What was the outcome of the first tank battle?

What was the outcome of the first tank battle?

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Today, April 24th, is the anniversary of the first tank battle. As noted on this Wikipedia page, it was three British tanks against three German tanks, but there is no mention of the outcome in specific regards to the tanks themselves.

Are there any accounts of the battle specifically focusing on the armored elements?

How the events unfolded

  1. Three German A7Vs and same number of British Mark IV units(Two females and one male) were supporting their respective infantry units in operations. Females had only machine guns while male was armed with 6 pounder gun.
  2. By happenstance, the two detachments came face to face.
  3. Female Mk. IV's were forced to retreat after taking damage as their armaments were useless against German armor.
  4. Male MK. IV took the initiative and knocked out the leading German A7V, scoring multiple hits on the enemy even after the tank was disabled and was being evacuated, resulting in death of 5 German soldiers.
  5. Remaining A7Vs retreat.
  6. Male Mk IV turns to German infantry, reinforced by 7 Whippet tanks.
  7. Four of the 7 Whippets get destroyed by German infantry.
  8. A German mortar team scored a hit on the sole Male Mk IV., causing it to lose a track, thereby forcing it to be abandoned.
  9. Germans successfully recover the abandoned AV7 of Wilhelm Blitz.

Documented Facts

This page mentions and I quote:

The A7V would be involved in the first tank vs. tank battle of the war on April 24, 1918 at the Second Battle of Villers-Bretonneux - a battle in which there was no clear winner.

Then if we look at operational History of the A7V tank, we get a brief overview of the Battle:

The first tank against tank combat in history took place on 24 April 1918 when three A7Vs (including chassis number 561, known as "Nixe") taking part in an attack with infantry incidentally met three Mark IVs (two female machine gun-armed tanks and one male with two 6-pounder guns) near Villers-Bretonneux.

During the battle, tanks on both sides were damaged.

According to the lead tank commander, Second Lieutenant Frank Mitchell, the female Mk IVs fell back after being damaged by armour-piercing bullets. They were unable to damage the A7Vs with their own machine guns.

Mitchell then attacked the lead German tank, commanded by Second Lieutenant Wilhelm Biltz, with the 6-pounders of his own tank and knocked it out.

He hit it three times, and killed five of the crew when they bailed out. He then went on to rout some infantry with case shot. The two remaining A7Vs in turn withdrew.

The page for German commander in the Battle gives a little more information:

During the battle his tank encountered a group of three British Mark IV tanks - two "female tanks", armed only with machine guns and a single "male tank", armed with 6-pound guns.

Both the British female tanks were damaged and retreated, as their machine guns had no effect on Blitz's A7V. In a running battle that followed, both tanks manoeuvred to avoid the other's fire while lining up on their opponent. Biltz's tank lost the duel - it was hit three times by the British tank and heeled over on its side. The crew abandoned their A7V but five were killed by continued fire from the Mark IV, which went on to engage two more A7V tanks that had appeared on the scene.

Biltz's men were able to recover their damaged tank later.

The battle itself didn't end after this duel.

As Mitchell's tank withdrew from action (To engage German infantry), seven Whippet tanks also engaged the infantry. Four of these were knocked out in the battle, and it is unclear if any of them engaged the retreating German tanks. Mitchell's tank lost a track towards the end of the battle from a mortar shell and was abandoned.


The engagement would be called indecisive because:

  1. Two of the British tanks had to retreat due to their inability to pierce armor of German A7Vs.
  2. One of the German tanks was knocked out but was successfully retrieved back by the Germans. British however failed to recover their abandoned tank.
  3. Both sides suffered damages
  4. Two of the surviving A7Vs also had to retreat.
  5. British tanks were also forced to retreat by the German infantry and mortar units.

Neither side decisively defeated the other side. However one could give slight advantage to the British purely on the ground that theirs was the last Tank standing on the field, when one of the A7Vs was knocked out and two were forced to retreat.

First Battle of the Somme

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First Battle of the Somme, (July 1–November 13, 1916), costly and largely unsuccessful Allied offensive on the Western Front during World War I. The horrific bloodshed on the first day of the battle became a metaphor for futile and indiscriminate slaughter.

On July 1, 1916, after a week of prolonged artillery bombardment, 11 divisions of the British Fourth Army (recently created and placed under Sir Henry Rawlinson) began the attack north of the Somme on a front extending for 15 miles (24 km) from Serre and Beaumont-Hamel southward past Thiepval, Ovillers, and Fricourt (east of Albert) and then eastward and southward to Maricourt, north of Curlu. At the same time, the French attacked with five divisions on a front of 8 miles (13 km) mainly south of the river (from Curlu toward Péronne), where the German defense system was less highly developed.

Whereas the French had more than 900 heavy guns, the British had barely half this number for a wider front. Additional handicaps were recounted in the History of the Great War Based on Official Documents (British Official History), which states that the problem that confronted British Commander in Chief Douglas Haig was, fundamentally, that of “storming a fortress…It must be confessed that the problem was not appreciated at G.H.Q. (general headquarters).” Instead, “the failures of the past were put down to reasons other than the stout use of the machine-gun by the enemy and his scientifically-planned defences.” Thus was produced an atmosphere of false confidence. It encouraged Haig to gamble on a breakthrough, while Rawlinson’s more reasonable doubts led to the plan’s becoming a compromise, suited neither to a swift penetration nor to a siege attack. Rawlinson desired a long bombardment and a short advance. He was eventually allowed the first but was overborne by Haig on the second, being instructed that on his left he should take both the German first and second positions in a single stroke. Haig was warned even by his own artillery adviser that he was “stretching” his available gun power too far. “Rawlinson assured the Commander-in-Chief that he would loyally carry out ‘these instructions’ but privately he was convinced that they were based on false premises, and on too great optimism.” The battle’s outcome was to show the danger of this kind of loyalty.

“Increasing optimism” was shown by Haig as the day of battle drew nearer, though the resources of the French and, consequently, their prospective contribution were steadily shrinking because of the drain of the Battle of Verdun. Haig’s optimism appeared even in the additional instructions that he issued: British cavalry was to ride through to Bapaume on the first morning, into open country. More curious than Haig’s opinion was the way in which Rawlinson joined him in assuring their subordinates repeatedly that the bombardment would swamp all resistance and that “the infantry would only have to walk over and take possession.” In the early discussions Haig had also said that the “corps were not to attack until their commanders were satisfied that the enemy’s defences had been sufficiently destroyed but this condition seems to have been dropped as time passed.”

