The tank is one of the most devastating and adaptable weapons available to an army’s command. Since their initial conception in the early 1900s and first use by the French and British during World War One, the tank has been a constant and powerful symbol of modern warfare. Throughout the 20th century, it has been one of the most potent tools available for an army to call upon and it has seen intense and devastating action. From the late World War Two mayhem of the Battle of the Bulge — which saw over 3,000 tanks take part in fighting — to the 1981 Battle of Dezful between Iran and Iraq, the tank has played a major part in offensives around the world. Join us as we take a look at the 10 most epic tank battles in military history.
10. Battle of Cambrai, 20 November – 8 December 1917
World War One’s Battle of Cambrai, fought between the British and the Germans, took place towards the end of 1917 and is often mistakenly called the first tank battle in history. In fact, the distinction of having taken part in the first ever tank battle goes to the French army, who deployed tanks earlier in 1917, as did the British at the Third Battle of Ypres. Cambrai did, however, see a larger number of tanks deployed than ever before. The British plan of attack was to use their tanks to strike at the heart of the German Hindenburg Line. This formidable defense was previously viewed as impenetrable, until a commander named Henry Hugh Tudor suggested using tanks to support the troops attempting to break through the line. Around 476 tanks were used and both sides lost around 45,000 men. The final result of the battle was an operational stalemate.
9. Second Battle of El Alamein, 23 October – 11 November 1942
With over 1,000 Allied tanks lining up against their 547 Axis counterparts, World War Two’s Second Battle of El Alamein saw the Germans effectively lose their battle for possession of Egypt and the much-prized Suez Canal. After the First Battle of El Alamein had halted the Axis advance into Egypt, the second battle effectively turned the course of the North African Campaign in the Allied forces’ favor. Tanks played a huge part in the battle, with the Allied forces receiving Sherman Tanks courtesy of the Americans. This bolstered their forces and made it possible for them to continue with the conflict longer than the Germans, whose own forces were more concentrated on the Eastern Front.
8. Battle of Raseiniai, 23 – 27 June 1941
The major tank battle of Raseiniai, in World War Two, saw virtually a complete destruction of the Soviet Union’s deployed mechanized units on the Northwestern Front. Consisting of 749 tanks, versus the Germans’ 245, the Soviet tanks — which were technically superior to their German counterparts — were systematically outmanoeuvred and overpowered. The Germans were helped in no small part by their air force, the Luftwaffe, which made life particularly difficult for the Soviet command. A major battle of Operation Barbarossa (a.k.a. the German invasion of the USSR), the Battle of Raseiniai left the German army in a state of supreme confidence and with no doubt of the tank’s importance in the war.
7. Battle of the Valley of Tears, 6 – 9 October 1973
The Yom Kippur War — fought between Israel and an Arab coalition led by Egypt and Syria — saw the Arabs break a ceasefire that had lasted since the Six-Day War of 1967 and march into Israeli territory. Tanks were central to the surprise attack, known as the Valley of Tears, which occurred on Yom Kippur, the holiest day in Judaism. The number of Syrian tanks has been estimated at around 1,260, with the Israelis having command of around 100. Various reasons have been given for the Israelis overturning such a massive disadvantage in tank numbers — from the superiority of their air force to the threat of their using nuclear weaponry.
6. Battle of Brody, 23 – 30 June 1941
The Battle of Brody, which has been called “the largest tank battle of World War II until the Battle of Kursk two years later,” saw 800 Axis tanks line up against 2,500 of their Russian opposite numbers. The German victory was partly due to their air force, the Luftwaffe, flying over the Polish war fields, destroying up to 201 Soviet tanks. However, the tank battle was incredibly fierce, with the German forces finding that the new Soviet T-34 tanks were virtually impervious to their firepower. It was mainly due to the Red Army’s supply chain drying up that the Germans were allowed to continue their offensive and press home their advantage.
5. Battle of Hannut, 12 – 14 May 1940
The Battle of Hannut took place in Belgium, fought between the French army and Nazi German invaders. At the time, it was the largest tank conflict of the Second World War. Involving up to 674 German tanks (although some sources put the figure at 618) and 600 French and Dutch armored fighting vehicles, the battle was part of the German thrust through the Ardennes region. While it could be said that the Germans successfully tied down the Allied forces at Hannut, there was no conclusive outcome. The French army, although severely weakened, were able to fight on for some time longer.
4. Operation Goodwood, 18 – 20 July 1944
Operation Goodwood, a British attack on German forces near the northern French city of Caen, has been called, by at least one historian, “the largest tank battle the British Army has ever fought.” Over 1,100 British tanks took part, with some authorities giving a figure as high as 1,300. Battling against 377 German tanks, the British had as their objective gaining control of Caen, from which they could then liberate the rest of the occupied country. Not all went as planned for the British, however, with the Germans preventing a complete breakthrough. The British advanced a further seven miles to the east of the city. The force of the attack, although by no means conclusive, confirmed the Germans’ fears that the British and Canadian forces on the eastern side of the Allied battle zone were their most dangerous enemies.
3. Battle of 73 Easting, 26 – 27 February 1991
A decisive victory for the American and British forces in their Desert Storm operation in Iraq, the Battle of 73 Easting refers to the conflict that took place on the north-south line of coordinates on the military map. In a truly devastating show of strength from the Coalition, the Iraqi forces were overwhelmed and overcome. The main part of the battle involved the US 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment, which attacked and completely destroyed the Iraqi 18th Mechanized Brigade and 37th Armored Brigade. During the battle — one of the most studied in modern history — the Iraqis lost over 160 tanks to the American and British forces.
2. Battle of Chawinda, 17 – 22 September 1965
The battle of Chawinda, which was part of the Indo-Pakistani war of 1965, has been called one of the largest tank battles since World War Two’s Battle of Kursk. The forces were fairly evenly matched, with the Indian Army commanding 225 tanks and the Pakistani Army controlling 282 tanks (including reinforcements). The Indian aim of the attack was to seize control of the Sialkot-Pasrur railway, thereby cutting off Pakistan’s route to important supplies. Things did not, however, go the Indians’ way, with the Pakistanis receiving reinforcements from Kashmir that vastly improved their situation. At the UN-enforced end of hostilities, India held around 200 square miles of Pakistani territory.
1. Battle of Prokhorovka (part of Battle of Kursk) 12 July 1943
Known as the largest tank battle in military history, the Battle of Prokhorovka saw 800-850 tanks of the Soviet army line up against the significantly smaller force of the Germans. Russian sources put the German number of tanks between 500 and 700. Although figures from German sources are not available, the real number is likely to have been far less, with 294 German tanks having been listed as available the day before the battle. After fierce and intense fighting, resulting in many dead and wounded, the outcome of the battle was not immediately clear. The Russians claimed a propaganda victory, particularly due to the fact that Hitler had been forced to call off the attack on the Kursk salient. Clearly, the Soviets were far from finished as a force in the war and the tide was beginning to turn away from the Germans.