The tank is one of the most important weapon systems on the battlefield. Few weapons strike enemy soldiers with the fear that a fully loaded tank rolling towards them does.
After their trial by fire on the fields of Europe in World War I, tanks have become a necessity for any army that wants to be considered a serious foe.
In the one hundred years since its invention, tanks have been the winning factor in a number of battles. Entire wars have depended on their successful use.
Take a look at how 10 of the biggest tank battles in history went down.
Battle of Cambrai: November 20 – December 8, 1917
The Battle of Cambrai was the first time tanks were used on a large scale for a military offensive. The objective was to take the commune of Cambrai, an important supply point for the Germans at the heart of the Hindenburg Line, in order to reduce the pressure on the French.
Nineteen British divisions were assembled for the battle, including 476 tanks and five horsed cavalry divisions.
The initial attack on November 20th was met with huge success. The British had torn through four miles of German defenses and captured up to 7,500 prisoners with low casualties.
But by the end of the day, more than half of the tanks were out of action due to mechanical failure. The German Army launched a massive counterattack, and brutal trench warfare ensued.
By the end of the battle, almost all the British gains were lost, over 100 tanks were lost or destroyed, and both sides suffered around 40,000 casualties each.
Battle of Hannut: May 12 – 14, 1940
The Battle of Hannut was fought during the Battle of Belgium, Nazi Germany’s invasion of the Low Countries. It was part of the Wehrmacht’s thrust into the Ardennes region and was meant to tie down the French First Army.
It was both the largest tank battle of the campaign and the largest battle in armored warfare history at the time. Over 600 German tanks and 25,000 soldiers squared off against 600 French and Dutch armored vehicles and around 20,000 soldiers.
The battle was technically inconclusive. Some of the French First Army was able to fight their way through the Germans to reunite with their British comrades at Dunkirk, but they had lost well over 100 of their tanks and armored vehicles.
German losses were much lighter, with only around 50 tanks lost. While the French SOMUA S35 tank was considered as one of the best at the time, German tactics and communication technology made the Wehrmacht better.
Battle of Raseiniai: June 23 – 27, 1941
The Battle of Raseiniai was a large tank battle fought at the beginning of Operation Barbarossa, Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union. The battle was fought in Lithuania, then part of the Soviet Union’s Northwestern Front.
Some 240 German tanks from the 4th Panzer Group were tasked with destroying almost 750 Soviet tanks of the 3rd and 12th Mechanized Corps.
Despite their numerical advantage over the Wehrmacht, the result of the battle was an utter catastrophe for the Soviets. Some 700 Soviet tanks and their crews — almost the entirety of the Soviet Union’s deployed mechanized units on the Northwestern Front — were destroyed, damaged, or captured.
A large part of the German victory was due to their use of airpower. The Luftwaffe was unchallenged during the battle, and the close tank formations of the Soviets were easy targets for Ju 88 aircraft.
Battle of Brody: June 23 – 30, 1941
The Battle of Brody is the largest tank battle in history, according to some historians.
Also fought during the beginning stages of Operation Barbarossa, the battle saw some 1,000 German panzers of the 1st Panzer Group’s III Army Corps smash into 3,000 Soviet tanks from the six mechanized corps of the Soviet 5th and 6th Armies.
Again outnumbered, the Wehrmacht proved that superior training, tactics, communication technology, and air support make all the difference.
The exact number of casualties is not known, but estimates put Soviet tank losses at somewhere between 800 to over 1,000. The Wehrmacht also suffered heavy casualties, with anywhere between 200 to 350 tanks destroyed.
“This, in fact, is the biggest tank battle in World War II, and sparsely a word has been written on it,” according to David Glantz, a historian of the Eastern Front and Soviet military.
Second Battle of El Alamein: October 23 – November 11, 1942
The Second Battle of El Alamein saw two legendary generals, Britain’s Bernard Montgomery, and Germany’s Erwin Rommel — who was nicknamed the “Desert Fox” — fight for the fate of North Africa.
North Africa had been a battleground since Fascist Italy’s invasion of Egypt in 1940. Germany’s Afrikakorps had to step in to prevent their defeat in 1941 and were able to push the British all the way into Egypt.
They were stopped at the First Battle of El Alamein, which, though technically a stalemate, did prevent the Afrikakorps from rolling through the rest of Egypt, and by extension the Middle East.
Montgomery assembled a force for a counterattack, including around 190,000 men and over 1,000 tanks. Rommel commanded a force of 116,000 German and Italian soldiers, and 540 tanks.
After days of hard fighting in the Egyptian desert, Montgomery was victorious. Five hundred German and Italian tanks, almost all of Rommel’s force, were destroyed or captured.
With the Americans launching Operation Torch in November 1942, the tide against the Germans began to turn in North Africa.