The question that remained was whether the British infantry could cross no-man’s-land before the barrage lifted. It was a race with death run by nearly 60,000 troops. The whole mass, made up of closely packed waves of men, was to be launched together, without determining whether the bombardment had really paralyzed the resistance. Under the Fourth Army’s instructions, those waves were to advance at “a steady pace” symmetrically aligned, like rows of ninepins ready to be knocked over. “The necessity of crossing no-man’s-land at a good pace, so as to reach the parapet before the enemy could reach it, was not mentioned.” Yet to do so would have been physically impossible, for “the infantryman was so heavily laden that he could not move faster than a walk.” Each man carried about 66 pounds (30 kg) of equipment, a load that often amounted to more than half the soldier’s own body weight, “which made it difficult to get out of a trench, impossible to move much quicker than a slow walk, or to rise and lie down quickly.”

The race was lost before it started and the battle soon after. More than 60,000 men were casualties of the plan that failed. The 20,000 killed in action marked the heaviest day’s loss that a British army had ever suffered. That result and its causes cast a strange reflection on the words which Haig had written on the eve of the attack: “I feel that every step in my plan has been taken with the Divine help.” Behind the front, commanders had been rendering reports rosier than the facts warranted and also, apparently, than the commanders themselves believed. “Captures of prisoners, but not the heavy casualties, were regularly reported.” Ignorance in such conditions was natural but deception less excusable.

The Allies failed to capitalize on the success that had been obtained in the south by the British right wing and more conspicuously by the French. “No orders or instructions were issued during the day by Fourth Army Headquarters” save on a few minor details, reported British Official History. At 10:00 pm on July 1, Rawlinson merely ordered his corps to “continue the attack” uniformly. “No suggestion was made to utilize the successes gained by some to assist in improving the situation of those who had failed.” The unconcealed preparations and the long bombardment had given away any chance of surprise, and, in the face of the German resistance, weak in numbers but strong in organization, the attack failed along most of the British front. Because of the dense and rigid wave formations that were adopted, the losses were appallingly heavy. Only on the south of the British front, near Fricourt and Montauban, did the attack gain a real footing in the German defenses. The French, with slighter opposition and with far more heavy artillery—as well as aided by the fact that they were less expected—made a deeper advance.

This setback removed the possibility of a fairly rapid penetration to Bapaume and Cambrai, and Haig adopted the attrition method of limited advances aimed to wear down the German strength. Haig rejected the plan of the French commander, Joseph-Jacques-Césaire Joffre, that he should again throw his troops frontally on the Thiepval defenses. The attack was resumed on the southern British flank alone, and on July 14 the capture of the Germans’ second line (Longueval, Bazentin-le-Petit, and Ovillers) offered a chance for exploitation, which was not taken. From that point a methodical but costly advance continued, although little ground was gained.

In one respect, the Somme shed a significant light on the future, for on September 15, 1916, the first tanks appeared. Their early employment before large numbers were ready was a mistake: it forfeited the chance of a great strategic surprise, and, because of tactical mishandling and minor technical defects, they had only a limited success. Though the higher military authorities lost faith in them (with some going so far as to urge their abandonment), more-discerning eyes realized that here was a key which, when properly used, would unlock the trench barrier.

The Somme offensive foundered in the mud when November came, though its dismal finale was partially redeemed by a stroke delivered on November 13 by Gen. Hubert Gough on the still untouched flank of the main 1916 offensive. The four months’ struggle had certainly imposed a severe strain on the German resistance as well as on the attackers. Both sides had lost vast numbers of men who would never be replaced. The British losses amounted to some 420,000. The French, who had played an increasing part in the later stages, had raised their own war casualty bill by 194,000. Against this Allied total of more than 600,000, the Germans had suffered rather more than 440,000 casualties. This number had been much increased by Prussian Gen. Fritz von Below’s order that every yard of lost trench must be retaken by counterattack.

‘Once a tanker, always a tanker’

Paul Sousa is gazing at a hulking M1A1 Abrams tank with the affection of a middle-age man reunited with his first car. The thing is 32 feet long and weighs nearly 68 tons, but to him it’s one sweet set of wheels.

“This is my beast,” he smiles. “I was on these things for 18 years. For Desert Storm, I was in one for 100 hours straight—only came out to go to the bathroom, or help fuel, or hold a machine gun while the other guys fueled.”

Some 1,900 of these monsters were dispatched against the Iraqis in Desert Storm. The enemy had thousands of serviceable Soviet-era tanks, but nothing to match the firepower at the fingertips of Sousa, a gunner with the 1st Cavalry Division.

Modernized versions of the M1A1 are still stationed around the globe, but this particular one, sitting in a corner of the 67,000-square-foot American Heritage Museum in Stow, Massachusetts, is the only such tank on public display in the world.

Retreating Iraqis set the Burgan oil fields ablaze. Soon an oily, toxic cloud more than 30 miles wide spread across the Persian Gulf. “We could just see a sliver of light along the horizon,” says gunner Paul Beaulieu. “Above us was this cloud of smoke from the oil fields, and below us the ground was soaked with oil.”

Four soldiers manned the M1A1: a commander, a driver, a gunner, and a loader. These guys call themselves tankers. “Once a tanker, always a tanker,” they’re fond of saying. The commander sits up top, watching the surrounding terrain. The driver is out front, his head jutting from a hole just under the gun. To sit in the gunner’s seat, however, is to get a sense of having had a machine built around you. There’s not an inch of spare room just an in-your-face array of equipment and ammunition.

“For me, the whole war was spent down there in the dark, looking through a periscope,” Sousa adds. “Kind of cooped up.”

Early on the morning of February 24, coalition forces secretly stretched some 300 miles along the Saudi-Iraqi border. Iraqi military officials had some suspicions, but did not act on them.

“I’ll tell you one thing—my mother had figured it out,” says Randy Richert, who served with the 1st Infantry Division. He’d trained as a tanker but found himself driving a colonel in and around moving tank formations in an unarmed Humvee, like a dolphin skipping around a pod of whales.

“My mom kept hearing on the news about all the other divisions that were amassing near Kuwait, to the east, but nothing about us. So she told her friends, ‘I think Randy’s out there in the desert somewhere.’”

Prior to Desert Storm, many of the Army’s tankers had spent the better part of a decade on M1A1s in Europe—training for the possibility of a Soviet invasion across the Iron Curtain.

“It was Cold War time,” recalls Paul Beaulieu, a gunner. “We were always on alert always waiting for that Soviet invasion. I never dreamed I’d end up using that training somewhere in the desert, but I was ready.”

Walking around the American Heritage Museum’s M1A1, Beaulieu notes that the tank’s advanced suspension system gave it a surprisingly smooth ride, even on the roughest desert terrain. Pointing to a nearby 1960s vintage Sheridan M551 tank, which also saw service in Desert Storm, he adds, “Compared to riding in that tank over there, this is like a Cadillac.” Ironically, the Sheridan was actually built by Cadillac.

The 10 Greatest Tank Battles In Military History

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.

