Trains Vs Tanks

Barberton, Ohio. Apr 29, 1951

Trains Vs Tanks There have been numerous accidents when trains have engaged tanks and armored vehicles. 

The most known case is of course, the crash of Forst Zinna near the town of Juterbog, East Germany, in January 1988. 

But there were several others that remain overshadowed or simply forgotten. 

The first post WW2 collision between tanks and trains occurred in Barberton (Ohio), on Apr 29, 1951 when Sherman tanks of B Company, 137 Tank Battalion, Ohio National Guard crossed the tracks of Erie Railroad. From Lancaster Dispatcher (National Railway Historical Society):

“The armored vehicles rolled west across the Tuscarawas River and Ohio & Erie Canal before stopping abruptly at a railroad crossing on Fairview. Warning lights were flashing. There were four tracks. The first two belonged to the Pennsylvania Railroad. The second set, about 2 feet uphill, was shared by the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad and Erie Railroad.

Already running late for supper, the guardsmen had to wait 10 minutes as a slow-moving freight train passed. Finally, the caboose appeared, the blinking lights ceased and the police cruiser crossed.

A National Guard lieutenant stepped out of a jeep, walked over the tracks, looked in both directions and double-checked the warning lights. All was clear. He motioned the convoy to move.

Rebellion Research : Trains Vs Tanks

A 1/2-ton truck drove over the grade at 20 mph, followed by a tank traveling in low gear at 5 mph. In the distance, a horn blasted a shrill warning. Guardsmen looked in horror as the six-car Erie Lake Cities (Train No. 6) streamliner rounded a bend 3,291 feet away. It was hurtling at 60 mph from Chicago to New York. 

The five-man crew of the tank had little time to react. Sgt. Don W. Jameson, the tank commander, ordered the driver to stop. The tank lurched up the slope before halting on the rails.

As the National Guard crew scrambled to escape, Jameson and Pfc. Carl Nichols leaped from the turret. Three of their buddies couldn’t get out in time.

With a deafening roar, the 100-passenger train smashed into the tank at 5:45 p.m.

Barberton, Ohio. Apr 29, 1951

The impact ripped off the turret and catapulted it 260 feet down the track. Rails bent as the diesel locomotive plowed the heavy tank about 130 feet. The train derailed, the locomotive uncoupled and the tank slid aside like a toy. Erie passengers were tossed from their seats and beds as the Streamliner skidded 900 feet and came to a rest at a 45-degree slant on a hill.

The tank engine idled for 15 minutes following the crash. The three occupants had been killed on impact. One of the guardsman’s watches was frozen at 5:45 p.m.”

Besides 3 dead soldiers there were 1 military and 7 civilians wounded. After investigation and trial neither of the parties was named responsible for the case. Nevertheless, the railroads completed an upgrade project to level the tracks.

The next episode happened during US 3rd Armored Division (Europe) exercise Silver Talon, on January 11, 1966, near the small town of Burgbernheim, between Ansbach and Würzburg, West Germany. It was a cold and snowy day and an M48 unit participating in the field exercise drove down a narrow icy country road near the town of Burgbernheim. In a sharp curve one of the tanks went straight on and slid down the escarpment to the train tracks below. 

Burgbernheim, Germany. Jan 11, 1966
via 3AD website

The tank rammed the tracks and ditched under. Two of the crew were wounded.

Burgbernheim, Germany. Jan 11, 1966

via 3AD website

When two unhurt soldiers were trying to rescue their comrades, they noticed an oncoming freight train, they tried to warn the train, but it was too late. 

Burgbernheim, Germany. Jan 11, 1966

via 3AD website

The train actually slipped from the damaged tracks and glided over the tank just ‘slightly touching’ it. The tank received moderate damage (turret was ripped off and some damage for suspension), a couple of boxcars and locomotives were damaged as well. Two German railroad staff were injured. 200 meters further up the road, another tank of the unit slid down the same escarpment but was stopped by some trees

1976 – Soviet Armenia, Leninakan area, an OT-55 flamethrower tank collided with a train. There is absolutely no information about this case, just a couple of pics that leaked to the Internet.

Leninakan, 1976

On Aug 2, 1982, two drunken British soldiers decided to take a ride on FV432 APC. The armored vehicle crashed through a fence and sped up a highway, chased by military and German police. It scaled a steep embankment and drove, full speed, along the railway tracks, colliding head-on with the Aachen-Copenhagen night express carrying some 300 passengers at Ostercappeln near Osnabrück.

Leninakan, 1976

Both soldiers were killed instantly when the train, traveling at 75 mph, collided with the 15-ton armored vehicle, hurling it 300 yards down the tracks, The force of the collision overturned two of the train’s engines and one of its five carriages, injuring 21 passengers and both engine drivers — one of them seriously.

Before we check the most famous case of tank vs. train engagement, here is the most recent one – Sweden. Sep 26, 2017 – Patria AMV collided with a passenger train near Torsa during NATO field exercise Aurora-2017. Apparently the APC crew got lost and tried to move towards higher ground. It is not clear how APC commander did not see the tracks but when he realized it – it was too lake. Luckily this segment of the railroad was marked as low-speed and the impact was relatively light, two of the APC crew were wounded.

Torsa, Sweden. Sep 26, 2017

Finally, let us see what happened in Forst Zinna, 1988. If looking through the western sources, in most cases you can find a common version that is reprinted from source to source and generally gives a very distant sense of the events plus messing up the details. I will not repost it as you can easily find it on FB or the Internet. Luckily enough I found a veteran discussion group that included several participants of those events, and was able to recreate the picture.