Battle of Prokhorovka: July 12, 1943
The Battle of Prokhorovka took place during the larger Battle of Kursk. It was long thought to be the largest tank battle in history, but according to the book Demolishing the Myth: The Tank Battle at Prokhorovka, Kursk, July 1943 by Valeriy Zamulin, a Russian military historian, that is not the case.
But that is not to say it was small or insignificant. The battle saw over 600 Soviet tanks from the 5th Guards Tank Army smash head-on into around 300 German tanks from the II SS-Panzer Corps.
The fighting was some of the most intense in the history of armored warfare. The Soviets lost around 400 tanks, more than half of their force. German tank losses were smaller by comparison, up to 80 tanks and assault guns destroyed.
The Germans were unable to take Prokhorovka, and although it was not destroyed (the original goal of the Soviets), the II SS-Panzer Corps was exhausted, and prevented from continuing their offensive.
Thus, the momentum swung to the side of the Soviets, who eventually won the Battle of Kursk
Operation Goodwood: July 18 – 20, 1944
Operation Goodwood was a British offensive that was part of the Battle for Caen, one of the main inland targets that was part of Operation Overlord, the Allied invasion of Normandy. The goal was to break through to Caen so that it could be liberated.
The British had mustered as many as 1,100 tanks for the battle. The Wehrmacht had only around 370 tanks at their disposal, but they included the fearsome Tiger and Tiger II tanks.
The battle did not go the way the British intended. Their casualties were 5,000 men and 250 to 300 tanks destroyed. German losses were 75 tanks destroyed, mostly by airstrikes.
Operation Goodwood did cause some controversy. Montgomery claimed that all the objectives were achieved and that the mission was a success. But the British had only managed to penetrate roughly seven miles or so East of Caen.
But Goodwood did draw valuable German tanks away from the Western part of Caen, where the Americans were making their push to the city.
Battle of Chawinda: September 17 – 22, 1965
The Battle of Chawinda was one of the largest tank battles fought since World War II. It was part of the Indo-Pakistani War of 1965, fought over control of Jammu and Kashmir.
After the Pakistani Army’s attempt to foment an insurgency (Operation Gibraltar) was discovered and subsequently foiled, India retaliated with an outright attack along the Pakistani border.
The Indian military had planned to take the city of Sialkot, an important railway hub and central part of the Grand Trunk Road, so that they could use it as a beachhead for further operations into Pakistan.
But the Indian force of 80,000 to 150,000 soldiers and 230 tanks was met outside of their objective at Chawinda by a Pakistani force of 30,000 to 50,000 men and 132 tanks.
After more than a day of intense fighting, a UNSC resolution was signed and an unconditional ceasefire was implemented. India lost anywhere between 29 to 129 tanks, whereas Pakistan lost up to 44 tanks.
Battle of the Valley of Tears: October 6 – 9, 1973
The Battle of the Valley of Tears was fought between Israel and Syria during the Yom Kippur War of 1973. The war had started on the holiest day in Judaism, when Syrian soldiers supported by 1,400 tanks crossed the border and invaded the Jewish state.
Just one Israeli armored brigade, roughly 100 or so tanks and armored vehicles stood in the way of the Syrian 7th Division, a force of 1,400 tanks, including 400 T-62s, at the time the most modern Soviet tank in the field.
The Israelis were manning British and American-made Centurion tanks, known for their good gunner sights. Unable to call in effective air support, the Israeli defenders dug in and fought off wave after wave of Syrian tank attacks.
Some Syrian tanks broke through, causing the Israeli tanks to turn their turrets backwards to destroy them. But one by one, the Israeli Centurions were knocked out.
But on the fourth day of the fighting, Israeli reinforcements arrived, and the Syrians were forced to withdraw. Almost all of Israel’s tanks were destroyed, but they gave far more than they got — Syrian armored vehicle losses were around 500, around 250 of which were tanks.
Battle of 73 Easting: February 26 – 27, 1991
The Battle of 73 Easting saw American and British tanks go up against Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi Republican Guard Tawakalna Division. Saddam had been warning his people that the “mother of all battles” was on the horizon, and the battle of 73 Easting was certainly part of it.
The main part of the battle was fought between the U.S. 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment and Iraq’s 18th Mechanized Brigade and 37th Armored Brigade.
The ensuing battle saw the Iraqi forces be completely decimated. Over 160 tanks and armored personnel carriers were destroyed, damaged, or captured by U.S. forces. Up to 1,000 Iraqi soldiers were killed or wounded, and over 1,000 more were taken prisoner.
U.S. losses were just six killed, 19 wounded, and one Bradley infantry fighting vehicle destroyed. Historian and author Rick Atkinson described the battle:
“Here could be seen, with almost flawless precision, the lethality of modern American weapons; the hegemony offered by AirLand Battle doctrine, with its brutal ballet of armor, artillery, and air power; and, not least, the élan of the American soldier, who fought with a competence worthy of his forefathers on more celebrated battlefields in more celebrated wars.”
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