11 Secret Weapons Developed By Japan During World War 2

Normally, it's the Western Powers who are remembered for developing some of the most innovative and

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.

10 Shocking Ways the Second World War Could Have Ended Differently

Decisions during wartime are monumental things. Each move and countermove has the potential to…

By 1915, trench fighting was well established and the Great War had become a stalemate. If either side tried to cross No-Man&rsquos Land the barbed wire would stop the soldiers in their tracks and the machine guns would have the final say. A way of crossing broken ground, crushing the wire and silencing the guns was in desperate need.

Prime Minister of Gretat Britain at the time, David Lloyd George, could already see how the outcome of this war would be decided when he said &ldquothis is an engineers war&rdquo.

On the 29th September 1915, military dignitaries were invited to come and see something interesting at the William Foster and Co Ltd factory on Firth Road in Lincoln. When the War Office dignitaries arrived inside a large marquee, they saw a wooden mock up of a new weapon: the tank. To say that the military were impressed would be a huge understatement and Fosters design team were told to have to complete machine ready for testing as soon as possible.

The workers at Fosters astounded everyone when in early January 1916, around three months later, they announced that the prototype machine was now ready for whatever the military could throw at it - named Little Willie. Testing was undertaken in the peaceful surroundings of Burton Park near Lincoln and then the machine was sent for official tests in Hatfield Park in Hertfordshire.

The tank sailed through it all, taking trenches and boggy ground in her stride. The next stage of production aimed to create a tank that could traverse wider trenches and so the world's first fighting tank - named Mother - was born.

After Mother had proved her worth, the orders started to come in and Lincoln became known as &lsquoTank Town&rsquo (see above left). Machines made in Mothers image were soon leaving Lincoln for use in the world&rsquos first tank battle on the 15th September 1916.

The Lincoln designed tanks were so successful that they began to be produced by factories across Great Britain in order to keep up with demand. The answer to the barbed wire had been found at a small, agricultural manufacturers in Lincoln and it was called the tank.

The people of Lincoln were proud of Tritton's invention, and indeed tanks were paraded through the streets of the city before they went out to war (see above right).

Without the tank, the stalemate of the Great War would have carried on, perhaps well into the 1920s, and thousands more lives would have been lost then and into the future.

More than 100 years later, only a handful of Great War tanks survive today - one of which is a Mk IV female tank on show at the Museum of Lincolnshire Life.

The invention of the tank has been commemorated in Lincoln with the Lincoln Tank Memorial on the Tritton Road roundabout near the University of Lincoln (see right).

Words and images thanks to Richard Pullen of the Friends of the Lincoln Tank. Buy the 'Birth of the Tanks' DVD online.

Battle of Cambrai, 20 November- 7 December 1917

The Battle of Cambrai, 20 November-7 December 1917, was the first large scale tank battle in history. It was launched after the general failure of the main British autumn offensive of 1917, the Third Battle of Ypres, famous for the Passchendaele mud. Ironically the poor weather at Ypres had preserved the Tank Corps, which by November could field over 300 tanks.

The idea for an attack at Cambrai had been developed by Brigadier General H. Elles, the commander of the Tank Corps. He wanted to launch a mass attack with his tanks across the dry chalky ground at Cambrai, where his tanks wouldn&rsquot run the risk of bogging down in the mud. His plans were received with some enthusiasm by General Sir Julian Byng, commander of the Third Army.

His own artillerymen had also come up with a plan that combined a tank attack with a new type of artillery bombardment that did not require lengthy preparation. Earlier bombardments had required a preliminary period of &ldquoregistration&rdquo in which each gun battery had fired practise rounds to determine where their shots were landing. This alerted the defenders to the possibility of an assault and allowed them to gather reserves. Brigadier General H.H. Tudor had devised a system to register guns electronically, thus avoiding the need for a long period of preparation.

The attack at Cambrai was to be launched by just over 300 tanks spread out along a 10,000 yard front and supported by eight infantry divisions. The infantry were to advance close behind the tanks to provide close support. The artillery bombardment would start on the day of the attack, giving no warning of the upcoming assault.

The artillery bombardment began at 6.20 am on 20 November 1917. The two German divisions at Cambrai, the 20th Landwehr and 54th Reserve divisions, were caught entirely by surprise. Along most of the line the British tanks crawled their way through the German wire, across the trenches, and with close infantry support reached as far as four miles into the German lines.

The position was not so promising in the centre of the British line. The commander of the German 54th Reserve division had prepared anti-tank tactics, based around the use of artillery against slowly moving targets. The infantry of the 51st Highland Division was too far behind the tanks, leaving them vulnerable. Eleven were destroyed in front of the advancing Highlanders. At the end of the first day the British had created a six mile wide gap in the German lines, but with a salient at its centre.

The success at Cambrai on 20 November was treated as a great victory in Britain, where the church bells rang out for the first time since 1914. However, after the great successes of 20 November the advance slowed down. The tanks of 1917 were still not mechanically reliable and many had broken down under the stresses of the advance. Some limited progress was made over the next week, but the defences of the Siegfried line held.

While the British were inching their way forward, the Germans were preparing for a counterattack. On 30 November 20 German divisions under the command of Crown Prince Rupprecht and General von Marwitz launched a massive counterattack that forced the British out of many of the areas they had captured on 20 November and even captured some areas held by the British before the start of the battle. On 4 December Haig ordered a withdrawal from much of the remaining salient to shorten the lines. The battle which had started with such a dramatic breakthrough ended with the restoration of the status quo.

Loses were roughly equivalent on both sides. The British lost 43,000 men, many during the German counterattack. Germans losses were similar, between 40,000 and 50,000 men. The main achievement of the British Tank Corps at Cambrai was to demonstrate all too clearly the potential of the tank. The German tank programme was perhaps their biggest failure of the war. In the crucial battles of 1918 the Germans would have to rely on captured British and French tanks and a very small number of their own dreadful A7V tank.

The Ironclads of Cambrai, Bryan Cooper. A classic account of the first large scale tank battle, a brief triumph that despite ending as a draw helped pave the way for the eventual Allied victories of 1918, and that saw the tank emerge as an important weapon of war after a rather low-key introduction into service [read full review]

Cambrai 1917: The Birth of Armoured Warfare, Alexander Turner. A well organised and illustrated account of the first battle to see the tank used in large numbers as a shock weapon.

The Battle of Cambrai (20 November to 4 December 1917)

The Battle of Cambrai, an attack launched against the Hindenburg Line in November 1917, was yet another bloody and pointless offensive on the Western Front. Nevertheless it revealed tactical innovations on both sides that would be used to great effect in the fighting of 1918 to end the deadlock which had paralysed the belligerents on the Western Front since 1914.

The most spectacular of these was the British Army's use of tanks which were, for the first time, to be a decisive element in a battle however the new counter-attack methods employed by the Germans were probably the most important leap forward in the short and medium term.

