THE HUMAN STORY OF TANKS AT WAR
Admittedly it is an old book, first published in UK in 2008; but having had the opportunity to read it only recently when a friend who is an armour warfare enthusiast loaned it to me, I was spellbound by the sheer brilliance of the work and the mastery with which the author has handled the topic. As a tank man myself I almost felt part of each tank crew that occupy the pages and there are many of varying nationalities, French and British to German and Italian and American and Canadian to Russian and Australian and so on. So extensive is the research that tank men of almost every participant nation in the two World Wars appear in the book. The narrative is so lucid all throughout that I am sure even a complete stranger to tanks and armoured warfare would find it fascinating. The world would probably never again witness tank battles of the magnitude that raged on the Russian or North African fronts of World War II, but the book, in telling the story of those battles and the men who fought them, reveals a not-too well-known facet of warfare, which has few parallels in its brutality and heroism. While it has rich professional lessons for modern-day tank men whose role and regimen in battle has not changed much in spite of their state-of-the-art tanks, for a general reader it is a revelation on tank warfare and the human cost of it.
15 September 1916, Somme, the Western Front, World War I; British infantrymen awaiting call forward to attack the village of Flers and the German defenders opposing them, first heard an unearthly noise and then watched thunderstruck what generated it; ‘a metal monolith that defied description’, which trundled across the trenches on tracks that revolved around a hull with revolving turrets affixed to it, ploughing up mud and barbed wire in its wake. The world’s first tank was in action. The 80 – 100 feet contraption that H. G. Wells had fantasised in his science-fiction account of ‘The Land Ironclads’ in 1903 had become a reality, far diminished in size though. The British quest to overcome the ordeal of prolonged trench warfare by producing a war machine that could traverse cross country and crush the enemy had seen it assuming different names through the designing and manufacturing phases from ‘Land Battleship’ to ‘Big Willie’ and finally the ‘Tank’.
The tank that made its appearance at Flers that September morning wore little resemblance to its descendants that dominate the land battles the world over today. It was an awkward looking monster, 30-foot long, 10-foot wide and 8-foot tall, rendering itself an excellent target for enemy artillery, with an even more awkward interior carrying a dozen-strong crew within the cramped confines where a massive petrol engine occupied most of the space, emitting intense heat. It was an inhumane ordeal for the crew, which consisted of drivers on either end and machine gunners and loaders for each turret, merely to survive the heat and claustrophobia. The operating drills were so crude that – with no intercom for communication between the members of the crew – drivers were guided to turn left or right by pulling at ropes tied to their shoulders. And for all the terror the machines caused ‘frightening the Jerries out of their wits and making them scuttle like frightened rabbits’ as a British Soldier thought while finding himself dumbfound, their performance was hardly commendable at the end of the day. Of the fifty tanks that were deployed in the battle, only thirty-two made it to the start line (the rest broke down), of which only thirty could advance. Nine pushed ahead of the infantry and caused mayhem at the enemy lines, another nine did a good job of mopping up behind, five others were ditched (shedding their tracks hit by artillery fire) and seven broke down with mechanical problems Just about twenty, barely 40 percent of the force, actually closed in on the enemy and engaged in combat. Nevertheless, the emotional and moral impact of the new weapon system was colossal. Warfare would never be the same again.
While the British trumpeted the triumph of their new war machine and every other major participant country, friends and foes alike, took up tank design and production, little regard was given to the enormous human cost of tank warfare. Artillery fire could destroy the tanks and more often than not, with too many men in the crew and too few exits to bale out, men were roasted alive. One horrific description of a burned out tank spoke of several pairs of legs alone remaining in its interior, the top halves of the bodies of the crew consumed by fire. There was no proper concept of effective use of tanks in battle either, resulting in their random use, which invited unwarranted casualties. The first massed tank attack took place as late as November 1917 at Cambrai, when 476 British tanks drove at the Hindenburg Line and tore a six-mile wide breach 4000 yards deep.
