Non-Combat Tank & Heavy Armor Loses On The Battlefield
Military Mistakes When thinking about armor opponents during the fighting, we recall enemy tanks, aviation and artillery, AT units, landmines and IEDs. But also there are hardly passable routes, water, mud and simple human factor. Everything mentioned is quite obvious but almost forgotten when talking about wars. Let’s discuss several cases of the non-combat situations when armor got lost or caused complications at the battlefield.
Invading USSR in 1941, Germans used to say that their main enemies were:
Russian winters and Russian roads, not Russian tanks.
In the Vietnam War, US forces were not threated by enemy tanks. But definitely spent some efforts of pulling tanks and APCs from mud and water. Here is account from 1966 from Ed Gilbert book “Marine Corps Tank Battles in Vietnam”:
“We dropped into about ten feet of water. Water came all the way to my cupola. McQueary, the platoon mechanic, swam out with a carrier line and the damaged tanks pulled the LSU over the bar. We had bilge pumps and we got through the surf okay. But when we got on the beach we found out that we had lost our generator. It was salt-damaged, so we were screwed. Another tank, same thing happened. We had two tanks out of action, and weren’t there for five minutes…”
More dramatic was the situation when Marine M48 feel into a pothole at the river bottom. Some 18-20 feet, while crossing the river at the ‘safe’ route. 3 crewmen drowned.
While pulling tanks and APCs from the mud and rivers was tough.
It was not as difficult as retrieving the 60-ton LeToumeau Tree Crusher (probably the heaviest vehicle used in Vietnam).
Two examples were employed in a test mode.
In general it worked well until the monster got sucked in the swampy terrain. Then the recovery operation would become ‘a tactical nightmare’.
Yom Kippur War
Nobody can think that Sinai would be as issue especially at the plain desert area. Well not for the swamps around Great Bitter Lake, besides the area was full of irrigation channels and ditches. IDF lost several tanks trying to approach Suez Channel during the night.
Need to say that Great Bitter Lake already claimed to spoil at least one IDF armor operation back in 1970. When PT-76 tanks of newly established ‘White Bear’ unit stuck in the mud. A tragic event occurred on the night of Oct 18, when a Unifloat pontoon flipped over and two Centurion tanks of 500 Brigade ditched into the water, with 6 crewmen drowned. Lebanon War could be featured by narrow routes simply incapable to ‘digest’ massive IDF armored stream.
In one case, a sole tank delayed the advance of the whole division and shifted the timeline of the war.
In this particular episode, Magach 6 tank of 195/500 fell prey to Syrian Gazelle helicopter at Kfar Nabrakh on June 8, 1982.
And 162 Division had to stop for about 15 hours while engineers constructing bypass, the neighboring Vardi force from the east had to wait as well to sync the efforts towards Beirut Damascus Hwy.
This same unit lost another Magach earlier due to engine fire. But fortunately it stuck in the middle of village junction and could be easily bypassed.
Despite being rigorously trained Israeli tankers still had many issues with traversability, especially recovering troubled vehicles.
During the fight for West Beirut on Sep 16, 1982, a driver of Magach 6 tank (430/500) pulled back hard after getting an RPG hit, the tank fell off the bridge, the crew tried to recover and get help, but only one survived. Another Magach fell off the ridge during engagement with Syrian tanks at Ain Zhalta village on June 8, with its TC killed.
Interestingly that most appropriate for Lebanon proved to be Soviet T-tanks and Centurions, heavily armored Merkava and enforced Magach tanks, especially with belly anti-mine plate, got often mired and stuck on the boulders. Need to say that the scenes of flipped tanks and mired APCs became common and shadowed IDF through all the years of staying in Lebanon.
Soviet armor in Afghanistan was not in a better situation – narrow mountain routes with sharp edges clamed numerous vehicles. Another menace was rivers with strong streams, on several occasions armored vehicles fell or were washed out resulting in crewmembers drowned, like on Feb 22, 1980 when a BTR of a mobile group, 66th Border-guards detachment, fell off the cliff to Panj River with 4 crew drowned.
On another occasion, BMP of 154 SF Detachment flipped over while crossing Kabul River on Mar 23, 1984, all crew of 6 drowned. High mountain passes were extremely hazardous during the winter with rapidly accumulating snow and strong winds making avalanches a common threat. From Col Yu. Lapshin (345 Guards Separate Airborne Regiment XO in 1987-89) ‘Afghan Dairy’:“We (345 HQ group) did not moved not on 7th and not on 8th. Painful pushing of convoys from South to North Salang.
On 7th eve once again started a snowstorm, here and their blocking the road – we pull out the head of the convoy, the tail getting suck and vice versa. BATs and dozers constantly clearing south portal, galleries and road; moving, towing and pushing vehicles. The situation becomes critical, Commander (Gen Gromov) ordered to push stuck vehicles away.
At first we burned them but later just kicked off the ridge watching them circling over the slopes. I heard the report of 108th Division over the radio about leaving behind 3 BTS, 2 2S1, PRP, 2 BMPs, 4 BTRs and countless KamAZ and Ural trucks.
In 7th gallery a BTR stuck with disables rudder wheel. Tried to push it was three vehicles – nothing. The dozed is blocked by the traffic from one side, BAT cannot move due to the jam in the Southern entrance. Finally we directed the sappers to blow off the wheels and tow or on the belly. 4 hours took to unblock the route.
Talking about non-combat losses I’d like to mention two events that occurred in Salang tunnel during Soviet-Afghan war. On the night Feb 23-24, 1980 a convoy of 2nd Rocket Brigade and 181 Motor-rifle regiment got stuck inside the tunnel due to armored vehicle malfunction (other sources mention it was Afghan civilian vehicle). There were no safety procedures and in resulting jam 20 soldiers died from exhaust CO poisoning.
The second occurred on Nov 3, 1983 due to an accidental fire inside the tunnel. (Other sources mention that the convoy was stuck at the tunnel due to vehicle malfunction or accident at the exit, and there were no fire), 176 men have suffocated in fumes – 64 Soviet and 112 Afghan soldiers, plus unknown number of civilians.
Russians started 1st Chechen War in winter and major action (besides Battle of Grozny) developed in Feb-Apr 1995, when Russian troops pushed to take over Chechen highlands.
According to Russian sources the routes hardly exist, convoys often stuck while several vehicles got mired, threw tracks and simply broke down, one after another.
According to Chechens, they frequently used this situation in their favor – stuck Russians were like ‘sitting ducks’, AT teams knocked out the armor and snipers gunned down the infantry, it was like in a firing range.
Just to mention that the first tank loss of the war was T-80UB of 133 Separate Tank Battalion that fell off the ridge due to harsh driving, during the fighting for Khankala on Dec 28, 1994. TC was killed and other crew members injured. The tank was later recovered.
Let’s jump to Operation IRAQI FREEDON, April 3, 2003 – two M1A1 tanks of Bravo Company, 2nd Tank Battalion, 1st Marine Division took position on the bank of Tigris River near Sayyid Abd.
The next morning it appeared to be that both were sucked into the mud, the M88 VTR followed the destiny while trying to recover them.
Despite other recovery attempts all three vehicles had to be abandoned and were dug-out later.
More tragic episode occurred when M1A1 ‘HERMES’ of 2nd Platoon, Charlie Company, 1st Tank Bn, USMC fell to Euphrates River near Nasiriyeh, on the night of March 27, 2003 with all 4 crewmembers drowned.
Military Mistakes Written by Efim Sandler