Tanks were first used by the British in September 1916 during the Battle of the Somme and were revealed to be of little use once the enemy got past the initial element of surprise. Fighting in 1917 seemed to confirm the growing doubts about these unreliable machines which were both slow and vulnerable to heavy artillery. Attempts by the British to field them at Arras and Passchendaele and the French at Chemin des Dames Ridge ended in disaster.

German High Command was not slow to express its contempt for the new weapon either, judging it to be of little use and having no future. However, on the British side, the officers of the Tank Corps made a determined effort to promote the use of their cumbersome machines, insisting that they could bring about the much hoped for breakthrough. One of these officers was Lieutenant-Colonel John Fuller and he advocated using tanks en masse on dry terrain as opposed to the muddy fields of Flanders. Repeatedly rejected by General Douglas Haig prior to Cambrai, a large tank operation became inevitable when the British realized that the Third Battle of Ypres was turning into a tragic failure. From that moment on Haig counted on tanks to provide him with the decisive breakthrough expected by an Allied public opinion worried by the weakening Russian resistance.

Cambrai was chosen by British command as the scene for the offensive. The town, one of the principal railway intersections and German garrisons of the Western Front, lay on a vast chalky plain which was ideal terrain for the tanks. The town was indeed protected on its western side by the powerful defences of the Hindenburg Line however British intelligence knew that the point of attack was held by troops who had been weakened by great losses at Ypres and subsequently transferred to a portion of the front which the Germans considered to be of minor importance.

The plan of attack devised by General Julian Byng, commander of the British 3rd Army, was extremely sophisticated. He proposed a frontal attack on the Hindenburg Line to create a breach in the German front which could be exploited by three divisions of cavalry which would go on to envelop and capture Cambrai. Preparations for the attack also broke with recent military dogma: there would be no preliminary heavy shelling in order to preserve the element of surprise, hundreds of tanks would be used to open up a route through the defences, and air support would intervene at the German rear to check the arrival of reinforcements.

The attack began on 20 November at 6.20 a.m. along a ten kilometre wide front. The Tank Corps provided 476 tanks (of which 350 were armed) to lead six infantry divisions into the field. The bombardment which accompanied the attack was carefully timed and took the Germans by surprise. The British also used Livens projectors to shower poison gas on various parts of the front.

Preceded by a rain of explosive shells, the tanks made quick progress and soon reached the enemy's trenches. The Hindenburg Line had never before been so deeply penetrated. The surprise and terror provoked by the tanks among the German ranks caused several units to retreat and the British took 8,000 prisoners on the first day of the offensive. Never had an attack advanced so quickly since 1914 and by the evening of 20 November the British vanguard had won nine kilometres of terrain and was closing in on Cambrai.

But once again the problem of capitalizing on the initial breakthrough reared its head. Anecdotal evidence points to a British tank compromising the movements of the cavalry in the vicinity of Masnières Hill but a more fundamental problem was the tardy arrival of reinforcements caused by the heavy congestion on the roads: it took fifteen hours for troops to cover the final five kilometres to the front.

In fact, the impact of the first assault dissipated along with the element of surprise and the Germans were soon harassing the foremost troops from the heights of Bourlon Wood. On 23 November the British started to do something about this, just as the bells began to peal in Great Britain to mark what seemed to be a miraculous victory. Under a hail of artillery fire, several tanks and a Welsh infantry brigade succeeded in getting a foothold in part of Bourlon Wood but soon found themselves isolated.

Ludendorff's first reaction to execute a major retreat was rapidly abandoned in favour of mounting a counter-attack. He set about assembling twenty divisions and by the morning of 30 November they were poised to retaliate. Their success was immediate and devastating. Supported by a barrage of poison gas shells, the Germans advanced more than five kilometres in two hours and, at one point, threatened to envelop several British divisions which had become isolated in a minor salient. Ludendorff put into practice new methods of fighting which consisted of infiltrating the enemy's lines with small groups of highly-skilled and heavily-armed soldiers. Developed by the field commander Oskar von Hutier, these new infiltration tactics had already been successful on the Italian front.

By the time the fighting had come to a close, on 4 December, the initial and unexpected success of the British Army had deteriorated into a total failure. All the terrain which had been won in the initial stages of the offensive had to be abandoned and the losses, although similar for both sides, were high. The British casualties amounted to 44,000 killed, wounded and lost in action (including 6,000 prisoners) and the Germans 45,000 (including 10,000 prisoners).

Yves Le Maner
Director of La Coupole
History and Remembrance Centre of Northern France


The Second World War saw Dwight D. Eisenhower and George S. Patton, Jr. accomplish their greatest deeds as soldiers and achieve lasting fame for the role they played in bringing about the defeat of Nazi Germany. Less well known is their service in the First World War, when both men were involved in the birth of a new form of warfare destined to revolutionize the battlefield and change the way wars were fought. As officers in the United States Army's fledging Tank Corps, they helped develop the technology of tracked armored fighting vehicles as well as the doctrine that would later govern their use and, in so doing, they also helped lay the groundwork for future victories in a conflict where the tank would come into its own as a weapon of decisions. What follows is an overview of their involvement in the Tank Corps., both during the war and in its immediate aftermath.

Just four months prior to the Armistice, in July 1918, Patton was in France as the commander of the Tank Corps' 1st Tank Brigade. It was an assignment he had gotten in a roundabout manner. In October 1917, with service as General John J. Pershing's aide-de-camp during the 1916 Punitive Expedition in Mexico working in his favor, he wangled an appointment to AEF headquarters in Chaumont, France, as post adjutant and commander of the headquarters company. He wasn't there for long, however. He wanted to see action and, after some wavering while he contemplated seeking command of an infantry battalion, Patton became convinced that the army's nascent Tank Corps offered him the best way of achieving this goal. His subsequent application to Pershing for a transfer to tanks was granted on November 10, 1917 when he was ordered to report to the commandant of the army schools at Langres to establish a light tank school for the US First Army. Patton, then a captain, thus became the first soldier in the US Army assigned to work with tanks.

George S. Patton, First Tanker of the US Army

Soon thereafter, Patton acquired a mentor in the person of Samuel D. Rockenbach, a cavalry colonel who had previously served as quartermaster in charge of port operations at St. Nazaire. There he had caught the eye of Pershing, who needed someone with experience in supply operations and logistics to get the AEF Tank Corps up and running. Rockenbach fit the bill, and was accordingly appointed to command the corps on December 22, 1917. But it was Patton and the other younger officers under Rockenbach's command who proved to be the real brains of the Tank Corps, creating the training programs and formulating the doctrine for using the tanks in battle in cooperation with their French and British allies.

