For thousands of years the battlefield was dominated by cavalry. With the industrial advances of the 19th century came death and destruction on an unprecedented scale and the advent of flight in the early years of the 20th century only added to the dangers faced by land-based forces.
In an effort to avoid the machine gunfire, high explosive artillery shells and airplanes, the soldiers dug in to the earth during World War One. The pockmarked, scorched, muddy no-man’s land filled with razor wire between the opposing trenches spewing thousands of bullets a minute did not make an ideal field for cavalry to sprint across. Something new was required to fight this war. Enter the tank – the metal cavalry.
Second Battle of Villers-Bretonneux – 1918
Unsurprisingly, the first tank-on-tank engagement occurred during the first conflict that saw the new weapon take to the field: the First World War.
By early 1918, the Russians had been knocked out of the war freeing up large numbers of German men and equipment to fight on the Western Front. Buoyed by these newly accessible resources but concerned that the entry of the United States into the war would negate their numerical advantage if they did not attack quickly, the German commander, Erich Ludendorff, chose to punch through the allied front line and wheel north to the sea hoping that the French would seek armistice terms. In March, the German Army launched the Spring Offensive in North-West France, focusing their forces against the under strength British Third and Fifth Armies in the Somme area.
Within a month the Germans had advanced to the town of Villers-Bretonneux and on the evening of 23/24 April began bombarding the area before attacking the town with four divisions. The German infantry, supported by thirteen tanks broke through the Allied lines creating a 4.8km wide gap. The town fell to the Germans and the vital railway junction of Amiens became vulnerable to capture.
Three British Mark IV tanks were quickly dispatched to the Cachy switch line at the first reports of the German advance through the town and ordered to hold it against the enemy. Two of the tanks were “female” variants armed with 0.303 inch machine guns whilst the other machine was “male” and armed with two 6-pounder guns and machine guns. The male was commanded by Lieutenant Frank Mitchell and only manned by four of the usual eight crewmen as the others had been gassed. The three tanks were advancing when they encountered a German A7V tank nicknamed “Nixe” and commanded by 2nd Lieutenant Wilhelm Biltz.
Nixe fired on the two female tanks, damaging them and exposing the crews. Both retreated as their machine guns were useless against the armour of the hulking A7V and its eighteen man crew. Lieutenant Mitchell’s tank continued to fire at Nixe while on the move to avoid German artillery fire as well as the gun of the tank. The movement meant that Mitchell’s gunner found it difficult to properly aim the 6-pounders until the Mark IV stopped to allow for a clean shot. The gunner scored three direct hits (six shells in all). The Nixe heeled over onto its side, probably as a result of crossing an incline at the wrong angle. The surviving German crew, including Biltz, fled from the vehicle and the British fired at them as they fled, killing nine.
And so ended the first ever engagement between tanks. But the battle was not over!
Two more A7V tanks, supported by infantry, appeared and were driven off by the Mark IV gunner’s accuracy. Mitchell’s tank continued to attack the German infantry using canister shot (think massive shotgun shell). Seven of the new British Whippet medium tanks arrived to support the Mark IV and encountered several German battalions “forming up in the open” and killed many infantrymen with their machine guns and by running them over.
The Second Battle of Villers-Bretonneux was a great success for the Allies, who defeated the German attempt to capture the strategically important French city of Amiens and recaptured Villers-Bretonneux while outnumbered. Lieutenant Frank Mitchell and his crew’s defence of the Cachy switch line played no small part in this victory and the engagement they had with Nixe will forever be remembered as the first firefight between tanks.
Battle of Kursk – 1943
The Eastern Front of the Second World War saw some unbelievably massive battles of envelopment and re-envelopment involving millions of men across hundreds of miles of front. The Battle of Kursk was one such engagement which occurred 450km south-west of Moscow during the Soviet push-back on Nazi Germany.
The battle began when the Germans launched Operation Citadel on 5 July with the objective of pinching off the Kursk salient (a bulge that protrudes into enemy territory) with attacks on the base of the salient from north and south simultaneously. For this attack the Germans had amassed nearly 800,000 soldiers, 3,000 tanks and 10,000 artillery pieces.
However, the Russian military leaders had not been idly sitting by and their intelligence had alerted them to this massive enemy buildup. They were aware of the numbers facing them, the location of the attacks, and thanks to captured Germans they even knew when the attack was coming. The Russian leaders decided on a grand defensive strategy, committing 1.9 million men, over 5,000 tanks and 25,000 artillery pieces to the area. Large numbers of anti-tank artillery were placed in the locations most likely to see German tanks used in depth. 400,000 anti-tank and anti-personnel mines were laid and 300,000 civilians helped the army dig thousands of miles of trenches, repair roads and construct defences around the salient.
Germany started the attack at 04:30 on 5 July with an artillery barrage followed by a combined armour and infantry attack beginning an hour later: heavy tanks at the front, followed by the medium tanks with the infantry bringing up the rear. Within the first 24 hours of fighting they had gained 10km of territory but at a huge cost: 25,000 casualties. The next few days saw a similar pattern and by 10 July the German IX Army had lost 2/3 of its tank force.
After the German offensive stalled on the northern side of the salient, on 12 July the Soviets commenced Operation Kutuzov against the rear of the German forces whilst simultaneously launching powerful counterattacks the same day on the southern side which led to the largest single armoured action of the war at the Battle of Prokhorovka. On 12 July, 87km southeast of Kursk, 600 Soviet tanks engaged 300 German tanks with neither side gaining the upper hand.