Although the Germans tried to catch up with the Allies in tank warfare with their own tanks towards the end of the war, the head start the British had in tank production, eventually contributed to the Allied victory. It is the Second World War however that would see the tank emerging as the principal weapon of land warfare. Curiously though, even as technologically superior tanks were being produced, crew comfort and safety were not priority areas. As it happened, it was the Germans who actually began to stress on the human factor, not only giving crew comfort its due while designing tanks but also establishing systematic training regimen for the crews. Discretely overcoming the constraints the terms of armistice imposed on them, they raised their Panzer Divisions that turned out to be the most competent tank formations of the entire war. Their chief architect of armoured build-up, Heinz Guderian, even devised innovative training systems like a cartoon book to demonstrate the maintenance of tanks to the crews. The blitzkrieg turned out to be such a spectacular success primarily for the practical training the German tank crews were imparted. This coupled with their dynamic young leadership and state-of-the-art radio communication system made them a formidable force. The Allies with their archaic mindset and operational doctrine found themselves hopelessly outclassed, often despite their superiority in numbers and even in equipment. For instance, the French tanks were superior to the German ones in armour, mobility and firepower, but were poorly designed in terms of visibility of the crew and their cramped battle stations within the tank. Worst of all, they were still following the outdated system of hand signals to communicate between tanks while the Germans made excellent use of radiotelephony. The Allies also withered away their armour power by deploying the tanks in support role of infantry, distributed haphazardly. The Germans on the other hand used tanks in principal offensive role, with tank-led formations wherein tanks fought in cohesive units. Down to brass tacks, the German tank men were well-trained professionals, well-led and motivated as against the Allied ones who were ill-trained amateurs hastily assembled to do a job they were certainly not up to, which explained the disaster that awaited them ending at Dunkirk.
In spite of the costly lessons learned in Europe, the Allies could barely match the professionalism of Rommel’s Afrika Corps in North Africa. Nevertheless, they were gradually learning from the enemy, which explained the zigzag pattern of fighting that went on in the Desert Campaign until at last Rommel, hard-pressed for logistics, withdrew. The descriptions of the tank battles in the desert campaign the book feature through veteran interviews are horrific and poignant at the same time. The unique camaraderie the tank crews develop among themselves where rank hierarchy is far less obvious than in the rest of the army blends each tank crew into a harmonious outfit functioning as a well-oiled machine. Tank fighting does not offer the luxury for any member of the crew to be slack at his station. The commander who identifies a target, the gunner who zeroes on to it, the loader who swiftly feeds the right ammunition and the driver who promptly manoeuvres the tank into firing position, all have to work in unison as one body with split-second precision. Their reverence for their tank as a ‘mother’ in whose womb they live, the hardship of the drives in the hot desert and the maintenance, replenishment of fuel and restocking of ammunition at the end of a day braving extreme fatigue, are all brought out in their stark reality, portraying the unimaginably tough regimen of a tank soldier in combat. A four-or-five-member crew of a tank with just about two escape hatches have far less chances of baling out if their tank is hit, than the crew of a stricken aircraft. The horrors of watching a fellow crew member who could not escape burning to death and living day-to-day with the spectre of a similar fate to oneself, which most tank men go through in battle are vividly brought out. Equally horrifying was the unenviable task of the maintenance men who recovered the repairable tanks after a battle and restored them to battle-worthy state. Descriptions of the remnants of the crew members that had often had to be scrapped out of the interior presents the brutality of tank warfare as nothing else does. Often a fully grown man that a crew member was would be found charred black, reduced to the size of a child. There was also the problem of tackling sentimental factors once the tank has been restored. Superstitious or not, men were vary of manning a tank which had its earlier crew killed. Therefore such tanks were cleaned up and given a coat of lead paint inside to leave no tell-tale signs of the tragedy that was played out there, then renumbered and allotted to a different unit where its history would not be known. All these sentiments and problems were more or less common with combatants on either side. Through the narrative a reader does not come to see either side as one’s own, but shares the mental and physical struggles and trauma of human beings caught up in the unearthly horrors of mechanized warfare and come to empathize with them. That was war at its worst.