In February 1918, Patton established the AEF's Light Tank School at Bourg, located five miles from Langres on the road to Dijon. Lacking tanks at the outset, Patton and his men were forced to make do with plywood mockups complete with a turret armed with a Hotchkiss 8mm machine gun. the entire contraption was mounted on a rocking device used to simulate movement over rough terrain while a trainee fired at a fixed target. It wasn't until March 23 that the unit received its first shipment of ten 7.4-ton Renault light tanks, with another fifteen following in May.

At Bourg, Patton demonstrated that he was a hands-on commander who liked to take part in all the training exercises with his men. He was quite strict when it came to saluting and drill, and he insisted that procedures which he formulated for maneuvering tanks in tactical formations be followed to the letter.

The 1st Light Tank Battalion was organized at Bourg on April 28, 1918, with Patton in command. By the first week of June, however, officers and men had been assigned to him in sufficient numbers to organize a second battalion. At about the same time, the two battalions were redesignated the 326th and 327th Tank Battalions, and command was given to Captains Joseph W. Viner and Sereno E. Brett, respectively. But at the end of August -- just prior to the St. Mihiel offensive, when the Tank Corps received its baptism of fire -- Viner was made director of the tank center and school, a move which resulted in Brett assuming command of the 326th and Captain Ranulf Compton taking over the 327th.

Brett was a former infantry officer who was especially skilled in the use of the 37mm cannon which armed one variant of the Renault tank (a second was armed with an 8mm Hotchkiss machine gun), and had instructed Patton's men in the use of this weapon before assuming battalion command. Patton thought a great deal of him, but not so Compton, whom he regarded as an incompetent fool and disliked accordingly.

Ike at Camp Meade After the War

While Patton was setting up the armor training program at Langres and Bourg. Captain Dwight Eisenhower was similarly engaged in the United States. Eisenhower had gone to Camp Meade, Maryland, in February 1918 with the 65th Engineer Regiment, which had been activated to provide the organizational basis for the creation of the army's first heavy tank battalion. In mid-March the 1st Battalion, Heavy Tank Service (as it was then known) was ordered to prepare for movement overseas, and Eisenhower went to New York with the advance party to work out the details of embarkation and shipment with port authorities. The battalion shipped out on the night of March 26, but Eisenhower did not go with it. He had performed so well as an administrator that, upon his return to Camp Meade, he was told he would be staying in the United States, where his talent for logistics would be put to good use in establishing the army's primary tank training center at Camp colt in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.

Like Patton, Eisenhower also had mentor -- Lt. Colonel Ira C. Wellborn, and infantry officer who had been awarded the Medal of Honor for service in Cuba during the Spanish-American War. On March 5, 1918, Secretary of War Newton D. Baker appointed Wellborn to serve as director of the Tank Corps in the United States. Throughout the war, the army maintained a Tank Corps, AEF, which was distinct from the Tank Corps, United States, resulting in a divided command structure with two men -- Rockenbach and Welborn -- separately directing the development of the American armored arm.

Eisenhower went to Camp Colt as a captain in command of eighty men, but by September 1918 he was a lieutenant colonel commanding ten thousand men and eight hundred officers. Initially, the training program he established there was severely hampered by a lack of tanks -- for a brief spell, he had but a single Renault which the AEF had sent from France so that his men could at least see what a tank looked like. Nevertheless, he accomplished a great deal with the meager resources at his disposal. For instance, he set up a telegraphy school, only to be told that the AEF did not need telegraphers whereupon he had the men trained as tank crew-men. Ironically, the first overseas draft from Camp Colt was made up of sixty-four men whose telegraphy skills were sorely needed in France. In addition, Eisenhower and his subordinates, again making the most of what little they had, developed a program for training tank crewmen in the use of machine guns. The weapons were mounted on flatbed trucks, which were driven around the camp grounds at speed while the trainees fired at Little Round Top to get a feeling for shooting on the fly. A three-inch naval gun was used to familiarize crewmen with the larger caliber guns used in tanks.

The AEF Tank Corps was first committed to action in the offensive aimed at eliminating the Saint-Mihiel salient in September 1918. The operation was conducted by the US First Army, organized into the I, IV, and V Corps. Patton, working with I Corps, attacked with two battalions of the 304th Tank Brigade, which was equipped with 144 Renaults obtained from the French. In support of the Americans were two groupments of Schneider and St. Chamond heavy tanks weighing 14.9 and 25.3 tons, respectively. These were manned by French crews. In all, the First Army deployed 419 tanks, a figure that includes three French-crewed battalion-sized formations of Renaults and two additional company-sized elements of heavy tanks used in support of IV Corps.

Schneider Heavy Tank Operated by French Troops at St. Mihiel

Although the Americans accomplished their limited objective of eliminating the enemy salient, the offensive turned into a debacle for the Tank Corps, not so much because of anything the Germans did but rather because of mechanical failures and muddy conditions on the battlefield. By the time the fighting had run its course the battlefield was strewn with immobilized Renaults. Enemy action in the form of direct artillery hits claimed only three tanks the rest, some forty in all, simply broke down or got stuck in the mud. The French quickly replaced the three knocked-out tanks and the others were quickly repaired, bringing the Tank Corps back up to full strength when the Meuse-Argonne campaign kicked off on September 26th.

In the St. Mihiel Offensive Patton learned that he couldn't count on army motorization to keep his armored units supplied with fuel. In the Meuse-Argonne campaign, therefore, he ordered his tank crews to strap two fifty-five gallon fuel drums to the back of their machines. This entailed the obvious risk that a drum might be hit by shells or shrapnel, causing a fiery explosion which would incinerate the crewmen inside. Patton was well aware of the potential for disaster and, quite characteristically, ignored it. He felt that the loss of a few tanks and their crews to shellfire was preferable to the loss of many to a lack of fuel. Even so, he ordered that the drums be loosely tied to the tanks with ropes, the idea being that a fire would burn through the ropes and cause the drums to fall to the ground before exploding.

Given the propensity of the tanks for breaking down, maintenance was one of Patton's chief concerns. He was constantly after his men to keep their tanks in good running condition, a difficult task greatly hampered by a shortage of spare parts and the absence of repair facilities close to the battlefield. As it happened, it was neither Patton nor one of his officers, but rather a private soldier who came up with a solution to the problems. The private, whose name has long been forgotten, suggested that one tank in each company be converted into a sort of roving repair shop loaded with various spare parts (particularly fan belts) and equipped with towing apparatus to retrieve damaged, mired, or broken-down vehicles from the battlefield. Patton thought this an excellent idea and immediately saw to its implementation. This led to the creation of the first tank company maintenance team, which consisted of mechanics from battalion headquarters who were assigned to each tank company to operate the company's recovery vehicle. It was the beginning of a system that is still in use today in American armored units. And it is worth remembering that it was the brainchild of a private, which just goes to show how much Patton encouraged initiative in the ranks of the AEF Tank Corps.