Torsa, Sweden. Sep 26, 2017

Late afternoon, January 19, 1988, two T-64A platoons of 7th Training Tank Company, 118th Separate Training Tank Regiment, Group of Soviet Forces in Germany (GSVG), based in large Soviet garrison at Forst Zinna, north-east of Jüteborg, East Germany, conducted planned training with night-vision periscopes. 

T-64A of 118th Separate Training Tank Regiment. Forst Zinna, East Germany. 1980s

via 118 OUTP website

This was the first time new trainees would perform driving the night-vision equipment, each driver had to run one circle supervised by an instructor-driver located in the TC compartment. One of the platoons training areas was close to the railway tracks according to the direction of the company commander, despite the order of battalion CO. 

Station office building, Forst Zinna, East Germany
via Sergey Bondarenko

The double-track railway had no means of stopping vehicles before entering the tracks zone or even was not ID by any kind of signs, the only barrier was a thin row of small trees. The station was actually a relatively large complex, considering a multi-unit Soviet garrison of at least divisional size; that had several structures-depots and auxiliary track extensions (though on the pics from those times you can mostly see a lone modest station office building).

The first to go was chosen private-student from Kazakhstan that barely could speak Russian and had severe shortage in education (according to the post-factum investigation, he by no means fit to be a tank man but the Soviet recruitment system of that time was not considering intellectual abilities but only a health status). In order to somehow mitigate the risks, platoon CO put him first while it was not completely dark. 

Two small things occurred next but played a fatal role later.

Station complex, Forst Zinna, East Germany
via 74 UMSP website

For some reason the driver hatch was closed despite that according to the manual it should remain open for practice driving, and the instructor set idle rpm value for 2000. Instead of 1200-1300 (in this case T-64 would continue to move without interference of the driver, it was a normal practice for instructors, as it prevented the tank from being stuck inside the hole or puddle if the student-driver got disoriented and lost control). 

Shortly after 5.30 pm the tank started its journey. At some point the instructor noticed that the driver was not making a circle but continued straight, he began yelling over the intercom (that despite a common version worked perfectly) to stop the tank, Kazakh guy was shocked and left the tank moving by itself – remember the 2000 rpm at idle. Instructor pressed the emergency engine shut-off button (now it is not clear whether the cartridge did not detonate from the first try or instructor did not push the button in time), the tank finally stopped after steering off the trail for about 250m, right on the railway tracks.

Instructor, fully aware that they were stuck on the railroad, jumped off the turret to pull out the driver and restart the engine – the hatch was locked…. He banged hard but it took some time to extract the shocked, non-Russian speaking driver. Instructor sneaked to the driver compartment to try to restart the engine, and then he saw the light of the coming train. It was too late to do anything and both tankers rushed away from the tank.

The D 716 express train from Leipzig via East Berlin to the Baltic Sea resort in Stralsund, with some 450 passengers rammed the tank at about 110 km/h and dragged it for some 130m towards the station complex, and stopped with several cars smashing each other and falling off the tracks.

Luckily there were not too many people in the forward cars, but two crew and four passengers were killed, another 33 wounded. Locomotives, the restaurant car and 6 passenger cars were totally destroyed or badly damaged and scrapped right on the spot.

Forst Zinna, Jan 19, 1988

East German authorities blamed the Soviet Union and demanded a full size investigation by ‘top managers’. Minister of Defense, Dmitri Yazov, with numerous generals arrived in Germany and conducted a series of meetings with East German military leadership to calm down the winds, while Mikhail Gorbachev personally apologized to Erich Honecker. Needless to say that Honecker was pretty pissed off with Gorbachev ‘wind of change’ and pushed this story for publicity all over Europe (in other situations it would be declared secret and well-hidden).

Forst Zinna, Jan 19, 1988

Closer to the ground, East German Kriminalpolizei questioned Soviet tankmen, and reported the route-cause blaming tank systems malfunction, proximity of tank range to the railroad, lack of preventive barrier and appropriate signage. The Germans demanded from the Soviets to pay the penalty of 14.5 million East German Marks (sort of $1M considering inflation). Well the version of questioning most possibly was created for the press as it is hardly possible that a non-Russian speaking Kazakh guy and no-German speaking Russian instructor would cooperate with local police.

Disaster recovery, Forst Zinna, 1988
via Sergey Bondarenko

At the end of the story, Soviets investigated the case thoroughly and found no sign of malfunction in the tank systems. After the crash, the tank remained with the turret almost intact and hull pretty much destroyed but with a workable engine and other elements, according to the rumors it was taken to the maintenance unit in Zerbst and probably scrapped to parts. 

Disaster recovery, Forst Zinna, 1988
via Sergey Bondarenko

The two tankmen were court-martialed but released from custody without any charges – Kazakh student-driver was declared inadequate for service and Russian instructor actions could not be judged as in Soviet Army there were no legal documents that would define instructor obligations and responsibility, thus the guy remained to serve in his native unit. Most of the officers, up-to regiment commander, were relieved from duties and transferred to different units/lower positions but after some time most of them were taken back while all charges were removed. As for the penalties – nobody paid anything, but Soviet Army units cleared the crash site, repaired the tracks, dug the ditch, built the barrier and made signage.

In February of 1988, Red Star newspaper (Soviet Army official medium) published a big article about the case and blamed the recruitment system that was not considering basic intellectual criteria like Russian language speaking.

Trains Vs Tanks Written by Efim Sandler

 Trains Vs Tanks Written by Efim Sandler

Military Mistakes – Rebellion Research

Trains Vs Tanks : Trains Vs Tanks