In all areas the Russians now outnumbered their German opponents by 2:1. Unable to call on reinforcements from the southern sector the Germans were unable to hold off the Russian onslaught in the north and by 19 July the Russians had pushed 70km forward. The Russian air force ensured that the Luftwaffe were incapable of supplying the army with the supplies it desperately needed. Faced with the collapse of its forces in the northern sector of the battle, General Model asked for Hitler’s permission to withdraw, warning that the Wehrmacht faced another Stalingrad if the withdrawal was not permitted. Hitler allowed the request and the German forces to the north withdrew nearly 100km.
A similar situation was occurring in the southern sector of the salient. Here the Germans had around 300,000 men and about 600 tanks whilst the Russians had nearly 1 million men and many more tanks. The Soviet counter-offensive in this sector began on 3 August and the partisans operating behind German lines here derailed more than 1,000 train loads of troops which massively hindered the Wehrmacht’s ability to easily move troops around the area. German morale plummeted and the Russians captured the city of Kharkov by 23 August. The liberation of Kharkov is usually seen as the end of the Battle of Kursk.
By the end of the battle nearly 1 million German soldiers and 2.5 million Russians had been committed to the fight as well as 5,000 Soviet and 3,000 German tanks. The Germans suffered 250,000 casualties whilst the Russians suffered 250,000 deaths and a staggering 600,000 wounded! It is alleged that one SS commander immobolised 22 Soviet tanks in under one hour! Despite the horrific costs to the Soviet armies, the Battle of Kursk was hailed as a great Russian victory as the Axis forces lost the ability to initiate any future strategic offensive operations for the duration of the war. From this point on until the remainder of the war the Soviet Army held the initiative over the Germans in the Eastern Front and reclaimed 2,000km of territory.
The vast flat steppes of western Russia provided the ideal grounds for these grand maneuvering battles utilising huge numbers of armoured vehicles. The Battle of Kursk was the largest example of this and to this day remains the largest tank battle in history.
Battle of 73 Easting – 1991
We looked at the first tank-on-tank engagement and the largest tank battle in history so its only fitting that we end with “the last great tank battle of the 20th century.” This battle occurred in the deserts of southern Iraq during the last major conflict of the century: the Gulf War, fought between Iraq and a coalition of over 30 countries led by the United States.
Following an extensive bombing campaign Coalition forces launched their invasion of Iraq on 24 February 1991. One of the main fronts of the attack was the US VII Corps whose aim it was to get in behind Iraqi forces, prevent a retreat from Kuwait and destroy five divisions of the elite Iraqi Republican Guard. The US 2nd Armoured Cavalry Regiment (2ACR) spearheaded the advance of VII Corps. 2ACR was a reconnaissance division whose principal mission was to identify enemy positions and strip away security forces in preparation for other troops to move up for the full attack.
The regiment consisted of 4,500 men divided into five squadrons, three of which were ground squadrons made up mostly of M1A1 Abrams tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles. Their main opponents were the Tawakalna Division of the Republican Guard who were tasked with defending the supply route along the IPSA Pipeline Road. The Division had committed a mechanised brigade and an armoured brigade to the area, focusing on the road as they did not believe an advance from the featureless desert was possible… the Iraqis failed to realise that the American forces were in possession of GPS.
On the afternoon of 26 February, much of VII Corps was between the 50 and 60 Easting lines (geographic coordinate lines running eastward). 2 ACR was ordered to advance as far as 70 Easting. They were to engage with the Republican Guard without becoming decisively engaged so as to maintain manoeuvrability while preventing the enemy from moving.
73 Easting was not one single, isolated engagement but rather part of a wider line of fighting spread across the Iraqi desert. As with many of the battles of the First World War, it was the intensity and significance of the fighting that made 73 Easting worthy of the identification as a battle in its own right.
After meeting and eliminating several isolated outposts, the troops of 2 ACR occupied a village but it was at 73 Easting that the heaviest fighting took place. Around 16:40, E Troop of 2ACR, led by Captain HR McMaster (future US National Security Advisor to President Donald Trump), surprised an Iraqi company of eight tanks locked into defensive positions on a slope at the 70 Easting. After clearing this threat, McMaster saw an Iraqi company in Soviet-produced T-72 tanks three kilometres to the east. He made the call to pass the original 70 Easting limit and fought through an infantry position and onto the high ground. A unit of eighteen T-72s stood their ground against the American forces but surprise, superior equipment and better training provided the Americans with a significant advantage. McMaster and his tanks destroyed yet another enemy tank unit.
A platoon was sent north from E Troop to regain contact with other coalition forces. Instead they ran into another Iraqi position, this one occupied by a further thirteen T-72s, which they destroyed.
More of 2ACR began to arrive and the unit took up positions overlooking a wadi (a dried up river valley) near 73 Easting. By 18:30, Iraqi tanks and infantry began to stream up the wadi with the aim of driving back the Americans and creating a safe line of retreat. For the next several hours, the Iraqis tried to drive off their opposite number but were held off. By the time that the fighting began to slacken off around 22:00, dozens of Iraqi tanks had been destroyed.
Sporadic fighting continued throughout the night and another fierce firefight was fought the following day around a nearby objective but the Battle of 73 Easting was over. 73 Easting had a been a huge tank battle, in which the Coalition forces destroyed 160 tanks and 180 personnel carriers – the 2nd squadron of 2ACR alone contributed 55 tanks and 45 armoured vehicles. 2ACR captured 2,000 Iraqi soldiers at a loss of 6 KIA and 19 wounded and advanced 250 kilometres.
Strategically, the battle kept the Iraqis occupied while other advances around the country took place. The war ended with a total Coalition victory on 28 February.
The Rest is History