Tanks have dominated battlefields ever since they rolled across no-man's land in 1916. Photo by Mac Caltrider/Coffee or Die Magazine.
Following the muddy maelstrom of Passchendaele in World War I, the British army recognized the need for new tactics and technology to break the stalemate along the Western Front. Their solution to the slaughter was a new superweapon: the tank. With caterpillar treads designed to cross no man’s land, thick steel armor, and immense firepower, tanks were able to punch holes in the enemy’s trenches. Follow-on units exploited the gaps, attempting to bring “the war to end all wars” to its elusive end.
Ever since British armor broke through the German lines a month after Passchendaele, during the Battle of Cambrai, tanks have remained an essential arm of mechanized armies. From World War II to Iraq, tanks have transformed modern warfare. They provide armies with highly mobile units, devastating guns, and enough armor to steamroll enemy defenses. Yet, as weapons evolve, the future of armor is unclear.
The United States Marine Corps recently rid itself of tanks, and the Russian invasion of Ukraine has exposed the weaknesses of tanks against well-armed, modern infantry units. Whatever the future holds, there is no overlooking how tanks have impacted the course of military history. Here are five must-read books about tanks in combat.
Edited by David Fletcher
It’s impossible to fully appreciate the importance of tanks without studying the World War I battlefields where they were baptized — specifically in the Battle of the Somme, where British tanks shocked unsuspecting German troops. The first employment of tanks at the Somme had mixed results. Only nine of the original 49 tanks made it across no man’s land and into German lines. But the psychological impact was immense, and soon both sides were frantically developing improved tank designs and anti-tank weapons.
Early tank warfare was dirty business, with noxious gases and extreme heat killing crews inside their tanks before ever reaching the enemy. In Tanks and Trenches, David Fletcher compiles compelling firsthand accounts from the tankers brave enough to climb into the initial metal beasts. Fletcher manages to arrange the accounts in a way that reveals the strategic importance of tanks but also humanizes the individuals who operated them. This is a heart-wrenching tale of bravery and waste on the WWI battlefields.
An American M1A1 Abrams tank from the 3rd Battalion, 8th Cavalry Regiment. Photo by Mac Caltrider/Coffee or Die Magazine.
by Oscar E. Gilbert
In November 1943, the 2nd Marine Division clashed with Japanese forces on a tiny island in the Pacific Ocean. The 76-hour battle for Tarawa was a decisive American victory; only 17 out of 3,636 Japanese defenders survived the melee. It also proved to the world that America could successfully conduct large amphibious assaults, and would pursue the Japanese military to every island holdout in pursuit of total victory. In Tanks in Hell, Oscar Gilbert recounts how a small band of tanks turned the momentum in the Marines’ favor.
Most of the Americans’ small Sherman tanks sank in the lagoon surrounding the Tarawa atoll, but four were able to make it ashore at one of three landing beaches. Those four tanks and their five-man crews punctured the Japanese defenses and allowed infantry to systematically divide and clear the island. Of those four tanks, however, only one survived the first day of combat.
Gilbert’s description of the tanks at Tarawa reveals the diverse applications of armor during World War II. Critical to Allied victories in North Africa and Europe, tanks also paved the way across the Pacific Ocean to Japanese Emperor Hirohito’s doorstep.
by James Holland
Tanks played a critical role in battles across the Pacific, but tank combat existed on a much larger scale in Europe. Germany, Russia, the United States, and Great Britain all fielded thousands of tanks within massive mechanized armies that tried to outmaneuver one another faster than infantry units could react. More than 6,000 tanks were estimated to have faced off against each other during a single battle in Russia.
Brothers in Arms follows a single British tank regiment in its relentless drive across Europe. Beginning on D-Day, the armored regiment known as the Sherwood Rangers participated in some of the heaviest combat of the Normandy campaign, fighting across France and into Belgium. They later became the first British troops to cross into Germany. James Holland’s account reads like Band of Brothers and vividly portrays the claustrophobic chaos of tank combat.
A Marine flamethrowing tank, also known as a "Ronson," scorches a Japanese strong point. The eight M4A3 Shermans equipped with the Navy Mark 1 flamethrower proved to be the most valuable weapons systems on Iwo Jima. Wikimedia Commons photo.
by Mark Bowden
Mark Bowden — the award-winning journalist and author of Black Hawk Down — depicts the legendary urban battle for Huế during the Vietnam War. Though Hue 1968 covers every unit involved, Bowden dedicates significant space to American tank crews and their critical role.
Tanks’ impact on the battlefield is best understood when looking at a war’s larger context. How do tanks interact with infantry, where are they vulnerable, and how are they used to exploit enemy weaknesses? The Battle of Huế is the perfect case study, and Bowden’s expert storytelling makes Hue 1968 a riveting read. While underscoring the prowess of American armor, he also criticizes commanders who remained too far from the front to grasp how dire battlefield conditions had become. Ultimately, young American tankers turned the battle’s tide by disobeying strict orders to not fire their main cannons or flamethrowers inside the city.
by David Zucchino
Tanks were pivotal in America’s 2003 invasion of Iraq. The bold plan to seize Saddam Hussein’s stronghold largely relied on American armor’s ability to quickly punch through Iraqi defenses and take Baghdad. Combining more than 100 interviews, Thunder Run tells the story of a single US Army armored brigade, which was able to decisively defeat one of the world’s largest armies.
David Zucchino presents a compelling story of military triumph, and this is the best written book on our list. Once the assault force of American tanks and armored vehicles crosses the line of departure, readers will have difficulty putting the book down. And while most books about the Iraq War focus on the bloody insurgency and the futile search for weapons of mass destruction, Thunder Run celebrates one of the war’s early American victories in a mighty clash of two conventional armies.
This article first appeared in the Fall 2022 print edition of Coffee or Die Magazine as "Death Metal."
Mac Caltrider is a senior staff writer for Coffee or Die Magazine. He served in the US Marine Corps and is a former police officer. Caltrider earned his bachelor’s degree in history and now reads anything he can get his hands on. He is also the creator of Pipes & Pages, a site intended to increase readership among enlisted troops. Caltrider spends most of his time reading, writing, and waging a one-man war against premature hair loss.
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