A Brief History
On April 24, 1918, at the Second Battle of Villers-Bretonneux in Northern France, 3 British tanks met 3 German tanks in the first known instance of tank vs. tank combat in military history. The battle raged from April 24 to April 27, 1918, as part of the German Spring Offensive (alternately known as the Ludendorff Offensive), a desperate attempt to snatch victory before the Americans could bring overwhelming reinforcements to the fight. Of course, tanks had already seen battle in World War I, just not against each other.
One of the enduring innovations of World War I was the armored fighting vehicle, notably the tank, a self-propelled armored vehicle armed with machines guns or machine guns and cannon. One of the main innovations was the use of caterpillar treads instead of tires, enabling these hulking metal monsters unprecedented mobility (though slow) over rough terrain, even to the point of crossing the ubiquitous trenches that typified the Western Front in Europe.
This first tank on tank combat pitted 3 British tanks of the Mark IV type against 3 German tanks of the A7 type. The British tanks were of 2 sub-types, with 2 of them referred to as “female” tanks, armed only with 5 machine guns, and the other as a “male” tank, which also sported 2 X 57mm (6 pounder) cannon along with 3 machine guns. Capable of only 4 miles per hour, their lack of speed was not considered a detriment as soldiers on foot were expected to keep up with their progress. Range was a paltry 35 miles, and armor protection was a decidedly modest 6 to 12 mm. With a crew of 8 men, the Mark IV weighed 32 tons in the “male” mode and 27 tons in the “female” configuration. Their German opponents were the much larger A7 type, armed with a 57mm main gun and 6 machine guns each, weighing in at 33 tons and manned by a crew of 18 men! Their armor was from 5 to 30mm thick, while speed and range for the A7 was similar to the Mark IV.
When the land leviathans finally faced off for the first time, the British quickly found out that the “female” types were unsuited to facing other tanks armed with cannons. The A7’s quickly put holes in the 2 British female Mark IV’s which caused their hasty retreat. The remaining British Mark IV, the “male” type, had a crew of only 4, as the other 4 crewmen had been evacuated with injuries due to a German gas attack. The male Mark IV took the offending German A7 under fire, and in a running battle managed to hit the German tank with 3 shells once the Mark IV stopped for better aiming. The German tank was out of action and abandoned by the surviving crew members. The British tank machine gunned the fleeing German tank crew.
The male Mark IV then fought an engagement against the other 2 A7’s, causing the German tanks to retreat. British Whippet light/medium tanks joined in the fight and proceeded to engage German infantry, while German fire was concentrated on the remaining Mark IV. Of the 7 Whippets, 4 were destroyed by German artillery. The last Mark IV tried to retreat under fire after machine gunning and running over a number of German soldiers, but was disabled by a mortar round that destroyed one of the tank’s tracks, causing the crew to abandon the tank. Upon return to the tank after the battle, the British crew found its tracks to be covered in the blood of the German soldiers that had been run over.
The crew of the first German A7 in the battle, a tank nicknamed “Nixe,” later returned to their tank and attempted to get it going and return to their lines, but when this effort failed Nixe was blown up in place to deny it to the British.
This rather modest engagement of tanks in combat against each other was a precursor to the large tank battles of World War II to come, which were followed in turn by the extensive use of tanks in Korea and in the various Middle Eastern wars that have ensued. Often having their own obituary read, unlike the battleship, the tank is still an important part of the army of each powerful country in the world, and is still being developed for better protection, better firepower, and better mobility all the time, only now also with better stealth capabilities as well.
During the Cold War, the USSR maintained an enormous fleet of about 50,000 tanks, though Russia now has “only” 15,398, but that is enough to be the most of any country. China boasts a complement of 9151 tanks, a mix of older and cutting-edge technology vehicles. The United States has 8850 tanks, though of a uniformly high standard of capability and reliability. Perhaps more important, American tank crewmen are highly trained and efficient, as well as capably backed up by supporting arms and an unmatched supply chain. Another dozen countries have at least 1000 tanks in their inventory, with another 10 countries fielding at least 500. If you were wondering, Israel ranks only #12 in the world with 1560 tanks, though we suspect they are crewed by some of the best trained crews on the planet.
What about Britain and Germany, the original tank combatant countries? Today Britain has only 227 tanks while German has an embarrassingly low number of only 250 active duty tanks, with some in reserve. (Note: Britain, Germany, and other countries also have numerous types of other armored vehicles of the fighting and transport variety.)
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For more information, please see…
Fuller, Major General JFC. Tanks In The Great War, 1914-1918. Verdun Press, 2014.
Thomas, Michael. The Iron Fortress. Swordworks, 2019.
The featured image in this article, a photograph by Sardaka of Mephisto, a German tank used in World War I, held in Museum of Brisbane, Australia (Kodachrome slide scanned at 6400, originally shot 1988), is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.