If the desert campaign terrifies you, the Russian front strikes your senses numb. No theatre of the war saw tank battles of the magnitude and brutality as the Russian front did. The Russian T-34 was the finest designed tank of the Second World War. Its sloping armour made it impervious to most antitank fire, its powerful and compact diesel engine gave it tremendous automotive reliability and made it less susceptible to fire than those with petrol engines and its 76.2 mm gun packed a deadly punch. However, their crews had little or no training, which robbed the Russians of the great advantage they had. Nevertheless, the German Panzer crews were taken aback when confronted by these evidently superior tanks and had to rely heavily on their 88 mm flak guns to deal with them. Operation Barbarossa, the German offensive into Russia, was nowhere as lightning as the Blitzkrieg was in Western Europe. In spite of the Soviet Army having been deprived of its experienced leadership due to Stalin’s purges when thousands of officers were executed and lack of training of its tank crews the Germans found the going hard, with the Russians, unlike their Western Allies, turning out to be diehard fighters not giving up even when completely surrounded. This dogmatism of the Russians was largely due to an extreme kind of patriotism fuelled by a determination to save their families from likely German atrocities. As the Germans found themselves bogged down in Russia in a prolonged campaign and the tables were turned after Stalingrad, the tank battles of the theatre became phenomenal in their magnitude. The Germans had introduced their Tiger and later the Panther tanks, the fiercest pieces of armour that took the field in the entire war, and Russians crews had turned seasoned veterans with their T-34s. While the Russians deployed tanks in massive numbers, the Germans relied heavily on technical superiority. Few battles of the Second World War saw the kind of troop commitment as witnessed in the Battle of Kursk in July-August 1943, considered the largest tank battle in history. The Germans and the Russians, between them, committed four million soldiers, 69,000 artillery pieces, 13,000 tanks and 12,000 aircraft at the Kursk Salient. While the German tanks succeeded in knocking out a large number of T-34s, there was no stopping them moving in their hordes and overwhelming the Germans. Eventually, the Germans were to lose this battle; a crucial defeat for them, after which they were relentlessly pushed back by the advancing Red Army. The Russian tank men had become so stoic enduring the heavy toll of their casualties that it was as if the survivors felt guilty for being alive, as a favourite song of theirs hauntingly expressed: ‘If I am not killed in action or burned in a tank, it is not my fault I have remained – maybe next time.’
The Italian campaign presented the tank men of both sides with fresh challenges not experienced in desert or open country war. The Sicilian landscape with rivers, hills and towns appeared death traps to them with limited visibility and manoeuvrability. Even worse was the plight of the Allied tank men who landed at Normandy in 1944. Mislead to believe in the invincibility of their Shermans they were in for a shock when confronted by the Tiger and Panther tanks of the Germans. In one engagement, a single panther knocked out twenty-three Shermans. They found that the puny 75 mm the Sherman mounted was no match for the massive guns of the German tanks. With Allies pouring in large numbers of tanks and the Germans relying on the technical superiority of their tanks it was a ‘mass versus technology’ contest and technology was winning. The initial phase of the war after the formation of the Normandy bridgehead proved horrific for the Allied tank men. Mostly trained in open country, they were caught unawares by the Normandy bocage or the hedgerows that made the terrain extremely defender friendly. And the Germans made clever use of it by positioning their tanks and antitank guns behind the hedgerows and surprising the enemy. Even their hand-held antitank weapons, the Panzerfausts, had their deadly harvest of Allied tanks. It is in the battle of Villers-Bocage on 13 June 1944, that the German tank ace Michael Wittmann, in command of a Tiger Tank, ambushed a column of the British 7th Armoured Division and destroyed its fourteen tanks, fifteen personnel carriers and two antitank guns, all in a matter of fifteen minutes. Wittmann himself met his end in less than two months when his turret was blown off in an engagement with an Anglo-Canadian force after the Allies had broken out of Normandy.
For a book that covers so many theatres of war, the author has managed to keep the storyline truly absorbing. Surprisingly, the author’s military background is not that of a tank soldier but a paratrooper, which makes the work even more remarkable. The only regret one felt was that except for a passing mention about Indians in North African Campaign, the Indian tank men do not figure anywhere in the book. This is partly because of the traditional disinterest of western authors about Indian troops and partly for the miniscule percentage of Indian tank men who were actually engaged in any theatre other than Burma. Burma, of course, has always remained the forgotten war for the westerners.
Nevertheless, an excellent book.
Tank Men, The Human Story of Tanks at War
Hodder & Stoughton, London 2008