US Tanks Advancing to the Front

Still, field maintenance was no easy proposition, in part because of the physical condition of the battlefield -- muddy ground was a constant, hampering repair and combat operations alike -- but also because the vehicles were breaking down in such large numbers. In the Meuse-Argonne campaign, which continued to the cessation of hostilities on November 11th, the Tank Corps's vehicle attrition rate reached 123 percent, with only twenty-seven tanks lost to enemy action, chiefly artillery fire or mines -- the rest were breakdowns. By the end of the Meuse-Argonne campaign the Tank Corps was down to less than fifty operating vehicles, a figure that can only begin to indicate the extent to which maintenance and logistics troops were kept busy trying to ensure that the AEF was able to field an armored force through to the end of the war.

[During the last months of the war, the Tank Corps, AEF also fielded a battalion of British-built heavy tanks which were deployed with the American 27th and 30th Division and fought in the old Somme Sector. The 301st Heavy Tank Battalion commanded by Ralph Sasse was equipped with the British Mark V and Mark V Star.]

Inter-tank communication also posed difficulties. As the tanks were not equipped with radios, unit commanders with orders to give and messages to deliver could do so only by leaving the safety of their own vehicles and making their way on foot to the other tanks. The Tank Corps tried to get around this problem by providing the crews with carrier pigeons, which were kept in bamboo cages on the floor of each tank behind the driver. The tank commander would stand on the cage, with predictable results: at some point during his machine's jolting passage over the broken ground of the typical Firs World War battlefield, he might inadvertently stomp down on the cage and crush its occupants. Finally, it was decided that junior officers would be delegated to walk alongside the tanks for the purpose of communicating orders and other information. Keeping up with the tanks was really no challenge, as the vehicles could manage a top speed of only four-and-a-half miles per hour under even the most optimal conditions. When the officers had instructions to impart they would simply rap on the hulls of the tanks until they got the attention of the men inside. The greatest problem leaders faced was, of course, exposure to enemy fire. Running messages back and forth between tanks, across open ground, in the thick of battle while the bullets were flying, required courage and devotion to duty -- virtues which resulted in the award of Distinguished Service Crosses to several of those engaged in this hazardous enterprise.

The Tank Corps produced two Medal of Honor winners. In both instances the medal was awarded to men of Patton's brigade who performed lifesaving acts. One of them, Corporal Donald M. Call, was the driver of a tank that was hit by a 77mm artillery shell as it advanced along a road on the first day of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. Call escaped from the burning vehicle through the driver's hatch and scrambled to the roadside. However, the tank's commander, 2nd Lieutenant John Castles, got stuck as he tried to climb out of the turret. Call ran back to the tank and plunged into the flames to rescue the trapped man. While doing so he was hit and badly wounded by machine-fire, yet was still able to drag Castles to the side of the road before the tank exploded.. He then carried Castles more than a mile to safety. In addition to the Medal of Honor, Call received a battlefield commision for his exploit. He eventually retired from the army as a full colonel.

Over the Top

The other Medal of Honor recipient was Corporal Harold W. Roberts, also a driver. On October 6th Roberts inadvertently drove his machine into a deep, water-filled ditch while trying to evade enemy fire. The tank overturned and began to sink. As it went down Roberts told his commander, "Well, on one of us can get out: out you go," and pushed the man through the turret hatch. The commander made it but Roberts did not he drowned in his tank and was awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously for his self-sacrificing deed.

The ditch that claimed Roberts's life was known as a "water tank trap" and had been dug by the Germans for the purpose its name implied. The Germans were quick to develop other weapons and tactics for dealing with the Allied tanks. Anti tank gunners armed with .75 caliber rifles firing armor-piercing rounds learned to aim for the engine compartments, which were only lightly armored and therefore vulnerable to penetration by large, high velocity rifle bullets. The Germans also employed 77mm field guns in the antitank role. Technique was less critical, as a shell of that size, no matter what part of a tank it hit, could usually stop the vehicle literally in its tracks if not destroy it outright.

Interestingly, the Germans found a rather devious way to exploit the preponderance in Allied armor to their own advantage. They did this by building wood-and-metal mockups of Allied tanks and placing them well behind the frontline trace. Allied pilots flying over the battlefield would see what appeared to be real tanks and, the German hoped, assume that they stood at the farthest point of the Allied advance. Pilots who fell for this ruse thus left the area and sought German positions elsewhere.

When the war ended on November 11, 1918, the AEF Tank Corps and Tank Corps units in the United States had a combined total of some twenty thousand officers and men. But these numbers were drastically reduced in the months that followed as the army demobilized. For a brief period, however, both Patton and Eisenhower remained involved in developing the armored arm, which found a temporary home at Camp Meade under Rockenbach's command. In particular, the two men formulated theory and doctrine for the use of tanks in mass formations to achieve breakthroughs and carry out exploitation. They met vigorous opposition to their ideas from senior army officers who favored the use of armor in support of infantry and not as a separate arm conducting independent operations. Congress took this view as well, enacting legislation in June 1920 that dissolved the Tank Corps as a separate entity. Not incidentally, funding for tank research and development was also cut to a bare minimum. Patton, convinced there was no future in tanks, applied and received a transfer to the cavalry in September, 1920. Eisenhower got out tow years later, in January 1922, when he was assigned to the staff of an infantry brigade in Panama. Many other career-minded tank officers followed suit, and their defections dovetailed with further budgetary cuts and doctrinal conservatism which transformed the tank force to a shadow of the robust corps the AEF had deployed in the final weeks of the First World War. With few exceptions, the army's leadership virtually ignored the tank for the better part of the next two decades, until its ability to achieve decisive results on the battlefield was demonstrated by the Germans in the blitz operations of 1939-41.

In the Argonne Forest

I. Armor on World War I Tanks

The tanks had plate armor, and it varied in thickness from five-eighths of an inch to one and one-half inches, depending on the vehicle and the nation that manufactured it. The thickest armor was normally placed on the top and in front of the driver. The sides had three-quarter-inch or five-eighths inch plate. The thinnest armor was always in the rear and on the bottom.

II. About the Early Tactical Doctrine of the War's Participants

The French saw the tank as mobile artillery. So they used their light tanks to accompany the infantry, moving forward with the infantry in the assault artillery role, while the heavier vehicles provide fire support instead of going forward to bread the wire.

The British envisioned using the heavy tank alone, although, later they employed the Medium A Whippet, and J.F.C. Fuller began to think more and more about using the Medium D for breakthrough and penetration. The British idea was to send the heavy tanks forward in advance of the infantry to destroy the wire. The, with the infantry following through the gap they made, the tanks were to fan out behind enemy lines to exploit the breakthrough.

