Humbling of a colossus: From the moment they first rumbled through the fog of WWI, the tank has changed history. Now, as British top brass consider scrapping them, historian NIGEL JONES recounts their terrifying toll on their prey… and their own crew
November 1917, and the day dawned dank and foggy over the water-logged trenches near Cambrai in eastern France.
Not surprisingly, Gefreiter (Lance-Corporal) Wilhelm Bar of Germany’s 27th Reserve Infantry Regiment was feeling more demoralised than usual.
Then suddenly, out of the mist, burst a hurricane of shellfire, swiftly followed by the grinding sound of hundreds of engines and then the looming shapes of huge metal monsters, as the first large-scale tank assault in the history of warfare got underway.
‘Masses of English infantry and numerous tanks bore down on our company from all sides,’ Bar wrote later. ‘We defended ourselves like demons. ‘Fire at the infantry!’ I screamed in the terrible uproar of battle … but without artillery we were powerless against the tanks. They literally showered us with bullets and our losses were heavy…’
Firepower: A Russian T90 tank
This was the weapon that transformed warfare. An all powerful vehicle never seen before by soldiers that could cross virtually any terrain, that would develop massive firepower and become decisive in battle after battle, leaving untold carnage in its path.
No longer would an army’s rate of advance be based on the pace of a foot soldier, or slowed by cavalry regiments’ mounts that had to be regularly fed and watered. The tank, deployed in huge numbers, would make fast-moving armies invincible.
Yet now, some 100 years after it was first deployed by the Army, the Ministry of Defence is reportedly considering scrapping tanks altogether under radical proposals to modernise our forces and focus on cyberwarfare.
The cost of upgrading Britain’s ageing fleet of 227 Challenger 2 tanks and the 338 armoured Warrior fighting vehicles that support them on the battlefield is apparently prohibitive. If these vast machines are mothballed, it would not only bring to an end the glorious history of the British tank but even presage the end for its supremacy in other countries.
But it was Winston Churchill, then the dynamic young First Lord of the Admiralty, who first championed the tank in London in 1914, after hearing that the War Office had abandoned tests involving a tractor-like vehicle called a ‘trench crosser’ as the heavy vehicles were considered too cumbersome.
Churchill’s ever-fertile imagination was fired up by the idea of a vehicle with caterpillar tracks rather than wheels that enabled it to crawl over any terrain, however hostile.
Searching for ways to break the deadlock that had bogged down movement in the trenches of France and Flanders, Churchill took over the mothballed project.
He immediately ordered production of 18 experimental vehicles he called ‘landships’ but which soon acquired the nickname of ‘tanks’, as the people who made them reckoned they looked like water tanks.
In those early days, tanks were put into action in groups of two or three at a time, but a far-sighted British commander in the newly-formed Tank Corps, J F C ‘Boney’ Fuller, suggested switching strategy and using hundreds of tanks in a co-ordinated mass attack.
The plan was to put them into action at Cambrai — with huge initial success. For the first time on the Western Front, a major breakthrough was achieved, and although the Germans soon regained most of the ground they had lost, they adopted the tank themselves and began to copy the British and make their own.
The French, too, started producing tanks, and together the two Allied powers co-ordinated a mass tank attack at Amiens in August 1918 which rolled up the German army and led to the Armistice that ended the war just three months later.
Conditions for those early tank crews were hell. Temperatures inside reached a scorching 100f (38c), and thick smoke from the engines choked the crew.
The deafening noise meant orders could only be transmitted by hand signals, and bullets hitting the tank’s outer shell detached red-hot splinters inside which flew about lethally, forcing the men to protect themselves with chainmail visors like medieval knights.
But the tank really came into its own in World War II, reaching its apogee with the German Army’s panzer divisions.
Adolf Hitler, who had served as a lance-corporal on the Somme and may have encountered them on the battlefield, clearly understood their power.Commanders such as Heinz Guderian and Erwin Rommel pioneered ‘Blitzkrieg’: a style of assault that combined tanks and war planes to punch through enemy defences and spearhead a full blown and swift-moving invasion.
In the words of the historian Robert Citino: ‘There were no horses this time, just cruel grey machines, engines roaring, treads clattering, machine guns barking away. They were on you almost before you knew it, and you were lucky if you lived to fight a second day.’
German tank columns had swept through Poland in 1939, and — a year later — Rommel’s tanks crossed the Meuse and reached the Channel in a matter of days.
But the Germans were not alone in building up their tank forces. More than 84,000 Soviet T-34s were built between 1940 and 1946 — but it soon became apparent that crews were terrifyingly vulnerable to enemy tanks and shellfire.
A British Mark IV at the battle of Cambrai in 1917
If a shell penetrated a tank’s armour, it would ‘brew up’, exploding in a fireball and incinerating the crew.
The Red Army nicknamed the T-34 the ‘grave for seven brothers’, a reference to its seven-man crew.
The lightly armoured American-made Sherman tanks were derided by the Germans as ‘Tommy cookers’ for their propensity to catch fire after being hit by an enemy shell.
After the fall of France, British tanks were deployed against the Italians in North Africa, but their finest hour came in 1942 when, copying the use of Blitzkrieg, General Bernard Montgomery built up a decisive advantage in tank numbers in Egypt to crush the German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps at the second Battle of El Alamein.
Tank driver Edwin ‘Ben’ Instone of the 9th Queen’s Royal Lancers, was one of those decorated for his valour at El Alamein. His citation reads: ‘His tank was hit ten times, the last shot killing the operator and seriously wounding the commander and the gunner. He was trapped in his seat, but pushed the spare driver out and sent him for help.
‘He then got out from the same door and re-entered the tank by the turret. He gave morphia to the two wounded men, and then, single-handed and under heavy fire, got his commander (who had lost both legs) out of the tank. He broke the fall for his commander by letting himself fall under him from the top of the turret.
‘He then got his gunner out, who was almost fainting. Having given his commander more attention, he led back his gunner, who was very weak, to the first aid post, where he got help for the commander. All this was done under heavy machine-gun and shell fire.’
The war was really won, not on sands of North Africa but on the Russian steppes. In July 1943, Hitler approved Operation Citadel, a German offensive around the Ukrainian city of Kursk. It proved to be a fatal error. What followed was the largest set-piece battle in history, where 1.3 million Russians and 3,444 tanks faced 900,000 Germans with 2,700 tanks in an area the size of Wales.
Vast swathes of Hitler’s panzer force were destroyed at Kursk, in the greatest tank battle the world has yet seen, and it opened up the road to Berlin and Germany’s eventual defeat.
A year later, Britain and the U.S. too tasted victory in the west when, in Normandy, after the D-Day landings, by sheer weight of numbers, their Shermans defeated the pride of Nazi Germany’s tanks — the Tiger — a massively heavy tank equipped with a lethal 88mm cannon, which was produced in too few numbers to avert Allied victory.
In the decades since, the tank has remained the flagship of every major army in the world. They have been used to pull off military coups, lead patriotic parades and overthrow Middle Eastern dictators. They have also crushed popular protests as far afield as Beijing, Budapest and Berlin.
And they couldn’t be more different from the original Mark IV with its top speed of 4mph and peashooter gun barrel. Germany’s monstrous Leopard 2A7, the tank widely considered to be the most advanced model in the world, weighs 60 tons, has grenade launchers, machine guns and a 120mm cannon delivering pinpoint accuracy at 2.5 miles — and can travel at more than 40mph.
If the Ministry of Defence ever relents and decides the tank has a place in its future plans, experts say the only option would be to buy a squadron of Leopards. How ironic, given the impact of that first Mark IV on terrified German troops more than a century ago.
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