won, they lost five armoured vehicles for every German panzer destroyed. In terms of actual numbers, the Germans lost about 760 tanks, and the Russians about 3,800 (for a total of 6,000 tanks and assault guns destroyed or badly damaged). In terms of casualties, the Germans lost 54,182 men, the Russians 177,847. Though lopsided, the Russians prevailed, and as Beevor notes, "Hitler's lingering dream of securing the oilfields of the Caucasus was destroyed for ever."
7. The Battle of Arracourt (1944)
Set within the overall Lorraine campaign led by General George Patton's Third Army from September to October 1944, the less known Battle of Arracourt was the largest tank engagement fought by the U.S. Army until that point. Though the Battle of the Bulge would later prove to be a larger battle, this engagement took place over a much larger geographical area.
The battle is significant in that an entire German tank force equipped with Panzers was defeated by an American force primarily equipped with 75mm Sherman tanks. It also proved to be a critical engagement in Patton's drive to Germany. By carefully coordinating tank, artillery, infantry, and airpower, German forces were pinned down, allowing Montgomery's 21st Army to attack in the north.
When it was over, U.S. forces had successfully defeated two Panzer brigades and parts of two Panzer divisions. Of the 262 tanks deployed by the Germans, over 86 were destroyed, with another 114 damaged or broken down. The Americans, by contrast, lost just 25 tanks.
Arracourt prevented a German counterattack from happening, and the Wehrmacht wasn't able to regain any ground. What's more, the area became a launching point from which Patton's army would launch its winter offensive.
8. The Battle of Chawinda (1965)
The Battle of Chawinda was one of the largest tank battles after the Second World War. Set in the 1965 Indo-Pakistani War, it pitted about 132 Pakistani tanks (including 150 reinforcements) against 225 Indian armoured vehicles. The Indians had Centurion tanks, while the Pakistanis had Pattons; both sides utilized Shermans.
(World of Tanks)
The battle, which lasted from September 6-22, took place in the Ravi-Chenab corridor connecting Jammu and Kashmir with the Indian mainland. The Indian army was hoping to cut off the Pakistani supply line by cutting off the city of Sialkot from Lahore. Events reached a head on September 8 when Indian forces moved toward Chawinda. Pakistani aircraft joined in, followed by severe tank-on-tank action. A massive tank battle ensued on September 11 in the Phillora region. The ebb and flow of the battle finally ended on September 21 when Indian forces finally withdrew. Pakistan lost 40 tanks, while the Indians lost more than 120.
9. The Battle of the Valley of Tears (1973)
During the Yom Kippur War, Israeli forces battled it out with a coalition that included Egypt, Syria, Jordan, and Iraq. The coalition's objective was to remove Israeli forces occupying Sinai. At one critical point at the Golan Heights, an Israeli brigade was reduced from 150 tanks to 7 — and the remaining tanks had on average no more than four rounds left. But around the time that the Syrians were about to launch yet another attack, the brigade was saved by a haphazardly assembled relief force comprised of 13 less damaged tanks driven by injured soldiers who had discharged themselves from the hospital.
(Times of Israel)
As for the Yom Kippur war itself, the 19-day engagement represented the largest tank battle since the Second World War. In fact, it was one of the largest tank battles ever, featuring 1,700 Israeli tanks (of which 63% were destroyed) and approximately 3,430 coalition tanks (of which about 2,250 to 2,300 were destroyed). In the end, Israel prevailed; a United Nations-brokered ceasefire took effect on October 25.
10. The Battle of 73 Easting (1991)
In what has been described as "the last great tank battle of the 20th century," a U.S. force comprised of over a dozen M3 Bradley armoured vehicles and nine M1A1 Abrams battle tanks duked it out with over 85 Iraqi tanks (which included Russian-built T-55s and T-72s). The ensuing Gulf War battle, which took place in the Iraqi desert, resulted in a complete catastrophe for the Iraqi forces.
(U.S. Department of Defense)
The U.S. had a number of technological advantages over the Republican Guard, including superior main battles tanks and GPS, which allowed for the pre-planning of movement (as opposed to blind encounters). The M1A1s had a "kill range" of 2,500 meters (8,200 feet) while the Iraqi tanks featured a kill range of 2,000 meters (6,560); the RG didn't have a chance.
(U.S. Department of Defense)
Approximately 600 Iraqis were killed or wounded during the operation, compared to a dozen American losses and 57 injured (mostly from friendly fire). In the end, 85 Iraqi tanks were destroyed to just one American tank.
[ Antony Beever: The Second World War | Parameters: "The New Soviet Defensive Policy: Khalkhin Gol 1939 As Case Study." | Hew Strachan: The First World War | BBC (2) | Private Letters | tanks.org | T. Ingesson: "Battlefield Bureaucrats" | Easting Info ]