The Germans had similar ideas about the use of heavy tanks. They didn't think at all about light tanks.

The Americans planned to send the heavy tanks forward to break the wire while the light tanks accompanied the infantry and provided suppressive fires for taking out machine guns and other strongpoints. And that is how [the US Fist Army] tried to use the tanks in the St. Mihiel and Meuse-Argonne offensives.

Sources and thanks: The text of this article is reproduced from A Weekend With the Great War: Proceedings of the Fourth Annual Great War Interconference Seminar, Lisle, Illinois, 16-18 September, 1994. The article is published here by the permission of the author and Cantigny First Division Foundation and Museum. Thanks to John Votaw, Director of the Cantigny First Division Museum, for his assistance. The entire book is available for purchase from Cantigny or the White Mane Publishing Company of Shippensburg, Pennsylvania who produced the volume in 1995 and 1996. Dale Wilson is also the author of Treat 'em Rough: The Story of the Birth of American Armor , Presidio Press, 1989. Regular contributors Ray Mentzer and Mike Iavarone provided the photos and the poster. MH

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The Maus Tank – An Crazy Invention, But Would It Have Been Effective Enough To Change The Outcome Of WWII?

The German Panzer VIII tank of World War II, codenamed the Maus tank, was intended to be the biggest, best-armored and most powerful tank ever built – and the prototypes that were built succeeded in achieving these goals.

However, the Maus tank, initially called the Mammut (mammoth) tank, never ended up seeing combat, so we can only speculate about how effective they would have been in battle.

Some historians believe that if enough of them had been produced and deployed, Maus tanks could have changed the outcome of WWII. Others, however, believe that even if Maus tanks had rolled across the battlefields of Western Europe they would have been too hampered by their lack of mobility and range to have really changed the course of the war very much.

Panzerkampfwagen «Maus» at the Kubinka Tank Museum

Nonetheless, simply by virtue of the fact that the prototypes that were built are to this day the biggest and heaviest super-tanks ever made, make the Maus tank an awe-inspiring item of military hardware.

The Maus tank was a logical if somewhat impractical outcome of the general mindset of Nazi military engineering. Considering that they were obsessed with the relentless pursuit of attaining ever more advanced technological breakthroughs and building bigger and more powerful pieces of military equipment, it came as no surprise that Hitler and his Nazi military command wanted to build the mother of all tanks.

The “contact-shoe” and “connector-link” track design of the Maus’ suspension system Photo by Uwe Brodrecht CC BY-SA 2.0

The effectiveness of tanks in battle had been proven quite conclusively in WWI, and development in tank design had advanced in leaps and bounds in the decades since then. Most of the nations who fought in WWII had at least one heavy tank design in their military arsenal.

Hitler was aware of this, and wanted to construct a heavy tank that would not only stand head and shoulders above the competition, but indeed tower over them like a colossus.

Maus Tank in 1945 Photo by BlakeRichard00 CC By SA 4.0

With this in mind, design on the Maus began in 1941. With Professor Ferdinand Porsche overseeing the design process, which took place at the Krupp Munitions Works, plans for a gigantic 188 ton tank – weighing over four times as much as the heavy tanks the Allies were developing at this time – were drawn up.

The idea behind this monster of a tank was that it would be virtually indestructible – a moving bunker, essentially. To this end, the Maus was to be armored with 200mm hardened steel, theoretically making it pretty much impervious to any Allied tank cannon or infantry weaponry. The heavy armor extended down in an armored skirt that covered the tank’s tracks, to protect them from attack and therefore immobilization. That contributed significantly to the Maus’s immense weight.

Maus turret and hull abandoned in factory, 1945

While the massively-thick armor did indeed make the Maus a moving fortress, impervious to anything but the most powerful bombs, it also made mobility a problem. To move 188 tons of hardened steel, a monstrously powerful motor was needed.

A few different motors were tried out, with the engineers finally settling on a diesel motor that put out around 1,200 horsepower. Even with this motor’s impressive torque, the Maus was only able to creep along at a maximum speed of a mere 12mph – and that was on flat ground in ideal conditions.

Soviet with Maus Tank in 1945 Photo by BlakeRichard00 CC By SA 4.0

The enormous motor also guzzled an enormous amount of fuel, and this meant that the Maus had a far shorter range than other tanks, as only so much fuel could be carried onboard. In addition, the huge quantity of diesel fumes meant that a complex ventilation system had to be designed in order for the tank crew to actually be able to breathe.

A further problem presented by the Maus’s massive weight was the fact that it was simply too heavy for almost any bridge that existed in Europe. Because it was also too heavy to be ferried across rivers, the engineers had to think hard to figure out how to get their gargantuan tank across bodies of water.

Pz VIII Maus (Porsche V1)

To do this, they came up with a large snorkel system that would allow the tank to be submerged up to a depth of 45 feet (8 meters), thus enabling river fording. The Maus was also designed with a width that would enable it to be loaded onto rail cars, which would be an effective way to bypass its fuel range limitations.

In terms of firepower, the Maus was intended to be as intimidatingly potent as it was indestructible. The main gun, mounted to the turret, would be a 128mm gun (with 150mm and even 170mm guns being proposed as alternatives) capable of destroying any Allied tank at a range of up to two miles. A secondary turret gun, a 75mm antitank gun, would handle lesser armored vehicles.

Instead of the usual 7.9mm machine gun, the Maus was to be equipped with an antiaircraft machine cannon in the turret roof, as well as a smoke grenade launcher. With this level of weaponry, the Maus would have outgunned any Allied tank by a long way.

Panzer Maus at Kubinka Tank Museum Photo by Saiga20K CC BY-SA 3.0

In the end, though, the Maus was deemed simply too impractical and too wasteful of resources to produce. While Hitler initially wanted 150 Maus tanks, he ended up canceling this order.

Only two prototypes were ever produced. One was blown up by the Germans at the end of the war, to prevent it from falling into enemy hands, but the other was captured by the Soviets, and today is housed in the Kubinka Tank Museum in Moscow.

The Maus may not have ended up seeing combat, and its potential effectiveness or lack thereof in terms of the outcome of the war is the subject of much debate, but one cannot help but be impressed by the sight of the largest tank ever built.

The Battle of 73 Easting: The True Story Behind Desert Storm’s Most Intense Tank Battle

When Army Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster was elevated to become President Trump’s national security advisor in 2017, the media was awash with references to his role in the biggest tank fight of Desert Storm, the Battle of 73 Easting. While these stories conveyed the basic outcome of the fight, they did little to illuminate how the battle unfolded or what set the stage before the first cannon shot screamed out of his tank. What turned out to be an amazing and thrilling victory, could easily have been the biggest disaster of Desert Storm.

Twenty-eight years ago this month I was at the Grafenwoehr training center in Germany where my unit, Eagle Troop of the 2nd Squadron, 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment (2nd ACR), was conducting a series of field maneuvers and live fire exercises. The 2nd ACR was one of three cavalry regiments then providing frontline defense against the Warsaw Pact, patrolling the borders between West and East Germany in the north and West Germany and Czechoslovakia in the south.

The Warsaw Pact nations, anchored by the Soviet Union, had more than fifty thousand tanks and millions of troops. Based on the terrain in Central Europe, there was always the risk communist forces could come flooding across a large plain known as the Fulda Gap and potentially defeat the nations of Western Europe. The 2nd ACR was charged with defending the central part of the border, and as such, equipped with hundreds of M1A1 Abrahms Tanks, Bradley Fighting Vehicles, mechanized artillery cannons, and attack helicopters.

On August 2, 1990, I and my Eagle Troop brothers were at Grafenwoehr preparing for a major exercise in which we would maneuver our nine M1 tanks and twelve Bradleys throughout the German countryside against another armored U.S. unit role-playing as a Russia tank brigade, followed by firing live ammunition from the move on a huge firing range. The training was realistic and closely replicated the actual combat conditions we would face had the Russians ever crossed the border and attacked the West.

Before we left our assembly areas for the operation, however, something happened halfway across the world that distracted us from our preparation. Saddam Hussein, the dictator of Iraq, had actually done what we feared the Soviets might do: he sent hundreds of tanks and other armored vehicles flooding across their southern border with Kuwait in an unexpected attack and quickly subdued the Kuwait military. At the end of the operation Iraqi tanks were a mere three miles from the Saudi border—representing a dagger at the throat of the oil supply on which most of the Western world depended.

Almost immediately then-Captain McMaster, commander of Eagle Troop, and Squadron operations officer, then-Major Douglas A. Macgregor, adjusted our training to reflect the possibility we—as one of the forward-deployed armored cavalry organizations tasked with making first contact against enemy armored formations—would be called upon to fight Saddam’s troops.

Prior to the maneuver, McMaster addressed his troops and solemnly said, “Men, we must take very seriously what we are about to do. It is possible that the next operations order I give will be in the sands of Iraq.” There was an eerie sense of foreboding as he spoke because we all realized that what had just a few days ago seemed like another routine military maneuver might now be a final preparation for actual combat operations.

In November 1990 the potential turned into reality as the Secretary of Defense ordered the 2nd ACR to Saudi Arabia to potentially lead the U.S. VII Corps into battle. Within a month we were unloading our tanks and other armored vehicles off huge transport ships in the Saudi Arabian port of Al Jubayl. As soon as the vehicles were ready, the regiment began the movement towards the Kuwaiti border to begin final training prior to the attack day, known as “G-Day.” In a stunning mishap during one such exercise, McMaster came within a hair’s breadth of missing the attack altogether!

Since we had trained almost our entire careers in the forests and rolling hills of Europe, we had to rapidly adjust our techniques for the desert. Shortly after arriving in the border region, Macgregor had directed the squadron to conduct a simulated and complex night assault. Nighttime in the desert on a moonless night is so dark you, quite literally, cannot see your hand in front of your face. Using early generations of night vision goggles, we began the challenge of navigating in the dark when we could see no terrain and only with difficulty see our own vehicles.

I was the Eagle Troop fire support officer, which meant I worked hand-in-hand with McMaster to reinforce his battle plans with artillery, mortar, and air support. On this exercise I was in my armored fire support vehicle following directly behind his tank. At a critical moment, he began giving radio instructions for the troop to change the plan and move towards a new objective. Then from about seventy-five yards behind McMaster I saw the silhouettes of two Bradleys driving directly into his path from the left. I tried in vain to warn him over the radio, but because he was in the middle of giving instructions, he didn’t hear me.

I helplessly watched in horror while McMaster continued talking into the radio as the armored hulks closed in on him. My hopes the Bradley driver or commander would see the tank and turn away were dashed when suddenly I saw a hail of sparks fly as the gun tube on McMaster’s tank literally speared into the side of the Bradley, causing both vehicles to lurch to the side and come to rough stop.

My first thought was that, “Oh my God. We’ve killed American soldiers!” I was afraid that the gun tube had penetrated into the crew compartment of the Bradley and killed someone in the cabin—or that the jolt had seriously wounded McMaster or his crew. I raced to the scene of the accident and discovered that miraculously, no one in either vehicle had gotten so much as a scratch.

In the confusion of the Squadron’s first large scale night maneuver, two vehicles from a sister Troop had gotten misoriented and become separated from their unit and had stumbled into McMaster’s path in an attempt to find their headquarters. It is sobering to consider that if that gun tube had hit just a fraction of a second later it would have killed some of the troops and likely ended McMaster’s career before the first shot was fired—or that the impact could have caused his tank ammunition to explode, possibly killing him and his crew. The man we know as the victorious commander at the Battle of 73 Easting came within seconds of being lost before the war had began!

Once he confirmed there were no casualties and that his vehicle was still able to move, McMaster called maintenance personnel to retrieve the Bradley (we discovered the gun tube had actually speared the engine compartment and disabled the vehicle), then continued the exercise as if nothing had happened. As we would soon see, McMaster would react just as rapidly and decisively under fire as he had done in training.

With each exercise the troopers of 2nd ACR grew in confidence despite the fact we knew our mission would be to make initial contact with enemy tanks. Some experts predicted the United States would win the war because of our superior technology and quality soldiers—but they still suggested that the elite Republican Guards Corps would fight fanatically and that lead U.S. cavalry units could expect up to 10 percent casualties in the first battles.

More than once i remember looking around at my fellow Eagle Troopers and wondered which twelve or thirteen of our 135-man troop might never come home—or if I would ever come home. Despite this sobering expectation, however, there was no fear or timidity in Cougar Squadron (as 2nd Squadron was known). Macgregor and McMaster had prepared us so well that when the time to attack came, we were not merely “willing” to engage enemy armor, we thirsted for it.

After weeks of Allied air-and-missile attacks, G-Day was set to be February 23, 1991. Prior to moving out of our assembly areas for the assault, Macgregor went to visit every troop to give them final instructions in person. He felt it was necessary for the men to see their leaders eye to eye before battle. When he arrived at Eagle Troop headquarters, McMaster assembled all the unit’s key leaders to meet him. Macgregor had a reputation for being an inspirational speaker and we were eager to hear what he had to say.

He started off by setting up a battle map and going over the Squadron plans and reiterated Eagle Troop’s role in it. Next, he reminded us that we would succeed because we had superior equipment, we were well trained at both the individual and unit level, and—he emphasized—because we were elite cavalrymen, we were the ones sent into frenzied, uncertain situations bring a sense of order to the chaos to set up follow-on forces for success.

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